The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist: Understanding What Happens When We Write and Read Novels

Book cover image

This book, the end result of Orhan Pamuk’s Norton Lectures, is a serene dialogue on the dynamics which make the novel the predominant literary form, and how Pamuk interprets these in his own work to achieve his personal literary objectives. Not surprisingly, Pamuk is an avid novel reader, and he makes extensive use of this expreience, commenting on the novel from the reader’s perspective as much as from the writer’s. In fact, the main distinction he picks to discover the novel’s tensions, the sentimental vs. the naive, is projected upon the reader as much as on the writer. The naive reader/writer is the one who goes with the natural flow of the narrative, whereas the sentimental one is more “brainy”, and thinks about the tricks available/already used. Pamuk argues that a novelist, despite falling somewhere along the axis, has to practice both propensities while writing a novel, because a purely naive novel is simply telling what one experiences, and the purely sentimental one is an endless game of hide and seek.

Despite bringing different expectations to the novel, both the naive and the sentimental reader, if they want to understand and enjoy a novel, have to engage with it by mentally reconstructing the world that the novel builds through language. This, according to Pamuk, is the central dynamic of the novel, and leads to a number of distinctions that make it so successful, and at the same time, variable. Novels that would be considered ‘literary’ have what Pamuk calls “a hidden center”; this is an idea, a central image, or a certain understanding of the world that the novel keeps in flux, but also tries to impart to the reader. In criminal novels and simple love stories, this center is the final solution or closure; literary novels don’t have this closure, and the fact that the reader, as she mentally constructs the novel’s world, also works on fixating this hidden center, instead of solely following the arc of the story, makes the novel a three dimensional art form. While reading a novel, the reader has to pay attention to every detail, because it might signal a fact about the “general scene”, as Pamuk calls it; thus, there is a constant balancing of the general narrative and the small details, another factor in the three-dimensionality of the novel.

Another tension Pamuk talks about, and which I found very interesting, is the fact that the novel is a linear text that tries to evoke a visual scenery. The temporal has to lead to the spatial, and this can be done only by the reader, by imagining the second from the first. To make this possible, the novelist has to populate his work with objects and physical surroundings that carry a certain emotional load, that will cause the reader to actually place not only the object where it belongs, but do this in relation to the characters, so that their mental state is in accord with this placement. The tension here is in the fact that the novel achieved its current popularity in the 19th century, when Western societies achieved a standard of living that filled their homes with objects, but left them looking for a hidden, further meaning in their lives. The novel, which is to carry such a meaning with its “hidden center”, can achieve this only thorugh a certain relationship with those objects.

If you like Pamuk’s novels, this little book will read like having a chat with him on how he writes, and why he writes.