I was going to write about novels under “N,” but I also wanted to cover “Networking,” so I’m going to talk about the novel under “Making a Novel.”
The novel, as we know it now, has been evolving for centuries and will likely continue to do so. It began in such forms as Tom Jones and Pamela, in which the story was interspersed with commentary about the very nature of writing a novel or told in the form of letters, and has continued to include stream of consciousness and multiple perspectives, all in first person narrative.
In general, a novel is a single story (but not necessarily focused on a single person). It begins with a question of some kind and proceeds to answer that question, or at least make progress in answering that question.
The question can be anything from “Will this girl marry that guy,” “Will the son be reconciled with his aging father,” to “Can the heroes destroy the dragon?” Whatever the genre, whatever the focus, the question is what the novel is about, and the narrative usually doesn’t depart too far from the business of answering the question at hand.
What makes a novel outstanding, and permits it to wander further from typical structure of a novel, is the quality of the story and the quality of the writing. Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones and one of the earliest novelists, had some interesting thoughts about how one should write a novel (and who should write it) . The emphases are mine, and the tone reminds me very strongly of Mr. Darcy’s list of what is required to be an accomplished woman.
“To invent good stories, and to tell them well, are possibly very rare talents, and yet I have observed few persons who have scrupled to aim at both: and if we examine the romances and novels with which the world abounds, I think we may fairly conclude, that most of the authors would not have attempted to show their teeth (if the expression may be allowed me) in any other way of writing; nor could indeed have strung together a dozen sentences on any other subject whatever.Scribimus indocti doctique passim,[*] [*] —Each desperate blockhead dares to write: Verse is the trade of every living wight.—FRANCIS.
may be more truly said of the historian and biographer [a term he is using instead of novelist, to add weight to the concept of writing novels], than of any other species of writing; for all the arts and sciences (even criticism itself) require some little degree of learning and knowledge. Poetry, indeed, may perhaps be thought an exception; but then it demands numbers, or something like numbers: whereas, to the composition of novels and romances, nothing is necessary but paper, pens, and ink, with the manual capacity of using them.”
Nowadays, all we need is a computer and the ability to type (or a program that will do the typing for us).
“To prevent therefore, for the future, such intemperate abuses of leisure, of letters, and of the liberty of the press, especially as the world seems at present to be more than usually threatened with them, I shall here venture to mention some qualifications, every one of which are in a pretty high degree necessary to this order of historians [novelists].
“The first is, genius, without a full vein of which no study, says Horace, can avail us. By genius I would understand that power or rather those powers of the mind, which are capable of penetrating into all things within our reach and knowledge, and of distinguishing their essential differences. These are no other than invention and judgment; and they are both called by the collective name of genius, as they are of those gifts of nature which we bring with us into the world. Concerning each of which many seem to have fallen into very great errors; for by invention, I believe, is generally understood a creative faculty, which would indeed prove most romance writers to have the highest pretensions to it; whereas by invention is really meant no more (and so the word signifies) than discovery, or finding out; or to explain it at large, a quick and sagacious penetration into the true essence of all the objects of our contemplation. This, I think, can rarely exist without the concomitancy of judgment; for how we can be said to have discovered the true essence of two things, without discerning their difference, seems to me hard to conceive. Now this last is the undisputed province of judgment, and yet some few men of wit have agreed with all the dull fellows in the world in representing these two to have been seldom or never the property of one and the same person.
“But though they should be so, they are not sufficient for our purpose, without a good share of learning; for which I could again cite the authority of Horace, and of many others, if any was necessary to prove that tools are of no service to a workman, when they are not sharpened by art, or when he wants rules to direct him in his work, or hath no matter to work upon. All these uses are supplied by learning; for nature can only furnish us with capacity; or, as I have chose to illustrate it, with the tools of our profession; learning must fit them for use, must direct them in it, and, lastly, must contribute part at least of the materials. A competent knowledge of history and of the belles-lettres is here absolutely necessary; and without this share of knowledge at least, to affect the character of an historian, is as vain as to endeavour at building a house without timber or mortar, or brick or stone. Homer and Milton, who, though they added the ornament of numbers to their works, were both historians of our order, were masters of all the learning of their times.
“Again, there is another sort of knowledge, beyond the power of learning to bestow, and this is to be had by conversation. So necessary is this to the understanding the characters of men, that none are more ignorant of them than those learned pedants whose lives have been entirely consumed in colleges, and among books; for however exquisitely human nature may have been described by writers, the true practical system can be learnt only in the world…
“Now this conversation in our historian must be universal, that is, with all ranks and degrees of men; for the knowledge of what is called high life will not instruct him in low; nor, e converso, will his being acquainted with the inferior part of mankind teach him the manners of the superior…Besides, to say the truth, the manners of our historian will be improved by both these conversations; for in the one he will easily find examples of plainness, honesty, and sincerity; in the other of refinement, elegance, and a liberality of spirit; which last quality I myself have scarce ever seen in men of low birth and education.
“Nor will all the qualities I have hitherto given my historian avail him, unless he have what is generally meant by a good heart, and be capable of feeling. The author who will make me weep, says Horace, must first weep himself. In reality, no man can paint a distress well which he doth not feel while he is painting it; nor do I doubt, but that the most pathetic and affecting scenes have been writ with tears. In the same manner it is with the ridiculous. I am convinced I never make my reader laugh heartily but where I have laughed before him; unless it should happen at any time, that instead of laughing with me he should be inclined to laugh at me.”
Thankfully, Mr. Fielding is no longer with us to judge our efforts, for I rather suspect he would find that we fail his qualifications and are unfit for our post. 🙂
Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by sebastiansantanam8qnfs, Creative Commons