A novel style

The novel is considered the most ubiquitous of all forms of literature. You can find novels by the truckload in any old bookstore. Over the past 200 years, the novel has risen to become unsurpassed king of the written world, easily overtaking society's old favourite, the play. Whereas Shakespeare was once the most revered figure in all of literature, his name now contends with those of countless famous novelists, such as J.D. Salinger, Leo Tolstoy, George Orwell, and J.R.R. Tolkien (to name a few).

A few days ago, I finished reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous book, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892). This was the first time that the famous detective's adventures had been published in a permanent tome, rather than in a more transient volume, such as a journal or a magazine. It contains 12 short stories of intrigue, perplexity, and 'logical deduction', and it was a great read.

But as I neared the end of this book, something about it suddenly struck me. There was something about the way it was written, which was profoundly different to the way that more recent books are usually written. It was more profound than simply the old-fashioned vocabulary, or than the other little hallmarks of the time, such as fashion, technology, politics, and class division. It was the heavy use of dialogue. In particular, the dialogue of characters speaking to each other when recalling past events. Take, for example, this quote from the 11th story in the book, The Beryl Coronet:

[Alexander Holder speaks] "Yesterday morning I was seated in my office at the bank, when a card was brought in to me by one of the clerks. I started when I saw the name, for it was that of none other than - well, perhaps even to you I had better say no more than that it was a name which is a household word all over the earth - one of the highest, noblest, most exalted names in England. I was overwhelmed by the honour, and attempted, when he entered, to say so, but he plunged at once into business with the air of a man who wishes to hurry quickly through a disagreeable task.

"'Mr Holder', said he, 'I have been informed that you are in the habit of advancing money.' ...

In this example, not only is the character (Mr Holder) reciting a past event, but he is even reciting a past conversation that he had with another character! To the modern reader, this should universally scream out at you: old fashioned! Why does the character have to do all this recitation? Why can't the author simply take us back to the actual event, and narrate it himself? If the same thing were being written in a modern book, it would probably read something like this:

Alexander Holder was seated in his office at the bank. It had been a busy morning, riddled with pesky clients, outstanding loans, and pompous inspectors. Holder was just about to get up and locate a fresh supply of tea, when one of his clerks bustled in, brandishing a small card.

He read the name. Not just any name: a name that almost every household in the land surely knows. One of the highest, noblest, most exalted names in England.

"Thankyou", Holder said curtly.

Before he even had a chance to instruct his clerk that the guest was to be ushered in immediately, the man entered of his own accord. Holder was overwhelmed by the honour, and attempted to say so; but he barely had time to utter one syllable, for his guest plunged at once into business, with the air of a man who wishes to hurry quickly through a disagreeable task.

"Mr Holder", said he, with a wry smile, "I have been informed that you are in the habit of advancing money." ...

This new, 'modernified' version of Doyle's original text probably feels much more familiar to the modern reader.

It is my opinion that Sherlock Holmes is written very much like a play. The number of characters 'on stage' is kept to a minimum, and dialogues with other characters are recalled rather than narrated. Most of the important substance of the story is enclosed within speech marks, with as little as possible being expounded by the narrator. I have read other 19th century novels that exhibit this same tendency, and really it should come as no surprise to anyone. After all, in those days the play was still considered the dominant literary form, with the novel being a fledgling new contender. Novelists, therefore, were very much influenced by the style and language of plays - many of them were, indeed, playwrights as well as novelists. Readers, in turn, would have felt comforted by a story whose language leaned towards that of the plays that many of them often watched.

My 'new version' of the story, however - which is written in a style used by many contemporary novels - exhibits a different deviation from the novel style. It is written more like a movie. In this style, emphasis is given to providing information through visual objects, such as scenery, costumes, and props. Physical dynamics of the characters, such as hand gestures and facial expressions, are described in greater detail. Parts of the story are told through these elements wherever possible, instead of through dialogue, which is kept fairly spartan. Once again, this should be no groundbreaking surprise, since movies are the most popular form in which to tell a story in the modern world. Modern novelists, therefore, and modern readers, are influenced by the movie style, and inevitably imbue it within the classic novel style.

So, in summary: novels used to be written like plays; now they're written like movies.

This brings us to the question: what is the true 'novel style', and just how common (or uncommon) is it?

By looking at the Wikipedia entry on 'Novel', it is obvious that the novel itself is an unstable and, frankly, indefinable form that has evolved over many centuries, and that has been influenced by a great many other literary and artistic forms. However, although the search for an exact definition for a novel is not a task that I feel capable of undertaking, I would like to believe that a 'true novel' is one that is not written in the style of any other form (such as a play or a movie), but that exhibits its own unique and unadulterated form.

Just how many 'true novels' there are, I cannot say. As a generalisation, most of the 'pulp fiction' paperback type books, of the past several decades, are probably written more like movies than like true novels. The greatest number of true novels have definitely been written from the early 20th century onwards, although some older authors, such as Charles Dickens, certainly managed to craft true novels as well. As for the questions of whether the pursuit of finding or writing 'true novels' is a worthwhile enterprise, or of whether the 'true novel' has a future or not, or even of whether or not it matters how 'pure' novels are: I have no answer for them, and I suspect that there is none.

But considering that the novel is my favourite and most oft-read literary form, and that it's probably yours too, I believe that it couldn't hurt to invest a few minutes of your life in considering issues such as these.

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