BOOK REVIEW: The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk

The Naive and the Sentimental NovelistThe Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist is Orhan Pamuk’s theory of the novel, and is based on a series of lectures given by the Turkish Nobel Laureate in 2009. It’s a brief work, consisting of less than 200 pages written across six chapters plus an epilogue. Pamuk explores just a handful of concepts, but he elaborates on each with examples from literature. Having said that, Pamuk has the novelist’s gift for strategic ambiguity, and there are some ideas–such as the “secret center of the novel”–for which the author leaves much for the reader to interpret.

In the first chapter, Pamuk explores what occurs in the mind of a reader as they consume a novel. He proposes nine mental activities that one engages in over the course of reading a novel. These activities range from the essence of reading, such as observing scene and narrative arc, to less essential acts such as self-congratulatory narcissism. A central theme is the novel as a visual medium in that the mind converts words into images and those images are what are experienced in reading. The final action is search for the novel’s “secret center,” an important element of Pamuk’s theory and the topic of the book’s final chapter.

The title subjects are also introduced in the first chapter, i.e. naïve and sentimental novelists. Pamuk borrows this concept from Schiller, who used it to describe poets. The naïve novelist writes spontaneously and with confidence that he or she is capturing reality in the work. The sentimental novelist is much more uneasy about the degree that his work will convey something true. While an oversimplification, this idea corresponds somewhat to the much more commonly known division of writers into outliners and non-outliners, i.e. some writers can’t get started until they’ve done extensive research and outlining, but others begin with—at most—a vague outline in their heads and let the words stream from deep within.

The second chapter discusses the reader’s inability to accept that the novel is complete fiction—and, conversely, what truths a novelist reveals in the process of writing a purely fictitious work. (It should be noted that while Pamuk refers throughout to the “novel,” he’s really referring to the “literary novel.” Much of what he has to say isn’t relevant for either commercial or genre fiction.) Pamuk points out that it’s not just gullible yokels who believe that what he’s writing is autobiographical. Sophisticated readers who work in the publishing industry have been known to think he is living the life of one of his characters. On the other hand, when an avid reader suggested that they knew Pamuk so well because they had read all his books, he found himself being embarrassed. This embarrassment wasn’t because he felt they had learned any details of his life, but that they had developed a psychological insight.

The next chapter is on character, plot, and time. As one would expect, character is the most important and substantially addressed topic. I say that not because it’s listed first, but because we are talking about literary fiction—a medium in which character is of the utmost importance and plotting is loose to optional. However, the portion of the chapter that I found most interesting was the question of time in novel. Time stretches, compresses, and can bounce non-linearly in a novel. The protagonist’s time is on display in the novel, and that can be done artfully or not.

The fourth chapter is the one that most deeply delves into the topic of novel as a visual media, one which is more closely related to painting that to the media to which the novel is more frequently compared. Here he divides novelists not into the naïve and the sentimental, but into visual versus verbal writers. Pamuk suggests that the novel is a series of frozen moments as opposed to a continuous running of time—and thus its connection to paintings. Of course, Pamuk was a painter before being a novelist, and thus may be more prone to see that connection than most

The penultimate chapter is a comparison of novels to museums. No two things might seem farther apart at first blush, but a museum is a themed collection of artifacts that hopefully serve to tell a story—story here being used not as fiction but as a narrative that could contain fact, fiction, or mythology. This discussion really continues on the theme of the visual aspect of the novel. It suggests that those artifacts that are seen or manipulated in a novel convey a great deal of what the author wants to get across and help to create a more real fictional world. Pamuk elaborates on the connection by using three points to connect museums and novels that are all related by pride.

The final chapter elucidates the “center” of the novel. This is a concept that Pamuk has written around since the beginning of the book without providing a clear conceptualization. The first line of the last chapter defines the center as: “…a profound opinion or insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined.” The idea of a center, we are told, separates literary fiction from genre / commercial fiction. Readers and authors of genre fiction may find themselves becoming miffed with Pamuk for saying that such works either don’t have a center or have one that’s painfully easily found. He does make explicit exceptions for works by Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem, and one would expect that works of speculative fiction by the likes of Vonnegut, Murakami, and LeGuin would meet his approval as well. However, the presence of a tight story arc—one of the factors that makes work salable—is part of the reason genre fiction tends to have a readily discovered center. For Pamuk, the name of the game is writing a work that has a center that isn’t easily discovered, but neither is so deeply hidden as to remain forever beyond the grasp of most readers. He suggests the novel should be a puzzle, which is solved to reveal the center.

The epilogue includes some autobiographical insight and elaboration on what Pamuk was attempting to convey in this work.

I’d recommend this book for writers as well as serious readers of novels. Obviously, it’s well-written, but beyond that it offers insights that make the reader do some of the work—just what Pamuk proposes a novelist should do.

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