The Cosmic Statement
Picture yourself as halfway through your first novel. You meet a literary agent at a party, and she (usually a she) asks you, ‘And what is your novel about?’ You have a glass in your hand, it is a social occasion, she obviously needs a swift reply. What do you say? There’s no time for an elaborate narration of the plot – ‘there’s these two people and he thinks this and she thinks that, and they do this and they do that.’ She wants to know how your novel is positioned in the world of human affairs and in particular in that of book marketing: who is going to buy it? She needs you to tell her what Elizabeth Bowen calls ‘the poetic truth, that which is played out in the ensuing novel in a non poetic way.’ (Find the reference her fine essay Notes on Writing a Novel, written in 1946 and collected in The Mulberry Tree, Vintage, 1999.)
‘The poetic truth’, the heart of the matter, what I tend to call the ‘cosmic statement’. It is this truth the writer has to find and describe to the agent at the party, and often finds great difficulty doing so. It can seem too simple, almost naïve. But, again quoting my heroine Elizabeth Bowen, it is there to be found – ‘what is left after the whittling away of alternatives’, the essential, the ‘what is to be said’.
If the agent asked Dickens at a party ‘What’s your new novel about, Charles?’ he would say ‘Oh, it’s about how things can seem the best of times when they’re actually the worst of times. It plays out during the French Revolution. I’m calling it The Tale of Two Cities.’
Or the agent: ‘I hear you’re writing a book, E.L. What’s it about?’ And E.L. will reply: ‘Oh, it’s about how women love to be dominated. I reckon there’s a market out there. I’m calling it 50 Shades of Grey because in this world things are so seldom black or white, good or bad.’
Once you’ve worked out what your novel is about – it’s surprisingly often about your own family situation, though you don’t realise it – and faced it, the writing gets surprisingly easier.
Indeed a practical writer might well begin by seeing their own novel in the form of a school science experiment before they even began. Instead of ‘poetic truth’ or ‘cosmic statement’ they would look for their hypothesis; not just ‘what is to be said’ but ‘what is to be proved.’
Thus, crudely –
Hypothesis: The rich despise the poor, the poor envy the rich, both deny it.
Ingredients: Your brain and laptop.
- Choose characters who will further your argument. (Say – boy with a public school background: check-out girl from local comprehensive, titled therapist to chart their discontent, store manager stalker.)
- Choose events which will prove your point. (They fall in love, but love is blighted by their social and cultural expectations of one another. Love is not all you need. They go to marriage guidance; boy runs off with his titled therapist. Girl finds true love with store manager.)
QED: That which was to be proved. The rich despised the poor, the poor envied the rich, both denied it.
In essence that’s all a novel is. Something to be proved, which, once proved, satisfies both writer and reader. Forget that the reader has invented the whole thing, every step of the way. Again, Elizabeth Bowen. ‘The novel lies, in saying something happened that did not. It must, therefore, contain uncontradictable truth, to warrant the original lie.’
Anyone who wants can take that plot.