Novel writing

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.


Filed under Books, Writing

11 responses to “Novel writing

  1. I don’t think it’s elitist to point out that most readers aren’t willing or able to read challenging books. It’s a simple fact borne out every day by the bestseller lists. We shouldn’t be embarrassed by the fact that people have different capabilities. Do we call the Olympics elitist, with all those athletes showing off how much faster and stronger they are than the rest of us? Of course not, we admire their superior skills and abilities. Why shouldn’t we admire the people who can crack open great tomes and dissect their parts?


  2. Eliot is harsh, but I think he does make a valid point as Sylvia so nicely elaborates. I don’t think it means that the ordinary novel reader can’t go beyond the easier books, just that a good number don’t.


  3. verbivore

    I do agree with your point about appreciating prose that is alive – anyone can do that. I hope they do, even if they can’t explain why with the eloquence of a literary scholar. But I like Sylvia’s point as well – we’re often willing to accept a certain elitism in phyical abilities but if we talk of intellectual elitism people get squirmy. I understand why, but just like developing a physical skill, intellectual vigor takes hard work and a lot of practice.


  4. Another good discussion topic. I enjoy a bit of both. Many quite enjoyable novels are not intellectually challenging, but I will continue to read them. Yet, those that demand thought and time to assimilate are equally enjoyable in a different way. Eliot may also have been a bit frustrated that many readers dismissed his work as too difficult.

    As verbivore says, “intellectual vigor takes hard work and a lot of practice,” and sometimes it takes a teacher/mentor to approach a work in a way that arouses curiosity and delight.


  5. Edd

    Aw, Geez! I do not think Mr. Elliot gives us “common readers” the credit we deserve. In all my 61 years, I have never liked the word elitist and in the world of reading not a genre, I have not read. My body and memory are prematurely fading but I can still determine whether I enjoyed a book, prose or otherwise, or not. In my years, I have actually sat around a campfire in the mountains of Montana of cow and buffalo chips enjoying a fine Merlot and a smattering of Christina Rossetti.


  6. Sylvia, yes, I see your point. I wonder to what extent your comparison holds up — I mean, are there variations in intelligence and ability to the same degree there are for physical strength? And is understanding language such a fundamentally different endeavor than, say, running fast, that they don’t compare well? I mean, reading is so complex that it seems difficult to judge people’s relative ability to do it well.

    Stefanie — I’m inclined to agree with you about how people choose not to read complex things, rather than not being able to. The best-seller lists show what people choose to do, not what they are capable of doing.

    Verbivore, yes, I do believe reading well takes practice and it’s a skill one must develop — and I suppose people do have varying degrees of talent, although I like to think people can learn to get better at it (I have to think that, in order to be a teacher!).

    Jenclair — yes, variety is necessary, isn’t it? I find pleasure in both, too, and I am very glad how to read difficult things to find that more complicated kind of pleasure.

    Edd — now that sounds like a lovely way to spend an evening! 🙂


  7. When considering these sorts of questions, I return time and again to a food analogy. Sometimes, I really love nothing more than a hotdog. Other times, I’m in the mood to appreciate the best a seasoned chef can create and would be completely disappointed to get nothing more than a hotdog. What bothers me are the elitists who claim to want nothing other than what the best seasoned chefs can create. They may be fooling themselves, but they certainly don’t fool me into believing they don’t have moments when they’d give anything to eat a hotdog (or their mom’s macaroni and cheese, or Jello pudding, or whatever it is that adds a little variety and comfort to life).


  8. Interesting post, Dorothy (as always!) and interesting responses! Personally I am all for variety in my reading, too. Maybe I should just want the challenging sorts of books that I know will improve my mind, but I hate to say it, sometimes I am quite happy also reading those fluffy sorts of books that are just comfortable and relaxing. Surely Mr Eliot needed a day off sometimes, too? 🙂


  9. I don’t think there’s any question that intellect varies just as much as any other human feature or function. After all, the brain is a physical, genetically-determined organ just like the rest of our bodies. That’s not to say that the environment doesn’t have an effect, but (to belabour the sports metaphor) we don’t start out on a level playing field. It’s just part of the natural diversity of our species.


  10. Emily — your food metaphor IS a wonderful one. Too many difficult, challenging, high-minded books would probably give one indigestion, right?

    Danielle — I kind of wonder what Eliot read on his “day off,” which I’m sure he did need 🙂

    Sylvia — yes, intellect varies. But what do you think of the multiple intelligences idea? Is there one kind of intelligence that is easily measurable? And does how does intelligence interact with reading ability? It strikes me as hugely complicated.


  11. I’ve read that overall, the various mental functions tend to vary together, i.e. they are all likely to be at roughly the same level in a particular individual. It makes sense since they all arise out of the same matter. If the cells and tissues work well at a basic biological level, then all areas of intelligence will work well.

    That is not to say there aren’t cases where, for whatever reason, one area of the brain is much stronger or weaker than the rest, but statistically, in general, they tend to go together. So, if there are no environmental, social, or psychological impediments (which is a big “if”), a person who is good with language should also be good with math, music, physical coordination, impulse control, empathy, and whatever else the brain does. (This is how we get those annoying valedictorians who seem to be able to do everything and are nice too!)

    Definitely intelligence would influence reading ability. Higher intelligence means greater facility with language, more vocabulary, more background knowledge (because more intelligent people naturally seek out knowledge, which would also help with allusions), better memory, better visualization, better ability to make abstract connections and understand allegory and symbols, and so on.


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