When I read a novel, I read everything: the publication data, the acknowledgments section, the dedication, any epigraphs, the author’s disclaimer that the work I hold in my hands is, indeed, fiction.
In Jodi Picoult’s SALEM FALLS, the acknowledgements section begins like this: “If I could cast a spell, like some of my protagonists in this novel, it would be one to acquire unlimited knowledge.” That’s an intriguing thing to write. I gave it some thought. If a writer already knew everything, would she even need to write a book? Surely some works of fiction are animated by a spirit of exploration, a quest to unravel some moral dilemma, to discover some truth about what it means to be human, some driving question. The best example I know of an author struggling along the long path to “The End” is Leo Tolstoy. ANNA KARENINA works its often tortured way to the wrenching moment of its magnificent conclusion. Question after question arises in the novel, and the resolution’s impact on us comes, at least partly, from how hard the struggle to KNOW has played out throughout this masterpiece of doubt and searing questions – and when we read that triumphant ending, our own muscles feel sore as we have followed Tolstoy’s approaches to every side of the question of what it takes to live a meaningful life.
I recall the keen disappointment I felt when I held my first published novel in my hands. It was a mystery novel, and I already knew the answers to all the questions raised by it – who dunnit, how it was done, how anyone could do such things. I felt no impulse to read my own book. What I wanted was to return to the condition in which that first novel was born: a blank page and some human behavior I wanted to figure out. It’s been that way with each of my novels – they need not be cumulative. I want to start fresh with anything I write. That may not be possible. But I did make the attempt to start the process with a new set of unknowns – for me, those unknowns were the engines of writing a novel. I still feel that way: it’s better to start with a question than with an answer.
It can be so hard to determine what an author’s up to. Probably most of us have read Kafka’s THE METAMORPHOSIS. When we read that Gregor Samsa awakened one morning to discover he’d been changed into a giant vermin, we may feel free to assume that Kafka was pursuing his own query into the absurdity of modern life. But, during a seminar with Harold Bloom when I was doing graduate work at Yale, Bloom shocked us by claiming that the little book we’d all read in high school and took oh so seriously, was no deep self-searching piece of literary enlightenment. According to Bloom, Kafka wrote THE METAMORPHOSIS as a joke to amuse his pals, and he laughed throughout the writing of this trick on the reader. If Bloom wasn’t pulling OUR legs, then Kafka’s classic is maybe still literature, but by accident of talent amidst a mischievous prank.
I wonder how my peers in the 21st century work. Do you start with questions, anxieties, a need to explore through words some puzzle in life? Do your characters come to life because they are searching for something important to us all? Do your plots arise out of some personal journey? Do you need to go back, when you write your sophomore novel, to that first blank sheet where your career started, to become fresh again, enough so that you can see doubts and uncertainties and injustices and happy outcomes that you’ve never seen before? To become virgins again, starting out toward different unknowns.