In Walter Scott’s Waverley, a representative passage states:
Now I protest to thee, gentle reader […] and hold it the most useful quality of my pen, that it can speedily change from grave to gay, and from description and dialogue to narrative and character. So that, if my quill display no other properties of its mother-goose than her mutability, truly I shall be well pleased; and I conceive that you, my worthy friend, will have not occasion for discontent. From the jargon, therefore, of the Highland gillies, I pass to the character of their Chief. It is an appropriate examination, and therefore, like Dogberry, we must spare no wisdom.
I would have preferred to be spared much wisdom, and perhaps all of Scott’s wisdom regarding the character of Fergus Mac-Ivor save that which is imparted through action and dialog. Among fiction writers, the cliché goes, “Show, don’t tell,” and though, like all such rules it should be broken when the need arises, Scott violates it doubly here: first he tells us that he’s going to tell us the character of Fergus, and then he tells us instead of showing us what that character is. We don’t need to pass “From the jargon […] of the Highland gillies […]” to Fergus, but for him simply to do so without announcing it, and his quill’s output doesn’t have the attributes of a goose, but of whatever use its author puts it to. By protesting that I should have no reason for discontent, Scott makes me discontent; he cannot control my content or dis-, and as such, he need merely tell the story, not tell me of its telling. Such protests are not cause for me to be well pleased, but cause for my own displeasure. To quote the advertising slogan of a national athletic apparel company, he should “just do it.” Basketball players can speak of their skill on the court as much as they wish, but the results we care about are on the scorecard, and authors can trumpet what they’ll do as much as they wish, but the results we care about are the stories, not the explanations. In sparring no wisdom, Scott spares us much of the novelistic wisdom of the last two hundred years.
In How Fiction Works, James Wood attributes the small-m modern novel to Flaubert in a passage that is worth quoting at length:
Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him. There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him. Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible. We hardly remark of good prose that it favours the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary […]
This is the standard by which Andrew Hook, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition of Waverley, probably judges the novel when he says that it “[…] may not be the best novel of the nineteenth century.” Scholarly introductions normally extol a book’s literary as well social/political merit, but in this case the first point is conceded in order to strengthen the second. Perhaps this is in part because of the kind of thing quoted above or what appears to be Scott’s direct address in the first chapter / introduction—the two have not been fully separated yet—when he writes that he tries to avoid writing what we would now call a period piece by “[…] throwing the force of my narrative upon the characters and passions of the actors; – those passions common to men in all stages of society […]” The same issue debated today, but within criticism rather than novels. In a recent New Yorker article titled “Regrets Only: Lionel Trilling and his Discontents,” Louis Menand says that “[Lionel Trilling] was a humanist who believe that works of literature can speak to us across time […]” before describing Trilling’s steady abandonment of that position, or at least that position in its strongest form. But Trilling argued it in nonfiction, not in fiction, and Menand argues about Trilling argues in nonfiction. Scott gives many of his theories within Waverley in a way that seems paternalistic to this post-Flaubert reader.
Wood probably overstates the case for Flaubert, but my quarrel with him is one of degree rather than fundamental alignment. One thing Flaubert accomplished in his endless quest for realism, which is itself a kind of artificial representation no matter how real, is to at least somewhat relegate the most odious and intrusive passages in Waverley into books like How Fiction Works, or Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, or the innumerable other works by author/critics who save their explicit theorizing for nonfiction studying fiction, rather than fiction itself. This can be avoided, as many contemporary authors do by using writers and critics as characters. Philip Roth did so in his Zuckerman novels and Michael Chabon does so in Wonder Boys. The protagonist, Grady Tripp, reads a troubled student’s first novel and says that
… like most good first novels it possessed an imperturbable, mistaken confidence that all the shocking incidents and extremes of human behavior it dished up would strike new chords of outrage and amazement in the reader. It was a brazen, ridiculous, thrilling performance, with a ballast of genuine sadness that kept the whole thing from keeling over in the gale-force winds of melodrama.
Although I’m not certain I would agree with the generalities expressed in Tripp’s commentary, it does at the very least hearken back to older novels like Don Quixote or Waverley. The difference is that in Wonder Boys, the digression is organic and part of the characterization of the novel itself, rather than a cutting and intrusive digression. The action for the characters themselves doesn’t freeze as a lecture gets dropped in, and the literary theory expressed has some resonance for the novel’s story. Tripp and his agent, Terry Crabtree, are going to decide what to do with Leer based in part on his novel, which they evaluate in part by their own aesthetic criteria. In Waverley, the didactic tone interrupts the action instead of being part of it and focuses on the reader themself, not the characters through the reader. Both are accomplished with layers—in Waverley, with the historian, and in Wonder Boys, with Tripp—but Wonder Boys has that additional facet of integration rather than separation.
Wonder Boys also assumes at least some familiarity with novels and novel theory; notice that Tripp is critical of “the gale-force winds of melodrama,” which simplifies and flattens characters in a way that strikes sophisticated readers as weak. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, 4th Edition, sneers that 19th Century melodrama “[…] produced a kind of naively sensational entertainment in which the main characters were excessively virtuous or exceptionally evil.” Waverley succumbs to this trap in part, with characters like Edward and Colonel Talbot, but also escapes from it with Fergus and Flora, as the former is willing to turn against Edward while the latter doesn’t swoon like a stereotypical maiden as soon as the light hero arrives. In this respect, Scott is being more modern than I might want to give him credit for, but he’s still a long way from the evolution of a novel like Wonder Boys, whether in terms of plot, characterization, or, as discussed here, knowledge of literary theory and ideas. Later in the same passage, Tripp approvingly notes that Leer has “largely abandoned his silly experiments with syntax and punctuation,” giving us further theory of what makes a good novel as stated by the character of the novel, who would probably not care for stylistically ostentatious writers who are ostentatious for its own sake, like Alain Robbe-Grillet, or, in some novels, Percival Everett.
It’s possible that novels simply can’t avoid commenting on the form to some extent, just as novels can’t seem to avoid some aspect of epistemology and mystery—even the basic mystery of “what happens next,” though a similar drive might propel readers of essays or other nonfiction. Elmore Leonard is the literary novelist I’m familiar with who gets furthest from the recursive structure of novelists on novels within novels, but even he succumbs to that urge in The Hot Kid. Before starting this response, these ideas were rolling around my mind, and I began editing the novel I’m working on, and found a passage that could be about the ability to read a character in the novel:
I looked over my notes from the previous night and found Cassie’s Facebook profile—she was the keg-stand girl—which had a note about her hangover. Otherwise, her profile contained a long list of favorite music and TV shows, but no books, and also had many semi-literate wall notes. Some from DGs empathized regarding hangovers.
The difference between Chabon, Leonard, and others, versus Scott, however, is the difference between a death metal band and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata: subtlety and composition.
None of this essay depreciates Scott’s historical importance to the development of the novel as a genre or of Romance, which was Hook’s initial point. Scott remains historically important, however, chiefly because of influence. Some of his sins might sins of a new form without boundary, and thus Scott might have felt the need to explain the form so that it can be properly enjoyed. Two hundred years since, however, the form is much understood, and an ocean of reading exists beyond what any mortal given present expected longevity can expect to achieve. If Scott caused anxiety in through that influence, it has long been cast off because he, like any pioneer, did not reach the maximum potential of the form he helped establish. Perhaps no artist does, but others have reached further than Scott, and now the dust of archives clings to his prose, which too often offers justification when it doesn’t need to: that his “pen can speedily change from grave to gay,” and many other passages I want to strike with my own pen and write in the margins, “We know!”