Category Archives: Fiction

W.O. Mitchell


Donald Sutherland reads an excerpt from Who Has Seen the Wind?, which nicely illustrates Frye’s observation below

Today is W.O. Mitchell‘s birthday (1914-1998).

From the “Conclusion to the First Edition of Literary History of Canada“:

The sense of probing into the distance, of fixing the eyes on the skyline, is something that Canadian sensibility has inherited from the voyageurs. It comes into Canadian painting a good deal, in Thomson whose focus is often furthest back in the picture, where a river or a gorge in the hills twists elusively out of sight, in Emily Carr whose vision is always, in the title of a compatriot’s book of poems, “deeper into the forest.”  Even in the Maritimes, where the feeling of linear distance is less urgent, Roberts complements the Tantramar marshes in the same way, the refrain of “miles and miles” having clearly some incantatory power for him.  It would be interesting to know how many Canadian novels associate nobility of character with a faraway look, or base their perorations on a long-range perspective.  This might only be a cliche, except that it is often found in sharply observed and distinctively written books.  Here, as a random example, is the last sentence of W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind: “The wind turns in silent frenzy upon itself, whirling into a smoking funnel, breathing up top soil and tumbleweed skeletons to carry them on its spinning way over the prairie, out and out to the far line of the sky.” (CW 12, 348)

Charles Dickens


The opening sequence of David Lean’s film adaptation of Great Expectations

Today is Charles Dickens‘s birthday (1812-1870).

Frye’s plangent account of the creative absurdity of literature in “Dickens and the Comedy of Humours” — this is an extraordinary paragraph, even for him:

I used the word “absurd” earlier about Dickens’s melodramatic plots, suggesting that they were creatively and not incompetently absurd.  In our day the word “absurd” usually refers to the absence of purpose or meaning in life and experience, the so-called metaphysical absurd.  But for literary criticism the formulating of the theory of the absurd should not be left entirely to disillusioned theologians.  In literature it is design, the forming and shaping power, that is absurd.  Real life does not start nor stop; it never ties up loose ends; it never manifests meaning or purpose except by blind accident; it is never comic or tragic, ironic or romantic, or anything else that has shape.  Whatever gives form and pattern to fiction, whatever technical skill keeps us turning the pages to get to the end, is absurd, and contradicts our sense of reality.  The great Victorian realists subordinate their story-telling skill to their representative skill.  Theirs is a dignified, leisurely vehicle that gives us time to look at the scenery.  They have formed our stock responses to fiction, so that even when travelling at the much higher speed of drama, romance, or epic we still keep trying to focus our eyes on the incidental and transient.  Most of us feel that there is something else in Dickens, something elemental, yet unconnected with either realistic clarity or philosophical profundity.  What it is connected with is a kind of story that fully gratifies the hope expressed, according to Lewis Carroll, by the original Alice, that “there will be some nonsense in it.”  The silliest character in Nicholas Nickleby is the hero’s mother, a romancer who keeps dreaming of impossible happy endings for her children.  But the story itself follows her specifications and not those of the sensible people.  The obstructing humours in Dickens are absurd because they have overdesigned their lives.  But the kind of design that they parody is produced by another kind of energy, and one which insists, absurdly and irresistibly, that what is must never take precedence over what ought to be.  (CW 17, 307-8)

Virginia Woolf


The only surviving recording of Woolf: a talk delivered on the BBC in April 1937 under the title “Craftsmanship.”  It was part of a series called “Words Fail Me.”

Today is Virginia Woolf‘s birthday (1882-1941).

Frye in his 1948 Canadian Forum review of Woolf’s posthumously published The Moment and Other Essays :

Like its predecessors, it makes very agreeable reading, but indicates that Virginia Woolf was as minor a figure in criticism as she was a major one in the novel.  She was a great novelist, with a consciousness about form and structure more Continental than English.  For the English novel, as she occasionally complains, has usually been rather like one of the county houses it so often describes: rambling in structure, provincial in setting, showing a good deal of improvising in the building, full of drafts caused by loose ends of plot and loopholes in motivation, and with the less mentionable aspects of existence difficult to access yet marked by a pervasive smell.  Virginia Woolf’s novels looked “experimental,” not because she was trying stunts but because she went all out for whatever novel she was writing, determined not to let it go until every detail had been hammered into the right shape and place.  So although words like “subtlety” and “delicacy” spring to mind first in connection with her, these qualities are, as they should be, the results of great imaginative energy and vigorous craftsmanship. (CW 26, 80)

Frye on Writing Fiction


An excerpt from the screenwriting seminar scene in the brilliant Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, a wonderfully convoluted meditation on the agonizing effort to write something that is somehow beyond formula. If you haven’t seen it, make a point of renting it.  Also, Kaufman’s much deeper and darker film about writing as soul-rending existential crisis, Synecdoche, New York.

Further to comments earlier today by Ed Lemond and Jonathan Allan, here are a couple of entries from the notebooks on writing fiction, culled once again from Denham’s Northrop Frye Unbuttoned.

On the possibility of “a new fiction formula”:

I have been struggling for some time to think of a new fiction formula, and all my ideas tend to revolve around Rilke’s idea of the poet’s perceiving simultaneously the visible & the invisible world.  In practice that means a new type of ghost or supernatural story, possibly approached by way of some science-fiction development.  The idea is a vision of another life or another world so powerfully plausible as to make conventionally religious & anti-religion people shake in their shoes.  I’ve begun notes on this many times, but threw away my best notebook, written in Seattle, in a London (Ont.) hotel.  By “shake in their shoes” I don’t mean threats, but the ecstactic frisson or giggle aroused by plausibility. (92)

On the possibility of writing a “philosphical romance”:

Since the popular success of Tokien and the rise in seriousness of what is called science-fiction, I’ve been attracted to the notion of the philosphical romance.  It would have to be entirely “software,” as I don’t know anything about hardware, and I notice most of the hardware is used to transpose the characters to a remote spot in some other galaxy that turns out to be a category of something on earth.  So why not stay on earth?  The taking off point is the relativity of what the sane waking consicousness sees to other perspectives.  These are, chiefly, those of (a) dream (b) madness (c) mythopoeic imagination (d) existence following physical death.  If I never write such a book, collecting notes for it could still be a valuable experience in loosening uup the imaginative faculties.  The idea is to write what I myself would be most interested in reading.  (93)

“The desiring self is Northrop Frye”


Re: Cheryl’s reading of Frye, that is something I had forgotten.  Thanks, Bob, for reminding me of this exchange from David Lodge’s Small World:

“You’re never telling me that those are your own ideas about romance and the sentimental novel and the desiring self?”
“The desiring self is Northrop Frye,” she admitted.
You have read Northrop Frye?” his voice rose in pitch like a jet engine.
“Well, not read, exactly. Somebody told me about it.”