How novels are smart
By CATHARINE MORRIS
On Monday Richard Ford gave a talk written specially for the Royal Society of Literature, to a full auditorium in Somerset House. His title was “How Novels are Smart”. “I was going to call it ‘The novelist as intellectual”, he said, “– but then I regained my senses."
But that was, in fact, his subject. He started by quoting Umberto Eco’s definition of an intellectual as “anyone who is creatively producing new knowledge . . . . Critical creativity – criticizing what we are doing or inventing better ways of doing it – is the only mark of the intellectual function”. It’s a limited definition, said Ford, but when he came across it his “ears pricked up”; he thought of novels he had read. Did fiction produce new knowledge, or invent new ways of doing things?
For Ford himself writing novels is an “artisanal process” which involves a lot of “furniture-moving”. He doesn’t always know what he’s doing (which can be thrilling, he said). He thinks that readers tend to open a novel “with a sense of grave uncertainty” – they worry that their time will be wasted, or that they will fail to live up to the book – and look for reasons to stop reading. His first defence against this is action; “guns going off” etc. ("I’m just a realist”).
Eco said that “Those things about which we cannot theorize, we must narrate”. That, according to Ford, must be the aim of the intellectual writer. Ford also believes that part of a novelist’s vocation is to do good, and he sympathizes with the idea that paying close attention to particular “deaths, crimes, joys . . . .” is useful and life-affirming. Good novels, said Ford, use unexpected, well-chosen words that show the world in a different light.
We learn about New England whaling from Moby-Dick, the African diaspora from Richard Wright, the partition of India from Salman Rushdie, he said. But there is, of course, much more to it than “supplying info”: “fiction at its most subtle presents the unseen. It doesn’t reveal what’s there; it invents what was never there . . . . If that sounds bewildering, it is”. Ford quoted many writers on writing (see a selection of those quotations at the bottom of this post), and read out passages from novels that showed “brilliant word choices and emphases” – among them extracts from Light Years by James Salter (1975), The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980) and The Master by Colm Tóibín (2004). There were also these passages by V. S. Naipaul and Jennifer Egan:
"The story she told us was that her father, a simple serviceman with some factory experience, had had a fleeting moment of inspiration early in the war. He had hit on a new way of mounting guns in the tail of an airplane . . . . Always he was on his way to Ministry of Defense. Ministry of Defense. I heard those words all the time. I didn’t think she was romancing. Her use of the words ‘Ministry of Defense’ without the definite article – the the that the average person would have wanted to add – was convincing; it suggested that she knew the words as well as she had said . . . .” (V. S. Naipaul; from The Enigma of Arrival, 1987; p77, Vintage)
“. . . . Doll was one of those people who seem, even to those who knew them well, digitally enhanced: the bright blond bob cut; the predatory lipstick, the roving, algorithmic eyes . . . .” (Jennifer Egan; from A Visit from the Goon Squad, 2010; p132, Anchor)
Ford concluded that “to define and detail and to push and extend what can be said is the essential genius in the great novel’s claim to intelligence". But “nothing is smarter” than revealing your basic artistic impulse – displaying what you think of as important and interesting enough to share with the reader. “Nothing a novel does is as profound as taking a risk on its own premiss . . . . All serious writing starts from within.”
T. S. Eliot (from “East Coker”, 1940): “each new venture / Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating / In the general mess of imprecision of feeling”.
Martin Amis (from an essay published in the New York Times): “The day-to-day business of writing a novel often seems to consist of nothing but decisions – decisions, decisions, decisions. Should this paragraph go here? Or should it go there? Can that chunk of exposition be diversified by dialogue? At what point does this information need to be revealed? . . . These decisions are minor, clearly enough, and they are processed more or less rationally by the conscious mind. All the major decisions, by contrast, have been reached before you sit down at your desk; and they involve not a moment’s thought.”
Henry James (from the preface to The Princess Casamassima, 1886): “It seems probable that if we were never bewildered there would never be a story to tell about us”.
Walter Benjamin (from his essay “The Storyteller”, published in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, 1968): “To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life.”
Randall Jarrell (from the preface to The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead, 1965 edition): “A novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it."
Photograph by Laura Wilson