Sunday, December 20, 2009

Categories of the novel

Robert Liddell, the English novelist whose close friendships with Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym influenced the course of the English novel, was perhaps best-known for his wonderful Treatise on the Novel (1947). In the late ’sixties, Wayne Booth arranged for its reprinting in a single volume along with Some Principles of Fiction (1953) by the University of Chicago Press. Although long out of print, it is worth hunting down. It is perhaps the best one-volume introduction to the novel, written in short bursts of aphoristic and shrewd opinion.

Liddell says that there are only two categories of novels: (1.) “Novels which call for serious literary criticism.” (2.) “Novels which are beneath serious criticism.”[1]

The first category contains two subdivisions: (a.) “Good novels.” (b.) “Novels which might have been good.” To the second division Liddell consigns books that are “bad, uneven, or technical failures,” although they are written by writers with “minds of the necessary sensibility.” This division would also include the botched attempts by writers who earlier or later engineered good novels. The good novelist is anyone who has somehow managed to write a single good novel, but his other novels also merit study on the basis of his exceptional achievement. And then there are the novelists of eternal promise, who never quite put it all together in a single book—Aldous Huxley, Truman Capote, John Updike, Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster.

Liddell subdivides the novels beneath serious criticism into middlebrow and lowbrow books, but unfortunately he says little more to clarify either division. Distinguishing between them, he comments, is “like establishing the precedence between a flea and a louse.”

In his 1964 interview with Playboy, Nabokov was characteristically sharp-toothed:

The middlebrow or the upper Philistine cannot get rid of the furtive feeling that a book, to be great, must deal in great ideas. Oh, I know the type, the dreary type! He likes a good yarn spiced with social comment; he likes to recognize his own thoughts and throes in those of the author; he wants at least one of the characters to be the author’s stooge. If American, he has a dash of Marxist blood, and if British, he is acutely and ridiculously class-conscious; he finds it so much easier to write about ideas than about words; he does not realize that perhaps the reason he does not find general ideas in a particular writer is that the particular ideas of that writer have not yet become general.[2]Note well that Nabokov does not disdain ideas in fiction; he disdains general ideas, the conventional wisdom, the received persuasions of everyday life. On his showing, good novels require serious criticism because of the particularity of their ideas, and their close attention to words—or as I would prefer to say, at the risk of correcting Nabokov, sentences.

[1] Robert Liddell on the Novel, ed. Wayne C. Booth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 10.

[2] Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973), p. 41.


Jonathan said...

Part of what I find so attractive about used bookstores is the inability to predict just what I'll find discarded by other readers.

Last week I stumbled across Cynthia Ozick's "Art and Ardor".

This is the first time I've read her non-fiction and am enjoying it immensely. Last night I reached the essay titled "Innovation and Redemption: What Literature Means", and thought of this post. Re-reading it this morning I think it more complimentary (in spirit at least) than contradictory.

Fighting the urge to copy out the last half a page of the essay in this comment, I hope you'll permit two concluding sentences instead.

"Literature, to come into being at all, must call on the imagination; imagination is in fact the flesh and blood of literature;..."

"Literature is the recognition of the particular."


Guy Pursey said...

From what I remember, Martha Nussbaum says similar things about literature and particularity in Love's Knowledge. But it's been a few years since I read it.

I'm currently reading James Wood's How Fiction Works which (to begin with at least) provides an interesting and accessible examination of some of the differences in technical aspects of novels written in the third- and first-person. If you've read it, I'd like to know what you think.

W/r/t Nabokov: I posted a list of things he is reported to have 'loathed' recently on my blog (the Small Boats one) following a BBC documentary on Lolita that was aired last Saturday. It might be of interest to you, though I don't think the literary items in the list will surprise you. (A link to the documentary is on the blog too, available until Thursday I think.)

Thank you for mentioning Liddell; I shall check my local library for Treatise on the Novel (or the Booth volume) in the New Year. I've read a few books from the 1940s recently so it'll feel especially relevant.