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The Craft of the Novel by Colin Wilson
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The Craft of the Novel (1975)

by Colin Wilson

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The Craft Of the Novel is an odd little book. The literary fame of its author, Colin Wilson, has not lasted the thirty odd years since his "The Outsider" (not to be confused with Camus' existential masterpiece) was an overnight success, and I suppose that on its publication around that time, and with such a tail wind, this book might have carried more gravitas than it does now. As it is, Colin Wilson currently resides in the "Where Are They Now?" file, whereas the dozens of authors from the last three hundred years of literature whose novelistic failings he savagely decries, decidedly do not.

It is Wilson's considered view, you see, that Joyce, Hemingway and Balzac were muddled thinkers; Maupassant didn't think at all, Hesse was unsatisfactory, Balzac unsatisfying, Beckett saddled with faulty artistic logic, Huxley and Lawrence were experimental novelists who have really added nothing new. And that's just scratching the surface. Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Camus, Proust, HG Wells, Dickens all come in for similar treatment, and poor old James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway in particular, get pages and pages of it.

Part of the problem is that Wilson has arbitrarily defined the purpose of a novel in a way that suits him, but that doesn't seem to bear any relation to any generally understood view. So either he's setting up a straw man, or his definitions are intended to be interpreted so loosely that they don't really say anything at all. I suspect the latter: his various formulations seems like so much pseudo-intellectual hog-wash to me:

"The novel is the embodiment of what Kierkegaard meant by existential philosophy. It is an attempt to demonstrate clearly the outcome of certain attitudes to life."

"The aim of the novelist to produce wide-angle consciousness"

"The novel is a thought experiment, which aims to explore human freedom"

"The writer's sense of meaning - the things he loves and values - must be *exactly* counterbalanced by the things he hates or rejects.

"The basic law of the novel is Newton's third law of motion: that every action should have an equal and opposite reaction"

This is all either wrong, or meaningless. Yet without irony, he accuses his elders and betters of crimes he's guilty of himself: Of Ulysses, he remarks "...unfortunately this also involved a biased and highly personal view of the purpose of art".

Hmmm. Pot, Kettle?

As this treatise progresses is gets ever more bizarre. At one point we're told that all works of literature can be judged according to a scale how far they share the "communal life-world", which marks the bottom of a scale, a "Highly Individual Life-world" marking the middle of the scale and "Purely Objective Vision" marking the top.

What does this mean? Search me.

His broad assertions become more and more weird: "language falsifies reality" he tells us (but not Wittgenstein, I suspect); "the Language of mathematics allows us to explore the mathematical truths of our universe"; and the Ancient Greeks who preserved the oral tradition of Homer (yes, them - the ones behind algebra, geometry, mathematics, politics, philosophy, sculpture etc etc) were "savage, scarcely literate people".

It is truly difficult to know what on earth to make of this.

Wilson does have some good words to say on a couple of obscure fantasy writers from the 20th century (David Lindsay and John Cowper Powys, who respectively produced "the greatest imaginative work of the 20th century - possibly in all literature" and a prophetic novel that "surpasses Eliot, Melville or Dostoyevsky"), and Tolkien: presciently he intones: "It is conceivable then, that future generations will see The Lord Of The Rings as the cultural watershed of the 20th Century".

Curiously Herman Melville gets scarcely a mention, while Bram Stoker gets none at all.

Ultimately I suspect this is all just more evidence that "The Craft of the Novel" was an artefact of its time, and not one that bears reading thirty years down the line. That's another way of saying this book is, and was, unmitigated rubbish.

But for all that, in a strange way, I enjoyed it. It certainly has given me some fresh reading tips (I'm going to give Powys and Lindsay a try) and there was something curiously enjoyable about being so infuriated by the silly remarks!

An extra star for luck, therefore. ( )
  ElectricRay | Sep 30, 2008 |
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