Long day today: not just work, but the writer’s group and book discussion group meetings. Not to mention the approximately four thousand words I’m still behind for NaNo. But I have tomorrow and next week off, so I’d better use that time to catch up. It’s just so…stuck…at the moment. In the meantime, I’ve stumbled across a Huffington Post article all about the death of the novel. Well, when I say “I” stumbled across it, that’s something of a lie. I followed the link from Goodreads, because it’s safer for me for other people to do the online stumbling of things, because they seem to have better sources than I do, and I get little enough work done now as it is.
Anyway, back to the article. The author complains two major releases for the holiday season are both not that great and therefore our culture is no longer producing good novels. In fact, we should all just give up and go watch television, because what with technology and all, words aren’t important. Because “novel means new.”
Oh where to start with that argument. Well, first, the author made it for me with the referenced examples by Tom Wolfe and of all people John Grisham as “two of America’s greatest living novelists.” And that’s the crack in the foundation of his argument that takes it all down. All of the authors he names as ones who will be forgotten are the bestsellers: Rowling, Dan Brown. Even Wolfe, I’d say, falls more into the category of ‘good seller’ for the literary fiction side than actually fantastic fiction. Look, personally I have nothing against genre fiction, and in fact will argue passionately for its literary value. That doesn’t mean it’s a widely held critical opinion, by the people who actually get to make these decisions.
In other words, bestseller lists rarely coincide with literary value. If ever?
Just a few months ago, I read Literary Feuds, and in the chapter about Wolfe and Updike, the author made it clear he wasn’t as impressed with Wolfe as Wolfe was with himself. There will always be differing opinions.
The article’s second thrust of the argument for turning to Twitter complained that only two books written after 1980 made it onto Modern Library’s list of 100 greatest novels of the twentieth century. This is, of course, because out of the say 50,000 novels published every year in those two decades, we know for sure what will be read by future generations.
Maybe you don’t realize this, but they’ve always published books that won’t last. Austen herself responded almost directly to the gothic fiction of her day with Northanger Abbey. Ann Radcliff could probably be called the female Stephen King of gothic novels back in the day. How many have you read her today? And she’s mostly remembered for starting the movement, there were plenty of other writers catering to the more lurid tastes of young reads. If you don’t believe me, it’s much easier to find all the newspaper articles of the time lamenting the terrible tastes of the masses. Elitist Sure. But we still do it today. There is no reason marks on paper should be any less entertaining and more educational than any television show or movie. In fact, given the much larger budgets and intellectual contributions, screen media should require much more from its audience.
So if it’s not required for Hollywood, why ask the poor, lone author starving in her garret to do so much more work, when maybe she just wants to tell you a fun story? Because of English teachers and Harold Bloom, mostly.
I’m not ready to switch to Twitter yet. Mostly because so few people actually tell stories there—they just want to link you to real ones. Poor Levin, who clearly isn’t reading for his own sake, although I’m not sure for whose sake he is reading. If he is. While he seems to despise genre fiction (despite called Grisham a great author) as much as any other literary critic, he never references some of the great work going on in the literary arena. An acknowledgement of genre bestsellers hardly convinces when he never mentions names like Ursula K. Le Guin, who I’ll read for fifty years at least, or Margaret Atwood. Not even Updike, Wolfe’s old rival. No non-American authors either. Of course, he explicitly asks for the Great American Novel, which is not a thing I believe actually exists…
But I haven’t written that post yet.
In the meantime, if you are waiting for the Great American Novel of the last few decades of the twentieth century, find about, oh, twenty more years worth of books to read while the critics duke it out, and by then the readers will be reading what is still worth reading. And you’ll be ready, because while you were waiting, you’ll have been reading all the Great Novels for the next couple decades before the critics have recognized them!
Enjoy, and I look forward to your reviews on GR (I’ll take a hint, sure).