These days the writer Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) is best known for his novel Of Human Bondage and of course his short stories but back in the day he was also known as a prolific and immensely successful playwright and adaptor of his own works for Hollywood. So what in his opinion were the qualities that made up a good novel?
- A widely interesting theme of enduring interest;
- The story should be coherent and persuasive. It should have a beginning, a middle and an end and the end should be the natural consequence of the beginning;
- Episodes (i.e. the things that happen) should have probability and should not only develop the theme but grow out of the story;
- The characters should be observed with individuality and their actions should proceed from their characters
- Characters should be interesting and their speech should be distinct;
- Dialogue should: a) characterise the speaker and b) advance the story;
- Narrative passages should be (a) vivid, (b) to the point, (c) no longer than is necessary;
- Writing should be simple enough to be read with ease and ‘the manner should fit the matter as a well-cut shoe fits a shapely foot’;
- It should be entertaining and the more intelligent the entertainment a novel offers, the better it is;
- The last point is the essential quality without which no other quality avails.
If the unlikelihood of juggling all of the above at the same time has depressed you or if you are a modernist and have started tearing your hair out in a strictly non-linear and stream-of-consciousness sort of way, hope is at hand :
There is a faultiness in the form (of the novel) that renders perfection impossible.
Well, thank god for that!
No novel is perfect.
Because a novel takes so long to write that the author’s inventiveness will sometimes fail (no kidding) and then he falls back on dogged industry and general competence.
Well, since flights of genius have never been my thing, I, for one, say let’s raise a glass to dogged industry and general competence. I wonder what he’d have made of Umbrella by Will Self. Not much is my guess.
Finally, I can’t resist quoting what he has to say on sex scenes.
Whenever they (novelists) feel that something must be done to sustain the readers flagging interest, they cause their characters to indulge in copulation. I am not sure they are well advised. Of sexual intercourse Lord Chesterfield said that the pleasure was momentary, the position ridiculous and the expense damnable… there is a monotony about the act which renders the reiterated narration of it excessively tedious.
So there we are. You can’t even use sex scenes to get you out of trouble. You might as well give up now. I am going to make myself another cup of tea, stare out of the window at the scaffolders and hope that a feeling of dogged industry and general competence overwhelms me. I’ll let you know how it goes.