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What makes a great novel?

Nov 08, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts

writer's blockI think any author possess the desire to write great novels. I don’t think anyone—in their heart of hearts—writes because it’s a sensible choice of profession or for financial gain. I believe it was Steinbeck who said, “The profession of book-writing makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business.…”

Coleridge was a drug addict. Poe was an alcoholic. Marlowe was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. Chatterton killed himself. Byron was accused of incest. Such testaments to the craft pose the question: Do you really want to be a writer—and if so, why?

There is a considered opinion that artists—anyone who creates something for the enjoyment or aesthetic appreciation of others—is composed of 50 percent ego and 50 percent insecurity. That makes a great deal of sense to me. You are sufficiently arrogant to consider that the rest of the world should enjoy your creation, and yet you are terrified of their rejection or dismissal! To live with such an internal contradiction makes for a fascinating and challenging existence.

We create, we purvey our creation, we await the response. We contend with critics. Everyone contends with critics, no matter their walk of life. But there seems to be something all the more penetrating about a criticism of something you have created with your own hands, your own heart, something that came from the soul. Perhaps it is because it is taken as not only an attack on what you have created, but on who you are.

Criticism seems to require no qualifications. I have never seen such a position advertised in the newspaper.

People read books more than they read reviews. Ultimately they care less about critics than they do the work that is being criticized. As Christopher Hampton said, “Ask a working writer what he thinks about critics…you may as well ask a lamppost how it feels about dogs.”

Wendell Holmes added, “What a blessed thing it is that nature, when she invented, manufactured and patented her authors, contrived to make critics out of the chips that were left!” to which Jean Kerr added, “When confronted by an absolutely infuriating review it is sometimes helpful for the victim to do a little personal research on the critic. Is there any truth to the rumor that he had no formal education beyond the age of eleven? In any event, is he able to construct a simple English sentence? Do his participles dangle? When moved to lyricism does he write I had a fun time? Was he ever arrested for burglary?”

It is true that no statue has ever been erected to a critic.

The ThinkerPersonally, I have no complaint with critics or reviewers. Generally I have been treated very kindly. I think review and criticism is all part and parcel of the business of creation. To determine that criticism is unfair is to question the validity of freedom of thought, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, and that is an entirely different subject for an entirely different discussion.

Regardless of his or her views about whether the work should be evaluated positively or negatively, an author is perhaps the very last person who should judge the value or quality of his own work. All they can do is evaluate their own motives for what they do.

Some of us, I imagine, write out of anger; some out of pain; some write out of prejudice or loss, some out of passion, the promise of something better, perhaps the belief that—even now—a book can be capable of changing a life.

Some of us write to remember, some to forget; some to change things, some to ensure things stay the same.

Some of us—as my editor and agent will all too easily testify—write because we cannot stop.

Renard said that “writing is the only profession where no-one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.” Molière said that first we write for ourselves, then we write for our friends, and lastly we write for money. I am still writing for myself, and believe I always will be. And the thing that drives me forward, the thing that reminds me of why I do this, and how important it is the reason for writing in the first place. Because it matters. It matters to the same degree as music, painting, dancing, sculpture, architecture, poetry, film, and all else that we create. Is not the quality of life in a society judged by the degree to which its artists are supported and acknowledged? Is not the society itself evaluated against the scope and substance of its artistic endeavors?

I just love to write, and though the subject matter that I want to write about takes me to the States, it is nevertheless more important to me to write something that can move someone emotionally, perhaps change a view about life, and at the same time to try and write it as beautifully as I can. I also want to write about subjects—whether they be political conspiracies, serial killings, race relations, political assassinations, or FBI and CIA investigations—that could only work in the USA. Powerful subjects, emotive, contentious perhaps, but written with a view to engaging the emotions, the mind, the heart, the soul, and getting people to think about what they believe, what they see as the truth within our society, and perhaps to even change their preconceptions.

So what is a great novel?

Perhaps it is nothing more than a novel that challenges who we are, what we believe, and possesses the power to change our viewpoint about something, however certain that viewpoint might be.

R.J. Ellory is the author of eight novels including the bestselling A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS, which was a Richard & Judy Book Club selection in 2008 and was shortlisted for the Barry Award, the 813 Trophy, the Quebec Booksellers’ Prize and was winner of the Nouvel Observateur Crime Fiction Prize. His work has been translated into twenty-three languages. R.J. Ellory currently lives in England.

Read the first of three essays in this series, “What Ya Readin’ For?

7 Responses »

  1. I think a great novel is different for each reader, but I do think most of them are written by people who write for themselves because they can’t stop. That passion can’t be faked.

  2. ‘Coleridge was a drug addict. Poe was an alcoholic. Marlowe was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. Chatterton killed himself. Byron was accused of incest.’ I’m sold!

    I think that these days there is so much ‘artisitic product’ and such a rush to replenish the ‘stock’ that this weeks ‘great novel’ can quickly become ‘last years model’. This may actually be a good thing. Maybe the shelf -life isn’t as important as being in the right place at the right time? Capturing a moment.

  3. To me, a great novel is a lot like pornography, hard to define, but you know it when you see it,or in this instance read it.

    The words can be well written, the plot unique and interesting, but if it doesn’t hit you right in the gut it isn’t great.

  4. This fine series of posts continues to inform, impress & delight me with each visit I make.

    A great novel is one that features a character facing a human moment that you, as the reader, can identify with individually. We read alone, just us and the author’s creation. Our humanity is touched when we experience the resonant event, challenge, joyful event we have known or have longed for. The great novel may be read by millions but will be experienced by one reader at a time, personally, alone with his or her own soul as company.

  5. 5 seconds on Google would have told you that statues exist for Clement Greenberg and Charles Augustin Saint-Beuve. 5 seconds– they invented a machine that puts all of the knowledge mankind has assembled at your fingertips and you wouldn’t even spend 5 seconds! Thank you for proving why criticism is needed now more than ever!

  6. Here’s the critic in me: you could have cut out everything before the last sentence.



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