The best novels are like dreams. They come out of the silence of the page like a dream. They structure themselves like dreams, that is, there are clear ways in which the structure of dreams parallels the structure of novels. Like dreams, novels use image patterning as a device for suggesting meaning: image repetition, association, juxtaposition, and splintering (Viktor Shklovsky’s term for the branching pattern created by a repeating image and its associated or split-off elements which also repeat). Like dreams, novels are available to interpretation; the best novels have a central luminous mystery at their core which tempts generations upon generations of critics and readers to find new structures and meanings beyond the surface of the words. And like dreams, novels are built around (and this is explicable in only the vaguest of terms) the recurrence or insistence of desire which, in order to generate plot, must be resisted; the locus or arena of desire and resistance appears again and again with obsessive regularity in novels, an obsessive regularity which, in real life, would seem eccentric if not pathological. In novels, character is perversion, and the novel returns again and again to the animating desire which it must resist to the bitter end or even beyond the end of the words on the page.
—from “Novels and Dreams,” an essay by Douglas Glover in Attack of the Copula Spiders
The Greeks called their novels tales of suffering for love. If they weren’t about suffering for love, they wouldn’t be tales. A story consists of someone wanting something and having trouble getting it. There are no stories about people who start out happy and contented, remain happy and contented throughout, and end up happy and contented. Imagine the phrase “tales of not-suffering for love” or “tales of having fun for love” or “tales of finding pleasure for love.” The difference between pornography and literature is that in pornography everyone has orgasms all the time. There is no gap between desire and consummation. In literature there is always an element of frustration, displacement, delay and incompleteness (even if someone does eventually manage to have an orgasm). Don Quixote is the quintessential novel because it’s about a man in love with a woman who doesn’t exist. At the outset, Cervantes invents the limiting case.
—from The Enamoured Knight
Repetition, as I have said, is also a pattern. But it is a pattern of a different order, perhaps the pattern of patterns. To me, it is the heart of the mystery of art, of novel-writing. Without it, the novel becomes a strung-out plot summary. I have tried to think out why repetition is appealing, why it is aesthetically pleasing as a pure thing. I think there are two reasons, or sorts of reasons. The first is essentially conservative–repetition is allied to memory, to coherence and verisimilitude. The second is biological or procreative or sexual. Repetition creates rhythm which on a biological level is pleasurable in itself, the beating of our hearts, the combers rolling up on a beach, the motion of love. This is the sort of thing Lyotard is talking about when he writes about “intensities” or patterns of intensities in his book Économie Libidinal, or what the Spaniard Madariaga meant when he talked about the “waves of energy” in Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Seville.
—from “The Novel as a Poem” in Notes Home from a Prodigal Son
Here is the performance version of “How to Write a Novel,” the first essay in my new book Attack of the Copula Spiders. I place it here for instructional purposes, also so that I can include it in our growing trove of craft and structure advice The Numéro Cinq Literary Craft Book, which you all should consult from time to time. I gave this talk as part of the Craftwork series at The Center for Fiction in New York, March 14, 2o12.
It’s important to note that “How to Write a Novel” is a fairly stripped down version of the years of thought I have given to writing novels (and stories and essays and, yes, even poems). If you want to get the whole picture to this point, you should read also “The Novel as a Poem” in Notes Home from a Prodigal Son. That book also contains essays on novels by Leonard Cohen, Christa Wolf, Hubert Aquin, and Margaret Atwood, plus an essay on point of view and my pride and joy “Gertrude, or the Postmodern Novel.”
Then you would need to read my book on Cervantes The Enamoured Knight. The first section of the book, “Recovering the Text: Technical and Analytical,” provides a re-reading of Don Quixote and preps you for the sections to follow. The second section, “Don Quixote and Novel Form,” gives a history of the development of novel form, sorts out the rather confusing array of definitions offered by theorists, and then discusses a set of primary structures: plot, subplot, character grouping and gradation, and novel memory devices (which I have not really touched on elsewhere). The third section, “Night Thoughts of an Insomniac Reader, or Thematic Meditations,” demonstrates how the form itself predisposes the novel to a thematic “basket” of ubiquitous themes which appear in writers as diverse as Joseph Conrad, Cervantes, Jane Austen, and Alice Munro (to name four that come into the discussion).
Finally, in Attack of the Copula Spiders you’ll find not only “How to Write a Novel” (the complete text with sundry examples) but also analyses of novels by Juan Rulfo, Thomas Bernhard, Leon Rooke, and Cees Nooteboom as well as an essay on endings and a meditation on novels and history.
Unfortunately, foresight has been lacking. I haven’t managed to collect all of this material in one place (and that’s mostly because I have been sorting out these ideas for years, decades, often previewing them as lectures at Vermont College of Fine Arts where I teach in the low-residency MFA in Writing program). But here now you have a basic sense of where to find it all.
Attack of Copula Spiders should be required reading for anyone writing a novel. Or for that matter, anyone writing anything!
This is fantastic! The essay itself (I begged a copy from someone in “samizdat” form before its publication but I am glad to have “Copula Spiders” even if it is a struggle to retrieve it each time I’ve lent it to someone) has helped me make great strides in my own works in progress just by giving me a very usable working geography. (And the idea of “significant history” and “useable theme” are a great help…)
Thanks for reminding me to re-read that essay–the whole book, in fact!
I can’t believe it’s been two years since I attended your lecture at the Center for Fiction and we had lunch with Tain. Your insight into the novel writing process is tremendous. Tain sitting quietly in the back of the room while you spoke so I could listen without distraction was a wonderful gift.