“If the novel is a form of imaginative art, it cannot be at the same time a vivid
and brilliant form of journalism. Out of the teeming, gleaming stream of the
present it must select the eternal material of art…The higher processes of art
are all the processes of simplification.”
This comment is a from an essay on novel writing by Willa that’s an absolute little gem called, “The Novel De’meuble’.” One of my all-time favorite authors, Willa was both a journalist and an author revered for her superb fiction, so her view that there is a fundamental difference between imaginative writing and journalistic writing in fiction is surely worth pondering.
From this brief, but powerful essay, it’s clear that Willa felt that enumerating objects and lavish descriptions of material things was often used in novel writing as a substitute for emotionally evocative description that creates a mood. Here’s how she puts it:
“Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there — that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.”
How masterfully Willa captures the art and craft of wonderful writing — writing that evokes rather than enumerates, that hints rather than hits you over the head, that speaks most powerfully through what it leaves unsaid. This is just what I feel Elizabeth Strout did in Olive Kitteridge — and why it’s such a haunting and beautiful novel. “The overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it” — what a remarkable way to describe the essence of imaginative writing. Let’s think about this as we write on.