It is easy to label a song, building or painting as ‘beautiful.’ The same applies for sculpture, fashion, poetry and cinema. Unfortunately, novels receive little mention in discussions about art and beauty. When the topic arises, the discussion is limited to ‘pretty sentences’ and ‘creating a nice visual.’ Yet the beauty in fiction goes deeper than that. The notion of beauty cuts into the complexity of a story, its connection with history, the dialogue between author and the literary canon as well as the emotions evoked through the novel.

Really, I’d like to discuss beauty in fiction and how it transcends both narrative and language. This stems from a core belief of mine. Fiction is never alien to beauty. Although, since World War II, literary theory has gained prominence among academics, frequently at the expense of aesthetics- we must acknowledge literature’s potential and history of beauty. I’ll attempt to do so by listing the necessary criteria a novel requires for beauty. 

Spoilers are kept to a minimum.

Criteria One: An Understanding of Form

All novels need a fluent understanding of narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end. This doesn’t mean a story must be told in a linear fashion, or that an author cannot disrupt the pacing or innovate. Yet the greatest novels – particularly those in the literary canon – never shy away from form or an overarching narrative. Without one, there is chaos; all novels require at least three acts. There are other needs: characterisation, conflict and a setting. 

Belfast, Northern Ireland – May 8, 2012: One of the famous political murals in Belfast, Northern Ireland. There have been nearly 2000 murals documented in Northern Ireland since the 1970s, mostly depicting the region’s past and present political and religious divisions, or other aspects of Irish history or culture.

A brilliant example of ‘form in action’ comes from the Booker Prize winner, Milkman by Anna Burns. The opening line is succinct and sets the tone: “The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.” This introduces three characters: the protagonist, a man with a gun (who has a relationship with the narrator) and the ominous milkman. Burns deserves credit here – she establishes the offbeat and violent tone of the novel. 

Throughout it, the narrator’s commentary is fused with a narrative of the Troubles, the conflict plaguing Britain & Ireland during the 20th century. However, Burns is not content with either a recount of the Troubles or a coming-of-age tale: both must fuse together, and because of this, the novel’s narrative arc establishes tension and provokes emotion from the reader. A mistake writers of political fiction make is concealing the personal at the expense of social commentary. Milkman’s excellence is letting the characters shine – and not treat them like marionettes. 

Criteria Two: Originality & Risk Taking

Great novelists take inspiration from other writers and artists – yet he or she has a voice that is truly their own. This voice is shown in multiple ways: mostly through narrative and language choices. Yet the personality, attitudes and vision of a writer is also demonstrated through their originality. A writer is not just an artist but an engineer. Those who reach the level of greatness are accomplished at both.

Which brings us to the Italian genius Italo Calvino. In his postmodern masterpiece, If On A Winter’s Night, A Traveler, the reader who is personally addressed to by Calvino, goes on a voyage among experimentation and fragmentation. Calvino presents universal themes of fate and innocence with innovation and artistic flair. Thus, this puzzling and bewitching book emphasises the potential within language and narrative. It is a celebration of beauty herself. 

Unfortunately, there’s a trend to dismiss originality with ‘all great artists steal’ ‘no ideas are original’ and ‘you’re being weird, not original.’ Not all of these arguments lack merit. Yet no novel runs on the merits of a single idea. Rather, it’s about the presentation and combination of certain ideas, as well as any philosophical or historical commentary. A novel having originality is not sufficient enough to join the literary canon. 

Criteria Three: Evoking Emotions

Emotions are, of course, powerful. I cannot imagine a masterpiece that doesn’t evoke any emotion. To go further, all good and great novels must accomplish this, too. We do not turn to literature for a dour experience but for greater clarity into the many haunting emotions of mankind. From Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to the terrifying streets of Paris in A Tale of Two Cities, emotion is crucial to the reading experience.

There are many classics to mention yet I will take a different path. Lisa Lang’s debut novel, Utopian Man, won the Vogel’s Prize in 2009. Set in Federation-era Melbourne, we trace the life and the inventions of a brilliant optimist: Edward William Cole. The novel has moments of joy and sadness without venturing into melodrama or ‘false positivity.’ Novelists, particularly those hungry for greatness, must understand the urgency of authenticity. Impulses of melodrama and mockery are signs of a sloppy story. Therefore, writers must give consideration when evoking emotions in the reader. It’s not guaranteed: the only way for readers to connect with a story is when the writer is competent at their craft.

I’ve defended sentimentality in a previous article. But it doesn’t suit all storytellers and caution is required. 

Criteria Four: Dialogue With History

History matters – it’s part of us. 

A great novel is never written out of nothing. It is concerned with history, especially literary – and is in dialogue with other novels, poems and stories. A wonderful example is A.S Byatt’s Possession, which involves poetry and a romance between two academics – as well as their connection with the Victorian period. There’s commentary on knowledge, romance, obsession, academic theories and the potency behind literature. Yet a great novel can also use allegory and satire, such as George Orwell’s novella Animal Farm

The literary canon is more than ‘good books.’ It’s meant to speak to our history and ourselves. History is not just a matter for museum staff and academics waiting on tenure: it’s a topic for all of humanity, especially writers. There are other excellent examples of historical dialogues: Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. 

Criteria Five: Complexity

One reason to read Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones is its complexity. This not only applies to the characters, but also to the narrative, language and overall scope of the story. A great novel is not afraid of nuance and depth to characters, moral qualms, plot points and historical context. So often, writers who tackle meaty and controversial themes fall into moralising – without ever understanding why characters, and human beings, act the way they do. A great writer gives careful consideration into the motivations behind each character. More importantly, an excellent novel refuses to simplify moral scenarios. Such is a strength of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

Unfortunately, reading communities can get antagonistic towards authors who have sympathetic villains or nuanced depictions of characters. It’s not just literary heavyweights such as Vladimir Nabakov who gets it: I recall many angry Harry Potter fans who could never accept the lack of simplicity in Severus Snape’s actions. Other sad discussions have plagued the fan culture of Game of Thrones, particularly towards the three Lannisters (Cersei, Jaime, Tyrion) and Theon Greyjoy. To quote Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from The Gulag Archipelago

“If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn

To this, we need bold writers, of all styles and genres, who are fearless and can write complex stories with significant moral weight. The Kindly Ones is just one example. 

Criteria Six: Aesthetic Pleasure of Language

The masterpieces of English literature are a joy to read – even when the subject matter is depressing. Like a music composer deciding on a particular rhythm, the best novels present language akin to an opera: where every sentence is its own revelation. Previously, I mentioned Vladimir Nabokov for moral complexity – but it’s Pale Fire, the experimental novel with a poetic flair, that shows the potential and prowess of language. Yet beautiful language transcends concerns of grammar and syntax. It’s impossible to articulate or fully advise a writer on creating beauty through language.

This isn’t due to the subjective nature of aesthetics, but because it’s impossible for readers to predict what stories will influence them in the future. Yet there are certain elements of beautiful language: visual imagery, the ability to evoke emotions and to convey sentiments unlike anyone else. A beautiful novel, and also a great one, can express human thoughts, experiences and desires like no one besides the author. 

Nabokov, forever a trickster, acknowledges this in Pale Fale: “Solitude is the playfield of Satan.” This captures anyone who is taunted by loneliness – yet Nabokov’s best trick is language. The first and last words flow well together. The sentence is nicely written and structured. More importantly, great language always demands a second reading. Once I finished reading Pale Fire, I put the book on the table, allowing it to leave my hands – but not my imagination, or my conscience. Such is the terrifying, and wonderful power of words.

These are my five criteria on asserting beauty in novels. However, it can take other forms. 

What are your thoughts? Comment below – especially with any thoughts on beauty or the literary canon at large.

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