O: Besides talent, what are the particular human qualities it takes to be a novelist?

John Edgar Wideman:
Novelists must learn the skill of listening, practice listening as discipline and discovery. The best novelists hear their subjects, and their writing bears witness to a conversation with presences real as a friend, an enemy, a stone in a shoe, a sword poised over the writer's head, a person or place unrecoverable yet never quite absent. Which is not to say writers are necessarily nuts. Cervantes, unlike his creation Don Quixote, could distinguish windmills from dragons. Most of the time, anyway.

To hear a subject requires a novelist to develop an acute aural consciousness. Special muscles must be honed for listening not only to what other people say but for tuning in and gauging the immense silence in which speech, action, and time resonate. Good writers learn to understand they inhabit a world full of unheard music—music analogous to the dense, unfathomable welter of sensations animating creatures like dogs, birds, and fish, whose biological makeup enables them to experience perceptions outside human reach. Echoes, traces of this separate, elusive, overarching music, infiltrate and saturate the best fiction, dancing around the edges of characters and ideas. Based upon the singularity of what they discipline themselves to hear of this mix, individual writers generate a signature prose rhythm that plays inside the reader's head. A kind of ground-noise, barely rising above silence, though close enough to the threshold of audibility so you know when it's there, know when it's missing. Music less intrusive, more subtle than a Hollywood soundtrack but equally as informative and supportive of a story's narrative flow.

Part of the pleasure, the instruction, of reading a novelist who achieves the gift/burden of hearing a subject is learning to listen to the writer's act of listening. Attentiveness doubled. Give and take. Call and response. In Duke Ellington's sense, the prose swings. The matter communicated literally moves a reader's body and mind. We share what a story's talking about, feel the tangible presence of the many, many things it embodies.

Walter Kirn: At the beginning of a novel, a writer needs confidence, but after that what's required is persistence. These traits sound similar. They aren't. Confidence is what politicians, seducers, and currency speculators have, but persistence is a quality found in termites. It's the blind drive to keep on working that persists after confidence breaks down.

This breakdown usually happens in chapter five or so, but sometimes it comes as early as chapter two. The book's characters have been introduced by then and given a world to live in, creating atmosphere. The challenges they face have been described and made to seem monumental, creating tension. Finally, the novelist's friends and family have been pushed away, creating loneliness. Now what? The mind is powerless to answer, leaving the nerves and glands to do the job, assisted at times by caffeine and other substances.

But such chemical helpers only help so much. The mysterious energy required to turn silence into words and roll those words perpetually uphill originates deep within the soul—so deep that its sources resist analysis. Novelists who pretend to understand what keeps them scribbling are really just guessing. A profound, unmet childish need to be acknowledged? Maybe. It hardly matters, though. The termite that asks itself why it keeps chewing risks becoming sluggish and inefficient, as does the writer who grows self-conscious in the middle of chapter five. Stopping to think is fine for characters, but not for their creators.

They have to work.

Photo: Courtesy John Edgar Wideman


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