How do we define good writing? Are there clear boundaries between writing genres, fact and fiction, history and theory, writing and criticism? These are some of the questions raised by Max Sollitt’s first novel The Correspondence Course, which defies its own definition of ‘novel’.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
How do we define good writing? Are there clear boundaries between writing genres, fact and fiction, history and theory, writing and criticism? These are some of the questions raised by Max Sollitt’s first novel The Correspondence Course, which defies its own definition of “novel” by presenting its story simultaneously as a historical manuscript found in the year 2025, a series of creative writing exercises sent through the post to a correspondence school, and as letters of critique and justification based around the stories. The many layers of reality in this novel make for an interesting read, as it looks at some critical moments in the life of its protagonist Oswald Brown the writer, alongside his creative character, Osbert Johnson, whose life mirrors that of the writer’s. The stories move across three decades, two wars, love, birth, death and divorce. The overall story, building as it does between the short stories, brief assignments and a novella, is a compelling one, leading us piecemeal towards an understanding of the character of Oswald and Osbert, following their parallels, their thought processes and their methods of dealing with both the creative process and the experiences which confront them. The structure is clever and raises questions about both the writing and the critiquing process which could be fascinating, however, the unevenness of the structure is partly to blame for this book not realising its potential. To a certain extent the criticisms levied at Oswald’s final novella are the criticisms that could be levied on this book as a whole, and perhaps that is part of the irony: “The characterization is poor – the overall structure is also clumsy” (224). However it is hard to see exactly how to take this irony or how it should be applied to a reading of the book. The final novella takes up nearly half of the book, which is a fairly short one in any case (224 pages), and the lack of balance in size and depth between the first stories and the final novella making the interplay between story and criticism seem clumsy and strained, undermining the philosophical questions. One can imagine that the final novella is meant to be the culmination of the initial stories, the writer’s craft building along with his understanding of the world and the impact of the written work and its relationship to the truth of the story, but this message is too oblique, the final story too similar in structure and context to a traditional novel to work well in the context of the overall story, and yet too short and involved in the overall structure to work as a novel itself.
It is difficult to criticise a novel which has as its subject, and indeed to a certain extent parodies, the critical process. One is aware of sounding like the creative writing instructors, whose values on what makes for a work of literature are brought into question. However there must be some objective criteria for what makes a novel work or not work, and questions of structure, characterisation, theme and the overall linguistic power are all relevant, regardless of the nature of the work. Despite the interesting story, the characters in The Correspondent Course are underdeveloped, with Oswald’s premature submission of his novella A Day at the Beach to the Ingerman Literary Agency, his irritation at the criticism levelled at him, and his confidence in his own ability, coupled with Osbert’s attempts to blame his woes on others, the death of his daughter on his wife, his failures on his father, his mother, his school and ultimately God, leaving the reader unsympathetic to his plight, and perhaps less interested than they would otherwise be in his story, which occurs during one of our most interesting periods in history. The initial e-mail from the Sydney University History department claiming to unearth the manuscript in a box of old books in a Glebe second hand shop provides an opportunity to add another layer of truth and other interesting characters to the story, but since the characters of Sian and Huong only appear in the beginning and are not referred to again in the story, that whole theme seems superfluous, as if an afterthought. Perhaps this thread could have been picked up again and developed further, thereby pulling together some of the more interesting themes of time passing, technological and moral change; the permanence of words, the way in which words create reality, etc, but again this little introduction is left hanging and seems to be simply another clever device, without power or relevance in the overall story.
Despite its clumsiness of structure and paucity of character, as a first novel, the work shows promise, taking innovative risks in its difficult structure, and leaving the reader with a feeling that the book might have been an excellent one, if the story and structure were worked out more clearly and the characters developed with more depth, along with a clearer narrative voice. Certainly the concept is compelling and shows promise. Once again, Sollitt himself comes up with the most appropriate criticism, when the literary appraisal of Osbert’s novella states that his attempt is “a very creditable effort”. (224) Perhaps future works by Max Sollitt will realise this potential.