What I look for in fiction

I try these days not to start a post with a question that I then go on to answer: it seems to me a tired rhetorical device, and, having found myself cringing on observing it in several of my earlier posts, indicative, I think, of lazy writing. But let us not be rigid. I’ll start this post with a question:

  • What do I look for in fiction?

Or, as my friend Di Nguyen put it in her blog post

  • What turns me on?

[EDIT: For another answer to this same question, do please have a look here.]

I find that question difficult to answer, as there are so many different and disparate things that I enjoy. I tried thinking of the novels and plays and short stories that I most love, but couldn’t really find any distinct pattern emerging. I love the realism of something like Madame Bovary, say, but also the inspired illogicalities of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; or, say, Dead Souls, in which the real world is distorted into all sorts of strange and eccentric shapes, verging frequently on the lunatic. I am impressed by the life-and-death seriousness of The Rainbow, and amused by the light-as-a-soufflé frivolity of Right Ho, Jeeves! They both engage me, in entirely different ways, of course, and for entirely different reasons.

So I tried looking at it from another angle: What don’t I look for in fiction? Or, in other words, what turns me off? This path of enquiry proved, I think, more fruitful.

To cut to the chase, I find myself turned off by what are often described as “representative narratives”. I find myself frankly disturbed when novels advertise themselves as “representative” of some marginalised voice. Like, say, the “immigrant experience”. I myself am an immigrant, having come to Britain from India aged 5, some 57 or so years ago now, and yes, I like to think I have my own voice. But what does the “immigrant experience” actually mean? Immigrants from different parts of the world will have different experiences, and hence, different voices. Even immigrants from the same part of the world will have different experiences depending on their social background, the role they fulfil in the country they have come into, the part of the country they live in, and so on, and so forth. And even if the experiences of two immigrants are exactly the same, their voices still won’t be the same, simply because they are two different individuals. And this, I think, is an important point. Whatever the background of the character, whatever minority or majority they may belong to, however marginalised or centralised they may be, each character is, and should be depicted as, an individual. I find I have little time for “representative voices”. I certainly haven’t encountered any voice in fiction resembling my own, and neither would I want to: for one thing, I’d be too embarrassed.

One finds one’s common humanity not, I think, from characters resembling oneself, but, paradoxically, from characters very different from oneself – people from different times, from different cultures, from different walks of life, with different outlooks and different perspectives. If we restrict our interest primarily to characters similar to ourselves, of course we will find a unity of sorts: there’s nothing too surprising about that. It’s when we sense a unity even within the vast and dazzling diversity of humanity that we discover literary exaltation. I have, in short, little time for identity games when it comes to literature: to see literature as an arena for social and political activism is to demean it.

Of course, childhood influences are important: what is impressed upon the mind when that mind hasn’t yet hardened remains for the rest of one’s life. I loved adventure stories as a boy, and that has stayed with me: I love still the stories of Stevenson and Dumas, the Flashman novels of George Macdonald Fraser, and so on. I love also the elements of the boys’ own adventure story that one finds in even the most mature works of Conrad. But even more than the adventure story, I love the supernatural. As a youngster, I used to scare myself silly reading creepy ghost stories in bed, and that habit has remained with me. I love elements of the Gothic when they appear (in Wuthering Heights, say, or Great Expectations); I love hints, or more than mere hints, of the supernatural. I put all this down to the stuff I used to read when my parents thought I was in my room doing my homework.

And, of course, the Sherlock Holmes stories. How could I not mention them when talking about what I love? I was eleven when I came out of Bishopbriggs children’s library with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles in my clutch. I did not know it then, but it was the start of a beautiful friendship.

There are some readers, I know, who are very adept at focusing in on details, and teasing out their significance. I am not really such a reader, though I have tried to train myself to be one. I tend to notice more the shape of the novel – the form, the structure; I tend to notice where the pace is accelerating, and where it is decelerating; where the dramatic climaxes are set; and so on. It is only once I get a sense of the shape that the details start falling into place. Which usually means I need to read the thing at least twice – but that is, perhaps, no bad thing: no book worth reading is worth reading only once.

On matters of style, I am quite open-minded: perhaps my preference leans towards the ornate rather than the plain, but I cannot think of any English prose more beautiful than the very straightforward prose of The Pilgrim’s Progress. But no matter whether one’s prose style is plain or ornate, or on some point on the spectrum between the two poles, it can, as with anything else, be done well, or done badly. If an ornate style is done badly, it will appear merely meretricious; if a plain style is done badly, it will appear merely bland. But the point, I think, is that the style is no mere optional add-on: it must be consonant with the subject to such an extent that the two cannot be spoken about separately. The relatively plain style of George Eliot would be no more suitable for Bleak House than the more ornate style of Dickens would be for Middlemarch. Given a choice between the two, my preference would be for Bleak House, both in terms of style and of content (though it is worth stressing that in neither novel can either style or content be considered in isolation). But that preference is purely a subjective matter.

I have often wondered, incidentally, why it is that Middlemarch, for all its undoubted greatness, has never made too great an impact on me. Any serious consideration of the novel reveals an extraordinary mastery – of theme, of subject, of structure … of just about everything one can think of that contributes to the greatness of a novel. And yet, the spine somehow fails to tingle. When I wrote about the novel earlier in my blog, I concluded that this is because it is such a sane and level-headed novel: my temperament is such that I like a touch of madness, as it were – a touch, perhaps, of the wuthering heights. (Or, in the case of Dostoyevsky, perhaps, a touch of pure, unrestrained lunacy.) I think this is true. Needless to say, this is a comment on me rather than on the work, but a view of this solid world, no matter how profound, no matter how piercing, that focuses on its solidity, does not really set my pulse racing: it is only when I see the vast, transcendent expanse of sky, like Prince Andrei does on the battlefield of Austerlitz, that I start to feel that mysterious tingle in the spine.

I find myself, especially as I grow older, not too interested in examinations of the structure of society, of its economic and social basis, and so on. I know some novelists are very good at depicting these things, and I applaud their skills: but that’s not really what I look for. I am attracted more to works that involve me emotionally. Sometimes, these works can be emotionally draining – like, say, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a work that is, for whatever reason, very close to my heart. I can appreciate and admire works that ask you to observe from a decorous distance; but it’s the works that draw me headlong into the immediacy of human emotions that attract me more.

And overall, this, I think, leads me to what I most look for in fiction. Human emotions point to a human mystery, and each human being is a profound mystery: the works I tend to respond to most keenly are those that confront me with that sense of mystery. I find it in Tolstoy, in Dostoyevsky; I find it in Dickens too, and in Joyce; and, obviously, in Shakespeare. One cannot, after all, pluck out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery: he cannot pluck it out himself. And, of course, in Ibsen. Bernard Shaw, a man not given to fancy, said of the characters in late Ibsen plays that “there is not one … who is not, in the old phrase, the temple of the Holy Ghost, and who does not move you at moments by the sense of that mystery”. 

In any dispassionate view, we humans are really quite absurd beings: farting, puking, nose-picking creatures, with mean thoughts and often meaner acts. Even our transgressions tend not to be so great: small and petty – that’s all we are. And yet, by some mighty paradox, we are, nonetheless, in that old phrase that Shaw uses, temples of the Holy Ghost. And the religious imagery of that expression no longer embarrasses me as it might have done in my younger days. The literature that means most to me is that which attempts, at least, to confront and to depict this great mystery.

18 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Daphna Kedmi on February 20, 2022 at 9:47 am

    Thank you so much for this. It has motivated me to investigate and try to define my own preferences.
    For example, why is it that I was so moved by Jenny Erpenbeck’s “Book of Words”, and left completely cold by “Go,Went, Gone”? Now I know. One is a social manifest aimed at giving a voice to refugees who throughout remain a homogenous underdeveloped presence in the novel. The other is…well, this is not my blog, so suffice it to say that it is deeply moving.
    It so happens that I completely identify with your response to yourself, which has put some order in my own, until now, undefined preferences.
    I usually follow without commenting, so if I’m already here, I just want to say that your blog is so rich, so layered, so educative, that when I finish reading a post, I immediately go into anticipation mode for the next one. Thank you!


    • Thank you very much for this: I really am very flattered!
      One of the reasons I write this blog is that it helps clarify my own thoughts. The very act of putting one’s thought down in words compels you to find some degree of coherence in what would otherwise have remained a nere inchoate tangle. Sometimes, I only know what I think once I’ve written it!
      I think too many books are written not with any great understanding of the characters involved, but merely with the intention of making a point.
      Thank you once again for making me feel so good on a dull and damp Sunday morning!


  2. I’ve just discovered your blog, thanks to Patrick Kurp. For this post, my question is: what do you think of Anthony Trollope? Dickens is much more famous but, as a writer, Trollope just blows him out of the water. His plots and characters are more subtle and believable than Dickens’s, in my opinion, and Trollope’s sense of humor is more subtle, as well. Dickens is too heart-on-the-sleevey, if you know what I mean. The late Terry Teachout loved Trollope and found Dickens to be virtually unreadable.


    • Richard,
      You said that to the wrong person lol. Himadri is the biggest fan and defender of Dickens I know (or anyone knows). Sometimes it feels like the entire point of this blog is to champion Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Dickens.


    • Hello Richard, and sorry for having taken so long to respond.
      I have enjoyed what I have read of Trollope, but, while it clearly does not make sense to form league tables of these things, Dickens does seem to me to be on a different level of artistry. Of all the many novelists I have encountered, it’s Dickens and Tolstoy who have given me most.

      Trollope humour is no doubt more subtle (although Dickens could be subtle as well when he needed to be), but I personally prefer the exuberance and eccentricity of Dickens’ humour. As for realism, there are many different types of realism (https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2022/01/10/characterisation-and-caricature-the-sausage-and-the-rose/). Trollope is certainly more realistic in his surface representation, but Dickens’ stylised representations also address the real world, albeit in very different ways.

      But as I say, there’s no point trying to make league tables of these these things.

      All the best, Himadri


  3. I see the evidence of your reading of Rabelais there at the end. Not that you did not know all of that beforeheand.


  4. Posted by Bob Bowden on February 21, 2022 at 3:13 pm

    As an atheist ‘temples of the Holy Ghost’ should have no meaning to me. But as someone whose youth was partly spent amid the rituals of the High Church of England, censers, boat boy carrying the incense (me), pyx, etc and someone to whom the great string quartets of Beethoven, the Missa Solemnis, the music of John Coltrane, especially A Love Supreme and all his music thereafter until his death, the B minor Mass of Bach, the Requiems of Verdi and Faure, mean so much, I can fully understand the ‘inner meaning’. It is simply that I attribute that epiphanic sense of being in touch with something beyond my knowledge, beyond my ability to even attempt explanation,to rest within the genius of the normal farting, nose picking, puking human being who made it. And the quest to find examples in all of the arts is what lies behind my reading life.

    The apex, of course is that transcendent genius, William Shakespeare, the mysteriously under educated glover’s son who told us things we already knew and things beyond our imagining, in singing verse. Schopenhauer said that talent is the ability to hit a target no one else can but genius is the ability to hit a target no one else can see. WS did this repeatedly with an apparent ease that can only be matched by Mozart. Like you, I have been lucky enough to find many more examples. Tolstoi, Dickens, Ibsen, Hardy, Melville, Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Beckett, Lowry, R C Hutchinson, McCarthy, Grossman. Etc.

    The dispiriting thing for me in recent years has been the constant effusive reviews of books which I subsequently buy, only to find, well, disappointment. I don’t expect every book to be a masterpiece but they seem to be aimed at too clear a target. Yes. There’s interest, intrigue, imagination. But that sense as you close the book or close it on Kindle that you have just read ‘a great book’, has escaped me for some years when reading contemporary fiction. I have just finished ‘A Little Life’, trumpeted widely as ‘brilliant’ etc etc. It had me in its grip for a short time and promised more with over 700 pages to say it. But it is overlong, over wordy and seemed to wander aimlessly in the final eighty pages.
    I do think two shorter works deserve mention. Stoner by John Williams, a modest life, told simply, modestly. With grace. And Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, which could be called an immigrant tale in that it recounts the fate of two escapees from the great Irish famine who escape to the US to become involved in the Indian wars. But it is a tale of undying love, told in a perfect ‘voice’, totally convincing, very moving.
    Re Long Days Journey. I saw a production in Bristol three years ago with Jeremy Irons and Leslie Manville who gave the best ever performance by a female actor I’ve ever seen, up there with Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, the best prince I’ve ever seen.
    Sorry if I ranted on a bit ! But a few foul days ! At least Liverpool won on Saturday. And Man City lost !!


  5. in recent years has been the constant effusive reviews of books – also in all earlier years, since the invention of the book review.

    If there are only 20 or 30 great books published in the world every year – or even 50, or 100 – they are going to be darn hard to find without the help of the ol’ test of time.


  6. Posted by Bob Bowden on February 21, 2022 at 5:35 pm

    Tell me about a ‘great’ contemporary book that you feel will live beyond our times that you have read in the past two years. Whoops ! Sorry to invade your blog AOG !


  7. Everyone should join in. I hardly read anything contemporary (taking that as 21st century, not as old as Stoner). Still.

    John Keene’s Punks: New and Selected Poems ought to last, as should Marly Youmans’s The Book of the Red King (2019), which I wrote about here. The various little novellas and whatsits of César Aira are a safe bet, although they will survive as part of a larger conceptual project, definitely not because the individual works are necessarily so great. Maxim Osipov’s stories, as collected in Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories, will only grow in stature as more become available in English. Another doctor-writer, he continues the humanist literary tradition of Chekhov.

    If I relax the two year constraint a little, the answer is easily War Music.


  8. I love what you wrote. I love poetry and try to follow new voices and support their work. Wallace Stevens said that “poetry is the supreme fiction” and I agree. I also love and reread Austen, Dickens, Trollope. In recent years I have loved Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner, Anne Tyler, Toni Morrison, Richard Yates, and Stewart Onan. Small domestic details engross my more than sci-fi, dystopias, magic realism, and speculative fiction. Poetry sustains me and rereading is typically a better choice for me than the anemic or enigmatic fictions of today. Thomas Hardy may rule my emotional roost with his dual gifts for fiction and poetry.


    • I deliberately limited my scope here so as not to include poetry, as it was hard enough just restricting myself to fiction.
      I have never warmed much to science fiction, or to magic realism, or to speciulative fiction. But, it may rightly be pounted out, “The Master and Margarita” is magic fiction; so, possibly, are the fictions of Kafka; and I love both Bulgakov and Kafka. So possibly it’s not the genrebitself – if genres these are – that’s the problem.
      But I do keep returning to my childhood love of supernatural stories, and of gothic horror: give me a good haunted house, and I’m happy!


  9. Posted by Bob Bowden on February 25, 2022 at 2:29 pm

    Poetry wasted on me, with the exception of WS sonnets, Hardy and the Four Quartets. And, yes, I do appreciate the small, domestic stuff (in small doses. Pym, Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor. Short stories by Williams Mazwell and Trevor. And Angus Wilson. But where is the ‘big’ book of the two generations since Stalingrad/ Life and Fate ? I read Milkman, Normal People, Pedro Padramo, Solar Bones, Satantango. All had their virtues, their pleasures. But will they be read in 60/70 years time. If R C Hutchinson can be neglected now with his qualities, what chance have these ?


  10. Posted by Bob Bowden on February 25, 2022 at 2:39 pm

    I have ignored the Beckett trilogy which is a different breed of animal altogether. Never read anything like it. Ever. Other than most of his other works. I have bought a first edition of every one on publication since 1960. A class apart.


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