Saturday, June 12, 2010

Do Novels Still Matter?

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

As far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to read people’s minds. I was obsessed by everything I knew adults hid: unspoken nastiness; unshed tears; passion—so much passion and swallowed rage.

Which means that even at the age of ten, I was destined to love novels above all other forms of writing.

I still do. After a hiatus from novel-reading this past spring, I’ve re-discovered the joys of sinking into a long work of fiction. Moreover, Jonathan Franzen’s "Rereading The Man Who Loved Children" makes me want to defend the novel, any novel, partly because Franzen gets at least one thing wrong.

His piece about Christina Stead's 1940 novel, which recently appeared in the New York Times Book Review, is wonderful. I feel encouraged to give Stead another try. But what strikes me most are his opening questions:
“[H]aven’t we all secretly sort of come to an agreement, in the last year or two or three, that novels belonged to the age of newspapers and are going the way of newspapers, only faster? As an old English professor friend of mine likes to say, novels are a curious moral case, in that we feel guilty about not reading more of them but also guilty about doing something as frivolous as reading them….”
With all due respect to Franzen and his professor friend, no.

I haven’t secretly kissed off novels. I disagree that they represent a moral dilemma, except maybe for academics who think they should be reading “serious” nonfiction. And to equate novels with newspapers (or the dying print distribution system of news) is silly. What’s endangered is the journalistic long feature, and, yes, novels are long form. But there the comparison ends.

His opening is a rhetorical device. By the end of the review, Franzen has made the case for the value of reading Stead’s novel or any other challenging literary work. I doubt he takes the newspaper/novel comparison seriously.

Yet what comes through is a particular definition of “the novel”: a literary epic like Ulysses or To the Lighthouse or The Corrections. From monolithic works such as these, Franzen claims, we are all far too distracted by the multitasking demands of modern life. As he notes in one annoying aside, “shouldn’t you be dealing with your e-mail [instead]”?

Franzen’s high-brow assumptions have gotten him into trouble with the likes of Oprah in the past. While I have a love for many literary novels, I don’t think great literature defines the form. Literary fiction has always had a comparatively small audience. (Long ago, I made peace with my inability to tolerate Ulysses.) Sure, you can say literary novels are endangered by BlackBerrys and iPhones, but people were saying that 50 years ago about TV.

It’s the serialized, “what happens next?” aspect of a page-turner that still makes novels popular—and lucrative for some writers—whether you like Dan Brown or not. No matter how much I loathe The Da Vinci Code, it is a novel.

We still do want to know how the story ends. We want to know what’s going on in other people’s emotional lives. I do, anyway.

For years, memoirs have been shoving novels aside, but in certain basic respects they are alike: page-turning stories of triumph and disaster, with reality highly reconstructed. Even in this kind of “true” story, the truth is open to interpretation. But Franzen keeps beating the wrong drum:
“Because haven’t we left this stuff behind us? High-mindedly domineering males? Children as accessories to their parents’ narcissism? The nuclear family as a free-for-all of psychic abuse?... [W]ho wants to look into the mirror of a novel and see such ugliness?”
Um. A lot of people? Unless you’re one of those domineering narcissists.

Of course we want to read this stuff, although maybe not in the demanding "private family language" of Stead or Joyce—or at least not always.

What’s more, I’d argue that novels matter because they offer multiple points of view. Their narrators often have self-evident flaws. Unlike the omniscient news-writing voice—which is suspect in its supposed objectivity—a novelistic narrator reminds us that we all see the world through our own judgments.

In the constantly morphing, self-replicating online universe, we need that reminder more than ever.

In mid-May, at the end of my teaching semester and during a difficult family trip to California, I was suddenly struck by the need to sink into a novel. A 12-year-old friend of mine suggested Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, a young-adult novel about a near-future world in which all teens undergo an operation that turns them into “pretties.” I was hooked.

From there, in the space of two weeks, I read through the Irish comfort food of Maeve Binchy’s Heart and Soul, the literary weepie Sometimes Mine by Martha Moody, and the historical Rashomon-style kaleidoscope of characters in The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier.

I’ve now embarked on Scott Turow’s Innocent, which feels like revisiting a well-loved vacation house. Twenty-plus years ago, Turow’s blockbuster Presumed Innocent kept me up late at night—not just the story, but his gutsy approach of using a first-person narrator who's a possible murder suspect.

OK, I have decidedly middle-brow tastes.

But here’s Turow in Innocent, via his soul-stained protagonist Judge Rusty Sabich, who is brooding at the dinner table on his sixtieth birthday:
“I shrug, but somehow in retelling the story, I confront something that has grown on me over the hours, which I am reluctant to acknowledge, even to my wife and son: I am sorely guilty that I sent a man to the penitentiary for the sake of prejudices I’m now ashamed I had…. Contemplating the moral force of the point, I go silent.”
I make no sweeping claims for novels like this except that they’ve immersed me when I needed to be immersed. I’m reminded of the standouts from my youth: Childhood’s End, The Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice—and every trashy gothic romance that took me to other worlds and time periods and revealed, even in the most rote way, the secret emotional nooks of others.

It’s in sharing the secrets nobody wants to admit—the shame, the guilt, the missed opportunities—that we learn empathy and, I hope, the ability to embrace complexity in a messy world. Yes. Oh, yes. Yes. Novels do matter.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Why I Write (and Blog About Chocolate)

Guest Post by Bianca Garcia for Talking Writing

This essay began as an assignment in a magazine writing class but has evolved into something much more. It’s a riff on George Orwell’s and Joan Didion’s famous essays of the same name (without the chocolate). As Didion wrote in 1976, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

In 2004, I started my first blog as an online journal to update my friends about what was going on in my life. It was very pink, very girly, but after a few years I grew tired of my cutesy online musings. I realized that I actually prefer writing long private emails and having phone conversations instead of a public narrative.

I also realized I like blogging and having regular readers. So in 2008, I started a new food blog called Confessions of a Chocoholic. My blog finally had a focus. My writing started to grow up—and so did I.

I write because I am opinionated. I want my voice to be heard. Whether I’m talking about my family or shoes or cupcakes or world peace, I want an outlet for expressing myself.
I write because I love to talk. My fingers may not type as fast as my mouth can speak (and never as fast my mind can think) but to me, writing is almost equal to talking. Sometimes it’s even better, because when I write, I can pause and think and edit. And spell-check.
I write because I want to document my thoughts, my experiences, my life. I write because it makes me think and it makes me remember. And I write because I want to learn. I want to learn more about the things I am writing about. I want to learn how many times I can use the word “about” correctly.
I write when I am bored and I have nothing else to do.
I write when I am stressed and I have too many things to do.
I write when I am sad. I write when I need to express frustrations and anger. I write because it helps me get in touch with my thoughts and “identify my feelings,” as Dr. Phil and Oprah might say.
I write when I am happy. I write when I am excited! I love being able to use an exclamation point! I write because it helps me expand my happiness multiple times by sharing it with others.
I write because it makes me feel good. And I want to get better at it.

Blogging has opened up a whole new world for me. Not only do I get to “talk” to my readers, but they talk back. While my childhood diary-keeping and early writing started off as very private endeavors, blogging keeps me exposed in a public domain. While I feel more vulnerable, I also feel more powerful.

I used to joke to my friends that I am the biggest word-of-mouth endorser. I like telling people about the things and places and food I enjoy. I like giving recommendations. I like acting as a “concierge” and having my opinion count as something. Blogging lets me do all those things in a bigger context. Especially now with the rise of social media, I can share my favorite finds not just on a blog post, but also as a tweet, a Facebook post, or a Digg entry.

This sort of publicity is exactly what marketers want to initiate and why some companies often reach out to bloggers. I work in social media and online marketing, so I understand the power of viral marketing.

However, I am much more of a foodie than a marketer, so I am inclined to try good, healthy, delicious-looking foods—regardless of where I heard about them or from whom (a fellow blogger, a sponsored ad). I have been fortunate to receive some food freebies myself, but when I do blog about it, I make sure to mention that I received it for free, “thanks to Brand X.”

I blog because it gives me a sense of community. It’s not just about publicity and getting free stuff, but about connecting with other bloggers and blog readers—or “bleeders” as Julie Powell of Julie & Julia fame calls them.
I blog because it is social. Most of my readers are women bloggers, and we share the same interests. We eat the same things, watch the same TV shows, visit the same restaurants. If they’re not the same, we encourage each other to try new foods, shows, restaurants.
I blog because I like to endorse things I believe in—and to endorse other writers I believe in.
I blog because I love chocolate. I love the happiness-inducing moment when it melts in my mouth and the memories I create with every new sweet concoction. And I don’t just love chocolate–I love cookies too. And pasta. And pork. Although not at the same time.
I blog because it makes me feel good. And I want to get better at it.

I used to write about random topics or trivial things that I encounter. Now I put more thought and effort into my writing. I take more time, I do more research. I find that when I am writing about something I’m passionate about, my writing becomes better, smoother, more robust. I love how writing—and blogging—are not just about the activity; they are about remembering, learning, connecting, sharing. 

Bianca Garcia is a full-time advertising and media professional, and a part-time graduate student at Harvard University. She has worked for Leo Burnett, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and, and is currently a media planner at Overdrive Interactive. She blogs at Confessions of a Chocoholic and welcomes your comments. Bianca currently lives in Harvard Square, where she spends her days writing, running, and eating chocolate.