There is a perception that everyone has a novel in them. Christopher Hitchens once remarked that for most people, inside them is where it should stay, but I thought it might be interesting to think about the idea in terms of a sports analogy. Take tennis, for example. No disrespect to Andy Murray and co. but tennis is an inherently simple enough game. There is a set of easily comprehensible rules, a straight forward scoring system, mass produced equipment at reasonable prices and it requires a fairly limited skill set; forehand, backhand, lob, drop shot and serve, is there any more to it than that? From which we can figure that any reasonably athletic person willing to apply themselves should be able to play tennis to a decent enough standard. And yet the number of people who enter money tournaments is very small indeed, and the number of people who earn their living exclusively from playing tennis can be counted in their thousands.
An average game of tennis lasts about three hours, but the time to write a novel can by contrast easily be measured in years. The novelist’s skills are more numerous, less well-defined and therefore completely nebulous and utterly subjective. The author’s scoring system is totally opaque, even to the initiated, and success depends upon the opinion of a publisher who is motivated, at least in part, by money rather than by how much blood sweat and toil went into producing your manuscript. Everything being equal, there should, then, be far fewer published novelists than professional tennis players.
Taking these points into account, the idea that everyone has a novel in them would seem to be a pretty farcical notion. It no doubt originated as a marketing ploy put about by manufacturers of cheap typewriters to encourage purchases by unemployed pig skinners with spare desks and reams of cheap paper to hand. The next thing you know they’ll be telling us that all you need is a decent shave and a blowtorch from B&Q and you too can be internationally renowned restaurateur Heston Blumenthal.
The American author Richard Brautigan (1935 – 1984) seems to have lived his life so as to prove that writers are decidedly odd people. Reading about him reminded me of that line from Paulo Coelho who concluded that a writer, “always wears glasses and never combs his hair,” and has a, “duty and an obligation never to be understood by his own generation,” ambitions to which I can comfortably aspire.
In 1971 Brautigan published a novel called, The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, which was about a man who worked at a library for unpublished books which he catalogued according to his own system based on the shelf where he thought the book would be most at home. After Brautigan killed himself his fans created just such a library, which now houses more than three hundred unpublished books. These, then, are a selection of the books that people feel they have in them but which have not, for various reasons, been published. They will be children’s drawings, incidents from a half-remembered past, descriptions of dreams, ancestors tales and origin stories endlessly told down the generations and complete fictions told by people with varying degrees of literary skill and artistic merit.
Taking this concept one step further, and incidentally proving my unwritten thesis that anything one person can do someone else will want to do more, in 2002 Caroline Jupp and Sam Brown founded a library of unwritten books. To be included in this library the erstwhile author doesn’t have to go so far as to actually write the book, they are instead, “prompted to spontaneously record their unrealised idea,” and are then able to, somewhat implausibly, “receive a free copy of their own unwritten book.” So it would appear that you don’t have to have the whole book inside of you, just an outline of what it would have said had you taken the trouble to write it.
Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828), when he had no idea what to call a piece would sometimes plump for, “Song Without Words,” but it seems we can now have the book without words which will no doubt lead to the picture without an image, the sculpture without stone and the meal consisting of exactly no food whatsoever. A comedy store somewhere in London will next week have an audience laughing at an unspoken joke, there will be school playgrounds where teachers put plasters on ungrazed knees and children crying at unimagined non-events. At a cinema near you there will shortly be the film with no actors, and of course I won’t be doing anything so foolish as to actually write next week’s blog post, you’ll just have to imagine what it would have been like and upvote it accordingly. From which we might reasonably infer that maybe the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square was meant to be empty after all.
Schubert’s Song Without Words could be just a tune but it could equally be an artistic statement about the futility of language just as John Cage’s four and half minutes of complete silence was an artistic statement about the fertility of the listener’s imagination or an empty plate could be seen as an artistic statement about world hunger. So that if we view books as works of art a book without words or even an unpublished book for that matter, can be seen as an artistic statement about some state of the universe. The American author, of The Sot Weed Factor (1960) amongst other things, John Barth, said that literature was, “the only medium of art I can think of which appeals directly to none of our five senses.”
In that sense (pardon the pun), literature is an art form distinct from other art forms and it is the words themselves that convey the meaning, it is the content that matters and the binding, the cover, and the ISBN number are merely marketing details for filing and retail purposes. The words in a novel provide clues from which the reader constructs in her imagination the world the novel inhabits, which implies that a novel exists only within those specific words. The physical entity, “book,” is merely a delivery system, it is the words that make the novel what it is and a published novel has passed the currently accepted test that its content consists of words arranged into some coherent form that provide sufficient clues to the world the author wants to invite the reader to imagine. From that perspective, a book without words might be a work of art but it can’t be a novel and an unpublished book cannot be considered to be literature.
I’m not sure that I agree with Shirley Dent when she says the idea appals her, but I do agree with her that the, “non-selective element,” of these activities devalues real literature. Aunty Helen’s reminiscence of her day trip to Brighton might be equally as fascinating as eating a Madeleine, but I suspect there might be a very good reason why one is a frequently reprinted work of great literary fiction while the other is a hand typed manuscript buried in a depository of unpublished books, and when we forget that reason we devalue the work of the masters just as ignorantly as the housewife who, on first sighting a picture by Piet Mondrian, claims that her five-year-old son could have painted it.