Dec 7, 2013
Gazing Into the ‘Secret Center’ of the Novel
Posted on Apr 28, 2011
“The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist” by Orhan Pamuk is a love letter to the literary novel. It can expand your awareness and joy of reading. For novelists, it’s a treasure trove.
A lot of literary criticism reads like an autopsy report, dissecting the “text.” In examining the novel, this little book is more like exploring what animates the body. It traces the circulatory system of the novel, delves into the sensory fields that make up character, and lingers on the invisible but pervasive miracle that is a novel’s consciousness—its “secret center,” Pamuk puts it.
I get impatient with novel theories or critics who have never seriously attempted the massive, painstaking task of writing one. Pamuk knows what he’s talking about. He has authored eight novels (six translated from Turkish to English). He’s also an essayist, an activist for freedom of expression and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. In his inspiring Nobel speech he describes what it’s like to write a novel by invoking a Turkish saying: “to dig a well with a needle.”
A difficult job, in other words. But all around the world, published and unpublished novelists are digging away. Pamuk says that wherever the novel form has taken root, it has become the dominant way of storytelling. He doesn’t discuss new technology, but even 140-character limits can’t contain the novelistic urge. Novels now are told via cellphones and Twitter, not merely paper or screen. They can even lack words entirely: witness some graphic novels.
What is this strange urge to sit alone in a room (as it’s mostly done) and write word after word, often struggling for the right one, when everyone else is the beach? But wait: Why are those people at the beach staring for hours on end at a page (or screen), relaxing by intently tracking details in a story that isn’t even true?
What do novels do to us? Why do we read them, and how can we read them better? What makes a novel work across cultures, formats and centuries?
The odd title of Pamuk’s book is inspired by German philosopher/playwright Friedrich Schiller’s famous essay “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry.” Pamuk uses Schiller’s ideas as a starting point for discussion about both readers and writers. For readers, “naive” refers to how we forget ourselves in a story; “we feel that the fictional world we encounter and enjoy is more real than the real world itself.” But the modern reader knows the story is only a dream. Thus we’re sentimentalisch, the German term describing a person who has grown from naiveté into awareness and reflection.
For writers, the naive is the Romantic ideal of spontaneous creativity—whether dictated by God, a muse, drugs (Coleridge’s claim of inspiration in writing “Kubla Khan”), alcohol and the rush of the road (Kerouac), or sheer genius. The sentimentalisch writer, on the other hand, “is unsure whether his words will encompass reality” and is “exceedingly aware of the poem he writes, the methods and techniques he uses, and the artifice involved in his endeavor.” This writer is “modern,” Pamuk says. Or postmodern, I would add. Metafiction is its embodiment.
These two ideas become the book’s themes. Pamuk spins a theory of the novel that involves the search for meaning, the interplay of truth and lie, the essential optimism in the act of reading and writing—and the pleasure we take in the experience of all these things. Good readers and writers are both “naive” and “reflective” (as Pamuk renames sentimental) at the same time.
“The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist” is short; you can finish it in one sitting. It’s more enjoyable over time, though. It repeats itself a lot. The six chapters were originally delivered as the 2009 Norton Lectures at Harvard, so they necessarily circle back on themselves. Here I’ll give glimpses into some key ideas, then share my own compendium of the book’s tips for novelists.
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