The Suspense in a Novel Is Not Only in the Reader, But in the Novelist Himself, Who Is Intensely Curious Too About What Will Happen To the Hero

Mary McCarthy? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some writers carefully map out the full plot of a novel before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Other writers begin a story relying on an incomplete character sketch and a theme. The prominent novelist and critic Mary McCarthy said she felt suspense while writing and was curious to know the future of her characters. Would you please help me to find this quotation?

Quote Investigator: In 1961 Mary McCarthy published the collection “On the Contrary: Articles of Belief 1946-1961” which included a piece titled “Settling the Colonel’s Hash” based on a talk she delivered at the Bread Loaf School of English in February 1954. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

In any work that is truly creative, I believe, the writer cannot be omniscient in advance about the effects that he proposes to produce. The suspense in a novel is not only in the reader, but in the novelist himself, who is intensely curious too about what will happen to the hero.

McCarthy gave the following example of a novelist who in her opinion began composing with the guidance of only a schematic plot:

Jane Austen may know in a general way that Emma will marry Mr. Knightley in the end (the reader knows this too, as a matter of fact); the suspense for the author lies in the how, in the twists and turns of circumstance, waiting but as yet unknown, that will bring the consummation about.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

McCarthy’s 1961 collection “On the Contrary” included another intriguing quotation about suspense within an essay titled “Characters in Fiction” based on talks given in Yugoslavia and England in the winter of 1960: 2

In the old novels, there was a continual fluctuating play between the hero and the “characters,” that is, between the world as we feel it to be subjectively and the world as we know it as observers. As subjects, we all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story.

The Quote Investigator website has a separate article here about the related saying: “Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story” which was written by John Barth in 1958.

In 1980 McCarthy’s remark about plotting and curiosity appeared with a correct attribution in “The Writer’s Quotation Book” edited by James Charlton. The statement was slightly altered: “himself” and “too” were deleted. Also, “in a novel” was changed to “of a novel”: 3

In any work that is truly creative, I believe, the writer cannot be omniscient in advance about the effects that he proposes to produce. The suspense of a novel is not only in the reader, but in the novelist, who is intensely curious about what will happen to the hero.
MARY MCCARTHY

In 1996 “The New Beacon Book of Quotations by Women” compiled by Rosalie Maggio included the quotation under examination. The version matched the text in the 1961 collection which was cited. 4

In conclusion, Mary McCarthy should receive credit for the quotation she formulated for a talk at the Bread Loaf School of English in 1954. The statement appeared in print in a 1961 collection.

Image Notes: Picture of woman jumping; picture from sasint at Pixabay.

Notes:

  1. 1961, On the Contrary: Articles of Belief 1946-1961, by Mary McCarthy, Essay: Settling the Colonel’s Hash, Date: February 1954, Description: Given first as a talk at the Bread Loaf School of English, in Middlebury, Vermont, Start Page 225, Quote Page 341, Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1961, On the Contrary: Articles of Belief 1946-1961, by Mary McCarthy, Essay: Characters in Fiction, Date: March 1961, Description: “This is the substance of a talk or talks given in Yugoslavia and England in the winter of 1960”, Start Page 271, Quote Page 291, Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1980, The Writer’s Quotation Book, Edited by James Charlton, Quote Page 49, (Third printing August 1981: Gift copy from Blackwell North America), Pushcart Press, Yonkers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1996 Copyright, The New Beacon Book of Quotations by Women, Compiled by Rosalie Maggio, Topic: Novels, Quote Page 486, Column 1, Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)