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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, May 09, 2008

finding out what works

I find that I'm rebelling against my blog, now three years old. These days I'm not sure what to say, or why exactly I'm doing this. There's a balancing act between talking about the process of creating this work, and the danger of revealing too much about it. It's a little bit like watching a "making of" documentary about a movie before seeing the movie--putting the cart before the horse.

In another sense, though, the creation of any work of art is beyond the worldly and quotidian circumstances of its physical creation, and indeed a work of art is beyond what its creator can say or indeed know about it. Northrop Frye makes this point in his Anatomy of Criticism, which I'm currently reading. What a poet may have to say about his own work, Frye says, may have special interest, but not special authority. For in talking about his own work, the poet becomes a critic, and he may be a good or bad one, but there's no such thing as a definitive critic--one who has the last word on any given work of art.

I bought Anatomy of Criticism when I learned that in it Frye talks about, at least in passing, the epic genre. I'm thirsty and hungry for anything I can find out about this. What does epic mean? What does genre mean? Are these real, actual things, or merely terms bandied about vaguely by students of literature, with no real consensus as to what they actually refer to?

Frye's landmark book, first published in 1957, addressed what he saw as the central and long-neglected question about literary criticism: is there such a thing as knowledge about literary art, or is everything, in the end, simply and merely a matter of taste? Is there or could there be such a thing as a science of literary criticism--a field of knowledge that progresses and grows in the same way that other fields of scientific knowledge progress and grow? Could the study of literary criticism be like the study of physics or geography?

Northrop Frye emphatically believed that such a science is possible, and Anatomy of Criticism is his effort to sketch out its scope, methods, and agenda. It's a brilliant work in its own right, dense with bold, deep ideas. He essentially picks up the ball of a scientific poetics where Aristotle left it 2,300 years ago, and runs it further up the field.

I'm on page 125, and have not yet reached his detailed discussion of genre, but he has already given me plenty to think about. Indeed, any given page of this book could serve as the basis of a separate thesis, so rich is it with ideas.

Why exactly am I so keen on studying genre, and especially the epic genre? Don't most writers just wing it and write what they want without worrying too much about their "category"?

It's not so much that I want to conform to a pattern, but I do want to know what I'm building. Why reinvent the wheel? If you're setting out to build a bridge, wouldn't it make sense to find out how others have done it, what the techniques and hazards are? What if you built a house, but out of ignorance neglected to include bedrooms? Wouldn't that be silly?

A genre by definition is a structurally stable form. Like a genus or species of animal or plant, it exists because it works. The raccoons that patrol our yard at night are a viable form of life; they can make it in this novel environment; as an organism, they work.

I want to create something that works: a pragmatic goal.


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