Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

What’s the point of the novel?

with 4 comments

Virginia Woolf

Why do we write novels? I’m not talking here about a defense of the form itself—when a novel is good, that’s all the justification it needs. Rather, I’ve always been interested in the question of why so many young writers, whose strongest gifts might lie in other kinds of expression, are instinctively drawn to the novel as a sort of testing ground. Susan Sontag, for instance, was manifestly born to be a cultural critic, but she made her debut with the novels The Benefactor and Death Kit, neither of which exactly set the world on fire. Norman Mailer made a bigger splash with The Naked and the Dead, but its success turned out to be an outlier: he struggled to recapture that initial magic throughout his career, and he achieved his most lasting fame as a journalist and rogue public intellectual. The novel, it seems, is a ceremony of initiation for aspiring talents, a medium of tremendous complexity and difficulty that establishes a writer’s credentials, even if he or she seems likely to move on to other battlefields. And this is despite the fact that the novel itself is an increasingly hard sell for publishers and readers, at least compared to more marketable genres like memoirs and creative nonfiction.

That said, even if it no longer stands at the center of our culture, there’s no question that a novel still carries a certain cachet. And you could even argue that as the novel becomes marginalized, it grows more useful as a test of talent: to break through in fiction these days requires a writer of exceptional skill and determination. Yet I sometimes wonder if there might not be better alternatives. From the outside, it seems that writing a novel would train you to do just about anything else. Certainly other forms feel easier, or marginally less backbreaking, once you’ve willed three hundred pages of story into existence. Sooner or later, though, you find that the novel has peculiar requirements of its own, and doing it well demands that the author develop skills that may not have any application elsewhere. When I was younger, I wanted to work in every form and genre—I saw myself moving with ease from novels to short stories to essays to criticism, like the man of letters I dreamed of being. Over time, however, I’ve learned to be content with being mediocre in everything except being a good father and novelist. The novel, if you’re doing it right, sucks up everything you have, leaving little else for hobbies or side projects. And if I really wanted to be a critic or journalist, it would have made more sense to focus on that, rather than diverting my energies on a form that asked for everything I could possibly give it.

sontag

Yet I can’t shake the sense that the novel can also teach transferable skills that can’t be acquired in any other way. That isn’t a good reason to write a novel if it isn’t what you already want, but if you end up there anyway and survive the experience, you’ve learned a few things that you wouldn’t have known otherwise. To take an example from the very highest levels, here’s what Virginia Woolf once wrote to a young poet:

Can you doubt that the reason Shakespeare knew every sound and syllable in the language and could do exactly what he liked with grammar and syntax, was that Hamlet, Falstaff, and Cleopatra rushed him into this knowledge; that the lords, officers, dependents, and murders and common soldiers of the plays insisted that he should say exactly what they felt in words expressing their feelings? It was they who taught him to write, not the begetter of the sonnets.

Woolf is talking about drama, not the novel, but her underlying point—that a genre that deliberately creates a multiplicity of imaginary voices will push the writer into making new discoveries more reliably than any other—rings particularly true for novelists. (You could argue that a series of short stories could produce the same effect, but even if the writer tackled a wide range of character types, there’s something to be said for a single narrative in which everyone is forced to jostle together in surprising combinations.) The novel, which compels the writer to keep a diverse body of material under control to the breaking point, still feels like the form most likely to generate unique talents, even, or especially, if they move on. So it’s possible that writers who tackle the novel first, even if they end up elsewhere, are exactly where they need to be. But Woolf deserves the last word:

So that if you want to satisfy all those senses that rise in a swarm whenever we drop a poem among them—the reason, the imagination, the eyes, the ears, the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, not to mention a million more that the psychologists have yet to name, you will do well to embark upon a long poem in which people as unlike yourself as possible talk at the tops of their voices. And for heaven’s sake, publish nothing before you are thirty.

Written by nevalalee

June 8, 2015 at 10:12 am

4 Responses

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  1. One reason so many writers go to novels is that the market is better than for short stories, criticisms, poetry, etc. Easier to make a living.

    Dave L

    June 8, 2015 at 12:42 pm

  2. I think you are right that some people go into novel-writing because it just seems like the thing to do. I think another reason behind this, though, is that most of us start out as readers. We fall headlong into books and regret having to come up for air. That’s the magic we want to create. Those who find that breathtaking experience in poems want to become poets, and I suppose the rare child who curls up at night with a good cultural criticism will want, out of the gate, to become a cultural critic. We begin with our first love.

    Celia Reaves

    June 8, 2015 at 8:09 pm

  3. @Dave L: Well, marginally easier, anyway.

    nevalalee

    June 19, 2015 at 9:27 pm

  4. @Celia Reaves: That’s a good point. We all start with novels; not many of us can trace our formative reading experiences back to essay collections…

    nevalalee

    June 19, 2015 at 9:28 pm


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