How novels work (or, perhaps, should work)
I can’t remember when I first heard of the “Three Distances,” but I’ve been fascinated by the idea for many years. It’s a concept about how novels work – or, perhaps, should work – and strikes me as true. It explains why some novels seems trivial and others profound. It shows that the novel, as a form, has a purpose and a meaning. It helps distinguish the great (or good) novels from the bad ones and the fakes. It also suggests the stance a novelist should take towards his or her material.
The idea, so far as I’m aware, was devised by the English novelist Hugh Walpole (1884-1941), a once-famous literary figure whose close friends included Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Walpole’s reputation declined greatly after his death: parodied as the careerist, social-climbing novelist “Alroy Kear” in W. Somerset Maugham’s celebrated satire of literary life, Cakes and Ale (1930), he came to be seen as a bourgeois, establishment figure, a bland and pompous bestseller. Whether this was fair need not detain us here, but Walpole undoubtedly had a vast range of reading and his critical understanding of literature was, in my view, sure.
The Three Distances loomed large in the many lectures on literature that Walpole delivered in England and America in the years between the wars. Lately I tracked down a thirty-six page pamphlet issued by Cambridge University Press in 1925, which gives the text of that year’s “Rede Lecture” (an annual public lecture at Cambridge). The lecturer is Walpole; his topic, The English Novel: Some Notes on its Evolution. Towards the end of his talk, Walpole explains the Three Distances. The analogy is with perspective in visual art. We might observe in passing how few modern critics could illustrate their ideas with the imagery Walpole musters here, effortlessly it seems:
The novelist must have […] what I would call for want of a better term a sense of the Three Distances. When we walk in the country we are aware of three ranges of vision. Close beside us is the immediate scene, the carter driving past us up the hill, the child picking flowers in the hedge, our own personal companions; at the next range we are aware of the detail of the fields about us, the grass, the trees, the gently climbing hill, this immediate scenery surrounds us as though it were ours, giving us a personal setting in our lives, our thoughts, our purposes; and then beyond these there is the whole champaign of country, the woods like dark clouds settled gently upon the hills, the hills themselves a faint purple line against the sky and then the great sweeping arc chequered with cloud and colour uniting us with other worlds that are far beyond our limited vision.
I think that every novel that fulfils its true purpose must have these Three Distances, immediate action, movements, personalities of a few characters close to us, then the background of this earthly life fitting around them in its beautiful detail, the room in which we live, and then beyond these a wider all-enveloping vision, a philosophy that, however faulty and inadequate, tries to give some meaning to this strange earthly existence.
Walpole’s definition, then, is this: Distance 1 is the characters in the story and their actions; Distance 2 is the immediate society or environment of the characters, the world through which they move; Distance 3 is something larger beyond them: the universe, if you will. Hence: (1) Character; (2) World; (3) Universe. Of course most novels will contain the first two: they could hardly function if they did not. It is Distance 3, the sense of a greater context, of the universal, which marks out the truly meaningful novel.
If we accept this, it explains why it isn’t enough for a writer to record the texture of immediate reality (the things people do, the things they say) and call the result a novel. A novel is not simply a record of things that happened, or might have happened – however well rendered. It is not a disquisition on a social problem or issue – however urgent. It is not a game with form or language – however artful. The novel goes beyond all this. Story isn’t enough. Theme isn’t enough. Language isn’t enough. The novel is finally a form of spiritual or mystical apprehension of life. Walpole goes on:
The present tumultuous world of the English novel seems to forbid these larger horizons. There is a vast amount of detail most cleverly observed, technique again and again exhibited far more subtly than our earlier novelists could have displayed; so many writers have by this time learnt how to conjure up the bones of the novel and to make some sort of creature out of them, but again and again we lay down these clever books with a sigh of impatience. It is not that we wish to return to the earlier hypocrisies and sentimentalities, that old cumbrous machinery, those huddled and impossible conclusions, but we are confronted again and again with works that seem to spring from no inner conviction, we meet over and over again characters that are intended as a vehicle for some momentary comment on life rather than as living human beings into whose lives and joys and sorrows we are compelled to enter.
The Three Distances helps explain that transcendent effect we feel at the end of the best novels. For years I used to call this “the lift,” without really knowing how the effect was achieved. The Great Gatsby is an example known to most people of a novel which elevates its story out any mere record of events into a revelation of the nature of life itself. The novel’s magnificent conclusion (“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”) speaks not just of Nick, or Gatsby, or Daisy, or the 1920s, or America, or the American Dream, but of the nature of human existence. E. M. Forster’s fiction is infused with this larger context, symbolised by Italy in A Room with a View, the English landscape in The Longest Journey, India with its “overarching sky” in A Passage to India. Walpole provides his own apt example of the Three Distances in action:
It is only a few years ago  that one of the finest short stories in our language was given to us, that story of Conrad’s The Secret Sharer. You will all remember it, how the sea captain walking his deck at night sees swimming to him through the dark water the naked figure of a man; this man, who is a fugitive from justice and has escaped from the ship that was bearing him to prison, climbs on to the deck and implores the captain to hide him. The captain does so. The rest of the story is concerned with the strange influence that the personality of the hidden man has, first creeping about the cabin, then about the decks, then extending into the very soul of the captain himself. In this short story all the Three Distances are most beautifully observed, the physical life of the captain, the fugitive and the ship, the mysterious beauty of the surrounding sea and the enveloping night, and lastly the all-pervading influence of the life of the Soul extending into regions so far beyond the material existence of man.
We could all make lists of novels which seem to achieve this transcendent effect. High on many would be Don Quixote, Clarissa, Wuthering Heights, Moby-Dick, Great Expectations, War and Peace, Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, To the Lighthouse – but specific works are of less importance than the principle. Works written in a wide variety of forms, including experimental forms, may all lead to “the lift.” There comes a point in reading Tristram Shandy when we realise that all Sterne’s games with literary form, his digressions, his loopings-back, his leapings forward, seek ultimately to hold off the flow of time; in time and its depredations we find the “point” of Sterne’s eccentric book.
Successful works of fiction always achieve this “lift,” making us aware that the story has, in a sense, surpassed its apparent bounds, transcended the merely personal or local to suggest the nature of life itself. While we find this effect most profoundly in masterpieces, such an effect is seen to a greater or lesser degree in all good (as opposed to trashy or trivial) works of fiction. Building on the idea of the Three Distances, I offer seven suggestions:
(1) The “transcendent” is the aim of all art. (Or, I should say, true art.) A real writer will not write just to “express” his or her personal concerns, let alone to “expose” some social problem or issue; that is why it is wrong, or reductive, to say that The Great Gatsby is “about” life in the decadent Twenties, or the American Dream, or an allegory of Scott and Zelda’s marital troubles. Such levels may exist in a work, indeed must, but do not comprise its essence. The “lift” effect in a story is always exhilarating, no matter how “negative” or “depressing” the material of the story happens to be; this is because, in the “lift,” we seem to have risen to a higher plane of apprehension. We see; we understand, at least for that moment. We are close here to Aristotle’s conception of “catharsis” in tragedy.
(2) “Transcendence” equates to the apprehension of beauty. The aim of the artist, to echo Wilde, is to create beauty. (I think it was Harold Bloom who said that Wilde was right about everything.) The moment in a story in which we seem to “rise above” the mere narrative material is always beautiful. Beauty must be present in a work of art: it is the principal thing which makes it a work of art, because it is beauty which causes transcendence.
(Our need for transcendence has a biological basis. Much has been written about the division in human beings between the left and right brain and the consequences of this for creative work. The dominance of the rational left brain led to much human achievement, indeed to civilisation itself, but comes at a profound cost. Human beings seek continually to repair the division in themselves, escaping the left brain for the deeper, more intuitive realm of the right. This explains the near-ubiquity in human societies of drugs and alcohol, but also of religion, ritual, magical and mythological beliefs, and the desire for “peak experiences” through which we may leave behind, for a time, the bondage of the everyday. Art is a principal way in which we attempt to reconnect the sides of our disordered nature. We long for another dimension. When Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, says the effect of War and Peace is like music, he is suggesting this dimension.)
(3) The disappointing quality of much modern fiction (and art generally) can be explained, to a significant degree, by its lack of the transcendent. Many supposedly “serious” novelists think they have done their work when they have depicted the squalor of the world in all its vividness – and nothing else. Others think their role is to write “great sentences.” Whenever a reviewer says that X writes “the best sentences of his generation, bar none” – and reviewers say this kind of thing all the time – you know that: (a) the book probably isn’t worth reading; and (b) the reviewer has never really thought about what literature is for, or what makes it good.
(4) Transcendent effects can be achieved as much through perfection of form as through subject matter. Consider comedies such as Tom Jones, The Marriage of Figaro, Pride and Prejudice: all are in a sense trivial, in terms of what they’re about; we must account for the fact that they are not trivial in their final effect.
(5) Traditional genre shapes (comedy, tragedy, romance, pastoral) are themselves transcendent, or will be if correctly deployed. A genre is a container designed to hold a certain type of aesthetic effect. We are thinking here of something larger than “meaning.” Genres are not mechanical, except in the hands of mechanical writers.
(6) In so-called “genre fiction” (a notion somewhat removed from classical conceptions of genre), the “lift” or would-be lift comes from the genre element itself, e.g. Sherlock Holmes solving the crime (detective stories, pace Borges, are labyrinths we follow in search of meaning), or the thing in a science fiction story which makes it science fiction, such as the giant spaceships hovering over the world’s major cities in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. The “weird” stuff in a science fiction or fantasy story must be the most important thing in it, hence the subordination of traditional characterisation. While diverting, genre fiction – precisely because it is generic, i.e. like something else – tends to be less satisfying than work which sees and understands the world from a fresh perspective; a genre work, in order to be lastingly valid, has to be so good that it “rises above” its genre (as Hamlet rises above the “revenge tragedy”).
(7) “Lift” effects can be faked. Hollywood movies and pop music (e.g. of the power-ballad type) do this all the time. Developing one’s taste, one might say, is largely a matter of learning to distinguish true from false transcendence. When we are young, we tend to be excited by all manner of essentially fraudulent art which, if we are lucky, we will see through in time. The complicating factor is that “fakes” can, for many of us, be enduringly moving. Noël Coward’s line (from Private Lives) about the potency of cheap music is one of the great critical insights of the twentieth century. But our distinctions between the popular and the serious have always been dubious. If a Dickens novel were a piece of music, would it be “pop” or “classical”? Is it the case that it used to be the first, and is now is the second? If so, how did that happen? There is “trash,” there is “kitsch,” that imprints itself upon us with a power that is by no means ephemeral. Is Peter Pan a serious work? Is The Wizard of Oz? Is Sunset Boulevard? The distinction between “art” and “entertainment” is by no means clear.