This blog is about writing and this is the twenty-fifth post, twenty-sixth if you count the “blog hop” immediately preceding this one, which I am not really. Twenty-five is roughly twenty-four more than I thought I’d manage to finish, so it is something of a milestone for me if for no one else. There are people with blogs who seem to write a dozen a week or even more, and many of these are thoughtful and creative. So I am but a tyro.
Till now, what I’ve mainly tried to do is discuss the people and ideas shaping my thinking as I’ve gone about writing my books. To my surprise this has been fun most of the time, and the process has helped clarify what I had previously imagined was already clear. This may explain why I have kept going far beyond what I thought I could do.
The previous post was again about Celine, the French writer whose three “pamphlets” containing anti-semitic themes ostracised the once-lion of twentieth century literature. It was a hard post to write, and though it is ok, I was far from happy with it when I admitted defeat and pressed the “publish” button.
Partly this stemmed from the many ideas I got while writing it – ideas that went in and out of the text not seldom, about writing, about why people write, and why people read, especially fiction, and how those feed into more fundamental questions about life as it “really is”. There are not surprisingly relationships there that run deep and give complexity a good name. As a writer, I can probe my own motivations and confess that I write because I need to – because I feel compelled to do it, even if that is not entirely satisfactory as an answer: there is a question implicitly raised by it (“All right, why are you compelled?”) that no amount of soul-searching may satisfy….Anyway it is true I’ll write till I die or at least am no longer physically capable, whether people read my books or not. Readers are by contrast not compelled – they don’t have to read (or I don’t think so). There is moreover a great range of means to satisfy whatever urges they might have – escape, or knowledge for example: films, television, games.* Fiction – the novel – is not guaranteed an audience.
The novel is a relatively recent phenomenon; that is presumably why it is called a novel. It is true that there are traces of fiction in western civilisation going back a long way – to Aesop I suppose, and beyond, if we consider fiction to have its roots in fable and myth. Asian civilisation had novels, or what nowadays pass for novels, for a very long time before the novel became an established form in the west: Monkey in China, and Tale of Genji in Japan, for example.
The novel in the west really began in the 18th century and didn’t become a wild success till the 19th. Yes there were novels in Shakespeare’s time – Greene’s Pandosto was the model for The Winter’s Tale – but unless one is a specialist, no one today goes near them. Before that there were “tales” – by Boccaccio, Chaucer and others. But we are really, as readers and writers, following conventions shaped with Fielding and Defoe and their kin and codified, embellished and expanded by a large number of 19th century masters – Austen, Balzac, Dickens…A great deal of this has to do with technological advance, and the sudden availability of cheap magazines and books, and with the literacy that went with it. Where in 1600 the way to reach a wide public was on the stage, by the mid-19th century at the latest the printed book had become a mobile theatre, available wherever you happened to be, whenever you happened to want to crack it.
Talking like this risks Whitehead’s “fallacy of misplaced concresence” – explaining the history of human thought by materialism. It’s not like that at all. Reading is the most complicated skill humans typically possess, but why they read is different, especially as I think people read novels for the ideas in them, even if they don’t recognise that is why they do it. Fiction is morality writ fab – and “morality” is really philosophy. All fiction, whether it is genre fiction or not, is a kind of philosophical treatise.** The process of “reasoning” is presented as a dramatic process, a commentary on life that is at bottom philosophical, even by definition philosophical. In terms of the novel most “how-to” fiction-writing books will advise authors to have a “premise” before starting to write: a philosophical proposition, though few would consciously acknowledge this. A novel’s premise doesn’t have to be a statement for all time about everything, just for the novel itself. Nonetheless, it is a form of philosophy. The premise for Kaos, the novel I am writing and finding hard going at the moment, is “The road to hell is paved with fun”. Plainly, this is not true all of the time, or perhaps even very often: but in this particular book it is true because the “author as god” (me) decrees it.
When this occurred to me, this idea of the novelist as philosopher, whether s/he likes it or not, it was a bit embarrassing. The thought “You mean you’ve only just realised this, as you work on your eighth novel?” jostled with “You mean the author of a cheap trashy romance, say in the Mills & Boon class, is a philosopher?” The answer to both these questions is yes and no.
Naturally, I have regarded my own work as something beyond Mills & Boon, and I have thought of my books as “novels of ideas” – as in the post about “wit”, I have always had a serious purpose, “something to say”. But the notion that every writer including every trashy romance or hard core porn author is by definition a kind of philosopher is very appealing to me, humbling and exalting at the same time.
Put this way, it is so obvious you’d think it scarcely needs saying – but it does. The other day I picked up a book by a man named G Wilson Knight, a Shakespeare scholar, who in 1930 rocked that narrow slice of intellectual landscape with a book whose title came from Lear, The Wheel of Fire. Knight seems to have been provoked into writing what is now a classic of Shakespearian interpretation by a trend disowning any philosophical notion in Shakespeare; he found himself criticised for regarding Shakespeare as a “philosophical poet rather than a man of the stage”. Knight’s spirited rejoinder was that he was a philosophical poet who was a man of the stage and that he would not be performed today if he were not.
Shakespeare may have been the greatest writer in history, but he is not set apart as a philosophical poet: what is surprising to me, having gone through this in my mind, is that Knight’s point had to be argued at all. Yet it did.
Wait! There’s more!
Putting the idea of “novel as philosophy” together with Wittgenstein, and the idea of philosophy as language makes a very neat fit. Beyond the rules of our language that all speakers and writers follow, the “language games” that comprise the rules in linguistic philosophy as I understand Wittgenstein to mean it, are in genre novels such as the thriller which I have been writing, set by the genre. The writer has to adhere to these on one level at least to provide the satisfaction readers want. Breaking those rules makes for failure. Shakespeare, my own primary model in writing, dragged playgoers in to spend their coppers by keeping to the rules of the kinds of drama he wrote – but by providing something more at the same time. In my writing, that has always been my aim.
Yet genre fiction imposes requirements that can exhaust the moral force of a writer, and turn what s/he writes into a commodity, indistinguishable from others of its type, be it romance, thriller, police procedural or whatever. Any reader who has not encountered fiction like this has led – well, has read – a golden life.
The question for me, that was raised in me by Celine’s Bagatelles was how much I had allowed the rules of genre to impose on me, whether I had blunted or even thwarted my purposes by consciously choosing a genre and sticking too slavishly to “the rules”.
I have now written eight novels. Five of them are “published” via smashwords and three lie a-mouldering in my “bottom drawer” for different reasons. What reading Bagatelles provoked in me more than anything was the thought that perhaps I have exhausted my ability to conform to the genre rules and that I must either break them, find another genre, or break free, if I am to succeed as I wish to succeed: to reach people with messages that challenge and move them, that make their lives more enjoyable, more interesting, more fulfilling, more fun.
There is, of course, only one Celine. He broke lots of rules; some of his transgressions, as we know, made him a major literary force while others shrivelled him up to at best a minor figure, a curiosity.***
Even so, he presents challenges to all writers: “first you’ve got to pay for it, then you can use it”.
Of course there many ways writers can use their life experiences to “inform” their writing. Not every novel has to be autobiographical. What evidence there is suggests Celine held genre writing in contempt^, but as I’ve discussed on this blog in the past, writers can imaginatively encounter experiences one would never dream of having in real life, or at least should not – like murder.
“In the future you’ll telegraph or you won’t write at all.”
Celine laughed at his use of the ellipse and other punctuation though he was probably being ironic, at least a little bit. But there is more to this: According to his theory of writing the richly evocative descriptive passage was finished: people are too busy. Yet there are ways and ways, as one of his translators noted. Take this description of a suburban sub-division:
“Not a one that can stand up right…A collection of toys plunked down in the shit!”
Two little sentences (admittedly preceded by some other description) that sum up the emergent mania for suburbia at the end of the Belle Epoque in France – anything for that villa! The cynical perspective of the observer, who cannot see the mud as a future lawn or garden (or even paved road), who notices the poor construction standards and the miniaturisation of floor space to make these contraptions affordable…there is even more there, in his contempt – resentment, as anyone who reads the book concerned (Mort a Credit [Death on the Instalment Plan]) will know: the engagement by the author is an engagement of emotion. Is it the description, or the emotion, that is the point? It turns out to be both.
My plan now – yes, I have a plan – is to try to adjust what I am doing to this approach, which involves rethinking Dostoevsky as well as rethinking me. That really calls for another post as this one has gone on long enough. Dear reader, your perseverance and good humour means so much! Thank you…
*Certainly there is a great range of pastimes available to us all; what I am getting at here is “brain fodder”.
** The same is true of any made-up story, whether presented as film, on the stage, etc.
***Milton Hindus, a would-be supporter when Celine was in exile in Denmark and who visited him there, wrote a (not very good) book on his experience with the apt title Crippled Giant.
^As a doctor Celine might have been expected to find medical novels interesting; he said they bored him.