Archive for January 31st, 2011
When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
—Jonathan Franzen, to The Guardian
Recently, I’ve had research on the brain. Over the past month, which I’ve designated as a kind of free sandbox time for Midrash, I’ve read all or part of something like twenty books, along with many articles and old notes. On Sunday, I’m going on a very short trip to London, which means cramming a month’s worth of location research into less than a week. For the next few days, then, I’m going to be talking a bit about research—how a novelist does it, where it fits into the different stages of the writing process, and how to balance it with the other elements of storytelling. Today, though, I’ll be addressing a more general issue, which is whether deep research has any place in a novelist’s life at all.
As I see it, there are two main objections to research in fiction, only one of which can be easily dismissed. The first objection is that research is somehow alien to the true novelist’s art, either because fiction based on research is inherently less valuable than fiction drawn primarily from the author’s own experience, or because information itself is becoming increasingly worthless. The former argument is very old, but the latter has gained new resonance in the information age, as Franzen implies above. Information is everywhere. It’s a mouse click away. So it isn’t hard to conclude that the novelist’s traditional role as an investigator of reality is no longer relevant, or useful.
Franzen is right about one thing: voluminous research, in itself, is no longer enough to make a novel. But was it ever? The role of the novelist has never been simply to acquire facts and details: it’s to arrange those details into a previously unsuspected artistic pattern. If anything, this role is even more valuable these days, when our diet of information tends to consist of specific units of disposable data. The art of the novelist is to uncover order in apparent chaos, even if the ultimate goal is to undermine it. With so many facts at our disposal, but so little knowledge, we need that ordering function more than ever—especially because a novelist is one of the few remaining artists with no choice but to haunt libraries and read the books that nobody else reads.
As for whether research has a place in serious fiction, it’s only necessary to point out that research has served as an indispensable foundation of many great novels—including Franzen’s. Flaubert, the quintessential novelist, deeply researched all of his books. So did Tolstoy. More recently, works as distinct as Atonement and Gravity’s Rainbow have been masterpieces of research and structured imagination. It’s still true that, as Willa Cather said, the basic emotional material of a novelist is acquired by the age of fifteen. But if the novelist is looking for meaning outside his or her own range of experience—to explain “how the world works,” as Zadie Smith puts it—research is the necessary first step. The ordering, the pattern-making, will come later, but not without the raw material that creative research provides.
Which brings us to the second, more relevant objection to research, which is that it can be an excuse to put off the real work of writing. Research is a seductive pastime in itself, and because there’s always another book to read or location to visit, it can be all too easy for a writer to never actually begin the novel. Unlike the previous objection, this danger is very real. Later this week, I’ll be talking more about how to keep research in line with the rest of the writing process. For now, though, I’ll say this: research is not primarily about factual accuracy. It’s about acquiring material for dreams. Ultimately, it’s about freeing your mind to play the most serious game in the world. It’s true, from a factual perspective, that you can never have enough information. But before long, perhaps before you realize it, you’ll have more than enough material to play the game.
I suppose that a novelist’s life is not more full of embarrassments than anybody else’s. There is no art or profession, except possibly higher mathematics, which one can practise without exposing oneself to amateur criticism and interference.
A novelist’s trade, however, is the only one in which his acquaintances insist on coming right into the workshop and playing with the tools.
—Evelyn Waugh, “People Who Want to Sue Me”