“The modern novel should be largely a work of reference” (Flann O’Brien)


In reply to an inquiry, it was explained that a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity. It was undemocratic to compel characters to be uniformly good or bad or poor or rich. Each should be allowed a private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living. This would make for self-respect, contentment and better service. It would be incorrect to say that it would lead to chaos. Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before – usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimble-riggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature. Conclusion of explanation.

—From Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds (1939).


10 thoughts on ““The modern novel should be largely a work of reference” (Flann O’Brien)”

    1. I’ve been reading it as a chaser for Thomas Bernhard’s Correction; after so many sentences of Bernhard, I switch to O’Brien. I love this book. Can’t believe I didn’t read it earlier.


  1. A wonderful book, but it’s sentences like the second to last (“…and persons of inferior education…”) that make me cringe a bit when reading the works of High Modernism. O’Brien certainly isn’t the worst offender (that’d be Joyce or Hamsun), but there’s a certain fascist streak running through these guys’ work that doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe I’m just too much a product of post-60s, everyone-is-entitled-to-feeling-good America though.


    1. Alex, it’s funny—I read the phrasing as that sort of strange self-reflexive irony of postmodernism, where the narrator is aware of the cruelty or condescension of such a phrase and sees that such a phrase resonates back on his own persona, but also, at the same time, he totally means it. So it’s ironic but it’s also sincere.

      But yeah, there’s undeniably a fascist streak in the modernists.


      1. The fascist streak I’m pointing to in some modernists (or Modernists, if you prefer) isn’t necessarily in their rhetoric (although obviously it envinces); I’m thinking more historically explicit examples like GB Shaw and VIrginia Woolf.


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