Anthony Burgess argued that novels were engaged either with the world, or with language. A striking claim, but not a very convincing one.
In his meditation on the works of James Joyce, Anthony Burgess delineated the two different types of novel, categorised into types A and B. The A novel, to summarise his argument, is completely in thrall to convention, tapping into traditional literary archetypes with a distinct focus on plot and character. The B novel, however, can incorporate plot and character (though it occasionally dispenses with such trivialities altogether) but its ultimate aim is to explore literary form, narrative and language.
Typical examples of the A novel range from Pride and Prejudice and The Hound of the Baskervilles to Portnoy's Complaint and Saturday. Tellingly, the ultimate B novel is considered to be Finnegan's Wake. Then there are, of course, those A novels that trespass upon B territory such as Martin Amis's Time's Arrow which has a linear narrative style (albeit recounted backwards) but
in its reversal of conventional speech encroaches upon ideals more common to the B novel.
Burgess's theory was recently thrown into sharp relief by Jeanette Winterson who highlighted this notion in her discussion of Scarlett Thomas's The End of Mr Y on Newsnight Review. The novel - which deals with many complex issues including quantum mechanics and highbrow literary theory - was highly praised by the rest of the panel for its ambition. Winterson, however, claimed that despite its scope "it's not a literary book in the sense that there's no language in it" and went on to say that if the novel is to be put next to "David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, you will see immediately the difference between a real writer and one who's got a lot of ideas but doesn't care at all about language itself", which she concluded was "a problem".
Contemplating Winterson's erudite summation and her notions of the "real writer", the question is raised of whether the B novel
is inherently more valuable than the A regardless of the achievements of the latter: Is Ulysses more literary than Lolita? Ada or Ardor more so than Great Expectations? What about books that deal with similar themes: Is The Book of Dave more important than The Drowned World purely on account of Will Self's invented dialect?
If you answered "yes" to all of the above questions, let us go even further: are B writers on an altogether higher literary plane than their A counterparts? If Marcel Proust, Jeanette Winterson, Gertrude Stein and Ali Smith are "real writers", what are Evelyn Waugh, John le Carré, F Scott Fitzgerald and Sylvia Plath - who don't show as much interest in form and language?
Prose-wise, can even the most learned literary critic convince us that, "a sewerful of guineagold wine with brancomongepadenopie and sickcylinder oysters worth a billion a bite" from Finnegan's Wake or a 447-word sentence by Marcel Proust is
really more worthy of literary merit than Plath's "person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream"?
Would aspiring authors benefit more from reading In Search of Lost Time than The Bonfire of the Vanities? Or do such distinctions between A and B, Joyce and James and prose and plot serve merely to ignore Nabokov's axiom that the only school of literature is that of talent?