The Art of Fiction


This seminar was originally delivered on Thursday, 5th December 1974 at the English Department of Ain Shams University, Cairo. It is reconstructed here from P.H. Newby's notes.

Some years ago Somerset Maugham created a certain displeasure because he said the novelist must be an entertainer. An entertainer was someone who distracted people from the serious business of living but novelists address themselves to the most solemn and serious subjects. How can they be classed with cabaret artists?

I believe that the novelist treats the most serious subjects, and is an entertainer as well. By 'entertainer' I mean someone who does not write for academics or foreign students, and whose books are not read out of duty but for a variety of more 'human' reasons: e.g. for people who want to live outside of themselves in imaginary characters. Young people, especially, read novels as a short cut to acquiring experience and worldly wisdom.

Whatever large ideas the novelist may have about his message, he is not a novelist unless he remembers why people read fiction, and presents characters and situations in a vivid way that will interest readers who are not primarily interested in his message. This is (to give it a grand term) the art of fiction.

The aim is not only to persuade your reader to read your book through, but to read every word. This is not a matter of a lot of interesting detail: it is a matter of structure. The writer of a detective story does this because the reader is on the look out for clues all of the time. A straight novelist does it by creating expectation and then satisfying it. It is the opposite of someone telling you a long rambling dream: since you don't know what it coming next, you are bored; the art of story-telling is to play on the reader's expectation of what is coming. The reader will be agog in a story about a cruel and powerful person, so long as the writer builds the expectation of said person's fall; the bully Flashman in Tom Brown's Schooldays is a good example of this expectation and satisfaction.

A consistent style, or tone, is also an important part of the art of fiction: the tone of the first paragraph should be the tone of the whole. A problem may arise if your story changes for instance, if the protagonist discovers in himself an unsuspected capacity for evil, and this leads to the death of people he loves. I wrote such a story, and began it with the following paragraph:

Aunt Nadia tried to throw herself off the top of the Great Pyramid, not once, but twice. This became odder the more you thought of it. She was a local girl so she ought to have known better. I've never been to the top myself but I understand it is more like a builder's yard than anything you might expect; the structure is eroded and goes down in clumsy giant steps, so it is impossible to hurl yourself from the highest point in the hope of landing at the foot, or indeed any significant way down the side. You would just keep hitting blocks of granite and you do not bounce off them.

Now the whole story is tragic, and you may ask why I chose to tell it in the rather absurd tone of the first paragraph. The reason for this is that the story is supposedly written many years after the event it describes: and to him they seem terrible, of course, but also absurd. In order to make him credible as a narrator, I have to preserve this tone throughout. This creates a tension between matter and manner which should give vitality. It could even be that in the course of the writing I sacrifice something to the need to preserve the tone of irony and absurdity. In the art of fiction, things are not being written about as they happen. This may seem obvious, but it is not really. A novelist who tries to write as though he is close on the heels of the events he or she is describing has to do clumsy things: "three years later," "and then," "the following day..." etc. A novelist has to escape from chronology if he or she is to handle the material freely. It is an interesting technical exercise to reconstruct a great novel (like Wuthering Heights) in strict chronology, and then compare this with what Emily Bronte actually did.

It is furthermore important that no character in a book could have written it. This is a weakness of some novels, even those by D.H. Laurence, where the main character is totally aware of the situation in which he finds himself, and the narrative reads like autobiography. Often you don't know whether the values of Lucy Jim are the values of the author himself.

You may say that the afore-mentioned example of my novel sounds as if it might make this mistake: it is actually more complicated than that. My protagonist is writing about himself 30 years ago in terms that his younger self would not recognise or understand. But I (Newby) am setting down his words for him and making it clear that his older, mature self is rather coarse and disillusioned whereas I am neither. How do I do this? By plainly getting the speaker to record events and conversations that he plainly doesn't quiet understand, but which the reader will. This three cornered relationship between reader, novelist and central figure, is crucial in the story.

A real novel makes you respond with all your mind, and not just a part of it. A light farce appeals to that part of you that wants to be distracted and entertained, even to the extent of escaping from ordinary life. Anything that sets out with the assumption the world is other than it is, or that the intelligent reader is not as he or she is that is not good writing.

What sort of person is the intelligent reader? He or she will be interested in the world politics, international relations and problems; general ideas, scientific advances, etc. Such a reader does not necessarily look to novels for special wisdom about these matters, but he or she does bring a certain experience to the reader, and will measure the story and ideas it expresses against that experience. Such a reader will not be interested in the trivialising of great problems; or stories where marriage is presented as the final happy ending; or wish-fulfilment stories, neurotic stories where the worst always happens, stories in which one says 'people are just not like that'; false cheerfulness, false pessimism, or ignorance of the world.

Reading a novel is a test of one's own experience and imagination; and one's own grasp of moral values. The reading, with discrimination, of a great novel is to have one's understanding of life enhanced, possibly changed.

Do people have the patience and time to sit down and read with the kind of attentiveness I seem to require of them? We certainly do not read as we did in the 19th century: TV, Cinema, Radio and the theatre wrestle for our cultural attention. The evenings are no longer so long and dark.

No novelist again is going to have the ascendancy of Scott or Dickens: the social circumstances have changed. It would not be possible to write the large panoramic novels they (and other 19th century novelists) wrote, any more than painter will produce large, realistic canvases again. There is a division of labour in the arts.

However, TV and Cinema are expensive; they involve collaboration, whereas the novelist is an individual who needs only paper, pen and ink. The novel will continue to provide a means for the individual to provide his interpretation of life. The solitary writer to the individual reader. Reading is not a social act.

The continued existence of the novel depends on the attractiveness it still has for people who want to explore their experiences and experiment with their knowledge of the world. This is why I write: not for money or fame, but because I am compelled (almost irrationally) to do it: as a means of examining my own experience and trying to make some sense out of it. I learn from the actual process of writing.

How? Take my new novel. I am a man trying to present the reflection of another man on his own youth. This stretches the imagination and forces me to consider the meaning of a number of imaginary situations I would not find myself in in ordinary life...

The act of writing and creating lifts me above my ordinary human limitations. The requirements of rhyme and metre result in a poem that is perhaps not the one the poet started out to write the technical requirement have challenged the writer into something new and exciting. In the same way, the requirements of narrative-art lift the novelist above his ordinary level of understanding and ability to entertain. This is why writers are such disappointing people to meet.