Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Peter Carey and Making Plans

Inbetween marking HAT tests, doing admissions administration and teaching, I’m reading Parrot and Olivier in America, the new novel by the Australian master-novelist Peter Carey, which narrowly failed to win this year’s Man Booker Prize. All names have been changed, but it’s basically a fictional account of the French aristocrat Alexis de Toqueville’s journey to the USA, which inspired him to write the seminal Democracy in America (1835 & 1840).

Reading Parrot and Oliver has reminded me of something my friends who write/publish fiction talk about, and which the novelist Zadie Smith even lectured on last year – the fact that novelists construct their books in two radically different ways. Some plan everything out (plot etc.) meticulously beforehand; others (like Smith) literally just sit down and write and see what happens. I have a very strong hunch that Peter Carey falls into this latter category – the opening scenes in a Normandy post-revolutionary chateau, and in a radical printers’ workshop in the wilds of Dartmoor, are gripping, but I increasingly have the uncomfortable sense that Carey is improvising as he goes along, and losing momentum. It feels at the moment as if he and the reader are stuck in a lacklustre, early 19C New York, waiting for a plot to present itself.

The notion that one can just sit down and write a book, without planning, is absolutely horrifying to a history tutor. When undergraduates sheepishly admit that they didn’t write a detailed plan for their weekly 2,000 word essay, we given them solemn homilies on why this is a terribly Bad Idea. A historical monograph which had no plan would literally disintegrate somewhere after page 5, under the sheer weight of unstructured information, unconnected analyses, and the absence of a big picture. When writing my book (Church, State and Dynasty in Renaissance Poland, on a Polish royal cardinal who died in 1503), not only did every chapter have long typed-up plans & crammed A4 sheets of source references I was going to use, but there was even a pencil diagram showing how the argument of the book as a whole would interconnect. I mention that not as a good model (it's probably not!), but as an example of how meticulous/obsessive historians can be about planning. Evidently some writers find that Calliope and Erato, the wild muses of poetry, will carry you along headlong in creative inspiration; Clio, the muse of history, clearly needs a bit more help and mundane props like Plans.

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