Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

What We Expect From Novels

Readers want less novel and more author

On a stop in his hometown of St. Louis during a 2001 book tour, Jonathan Franzen did the following things to try and please a camera. Because his novel The Corrections features a character who is a railway man, the author agreed to wander a transportation museum for an hour, looking contemplative. Because the plot builds toward a Christmas family reunion, he taped a scene where he drove across the Mississippi River, acting the prodigal son. Four takes were needed to capture the author turning pensively onto the street where he grew up. Then, when Franzen declined to be filmed outside his family home—his parents had passed away not long before—a half-hour was devoted to him walking toward the tree on a traffic island where his father’s ashes had been scattered. He was coached for this scene. “You’re looking up at the tree,” the TV producer told him. “You’re thinking about your father.”

That same evening, Jonathan Franzen flew to Chicago to tape a ninety-minute interview for Oprah, the show the footage would be used on. Oprah Winfrey had selected The Corrections for her book club, declaring that the author had poured so much into the novel “he must not have a thought left in his head.” Her comment proved prophetic. By his own admission, in the following days an exhausted and endlessly touring Franzen made a number of unwise comments, including critiquing the Oprah book club logo and employing the term “high art” when discussing his own writing, or at least the writing of those authors, such as Proust, Kafka and Faulkner, who had influenced him. The remarks led Winfrey to uninvite the novelist. In the ensuing media frenzy, the Boston Globe dubbed Franzen a “pompous prick” and the Chicago Tribune labelled him a “spoiled, whiny little brat.”

Imagine, even for a moment, William Faulkner being instructed to wander the streets of Oxford, Mississippi, looking pensive. Or Franz Kafka fielding requests that he ruminate on the autobiographical elements of The Castle with the sun setting over the Prague skyline. Or Marcel Proust, posed nibbling on madeleines in a Paris café. “You’re staring at the pastry,” the producer would be saying. “You’re thinking about pretty much everything.”

We expect a lot from our novelists these days, especially those who insist on clinging to the “literary” tag. And why not? We read a few of their books in large numbers and award the odd one a big prize. We occasionally do some lucky author a favour by adapting his story for the movies. For that matter, we do writers everywhere a favour by reading books at all, given the number of videos that require viewing. Then there is the effort/reward ratio. People can listen to a stack of CDs and watch a ton of television and even read a pile of magazines and other kinds of books, all in less time, and with far less strain, than is needed to get through a so-called serious novel. Anyone who does give the novel a go wants something in return. It’s only natural.

What readers want most, I sometimes think, is less. They want less novel and, in effect, more author. Or rather, they wish both writer and book to look and act more like mainstream movies and TV. If there is a truism about the camera, it’s that it appreciates surfaces (the writer) and struggles with depths (the book). Narrow the gap between the two—say, to a nice middlebrow range—and you’ve got a show worth airing. Maintain the distance between creator and creation, or even simply express discomfort at the process, as Jonathan Franzen did, and you’ve got a problem. Worse, you’ve become the problem: the problem author and/or the problem book. In current parlance, you’ve got an “elitist” whose work is “pompous” and “inaccessible.”

I was once invited to be a book club guest. The invitation was a pleasure, and I spent the evening talking about books with a dozen passionate readers. It was nice and club members were nice and I was grateful to be there. One of their previous selections had been Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, a novel about, in part, the life of Virginia Woolf. They had loved the book and loved the film made from it, so much so that they had decided to add Woolf’s own Mrs. Dalloway to their reading list. It was, after all, the manuscript the author is shown working on in The Hours.

That was a mistake. To a person, the club hated the novel, finding it slow, obscure and unsatisfying. Their disappointment blurred into a simmering resentment toward Virginia Woolf herself, both for writing such impossible prose and, I began to sense, for compromising the feelings of empathy the members had been nurturing for her—or, at least, for Nicole Kidman’s representation of her. I commiserated. But I also attempted to explain why literary modernism had approached language and experience in the ways it did. To no avail: Virginia Woolf had become a problem author with a problem book. Worse, in coming to her defence, I wound up revealing the literary snob within.

Modernism is enemy number one right now. In an essay in Time last fall, critic Lev Grossman blamed the likes of James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, with their complex works “impossible to understand without (and, arguably, with) compendious footnotes and critical apparatuses,” for the rise of literature that is difficult, boring and devoid of fun. He even suggested that modernists have caused Americans to betray their better instincts. “As much as Americans like to be democratic in our politics,” he wrote, “we have become aristocratic in our aesthetics.”

Grossman was quite certain there was an age when commercial popularity and artistic excellence lived in bliss. He hauled out, as does nearly everyone who wants to rag on contemporary fiction, the era of Charles Dickens, when literary and populist were supposedly united in matrimony, shared lovers of ripping plots and outsized characters, endings both happy and just. It is true that Dickens had a wide readership, and it is probably true, as Grossman put it, that “no one looked down on Scott and Tennyson and Stowe for being wildly successful.”

Equally true, however, is that long before Victorian fiction there was Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, canonical works that may or may not be impossible to understand without critical apparatuses. Likewise, in the near-immediate wake of Dickens and company, there were pre-modernists such as Hardy, Wilde and Joseph Conrad. They posed challenges to readers and critics alike. There is a historical pattern to literary fiction, but it isn’t the pleasing before/after schism favored by the “blame modernism” crowd.

Curiously, the Time critic wasn’t much impressed with the apparent harmony achieved by Jonathan Franzen. The Corrections is a luminous novel, heartfelt and stirring and written at a remarkable pitch, and it deserves its many admirers. But Grossman, who knows a problem author when he reads one, slotted Franzen amongst the “brilliant mandarins,” predicting The Corrections would fade, unlike the works of more plot-oriented writers such as Donna Tartt and Alice Sebold.

“Books aren’t high or low,” Grossman wrote. “They’re just good or bad.” Anyone who has spent time among New York editors will recognize the mantra, another false dichotomy aimed at the perceived enemies of easy reading. The sentiment is, first of all, a paraphrase of Oscar Wilde: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.” What the updated version lacks in wit—elitist, mischievous Wildean wit, no less—it makes up for in fake self-righteousness. Who says a literary novel is “high” while an Elmore Leonard crime novel is “low”? They just aren’t the same kind of book. They have different intentions and ambitions and should be judged by those measures. There are “good” and “bad” literary novels and there are “good” and “bad” crime novels. It is, or at least it seems to be, that simple.

But then what is one to make of the New York Times critic who recently suggested that Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy pick up an Elmore Leonard book in order to learn how to write? This sounds like bullying, and it sounds like the complaint of someone who is angry that any writer would still expect readers—who are doing the scribe a favour in the first place—to work for their pleasure. Elmore Leonard doesn’t make such a demand. Neither do magazines, or TV, or movies (except for a few art-house films). People are busy these days. They’ve got plenty of other entertainment options. A show needs to be put on to even grab their attention. And don’t forget this simple principle: surfaces please, depths frustrate.

For all the pressures, the novel remains a protean literary form. It doesn’t reflect an era’s caprices; it defines an era’s character. It doesn’t worry about other arts, even the movies, because it is convinced it can soar in a manner no other art can.

It sure doesn’t take its marching orders from TV producers or, to be blunt, readers with attention deficits. The recent publication of Edith Grossman’s new translation of Don Quixote is evidence enough that the novel has long placed demands on readers, and long rewarded them for their efforts. More than a little name-calling will be needed to shame or tame this behemoth.