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Musings, #3: “Great Novels”

(Or return to the full list of Musings.)

One of my favorite literary web sites is the blog called by its maintainer The Grumpy Old Bookman. I have a deal of respect for GOB and his opinions, but in this Musing I take exception to the position he expounds at length in his blog entry for Thursday, 26 May 2005, which was entitled "There are no Great Novels". (That entry was, in turn, derived from Chapter 5 of his book The Truth About Writing, an illluminating read for anyone at all interested in publishing and the book trade.)

(It is not absolutely essential that you first read that essay to follow this Musing, but I do make several references and allusions to its contents.) GOB’s premise is simple enough:

According to the professors and opinion-setters of our time, the great novel somehow has a stature all of its own; it remains a great book whether you happen to enjoy it or not. In fact if you, as an individual, happen to consider the great novel excruciatingly dull and boring, then it is you, the moron, who is at fault. The novel in question allegedly remains a great novel, regardless of whether or not you—the individual reader—have the good taste and intellectual equipment to recognise it as such.

Nonsense, is my view. I know of no argument which constitutes grounds for believing these ideas to be true, and I can put forward a strong case for believing the opposite.

I set forth this Musing to present what I wanted to be a strong case in favor of believing in great novels as entities each with an inherent stature. Struggle with it as I may, I am not satisifed that I have satisfactorily translated my instincts into words; I can only hope that the inchoate thoughts set forth below will stir more apt understandings in your mind.

(Later addition: GOB posted a civil—indeed, generous—response to this essay, which you may also want to review; it's about 1/3 of the way down the herein-linked page, at “The Great Novels debate”.)

It is true, as GOB goes on to say, that "a novel only has the power to generate emotion when a reader of the right kind comes across it." But to derive from that premise the conclusion that “great novels do not exist as entities in their own right” seems—to me, anyway—non sequitur. It relies on an implicit secondary syllogism: the diversity of the pool of readers for a given novel is vast, therefore the set of factors that affect their perception of that novel will rarely be much alike from one to another. I dispute the premise of that secondary syllogism: I hold that there are identifiable communities of readers for whom many of those factors are held in common.

Moreover, I hold that those communities are not unique to each novel—that there are stable, identifiable communities within which the factors that will affect their perception of a novel are largely independent of which novel is presented to them, in the same sense that there are communities definable by their members' abilities to lift a given weight within which communities that ability is independent of whether the weight presented is shaped as a dumbbell, a barbell, or an Acme anvil.

Reaction to a novel is, at the outset, entirely an intellectual process. To borrow a setting from GOB, I can sneak up behind a scientist or a cow, strike either forcibly with a heavy item, and rely on arousing in either an emotion, and moreover one that wouldn't vary greatly between the cow and the scientist. But if I instead walk up to each and say I will show you fear in a handful of dust, such emotions as are ultimately aroused will differ radically between them, and that difference is founded in the first instance on their intellectual ability to perceive significance in the noises I have made.

Intellect can be scaled by many qualities, but certainly a chief one is the ability to discern progressively more subtle distinctions in concepts. We may, therefore, imagine a novel whose full emotional force can be appreciated without the need for any great deal of intellect; but, perforce, the distinctions it makes in the things it portrays cannot be particularly subtle. Another novel may require substantial intellect on the reader's part before its full emotional force can be realized; that rigorously implies that it is making significantly more subtle distinctions.

Does it follow that there is greater pleasure to be had from a novel with more deeply subtle distinctions in its content than from one making fewer or less complex distinctions? Much turns on that question, but my answer is a crucially qualified “Yes”. The crucial qualification is, of course, that the "Yes" can only apply to those readers capable in the first place of actually perceiving the more subtle distinctions. I submit—as a postulate to be accepted or denied, not as a theorem to be proved—that commonly (if not universally) readers capable of making nice distinctions will derive more pleasure from a novel containing such distinctions, requiring such perceptions, than from one that does not exercise their abilities as fully. (Mind, that implies an upper limit: a novel requiring for its full effect a greater wit than a given reader possesses will not please that reader more than, and almost surely not as much as, one lying wholly within that reader’s grasp.)

(There is a corollary belief, not essential to the argument here but perhaps interesting, that in general the greatest satisfaction one can achieve comes from doing well the most difficult task that one can do well.)

We may make an analogy (always a dangerous thing) to wine: a simple wine can and often will deliver pleasure; but, to those capable of sensing subtle distinctions, the pleasure in tasting a complex wine—if that taste be both complex and pleasing—is invariably greater than the pleasure of tasting a pleasant but simple wine.

Now it does not necessarily follow that a novel that requires significant intelligence (which I take to be synonomous with "intellect") to deliver its full effect is thereby a novel that must please the reader possessing such an intelligence, and I make no such claim: the condition of subtlety in distinctions is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for deep pleasure, in novels or wines. Nonetheless, it establishes a similarly necessary if not sufficient condition for the quality "greatness": any novel requires, to deliver its full cargo, a certain level of intelligence in its readership, and we may, I assert, take it that there is a rough proportionality between the level required and the potential greatness.

I should, I suppose, digress to deal with the base idea of “intelligence”. When one chooses to discuss levels of intelligence, a certain moralistic opprobrium intrudes: what is “significant intelligence”? How dare one asperse those implicitly of lesser wit? Indeed, does any such thing as “intelligence” in the sense of a more or less monodimensional quality susceptible of measurement even exist?

Taking last first, yes, of course it does, the PC Police Department notwithstanding. Just how exactly and reliably we can measure it is open to debate (though personal experience suggests strongly to me that we have long been remarkably good at it), but that it exists seems self-evident (to me, if not to the PCPD). Wikipedia, at “g factor”, tells us that:

“The general intelligence factor (abbreviated ‘g’) is a widely accepted but controversial construct used in the field of psychology to quantify what is common to the scores of all intelligence tests.”

Note that despite the supposed “controversial” nature of the idea, it is “widely accepted”. That, of course, does not in itself make it valid, but it does demonstrate that the majority of present expert thinking on the matter finds it to be so—that it is not a disdained idea but rather the opposite.

The PC Police Department's objections to the idea hark back to the first point, the moral opprobrium associated with “inferiority” in wits. That is ridiculous: one cannot and should not be proud of possessing good-quality wits (or ashamed of not) any more than of having or not having a detached earlobe or the ability to curl one's tongue into a U. Those things come to us—or rather, came to us—willy nilly, and we cannot rationally have either pride or shame for having or not having them. But if we can be rational enough to see that, then we can abandon the PCPD’s ludicrous efforts to disparage the very idea of inequality in such attributes, or of significance attaching to any such inequality. A man who is 6-foot-10 can reach higher shelves than one who is 5-foot-1—must that be denied? If we believe—as we should—that the two men are, ceterus paribus, morally and legally equal, does that entail our having to give them equal consideration when hiring a shelf-stacker?

My point is that till we can shrug off the spurious moral connotations of greater or lesser intelligence, we cannot rationally pursue the idea of a “greatness” deriving in part from intelligence, in the writer, the reader, or both. I proceed here on the basis that the existence of the “g” cited above is axiomatic.

Let me come at this matter of greatness in a different way. The fraction of the world’s population that can even understand what Einstein’s Theory of Relativity concerns, much less grasp fully what it says and signifies, is very small. Do we therefore deprecate the observation that Einstein’s Theory was a great work? Even if we remove from "great" the senses of “large” and “important”, few people would argue against the proposition that Relativity was and is a great achievement, a great work. Granted, most people are obliged to accept the claim on faith, being unable to see in what its greatness consists; but few if any would argue against that greatness, and none, I daresay, chiefly or solely on the very basis that most people are incapable of truly appreciating it.

Nor can we evade by asserting that unlike a work of art, whose greatness is necessarily subjective, the theory’s greatness is susceptible of quantifiable verification, because that is not true: the theory itself is susceptible of such verification—but the greatness of the work does not lie in its correctness. If, as will inevitably happen soon or late, we find that it is incomplete, or even incorrect in some particulars, that will not lessen by one whit the greatness of its achievement; nor, I reckon, will anyone at that time claim that it does.

In other arts, those that rely chiefly on the senses—painting, sculpture, especially music—we may legitimately wonder and debate about whether there is an intellectual element in appreciation, and if so of what relative magnitude. But in writing, and superlatively in fiction, intellect is, as elaborated earlier, a necessary condition (and it is a shame that necessary is an absolute word, for I long to say it is absolutely, positively necessary).

The less intellect a novel requires from the reader to discharge its full cargo to that reader, the less great it can be. The more intellect it requires for full effect, the greater it might be.

Another digression: let us be clear that in saying that a novel “requires intellect” in the reader we are by no means saying that it is necessarily complicated. Joyce’s Ulysses is eligible for consideration as a great novel—but so is The Wind in the Willows. Grahame’s book can be read with pleasure by children—indeed, even read to those too young to read themselves. But the quite real pleasures such an audience will extract are substantially, well, smaller than the pleasures a sophisticated adult can extract from the work, owing to various subtleties of emotion Grahame has built in (consciously or no) for such readers. Nor does that adult appeal lie in any sort of “precious” quality to the work: it consists simply in the careful, delicate, and—again—subtle evoking of emotions not easily, or perhaps at all, known to or detectible in the tale by children or less-sophisticated adults.

Beyond its exercising a reader’s intellect, greatness is less easily characterized; but I suppose we might fairly say that the remaining elements are first, the effect the writer is apparently seeking to achieve—the depth and width of the thoughts and feelings the author wants to place in our minds—and second the degree to which the novel succeeds in achieving that effect. Though those are arguably separate considerations, in reality our ability to perceive the first depends on the second: if the author was not largely successful in effecting the planned results, we will be unable to judge the value of the plan, or wrongly judge it as a lesser thing than it was (though that is then irrelevant to the book’s greatness, since once the ship founders, its cargo goes down with it).

We should step back at this point in the argument to note that nothing said so far has anything to do with liking. We have tentatively established some criteria for a “great” novel: it requires an intellect in the reader, and the exercise of that intellect; its author has designed it to convey thoughts and feelings of depth and richness; and its author’s craft has been sufficient to carry out that design. Nothing there demands that any particular reader be pleased by the deep, rich thoughts she or he extracts with that exercise of intellect. It was, I believe, Henry James who remarked that there is nothing in this world that anyone is obliged to like.

The argument, however, runs that a novel that well satisfies those criteria is highly likely to be pleasing to the majority—probably the great majority—of the identifiable, more or less stable community of potential readers composed of intelligent persons willing to exercise that intelligence on novels. That proposition, too, I think axiomatic, but it can be remarked on. Why do we read novels? To discover or be reminded of facets of (as Douglas Adams so charmingly put it) Life, the Universe and Everything. A novel that if read by an intelligent reader delivers to that reader’s intellect a freightload of thoughts and feelings of quality and scope may still fail to be pleasing to all, for reasons private to this or that individual reader; but it is hard to conceive such a novel not pleasing at least a majority of such readers.

Those, then, are the two crucial axioms: for the intellectually competent reader, one, there is greater pleasure to be had from a novel with more subtle distinctions in its content than from one making fewer or less complex distinctions; and two, that a novel that successfully places thoughts and feelings of depth and width in readers’ minds is likely to be pleasing. While those are (if granted as true) not founded on measures for which one can neatly insert probes and extract numerical values—the subtlety of distinctions, the quality and scope of thoughts and feelings raised—neither are they so wildly subjective as to place them beyond the possibility of rational discussion and agreement by a community of sound-witted readers (or critics). And if we grant the plausibility of such general (not universal) agreement, then we have defined a "great novel" in an at least colorably verifiable manner.

Let’s reconsider the gravamen of GOB’s case:

You consider the novel excruciatingly dull and boring; you are thus considered to not have the good taste and intellectual equipment to recognise it as great.

Putting that in my words rather than his, are Great Novels necessarily great novels? No, for reasons I’ll return to in a moment; to that extent, GOB’s case is sound. But that Great Novels are too often not great novels does not have anything much to do with the existence of greatess in novels as an independent quality, which is the real plaint and point here.

So how do we come to have Great Novels that are not great novels? All too easily. The community to whom we have ceded the privilege of defining Great Novels—the community of “professors and opinion-setters”—just does not correspond closely to the community of readers with “good taste and intellectual equipment”. It’s that simple. There is certainly some overlap—I don’t want to seem to be characterizing all professors of literature or all critics as dunces, because they are not. But neither are they all readers of the class to which truly great novels will generally appeal.

But if we put aside as irrelevant any pedagogical canon of Great Novels, we could nevertheless in principle construct a new one, could we get a reasonable sample size of competent readers to attack the problem at length. And I daresay that did we somehow manage to herd such cats, we would find that the basic points of attack for their evaluations would be those criteria cited above, which after all are scarcely some brilliant production of my brain, but rather are elementary common sense.

We can, that is, separate personal liking from personal reckonings of greatness, because while the latter commonly induces the former, it is not a rigid requirement that it do so in all cases. I for one recognize certain books as having a greatness that nonetheless does not appeal to my particular tastes; I do not feel that I thereby denigrate either the novel or my "good taste and intellectual equipment". Moreover, I do not need to rely solely on my own opinions of whether the novel is great: I can see how others whose opinions I have come to respect, owing both to what they like (as compared to what I like) and the manners in which they set forth their reasons for such liking. If, as I assert, there is a distinct community of readers with ready wits, the general opinion of that community (assuming immodestly that I, by concurring with it in my private judgements far more often than not, belong to it) is a good post against which to knock my own feelings to test their sturdiness. I can still disagree with that community in some good number of cases without yet becoming in reality outside it. I do not claim that there needs to be universal commendation of a novel’s greatness for it to be great. But it is only when instead of that community we substitute a substantially different community—be that "professors and opinion-setters" or Joe Sikspak—that we find inherent greatness likely to have little correlation with that community’s judgements of "greatness". The degree to which the community of “professors and opinion-setters” may or may not correspond with that of intelligent and willing novel-readers is wide open for probably acrimonious debate; but we would be fools to think the correspondence exact, and therefore to think that the pronouncements of the one must equate to those of the other.

In sum, then, I think we are on solid ground in saying that great novels can and do exist as entities in their own right.

(Return to the full list of Musings.)

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