Saturday, August 03, 2013

Novel as language

In today's Guardian Review Zadie Smith writes:
What's this novel [her latest, NW] about? My books don't seem to me to be about anything other than the people in them and the sentences used to construct them.
And my reaction is Exactly! That's exactly how I feel about my own work, and I bet loads of other writers feel this too. A novel (or a story) is a construct, a construct of language, and the literary novel is above all about language: it's perhaps the defining characteristic of the kind of fiction we call 'literary'. Characters are supreme constructs, manifest not only in the narration (language) that conjures them, but in their dialogue (language), which is where people most self-consciously, and on a day-to-day level, construct reality about the world and themselves. None of it's real, but, as Smith (a wizz at dialogue) indicates, what we're engaged in is nevertheless a search for reality, the reality of the world that language constructs.

Yet always we are asked the question, 'What is your novel about?' and we are always expected to come up with some more concrete answer than the above, to refer merely to the story, or a political or moral theme, as though these are the be-all and end-all of any piece of fiction, when in fact they are common currency, and could be replicated any number of times. The real, defining and unique aspect of any novel is the voice or voices. And yet we do, don't we, we answer in the way we're expected, like dogs on hind legs? It takes a particular level of fame and status to be able to answer as Smith has done (although I'm daring to agree with her here, and wait wincing for the chop), for most of us are in thrall to the marketing machine that grinds along on those clattery superficial and ever-replicable cogs. Answering in the way we are expected, we feel afterwards that we have sold our work short.

And does it affect how we write? As it happens for me, a couple of days ago someone writing a PhD contacted me about one of my very early stories, and commented that I was doing something unusual and interesting with language. I was flattered, but my blood ran cold. For I consciously stopped writing quite in the way I did then. Mostly I think it's a good thing, that my work became more accessible, but it did make me wonder: have I simply been deflected, possible wrongly, by a sense of what's no longer linguistically acceptable in a dumbed-down literary marketplace?


Vanessa Gebbie said...

But with respect to Zadie Smith (for whom I have nothing but respect!) - the answer quoted is unhelpful, to anyone except other writers. Thee and me, we understand what she's saying. But for someone who wants a 'good read', or indeed for the audience at a lit fest, or the readers of a press interview, engaging out of a genuine interest in the writer and their work... maybe they need to know more than this snippet gives?

If all a novel is 'about' in lay-speak (ie, not writer-speak) is characters and the constructs used to create them, then there need be no story, no plot, no themes. No real impetus, no driver that made the writer want to spend years getting this piece of work right. There may as well be a litany of character sketches in pretty language. And we all know, that a novel is slightly more than that. Hopefully. :)

Group 8 said...

Maybe, when we are asked we need to say, 'There are two answers to this. 1) The novel features a woman who falls in love with a man who cannot be with her and it is set in Dublin etc etc. And 2) For me, it is about being true to myself and sitting down each day to let words emerge in (hopefully) pleasing patterns, and to explore how humans *are* and relate, and to explore emotional states that interest me, and landscapes that interest me.'

Re. the language issue, I have simplified too. But mainly because I started to get irritated by writing that seemed too pleased with its own dexterity. I didn't want to piss off readers, I think. Having said that, I will still sometimes give over everything to language and just let it soar.

p.s. I just want to say that I love your blog posts as much as your writing - you are always so insightful and interesting. You get me thinking.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, yes of course non-writers (and writers!) want a more concrete answer as well, and I do think we need to give it, and both answers when it's appropriate
Thanks, Nuala, and the compliment is returned!

Rachel Fenton said...

Really enjoyed this post, and the comments, Elizabeth, which I think show how many-faceted the question "What's this novel about?" is, for all its apparent simplicity.

From my own perspective, of sending a literary novel out to agents, I am finding it a very difficult question to answer in the way that agents want to hear, which seems to fit with the non-writer way of reader than the literary reader, but which may be somewhere else entirely.

Anyhow, a most thought provoking post. Thanks.