‘If you threw the book across the room, say it!’

Novels as Entertainment, 11 May 2012, Franschhoek Literary Festival.


“The great European novel started out as entertainment, and every true novelist is nostalgic for it … My lifetime ambition has been to unite the utmost seriousness of question with the utmost lightness of form.” In a tiny church building in a beautiful town, Jenny Hobbs asks Henrietta Rose-Innes, Finuala Dowling and Tan Twan Eng, three novelists, if they agree with this statement by Milan Kundera.

“No.” Henrietta states very emphatically, breaking the ice, and calls it a “terrible question”, wondering why anyone would think to ask it. Her fellow-panelist Finuala shares the sentiment and suggests a rephrasing: that “every true novelist is nostalgic for a world [where what their novel must do] is not prescribed to them”.

Twan offers a more sober perspective. A novel must not only be entertaining but also “illuminating”. Although, when asked about storytelling as a possibly lost art, he contends that he regards plot as very important in his novels, “so that things don’t fizzle out. If that makes me an entertainer, I’m not ashamed of it.”

They turn to a quick discussion on the popularity of crime fiction. Do people like to buy it for entertainment value? Henrietta says this begs the question, how does one define entertainment? In her experience, she is entertained when she is engaged with what she is reading, and a novel can be either funny or sombre, and yet still be engaging.

Jenny brings up the question of whether there is a gap between the kind of novels critics read and what average readers like to read, and the discussion quickly turns to a general overview of the South African critical landscape. There is disagreement over whether reviews in South Africa are generally too negative or too positive. On the side of “too negative”, Jenny says that for her, it is about “getting people to read”, while Henrietta, in the “too positive” camp, makes a case for South African critics/writers not wanting to step on each other’s toes.

Twan and Finuala, on the other hand, both complain that South African critics are “too dispassionate” and fail to “take a stand”. “If you threw the book across the room,” Twan advises, “say it.”

Jenny points out that the word “nostalgia” in Greek points to a yearning for home. She asks if her fellow panelists’ novels have elements of nostalgia or homesickness in them. Twan explains that he was one of the first novelists from Malaysia to write for a broader audience, and as such he had to delve into the country’s history to be able to contextualise it.

Henrietta’s novel Nineveh runs closer to the theme of home, since it is about embracing change in our country. She feels that many South African writers ask the question: “What is this place? Is it the home we thought it was?”

Jenny pulls out another quote by Kundera: “A novel is a meditation on existence, seen through imaginary characters. The form is unlimited freedom.” Are the characters in their books based on real people? Jenny confesses that she herself has taken revenge on people who angered her by putting them into her novels.

Henrietta, on the other hand, says she would be “horrified” if anyone she knew thought that she had “used them like that”. “All of my characters are really me in one way or another.”

Finuala unabashedly tells us that people are “terrified” of her. “I dismiss with contempt the idea that if I draw from life, I lack [artistic skill]. People always ask my sisters: ‘Aren’t all of you terrified every time she brings out a book?’ My sisters usually reply: ‘We’d be furious if she didn’t write about us.’”

Jenny quotes Kundera again, this time from The Novel and Europe: “Great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors.” The panelists heartily agree with this statement. Twan explains that reviews of his novels always assign ideas to him that he never had, making him look smarter, for which he is rather grateful. Finuala believes that a novel has the “amassed intelligence” of its whole readership, and the author creates a “conduit” for all this intelligence. Henrietta quips: “Right after publication, people come to you and tell you what you meant.”

An audience member asks whether the panel believes it is true that “you cannot write deeply, because the average reader reads shallowly”. All four writers disagree with this statement, asserting that they hold their readers in high esteem. Twan adds that he tries to write even better with every new novel, since he believes that he “owes” it to himself and his readers to improve.

Another member of the audience asks for elaboration on this statement, to which Twan replies: “I am the first reader of what I’ve written. If I’m not challenged, there’s something wrong with the book.”

In closing, Twan remarks that in the end, he believes one reads novels for enjoyment. “But I think what is most important is that it changes you.” Finuala expresses her wish that readers would not read a book just because there “are a big pile of them in Exclusive Books, so you think it must be important. I want to call for more honest readers, for people to put down a book when it bores them.”