When I enunciated this rule, I naturally knew that I was inviting just such a question. I’m sure you’re familiar with the adage that “the exception proves the rule.” The saying is generally misunderstood, however; it doesn’t mean that the exception proves the rule to be correct; it means that the exception puts the rule to the test.
So let’s put my rule to the test. The rule addresses the writer’s process rather than the work itself, so what was my process? According to the rule, I didn’t begin with an idea and then set out to fabricate a story to convey it. I can tell you I didn’t proceed this way, but why should you take my word for it? I can tell you I knew from long experience that nothing good would come from proceeding in this way, but again, why should you take my word for it? In the end, the only way I can demonstrate my process is to look at the result it produced.
Here are three things that many people have told me about their experience of Ishmael: once they started it, they couldn’t put it down, even if they had to read into the middle of the night; they didn’t want it to end; and they wept when Ishmael died. I really doubt that anyone has ever been affected this way by Plato’s Republic. Why? What’s the difference between the Republic and Ishmael? The difference is that the Republic is not a novel and doesn’t impact readers the way a novel does, whereas Ishmael obviously IS a novel and DOES impact readers the way a novel does.
Ishmael has a story that many find compelling (so that they have to continue reading, no matter what); the Republic doesn’t. Ishmael has characters that many readers come to have strong emotional attachments to; the Republic doesn’t; its speakers are merely talking philosophical positions. Because the interaction between the characters in Ishmael is so moving, readers don’t want it to end, but I can’t think the same is true of the Republic, in which the interaction between the characters is entirely impersonal and cerebral. So you see that what makes Ishmael important to readers really has very little to do with the ideas the characters are discussing. By contrast, what makes the Republic important to readers is ONLY the ideas the characters are discussing.
Naturally all the experiences that people tell me they had when reading Ishmael are experiences I WANTED them to have. I wanted them to be so gripped by the story that they couldn’t put it down. I wanted them to be moved to tears by Ishmael’s death. I wanted them to be sorry to see the book come to an end. None of these things come about by accident—or by merely fabricating a story to convey an idea.
My first task (and every novelist’s first task) was to engage readers emotions on the deepest possible level by telling a compelling story about characters that they will feel strongly about. I make the point that this is every novelist’s first task because every novelist has ideas that he or she wants to convey. Ishmael isn’t unique in having ideas in it. Every novel has ideas in it, whether they’re simple and trivial or profound and important. But ideas can’t be where the NOVEL begins (and my rule is about where the novel begins).
The novel begins with story and characters, not ideas. Or, to put it another way, the author’s first obligation is to produce a good novel, not to produce good ideas. I succeeded with Ishmael for exactly this reason: it’s a good novel. This is the best proof I can offer of my intentions and my process. I set out to write a good novel, and I think I’m justified in saying that I succeeded. If I’d set out merely to fabricate a story to convey an idea, then I have no doubt it would have been a lousy novel.
Ultimately, the only way you can determine anyone’s intention is to see what they do. If Ishmael is a good novel (that is, if it does the things that a good novel does), then I think you have to assume that writing a good novel was my primary intention. That’s where I began—and that’s what the rule is about: where the author begins.
updated: 29 May 2002