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A Release of Certain Energies

New Ways to Kill Your MotherI am not writing a novel, not yet anyway. But I read a lot of them, for pleasure and also for work. And I especially enjoy reading essays and digressions about the novel form, particularly when they don’t aim to suggest that reading novels makes us kinder, more empathetic, or more emotionally intelligent. This may be true, but it’s dull and lacks meaning for those of us who are more interested in admiring the craftsmanship of a well written novel.  Here, then, is an anything but dull definition of the novel from Irish writer Colm Toibin. It comes from his excellent 2012 critical work, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families. The definition is an aside from Toibin as he examines the role of the mother, and of older women in the family, in Jane Austen’s novels. It is one of the best descriptions I think I have ever read of what the novel form is really about:

The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgments on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put into place. This is not to insist that a character in fiction is merely a verbal construct and bears no relation to the known world. It is rather to suggest that the role of the character in a novel must be judged not as we would judge a person. Instead, we must look for density, for weight and strength within the pattern, for ways in which figures in novels have more than one easy characteristic, one simple affect. A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape.

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Posted in Ideas and Opinions, Writers and Publishers.


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