Like a lot of other novelists, I prefer to devote my reading hours to fiction. Only since being published and entering the odd inside world of the industry, however, have I learned that nonfiction sells much better and is more widely read. Fiction is apparently seen by many as too touchy-feely and feminine, or as an unjustifiable escape when there are so many edifying books full of facts to choose instead.
Even in an age when fiction must compete with blogs and Facebook and tweets and God knows whatever else is about to take over, novels continue to amaze and astound and entertain me, in all of their various forms and setting and styles. One of the latest styles, however, starts to worry me, posing questions about exactly what a novel is and whether it still excites a shrinking coterie of fiction readers.
I recently read the reigning champion of literary fiction, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which cleaned up with the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critic Circle Award and pretty much every newspaper’s Best Of 2010 list (I know, I’m a year behind). It is indeed a great and fun book from a biting commentator of contemporary life. Egan brings a restless sort of narrative eye that wants to take in everything in this crazy world of ours. She writes pitch-perfect dialogue, and she possesses the ability to find a character’s heart with painful immediacy.
As someone who has myself tried and failed to tackle the subject of rock music in fiction (and has read a handful of eh rock books by otherwise great writers like Salman Rushdie and Jonathan Lethem), I greatly admire the way Egan said something new and vital and human about the most popular art form of our time.
I have one bone to pick, however—the book’s entire skeleton: its structure. Is it even a novel? It says “a novel” right there on the cover, that weird two-word designation that publishers decided to put on all novels a few years ago. (Why do they do this??? It’s not like movie credits say “WAR HORSE: A FILM.” Is it because publishers want to warn all those nonfiction-preferring readers against accidentally picking it up and realizing, to their horror, that it contains made-up stuff?)
But Egan’s “novel” is in fact 13 somewhat related short stories. We start out with the story of a music mogul’s young assistant, then we get a decades-earlier story from the perspective of a young girl whose group of punk friends included that future mogul, then a story about an older man who seduced that young girl’s best friend, etc. This outwardly spiraling effect ties in well with her exploration of social networks, and it creates beautifully weird links between the stories, as later ones cast unexpected shadows on earlier tales.
Sometimes, however, the pearls-strung-together effect feels forced, as though Egan had a random story that she liked but that had nothing to do with this book, so she decided to say that the protagonist in the otherwise unrelated story “Selling the General” actually happens to be the boss of the protagonist from the preceding story, “A to B,” justifying the inclusion of “Selling the General.”
So, the question: what makes a novel a novel, and not a collection of stories? And does it matter?
Goon Squad leads a trend—it happens that a number of recent books take this somewhat-related-stories-as-novel structure. One of my favorite recent books, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, also appears to be a novel (it says so again on the cover), but it too comprises a collection of stories, each written about a different employee of an English-language newspaper in Rome.
David Mitchell’s wonderful Black Swan Green is an autobiographical coming-of-age novel (supposedly) about a boy, but each chapter occurs in a different month of the boy’s life and is a perfect stand-alone story as opposed to an open-ended, plot-line-dangling chapter. Characters introduced in one chapter, appearing quite important to that tale, might vanish, never to be heard from again.
Similar structures have been used in Melissa Bank’s Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing and The Wonder Spot, Dean Bakapoulos’s Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon, David Schickler’s Kissing in Manhattan, and countless other books I haven’t read yet, usually by first-time or young writers.
Perhaps this form of novel-writing results from the increasing influence of MFA programs. Writers today are far more likely than in generations past to attend grad school, where they’re taught more about short-story writing than novel writing (because you can’t exactly write a novel in time for next week’s workshop). Yet, due to the poor sales of most story collections and publishers’ increasing hesitance to take them on, the pressure grows to find a way to turn those stories into a cohesive novel … or at least a novelish thingy.
This isn’t necessarily bad. The novel is a breathing, living thing, and it’s exciting to see it do new tricks. When proven short story master Junot Diaz tried his hand at writing a novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, he created something that didn’t have the typical flow of a novel; chapters came from different characters and timelines, giving it a slightly disjointed effect. Yet it worked as a novel, as there were enough linking threads and common subject matter to tie it all together. Diaz gave us a novel written in a, er, novel way.
But there can be problems. I admit that Oscar Wao’s second chapter, told from the point of view of Oscar’s sister, whose perspective we don’t hear again, didn’t seem to fit. It made me wonder if Diaz had written that story at some different time, and really liked it and tried his best to sort of graft it into the novel. Which kind of worked … although it’s the books’ weak link.
The fact that Goon Squad ran the critical and awards table (as Oscar Wao did a few years earlier) makes me worry that the novel may be getting unfairly knocked by the literati. It’s been interesting to note the high percentage of short story collections reviewed by the The New York Times Book Review of late, as if mere novels now seem less worthy of critical attention.
A few years ago, when Granta issued its Twenty Best Young Novelists list, I couldn’t help noticing that many of their chosen “novelists” hadn’t written any novels. Nearly a third of the writers had a short story collection or two to their credits … but no novel. The clear assumption: If someone can write a great story collection, then surely they can write a great novel. Stories are displays of artistry, requiring pointillistic brilliance, whereas novels come closer to hackwork, a brute exercise in endurance. If we give those talented short story writers some time, surely they’ll crank out 400-page masterpieces.
As someone who writes novels, I find this not a little insulting. I realize that storywriters face their own ostracism (the aforementioned difficulty finding a publisher, their poor sales, etc.), so I don’t mean to rain on the one parade they get to enjoy. And short fiction is exciting: It allows for experimentation, for the wonders of jumping between tenses or characters or styles from story to story. Its limited space makes it particularly conducive to insightful pieces surgically picking at a character’s, or a single scene’s, emotions. When storywriters try novels, sometimes we get the best of both worlds: inventive tales that work on a micro level and from the 10,000-foot perspective (again, think Oscar Wao).
But sometimes we wind up with long stretches of internality whose lack of movement bores, whose navel-gazing feels narcissistic. So does the sometimes incoherent leaping from style to style, as if the author feels that a novel only becomes good if it has seven different writing styles and perspectives, or as if he/she feels the only way to be considered an Important Writer comes through checking so many boxes off of a Creativity Checklist: “and then in chapter five I’ll write from the perspective of the family dog! … then in the next chapter from the perspective of a dead relative of their neighbor who they talked to in chapter 1! … and then the next chapter will be an Excel spreadsheet!”
(In fairness, I should admit that I once wrote an unpublished novel that did precisely this. I told a story from about 12 perspectives, in different styles and tones and tenses. No Excel or canines, but I did draft a chapter written as a Rolling Stone review, and one as a Web chat, etc. Forgive me. I was 25, and way, way into David Foster Wallace.)
Perhaps the story-as-novel is, in cases, a phase. We may see young writers move from the short fiction they learned in school and the youthful need to try on every outfit in search of the one that’s best, and gradually lose their infatuation with flamboyance as they learn simply to tell great stories.
What ultimately bothers me about some stories-as-novel isn’t the occasional incoherence. These “novels” often disappoint me because they fail to accomplish some of the novel’s most basic and important duties. By parceling their energies into discrete stories, they turn their backs on boring old things like plot development, character arcs, the sustaining of a larger narrative and its subplots, and the steady accretion of suspense. The implication? That these things are dull, or (and this is what really gets me) easy, and not worthy of a true artist’s time.
A novelist friend of mine calls these elements “the blocking and tackling of writing.” Sure, maybe it looks cooler and more fun to throw 50-yard bombs on every play, but in order to win you need to do the heavy hitting, too. Just because that looks less glorious doesn’t make it less important, and it certainly doesn’t make it easier, though many critics mistakenly assume so.
A good example? Melissa Bank’s The Wonder Spot. I loved her first book and mostly liked this one as well, but it highlighted some of the problems in this form. The Wonder Spot is the rare book that managed to avoid a label on its cover (there’s no “A Novel” or “Stories”), but it feels like a series of short stories about one young protagonist. We get a story with her as a young girl, then another with her as a publishing assistant, etc.
This revealed some surprising narrative choices. Early in one story we learn that the character’s beloved father died recently, but we never actually see what happened or learn any details—the death apparently happened in the blank space between stories (a blank space that a novel couldn’t leave blank). The father played an extremely important part in the protagonist’s life, we learn early. So why skip over his death? We get an entire story about some episodes from her dating life, but nothing about this major life event.
I had the uncomfortable sense that Bank wasn’t sure how to write such a wrenching scene, so instead she skipped ahead to some other, more story-izable aspects of her character’s life. The stories in the book seemed all quite accomplished. But it felt to me like she’d cheated.
Indeed, I’m amazed by reviewers who spend lots of ink praising a writer’s prose style and poetic metaphors, but then note the well-executed plot in a more glancing way, as if it’s a deformity best not mentioned. The assumption again is that beautiful turns of phrase mark the sign of an artist, whereas a fluid and intricate plot is mere gruntwork.
Nothing could be further from the case. The lines that I am proudest of in my novels came in subconscious bursts that just sort of happened, unplanned, whereas stitching up plot holes and arranging the narrative properly proved extremely challenging and took goddamn forever. Yet when some novelists allow odd plot holes or inconsistency, certain critics barely seem to mind, as if such things aren’t flaws but charming idiosyncrasies that only prove the author’s genius.
I’m not so sure. One of a novelist’s challenges is how to tell the story, discuss certain personal or political or historical ideas, and paint variations on a theme all within a hermetic, sealed universe. You only have so many characters and settings in your book. If you read a draft and you realize there’s some other point or idea you had meant to explore, you need to figure out how to do it with your existing cast—not by writing some completely tangential story about tangential characters and pasting that onto your narrative.
This kind of problem-solving, craftsman-like approach may sound un-artistic, but it’s the opposite—it’s this very sweaty, behind-the-scenes stuff that a writer needs to work through to create art. This is why I find writers like Toni Morrison, Jonathan Franzen, and Margaret Atwood so impressive—they manage to work so many different elements into their novels, all within the context of one family, or one set of friends. They work in flourishes, they fill their canvas—and they do not cheat.
I realize I risk sounding like a traditionalist opposed to formal experimentation. That’s not the case. I love stories within stories, unexpected changes in perspective, fluctuating styles, ambiguity, seemingly bizarre tangents that make their own kind of sense with time, etc. Isn’t a work of art exciting because it subverts our expectations, confounds tradition, and breaks the rules? Yes, yes, and yes. The trick, though, is how to pull off these feats while also fulfilling, rather than ignoring, all the other wonderful things a novel can do.
The inability to sustain a narrative flaws David Foster Wallace’s novels, though I otherwise hugely admire them. David Mitchell, another of my favorite contemporaries, took a similarly odd approach in writing his latest, A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, described as the first straightforward narrative written by a veritable master of the story-as-novel. It turned out to be anything but straightforward.
The first section of Thousand Autumns tells the story of the title character, his new job in Japan, and his crush on a local woman. The second story ignores Jacob to tell a ripping yarn about another character who loves the same woman, and who tries to rescue her from an evil fortress, which he fails to do, and we never see this character again (as great as that segment is, it felt like we’d turned the channel by mistake). Then the third section gives us a Patrick O’Brian-ish naval battle that only briefly features Jacob again. I liked the book, and as usual Mitchell won praise for his fine writing, but the surfeit of dangling narrative threads, and the sense that he’d written three different novellas that kind of, sort of, went together, left me disappointed.
I don’t mean to sound anti-story so much as pro-novel, which appears to be so uncool now, overlooked both by the casual reader (nonfiction, please) and the literati (more short stories, or even flash fiction!). Novels grow increasingly marginalized in our Internet age, when people look for quick fixes—a web page here, or a tweet there, or maybe (if we’re pushing it) a 15-page short story. Certainly not a 300-page novel. The more’s the pity.
(One of my former college professors, a man who teaches American history, confided in me that he defers to the new generation’s shorter attention span—he no longer assigns books longer than 250 pages. His college has produced novelists like Gary Shteyngart, Myla Goldberg, John Wray and yours truly.)
Perhaps the novel can only survive in such an era is if it subdivides itself into easily digestible pieces, a string of stories somewhat linked together, so readers can dip their toes into a freestanding 30-page passage and not worry if they can’t pick the book up for another week or two. That’s okay, you won’t forget the plotlines, because there won’t be any.
I’m coming off harder on these books than I mean to—I very much enjoyed Goon Squad (and, yes, I admit it: her PowerPoint chapter rocked.) In fact, all the writers I’ve mentioned are people whose work I love.
I just don’t want great writers like them—or readers—to give up on the novel.
Thomas Mullen is the author of The Last Town on Earth, which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, and The Revisionists. His novels have been named to Year’s Best lists by such publications as The Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, The Onion, The San Diego Union-Times, Atlanta Magazine, and by Amazon.com.