12 September 2014

The wellsprings of fiction

In 1946 George Orwell published an essay entitled “Why I Write”.

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all – and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centred than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. – Using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
He also says:
What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art”. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.
In my view an overt political agenda can be toxic to the relationship between the reader and the story, particularly if the reader’s beliefs are at odds with the author’s. Samuel Goldwyn is said to have declared, “If you have a message, call Western Union”. That Orwell succeeds so well with Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four is down to his gifts as a storyteller.

Vladimir Nabokov had no time for political fiction. He is scathing about Dostoevsky:
My position in regard to Dostoevsky is a curious and difficult one. In all my courses I approach literature from the only point of view that literature interests me – namely the point of view of enduring art and individual genius. From this point of view Dostoevsky is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one – with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between.
This is belied by evidence that Nabokov had read, closely, most if not all of Dostoevsky’s work. Dostoevsky was a polemicist, for sure, but he was a greater artist than Orwell, with a deep interest in and sympathy with the human condition. He also had a better sense of humour than Nabokov gives him credit for. Some Dostoevsky is laugh-out-loud funny (e.g. when Nikolai seizes Pyotr Pavlovitch Gaganov by the nose in Demons; that whole book can be taken as a monstrous joke). Nabokov’s jokes are just as good, though quite different (e.g. the entire character of Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire, the portrait of Lolita’s all-American mother, and of course entertaining felicities and plays on words throughout).

So Nabokov put poetry above polemic. Yet he adored Dickens:
All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.
If Dickens’s novels aren’t polemical then I don’t know whose are.

Towards the end of his essay, Orwell informs us that:
All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
Unfortunately he goes on to say:
For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.
Trying to define “good prose” (for fiction, at any rate) is a waste of time. Orwell’s writing is so transparent that it is dead to the subtlety and music found on every page of Nabokov. Then again, Nabokov is perhaps too much the stylist. When reading him we are never far from a suspicion that he is showing off: that the subject-matter interests him less than the language with which it is expressed. In Nabokov the second of Orwell’s “great motives” (aesthetic enthusiasm) predominates.

Orwell says he wanted “to reconcile [his] ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us”. If he was a public writer, Nabokov was essentially a private one; and it is in the territory between the public and the private that we find the fifth and most interesting motive for writing fiction.

Apparently without fully realizing what he is saying, Orwell mentions the “desire to see things as they are”. He goes on to say that “at the very bottom of [authors’] motives there lies a mystery. … [One is] driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand”.

That demon is surely the quest for self-knowledge. It is the religious need to find evidence that our lives are not meaningless.

The tyro writer is usually unaware of any such demon – or angel. His motives are those listed by Orwell. His personality is such that he likes embroidering personal anecdotes: my Irish grandfather, when accused of exaggeration or outright untruth, would reply that he was merely an author whose books had never been published. Our tyro progresses from these petty lies to more elaborate ones, on paper, and is likely to tap into the primeval need to tell and to hear stories. The storyteller’s vanity looms large, together with unrealistic expectations, but he has withal a poetic impulse and this needs to be satisfied. Depending on the quality of that impulse, his early work will be more or less readable. As his career advances and his technique improves, he will begin (assuming he is not a complete dolt) to be gripped by the possibilities of language and the opportunities that fictioneering gives him for exploring the grand puzzle of his existence.

Pablo Picasso is credited with saying “Art is the lie that tells the truth”. A novel can be inherently more truthful than any history or biography, but a novel written with an agenda, whether commercial or political, cannot be a faithful reflection of the unique experiences and inner world of its author.

One measure of the truthfulness of a book is its longevity. Most if not all of the books we regard as classics are truthful, which is why we still read them. They may also be admirable in some other way, but it is to their truth that we chiefly respond.

If writing a novel is an exercise in self-exploration, why should its author – besides hoping for payment – want to see it published? Sometimes, in fact, he doesn’t, but usually he does, because he wants validation, praise, and possibly fame. These will all feed his vanity, especially in the early stages of his career, but unless he offers his work to the world and gets some feedback he will never know whether he has struck a chord with anyone else. He will not “connect”, to use E M Forster’s word: recognition that others feel as you do is the prime motor of both the storyteller and his listener, and I contend that the urge to find it is the deepest source of literary art.

To Orwell’s four motives, then, I’d like to add this fifth. In conclusion I would also like to say that for all his superficial insouciance, Nabokov was a serious artist. I feel I know the Russia of his childhood, the nostalgia of the émigré, what it is like to be a foreigner living in America. He has risked sharing these and a multitude of other confidences; he opens our eyes to the beauty of his synaesthetic world; and in a profoundly polemical fashion he upholds whatever is courageous, noble and virtuous. That is my little tribute to a great writer at the furthest end of the spectrum. His fiction deserves to endure.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"recognition that others feel as you do is the prime motor...[and]... the deepest source of literary art."

People who are great readers and future writers have been odd since childhood. We are relatively rare in the population at large, so we spend a lot of our lifetime wondering, 'Is it me?'

The biggest joy in my road to publication (not quite there) has been meeting a small contingent of people online who 'get me,' who understand something I want to say, who appreciate how I say it.

I find it tremendously motivating; after writing for many years without it, knowing only other writers jockeying for position for the same scarce resources (agents, publishers, readers), I can see that IF I get some of that attention I believe most writers crave, it is going to be a heady, validating experience. 'The Ugly Duckling' comes to mind.

I homeschooled, and the kids and I read Orwell's essays with a great deal of pleasure, even though the politics he was talking about were sometimes above our head, so I really enjoyed your post.


PS Thanks for commenting on TPV - that's how I find most of the people whose blogs I read.