Yesterday, The Guardian printed an interesting, previously unpublished Susan Sontag essay on the novel. It moves through a lot of territory in a relatively short space, but one thing I found particularly appropriate to my writing these days is the idea that each novel storyline hints at other stories that are not told. You can’t tell all of them, no matter how interesting they may all be. This is one of my central writing questions at the moment: Which to tell, and which not to tell? Sontag offers me no guidance, but her thoughts are always worth listening to.
A novel is not a set of proposals, or a list, or a collection of agendas, or an (open-ended, revisable) itinerary. It is the journey itself - made, experienced and completed.
Completion does not mean that everything has been told. Henry James, as he was coming to the end of writing one of his greatest novels, The Portrait of a Lady, confided to himself in his notebook his worry that his readers would think that the novel was not really finished, that he had “not seen the heroine to the end of her situation”. (As you will remember, James leaves his heroine, the brilliant and idealistic Isabel Archer, resolved not to leave her husband, whom she has discovered to be a mercenary scoundrel, though there is a former suitor, the aptly named Caspar Goodwood, who, still in love with her, hopes she will change her mind.) But, James argued to himself, his novel would be rightly finished on this note. As he wrote: “The whole of anything is never told; you can only take what groups together. What I have done has that unity - it groups together. It is complete in itself.”
We, James’s readers, may wish that Isabel Archer would leave her dreadful husband for happiness with loving, faithful, honorable Caspar Goodwood: I certainly wish she would. But James is telling us she will not.
Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape. Alternatives to the plot ought to be felt up to the last moment. These alternatives constitute the potential for disorder (and therefore of suspense) in the story’s unfolding.
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