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Yggdrasil by Oluf Olufsen Bagge 1847

Yggdrasil, the world tree, was the Nordic symbolic representation of the world. These days, worldview varies on an individual basis, but always has an underlying humanness shared by all. (Image: public domain)

The Concept of “World” in a Novel

A novel’s “world” is the general impression readers absorb from the interwoven effects of plot, characters, authorial tone, atmosphere, and setting. Writers impart this vital yet elusive quality as their own worldview inevitably pervades the work. The process is partially inadvertent and the resulting worldview may differ somewhat from the worldview purposely expressed in the work. For example, authors who write religious thrillers may or may not be religious people themselves. An unbeliever’s attitude towards the clergy may lack the sympathy of a believer. We pick up the author’s “true” worldview by sensing their way of presenting the story. We detect subtle philosophical clues such as what an author chooses to emphasize and how they go about ordering events and tying the story together.

How Authors Reveal Themselves

When authors take a serious approach to writing a novel, they have (however vaguely) some central idea or theme in mind. We can think of this as the “basic idea” behind the novel. The story then becomes an attempt on the part of the writer to summarize – in whole or in part – their personal take on life.

The story will reveal whether an author is pessimistic or optimistic in their outlook. It will show whether they think we have some power over our own lives or believe we are hapless victims of circumstance. We will see whether they are compassionate or sadistic when dealing with human suffering. Most important, the story will tell us if the author describes only the surface of things – that which we all can see – or delves deeper and explains why things happen the way they do.

Scottish writer David Lindsay (A Voyage to Arcturus) was conscious of the difference and divided novels into two distinct groups: those that describe the world, and those that try to explain it. Keep in mind that even literary novels often merely describe and do not venture beyond presenting a perceptive “slice of life.” As readers, we feel rewarded when we recognize something and say to ourselves, ‘Yes! That’s just how it is.”

The Power of Serious Literature

Contrast is the most revealing way for a writer to present their vision of life. Serious literature draws its power from the contrast between the writer’s preferred world and the world they openly reject. To use the technique, a writer needs to have some idea of what they stand for and what they stand against. The starting point for a serious writer is their genuinely held beliefs. All their work will flow from that primary source. Their best work will emerge from the beliefs they hold most dear.

Affirming Responsible Humanness

American novelist John Gardner had a remarkably good grasp of what it means to be a novelist. When it comes to worldview, he believed that, “Good fiction affirms responsible humanness.” Writers achieve this through a novel’s characters. Main characters must possess, or develop, a decent workable set of values. They must manifest, or learn to manifest, socially constructive behaviour. Workable values exclude wild idealism or perfectionism because such pretentious values are not very human. Humans can be decent; they cannot be saints. Socially constructive behaviour is responsible behaviour. Gardner saw the successful novel as a work that has moral standards and presents good examples. Writers and critics have pointed out many times that the world’s most revered novels are all works with morality for a theme.

Susan Sontag beautifully captures this idea in her posthumous collection of essays, At the Same Time: “Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate – and, therefore, improve – our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.”

Resonating with Readers

Writers who pour the better part of themselves into their work are the ones most likely to strike a chord (resonate) with readers who encounter it. This is so simply because writers are human beings and thus share some aspects of life with other members of the race. They share values. Making genuinely held values central to the story will “evoke our common humanity” and allow like-minded readers to identify with the characters living by, or at least trying to live by, standards that they recognize. The writer has found the place where worldviews overlap.