Is the novel dead? The link below is to an article that looks at that question.
She might be the world’s most famous romance writer, nay the highest selling living author bar none, but there’s little room for flowers and chocolates in Danielle Steel’s writing regime. In a recent interview she laughed at the idea of young people insisting on a work-life balance, and has claimed she regularly writes for 20 to 22 hours a day, and sometimes 24. The result: 179 books in under 50 years, selling about 800m copies.
Some aspiring novelists might just have cancelled their entire lives to get on the Steel plan, but many more are probably wondering if it’s time to try something less demanding. We asked four creative writing teachers for their perspective:
Liam Murray Bell, University of Stirling
Steel’s claim reminds me of the thriller writer Edgar Wallace, who was known to write a novel over the course of a long weekend. He’d retire to his study on a Friday evening and not emerge until the Monday morning, dictating his words to a secretary and stopping only for half-hourly cups of tea. Poor secretary.
The only thing I recognise from that brutal regime is the need for copious amounts of tea. For me, a productive day is four hours of writing. Four hours of focused, uninterrupted time at the keyboard. This morning, I wrote for two hours and managed just shy of 1,000 words. Even that is a decent day; a steady day. To wrestle those hours of writing time free, I’m postponing teaching preparation, leaving my marking until the evening, relying on childcare. Most of all, I’m doing my damnedest to ignore emails. When does Steel answer her emails, is what I want to know.
There have been times, on writing retreats or under threat of impending deadline, when I’ve been known to stretch to six or seven hours. No more, though, because then the words stop making sense and the delete key takes a hammering. I start explaining my plot to the mantelpiece and rehearsing lines of dialogue with the cat. Instead, I go and do something else. It’s amazing how often clarity about your writing comes while washing the dishes, trimming the hedge, taking the dog for a walk. The writers I know are full of anecdotes of story ideas scribbled on bus tickets, or pulling over the car to jot down a poem opening by the side of the road.
It’s often when I’m out for a lunchtime run that I find myself reflecting on what I wrote that morning or find the thread for a scene to write the next day. Haruki Murakami talks about the similar feats of concentration and endurance required for long-distance running and for writing a novel; each endeavour requiring the person to turn up day after day for months or even years. At the University of Stirling, we’ve actually formed a research group to look at the links between creative writing and physical activity because so many writers are also keen runners or cyclists or swimmers.
The appeal of Steel’s process, then, seems to be that every day is race day. But you can’t sustain that. Little and often is my mantra, with every day building momentum. If you manage 200 words today then those are 200 words you didn’t have yesterday. That might take you 15 minutes or it might take six hours; either way, it’s progress. The aim isn’t to get as many words on the page as quickly as possible; the aim is to get the right words on the page, however long it takes.
Sarah Corbett, University of Lancaster
I’m sorry to say there isn’t a formula for how to write a novel (so don’t buy those “how to” books) – only hard graft, staying power, blinding self belief (rescued every morning from the teeth of doubt), and the willingness to meet the devil at the crossroads and outwit him. And to write, rewrite, write, rewrite, write, rewrite …
Perhaps this isn’t very helpful to the beginner; and I have to admit that I’m just finishing my own first novel – after five years. But having taught creative writing for almost 20 years across all genres, here are some things I can say from experience:
1) Read other novels. There’s no getting round this: you have to do a lot of reading – passionate, engaged and risky – but also the kind where you start to notice, and then investigate how the writer does things. Read lots of different types of books too: be curious, endlessly;
2) Practice, practice, practice. Write regularly even if you can only spare an hour in the evening or an afternoon at the weekend. Most writers have other jobs, families, pets, households, and you’d be surprised how much writing gets done in the gaps between other things;
3) Work at your technique at every level of detail from sentencing and phrasing to word choice, creating believable characters, immersive settings, dynamic scenes and authentic dialogue;
4) Write what saddens/moves/frightens/turns you on; write with the whole of your self and the whole of your senses;
5) Join a course, start a group;
6) Write because you enjoy it, and you enjoy a challenge;
7) Be prepared to tear it up and start again;
8) Remember that writing is work, the best kind, that transports and enchants you;
9) Keep going…;
10) Write your own rules.
So how did I write my novel? Slowly – I published two poetry collections in the same period, did a lot of teaching and saw my son through his GCSEs and A-levels – and with a lot of gutting and rewriting; begging more experienced friends to read it and give me their toughest, most honest advice, and then acting on it, even when it meant radical cuts and changes.
Mine is a literary novel – about family, home and shame – but with a psychological twist. The character and her story came to me all in one go on the train home from Manchester after an unsettling encounter in Waterstones, and since then it’s been a process of excavation, as if the novel already existed somewhere in the world, and I just had to keep uncovering it, slowly, layer by layer. I’m still adding scenes, taking others away, fine tuning every line. I’m still working out the best way to tell the story, but I know I’m nearly ready to let it go because the next one has already arrived.
Edward Hogan, Open University
For his 2016 book Rest, the writer and Silicon Valley consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang collected the routines of creative people throughout history. From the habits of writers such as Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and Alice Munro, he concluded that four hours a day is optimum, and you need to wake up early. Trollope rose at 5am each morning (a servant brought him coffee at half past), and wrote until 8.30am, before going to his job at the post office. On that schedule, he published over 40 novels.
As a writer with a family and a full-time job, I currently follow the 5am method, though I make my own coffee. In theory, this “little and often” approach seems straightforward: if you write 500 words a day, you’ll have a first draft in months. But it isn’t that simple. My first novel took eight years, but my third was pretty much done in 40 days. Writing requires two states of mind: you need the researcher’s brain, the clear-thinking editor’s, but you must be open to the dark mess of creation, too. My routine changes, because I haven’t figured out how to do it yet. When I do, I’ll probably quit.
I’m interested in Steel’s way of working. That sort of immersion, favoured by Kasuo Ishiguro, and Jesse Ball – who claims to write his novels in as little as six days – allows them to retain the vitality of the initial idea.
Paul Sheldon, the author and narrator of Stephen King’s Misery, describes “falling through a hole in the page” when writing. Maybe that’s the sort of compulsion that Steel experiences, and it’s refreshing to hear her address the physicality of the process. Writers are reluctant to talk about the (rare) sensation of extreme focus that results when they become possessed by their work. Rambling about raised heart-rates, losing track of time, and being “in the zone”, can make writing sound like a cross between yoga and golf.
The writer’s routine is where practical concerns meet the more ephemeral subject of inspiration. You have to decide what kind of writer you want to be. Jenny Colgan produces two books a year, and this involves hitting deadlines so that her novels appear around Mother’s Day and the Christmas season. Writing is work, the daily pursuit of a word count. For Hilary Mantel, that sort of regularity is alien. She talks about “flow days” when she has no idea what she’s written until she reads it back. But both writers are at their desks, daily.
The act of writing can be exhilarating, but it’s mostly quite difficult. Then again, it’s not like going down the pit. So if you want to write a novel, and find Steel’s method unappealing, let me refer you to the celebrated and prolific children’s author Jacqueline Wilson, who writes for about half-an-hour a day. In bed.
David Bishop, Edinburgh Napier University
Steel’s regime sounds extreme, but if that works for her – so be it. Every writer has their own unique sweet spot, a time and place where they can produce words that will be ready for reading one day. The trick is finding your personal approach, and also recognising it might not suit every project.
Some people say you must write every day to be a writer. Perhaps, but writing is not simply the act of typing words on paper or screen. There is so much more that goes into creating narratives from your imagination. Reading widely is often the sign of a voracious writer, though there is always the danger of a project being infected by the style or substance of whatever you happen to be reading at the time.
It’s also a myth that you need to write a certain number of words in a session. Some writers do benefit from a daily or weekly target, but others prefer to devote a fixed amount of time to writing, and trust that the words will come. Feeling guilty for not matching another writer’s productivity is certainly not good for your mental health. Besides, quantity is no measure of quality. I once had 600,000 words published in one calendar year, but they certainly weren’t my best work.
The act of not writing is just as important as writing. Never underestimate the importance of staring out of a window or going for a walk. All too often the knottiest story problems can only be untangled by getting away from the desk. If all else fails, try going to sleep and letting your subconscious do the heavy lifting. It’s amazing how often the resting mind can resolve a problem your active thoughts couldn’t fix.
For most writers, finding the best way to write a novel is trial and error: experimenting with different systems until they discover one that chimes. Some writers craft detailed plot outlines as a narrative safety net; others prefer a journey of discovery that could mean wholesale rewrites later. Some work in total silence; others needs background sounds such as music. An idea to spark your imagination is necessary, along with a trajectory to follow – but what happens next is up to you.
Steel has a sign in her office that reads: “There are no miracles. There is only discipline.” To be a writer does not require 22 hours at a desk each day, but Steel is right that there are no miracles, either. If you want to be a writer, you have to write – however you do it. That much is inescapable.
Sarah Corbett, Lecturer in Creative Writing, Lancaster University; David Bishop, Programme Leader in Creative Writing, Edinburgh Napier University; Edward Hogan, Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing, The Open University, and Liam Murray Bell, Lecturer in Creative Writing, University of Stirling
A dense work of early English prose, strewn throughout with serious and teasing marginalia from its author, might not be the most likely candidate for stage adaptation – but this project has just been undertaken by a team of artists and academics in Sheffield. William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat, written in 1553, will be performed in September as part of the university’s 2018 Festival of the Mind.
As a literary form, the novel is usually thought to have developed in the 18th century with the mighty classics Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. But researchers believe we should be looking back to the relatively neglected prose fictions of the Tudor era to find the earliest English examples. Beware the Cat, an ecclesiastical satire about talking cats, is a prime candidate and is now thought to be the earliest example of the novel form in the English language.
Baldwin is barely known outside the circles of Renaissance literature, but he was highly celebrated and widely read in Tudor England. In the mid-16th century, he was earning an inky-fingered living as a printer’s assistant in and around the central London bookmaking and bookselling area of St Paul’s Cathedral. As well as writing fiction, he produced A Mirror for Magistrates, the co-written collection of gruesome historical poetry that was highly influential on Shakespeare’s history plays. He also compiled a bestselling handbook of philosophy, and translated the controversial Song of Songs, the sexy book of the Bible.
Beware the Cat tells the tale of a talkative priest, Gregory Streamer, who determines to understand the language of cats after he is kept awake by a feline rabble on the rooftops. Turning for guidance to Albertus Magnus, a medieval alchemist and natural scientist roundly mocked in the Renaissance for his quackery, Streamer finds the spell he needs. Then, using various stomach-churning ingredients, including hedgehog’s fat and cat excrement, he cooks up the right potion.
And it turns out that cats don’t merely talk – they have a social hierarchy, a judicial system and carefully regulated laws governing sexual relations. With his witty beast fable, Baldwin is analysing an ancient question, and one in which the philosophical field of posthumanism still shows a keen interest: do birds and beasts have reason?
But rights and wrongs of a different order coloured Baldwin’s book release. He self-censored for several years before making the work public. Beware the Cat was written in 1553, months before the untimely death of the young Protestant king, Edward VI. Next on the throne (if you disregard the turbulent nine-day reign of Lady Jane Grey) was the first Tudor queen, Mary I. Her Catholicism was fervent and these were terrifying days. By the mid-1550s, Mary was burning Protestant martyrs. One of her less alarming, but still consequential, decisions was to reverse the freedoms accorded the press under her brother Edward.
At the height of his power during the 1540s, the Lord Protector during the young Edward’s reign, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, had relied on particular printers to spread the regime’s reformist message. Men such as John Day (printer of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) and Edward Whitchurch – Baldwin’s employer – printed and circulated anti-Catholic polemic on behalf of the state. Not content to persecute these men by denying them the pardon she accorded other Protestant printers, Mary I banned the discussion of religion in print unless it was specifically authorised by her officials.
As a print trade insider, Baldwin was intimately connected with the close community of this radical Protestant printing milieu – and Beware the Cat is deliberately set at John Day’s printing shop. Having written a book that parodies the Mass, depicts priests in some very undignified positions and points the finger at Catholic idolatry, Baldwin thought better of releasing it in the oppressive religious climate of Mary’s reign. But by 1561, Elizabeth I was on the throne and constraints on the press were less severe – despite the infamous case of John Stubbs, the writer who in 1579 lost his hand for criticising her marriage plans.
Baldwin, now in his 30s, had become a church deacon. He was still active as a writer and public figure, working on his second edition of A Mirror for Magistrates and preaching at Paul’s Cross in London, a venue that could attract a 6,000-strong congregation.
Once it was released, Beware the Cat went through several editions. It was not recognised for the comic gem that it is until scholars such as Evelyn Feasey started studying Baldwin in the early 20th century and the novel was later championed by American scholars William A. Ringler and Michael Flachmann.
Now, it has been adapted for performance for the first time and is being presented as part of the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind. This stage version of Beware the Cat has been created by the authors with Terry O’Connor (member of renowned performance ensemble Forced Entertainment) and the artist Penny McCarthy.
Baldwin’s techniques of embedded storytelling, argument and satirical marginalia are all features that have been incorporated into this interpretation of the text. The production also includes an array of original drawings (which the cast of four display by using an onstage camera connected to a projector), but none of the cast pretends to be a cat. Instead, it is left to the audience to imagine the world Baldwin’s novel describes, in which cats can talk and – even if just for one night – humans can understand them.
The latest TV adaptation of Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair has polarised audiences expecting a traditional period drama. The first two episodes of Vanity Fair, co-produced by ITV and Amazon, received a mixed response on Twitter where viewers commented using the hashtag #VanityFair.
Comments seemed to broadly fall into two camps: those who admired the adaptation for its “fresh, modern take” on a period drama, and those who didn’t like what they saw as the needless modernisation of a period drama.
Interestingly, some of the features most identified as modernisations were actually from the original 1848 text: elements such as Becky Sharp throwing from her coach a dictionary she’d been given by her hated headmistress as she rode away from the school. Others took offence at Becky Sharp’s description of herself as a “secretary” – women were not secretaries at that time, one tweet protested. Meanwhile the frequent breaking of the fourth wall (Olivia Cooke, playing Becky Sharp, looks knowingly at the camera for dramatic effect) also caused a fair bit of angst.
These were not features that viewers associated with the genre of “period drama” and unfavourable comparisons were made with the popular BBC period drama Poldark (based on Winston Graham’s novels from the mid-20th century). That some viewers should so easily confuse historical accuracy with genre conventions is a striking example of the power of those genre conventions.
It is ironic, too, given that Thackeray subverted and satirised the conventions and tropes of his own time. This was true across his writing. In Pendennis, for example, a novel about the titular young gentleman making his way in London, Thackeray writes in his preface:
Perhaps the lovers of “excitement” may care to know, that this book began with a very precise plan, which was entirely put aside. Ladies and gentlemen, you were to have been treated, and the writer’s and the publisher’s pocket benefited, by the recital of the most active horrors.
In Vanity Fair, such subversions are frequent. In the first episode of the new adaptation, Becky Sharp – attempting to charm the wealthy and credulous Jos Sedley into proposing marriage – attends the Vauxhall pleasure gardens. This takes place in chapter six of the book, which Thackeray introduces satirically:
We might have treated this subject in the genteel, or in the romantic, or in the facetious manner … Or if, on the contrary, we had taken a fancy for the terrible … we should easily have constructed a tale of thrilling interest, through the fiery chapters of which the reader should hurry, panting. But my readers must hope for no such romance, only a homely story, and must be content with a chapter about Vauxhall, which is so short that it scarce deserves to be called a chapter at all.
Within the full version of that quoted passage, Thackeray offers suggestions of how the story might have been written in these different “manners”. He plays with these kinds of conventions to set up readers’ expectations, only to subvert and parody them. One of the century’s other great novelists, Anthony Trollope, wrote that Vanity Fair raised the fundamental question of “what a novel should be.” Trollope takes issue with some of the same things as modern viewers:
There are absurdities in it which would not be admitted to anyone who had not a peculiar gift of making even his absurdities delightful. No schoolgirl who ever lived would have thrown back her gift-book, as Rebecca did the ‘dixonary’, out of the carriage window as she was taken away from school. But who does not love that scene with which the novel commences? How could such a girl as Amelia Osborne have got herself into such society as that in which we see her at Vauxhall? But we forgive it all because of the telling.
Same story, different flavours
Like Thackeray, Lewis Carroll, the Victorian author of Alice in Wonderland, was also highly attuned to the way stories become categorised via genre, satirising this in an 1855 short story entitled Photography Extraordinary. Carroll’s story, presented like a newspaper article, reports an invention which literally transcribes narrative fiction directly from the human brain. Not only can Carroll’s machine “develop” a story onto paper directly from the brain, but the story can then be redeveloped into different genres. Story writing, Carroll seems to suggest, was a question of mechanically adjusting language to fit the conventions of distinct genres and meet readers’ expectations.
As 21st-century readers and viewers, we still consume media in this way. Our genres have changed – we are not likely to talk about “silver fork” novels, for instance – but our use of genres has not. If anything, we have only become more reliant on them as we create more and more sophisticated algorithms for organising our digital media.
We also risk letting our expectations shape our understanding of the past. One of the big divergences between Thackeray’s book and the ongoing adaptation is that the series’ producers have elected to depict the Battle of Waterloo. When his military characters depart for the battlefield, Thackeray lets them drift out of view, writing: “We do not claim to rank among the military novelists. Our place is with the non-combatants.”
Thackeray, in other words, is willing to disappoint and frustrate readers’ expectations – he does not feel the need to conform to expectations. It is – as the book’s subtitle warns us – a “novel without a hero” (and in its serial form, not even a novel, simply “pen and pencil sketches of English society). But, of course, to adapt for television is to adjust the story to meet a different set of expectations. In that sense, adapting Vanity Fair is a bit like churning it through Carroll’s fiction machine one more time.
The season of the good old summer “fayre” is here and many UK readers will be heading off to eat tea and scones and take part in the tombola at their local village fete. There, it’s a good bet, they will hear of local people’s concerns that new housing developments foisted on them by the government will ruin the character of their idyllic rural community.
But the myth of tranquil village life was well and truly exploded in the Victorian age when many writers concluded that life in England’s small rural communities was not a simple idyll of tea, vicars and charitable works.
For many people, especially those who may not have visited the UK, the most accessible pictures of village life are those painted in novels: who can forget the timeless portrait of life in a sleepy Dorset community in PG Wodehouse’s Blandings series, or EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books, set in a fictional Sussex village? But fiction has also been highlighting the negatives of village living for more than a century.
The “greetings card” scenario of village life was established early. In her memoir Our Village (published in five volumes between 1824 and 1832), Mary Mitford – who lived at Three Mile Cross near Reading in Berkshire – gives us a classic rendition of peaceful village life. There are quaint depictions of servants, chaste suitors, elderly brides and grooms, blacksmiths and gypsy fortune tellers.
Our Village contains all the myths of village life. Everyone is familiar: a village is a little world “where we know everyone, are known to everyone, interested in everyone, and authorised to hope that everyone feels an interest in us”. There are no newcomers, nobody is systematically excluded and nobody is living a secret or misunderstood life. Poverty is relegated to the margins – there’s only the occasional mention of the workhouse and, Mitford assures her readers, the village is a collection of cottages, not “fine mansions finely peopled”.
But even in the 1820s, such a village felt under threat from the railways, improved roads and the increasing size of the towns of the industrialised North. And no sooner did Mitford complete Our Village than other authors began to parody or correct her vision.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1853) is a gentle text still very positive about life in a confined locality. Although Cranford is a town outside “Drumble” – her stand-in for Manchester – it resembles Mitford’s village in that everyone knows each other and the narrative is focused on a limited set of characters. In the case of this novel – and so many others in the tradition – the main characters are women, and it is women’s unpaid labour that makes the community run smoothly. Yet Gaskell gently mocks her characters, Matty Jenkyns, Miss Pole, and Mrs Jamieson, for their conventionality, triviality and timidity.
The women follow strict social rules – an entire chapter revolves around whether these august personages should stoop to visit a former ladies’ maid who has set up a milliner’s shop and hence was “in trade”. In another chapter, the women grow fearful of outsiders when they hear of a cluster of burglaries in the neighbourhood, which proves to be founded on rumour.
Thomas Hardy’s villages such as Weatherbury in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) or Marlott in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) are idyllic in some ways, but not in others. Shepherds are close enough to nature to saunter out of their huts at night to tell the time by stars, and the slow pace of life allows for ample opportunity for community and flirtation. Yet sexual transgressions are treated to the full judgement of an unforgiving community, and questions of money and class interrupt any readers’ expectations of rural bliss.
American moral tales
These books sold well in the US, even though villages there were subject to dramatic population shifts westward and industrial development. Writers in the US sought to reinforce or contest Mitford’s vision.
After reading Mitford and migrating to a new village in Michigan, Caroline Kirkland wrote A New Home, Who’ll Follow? (1839), which mercilessly satirised her vulgar frontier neighbours and the wealthier eastern newcomers. When her neighbours read the novel, they ostracised her – and she never wrote anything as trenchant again.
Although the American regionalism that flourished in the latter quarter of the 19th century is known for romantic visions of village life, upon closer examination, key writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E Wilkins Freeman reveal many of village life’s negatives.
If Gaskell acknowledges in Cranford that her ladies’ kindness to the poor is “somewhat dictatorial”, Freeman’s A Mistaken Charity (1883) takes this point to its logical conclusion. Two elderly sisters living happily in their dilapidated cottage are visited by Mrs Simonds, a woman who is “a smart, energetic person, bent on doing good”. Mrs Simonds arranges to take Charlotte and Harriet to the poorhouse, where they are forced to wear lace caps and sit indoors. Charlotte and Harriet run away.
Revolt from the village
By the 1910s, there was a literary “revolt from the village”, and writers including Sherwood Anderson focused on the sexual repression of small town life. Although Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, published in 1919, is set in a town, it is a town of 1,800 people, far smaller than many British villages today. Meanwhile, Stella Gibbons parodied rural melodramas in Cold Comfort Farm (1932), in which, instead of graciously fitting in like the urban narrators of Jewett’s fiction, Flora Poste, a visitor from London, forces the members of a dysfunctional family to follow their individual desires rather than their family destiny.
According to these writers, villages can be conformist, unimaginative, repressive, nepotistic. These fictions imply that villages will be harder to maintain now that women have other outlets for their energies. The negatives come from the same source as the positives in village life, and people who wish to defend villages, and the tradition of rural living, should remember this literary ambivalence and the fact that it has gone on for more than 100 years.
Following the announcement that Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina is the first graphic novel ever to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Joanne Harris (the author of Chocolat) tweeted #TenThingsAboutGraphicNovels and stated simply: “graphic novels are novels”.
Once upon a time, graphic novels may have been viewed as disposable – and not especially literary – but such a value judgement has long since been challenged.
The graphic autobiography has become especially visible in recent years, with a noteworthy example being Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2000) – which details her experiences as a young woman during and after the Iranian revolution in 1979. The novel was adapted into a film in 2007.
The comic book has a long and rich history, as Scott McCloud’s 1993 book Understanding Comics explains. He looks at a pre-Columbian text from the Codex Nuttall about 8-Deer “Tiger’s Claw”, discovered by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés around 1519. McCloud argues we can think about such early texts as comics.
Terminology is important here, too. The word “comics” usually refers to serialised publications – whereas “graphic novels” are issued as books. That said, they share many artistic and literary characteristics. Author Alan Moore has rejected the term “graphic novel” (along with the film versions of his work), suggesting it is nothing more than a marketing term. So, in no particular order – and with that caveat in mind – here are my top five literary reads in graphic novel and comic book genres.
Author Bryan Talbot is well-known to comic and graphic novel fans, having penned The Adventures of Luther Arkwright in the 1970s and 1980s. Grandville is the first volume in a series of five, which tells the investigative story of a badger detective, Detective Inspector LeBrock, accompanied by his trusty sidekick, Roderick the Rat.
In this anthropomorphic universe, humans feature in servile roles as an underclass, with some critical comparisons to post-9/11 racial stereotypes. The Grandville of the title is an alternative history Paris, lovingly characterised with steampunk details and Belle Époque style. The city of Grandville takes its name from the pseudonym of a French artist, Gérard Grandville, famed for his satire of French politics and society.
The book wears its intellectualism lightly – but, for those with a keen eye, look out for cultural references to Édouard Manet, Augustus Egg, Sarah Bernhardt, and intertexts such as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, as well as children’s classics including Wind in the Willows, Tintin and Rupert the Bear.
From Hell (1999)
Alan Moore needs little introduction to cult readers or the academic community. He has amassed a wealth of literary criticism about his work, including plenty of material about the title I have chosen, From Hell. This was originally issued in serial form and later published as a single-volume collected work – the version with which most readers will be familiar.
From Hell is not for the squeamish: it retells in gruesome detail the Whitechapel murders of the late 19th century, speculating Jack the Ripper was Sir William Gull, Queen Victoria’s royal physician. Gull’s murder spree, seeking to suppress an illegitimate heir to the throne and filtered through a lens of masonic imagery and misogyny, takes us through a psychogeographic tour of London.
Eddie Campbell’s exquisite illustrations contrast the privileged suburbs in which Gull lives with the poverty-stricken degradation of Whitechapel’s citizens.
Partly fictional and partly factual, the book is a wonderful parody of the dark tourist interest in the murders, with the careful reader becoming increasingly self-conscious of their own uncomfortable complicity in the narrative.
Like From Hell, Art Spiegelman’s Maus was originally published in serial form. Spiegelman began writing in 1978, telling the story of his father, Vladek Spiegelman, a Holocaust survivor.
In many ways, the text defeats simplistic categories and genres: it is a fiction, an autobiography and a history.
It is also another anthropomorphic story in which Nazis are cats and the Jewish community are characterised as mice. The reader is placed in the unenviable but important position of bearing after-witness to the trauma of the Nazi regime, a point enhanced by the use of literary devices such as the framing narrative.
Spiegelman uses the more recent moment of the late 1970s and interviews with his elderly, widowed father as a departure point to revisit the 1930s through to the end of the Holocaust in 1945.
Spiegelman’s book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (2015)
Sydney Padua’s witty black-and-white graphic novel describes itself as “an imaginary comic about an imaginary computer”. It foregrounds Ada Lovelace’s contribution to Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, the herald of our modern computers.
Like other examples here, the narrative is situated in an alternative universe, which offers a view of what would happen if the Difference Engine had been built. Along with an adventure plot, the graphic novel features references to a wealth of 19th–century characters such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Duke of Wellington. It has elaborate pseudo-factual footnotes and endnotes of which writers such as Flann O’Brien or Mark Z. Danielewski would be proud.
Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (2012)
It would be very remiss of me, as a longstanding aficionado of James Joyce, to omit reference to this Costa award-winning graphic memoir by Mary M. Talbot (with illustrations by Bryan Talbot, the writer’s husband), which follows Lucia Joyce’s troubled relationship with her father, and draws parallels with the author’s own relationship with her father, the eminent Joyce scholar James S. Atherton.
Lucia’s tragic love for Samuel Beckett – and her thwarted ambition to become a dancer – are beautifully juxtaposed with Talbot’s recollections of her upbringing, alongside the difficulties experienced by both talented women growing up with writerly fathers. Strategic use of colour, sepia tones and the frequent use of the Courier typeface (as well as Talbot’s own personal lettering font which features throughout his work), make this book an aesthetically delightful read.
So many masterpieces, so little time
Of course, there are many artists and writers I have omitted from this list – not least figures such as Neil Gaiman, whose work The Sandman (1989-) has been critically acclaimed, pushing as it does the Gothic tropes and metaphysical reflections of the genre.
For those of a humorous inclination, Kate Beaton’s webcomic Hark, A Vagrant (published as a book in 2011) is an affectionately irreverent look at literature and history, including the hilarious Dude Watchin’ With the Brontës.
There are also the recent works lauded in the Will Eisner Comic Awards, held earlier this month in San Diego as part of Comic-Con. Further reading can be found on that list.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at what a ‘hard-boiled’ novel actually is.
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Will Self has declared the novel is “absolutely doomed” – ironically, in an interview to promote Phone, his latest outing in the very medium he is condemning to death. Even casual readers will note that this isn’t the first time that the reigning Eeyore of British literature has announced the imminent passing of our most popular literary form.
Since 2000, Self has used the occasion of the release of his own books to repeatedly argue that the novel is destined to “become a marginal cultural form, along with easel painting and the classical symphony”. During his promotional duties for Umbrella, Self asked whether we are evolving beyond the need to tell stories, while in 2014 he announced the declining cultural centrality of the novel due to the digitisation of print culture in an article to promote Shark.
Self’s obsession with killing off the novel might be more about ego than revenge, but his repeated attempts to plot its downfall form part of a much wider lament. For centuries, writers have been proclaiming the imminent passing of the novel form. More than 60 years ago, JB Priestley called it “a decaying literary form” which “no longer absorbs some of the mightiest energies of our time”. More recently, Zadie Smith complained of novel-nausea, while David Peace has asked how it is still possible to “believe in the novel form” because “storytelling is already quite ruined by the individualism of Western society”.
Reading beyond the exhausted sentiments and sensationalist headlines provided by self-harming novelists, what these sentiments collectively highlight is not the death of the novel at all, but the decline of “literary fiction”. Self’s explicit cultural fear is that a serious kind of novel – novels such as his own – that confront us with “difficult reading” are destined for relegation to the realms of classical music and fine art. What Self’s repeated attempts on the life of the novel actually articulate is a deep-seated fear of the devaluation of literary fiction and its dethroning from a position of economic, popular and critical dominance as a result of the new contexts provided by a social media age.
Prophesying the imminent demise of the novel at the hands of digital technology has become popular in contemporary critical discourse, especially as the form entered the new millennium. Self is one of many authors who have publicly debated the challenges of writing novels in a digital era.
Andrew O’Hagan recently argued that the intense personal perspective offered by platforms such as Twitter and Facebook means that the novel has nowhere left to go in offering an inside account of the lives of others. The crux of both O’Hagan and Self’s sandwich-board arguments ultimately lie in a belief that future readers will be unwilling to disable connectivity and engage only with a physical form of text in relative isolation from the hyper-networked society around them.
But the “death” of literary fiction does not have to come at the expense of the rise of the popular – or of the digital. Smartphones and streaming can sit alongside literary awards and “difficult” novels and offer us vital insights into, and ways of representing, contemporary experience. The novel is perhaps the most hospitable of all forms and opens itself willingly to new voices, languages and technologies. And not all writers are hostile to the impact of the digital on literary form – in their use of social media to tell stories in new ways, both David Mitchell and Jennifer Egan have proved that the novel has an innate ability to ingest and adapt to a rapidly changing world.
Importantly, the novel also presents us with perspectives and experiences different from our own. In its contemporary concern with the trope of an “other” who transgresses the boundary of the domestic home, the 21st-century novel offers a vital consideration of the implications of a post-Brexit Britain. The novel disrupts and challenges, and in turn elicits responses from readers to, the contemporary concerns it presents.
Understanding the world
The etymology of the word “novel” lies in the “new” – and all evidence suggests that the form will continue to evolve – and ingest, rather than ignore, the new languages of the contemporary. The novel – whether in the form of literary or “popular” fiction – helps us to understand the world in which we now live and informs our attempts to navigate both the past and the future. As well as its long-argued innate value, this capacity of the novel to help us negotiate the changes of the present is also key to its survival – and evolution – in the coming century.
As a case for its vitality, Self’s pervasive campaign against the novel couldn’t be more helpful. In repeatedly citing the death of the novel, Self and his band of merry naysaying novelists whip up resolve and resurrection of the form in a context of challenge and change. In doing so, their comments remind us to value this familiar, yet continually innovative form that continues to adapt, ingest and shape-shift, remaining relevant to each generation of readers – and writers.
Literary snobbery and Modernist nostalgia aside, Self’s headline-grabbing soundbites encourage new understandings of wider shifts in novel writing and reading in the 21st century. With writers continually sticking more nails in its half-open coffin, the novel seems destined to remain stuck in critical debates that remain wilfully oblivious to its sustained success in the new millennium.
Emerging from a long winter of discontent, perhaps it is the strange fate of the novel to exist in a permanent state of imminent demise and doom, with an innate awareness of itself as the one genre that literature simply cannot do without.
When I was asked a few years ago if I would like to edit one of Jane Austen’s novels, I quickly answered that I would be happy to, and especially if I could edit her greatest novel.
“I’m sorry, Rob,” was the reply. “Someone is already editing Pride and Prejudice.”
“That’s ok,” I said, much relieved. “Pride and Prejudice is not Austen’s greatest novel. Jane Austen’s greatest novel is Persuasion.”
It is – among many other things – the most moving love story she ever told. Anne Elliot is the second daughter of the absurdly vain baronet Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall. Frederick Wentworth is an officer in the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars.
Eight years before the novel begins, Wentworth proposes to Anne and she accepts him after a brief and intense courtship, only to be persuaded by her father and her older friend Lady Russell to break off the engagement. Wentworth, angry and badly hurt, goes back to sea, where he conducts a successful series of raiding expeditions on enemy ships, and amasses a fortune in prize money.
When Napoleon abdicates for the first time in April 1814, Wentworth returns to England and soon pays a visit to his sister, who now lives near Anne. Throughout his absence, meanwhile, Anne has found no one who compares to him, and has pined away to the point where now, at 27 years old, her bloom is gone and she has begun the descent into spinsterhood.
Many critics have argued that, as a result of suffering and regret, Anne is already “mature” when the novel opens, while the rich and carefree Wentworth has a good deal of growing up to do before he recognizes – or, rather, re-recognizes – her worth.
On the contrary, for all that divides them when he returns, Anne has as much to learn about love as Wentworth does, and her journey toward their reconciliation contains as much confusion as his. Indeed, part of the enormous appeal of Persuasion is Austen’s ability to convey the ways in which Wentworth and Anne are moving steadily toward one another even as their various missteps, flirtations and assumptions seem to be driving them still further apart.
Their reunion is the finest scene in all of Austen, and in it they do not even speak face to face, for Austen understood that mediated and misdirected messages frequently carry a far greater charge than explicit declarations.
Anne and Wentworth are both in a room at the White Hart Inn in Bath. He is sitting at a desk writing a letter. She is nearby speaking to a mutual friend, Captain Harville, about men, women and constancy.
Harville believes that men feel more deeply than women. Anne takes the opposite view, and while she does not mention Wentworth or her own circumstances, everything she says is clearly with him in mind.
She has spoken to no one about her grief over Wentworth, and it is not long before eight years of pent-up anguish flood out of her. “We certainly do not forget you, so soon as you forget us,” she tells Harville. “It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us.”
Wentworth, still writing his letter, overhears Anne’s comments and knows immediately that she is speaking about their relationship, and about all that has been lost.
Seizing another sheet of paper, he begins a second letter in which he records his feelings toward her as she utters hers toward him, and which he leaves behind on the desk for her to read.
Ralph Waldo Emerson objected to Austen’s novels because he found them “imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world.”
But Austen knew that love is the very largest concern of life, then as now, and in Persuasion she makes Anne’s whole world hang on a single letter. It is a moment that demonstrates both the superb compression and the enduring appeal of her art.
If Wentworth loves Anne, she has a future that stretches as far as the seas. If he does not, she has only a past that will increasingly consume her. She reads the letter. He does love her. Her joy is inexpressible. So is ours.
What’s more, Austen has contrived to tell both Anne and the reader at the same time, and her passionate affirmation of personal preference and individual desire far transcends the “wretched conventions of English society.”
“You pierce my soul,” Wentworth’s letter reads. “I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own, than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago.” Anne is overwhelmed.
During the novel she has been transformed, from faded to blooming, from nobody to somebody, from “only Anne” within her family to Wentworth’s “only Anne.”
Persuasion is Austen’s last published work. She began it when she was nearly 40 years old, and when she finished it she was within a year of her death. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is one of her shortest – and it is certainly her saddest – novel.
But it is also her subtlest and most impassioned. “After a long immersion in [Austen’s] work,” British novelist Martin Amis writes, “I find that her thought rhythms entirely invade my own.”
For me, nowhere are Austen’s “thought rhythms” more haunting than in Anne’s conversation with Harville, and Wentworth’s response to her in his letter. More broadly, in its blend of the public and the personal, Persuasion explores both the torment of silence and the value of hope.
I am someone who reads, teaches, and writes about contemporary American fiction for a living. Knowing this, you might expect that fresh, experimental novels would constantly be arriving on my desk, that I would be inundated with literary innovation.
But it is in fact rare to come across a book that does something genuinely new and startling with the form of the novel, a form with a long and distinguished history. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which last night won the 2017 Booker Prize, is that rare kind of book. I had read all of Saunders’s short fiction collections, as well as a great many interviews and essays, before opening his first novel. Yet despite what should have been ideal preparation, I was unprepared for what I found there.
As any student of American history knows, the ostensible subject of Lincoln in the Bardo is the most revered of all US presidents. Abraham Lincoln was an autodidact who rose to fame from an inauspicious backwoods upbringing. He became president at what remains the most fraught moment in American history. He led the north to victory in the Civil War, and abolished slavery by signing the Emancipation Proclamation. He thought like a legal scholar but projected the empathy of a statesman. His speeches are among the greatest ever made by a politician. And he was assassinated as the war drew to a close, ensuring his legacy could not be tarnished by any future descent from the height of his powers.
Lincoln is also one of the most written about men in history, a subject of endless fascination. He has been explored by countless scholars, imagined by myriad writers, embodied by numerous actors on stage and screen. How then to write about Lincoln in a new way, to imagine not only the man himself but all he has come to represent in and for American culture?
Lincoln in the Bardo answers this question in two surprising ways. First, Saunders does not focus his primary attention on Lincoln, but on the spirits who inhabit the cemetery in which his 11-year-old son Willie has been buried. Reading the novel’s opening line – “On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen” – we initially assume that we are hearing the voice of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps coming to us from the mysterious space of the bardo, the realm in Buddhist mythology that lies between death and rebirth.
It soon becomes clear, however, that the facts do not fit with this reading, and nor does the tone. On the third page, we discover that the speaker is one “hans vollman”, in conversation with someone called “roger bevins iii”. These are not famous men, nor are they taken up with famous acts. They are discussing the fatal accident experienced by vollmann when he was hit by a beam while in the first flush of sexual arousal with his virgin bride. Echoing the setting and tone of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Irish-language classic Cré na Cille, Lincoln in the Bardo begins like a bawdy black comedy.
In building a fictional world from this unexpected opening, the second key decision Saunders makes is to refuse to do what writers of historical fiction have always done, which is to conceal the sources of their research and imagine their subject fresh onto the page. Instead, Saunders quotes a wide range of scholarly passages verbatim, attributing the quotations to their author and text.
These passages are drawn from what historians call primary sources (letters and memoirs from Lincoln’s contemporaries) and secondary sources (scholarly accounts of Lincoln in the 150+ years since his death). Most of these sources are real, some are invented, and it’s not always clear which is which. The result is a novel that powerfully transmits the cumulative and collective effort to write history, to do justice to the past and what it means.
A democracy of contradictions
The mix of these two registers – the comic and the scholarly – shouldn’t work, but it does. Once the reader has settled into the rhythm of alternating chapters dealing with the chaotic world of the spirits and the more sober (but sometimes equally peculiar) scholarship on Lincoln, Saunders’s project gains clarity, purpose and power. Populated with a multitude of voices, the novel addresses the great faultlines of American democracy – race, gender, wealth, sexuality – while keeping its eye firmly on the common ground its characters share in their inevitable confrontation with life and death.
In a creative writing masterclass with Saunders that I attended earlier this year at the University of Liverpool, the author outlined his vision of literary stories as “active systems of contradiction”. In mixing together what we usually think of as opposites – tragedy and comedy, high rhetoric and bawdy farce, private grief and political action, the individual and the collective – stories can challenge our sense that some things must be kept apart. We come to see that these apparent opposites are in fact different faces of a fundamental unity. This is the unity that underpins our connection to one another in a shared world.
In writing Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders couldn’t have known how directly his themes would speak to an America and a world in which contradictions are becoming increasingly stark and oppositions are being set in stone. The Booker Prize jury has done us a favour by drawing attention to a book that tries to forge a unity among opposites in the most surprising ways.
Despite its origins in grief and mourning, Saunders’s message is a refreshingly hopeful one. We can only hope the message is heard by those whose ears it needs to reach.