An author of talent is his own best critic—an ability to criticize his own work is inseparably bound up with his talent: it is his talent.—Graham Greene
Criticism employed by a trained and skilled writer on his own work is the most vital, the highest kind of criticism. Some creative writers are superior to others solely because their critical faculty is superior.—T. S. Eliot
Readers seek richness and complexity. They're hungry for writing and characters that remain with them after they've finished the book. They hope to enter other worlds, to understand other lives. They appreciate writing that adds somehow to the archive of life on earth.
That kind of writing and those characters emerge on the page during the solitary hours of writing, the dogged hours of persisting, and the anxious hours of solving whatever difficulty the piece of writing presents. The even longer and more solitary hours of revising, however, are what make the writing and the characters shine and move. Those hours are the writer's highest courtesy to the reader.
As Greene and Eliot suggest, the best writers, no matter how talented and fluent, are specially able to criticize what they've written. Though we usually think of criticism as a negative kind of picking-apart, the word comes from Greek, and means to choose or evaluate.
The difference between mediocre and memorable depends on this capacity to take pains, to choose in each sentence what stays or goes, to ponder and shape narrative, action, dialogue, and characters. The best writers understand that revision is the real vision. They are cold to their words, willingly changing or cutting to improve. They make each word earn its place, and they prune self-indulgence on the page.
The luckier ones begin this phase with help: Sophia, Leo Tolstoy's wife, was the first audience for his fiction; she read, responded to, and recopied War and Peace and Anna Karenina countless times. Dostoevski took finished drafts of his novels immediately to an editor. Gertrude Stein not only encouraged Hemingway's work, she instilled this critical ability in him, though he never fully acknowledged his debt.
Nevertheless, with or without the help of trusted readers, the writer's word-by-word, scene-by-scene decisions, those deliberate crucial choices, make the merely good, or even the fitfully brilliant, great. This process can take as long as drafting. And, like Mr. Casaubon's project in Middlemarch, it never really ends.
“A novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it,” said Randall Jarrell, writing about Christina Stead’s flawed masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children. He meant novels in general, not just that one.
That most novels only have something, rather than everything, wrong with them, is a tribute to their writers’ ability as critics. The novelist assumes the unproved—that is what a novel is, a set of original assumptions—but doing so offers an almost irresistible temptation to tell rather than show.
The novel is a baggy form, and most writers delight in stuffing everything into it. Sometimes, as with Dickens and Faulkner, incidents, details, and side-trips amplify the novel's depth and meaning. More often, stuffing a novel muddies it. Richness, rather than busyness or length, is a goal more missed than met.
The novel typically moves through time; as it goes, it accretes complexity and metaphor—ideally, from its first line. “Call me Ishmael,” for example, is the beginning of Moby Dick as we have it, but surely Melville didn’t really begin drafting there.
Surely that simple, commanding sentence, with its suggestion of deliberate anonymity or disguise, its allusion to scripture and to slavery, came to Melville like a lightning-bolt much later in the novel's composition. First, though, he had to condense, or really, miniaturize, his encyclopedic knowledge of whaling and whales into his encyclopedic book.
After he had built Ahab, who, like so many Americans then and now, lacked the low enjoying power, and Queequeg, and the Pequod, after he had shortened and lengthened and tacked on and tacked together, and stood back and stood close and amended and revised, then, perhaps, Melville gave his bulky child its introductory sentence.
Moby Dick has something wrong with it, of course—readers today often consider its length its flaw, but Henry F. Chorley, writing in the London Atheneum, October 25, 1851, spoke for many readers of its time when he called the novel “an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition.”
Melville himself saw Moby Dick as a failure. In the 1920s, though, a new crop of scholars and readers sighted the white whale. Gaslights and electricity had destroyed whaling by then, and Melville himself was long dead. It took a generation for readers to catch up and to ratify Melville's work. That's the drawback, of course: authors of talent, so expertly self-critical, sometimes don't meet their true audiences in time.
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