What the novel needs is thinking. Writing on paper has provided a way of augmenting thinking so that one's thoughts can not only be communicated to others, but also to oneself. In the communication to oneself the thoughts can be improved, extended, projected into areas that otherwise one would never have considered. The prose writer who seems first to have grasped this idea explicitly, and turned it into a method, was Gustave Flaubert; his method of writing-as-thinking as widely and deeply as possible in the construction of a story was described in an OnFiction post of 16 February 2009 (click here). The effect of iteration round the drafting circle is that the topics of the writing—characters, events, thoughts, verbal expressions—have been thought about deeply. A poet can spend weeks on a fourteen-line sonnet. A writer of short-stories can take months to write a ten-page story. A novelist can take years to write a novel. So unlike a paragraph in a newspaper, or a news snippet, or many of the pieces one reads on the internet, the subject of such application by an imaginative writer has been thought about all the way down to its fundamentals. This fact alone can separate many books from some of the ephemera of the internet.
But what enables a writer to spend all this time thinking on a single subject? Maja Djikic, Jordan Peterson, and I (2006) explored the idea that it's the emotions, particularly unresolved emotions which provide the motivation to keep iterating round the circle of externalizing and internalizing thoughts (see our article in the Archive of Academic Papers). Phil Johnson-Laird and colleagues have recently shown that people with certain kinds of mental illness, for instance of anxiety states and depression, are not disordered in their thinking about the emotional issues of their illness (see for instance, Johnson-Laird in How we reason, 2006). They actually think better than normal people on these emotional issues. That is to say when offered a problem that has to do with the particular emotion which is at the centre of their condition (for instance anxiety or depression), they construct a larger array of mental models, and make better inferences. By contrast people who are not suffering from an emotional problem, tend to make more mistakes because they do not explore sufficient possibilities of a problem, and they tend stop too soon. According to these results, an emotional disorder does not occur because sufferers are thinking in a distorted way about their problem. Their thinking is not distorted. It is excessive.
It occurred to me recently that writing has some qualities of people in anxiety states, depression etc. Like the person with an emotional disorder, the writer thinks long and hard about an issue's emotional implications. Drawing on the augmentation provided by paper, the writer turns this obsessional thinking not into an illness but into a work of art.
Philip Johnson-Laird (2006). How we reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Image: A near-final draft by George Orwell, of his 1984, in which he finally achieves his famous first line: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."