Monday, June 19, 2017

Novelty in novels

There is a certain kind of writer who seems to feel that unless he is breaking apart everything that came before him, composing something that in his own view is astonishingly new, he is not writing great literature. ... Writers like this have given novelty a bad name.
Wendy Lesser, Why I Read

Every novel is, by definition, novel. Even the worst of novels are, to some extent, new and original. They are inventions, creations, the stuff of thought. No two are alike. Yet some novels seem more inventive or creative than others. But does this make them better? Not necessarily, Wendy Lesser argues in her book Why I Read.

Pages from The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
Sometimes novelty in novels manifests itself graphically. Photographs or drawings can be inserted as illustrations, the way William Boyd does in Sweet Caress or Umberto Eco does in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The first pages of chapters in Alix Christie's Gutenberg's Apprentice use graphic elements common at the time Gutenberg's Bible was printed, although this may have been the publisher's decision rather than the author's.

More commonly novelty shows up in the prose itself, and this can be more problematic. Sometimes the inventiveness works, and sometimes it doesn't.

We can find countless examples of this from as far back as the earliest novels. Lesser discusses Don Quixote in this context, for example. Or we might think of the way Herman Melville inserts informational chapters about whales and whaling periodically in Moby-Dick or the way William Faulkner strings thoughts together into single convoluted sentences in The Bear. More recently Rabih Alameddine wrote I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters. It is about a woman who tries to write a book about her life, but abandons each attempt after the first chapter. Yet taken together, these first chapters tell the whole story. Or consider The Luminaries, a novel reviewed here last week, in which Eleanor Catton gives us a sense of accelerated action, like a chase at the end of a movie, by gradually shrinking chapters at the end of the novel and revealing less and less detail. She makes the end of the story, actually its beginning, seem more exciting than it actually is.

Yet such novelty works only if it helps to tell the story. It is the story, after all, that matters. As Lesser puts it, "This is the paradox that lies behind formal inventiveness: you can only achieve an exemplary kind of novelty if it is not, primarily, what you are trying to achieve." Novelty must be the means to an end, not the end itself. Only the readers themselves can decide whether the novelty works, or if it is just novelty for its own sake.

Wendy Lesser's prime example of writers who "have given novelty a bad name" may surprise many. That's because James Joyce is widely regarded as one of the greatest novelists in the English language, and his Ulysses has repeatedly been ranked as the best novel of its century. Lesser thinks these critics are judging style over substance. She rates Dubliners and Portrait of then Artist as a Young Man as Joyce's better works of fiction. In Ulysses and especially Finnegans Wake, she argues, Joyce was just showing off.

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