20 January 2013

Random readings - is a novel like a science experiment?

Fitting into a plausible pattern of human behaviour? (image from here)
A novel is a hypothesis. A novelist shares with a scientist the wish to observe. A novelist also shares with a scientist a partial and imperfect knowledge of the phenomenon he wishes to observe.

And so both novelist and scientist say "what if?" What if milk that was teeming with bacteria were to be heated to a certain predetermined temperature and allowed to cool? What if some uneducated country people were to set out on a journey by wagon to take the corpse of their mother back to her place of origin?

The scientist then does his experiment, which he may refine over and over until his findings are clear and unequivocal. The novelist begins his novel. The test of his experiment is not whether its results can be reproduced, but either plausibility or accountability. His own mind is the first judge. Do Anse Bundren and his children, the characters in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, fit into a plausible pattern of human behavior?

For this test, the novelist is required to have observed enough people to know what is plausible; in many cases he enlists the aid of friends or editors to help him make this judgment.

But the plot point or character action may fail the test of plausibility. In this even, can the author account for it in an interesting or believable enough way to persuade the reader to accept it? For this, the novelist often uses his own experience to supply an unusual but right-seeming or appealing explanation. As the funeral journey of the Bundren family proves implausible, for example, and the author subjects them to a catalog of terrors, each member reacts in an arresting and memorable fashion - not plausible, but logical and idiosyncratic - and the reader is induced to accept their journey as a form of truth, even though it is new to her.

From: 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel: What to Read and How to Write, by Jane Smiley, p 45-6. (The passage is all one paragraph in the book; it's broken up for easier reading on screen.)

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