Malcolm Muggeridge (an old English literateur) once said that George Orwell “was no good as a novelist, because he didn’t have the interest in character.” Well, I didn’t need to tell you who George Orwell was, so you may doubt the judgment of the largely forgotten Muggeridge. But I think he was very close to an important factor for the novelist.

Here’s why: Character creates empathy in a novel. It puts the reader in a relationship with the work. Muggeridge’s point was that politics were more interesting to Orwell than the people on whom he hung them. In “1984” we feel for Winston Smith because we imagine what it’d be like to be him – but we don’t really care that much for him as a character. In other words, if Orwell hadn’t had such a fabulous idea behind that novel, it would’ve failed because Winston was too much of an everyman.

Nonetheless, so much of today's fiction fails Muggers's character test. Read the short stories in The New Yorker – which are fairly representative of today’s “literary” fiction – and you’ll generally see an authorial voice greatly distanced from the emotions of the characters. You’re not in a relationship with the characters, and you wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with the smart-ass authorial voice.

The same is true on the other side of the Atlantic. Ian McEwan’s distance and restraint makes me feel…distant and restrained. Which isn’t why I read a novel.

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Comment by Pepper Smith on May 28, 2010 at 4:04am
Tried to follow the link at the bottom of the post, but it doesn't go anywhere.
Comment by Matt Rees on May 28, 2010 at 2:46am
Hear, hear and once again, hear bloody hear.
Comment by Dana King on May 28, 2010 at 2:22am
I don't read a lot of non-fiction anymore; what I do read is either crime-related (tales of actual cops and PIs doing their jobs), or historical. any of these are anything but a duty to read. Cops are great storytellers, and historians (Stephen Ambrose and Bruce Catton come to mind) wrote fluid and entertaining prose. This may explain some of the success of non-fiction; the rest, as implied by Matt and Ingrid, is because "literary" fiction is too often a pain in the ass to read. It's like the authors feel as though you should have to accept a burden in your reading as heavy as theirs in the writing.

You shouldn't have to enlist in a book to be able to get something out of reading it.
Comment by I. J. Parker on May 28, 2010 at 1:22am
Don't like McEwan. I have a feeling that literary novels are bought because they are useful in conversations and show that one is a literate and thoughtful person. In other words, no one reads those books for pleasure. It reminds me of the astonishing success of nonfiction over fiction. Reading has become a duty.

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