The Two Things A Fiction Writer Needs

Notes on Sontag by Philip LopateI agree with Philip Lopate on the following two things he says a fiction writer needs to have:

Sontag felt the big game was fiction. And that’s where you win the Noble Prize. You don’t win it for writing essays. That’s understandable and that would’ve been great had she been a great fiction writer. Some people can do both, but she lacked a deep sympathy for other people—which is okay if you’re a critic because you don’t have to be that empathetic if you’re a critic, you just have to know what you think about something. And she lacked, for the most part, a sense of humor. It’s hard to be a great novelist without those two things. Somehow she also disdained realism and naturalism for a long time, so that meant she didn’t put that much emphasis into building characters and situations but was much more interested in experimental fiction; when she practiced it, it seemed a little dry. I’m not saying anything that devastating because she was so good an essayist, it’s not a crime not to be a terrific fiction writer also. It’s just that because I love the essay, I regret that she came to put her eggs in another basket.

Empathy is essential to any kind of fiction; a good sense of humor, though essential in any case, would seem to be more necessary to experimental fiction (perhaps because playfulness is experimental literature’s stock-in-trade).

Perhaps this is why very good critics rarely make very good novelists (with James Wood being the first example other than Sontag that pops to mind). Criticism and fiction are both kinds of creative writing, but they are very different kinds of creative writing, and it’s rare to see someone who can truly excel at both. William H. Gass is a good example of someone who has, although reading his criticism (or his fiction) you begin to see why.

For more about Lopate and Sontag, read our review of Lopate’s recent book-length essay on Sontag. Also see our essay on Sontag’s journals.

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Humor is vastly underrated in writers, and almost worse than a writer not being funny is when a writer is, but people don’t realize it. Melville was a tremendously funny writer, but few people I discuss him with feel the same way. George Eliot and Flaubert and Faulkner–all used humor to great effect, but most people don’t think of them in terms of humor.

Alternative hypothesis: Good critics often make very good novelists. It’s common to see someone who can truly excel at both.
Evidence: George Eliot, Henry James, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Guy Davenport, Alessandro Manzoni, Edgar Allan Poe, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ford Madox Ford, Oscar Wilde, D. H. Lawrence.
I’m not sure I agree with this hypothesis, but I wouldn’t want to take the reverse for granted.

Hurrah for Amateur Reader (who certainly doesn’t SOUND like an amateur)! And we could add enormously to that list of good novelists who were also (usually for the steady paycheck) good critics – my boy Randall Jarrell, for instance, or almost all the great Russians (although the pinnacle will surely always be Virginia Woolf, who was not only good but great at both)(and the Edgar Allen Poe was a good catch – far too few people know what a great critic he was). I think the key is not to look at this as two different species of animal but rather simply as two different skills – like cooking and long-distance running – at which you work to get good. The problem here is centering on monstrously overrated oddities like Sontag – MOST half-way conscientious novelists can be very good critics… after all, who’s better qualified for the job?

Of course, those writers are all novelists or fiction writers first (with the possible exception of Sartre, who was something else), not so Sontag.
I’m contractually obligated to mention Gabriel Josipovici as a wonderful writer of fiction and an equally marvelous critic.

Sartre, Eliot, and Woolf were the first to come to my mind, but I would add Calvino as well.

I loved THE BOOK AGAINST GOD, a novel by James Wood. Just loved it.

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