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5 Quotes On Books and Writing From the Old Masters

Johann Thorsson

Staff Writer

Johann Thorsson is a native of Iceland, but spends much of his time in Bookland. He has lived in a few parts of the world but currently lives in Iceland with a pretty woman and a mischievous son who resembles Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes fame) more each day. He has a complicated but ultimately useless degree in bioinformatics from a very pretty college in England. His favorite books are 1984, Flowers for Algernon and The English Patient. He hopes one day to call himself a writer without feeling like he's just fooling himself. Blog: Johann Thorsson - On Book and Writing Twitter: @johannthors

I have a few books that, despite holding them in my hands, I seem unable to believe actually exist. One of these is a book I picked up at a flea market, called Novelists on the Novel. It is a collection of the thoughts of some of the greatest novelists of yesteryear on all aspects of the novel; writing, characterization, the artistic value and so on. It is, in short, an absolute treasure of a book.

And from its bountiful innards I bring you:



1. Joseph Conrad on the true nature and beauty of a novel:

“And what is a novel if not a conviction of our fellow-men’s existence strong enough to take upon itself a form of imagined life clearer than reality and whose accumulated verisimilitude of selected episodes puts to shame the pride of documentary history?”


2. Stendahl on the rudeness of politics in books:

“Politics in a work of literature are like a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, something loud and vulgar and yet a thing to which it is not possible to refuse one’s attention.”


3. Anton Checkov on the right way to write a novel:

“You are right in demanding that an artist should take a conscious attitude to his work, but you confuse two conceptions: the solution of a question and the correct setting of a question. The latter alone is obligatory for the artist. In ‘Anna Karenina’ and in ‘Onyeguin’ not a single problem is solved, but they satisfy completely because all the problems are set correctly. It is for the judge to put the questions correctly; and the jurymen must decide, each one according to his taste.”


4. Thomas Hardy on the true business of the poet and novelist:

“The business of the poet and novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things, and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things.”


5. Finally, Herman Melville writing to Nathaniel Hawthorne about the difficulties he faced writing Moby- Dick:

“In a week or so, I go to New York, to bury myself in a third-story room, and work and slave on my “whale” while it is driving through the press. That is the only way I can finish it now, -I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, -that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me; and the malicious devil is forever grinning in upon me, -I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, -it will not pay. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.”