Can the Novel Speak Every Language?

[Also published on The Inkwell,'s literary blog:

We’ve all eagerly awaited the movie adaptation of a beloved novel, only to leave the theater deflated. What happened? How could that novel, which we imagined so clearly in our heads, fall so utterly short of reality? Where were the characters, the dialogue, the excitement, and that one scene? They cut it out of the movie! When people pompously assert that “the book was better,” perhaps they’re not being so pompous; perhaps they’re merely stating the simple fact that a novel does what a novel does, and a movie does it differently. Artistic forms require translation, and like translation, something is gained and lost when you move from one form/language to another. A novel is a literary construction bound to specific rules, customs, and histories. When you write a novel, you don’t just write a story any more than you speak a universal language; to write a novel is to slip into history, using the tools bequeathed you by generations of writers and slipping into a familiar ‘character’ that we know from any one of a thousand books. No matter how unique your literary voice, a novel is still a novel, and needs to sound like one...and everything we write is a version of every one we’ve ever read, to a greater or lesser degree.

The great writer and novelist V.S. Naipaul had this to say about the novel and its limitations in his essay, “Reading and Writing” (2000):
“Fiction works best in a confined moral and cultural area, where the rules are generally known; and in that confined area it deals best with things—emotions, impulses, moral anxieties—that would be unseizable or incomplete in other literary forms…The metropolitan novel, so attractive, so apparently easy to imitate, comes with metropolitan assumptions about society: the availability of a wider learning, an idea of history, a concern with self-knowledge.  Where those assumptions are wrong, where the wider learning is missing or imperfect, I am not sure the novel can offer more than the externals of things.”

What does he mean when he writes that the “metropolitan novel...comes with metropolitan assumptions about society”? In one sense, the novel comes from the European centers of thought, and for the English-speaking world, that center is London. The novel is the intellectual property of Defoe, Austen, Dickens, and the Brontës. Every novel we write copies some aspect of their style, as well as their awareness at being at the center of a bustling civilization. Even though much time has passed since Wuthering Heights—and that empire has fallen—to write a novel is to speak with an English accent. Every omniscient narrator has something of Austen’s wry observation and cheek about him or her, just as anyone who writes dialogue does so with not only Austen but Dickens haunting their speech (even if you’ve never read a word of either author).

Things get tricky, however, the further away we get from London and the 19th century. As Naipaul explains, a novel comes with “assumptions about society.” It assumes that we have a certain amount of education, are from a certain level of society, with a certain respect for self-examination. Readers often feel alienated with classic literature because, for all its universal ideas, it makes assumptions based on an ‘ideal reader’ who lived almost 200 years ago. The closer we are to this reader, the more we understand him or her, and in England, America, Canada, and many of the former colonies, we can slip into the shoes of this reader with relatively little effort. At least, those of us who had the benefit of good schools and a good reading environment at home can; otherwise, these books can feel as alien as deciphering Minoan Linear-A script (and this reference makes its own assumptions about audience, much as a reading novel does).

How much more difficult is it those outside the “metropolitan” orbit, in the Non-Western world, who struggle to make sense of the novel’s structure, introspection, and obscure references to 80’s pop culture?
For like it or not, the novel is largely a Western invention (despite some longer prose works in other countries), and continues to serve Western interests and aesthetics. Can the oral literature of other countries fit neatly into the chapters and narration of a novel? What about an exotic form (to Western eyes) like Japanese Noh Drama? Or even manga themselves? If two Western forms—the novel and the film—often fair poorly in translation, what hope do we hold for Non-Western countries to ‘translate’ their ideas to the novel? Or, would such translation require these cultures to largely adopt or express Western ideas or stories? Can the novel truly carry the cultural ‘seed’ of every nation within its covers? Or is it a covert act of cultural assimilation, asking—or demanding—diverse cultures adopt an accent quite foreign to their own?

Naipaul clearly had his reservations about the novel, suggesting that “[w]here those assumptions are wrong, where the wider learning is missing or imperfect, I am not sure the novel can offer more than the externals of things.” In this case, the “externals of things” could mean nothing more than a plot, a concession to genre, but not an original voice. A novel could actually force writers to lose their voice and ideas in the disguise of a “metropolitan” identity. There are so many forms of literature in the world, all of them readily available in bookstores and of course on line. And yet the novel is the one that sells, the go-to form of literature for every writer to adopt. To make your mark in the world, you have to write a novel; indeed, in genre writing, there really is no other form of writing. A horror poem? Not since Poe. An epic science fiction poem? Only in Klingon. 

We can never discount the novel, since it represents a technological breakthrough for literature. Developed in the 18th century (in English, anyway) it incorporated diverse genres into a single voice: letter-writing, travel writing, histories, romances, autobiography. They all speak in a single document, which can artfully switch-gears, sometimes in mid-sentence, to reflect another time, world, or life. And yet, one size does not fit all. Some cultures are more visual, some more poetic. Some nations would have no use for the kinds of plots that power the modern novel. As we move boldly into the 21st century, we have to seek out new books and new writers. Novels, certainly, but not just that. Not every voice can speak in the same accent or tell the same story. So the question remains, what new form(s) can emerge to speak these languages and tell these stories? Perhaps the novel itself will adapt, living up to its moniker as “novel” once again.

Until then, each writer should consider what story the novel tells, and with what voice. A novel can do many things, but it’s still only an artistic representation of life, not life itself. No form of art can replicate the complex, contradictory experience of a single minute on this planet; yet a good story makes us think—for a few pages, at least— that we’ve crossed over into another world without a hiccup in translation. However, we can’t assume a novel alone can blur the line between experience and art. The only thing worse than hearing someone say “the book was better,” is “my culture is better than this...”