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Literariness: How Novels Work

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By Kirsty OUP-UK

The summer holidays are upon us, and what better time to catch up on a little reading than this. A few months ago the OUP blog brought you a post written by John Mullan, host of The Guardian newspaper’s book club, and author of How Novels Work. Today I have excerpted a small part of the book itself, which explains that literary references aren’t just the domain of the most academic texts: even contemporary writers such as Donna Tartt hark back to their literary ancestry. So while you’re lounging in the sun this year, why don’t you see how many references you can find in your holiday reading?

mullan_how_novels_work.jpgLiterariness: it is a clumsy word, but a useful label for the ways in which novels display their attachment to other works of literature. Books remember other books. Listen to a reader describe a striking new novel and you are likely to hear comparison with other novels. Writers are themselves readers and often invite their own readers to hear, if they can, echoes from other books in their novels. In academic discussion, the commonest word for this has, for some time, been ‘intertextuality’, the first of the topics treated below. The relative novelty of the term has sometimes persuaded the unsuspecting that it names a new tendency of fiction. In fact, as I try to show, it is a new name for a variety of traditional techniques. Plagiarism, quotation, allusion, imitation, burlesque, parody: all of these are different versions of intertextuality, and it is worth seeing the distinctiveness of each.

It is also worth seeing that some novels rely a great deal more on their ‘literariness’ than others. With its quotations from Locke, Burton, and Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, to name but three, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is a work of learned wit, made partly from rummaging in libraries. In the wonderful, if dizzying, Florida University Press standard edition of the novel, the notes, which mostly explain allusions and identify sources, fill one of the three volumes, 572 pages in total. You could not annotate a novel by Dickens or Trollope so expansively. In a different way, the literariness of James Joyce’s Ulysses (itself also full of quotations and allusions) is a matter of its very structure. The different parts of the novel are modelled on parts of Homer’s Odyssey, and knowing this should shape our interpretation of what is self-consciously a modern epic. Here one literary work provides the very skeleton for another. We must be careful, of course, what ‘literary’ means. Daniel Defoe’s biblical tags or Nick Hornby’s allusions to pop lyrics also belong amongst the literary material that is seizable by fiction.

We have got used to the idea that texts might be pieced together from pieces of other texts—that original writing might be more like an activity of recombination than of creation. Yet reaching for other literary works can be a sign of anxiety, a symptom of some kind of inferiority complex. When Samuel Richardson composed his great tragic novel Clarissa, he used, without acknowledgement, a book called The Art of English Poetry (1702), compiled by Edward Bysshe. This was an anthology of choice extracts from English poetry and drama. A former apprentice, now the self-made proprietor of a printing company, Richardson was deeply worried that his writing would be looked down on by educated readers. He went to Bysshe for the apt quotations that he could give to his clever, literate characters (especially his villain, Robert Lovelace). His search was not entirely foolish, for literary quotation is an appropriatehabit for the brilliantly created Lovelace. Cultured and histrionic, he naturally sees himself as a dramatic character, a troubled poet, or even Milton’s Satan.

Some contemporary novels still include highlighted fragments from other books. One reason for this might be that a surprising number of contemporary novels feature academic characters or situations. The novels discussed under ‘Epigrams’ and ‘Quotation’, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, take place at least partly in universities and feature teachers and students of literature. They also quote from other writers—in Tartt’s case from Greek and Latin— because the Novel as a genre has always been interested in negotiating with older and higher genres of literature. Coetzee’s novel carries with it a rueful awareness of the inapplicability of the literature that its protagonist carries in his head. Indeed, I argue below that Coetzee makes a point of the inappropriateness of the quotations that he neatly stitches into his narrative. Comparably, the symbolism in Muriel Spark’s Aiding and Abetting, highlighted for us by means of biblical or liturgical quotation, is made utterly incongruous. There is a kind of mischievous scandal about the misapplication of religious texts in the minds of her characters.

The last section of this chapter looks at how novels with novelists as their protagonists allude to the fiction written by their own characters. This has been a possibility ever since David Copperfield followed his author in a career of novelwriting. Very few novels, however, go to the lengths of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and actually create quoted passages. Atwood puts these to ingenious use within her own novel, though we will see that there are problems in quoting from a book that does not exist. Most of all, perhaps, there is the difficulty that the extracts she uses fit her purpose too well. When one book reaches out to take part of another, there should be resistance as well as readiness, a sense of how far the fragment has been transported to make it serve a new use.

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5 Responses to “Literariness: How Novels Work”
  1. Scott Belyea says:

    “So while you’re lounging in the sun this year, why don’t you see how many references you can find in your holiday reading?”

    An interesting notion. I wonder if it will have much appeal for more than a small fraction of readers.

    It strikes me as similar to this musical question – while you’re listening to Schoenberg’s piano music, why not see how many tone rows in retrograde inversion you can find?

    In either case, the activity would interest some, but I suspect many would resist. “I’m there to read (listen), not analyze.” Further, I suggest that while analysis would increase your admiration/respect for the technique of the author (composer), it should not be necessary in order to enjoy the artistic product.

    I’ll admit that my reaction is as much due to impatience with some reviews of both books and music as it is to your post. I’m sure you know the type – much admiring comment about the ingenuity or intellect or technique of the writer/composer, but by the end, you want to shake the reviewer and say, “But did you enjoy it??”

    I don’t want to appear anti-intellectual, but I sometimes think that if a writer (composer) has to explain things beforehand, then they’ve failed in one aspect of their art. The book (composition) may well inspire the curious reader to poke around under the covers to find out more about what makes the thing tick, but that will always be a minority activity.

    Mind you, it’s one I’m frequently guilty of, so I’m hardly in a position to criticize! :-)

  2. Vance Maverick says:

    Sorry, Scott, you are being anti-intellectual. People like Kirsty (and advocates of Schoenberg) are saying “these works have interesting features, which it’s rewarding to notice.” Instead, you pretend they’re saying “in order to appreciate these works, you must apprehend these essential features.” There’s a big difference, and your misinterpretation suggests you’re arguing in bad faith.

  3. Helen DeWitt says:

    I think when works of art help themselves to other works of art there is always something quixotic about it — that is, the new writer sees a skinny nag as Rosinante, a windmill as a giant, or sees herself seeing the skinny nag as Rosinante. It is possible to read Don Quixote without having read any of the romances of chivalry that inspired the Knight of the Mournful Countenance, but awareness of context does often add understanding of the audacity of the enterprise. The idea that one sometimes finds, that this is all rather esoteric, falls apart as soon as one thinks of Kurt Cobain or Eminem.

  4. Scott Belyea says:

    “Sorry, Scott, you are being anti-intellectual. People like Kirsty (and advocates of Schoenberg) are saying “these works have interesting features, which it’s rewarding to notice.” Instead, you pretend they’re saying “in order to appreciate these works, you must apprehend these essential features.” There’s a big difference, and your misinterpretation suggests you’re arguing in bad faith.”

    Ah, well … since you can detect exactly what I and others are actually thinking and what we mean deep down, I guess I’ll just have to bow to your arrogance …

  5. Vance Maverick says:

    In Scott’s defense, this:

    …why don’t you see how many references you can find in your holiday reading?

    does make finding them seem like an end in itself. But it didn’t occur to me to take it literally — it’s formulaic, a reflexive gesture echoing a familiar mode of encouragement, no more embarrassing or significant in a squib like this than a dead metaphor.

    My point is that we’re recognizing and responding to references all the time, in literally every kind of text. And to Helen’s point (speaking of which: distinguished company we find ourselves in!), I would add that understanding references in more considered and complex writing can do more than make one appreciate the “audacity of the enterprise” — it can make the enterprise do more for us, including giving pleasure.

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