Roger L. Simon

The Mind of a Novelist

Several people have had something to say about Jane Smiley’s article in Slate today, but as a novelist (not nearly as successful as Ms. Smiley but still successful enough to have been in Slate’s own roundup of how novelists were voting in Tusday’s election), I have a different perspective.

We novelists do not always deal in logic. We are dramatists and storytellers and think in scenes, entertaining ones hopefully. Here’s some vivid scene writing by Ms. Smiley on primitive life in the ‘Red States’ back in the olden days. It’s from the article itself:

Ignorance and bloodlust have a long tradition in the United States, especially in the red states. There used to be a kind of hand-to-hand fight on the frontier called a “knock-down-drag-out,” where any kind of gouging, biting, or maiming was considered fair. The ancestors of today’s red-state voters used to stand around cheering and betting on these fights. When the forces of red and blue encountered one another head-on for the first time in Kansas Territory in 1856, the red forces from Missouri, who had been coveting Indian land across the Missouri River since 1820, entered Kansas and stole the territorial election.

“Especially in the red states?” Perhaps Ms. Smiley missed Caleb Carr’s vision of old New York filled with psychopathic killers in The Alienist or better yet Martin Scorsese’s recent film Gangs of New York – that’s almost as bad as anything in the red states, I’d say. In fact, a lot worse. [But didn’t all those New Yorkers vote for Kerry?-ed. They’ve had a lot of psychotherapy.] But wait. What about peaceful Europe in literature and film (not to mention history)? Nothing more pacific than a good read of Dostoevsky.

But you get my point. The mind of a good fantasist must make those stories vivid. And to do that you have to live in those stories, believe your vision and live it like an actor. Contradictory ideas are to some extent not allowed because they would vitiate the drama, leaving only a lifeless essay.

That means the novelist (myself included) must be something of an hysteric when writing. You are inventing your own private reality. That is what Ms. Smiley has done in her article. I would like to emphasize, however, that I admire her tremendously as an author. She has afforded me much pleasure with her books.