- The State of the Art:Novelists Thinking the Novel
According to received wisdom, the novel is an art form without rules. Notwithstanding this wisdom, novelists regularly discuss the inner workings of the novel in essays, prefaces, manifestos, interviews, reviews, questionnaires, cahiers, and treatises. Taken together, these diverse statements constitute a form of thinking about the novel. Novels may function without rules, which is to say that they express freedom, yet novels are guided by certain principles of operation that curb freedom. In general terms, novelistic thinking encompasses the proprieties, shape, and substance of the novel. Moreover, novelists transmit their thinking about the novel from generation to generation, but, as in Borges's garden of forking paths, no right way of understanding novels predominates. Novelistic thinking may shift its exact focus over time, but its object remains the same: the definition of the novel.
Novelists do not think about the novel the same way that critics do. When novelists talk about the novel, their utterances are fugitive or pointed. Henry James makes his novelistic intentions quite clear in the prefaces that he wrote to the New York Edition of his works. By contrast, Flaubert merely drops hints about his novelistic aims in letters; his scattered comments do not in themselves constitute a systematic theory of the novel. Whether intentional or casual, such statements contribute to the thinking of the novel. This thinking stands apart from critical theories of the novel, such as Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of heteroglossia or Tzvetan Todorov's structuralist analysis of morphology in the folk tale. Nor do novelists' comments add up to a poetics in any exact sense of that term. A poetics, such as Wayne Booth offers in The Rhetoric of Fiction, surveys a corpus systematically and describes its formal mechanisms. By contrast, novelists offer criticism of their own work or the work of other writers. They adjudicate and explain, but they do not advance a coherent set of principles in the manner that theorists do. The business of the novelist is not a universal and incontrovertible theory. Whereas theorists often understand novels transhistorically, novelists' thinking about the novel develops in tandem with the writing of novels over time. This thinking – supple and ongoing to accommodate changes in novelistic praxis – constitutes its own corpus. Neither one thing nor another, the novel is a way of thinking. [End Page 1005]
Novelists sometimes pull back from specific works to speculate on the craft and aim of novels broadly conceived. E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, published after the author had stopped writing novels, is a classic example of this type. Milan Kundera has written three books that reflect on the transnational heritage of the novel: The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, and The Curtain. Forster and Kundera do not talk much about their own novels; rather, they address generic issues through wide-ranging examples. Forster, with a knack for the unexpected, writes about 'prophecy' and 'pattern and rhythm' as novelistic properties. The prophetic novelist creates characters who 'share something deeper than their experience' (Forster 134). Forster means that the novel has the capacity to enlarge experience and to situate individual dramas within cosmic perspectives. The prophetic quality in fiction allows a merging of character and reader. In Forster's estimation, the prophetic, which has nothing to do with oracles and a great deal to do with human compassion, is a novelistic quality. It shows up in Dostoevsky's works; it resurfaces in D.H. Lawrence's novels. Similarly, Kundera, summing up the characteristics that separate the novel from all other arts, claims that 'a novel that fails to reveal some hitherto unknown bit of existence is immoral' (61). The novel, like an instrument of scientific discovery, illuminates the unknown and consequently extends human knowledge. For this reason, the novel is always in the vanguard of human experience. Forster and Kundera may or may not be right, but their statements contribute to the thinking of the novel – the ways in which novelists conceive the novel.
Instead of writing about the novel grosso modo, some novelists sharpen their thinking by writing a book or essay about a particular author...