“There are three rules for writing the novel.
Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”
W. Somerset Maugham
Being an essayist may have been fashionable in the eighteenth century, but today it feels like the literary equivalent of playing the lute or weaving on the hand loom – an archaic pastime for nostalgic dilettantes. Most writers dream about being novelists, although it’s not obvious why. The market for serious novels is getting smaller all the time. But the fiction itch, it seems, must be scratched. Even after having had successful careers as journalists, essayists, or script writers, many of our fellow scribblers feel that they absolutely must write a novel, or more particularly “my novel.” I share the common weakness, if that’s what it is. I read a lot of novels, and I would love to write them. Unfortunately that particular talent has passed me by.
Believe me I’ve tried to write fiction, starting when I was a mere teenager. Over the years I have even published about a dozen short stories, but the novel has eluded me. Like so many people I felt I “must have a novel in me,” but didn’t.
Looking back I can see that my writing is strangely lacking in real human beings, although I have met some interesting characters in my lifetime. Is this a kind of pudeur? I think it is, but it cuts me off from fiction and from the odd hybrid called “creative nonfiction.” So some readers find my writing lacking in warmth and humanity, which it is. But when I try to introduce a real character he or she immediately becomes intimate, and even dangerous, as imagination goes into high gear and the character takes over.
A slightly different suggestion appears in one of Arthur Krystal’s excellent essays, “Why I’m not a novelist.” The fiction block, he argues, is the result of a lack of concern for other people – not necessarily a lack of empathy but a lack of deep curiosity about other lives and experiences (or perhaps – my own thought – an actual fear of or distaste for entering into those lives and experiences. If you prefer to avoid deep feelings in your own life, it follows that you probably won’t want them in your imagination either!)
Anyone can invent plots and characters, but it seems that only a certain type of writer can enter into the emotional lives of those characters and make them come alive. I love reading fiction, and right now I’m re-reading the sea stories of Patrick O’Brian, whose main characters seem sometimes more real to me than people I actually know.
My theory is that every writer should have a novel in progress because it is a comforting and satisfying thing to have, like a good wine cellar. But the novel should always remain in progress. Any attempt to finish it is likely to end in disillusionment. Why ruin a perfectly good fantasy?
Every writer needs a perpetual novel, and most of us have one. This is the novel that you began to write some time in the past – on vacation, for example, or during a writers’ conference, or after some big emotional experience – and that you intend to finish one day.
The perpetual novel is a great solace, and even a form of self-therapy. If you haven’t started one you should start it right now. It is a harbinger of hope, like a lottery ticket. There’s no need to write very much. A single chapter will serve the purpose. Some writers are satisfied with a single opening sentence, or even just a neat title and a vague plot line.
Michael Frayn, in his own (completed) novel The Tin Men, offers us a protagonist called Hugh Rowe, who plans to be a novelist. He decides to write his imagined reviews first, in order to motivate himself. They are wonderful reviews but, of course, the novel itself is never written.
Some procrastinating novelists have become part of literary folklore. Harold Brodkey’s eagerly-awaited first novel was delayed for three decades. Katherine Dunn is still writing her second novel; the first was published in 1989. J.D.Salinger become world-famous for very slow writing. There’s no disgrace in a leisurely pace.
I have two perpetual novels lurking in the background of my regular writing life. One is called Suicide Note Update and the other is called Action Replay.
The first chapter of Suicide Note Update is called “The Pond.” Other chapters are predictably labeled The Gun, The Pills, The Rope, The Sea, The Knife, and so on. The first chapter turned out to be very short, and it started like this.
Chapter One: The Pond
Harmon’s first suicide note was, from a literary point of view, a pale shadow of the next three. The suicide itself was not.
“Goodbye, cruel world” thought Bernard, as he rode his bicycle into the pond. He didn’t say it out loud because there was no audience, but he thought it as dramatically as he could.
Grange Pond was nowhere more than two feet deep, although Bernard had yet to learn this. The front wheel of his bicycle swished through the reeds on the bank, slid into the mud, and turned sharp left. Bernard turned sharp right, teetered for a moment, and plunged into the slimy water.
“Goodbye, cruel world,” he repeated to himself, but this time with a note of doubt. One foot was painfully trapped in the bicycle’s frame, and he was lying in a slimy patch of mud a few inches from the bank. This did not look promising.
Back home Bernard’s mother was reading his suicide note, which he had posted on the refrigerator.
“Goodbye, cruel world,” it began.
The plot is obvious. My hero Harmon survives a large number of incompetent and increasingly bizarre suicide attempts, each of which is carefully documented in his ever more elaborate and self-consciously literary suicide notes. He finally discovers that life is really worth living, at which point he is run over by the 47th Street cross-town bus.
I like realism in fiction.
Action Replay begins like this:
“After all these years the heart tattooed on Lorna’s breast looked more like a mango.”
The plot is also obvious. My unnamed hero, on reaching his 65th year and feeling the nasty onrush of time’s wing’d chariot, decides to seek out and, if possible, go to bed with all the women he has ever loved in his life, including his ex-wives. This is a kind of picaresque/comic/tragic Viagra fantasy, which also involves a lot of exotic travel. I don’t know how it ends, and I don’t want to know.
These fragments should be more than enough to demonstrate that I had discovered my limitations. The trouble with fiction is that you have to make everything up – it’s all lies. This is tremendously hard work. In my regular non-fiction writing I only have to pick up a newspaper or a book and ideas come tumbling out. A simple trip to the supermarket or the emergency room can provide enough writing material for a week – all of it true.
In retrospect I think it was the obviousness of the plots that defeated me. Knowing exactly where I was going I had no energy left to go there, although I got a lot of amusement out of the plotting stage.
But I admire the almost magical skill of fiction writers as they spin their worlds out of pure imagination. But I have to face the fact that I am stuck with reality, which at least is never dull.
I take great comfort from both these unfinished projects. A perpetual novel is like a soft couch on to which you can always sink. A non-fiction book, by contrast, is a spiky, demanding thing. It constantly reminds you of research not done and facts not checked. But you can pick up a novel any time and just start writing. It’s always there, waiting to be brought to life with a click of the computer mouse on the folder called NOVEL.
The never-finished novel has become a kind of industry it itself. Just look through the course offerings at any writers’ conference: “Starting the Novel”; “Your Novel – the First Chapter”; “First Steps in The Novel”; “Approaching the Novel” – and so on, and so on. The instructors obviously realize, perhaps unconsciously, that they are offering something valuable here. Beginning the novel offers so much more than the familiar pleasures of fiction – the power to create and control our own characters in our own world. It opens up a whole new emotional career, a long-term project which helps us to press on through all those irritating and boring short-term projects, including life itself.
I love and need my perpetual novels. I don’t think I will ever give up not finishing them.