She is also the author of five works of nonfiction and a series of books for young adults. She lives in Northern California. Jane Smiley. What Is a Novel? Who Is a Novelist? Ivan Turgenev Fathers and Sons. George Eliot 1idalennm1. The Origins of the Novel. The Psychology of the Novel. Samuel RichardsonPamela or Virtue Rewarded. Choderlos de Laclos Les Liaisons dangereuses.
The Bride of Lammermoor. The same is not true of poetry. A poem must be remembered word for word or it loses its identity. In fact, poetry is often learned and remembered word for word, as when students memorize Hamlet's famous soliloquy "Who would these fardels bear? The words may have the power of an incantation even in the absence of comprehension. The memory, though, sets limits upon what is to be remembered. The history of epic poetry, for example, shows that poets used set forms, rhythm, rhyme, figures of speech, and already familiar stories as mnemonic devices to aid in both the composition and the transmission of poetry from poet to poet and from poet to audience.
Novelists have no need to do so. Particular stylistic tricks or turns of phrase are not necessary as mnemonic aids to the continued existence of the novel, and so the author is free to explore language and ideas that are hard to remember in detail. The novelist can go on and on, adding scenes, ideas, characters, complexities of every sort, knowing that they are safe from the effects of human memory--they will exist forever exactly as printed and will not evolve by passing through the faulty memories of others.
Writing allows the elaboration of prose.
Since memorization is unlikely to begin with, it may be made all the more unlikely by the use of a style that is unmemorable. Prose slips by, common as water. Readers have no defense against it other than boredom.
But because it is so common and often colorless, the writer can use it in many ways, from the blandest, most objective, reportlike purposes to the most vivid, evocative, lyrical purposes. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf famously exploited metaphorical and lyrical possibilities of English prose that Defoe and Trollope did not. Prose may slow down and quicken, invoke and state, flower into figures of speech, flatten into strings of facts, observations, assertions. It may pile detail upon detail or summarize years of action in a few pages as in the middle section of To the Lighthouse.
Prose usually privileges the sentence, using punctuation to define the beginnings, endings, and complications of thoughts, and sentences are easy. They are what we learn and, often, how we learn it. Even though we don't use them in speech as much as we think we do in fact, people who talk in whole sentences are generally thought of as pedantic or "prosy" , when our thoughts assume formal shape, they organize themselves into sentences.
Poetry, in its search for concentration and sharp effect, contracts. In prose, one thought leads to another--it expands. Although thoughtless expansion is a fault to be guarded against, inspired expansion gives us the novels of Proust and Tolstoy, or Laurence Sterne and Halldor Laxness. Prose is both sneaky and powerful, and is naturally narrative, since sequences of events have some inherent organization, and it is naturally expansive, since events can often be broken down into smaller events and extended backward and forward in time.
In Aspects of the Novel, E. Forster writes of narrative--that is, of "what happened then?
Even the lowliest bus driver, Forster says, could show an interest in suspense, in a sequence of events. He almost admits to wishing that novels could be written without narrative, without what he seems to think is the lowest common denominator of art. But they can't be. It is not only that the novel was invented to tell a lengthy and complicated story that could not be told in any other way, it is also that without the spine of narrative logic and suspense, it cannot be sufficiently organized to be understandable to the reader.
Even more basically, a sequence of sentences, which is the only form sentences can occur in, must inevitably result in a narrative.
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The very before-and-after qualities of written sentences imply, mimic, and require the passage of time. There are minimally narrative novels, but the more lyrical and less narrative a novel is, the shorter it is, until it becomes a short story, which may, indeed, dispense almost entirely with narrative and become a series of impressions or linguistic effects or rhetorical flourishes, as happened with American short stories in the s and s.
Narratives are as common as prose; they are the way humans have chosen to pack together events and emotions, happenings in the world and how they make us feel.
Even the most informal narratives alternate what happens and how it feels or what it means to some degree. Even the most formally objective narratives such as police reports imply the emotions that rise out of the events, when at the same time they are suspending conclusions as to the meanings of the events. Because narrative is so natural, efficient, and ubiquitous, it, like prose, can be used in myriad ways.
The time sequence can be abused however the writer wishes to abuse it, because the human tendency, at least in the West, to think in sequence is so strong that the reader will keep track of beginning, middle, and end on her own. Nevertheless, the commonest bus driver can and often does take an interest in what happens next, and so because the novel requires narrative for organization, it will also be a more or less popular form. It can never exclude bus drivers completely, and is, therefore, depending on one's political and social views, either perennially compromised or perennially inclusive.
Perhaps the most important thing about narrative is that it introduces the voice of the narrator. In every novel, some voice is telling the story. The narrator may or may not personalize his voice. He may try to let the story seem to tell itself, as Kafka does in "The Metamorphosis"; he may come forward in what seems to be his own voice, and talk about the characters as if he and the reader were observing them together, as William Makepeace Thackeray does in Vanity Fair, or Kate Atkinson does in Behind the Scenes at the Museum.
He may tell his own story in the first person, as Ishmael does in Moby-Dick. In every case, the reader must relate somehow to the voice of the narrator. In every case, the story is colored by the idiosyncrasies of the narrative voice, and how those idiosyncrasies strike the reader. Even the blandest, or most charming, or most skillful narrators have their detractors, because this aspect of the novel is irredeemably social, and draws constantly upon the reader's semiconscious likes and dislikes. Some narrators offend, some narrators appeal, but all narrators are present, the author but not the author, the protagonist but not the protagonist, an intermediary that author and reader must deal with.
The most obvious hallmark of novels is length. The novel was invented to be long, because what early novelists wanted to communicate could not be communicated in a shorter or more direct form, and also because length itself is enjoyable. The Tale of Genji runs 1, pages. Genji lived a long life and had many wives and concubines. His maturation and his greatness could not be depicted in fewer pages.
Don Quixote is pages long.
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Quixote's adventures and humiliations need to build upon one another. The paperback edition of Ulysses is pages--the intricacies of Leopold Bloom's day out in Dublin require it. Length, too, is simple. It begins as a mere adding on, though adding on may quickly turn into elaborating or digressing or complicating or subordinating and analyzing. For an author, adding on may amount to no more than keeping going, day after day accumulating episodes and stories, getting paid by the word and so writing more words. For a reader, adding on may offer primarily the pleasure of familiarity--the characters or the narrator's voice or the author's way of thinking become something the reader wants to continue to experience.
In a novel, length is always a promise, never a threat. When the protagonist enters, a novel becomes specific, and even peculiar, and loses the generality that the other four elements seem to offer. The protagonist shapes the other four elements to himself.