The Secret Centre: does your novel have one?

So I finished my third novel and discovered to my delight that it actually was “about” something.  

Oh, yes.  

And then, to my horror, I realized that I’d replicated the theme of the previous two novels. 

I’m not talking about the plot or the setting or the thrust of the protagonist, but at a deeper level all three stories were (arguably) about a hero whose fate was influenced by “a person in another realm”.

What’s more surprising is that I did not write one word of these novels with that in mind.  In each case, this recurring theme took me by surprise.  Awe is a more like it.

Writing—it blows my mind!

Recently, my mind was reconstituted by reading a new book about “the novel” by the Nobel Laureate, Orhan Pamuk.  He speaks of an ineffable purpose or meaning that lies at the core of the best stories.  He calls it…

The secret centre.

In these works of true literature, enjoyment derives not from guessing who dunnit, “but about working out just what the true subject of the novel is.”

Pamuk imagines the reader to be a tracker watching for signs.  Spoor, broken twigs, the bent of a blade of grass, the details of the landscape are noted and remembered.  It’s a puzzle we’re constantly trying to understand in order to grasp the prize. 

According to Pamuk:

“the modern secular individual…cannot help reflecting on the meaning of life as he tries to locate the center of the novel he is reading—for in seeking this centre, he is seeking the center of his own life and that of the world.”

I second that emotion.

I remember, as a young man, reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.  The memory is palpable—the insights into my life!  I saw the kind of relationships I wanted, and which I was sure would give my life meaning. 

The most serious films were novelistic or “literate” in the same way.  Ingmar Bergman, for example, and his “Hour of the Wolf”—nothing happens!  But I remember watching, watching, watching for clues to what the hell life is all about.


“Our journey in this world, the life we spend in cities, streets, houses, rooms, and nature consists of nothing but a search for a secret meaning which may or may not exist.”

Which may or may not exist.  Let me repeat that—which may not exist.

The centres of my novels are so secret that I don’t even know they exist until the final drafts.  It follows that readers might not easily locate the secret centre, and according to Pamuk, that’s not a bad thing:

“…if the center is too obvious and the light too strong, the meaning of the novel is immediately revealed and the act of reading repetitive.”

If all this sounds hifalutin, I am talking about “literary fiction” as opposed to “genre” fiction.  I foresee a future blog post on that contentious issue. I could start it with another quote from Orhan Pamuk:

“Genre novels do not inspire us with any urge to seek the center at all.”

In the meantime, I highly recommend Orhan Pamuk’s book, whose title I’m not even going to mention because it’s so befuddling.  Click on the hyperlink, see for yourself, and read the book anyway. 

If you have any thoughts on this most ambiguous of story elements, I invite you to post them in the Comments section.

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