A Novel Shouldn’t Make You Think, It Should Make You Shiver
  • Nabokov at Cornell


    In a lecture he delivered at Cornell University, Vladimir Nabokov said this:

    “A work of art shouldn’t make you think, it should make you shiver.”

    And yet in reply to that one must ask: what about those of us who actually like for a book to make us think? What about those of us who genuinely enjoy, for example, Gilbert and Ernest and Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic dialogues? Are we in error for getting satisfaction from this? And is Oscar Wilde in error for writing it?

    The answer is of course no, and here’s why:

    While it is unquestionably true that a work of art, no matter its genre, must appeal to something real in the body of human experience, there is nonetheless within that body of human experience an enormous range of diversity, and complexity — and one person’s nightmare is another person’s dream.

    I, for instance, am bored to tears by Harry Potter and his peeps, but I like Captain Ahab. I didn’t at all buy into the Gunslinger, but I wept for The Kid.

    And as a matter of fact, some of my very favorite characters — Nikolai Stavrogin, Natasha Fillipovna, Ivan Karamazov, Jean Valjean, Rachel from Bladerunner, Tom Regan, Gilliat, Dominque Francon — they leave a number of my friends and acquaintances completely cold.

    Characters, it is also true, are the soul of every story, and I don’t know of anyone even passingly acquainted with the subject who would seriously argue that readers must on some level connect with the characters. But the issue isn’t quite so cut-and dry. Why? Because people (like characters) are diverse and complicated — which is to say, we have different values, and our brains operate on different levels, in different ways.

    Thank goodness.




About The Author

The sawed-off shotgun of literary pulp.

2 Responses and Counting...

  • Averil Dean 02.27.2012

    Well said, and though I’ll admit to having fallen under Harry Potter’s spell, I gravitate toward documentaries over blockbusters, nonfiction (sometimes) over fiction. It can be as satisfying to think as to feel, and most of us need both–though the tendency is to assign fiction and art to the latter.

    Whatever feeds you, wherever you can get it, I say.

  • Whatever feeds you, whatever bleeds you — I agree.

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment.

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