#354…sci., relig. ETC.: “What Should a Novel Be About?”


Francine Prose¹

[I assume that’s her real name]

recently (in the INYT²),

stereotyped novels into 2 kinds:

“weekends” and watergates.”


Why? For that please use the DOOR.





   Prose’s point?  (Well, I can alliterate, too.)

   She is reacting to what some critics say that any novel worth reading must portray “a historical event on a scale that’s the literary equivalent of an Imax: huge screen, sweeping panorama, disparate neighborhoods, distant countries, warring social classes.” Writers doing that, they suppose, may create something that an intelligent speed reader might profit from. No fluff here.

   Yet, says Prose, another set of critics throw out something like Mrs. Dalloway (a book I’m unfamiliar with) that in her words, “A London woman buys flowers and gives a party, and, oh yes, a shellshocked veteran kills himself. No Watergate³ there, not even much of a weekend. But that’s a novel, right?” In other words we’re looking at other pieces of life’s adventures that, yes, happen in some historical somewhere, though just where and why is not of compelling interest in what the (presumably good) writer is trying to do. I suppose we’re more taken by what happens in scenes rather than settings. This, then, is the “weekend” adventure for the intelligent reader.

   Prose mentions a third type of critic: “The duty of the novelist is to reinvent the novel, to dispense with the traditional forms and shake up the narrative like dice in a cup.” And this type of approach she seems most intrigued by. “Couldn’t [writers, instead of arguing or ‘taking sides’] be doing something more pleasurable? Like, for example, reading a novel?”

   And here comes the good part: “When we open a novel or a story that we’ve never read, we come to it–consciously or not–with a set of questions. The first and most obvious is: ‘What are you?’ Shouldn’t that question be open-ended, just in case the novel is (as we might hope) unlike anything we have ever read before? It’s unhelpful and reductive to ask of a book: ‘Are you Watergate or weekend. Are we about to witness a clandestine break-in, or yet another family tormenting one another over Christmas dinner?'”

   And so, why all this here? Well, I’ve recently finished the ms of my second novel, The Blood of Three Worlds, breaking one-fourth, perhaps one-half, of all the writing rules I’ve ever taught–doing things I wouldn’t let students get away with.

   And so, eventually the piper will be paid–perhaps with only a few coins (not dice) thrown at a cup. Nonetheless, I’ve followed Mickey Spillane’s advice that he once gave to Edward R. Murrow when he asked why he did what he did: “I write stories I always wanted to read that have never been written.”

   And I think about what I’ve just done that way.

   That deserves more space and will get it later…


   ¹ I’m totally unfamiliar with Francine Prose’s work. Her new book is called Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932. I’ve just returned from Paris, April 2015. I read her essay on the plane home. She’s a clever essayist and looks quite serious in her thumbnail photo.

   ² The article referred to comes from The International New York Times April 17, 2015 (bought in Tel Aviv).

   ³ Watergate was the political scandal that caused President Richard Nixon to resign.


Author: John Knapp