Even more on covers

While curiosity is natural, and reverence is healthy, there are times when an author’s familiarity with the literary universe obstructs and clutters her creativity. We like a narrator to be literate, cognisant, and even referential, but we don’t like a story that’s simply a tissue of references, or one that gets stuck in the cobwebs of the literary attic. It feels too second-hand, and too clever by half. Iris Murdoch says somewhere (I can’t find it now), the most obstructive thing for a new writer is literary tradition. This can mean that the greatness of the tradition stops a new writer before he’s begun, or it can mean that the great tradition so entangles and tongue-ties his story that he ends by adding nothing to the tradition he so admires. An overly referential story falls short because it’s written in a kind of shorthand, full of gestures to points already made, images already bodied forth, full of obeisance rather than bold strides. And it cuts to that old dichotomy between artist and critic: both know how a novel is written, but only one can write it.