The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, by Orhan Pamuk, Faber, RRP£14.99, 200 pages
The Good of the Novel, edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan, Faber, RRP£12.99, 225 pages
Writing fiction has never seemed an entirely respectable business. The 18th-century novelist Fanny Burney described her appetite for creating fiction as a “degradation” – something to keep secret. Socially, artistically and financially, producing novels has always been precarious.
Sooner or later most major novelists feel obliged (or are invited) to explain what it is they think they are doing. The classic example is EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927). With The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, the Nobel prizewinning Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk joins the tradition. This slimmish volume makes available the text of a set of lectures on “what happens when we write and read novels” he delivered at Harvard in 2009.
In the title Pamuk revives a distinction articulated by the poet Friedrich Schiller, who identified two kinds of poet: one who writes spontaneously and another who writes self-consciously. In reality most writers, be they poets or novelists, oscillate between the two. And Pamuk, while excited by Schiller’s reflections on the relationship of life and art, believes that the craft of the novelist involves being both naive and sentimental.
Pamuk habitually proposes distinctions – between the “visual” writer and the “verbal” one – only to collapse them. The result is a talkative, tender meditation. He has a good deal to say about the different qualities of sensory experience, the pleasures of imagination and the problems of characterisation. Sometimes he nicely distils the essence of a situation with which one is familiar. For instance, he notices how the mental operations involved in reading can seem to be “our own private success”, giving rise to “the sweet illusion that the novel was written solely for us”.
But his observations in this vein stray towards platitudinous generality. Two examples: “The central paradox of the art of the novel is the way the novelist strives to express his own personal worldview while also seeing the world through the eyes of others”; “Reading a novel means that … we follow, one by one, the thoughts and actions of the protagonists and ascribe meaning to them within the general landscape.” It is hard to imagine this being news to many of the Harvard students who were Pamuk’s original audience – or to anyone who has thought about the nature of fiction.
In the end, Pamuk sheds more light on his own temperament than on his art. We’re left with the impression that he is a genial, self-examining author but his arguments feel either obvious or reductive. He does not set out a coherent theory of the novel.
The monumental ambitions of theory are explicitly disavowed in The Good of the Novel, a new volume of essays edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan. The collection instead celebrates “evaluative criticism … that approaches novels as novels”. It brings together “some of the most strenuous and perceptive critics” and “puts them in contact with some of the finest novels of the past three decades”. Although one might feel uncomfortable about the idea of the critics being “strenuous” and being “put in contact” with these great novels – it all sounds a bit Soviet – the opening statements lay pleasing emphasis on the rewards of critical rigour and an overt concern with literary technique.
Each essay focuses on a single novel. The works under consideration are all in English. Some of the choices are predictable: there are pieces on Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, JM Coetzee’s Disgrace and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Others are less so: most surprising is Michael Wood’s decision to analyse Ross Thomas’s Briarpatch, a smart 1980s crime novel.
Wood observes of Thomas that “the considerable suspense in his novels is always linked to subtle and intelligent notations of human contact”. That alone was enough to make me order a copy of Briarpatch, and several of these essays are studded with little gems that urge one to turn immediately to the volumes under discussion. Andrew O’Hagan argues that Don DeLillo’s engagement with the strangeness of modernity has made itself felt in a style defined by “passionate numbness”. Jason Cowley draws a curious but germane comparison between Martin Amis and Woody Allen. Robert Macfarlane identifies the “velveteen ferocity” of Alan Hollinghurst’s prose. Yet, throughout the collection, perceptive comment rarely translates into a sustained original thesis. There is little audacity of approach. The most conspicuous exception, Ian Sansom’s response to American Pastoral, is charming but weirdly oblique. A more cogent exception is James Wood’s appraisal of Atonement, which examines the question of what readers expect from a novel. Otherwise, instead of parsing the processes by which fiction creates its effects, the contributors elegantly yet rather dutifully acquit themselves of the tasks associated with ordinary book reviewing.
Also disappointing is the masculine bias. There are 13 essays: two are about women and three by women. This misses a significant “good” of the novel: its role as a vehicle for female creativity.
Henry Hitchings is author of ‘The Language Wars: A History of Proper English’ (John Murray)