Kevin Stevens on A Lonely Note: seeking the tingle of true art

I aspire to do in my writing what the best jazz does, which is to create excitement, emotional depth and complexity, which are also the essential elements of good fiction

In an interview last year, the American guitarist and musicologist Ry Cooder was asked how he knew when a piece of music he was listening to was good. He said that you feel it in your upper body – from your heart to your larynx – and in your skin. Not your head – your head can mislead, it can tell you something is good when it’s not, or the other way around. But the body doesn’t lie.

He should know. You hear a Ry Cooder tune and you want to shimmy. And his comments put me in mind of Vladimir Nabokov’s famous definition of the effect of good fiction: “Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.”

I love reading fiction as much as I love listening to music. And as different as they are, in both I seek that physical response that Cooder and Nabokov pinpoint as the core of the aesthetic experience. That tingle. Not for me the density of ideas or the passion of causes or the sentimental rewards of a true story. No, when I read a novel or a piece of short fiction I want to feel a roiling, bubbling intensity that moves through my muscles like Jimmy Page’s guitar solo in Black Dog.

Only language can do that. Because language, as Richard Ford says, is what happens in fiction. It is the medium for everything we seek in a good story – character, drama, suspense, irony – but it also provides us with fiction’s greatest pleasure: the flow of words, felicitously chosen, artfully arranged, that combine to make magic: the magic of Isaac Babel, Nabokov, James Joyce. Words are the notes. Rightly ordered, they produce in us vibrations of poetic pleasure. They sing (and no one sings like Joyce: “On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins”).


But the analogy of music runs deeper, as the novelist and teacher Marilynne Robinson tells us: “The music of a piece of fiction establishes the way in which it is to be read and, in the largest sense, what it means. It is essential to remember that characters have a music as well, a pitch and a tempo, just as real people do.” Characters, yes, and places and events and feelings. Life, Anthony Powell tells us, is a dance to the music of time, and good novels present life to us in all its melody and dissonance.

But music can be more than analogy – it is also a worthy subject of fiction, though it is tough to get them to play well together. Surprisingly few good novels have been written about music. Joyce manages it in Ulysses and The Dead (but he is Joyce). More recently, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue and An Equal Music by Vikram Seth have been solid attempts at capturing the evanescence of music on the printed page. But most writers seem to take heed of the sentiment (variously attributed to Frank Zappa, Thelonious Monk or Elvis Costello, among others), that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”.

Foolishly, perhaps, I have ignored this dictum. Most of my own novels are about music, though not because I think I’m particularly good at describing it. It’s just that I like it so much – jazz in particular. And I aspire to do in my writing what the best jazz does, which is to create excitement, emotional depth and complexity, which are also the essential elements of good fiction. As well, jazz musicians have often been intriguing characters, outsiders with passion and talent who can’t fit into the mainstream. Hipsters like Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis.

So whether it is a heroin-addicted piano player on a state department tour in Moscow, or a singer in Depression-era Kansas City, or a young Iraqi clarinet player who finds consolation and inspiration in the saxophone solos of John Coltrane, my main characters tend to be musicians. And the subject being what it is, there are passages when I have to use words to describe the notes they play and the effect of those notes on others, which is so important to them. And to me.

When those moments come I keep in mind Ry Cooder’s advice. I try to find words that, in themselves, give readers that tingle. What emerges on the page I want to feel in my skin. Like musicians, novelists have to feel their subject or it won’t work. I focus on that feeling and concentrate on language. Get the words right. Get them to flow like a good jazz solo. Whether I’m successful or not, my readers will judge, but for me it is worth the effort. Because as wonderful as it is to get that tingle when you read, it’s even better when you get it from something you yourself have written.