The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist: Understand What Happens When We Write and Read Novels

Dichotomies aspire to put everything in the red corner or the blue one, and though this may enable discussion, it rarely accords with reality. Isaiah Berlin was careful to offer his dichotomy between the hedgehog, which knows one big thing, and the fox, which knows many little things, as "a starting point for investigation" rather than "an aid to serious criticism". When Craig Raine says that T S Eliot was thematically a hedgehog but stylistically a fox, he forces a distinction on Eliot that he believes the poet escapes, and he divorces Eliot's themes from his style. Berlin's idea is theoretically helpful without having practical use; expository short cuts must not be mistaken for critical tools. William Empson, who judged theories by the analysis they produced, and was reluctant to chop things down the middle (Seven Types of Ambiguity, Some Versions of Pastoral), devoted the first pages of his magnum opus, The Structure of Complex Words (1951), to illustrating that the linguist's categories of emotive and cognitive language could not be applied to a poem such as Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn".

Orhan Pamuk, in his strange new book, warns against using "Cartesian logic" without realising his debt to its strategies. Despite himself, he has a taste for the tidy. It was the German poet Schiller who spoke of "naive" and "sentimental" poetry, and Pamuk, who prefers "reflective" to "sentimental", wants the division to vibrate through his six lectures on the writing and reading of novels. "Being a novelist," Pamuk says, "is the art of being both naive and reflective at the same time."

If by "at the same time" he means with the same breath or thought, why invoke the distinction? Why preserve it when it has ceased to matter? Elsewhere, he warns against Cartesian thinking when considering a form that tells lies that ask to be believed, yet it is Pamuk who imagines the opposition between "fiction" and "belief". His discussion of the novel proffers such opposites as "imagination" and "reality", the "visual" and "verbal" imagination, "art" and "craft"; but he is talking about the potential coexistence of these things, rather than their functional non-existence - as a true anti-dualist would.

At the beginning of one paragraph, Pamuk writes: "Allow me to generalise." He could have begun every paragraph in this way; it could have been the name of the book. Pamuk's generalisations often rely on sleight of hand that is none too persuasive: "The desire to explore particular topics comes first. Only then do novelists conceive the figures who would be elucidating the topics. This is how I have always done it. And I feel that all writers, knowingly or unknowingly, do the same." It is hard not to witness, in such grand illogic, a triumph of solipsism over reason - the need for explanation circumvented by the authority of the Great Writer.

When Pamuk isn't confusing what is true for him with what is true for all novelists, he is stating the obvious, or treating the spurious as the obvious: "The historical novel works best when its artifices and framing devices are apparent"; "politics entails a determination not to understand those who are different from us". Most of the time, he shows a preference for headlines over footnotes, and when he deigns to argue, he does so badly. He says, for instance, that the point of reading a novel is to search for "the centre", a "deeply embedded point of mystery"; by way of support, he quotes V S Naipaul and Henry James using the word "centre", but in obviously different senses. Elsewhere, he explains that "the objective correlative" is not, as Eliot said, a neutrally depicted situation that justifies an emotion, but "the picture of the moment . . . that is seen through the eyes of the hero". But this is the "subjective correlative"!

Pamuk is not being figurative when he says "the eyes of the hero"; in his view, the novel is an essentially pictorial form. Dostoevsky is apparently the "striking counter-example", while Henry James "is a writer who knows that being a novelist means painting with words". James was not only a great novelist, but a great critic, so it is a bit grim to see Pamuk pin this childish "knowledge" on him. He feels able to do so because James's prefaces contain terms such as "seeing" and "panorama", but it is virtually impossible to write without metaphors of this kind, and in reality James, though capable of rapture, had little interest in sensual fondling. He fastened his attention on the bowl, the carpet, the dove, the fount and the screw because those visible objects served as metaphors or symbols, usually for social predicaments and psychological states.

About halfway through the book, Pamuk says that his belief that novels are "visual" fictions is "one of my strongest opinions". This helps to clarify the book's formula of confidently delivered nonsense - Pamuk is emulating Vladimir Nabokov, especially the Nabokov of Strong Opinions. Pamuk is fond of the word "life", which Nabokov said "does not exist without a possessive epithet", and admires Thomas Mann, for whom Nabokov had contempt. Otherwise, this is Nabokov redux: "ideas" are bunk, politics are to be avoided, the point of reading and writing novels is to commune with the lush and lovely visible world. Pamuk's habit of generalising his own situation is present in Nabokov's leap from "I think in images" to the claim that other people must also do the same because they "don't move their lips when they think". And his passion for exotic simplicities and purported yokings is contracted from the Nabokov who claimed that a good reader should possess "the passion of science and the patience of poetry".

Nabokov's ideas constitute one (extreme) model of reading, but many writers treat them as holy writ. At a talk to high-school students in Oklahoma recently, Ian McEwan commanded: "When you sit down with a great work of literature, don't be intimidated by it. Forget about the 'themes' - themes are just great, soggy things that teachers want out of you." Instead, he advised concentrating on images, details and word-choice. "If you want to write," he continued, "don't think of the whole of your story. Think of the details." McEwan was not only preaching what he is no good at practising, as Saturday and Solar showed, he was also implying that this is the only profitable approach - that writers who think in terms of canvas rather than brushstroke are in the wrong line of business.

McEwan was addressing a young audience who wouldn't have known better; but Pamuk, delivering the Norton Lectures at Harvard, was addressing what Frank Kermode once called "one of the best audiences in the world" - "the gifted young" and "their learned elders". They would have known better, having given some thought to the matter, but in this book Pamuk is addressing a non-academic readership, perhaps one not as young as McEwan's students, though no less eager to be educated by a world-famous writer. It would be a shame if they believed what he says. l

The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist: Understand What Happens When We Write and Read Novels
Orhan Pamuk
Faber & Faber, 208pp, £14.99

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle