Saturday, September 11, 2010

Defining the Quiet Novel

Every now and then I've seen the term "quiet novel." Not all that often, because I don't read huge numbers of book reviews or much literary criticism, but from time to time people will describe a book thus. I never thought about it--it seemed like an ordinary enough way of referring to a book, just as one might call a book "lively" or "rumbustious."
Awhile ago an agent commented to me that quiet novels aren't selling well these days. I was a little dubious about that because only a given percentage of the novel-reading population prefers books that are filled with adventure, excitement, and car chases, and the book to which the agent referred didn't strike me as terribly quiet. It featured sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, tears, accusations, theft, and theater. I granted, however, that agents are more in touch with the publishing world than I am these days. In any case, I still took the term "quiet novels" as a simple descriptor.
But then my friend Betty referred to "two very quiet 'portrait' novels" that she felt were similar in tone to one of my projects. More references to quietness? (Let's not get into "portrait" since presumably any reasonably reflective novel revolving around one character could be considered a portrait.) I began to wonder whether "quiet novel" was a genre rather than a mere subjective description. I did a Google search.
Most uses of the term that came up seemed subjective, although fairly congruent with one another.
An Amazon customer review of Anita Shreve's Sea Glass begins "Anita Shreve's latest book, "Sea Glass," is a quiet novel that deals with the universal themes of life, love, loss, hope, beauty, tragedy and death." The fairly in-depth, very positive review ends by saying that the book has "no great surprises and no great suspense. It doesn't delve too deeply into the minds and hearts of the characters involved, but then, we don't always want something that's earthshaking."
In "The Virtue of Quiet: "Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn," Dan Hartland writes, "Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn is a quiet novel. [...] very quiet." He mentions, on the whole very favorably, "the book’s peculiarities: a focus on the internal, a modesty of style and of ambition, and a dry, sardonic humour." He notes that while the book's moderation and passivity mirror those of the protagonist, this unity is intentional and the book is, in fact, full of incident. So it's not a book where nothing happens and everything revolves around the protagonist's navel.
Hilari Bell, discussing suitable and less suitable ways of writing of novel climaxes, refers to books in which "The climax doesn't match the story. You see this most commonly in a quiet novel about tangled relationships...that ends with a car crash (or a kidnapping, or a natural disaster) and the protagonist suddenly finds herself struggling for survival."
Lynne Griffin's blog post "Literary Lingo Recap," which nicely defines various current buzzwords used by agents, simply defines a "quiet novel" as a literary novel, especially one without a strong plot. (She defines literary novels as usually being more character-driven than plot-driven, and more about the writing than the story, which is a common definition of literary novels in texts geared toward commercial fiction. There are, however, many books fitting that description that more "literary" readers would simply call mainstream novels.) While I think that overall Griffin's definitions are useful, this one just doesn't cut it for me. Lots of literary novels would never be called quiet, including some that aren't terribly strong on plot. A picaresque literary novel, for instance, is unlikely to be either quiet or (by definition) plot-driven. Literary novels cover a lot of ground, after all. There are literary novels with strong plots, nonexistent plots; with experimental narration and with traditional narration; with deep characterization and without much focus on character; the main thing is that a literary novel is not a commercial novel, although occasionally one may belong, to some extent, to one of the genres typical of commercial fiction, and of course every now and then a literary novel is a commercial success. Should we distinguish between a genre called the literary novel (which might be mainly quiet novels) and what's known as literature (Moby Dick, Tristram Shandy, Wuthering Heights) when we're not using the term literature to mean sales brochures ("I'll leave you some littachur") or academic writing ("the literature")?
The blog post Shantaram & the idea of a Noisy Novel mentions the quiet novel somewhat as a foil to noisiness. The blogger opens with a conversation had with a novelist friend: "We were talking about what it was that publishers might be wanting at the moment, and she told me that the days of the quiet novel were largely over." The blogger continues, "I take the quiet novel to mean a beautifully written, often short-ish narrative in which not much happens. Stylism is the quiet novel's main event: plotting is barely perceptible, characterisation is but a ripple on the surface on the writer's prose. The focus is often on transactions of a personal, intimate nature between a small group of people living within a softly-spoken coo-ee of each other." (She then discusses noisiness and hyperrealism, mainly in the context of the Australian novel.) This prompts some good reader comments on quiet versus noisy, and the blogger's response that "Jane Austen and Jeanette W[interson] weren't exactly what I had in mind as examples of the quiet novel, tho the quiet novel has links with a tradition of quietism focusing on the personal, domestic, intimate life etc. However, both JA and JW feature strong characterisation and elements of social or aesthetic analysis. Also -- most of JA's novels *are* strongly plotted. [...] Whereas the quiet novel, at worst, is often more like a collection of loosely-related scenes." After a few more reader comments, she says "I think the point is just simply to do with strong vs weak narrativisation, and whether it's time for a revival of strong narrative, which is possibly more allied with pulp fiction and film at present." So for this well-read and intelligent blogger, a quiet novel is likely to be a dull and poorly plotted thing that by definition doesn't really grab the reader. This is not someone who equates "quiet novel" with "literary novel;" rather, she wants lively, strongly plotted novels that are better written than Shantaram, a book about which she has mixed feelings.
Confused by so many different, even if somewhat related, uses of the term "quiet novel," I asked Betty what she thought. Was it a genre or a subjective evaluation? What was her personal understanding of the term? Even if it wasn't going to be clear exactly what everyone else might mean, at least I could find out what Betty meant in relation to my own project. Betty responds:
Quiet novels to me are those written with emotional and intellectual constraint. A quiet novel keeps the reader on an even keel because the style tends toward calmness. Events may be very dramatic, but they're described with restrained prose so that the reader isn't feeling emotionally pulled. Stimulating and challenging questions may arise, but because they're written with understatement, the reader doesn't feel stirred up intellectually. In quiet novel, I as a reader, feel more like an observer. This doesn't mean I'm not drawn into the story or that I don't emotionally connect with the characters, but rather that I'm not experiencing it with great dramatic pulls. I feel compassion for characters, but the writing doesn't make my pulse race or my body twitch. My heart doesn't break although I understand the heartbreak the character is feeling.

Betty cites some comments on specific quiet novels: "[Peter] Taylor as always writes in the most measured, calm manner, so that the surprises and the humbling human understanding he so effortlessly throws in seem barely to ruffle the surface." (Kirkus Review)
"A Summons to Memphis is like a leisurely port wine sipped slowly and with pleasure beneath a blackjack oak." (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
"Serious, beautiful and affecting, what makes Stoner so impressive is the contained intensity the author and character share." (Irving Howe) ". . .[T]he passion of the writing [in Stoner is] masked by coolness and clarity of intelligence." (John McGahern)
Betty concludes:
I hope that gives you some idea of what I mean by a quiet novel. It's no doubt true that unless you're already a well established literary personage, then getting quiet novels published today is likely more difficult than getting "less restrained" work accepted for publication. Wolf Hall, for example, pushes and pulls the reader emotionally and intellectually. There's nothing subtle about Mantel's writing. She writes with visceral descriptions that can make you ache from the pain she's inflicted on a character. The opening scene is extremely dramatic, steeped in physical cruelty. This, I think, is what the publishing world is saying the public wants.
I, of course, don't think that's necessarily so.
There are likely many variations on how to understand what quiet means, but I hope this gives you a better idea of what I was referring to.

And yes, that gives me a better idea what at least one reader has in mind. Whether Betty will continue to think the tale is quiet, and whether others will think so, remains unknown.


  1. Well, like I said the other day, I don’t try to keep up with literary fashions, let alone buzz words. It distracts from writing. But I report that, having read the novel you discussed at the beginning of your essay, ‘quiet' did not enter my mind.

    I hope I never read a novel that has suffered ‘narrativisation’.

    The whole discussion made me think of one of my very favorite 20th century novels, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman. In it Lydia, the sister of the painter, isquietly dying amid her family in 19th century Paris. A proper American girl she cannot quite let herself know what she knows, that Mary is having an affaire with Degas. Nothing much happens but people’s emotions, and it is deeply engaging and moving to me.

    It also made me wonder about another fine recent novel, André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name. It’s about…..I was about to write it was about a love affaire, but in the sense that Lydia Cassatt is about how people care for one another, Call Me By Your Name is about identity. Be that as it may, it is embodied in a hot summer love affaire between a teen aged boy and a youth slightly older at an Italian beach resort. I wonder if it’s plentitude of passionate buggery disturbs its quietness?

    Rereading what your friend Betty says, and having never heard of most of the novels she mentions, I slyly begin to think that maybe all she means by 'quiet' is a novel where the author fails to agitate the readers emotions in a shallow way.

  2. Well... I'm not going to speak for Betty's intended meaning, since she has already spoken for herself. I think it's perfectly reasonable to use a word like "quiet" to describe a novel, but given that I do try to get my work into print, I want to have some sense of what the industry buzzwords are and how to use (or not use) them when writing query letters and such. And my brief investigation of "quiet" indicates that its meaning is very subjective. You and Betty both read the ms that the agent described (from 50 pages and an outline) as quiet; you and I don't think it's very quiet and I don't think Betty does either although she does think a different one is. So how quiet is quiet? and clearly quiet is positive for some readers, negative for others, and neutral for many of us. In some ways "quiet novel" seems like an odd term. Should we call Group Portrait with Lady (since we've both read it) quiet? Presumably not, despite it not being a noisy novel. I remain clearer on what is not a quiet novel (A Confederacy of Dunces, The Good Soldier Švejk, The Tin Drum, Fear of Flying.)