Literary Miscellanea: Willa Cather on the Novel

On May 4, 1933, Willa Cather gave a short speech on the novel at an awards banquet for winning the 1932 Pulitzer Prize. The speech was then broadcast nationally. Here is a transcript of the address: http://cather.unl.edu/bohlke.s.07.html

Cather began her speech with the observation that the novel is one of the newest literary forms. Poetry, plays, and essays are much older. But unlike these older literary forms, novels are more gripping and elastic – or they could be if they didn’t contain more or less the same two themes ( a man winning a girl and financial success). Cather found these themes not only cliched but at odds with reality:

“So long as their eyes were fixed on youth, love, and success they could see nothing whatever; they were like men being carried to the operating table; they were in a nervous chill because they knew they weren’t always bubbling over with these three desirable things, and they wondered how long they could go on making the gesture. Constantly putting the accent in the same place is a terribly degrading habit for a writer. It makes his book a barrel organ tune, and him an organ grinder. Life isn’t like that; it’s so disconcertingly unexpected.” 

Cather ended her speech with an interesting observation about the relationship between novel-writing and democracy: “The novel is the child of democracy and of the coming years.”  The lack of creativity in novel-writing is due in part to democracy. When one vampire series does well, authors write more books about vampire romance because they too want to be successful. In a democratic society, the reader determines which books are popular and which ones are not. The professional critic is replaced by the everyday reader. In next week’s literary flashback I will talk more about this phenomenon with an example from French literary history.

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3 thoughts on “Literary Miscellanea: Willa Cather on the Novel

  1. i read a review today of a book looking at the future of the novel which made a similar comment to Cather’s comment about professional critics being replaced by everyday readers. Interesting to see similar thoughts yet so many years separate the writers

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