Write it now, part 13: novels and novelability

In this series we’ve been exploring writing in all its forms. Today we’re starting a detailed look at one of the most popular forms of writing – fiction.

Jane Austen. Public domain, from http://www.wpclipart.com/famous/writer/writers_A_to_D/Jane_Austen_coloured_version.jpg.html
Jane Austen. Public domain, from http://www.wpclipart.com/famous/writer/writers_A_to_D/ Jane_Austen_coloured_version.jpg.html

Fiction, and particularly novel writing, is the writing that attracts the most interest. It’s where most people start. I was trained in it myself, way back when. Most ‘how to write’ training today is geared towards fiction, and I’ve noticed that a lot of online discussion is predicated on the assumption that any book being written will, by default, be a novel.

Not all books are, of course. But it’s true about a lot of the books that are written these days – and certainly that’s true of the books being self-published on Amazon.

Fiction is also where the money is. The only billionaire author, and most of its millionaires, are novellists.

So where did the ‘novel’ come from? The form we know and love today emerged in the late eighteenth century. Jonathan Swift had something to do with it. So did Jane Austen – she, in fact, is often regarded as the inventor of the novel in its modern form. That’s not quite true. But certainly she helped shape it. Specifically, she found new ways of engaging reader emotion – she created interesting characters and set them to interact on a stage identifiable to the audience.

In her classic Pride and Prejudice (1813) the main emotion was – well, pride. By modern standards Austen’s style was pompous, even clunky. Check this out:

“She hardly knew how to suppose that she could be an object of admiration to so  great man; and yet that he should look at her because he disliked her was still  more strange. She could only imagine however, at last, that she drew his notice  because there was a something about her more wrong and reprehensible, according  to his ideas of right, than in any other person present…” (Pride and Prejudice, 1813)

But that was perfectly acceptable in that age; Austen was a great novelist, a great story teller, and we can but lament at the way her premature death cut short her career.

Nor was Austen alone. In 1816, Mary Shelley took novel writing in different directions with Frankenstein, effectively a foray into science fiction. Novels, it seemed, did not have to be ‘real’ in order to engage their reader – indeed, one of their appeals was that they allowed readers to escape.

By the early nineteenth century, then, the modern novel was fairly on its way. Understanding how the novel journeyed over the next 200-odd years is handy to know if we want to write one – because it allows us to understand how the form has always been shaped in the specific by contemporary need, contemporary ideal – and it is still changing. Next week.

Meanwhile, do you have thoughts on why novels are such a popular first stop for people wanting to write? The creative urge? Expression of a story? All these things? I’d love to hear from you.

And have any of you seen  ‘Ink and Incapability’, from Blackadder The Third (BBC 1988).

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next week: Write it now – the evolution of the novel; also more funnies, more writing tips, and some highly refined geekery.


12 thoughts on “Write it now, part 13: novels and novelability

  1. I think we all fancy ourselves as great story tellers. As such, we erroneously think that fiction requires less research and, because the story is not real, it will somehow be easier to write. Also, it is what most of us began reading and what drew us to stories.

    The thing that I find so amazing is the sheer volume of memoirs that are being written. And not just by famous people. Every class, workshop, and public reading I go to has several individuals who are writing in that genre.

    1. I figure fiction’s far harder to research (and thus write) than non-fiction – the reason being that the nature of the research required is massively different and, often, massively harder. We laugh at Dan Brown’s absurd research lapses relative to Paris, especially his geographical gaffes – which anybody who’s walked the ground can spot, but it IS an occupational hazard.

      I think fantasy writing’s worse because the author then has to first “create” the “research” in the form of the world background etc – and then keep it straight in the text. Not helped by the fact that it is created by the author and thus new and better ideas will always come along.

      You’re right about the memoirs. Thinking about it, I recall a discussion I had years ago with the commissioning editor at Reed NZ – then our biggest and oldest publishing house – who said that they fielded about one unsolicited memoir a week – and this in NZ, which isn’t a large country. None of them were publishable, apparently, they were clearly self-therapy. Often quite well written, but also very personalised, and the issue against publishing was their lack of wider reader and hence commercial appeal.

  2. I think novels are easier to follow than plays or epic poems- which were how stories were told until recently. I honestly would like to see someone try writing a modern epic poem, kind of like The Iliad and The Divine Comedy. I don’t mean a modern version of those, but it would be cool for someone to try to write a modern story like Dante or Homer. It’s a lost art, really.

    1. It was Tolkien, I think, who said that any great story really had to be written first as epic poetry. He practised what he preached. The problem today, I suspect, is that poetry has been hijacked; it has the image of being an elite form of writing – pursued by the more pretentious literati. Certainly that’s so in New Zealand. A pity.

      I should add, there’s a ‘Matthew Wright’ who blogs and publishes poetry, here in New Zealand…he isn’t me… I never write the stuff. And I have a popular name. 🙂

      1. Yeah, poetry seems to be a lost art. It used to be an appreciated form of writing, but now it’s left to coffee shops open-mikes. Not that its a bad thing – I’ve done that! – but I would love to see poetry be more common and mainstream. So few people know a poem by heart.

  3. Ah. Ink and Incapability was wonderful. Rowan Atkinson has wonderful diction. It wasn’t until just recently that I realized Hugh Laurie from back then is the same Hugh Laurie of today. I’m only about a decade behind in tv shows.

    I ran across a reference to a serialized publication called Pamela (also called Virtue Rewarded) which made a splash back in the 18th century. Curious about the story, I finally found a copy but can’t say I was swept away. The influences of our time really affect how we embrace a story. I’m looking forward to your new blog series. 🙂

    1. I’m a huge Blackadder fan – just love the witty sarcasms etc & it’s amazing how such an enduring and iconic comedy could be built around what, broadly, amounted to people having a conversation in a room. Wonderful, wonderful writing and acting & it’s amazing how iconic the cast have also become since – Tony Robinson was here in Wellington just last week, in fact, filming a new documentary. Laurie has an astonishing talent – even in sport. Apparently he had every prospect of being able to pursue a professional career in competitive rowing, if he hadn’t gone with acting. He also sings, dances and plays instruments. The BBC ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ series, where he stars with Stephen Fry, is well worth checking out if you haven’t caught up with it. Just brilliant.

  4. As I’ve said many times, I so enjoy this series, and I’m really looking forward to the discussion on the novel. I think there are many reasons people turn to the novel as a way to write a story, one of the most obvious being an attempt to disguise one’s personal story. Yet, it has been my experience that any personal recounting quickly becomes its own story separate from a retelling of any moment. A novel allows that story to take on a life of its own, and I suspect that is part of the attraction writers have for the novel. As always, great post, Matthew.

    1. Thank you – and I very much appreiate your comments. I think personal experience is definitely a part of the novel-writing process; it goes into the mix and emerges at the other end, often surprising the author along the way – as much a subconscious input as a deliberate effort. There is, I suspect, also a commonality between the attraction of the novel and of the memoir to writers, perhaps for this reason – I’ll ponder that one.

  5. I felt better about my Christian, historical fiction novel… although it is a very narrow genre, when someone said to me “people prefer their facts wrapped up in a fictitious story”. There are a lot of facts in Hold the Faith (the novel) – it won’t sell more books and the research needed was a mammoth task. However, I learned a great deal about the Apostle John in the process. Why did I write it? Because I was fascinated by a Bible study I heard and wanted to check if what he said was true. Then I was hooked. And you are correct… at some point the character takes over and surprises the author.
    Well, that’s my experience – and I will keep writing. (I’ve been bitten!)

    1. That elusive blend of accurate detail and story is extraordinarily difficult to get right. One of the best examples I’ve ever seen is George McDonald Fraser’s ‘Flashman’ series – very ‘robust’ stories about the bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and what he did when he grew up. Written in period style to the point where an early reviewer, I am told, mistook the novel for a ‘found memoir’ of the period (weirdly, given that Flashman was a fictional character in the first place).

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