Hooper’s debut novel, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, is about an elderly woman who embarks on a long spiritual journey by foot. Here, Hooper discusses the role of music for novelists.
A few decades ago, Martin Mull famously uttered, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” In other words, trying to use words to describe music is rather difficult, and you’re liable to be misunderstood. Why, then, do I and so many other novelists, from E.M. Forster to Haruki Murakami, insist upon including, and even emphasizing, musical elements and references within our written work?
Perhaps the most obvious answer is because music is such a common and important element of our current day-to-day lives. If we try to exclude it from our work the resulting stories and universes we craft just won’t ring true; they’ll seem hollow, dishonest.
There is another reason, however, for the inclusion of musical content in authors’ fictional worlds beyond that of basic representation. In the words of Irish academic Gerry Smyth, “There is always something more, something that cannot be said... [that] music affords the... novelist: the ability to invoke states of consciousness that are beyond the ability of language to render.”
The key, I believe, is to be found in the term “language.” Music and the written word are, actually, both “languages” of two very different types. The former, music, communicates mainly nonrepresentationally, while the latter, written text, is rather strictly representational. In other words, if I write out “DOG,” you, the reader, can instantly grasp, at least generally, what I mean. It means Fido, barking, leashes, chasing cats—it means dog. On the other hand, if I play you a B-flat major chord, what does that “mean”? Of course, there is information conveyed by music; however, the type of information and the type of conveyance is vastly different from that of words.
When writers include a reference of one kind or another to music in their written work, they are stirring a new, different set of receptors in their reader. Even though the reference itself is within the form of text, it stirs the readers’ musical memory, and, with it, a new, less semantically straightforward and more abstract and emotive method of interaction.
This is, I believe, the real reason we writers are drawn to include music in our writing. Like dancing and architecture, the two are so disparate, functioning on two very different levels of communication. Music has its own kind of language, one that can’t be objectively interpreted, as can words or pictures, but a language no less, and certainly no less a language.
Working together, words and music, in their combined forms of expression, can provide uniquely vivid, multidimensional insights into novelistic story-worlds. And that makes all the awkward dancing worthwhile.