How To Write (Or Not Write) A Novel

Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (2011) is a novel about baseball–except it’s not.  I know of no work of fiction that takes as its true subject that particular game–not Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, not even Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952).  These books, great as they are (and they are great) are always about something else.  To be about baseball, a novel would have to focus on the players and teams in a league and follow them throughout the long season.  It would have to explain and explore some of the subtle beauties of the game, and give us a sense not only of character growth but the passage of time within the league as history and within the players lives, as well.  That’s a tall order, and I know of no one who’s done it yet.  Perhaps it cannot be done.  Perhaps it can.  But the hour for it has not yet arrived.

Harbach’s story about the little NCAA school Westish College in Westish, Wisconsin meets some of the criteria I’ve set forth, but it is about much more than the sport.  It is the story of a slick-fielding shortstop, Henry Skrimshander, his gay roommate, Owen Dunne, his teammate, catcher Mike Schwartz, and the president of Westish College, Guert Affenlight, an alumnus of the place back in the 1970s.  Harbach takes his time developing these characters, devoting a whole chapter to the origins of President Affenlight, who was an athlete on the football team during his student days, but becomes an academic after he discovers in the school library the manuscript of a lecture given there by Herman Melville, and is enraptured by it.

Harbach knows well the seductive allure of being a novelist, and he knows, too, the challenges of writing scholarly prose.  The novel is about the writer’s way of life, too.  We find embedded in chapter six a short passage about Affenlight’s writing life, which is, of course, a story inside the story; a tale of not being able to write tucked inside a novel that is written and completed:

“After those four years he returned to the Midwest.  He’d turned twenty-five, the Age of Unfolding, and it was time to write a novel, the way his hero had.  He moved to a cheap apartment in Chicago and set to work, but even as the pages accumulated, despair set in.  It was easy enough to write a sentence, but if you were going to create a work of art, the way Melville had, each sentence needed to fit perfectly with the one that preceded it, and the unwritten one that would follow.  And each of those sentences needed to square with the ones on either side, so that three became five and five became seven, seven became nine, and whichever sentence he was writing became the fulcrum on which the whole precarious edifice depended.  That sentence could contain anything, anything, and so it promised the kind of absolute freedom that, to Affenlight’s mind, belonged to the artist and the artist alone.  And yet that sentence was also beholden to the book’s very first one, and its last, unwritten one, and every sentence in between.  Every phrase, every word, exhausted him.  He thought maybe the problem was the noise of the city, and his dull day job, and his drinking; he gave up his room and rented an outbuilding on an Iowa farm run by hippies.  There, alone with his anxious thoughts, he felt much worse.”

I have read–and I have had writers tell me–that it is much harder to write non-fiction than it is to write fiction.  I have read–and have had writers tell me–that it is harder to write fiction than non-fiction.  Having done a fair amount of both, I incline to the latter view, rather than the former.  The non-fiction writer is dealing with the known world.  “All” he or she has to do is organize it.  This observation holds true even if the writer is composing an essay about, say, string theory, a construct of thought whose elements–thus far, at any rate–lie beyond empirical proof.  Such a writer is still dealing with a subject whose outlines have already been imagined and revealed to us.

The fiction writer, on the other hand, although she may borrow details from the life she lives, is dealing with an unknown world.  She must create every element of that world, even if her story is rooted in the world we all know.  Names, places, events, characters, thoughts–all must be invented.  The scaffolding of such a structure may come from the real world, but the flimsy girders and beams of dialogue and action must be buttressed by the strength of her imagination.  There is no other way, and yet the skyscraper must be built, or something in her imagination will die.

What Affenlight does not realize is that Melville did not arrive at the state where one sentence inevitably follows another by writing.  He got there by rewriting.  A work of fiction–even a masterwork by a Melville, an Austen, a Milton, or a Bronte–doesn’t tumble out of anyone fully formed, even when the author tells us it does.  If we are lucky, much of the work may come out of us with the profusion of the verses of a Milton “waiting to milked” in the morning by his amanuensis; after that necessary occurrence, however, the real work is in re-reading and rewriting what one has done.  This takes time, and it takes the time it takes.  The process should not (and, in most cases, cannot) be rushed.  If our hearts and minds are set right, though, if they are attuned to the task at hand, we will see and seize the opportunities to make our sentences harmonize with the ones we’ve already written; we can create complementary images or echoes, even ones separated by many pages, and our readers will pick up on them.  Given enough time and enough care, our readers will know that the end is always in the beginning, and that we always mean much more than we say.

To become this kind of novelist, this kind of writer, is every language-lover’s dream; but it is not accomplished by expecting ourselves to become Melville, to become Bronte or Austen or Milton.  We cannot become them reborn.  Their talent belonged to them and them alone.  What we can do, however, is honor them by adopting their habits, reading and loving their work, and realizing that our own work, although it may be intended as a respectful homage to those writers we have cared about, is always and will forever be uniquely our own.

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One thought on “How To Write (Or Not Write) A Novel

  1. Pingback: The Art Of Telling A Story | Books Here And There

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