The Good of the Novel: Part Two

Our The Good of the Novel discussion continues with pieces from three book bloggers: novelist and playwright Elizabeth Baines, aka FictionBitch, avid reader and blogger Paperback Reader, and bookseller and blogger Catherine Hawley, aka Juxtabook.

FictionBitch on The Complexity of the Novel

When an idea comes to me, I will always know immediately whether it’s a novel or something else (a short story or a play): the thing that characterises the novel idea is complexity.

The novel is capable of conveying complicated truths and complex realities, not just because of its length, but because as a literary form it is one of the most fluid and pliable. It’s a form that can encompass something of the language and all of the interiority of poetry as well as the more muscular and objective modes of drama; it can evolve in shape, developing innovative styles and structures, to present new and challenging insights. The term ‘novel’ did, after all, originally imply novelty and contemporaneity.

What draws me to this form is the consequent capacity to explore both psychological truths and social truths and, uniquely I think, the complicated relationship between the two. W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz is a stunning example of the novel achieving this – a deeply psychological novel that yet (via a layering of narrative voices) locates the source of the protagonist’s compellingly obsessive psychology and a wider, existential longing in a particular historical circumstance and set of social conditions.

With such an ability to challenge artistically the ways we think about the world and ourselves, and being at the same time historically close to the heart of our social structures in its intimate implication with trade and consequently capable of wide dissemination, the novel has immense political potential.

Ironically, however, by being so implicated, the novel has been particularly vulnerable to market forces. It would seem that at present market forces are pushing the novel away from its potential and towards simplicity – towards conventional forms and unchallenging messages. This is the paradox, as I see it, that we are dealing with now as regards the novel, and the challenge facing serious novelists.

– Read more at FictionBitch.

Paperback Reader on The State of the Novel

The State of the Novel is something like the State of the Nation: disparate ideas vying for representation, with the one that shouts the loudest being the one that is read. Whether it is a paper book brought from a bricks-and-mortar bookshop or an e-publication downloaded onto a digital reader, the novel is living in a dynamic state where the future is fast-moving, exciting, and challenging. Novels are no longer a novel concept but they will always be read.

However, in this modern age where everyone who has a book in them has the means to write and publish it, not all of those novels will be read individually.  The adage goes ‘too little books, too little time’ so are there too many modern novels all competing for attention? Is it too exhausting to keep up with these revolutionary times and is it even possible to read them all? For the good of the modern novel: slow down and savour the one you are reading.

– Read more at Paperback Reader.

Juxtabook on The Value of the Literary Blog

My favourite childhood places were the library and secondhand bookshops. I bought secondhand copies of dead authors like Malcom Saville or Louisa May Alcott. From an early age I had the long view.

In my teens it was the Brontes and Austen, though I did also discover Fay Weldon and Margaret Atwood, before reading mainly dead authors again for my English Literature degree. An MA on the Eighteenth-Century Novel completed my dedication to writers in the compost stages of their reputation.

More recently however I have bought more brand-new shiny books by living authors than ever before. The reason? Bloggers. Ten years ago when we were dual-income-no-kids I could have spent a fortune on books but I didn’t. I read the weekend papers and the LRB and bought a few McEwan, Atwood, Lodge, but apart from these favourites I was uninspired. I re-read the works of Georgette Heyer and mopped up some unread Dickens instead. Then a few years ago I discovered the blogs Cornflower and Dovegreyreader. Stuck-in-a-Book, Other Stories and Gaskella soon followed.

Blog reviews, unlike traditional reviews, give you context. Through the writers’ asides about their lives I came to form an idea of personality; I know what their personal favourites are and how they chime with mine. A blog review is the ultimate word-of-mouth recommendation. I buy more books, more often.

So what is this wide range of new books? Particular joys for me include Alis Hawkins from MNW, Faber’s own Andrew Martin and Nicola Upson, Snowbooks’s Fiona Robyn, The Tsar’s Dwarf by Peter H. Fogtdal (and a shelf full of non-crime Nordic writing recommend on his blog Danish Accent), Conceit by Mary Novik (astounding novel on John Donne which unbelievably has no UK publisher), Paul Magrs and Marcus Sedgwick. On the flip side, from my own blogging at Juxtabook I know I have influenced the buying of others.

For writers this is good news. You don’t have to be famous, or have every member of the publicity department working for you, or be even published in the UK, you just have to be good and fall in to the lap of an intelligent blogger. With the advent of blog reviews fiction has gone social again, in a way that hasn’t been seen since Mrs Radcliffe’s works passed around eighteenth century drawings rooms. As a result the novel as a form feels fresh once more, newly hatched and ready to surprise. For someone so dedicated to the long view, I have surprised myself by looking beyond the canon to fiction’s new horizons, now that it has come out the ivory tower and is back in the hands of the readers as it was in the beginning.

– Read more at Juxtabook.

Copies of The Good of the Novel are available from the Faber website.


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