I’m in one of those moods where – though there are book group books and Shiny New Books I should be reading – I am impulsively picking up other, non-essential books, and reading them instead. Once I get them in my head, nothing else will quite do. Which is why I’ve recently read The Outlaws on Parnassus (1958) by Margaret Kennedy – which I bought when Jane ran Margaret Kennedy Reading Week.
It’s non-fiction – more specifically, a look at the art of the novel. In case the opaque title isn’t immediately clear, this is the opening paragraph, which might help:
The status of the novel, as a form of art, has never been clearly determined. No particular Muse was assigned to story-tellers. There are no Chairs of Fiction at our Universities. Criticism has never paid to the novel the degree of attention which it has accorded to other kinds of literature.
So, Kennedy’s title suggests that the novel is something of an outlaw among the other forms of literature, waiting for the gods on Mount Parnassus. While her opening statements are no longer true (there are plenty of Chairs of Fiction) and probably weren’t quite true in 1958, the doesn’t take away from the interesting discussion Kennedy launches into – interesting both on its own merits, and as a snapshot of literary opinion in the mid-century.
The Outlaws on Parnassus starts by looking through a brief history of the novel, dwelling on those names that were only a century or so old in the 1950s. (Indeed, throughout the reference points are intriguing – we expect to find Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf – and do – but how many books about the novel written today would return so often to Joyce Carey?) Kennedy writes some very interesting things about the difference between plot, story, and comment – not all of which I agree with, but it’s interesting nonetheless – and includes some very adroit comparisons of the skeletons of novels, convincingly identifying the same plot structures in Vanity Fair and To The Lighthouse, for instance.
But most of the book, Kennedy looks at different approaches to narrative forms and narrator personae. The latter she divides into autobiographical, author-observer, impersonal narrative, realist, and egocentric. I can’t imagine her categories becoming lasting pillars of literary criticism, but she argues her points well, giving specific examples for each of these styles of a woman entering a room and being found beautiful by those in it.
I’ve read quite a lot about realist fiction in my studies, as you might expect, having written about fantastic literature – and I wish I’d come across this earlier. It pretty much sums up what happened with realist fiction (and the backlash against it) in the early 20th century. I can’t work out if the echoes of Woolf’s ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ are intentional or not, but it plays out less condescendingly that Woolf’s (excellent and witty, but, yes, condescending) essay: (oh, by the way, the hypothetical Flora and her activities form Kennedy’s exemplar throughout the book)
In the early realistic novel Flora’s validity was established by surrounding her with intensely valid detail, of a kind which the reader could readily endorse from his own experience. If she cooked cabbage the house smelt of it. If the weather was warm she sweated. If she went to Penzance she started from Paddington and took a train which could be verified in Bradshaw. If she died she did so of an authentic disease described in clinical detail. Any doctor, reading an account of her symptoms, would agree that she had to die. No author could save her after ‘a coffee grounds vomit’.
This detail need not necessarily be sordid or disgusting; it was a matter of plain accuracy. The whole technique however came to be identified with this unseemly statement, because it was this aspect of it which most struck the average reader. He had never met such things in a novel before; a ‘realistic novel’ not only mentioned a privy but described minutely what went on there. Many realistic novels used such material sparingly, but liberty to employ cloacal, physical, or sexual detail was interpreted, by so many inferior novelists, as licence that the whole nature of the technique came to be misunderstood.
And then there are sections wherein Kennedy looks back at specific moments in critical history, as the novel began to be understood (or misunderstood) by a wider public. She is particularly reproving of those, in the 1930s, who chose to turn their focus away from the qualities of art:
A distinction between art and non-art may be useful, but it is not the most vital distinction to be made. The major service of criticism is to distinguish between bad art and good art, and, above all, to help us to understand why good art is good. It was a great misfortune for the cause of the novel that criticism should have gone off on a witch-hunting excursion, just when novelists had a chance of securing serious attention. They were not the only sufferers. Some attempt was also made, in the 1930s, to screen the poets for suspicious intentions and cynical attitudes, but the poets are better established. Enough sense has been talked about them, in the course of 2,500 years, to enable them to stand up against an occasional bombardment of nonsense. The case of the novelists was not so robust. Their public, long accustomed to think of them with a certain degree of disparagement, would have been reluctant enough, in any case, to changes its ideas. An opportunity was missed of establishing an art, claimed as great, by defining those qualities which make it so. It was neglected in favour of denunciations against naughty boys.
The only curious misstep in The Outlaws on Parnassus, to my mind, is the late chapter where Kennedy writes at length about the plot of The Odyssey without, so far as I can tell, much of a wider point to make. She makes a half-hearted attempt to call it the world’s first novel, but the chapter still feels a bit like she wrote it for something else, and thought she might as well include it to bulk out the number of pages.
But, that aside, it’s a really fun, interesting, and engaging little book. It’s no surprise that it didn’t revolutionise the world of literary theory, but those of us who love novelists like Margaret Kennedy and reading about novels (as well as reading novels themselves), then this is a bit of a find.