T.S. Eliot wrote a Preface to my edition of Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood, and I thought he had some interesting things to say about fiction:
… most contemporary novels are not really ‘written’. They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give.
This comes from a section where Eliot is comparing Barnes’s prose to poetry — he says those who are trained on reading poetry are better prepared to fully appreciate Barnes’s work.
I feel ambivalently about Eliot’s claims here. On the one hand, I do want to read fiction where the author pays attention to the writing. I certainly don’t want to read prose that might come from a government official or newspaper writer — unless we’re talking about particularly talented officials or journalists of course. But, really, when I sit down to read a novel I’d like to read something well-crafted, and something well-crafted as fiction.
On the other hand, though, I don’t like the elitist tone of Eliot’s comments. Why separate out “ordinary novel readers” from some special group of readers whose faculties are supposedly sharper than the rest and who pick up on so much more? I’m not sure this category of “ordinary novel reader” actually exists. Can’t just about any novel reader — someone who seeks out and enjoys novels — appreciate prose that is alive? Not to say that they do, necessarily — perhaps they read for other reasons than to enjoy the prose — but they are capable of it.
That point aside, though, Djuna Barnes’s prose is certainly alive, and I’m enjoying it. I’m working my way through it very slowly, but I feel like it’s starting to take shape as I near the end, and I’m still planning on reading it again right away to see what it’s like on a second go-round.