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.


  1. I agree completely and appreciate deeply. But I will take one small Nichols-esque issue with one of her assertions: The rise of memoir in relation to long fiction has been complicated by, on the one hand, the muddiness of figuring out how true it needs to be and, on the other, the apparent belief that quirkiness or drama in bits, as long as it is true, obviates the need to tell the kind of engaging story Nichols (and I) want. I think it's no surprise that my most-read piece on Associated Content ( is a rant mostly provoked by Jeannette Walls's "true-life novel," in which she allowed her imagination only as much room as her mother's and her memory went, and left us with a collection of incomplete anecdotes.

  2. Quite simply, novels are one of the things that make life worth living. Email, on the other hand, is something that often leaves me wanting to jump off a roof.
    Yes, its a messy world, novels can not only take you away from that, they can, as you say Martha, help you develop the empathy to deal with it as well.

  3. Thanks, Barbara and Judith. Barbara--what an interesting point you make about the gaps in memoir that we, as readers, are expected to jump. Will you write more about that for us? Feel free to contact TW at

  4. One way to evaluate the emotional necessity, and imaginative opportunities, of a novel, is to look at the chronological list of novels that shaped our personal ontology. Would I really be who was at a particular point in my life without the accompanying novels? Not a chance. God only knows why, at 14, Gide's novels answered the confused self-loathing of early adolescence. Or later Proust, who ushered me through college the way
    Vergil coached Dante through the afterworld. There are so many writers I could probably never re-read, but when I read them they were the most satisfying companion I knew. We live in a technologically hand to mouth world, full of instantaneous virtual experiences. As I knew well in the third grade, I’ll take Narnia any day.

  5. Laurie -- It wouldn't be Narnia for me (more like Rivendell), but your point is so on target. I certainly chart my own coming of age through the novels that engaged me in different periods. As I recall, there's a wonderful memoir by a British writer that's something like "My Life in Books." I'll dig up the title and author.

  6. What matters is the BOX. Publishing cannot exist without the box. It's all they know. It's the only dog and pony show in town. If you as a writer rail against being put into a box that might not exactly fit what you do or who you are, they will look at you as if you're mad (gone gaga), and the hostility you will receive (after all, you are supposed to be grateful and acquiescent not insane) will be like nothing you have ever experienced in your life.

    "He's not one of us."

    You are now insane.

    You are supposed to be ecstatic that your work has finally transcended their inherent indifference.

    The irony is, they will not defend the box anymore than they will defend their indifference. They know. In their bones. And what most of them know is that they have tried and failed to make it as a writer. It's easier to become a cog that upholds the grind. What they will defend to the ends of the earth is the idea of the sacredness of the status quo.

    Because they live it.

    Even with the whole digital media revolution thing going on, the absurd idea of the paradigm of the writer, the agent, the editor, and the publicist is not one they are willing to consider modifying in any way, shape, or form. Don't even think about breaking the rules because they will use Other Writers as mercenaries to go after your ass like a pack of wild, omnivorous dogs. You have two options. Fiction. Or...

    Ho hum.

    One cannot be the other and the other cannot be the other and there is no relativism allowed because the memoir police and the Oprah Taliban will crush you with the self-righteousness of the clenched fist. It will not matter what caveat you put in the fine print about coincidence and no person living or dead. Reality is an enforced one-way street and the penalty for going the other (wrong) way is death. The real question is do books matter.

    NO ONE wants to face the real numbers. Books matter to the small amount of people who actually read them as opposed to how many books sell. Even the number of books sold represents a culture that does not read. The irony is that the Book Lover's Culture that does read will insist that most everyone is like them, and books matter. THEIR take on reality is neither colloquial or parochial. It's reality. Period. Plain and simple.

    It's called a culture war. One segment of the culture insists it's hold on reality is the real reality while other segments of the culture twist in the wind. The book world knows at some unarticulated level that the culture is almost illiterate and most Americans do not read so much as one book per year.

    The numbers are also bogus because the number of books bought by Book Lovers include multiple consumer items, and when you spread the numbers out, you can even make the disingenuous case for Americans being somewhat literate.

    It just ain't so.

    What no one wants to articulate (heresy) is that the book world is a sub-culture; not a culture, and most sub-cultures operate with rituals, temple priests, rules written on tablets and stone, wars, and mythologies that defy the limits of imagination. The book lovers scream that their world is the real world and books are sacred texts. Vis-a-vis how you write them (inside or out of the box) becomes a sacred activity, and a thing is either real or it's not.

    No matter. Most religion is a pile of horse manure. Do books matter.


    Tim Barrus

  7. I haven't done this before, responded to Tim in print, but after all, it's how I met Tim Barrus. Later, dear reader, I became his co-writer.

    It has given me a unique vantage point on the issue of memoir/novel. Both Barrus and I have lived what most people consider to be exciting lives. Both of us have written books based on those lives. Mine was explicitly about the "cowboy artist" to whom I was married in the Sixties. ("Bronze Inside and Out.") I called it a biographical memoir, because some of it was researched and some of it was lived through alongside him. Much praised, little bought.

    But the book Tim and I co-wrote (unsold so far) was developed as it was lived, though he was actually living it and telling me about it in print on the Internet and I was the one who organized, commented, annotated. So I was simultaneously Tim's reader -- jumping out of bed in the morning and checking back all day to see what had happened in the latest dilemma -- and a writing responder. I've never met Tim in person but since 2007 I've been living his life in an unfolding book as it happens.

    Tim's life and writing are all one thing. It's the publishing that's the problem, but that's true for all of us, even the famous writers. Not even the readers are a problem, though Tim has been so demonized that his writing probably doesn't get to all the readers who would respond as I do. Some really DON'T like his writing. It's TOO dramatic for them! And he gets derailed by his indignation over all that.

    Tim lives with a few dozen adolescent boy artists who are at risk because of HIV/AIDS, which means that every day is a melee of emotion and creation, sometimes life and death.

    The earliest English novels were often epistolary, presented as an exchange of letters. "Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs" is what I guess I'd have to call e-Epistolary, a new form of an old form. Is it a novel? Is it a memoir? Is it a journal? I guess the only answer is yes to all. Why would we be surprised when new media create new literary categories?

    Mary Scriver (Prairie Mary)

  8. Lucian: I'm wondering about The Box, whether I support it or not. God knows, I've spent plenty of time outside the box of editors-agents-publicists, wanting inside--but I've been on the inside, too.

    You know I have to say that books matter. But I'm not into supporting rituals and rules of a literary priesthood. That's the Franzen way, and i think it's a dead end.

  9. Mary and Tim (sorry for the "Lucian" before; I was going with the avatar): You're making some of my points, and taking them one step beyond, which I really like. You're right, we shouldn't be surprised by new literary forms, and the novel, however you define it, has been evolving for a long time. The e-Epistolary may be perfect for our times.

  10. Another terrific piece, Martha. Thank you.

    Personally, I don’t know what I would have done growing up without novels to take me away from a world often filled with harsh realities. I was born with a condition called amblyopia (lazy eye), and had to undergo surgery at six to correct my crossed eyes and nearly blind left eye. In first grade while learning to read, I had to wear an eye patch on my right eye for several weeks at a time in order to strengthen the left. Without sounding too Dickens-esque, I had a cruel, indifferent teacher who always made me read aloud when the patch was taped to my right eye. Of course, I couldn’t see a thing, so the kids called me “dummy” and groaned with impatience whenever it was my turn to read. You’d think I would have hated reading after experiencing such humiliation, but I didn’t. I adored stories that transported me “somewhere else.” In fifth grade I discovered Nancy Drew (God bless Carolyn Keene forever!) and have loved reading novels, both “trashy” and literary, ever since.

    Years ago, when my husband was transferred to Anchorage, Alaska, I had two small children, no friends or family nearby, and only the snow, darkness, and cold to keep me company while my husband worked long hours. So I read novels. Novels kept me sane during that lonely time.

    Novels have been my dear companions for as long as I can remember, and I can’t imagine living life without a good, engaging, read near at hand. Novels aren’t on the way out. Not by a long shot. Ask the ladies of my book group, and of thousands of book groups all over the country if novels are obsolete. Ask the preteens and teenagers who’ve been voraciously reading Stephenie Meyer’s New Moon series if novels are on the way out. Nope. There will always be a craving in us humans for good storytelling. And I can’t see that changing any time soon. It’s been that way since cavemen gathered around the bonfire to tell compelling tales of their hunting prowess. While the way the printed word is presented to us may be dramatically changing, I still endorse the dictum, tell a good story and people (and publishers) will buy it.

    So, do novels still matter? They certainly do to me.


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