:: Article

Everybody is Writing a Novel

By David Winters.


The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars at the Collège de France (1978 – 1979 and 1979 – 1980), Roland Barthes (trans. Kate Briggs), Columbia University Press, 2011

As Raymond Federman once wrote, ‘everybody is writing a novel these days,’ even if, and perhaps because, ‘nobody knows why.’ We live in a world where the wish to write, or, more often, to have written, speaks only of some other, inner wish, whose sense is left unspoken. The novel, real or projected, achieved or abandoned, exists in the mind of its writer less as a literary object than as a wish underwritten by other wishes. In this sense, The Preparation of the Novel takes the measure not of a set of texts, but of a nested structure of desires.

‘By the end of the 1970s,’ writes Kate Briggs in her preface to these lectures, ‘apparently “everyone knew” that Roland Barthes was writing a novel.’ Yet at the time of his death in 1980, Barthes had barely begun to plan his “Vita Nova”; the book remained a sketched hypothesis. This volume, comprising his third and final set of lectures at the Collège de France, could be said to plot the gulf between the project’s, any project’s, intention — its biographical or existential coordinates, conceived as a dense network of points — and its terminus as a felt form, whether fully grown or aborted, or both at once.


‘Will I really write a Novel?’ Barthes enquires at the outset of the course. ‘I’ll answer this and only this. I’ll proceed as if I were going to write one.’ He will prepare as if preparation were an end in itself, inhabiting the mad fantasy of a writing that falls short of its own composition, ‘pushing that fantasy as far as it will go.’ Only then will he breach or break, or get broken into, the recognition (kenshō) that writing is nothing but its wants and longings, that ‘the product is indistinguishable from the production, the practice from the drive.’ This is the reason why he must preserve the indeterminacy of each of the terms in his title. He speaks of a preparation that is neither ‘of’ nor ‘for’ a novel, and of a novel that is not a novel, nor a set of notes for a novel never to be written.

The classes of 1978 – 79 fixate on the haiku, read in terms of its ideal type: a short-form capture of an incident; a ‘notation of the present.’ For Barthes, such notations are the atomic constituents of the novel. Later lectures dwell on the steady, secret thickening of the ‘desire to write,’ on the particulars of writers’ habits and materials, the textures of their despair or solitude. Barthes is, by his own admission, excluded from a full suffering of these experiences. He remains a witness, a reader, trailing in the wake of what a writer’s life might look like. Why? Barthes is paralysed by his own crisis, which is also the crisis of all narrative, for him: a failure to navigate the passage from notation to novel. In this he is too much of a writer even to begin to write. He can only conjecture the contents of that transformation, whether dreamt or merely lived through, in which a novel ‘begins to take.’ The model of this moment is September 1909, and Proust: held in suspense somewhere between a project’s closure (Against Sainte-Beuve) and its commencement (In Search of Lost Time). All at once, silence sets out to arrange itself. The fragments thread together, each epiphany at rest in its medium.


How does a novel persuade itself into completion? At the core of any novel is its own false promise to its author. The novel ensnares the novelist in its projected redemption of her life. Her life: not the open set of her possibilities, but the remains of the decisions she has made; the way she has lived. What’s left when her days have laid waste to her. She yearns for her novel to emerge, to claim its place as the end result of every action she has taken. In its light her life will get redrafted, justified as the story of the novel’s origin: its preparation. If her life had been different, people will say, her novel would not have been written. So, the novelist dreams of a single moment in which every ruinous thing she has done will be redeemed. Yet she is never delivered into this moment; her novel is a lie she tells herself, and literature is on the side of death. In the end, the novelist knows that she belongs here too, with literature.

‘Are you writing a novel?’
‘Yes / (No).’

Where Proust’s project is propelled to fulfilment, Barthes is resigned to the knowledge that his novel ‘will remain at the level of — or be exhausted and accomplished by — its Preparation.’ The course will go on ‘for several years,’ he predicts, one year, three months and nine days before his death, ‘circumstances permitting.’

In reality, the course’s interruption will render it interminable. That is to say, its degree of insufficiency reflects its resemblance to the novel. Not just any novel, of course, and not the ’95 percent of books written today’ that ‘probably elude the problems I’ve been dealing with.’ In the present day, perhaps that percentage would be higher. It is truer now than it was thirty years ago that ‘those who write want to produce books, but what’s disappeared is the intentionality that characterizes the Work as a personal monument, a mad object that the writer is totally invested in.’ If, as Barthes says elsewhere, ‘a creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem’, then the novel to prepare will be one that presents its problems unsolved, exacerbated. A novel of which one could say that the scope of its failure is what makes it true.


David Winters works in academic publishing. In his free time he reads and writes experimental fiction and critical theory.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 28th, 2011.