And so, how does one go about writing a good (and of course original!) novel? The very word itself comes from a word meaning “a new thing,” related to the adjective we use when we say, “He has a novel approach to life” (this is a nice pun, of course, if we mean that he lives his life like a literary character!).
Still, after all, the novel’s sources come from earlier kinds of fiction anyway, such as medieval and early modern romances. Some of the first romances of this sort were written in times when prose could only sometimes vie with poetic forms, and they appeared in the Romance languages of Southern France. There was also Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which shared some of the same story elements. From about 1532-1564, François Rabelais wrote his 5 books of Gargantua and Pantagruel, in the 5th book of which the borrowings from other literature are so pronounced that some scholars have questioned whether or not the work was all his own (it was published posthumously). Picaresque novels, in which a picaro, or lovable rogue/anti-hero, goes through a series of adventures that sometimes led to a conclusion of sorts and sometimes did not, became popular. Don Quixote (1604-1614), by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, was one picaresque novel with a difference, that difference being that the hero held impossibly high moral and spiritual values, thus parodying the usual picaro himself from a higher level, though it is still a comic masterpiece: he is set off by his foil, his manservant Sancho Panza, who is a comic character on a lower social level. Nevertheless, part of the main comic thrust of the novel is the way in which earlier literature has had an influence on the knight Don Quixote, through his readings of knightly romances. Beginning to get the feeling that everything leads to something else, and everything already has sources written before it? In 1727, the first edition of Jonathan Swift’s satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels appeared, followed soon after by Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela in 1741, a novel written as an series of letters in which a servant girl named Pamela details the lascivious conduct of an employer who is trying to “steal her virtue.” If the man had only known how many followers he was to have with this plot line! Not to be outdone, Henry Fielding wrote a travesty of the book the same year called Shamela, and followed it a year later with a novel called Joseph Andrews, purporting to be about the same situation reversed, in which Pamela’s brother Joseph is fighting off all and sundry to preserve his “virtue.” Fielding chose to call it a “comic epic poem in prose,” having declared not entirely correctly that such a form had never been attempted before. Perhaps he was prescient, though, in guessing that others than the historians would be evaluating him, or perhaps was being tongue-in-cheek about the likely criticism of the form (until about 1780, it was most usual for only historians to be critics). Daniel Defoe was also prominent, with his adventure Robinson Crusoe and his tale of the loose woman Moll Flanders. Lawrence Sterne’s quizzical novel about novel writing (Tristram Shandy) is a comic masterpiece which came along between 1759-1767. A later picaresque novel was its close contemporary: that book is Tobias Smollett’s book Humphrey Clinker. Finally, with the upsurge of novels being written beginning in the Romantic period, the novel as we know it in all its lavish variety began to be evident (wikipedia notes that it was in the late 18th century that the term “novella” contributed the new term, “novel,” to the language.–Anyone wishing further easy access to these topics should consult Ian Watt’s book The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, which was published back in 1957 but is still considered authoritative. Or, if you want a more general summation, check out the wikipedia entry listed simply as “the novel.” It has the facts basically straight and is full of information.). During the Romantic period, “all hell broke loose,” so to speak. There had been many comic novels before this date, parodies, picaresques, travesties, self-conscious travelogues. Now, the novel deserted some of the “realistic debunking genres” (Mikhail Bakhtin’s terms) and headed for the heights of Gothic improbability (it’s likely, though, that in a similar way to Samuel Richardson, the Romantic Gothic writers were modestly unaware of a following which would cause new Gothics to be created even into the 21st century, still following some of the same formulae). The Victorian era is the era which some people feel to be the true heyday of the realistic novel in a perhaps more sober-sided fashion than its other realistic predecessors, though such writers as Charles Dickens and his collection of eccentric characters added much to our comic heritage.
So, you ask, what does all this rehearsal of literary history amount to? Well, to return to my title–how can one write something which is both good and original, after so much ink has already been spilt? So many earlier writers felt both a need and an obligation to imitate still earlier authors, and there are times when this is appropriate without being unoriginal; for example, when one is imitating the genre specifications of a romance or a Gothic, or a mystery. What about that Biblical injunction that “there is nothing new under the sun”? And what about the obsession of these our later days, keeping things “original?” It’s a relatively new concept, as one realizes when reading older authors. It’s even begun to date as a concept with the full-blown arrival of the Internet, where people repeat and tweet and Facebook each others’ remarks sometimes without proper attribution or understanding of the issues involved for the person concerned. We are all in such a hurry, how do we remain original in our work, and yet good?
Some writers have chosen to be write heavily autobiographical “fiction,” secure in the notion that we all lead such different lives (or so we think) that it’s possible to join the queue of original writers that way. But how many times have you read an author of this kind, who publicly avows that his/her work is made up of his/her life in large part, and still felt that it was speaking to you particularly, of your own life? I’ve had it happen to me very frequently, even when the physical settings of the novels involved had nothing to do with my daily grind per se. Other writings are so contorted by improbability that they quite obviously have thrown their hat in the “original” category simply because it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to relate to them personally; and this doesn’t always have to do with a lack of literary quality, since such works sometimes provide an intriguing mental puzzle as you try to work out just what holds you about them.
So the question becomes: what holds us spellbound about the works we like best and also respect as good writing? I mean, I like potato chips too, but I know they’re not as “good” for me as vegetables and protein; in the same way, I know that I’ve read lots of cheap pulp fiction without a thought passing from one side of my head to the other, but I know it’s not a “healthy and profitable” reading experience. This doesn’t mean that cheap pulp fiction doesn’t have its place, but that I have acknowledged I need something more sustaining to get me through my life and take the place of valued literary experiences. And I like to do my best to provide at least some degree of nourishment for the spirit in my own writings, though the novels themselves are different forms of the comic urge, at least so far (as opposed to some of the short stories I hope to complete and my poetry, largely non-comic). So, I’d like to lay claim for now to following “originally” at least some of the models I’ve mentioned today in my blog, since many of them are comic; the quality is something I leave you as my readers to judge. What about you? What are your models and methods?