In his meditation on the works of James Joyce, Anthony Burgess delineated the two different types of novel, categorised into types A and B. The A novel, to summarise his argument, is completely in thrall to convention, tapping into traditional literary archetypes with a distinct focus on plot and character. The B novel, however, can incorporate plot and character (though it occasionally dispenses with such trivialities altogether) but its ultimate aim is to explore literary form, narrative and language.
The idea being that the B novel is superior to the A novel, in the eyes of some. Blogger Bharat Azad argues that this is a false dichotomy:
Prose-wise, can even the most learned literary critic convince us that, “a sewerful of guineagold wine with brancomongepadenopie and sickcylinder oysters worth a billion a bite” from Finnegan’s Wake or a 447-word sentence by Marcel Proust is really more worthy of literary merit than Plath’s “person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream”?
For me, too much style–ie, overly beautiful prose–is not the sign of a great novel but the sign of a great something else. Like a poem, perhaps. Or a short story. All that beauty distracts me from what I want from a novel: to tell me a story. Let me get lost in the world as you see it, the world that you’re creating for me, word by word. I don’t want to have to pay attention to each individual brick, I want to explore the rooms of the house and discover all that lives in the white space around the words.
That’s not to say that I believe that all novelists should adopt an invisible style. Rather, I’m saying that the novelists that I prefer, those who move me with their alchemy, are those who don’t see language as an end in itself. Forster, Ishiguro, Austen, Atwood, McEwan, Wharton, Twain, Greene–you wouldn’t accuse any of these writers of neglecting the beauties of the English language, or of a laziness when it comes to prose construction. Yet they understand something I feel that other, more words-obsessed authors don’t, which is that words are just the skin on the beating heart, not the heart itself.
Today’s work read was a children’s fantasy that was all about a character coming to learn that magic isn’t real. For some reason, this depressed me.