Against The Novel of Validation
Desk Notes explores writing, travel, and literature—with a new issue every Friday.
Just before the halfway mark of Ian McEwan’s 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, we arrive at a sentence where the narrator gives the reader a wink:
I was the basest of readers. All I wanted was my own world, and myself in it, given back to me in artful shapes and accessible form.
Our narrator for this passage is Serena Frome, a recent Cambridge graduate, an employee of the domestic security services, who is—by an improbable yet somehow true to life twist—reading fiction for her employer. In the quote above, she’s assessing a short story with one eye toward the security service’s aim of corralling at least a few young writers toward a more, well, useful perspective.
So we find ourselves reading a curious short story right along with the narrator—a story within a story format with a touch of similarity to McEwan’s most successful novel, Atonement, which also comes with the character of a writer as integral to the telling. In Sweet Tooth the structure is more direct, however, and we end up reading several short stories within the novel, while, of course, comparing Serena’s reactions to our own reactions. You might even say that Serena is spying on a fiction writer and that we’re, as readers, spying on Serena. Her tastes are nothing if not contemporary:
There was, in my view, an unwritten contract with the reader that the writer must honor. No single element of an imagined world or any of its characters should be allowed to dissolve on authorial whim. The invented had to be as solid and as self-consistent as the actual. This was a contract founded on mutual trust.
She’s an avid reader, though her preferences don’t fit into the neat categories of any literature department; she wants a conventional narrative along with a little bit of suspense and above all else a real story. She doesn’t quite do artifice or anything discursive—especially the poetic. Few readers will pass over these descriptions without turning Serena’s microscope onto their own tastes. And of course the reader of Sweet Tooth can’t quite agree with those preferences, as we’re now reading a fictional character read a fictional writer and, soon enough, watching the text in our hands take its new shape.
In a scheme that oscillates between shrewd and ridiculous—a flavor of so many Cold War schemes—the security service plans to fund individual writers who have a perspective that’s beneficial to the west. The operation is named Sweet Tooth, and Serena is charged with a promising writer named Tom Haley. Because we’re both in a novel and the Cold War, she’s soon dating him and—to my mind, most outlandishly—offering advice about his writing.
…I thought I was beginning to grasp something about invention. As a reader, a speed-reader, I took it for granted, it was a process I never troubled myself with. You pulled a book from the shelf and there was an invented, peopled world, as obvious as the one you lived in.
An attentive reader might notice that the subject is just as much their eyes, as it is spies, the Cold War, the 1970s, or these particular characters. And how does a page of words create and shape a character?
Almost like cooking, I thought sleepily. Instead of the heat transforming the ingredients, there’s pure invention, the spark, the hidden element. What resulted was more than the sum of the parts.
Most readers, unfortunately, follow Serena’s earlier quote about being the basest of readers—they want a novel that provides a mirror of their world, one that reflects in fiction what they experience in life. And it requires a bit of charity to not consider this a solipsistic desire. What the reader feels and thinks and has already experienced is what the novel of validation delivers.
Perhaps literature works best, however, when both writer and reader strain just a bit, when they avoid the cheap affirmation and comfort of the familiar and seek what’s just beyond. Sweet Tooth toys with the spooky elements of how characters are shaped in fiction—with both writer and reader as pertinent to the story—but it also hints at how a novel allows you to inhabit the sensibilities and identity and edges of a character, especially one quite a bit different from yourself.
Although I will leave to you the ending, I betray nothing by noting that the fictional writer, Tom Haley, explains that a novel demands that the writer become the character. And literature comes from the intimacy of closing this distance between the familiar and the unfamiliar. His apt phrase—“poured myself into your skin”—reveals why a novel is, at its best, never solipsistic.