The State of the Art, part 5

by | Dec 1, 2006 | Approaches to Writing, Creating Characters, Literature, Writers

So where am I going with this muddled train of thought?  Damned if I know.  Looking over what I’ve written so far, I am reminded of Laurence Sterne, who says that he does not know if his method of composition is the best one but it is certainly the most religious, as he simply writes down the first thing he thinks of, and trusts to God for the rest.

This all started with a consideration of George Orwell’s assessment of the state of English literature in his essay ‘Inside the Whale.’  In it, he distinguishes between literature that examines society and a newer form, represented by Tropic of Cancer, that is mostly an examination of the self.

Fact is, Freud’s ‘discovery’ of the subconscious gave writers a whole new set of tools for seeing and writing about what has always been the sole topic; human beings.  Whether the writer focuses on one character or presents a bigger picture seems to me of little moment, whereas Orwell seems to want to indicate that a writer without a social message is somehow shirking his duty.

‘Inside the whale’ is how Orwell characterizes the state that produces novels like Tropic of Cancer.  To be ‘inside the whale’ is to be back in the womb, insulated from the world, self-obsessed.  For me, the biggest problem with novels that focus on one character is that they can be a little boring.  You need some interaction, which would explain why, even in one-character novels, that one character spends a lot of time thinking about his relations with other people.

Offhand, I can think of only one exception.  A few years ago, a German novel called The Perfume made a splash.  It’s based on an interesting conceit, and it starts out very well.  But there’s really only one character, and he is a sociopath.  With very little inner life, and no interaction with other characters (other than to kill them, although the victims hardly even qualify as characters), the narrative soon settles down to telling the reader that this happened, and then that happened, and then something else happened.

Whereas Tropic of Cancer, though focused on the inner life of one disaffected artist, cannot help but portray that sick puppy’s struggle with society as a whole.  Orwell would probably prefer to see some ‘solution’ offered, but then he himself lost a lot of faith in solutions after his experiences in the Spanish Civil War.  What he discovered there was that people, individuals, acting out of self-interest and from the basest of human motives, can undermine the most noble political cause.  By the time he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four he had learned well the lesson that we get the government we deserve.  Maybe, then, writing about individuals is more ‘useful’ than writing about societies after all.  Maybe what we need to change is not the world, but ourselves.


Oh, by the way; the books have arrived.  They came in yesterday afternoon, just in time for me to run down and pick them up before the freight terminal closed.  It took two trips in the trusty little truck, but now my ton o’ books (minus a copy bought by the freight company’s manager) is piled in stacks around the house.  I managed to get some long-pending orders shipped right out again, and will catch up on the rest over the weekend.  What a relief.