Mrs Brown vs The Cat

Sometimes various threads of one’s life intersect, resulting in a renaissance moment.

My latest renaissance was after hearing Geoff Dyer interviewed on the ABC’s Book Show, having just read Virginia Woolf’s essay on the state of the novel in Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.

Banks was less interested in the form of the novel than I expected, because (he says) there are so many ways for a writer to express themselves creatively these days. The novel, he says, is only one form, and even then it waxes and wanes in its relevance as a form. First moment.

Second moment was when I heard Professor Melba Cuddy-Keane, author of Virginia Woolf and the Public Sphere, opine that Woolf would have loved social media, blogging, Kindles, and so forth, because of her concern that the working classes were so greatly under-represented in literature. The implication being that these forms of digital media are available to so many more folk than the novel would have been back in Woolf’s day. Does this also imply that the novel is only one form of creative writing? I think so.

In Woolf’s essay, she draws attention to the character of Mrs Brown, who becomes an icon for Woolf’s feeling that character in fiction has suffered at the hands of an outdated, Edwardian form that focused more on physical detail in all its intricacies, regarding (for example) one’s house. This approach, she says, leaves poor old Mrs Brown sitting in a corner, unimportant in the larger scheme.

I feel compelled to refer again to the recent Docx-initiated lit vs. genre fiction debate because, within it, there are resonances of this character vs. form debate: it seems to bother people that literary fiction suffers from a lack of plot and – the converse – that genre fiction tends to suffer from a lack of character complexity due to its focus on plot and form.

I mean really. Does it matter? (And isn’t ‘literary’ a genre?) There are many ways to skin a cat (or so the saying goes). A good story is made up of many factors, one of which is character, one of which is plot.

I imagine I’m not the only writer who, when faced with one of these thematic renaissances, comes out brandishing a short story. Mine is called: Miss Brown is Burning, and let’s say it errs on the side of character, in homage to Ms Woolf.

PS It was Ken Follett who said that when writing complex human emotions it’s best to keep the plot simple. Good, random tip for those of us who defer to Woolf’s urging that character must be the top priority for literature.

1 Comment

  1. This is VERY reassuring – bless Virginia Woolf. And Ken Follett, wise words indeed.I have to say I agree with both sides (no fence-sitting here) because a great, layered character can keep me enthralled throughout – Ariel Manto in The End of Mr Y, for example. And a crackly plot can drag me along with enough enthusiasm to overlook the less well developed people in the story. Can I just thank you for introducing me to the name Professor Melba Cuddy-Keane? That's a rich characterisation in a mere four words.

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