The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgments on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put into place…. A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape.
Toibin isn’t writing about contemporary postmodernists or post-postmodernists who emphasize pattern; he’s writing about Henry James and Jane Austen. More specifically, he’s writing about how those two authors tend to remove mothers from their plots. The passage comes from Toibin’s forthcoming essay collection, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families. (The essay is also available at the London Review of Books website, albeit behind a paywall.)