The Novel: Dead or Just Difficult?

By Mark Jay Mirsky, Editor-in-Chief

In the past few months, I have found myself embroiled in the argument that the novel as an important creative form has died and that its death knell has tolled. Given that I am almost seventy-five years old, I tend to think more about my own death knell. The fact, however, that three novels of mine have sat on the shelf for more years of mine than I care to think about, and that recently a novella has joined them, does make the former question a matter of some concern. Is the novel dead? Are my hopes to be recognized as a novelist, and my students’, largely expired in the general rout of the form?

Marie Barrientos, the editor of Hot Type, the on-line journal of the magazine, Fiction, which I edit, is somewhat of an optimist on the subject (to which I confess as well). She thinks as I do, that it is a subject worth talking about and laughing we agreed as she left my house recently that the topic turning to a recent article by announcing the novel’s death should be headlined, “The Novel dead—or just difficult ?”

Actually the debate has been going on for a long time. Tom Wolfe, the self-proclaimed herald of the New Journalism, way back in the late seventies, proclaimed that the novel’s pre-eminence was over and that reporting the real world was far more exciting. At that time, a writer whom I regard each year with greater respect, Donald Barthelme, and the instigating force behind the creation of Fiction, the magazine I still edit, had lowered his lance beside me, and under his editorial eye I sallied forth in the New York Sunday Times to challenge Wolfe. I won’t renew that debate and only reference it to remark that the novel has been pronounced dead for a long time. Marie’s point, whose details will follow in her remarks in answer to my own, was that it is not so much the novel which is challenged but difficult fiction in the form of the novel.

At the very moment when I intended to take up Marie’s argument, a letter arrived from a former managing editor of Fiction, Michael Troncale, complaining bitterly about the lack of readers for difficult fiction, and expressing pessimism in regard to its future. It was part of an exchange on e-mail about books between us, and I thought my response to it might be a good place to jump into the boiling pot.

It started with a note from Michael notifying me that a new Beckett story was available.

A random Beckett story is finally being published. This is exciting for like .01% of the population, of which I'm included.

What's funny is the way that the editor actually imagines that this story has any interest for the general reader. Who is he thinking of? 

When I was in grad school, no one read Beckett, except me and some other guy who knew a lot about literature and wrote insufferably pretentious stories (like the kind I wrote).

Beckett is heralded as one of the greatest writers of the 20 century. And I don't know many people who actually like him, or even read him.

Here I have to challenge Michael, even though he is actually much better read when it comes to Beckett’s work than I am. I regularly assign, Beckett’s story, “First Love” to my graduate and undergraduate classes. I would say that eighty percent of the graduate students love him, and fifty percent of the undergraduates. It’s true that he is out of fashion, but fashion is not really the issue here—he isn’t on everyone’s lips in the world of critical articles because he has been reviewed, talked about, and there is no reputation to be made at present in explicating his texts. Donald Barthelme loved him unreservedly and I found Beckett intriguing long before I met Donald. Michael goes on . . .

I adore Beckett. But the assertion that Beckett is very funny is one I don't agree with. I've heard many Beckett scholars say that, trying to make SB more appealing since everyone is intimidated by him, because of his despair and his decision to destroy the novel by getting rid of plot, character, etc., the very thing that the general reader looks for in a story.

When I read Beckett, I do find stuff that's funny. But I almost never laugh out loud. It's usually so stark and depressing and really obvious, that I don't laugh, I smirk and then keep reading, trying to keep from slitting my wrists before I finish reading the story.

Murphy is the only book of his that has some good slapstick humor in it. I did laugh out loud reading it. But that was the last piece of fiction of his I laughed at. His next novel, Watt, is an exercise in pushing banal situations to the point of madness through language. I respect it, but god is it hard to read.

I love his trilogy, particularly The Unnamable, which I prefer over all Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc. in terms of best writing of the century in English (even though he wrote it in French first and translated it himself.)

The letter goes on to say that he doesn’t know anyone who has read The Unnamable—which sadly includes me. Like Michael I laughed out loud reading Murphy, but I also was tickled and am still tickled when I read “First Love.” As for not reading a novel of Beckett’s—as both a writer and reader, I read not just for pleasure but for experience. I will try to clarify that in a moment, but one reads certain writers down to the last bone and scrap of what they have published, but others I, and I think the serious reader, has a limited will or need to read. I learned something from Beckett, but at a certain point, I think I had absorbed what I could at that moment.

I don’t however prefer Beckett over Joyce, though having worked with Michael who was my student in a Creative Writing Workshop at City College I can understand his choice. This brings me to a second note from Michael.

This issue is incredibly frustrating for me because I love dark, aggressively avant-garde fiction. But no one else does. I mean NO ONE.

Most of my friends in Austin are not writers. They are theater majors. They are very creative, intelligent people, with an intellectual bent. They ask me occasionally to recommend books that are different that no one’s heard of. So I do. And they never, ever like it, or even bother to read it. That's probably a commentary on my own idiosyncratic taste that enjoys pissing people off, so that's probably not a very good example to back up what I'm saying.

I cannot finish Ulysess. (Or even spell it) I can recognize on an intellectual level how brilliant and complex it is, but on an emotional level I feel nothing. Sure I love the emotion of the last line of the whole book, but I can never even get there because I have to wade through pages and pages of pointless details and thoughts that if I bothered to analyze I’m sure I could come up with something, but why the hell should I have to work that hard to read a novel?

Michael goes on to talk about the impossibility of reading Finnegan’s Wake and cites a book list of shorter works some of which I started to read, and some of which I should have read, but for various reasons have not. Everyone has their personal book list and debating it has to be on a book-to-book basis. In that spirit let me go to Ulysses, whose spelling I have left as Michael sent it for reasons that he can guess at. One has just so much time as a reader and one to make choices, particularly when it involves difficult books. I began reading Ulysses at college. I had read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in high school, and loved it. Why? It brought me into the world of young Catholic intellectuals, a world that I badly wanted entry to, since I was brought up in Boston with Irish-Catholic teachers and found them bewildering. Its language moved me though I was too unschooled to understand why and I resonated to its romantic core. Ulysses of course was much more difficult but I skipped about and here and there it became a Bible for me of a deeper engagement with Joyce’s world. I didn’t have the resources to read it or rather to go looking for the scholarly apparatus that might have explained some of the author’s intentions. Still here and there passages of language that drew one into pornographic imagination were pure joy and I used to read it out loud to girlfriends, hoping to draw them into its hypnosis. (I candidly admit at this point that it had more effect on me than them.)

In graduate school, Albert Guerard, one of my two great teachers whom I followed from Harvard to my M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford, asked me to prepare a short talk on it for his graduate seminar in the novel. That was a very frustrating, though important class. One cannot absorb even the first volume of Proust’s The Attempt to Capture Lost Time, one week, and James Joyce’s Ulysses, the next without a form of speed reading that denies all pleasure to the experience of living in the novelist’s world. At least I can’t.

I read like mad, wanting to impress Albert, but I frankly I did not get even half way through Ulysses and had to skip through the chapters that followed the midpoint to the end so as not to be embarrassed if someone asked a question about the plot. For a plot there certainly is in Ulysses but not one you can stand on one foot and recite. What I did read though, I read carefully and with joy. I spoke about the laughter in Joyce. If you don’t hear it, you haven’t heard Joyce speak to you and you might as well be reading the dictionary. If you do, it is wicked mischievous, to use the local dialect of Hull, Massachusetts; literary, yes, but not academic, sly, pulling your leg, teasing the very information from the dusty shelves of English literature, you have to know, in order to get the joke. I was hooked. Stuart Gilbert’s guide, James Joyce’s Ulysses a Study helped me over many rough spots where I couldn’t get my bearings, and the adaptation Ulysses in Nighttown for the stage (by Marjorie Barkentin under the supervision of Padraic Colum) unlocked the spine of Nighttown. I read steadily but slowly toward the end for two years after my year in graduate school, finishing the last chapter strapped into the bare frame of a World War Two military plane that had wandered over Canada as an U.S. Air Force reservist. Our unit was being flown from Boston to my summer duty at Chanute Air Force Base in Southern Illinois, by our obviously incompetent or drunk pilots. I was surrounded by the Boston Irish members of the unit, an Air Force Hospital Reserve company, and that seemed oddly appropriate. I have read Ulysses cover to cover three times since and each time it is a different book, or rather different speakers address me. The first time in my twenties, it was Stephen Dedalus. In my thirties it was Leonard Bloom’s book, but finally in my late fifties it was the sour old veteran, whose voice Beckett seemed to have taken over for his own in certain particulars. None of the details are “pointless,” but rather the book is built up from its details. It is also ghost-ridden, but until my mother passed away I had only one experience with a ghost, and so it was only the later readings that made this obvious. Beckett’s attitude toward the past and death is very different from Joyce’s at least in Ulysses and work like Dubliners. One spends time in a novel because its world becomes your own and it slowly changes you. Ulysses was the limit of what I was willing to be changed by—Finnegan’s Wake did not promise a world that I would find interesting, nor did its linguistic experiments seems relevant to what I wanted to do, though Ulysses absolutely did.

I will pass on from Ulysses though to take up one example of the novel’s health, the recent fascination with the Norwegian writer, Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I have enjoyed the first two volumes, translated into English, and what strikes me is that they do represent a tendency of the novel through the Twentieth and now in the Twenty-First century, to use autobiography or “memoir” one of Michael’s happy categories, as the basis for fiction. In part I absorbed from Albert Guerard the doctrine that a writer’s secret biography could always be deciphered in his or her work. The controversy about the Knausgaard books seems to make clear that his characters, father, mother, wives, are drawn from life, but reading to the end of the first volume, it suddenly appears that he is using the resources of fiction, reversal, surprise, the overturning of expectations, to resolve his story at least to the end of this first installment. The arranging of materials in the second show how much more deliberate his plotting has become.

Why does one read novels—to enter other worlds—and one writes them for the same purpose. I was fooled reading Tolstoy’s book about his mother, thinking that it was a description of what had actually happened, when it turned out that he never knew his mother and he had invented out of what materials he could find, his life with her. On the other hand it is a beautiful book exactly because he wanted to enter a world in his imagination. I finally got around to reading Anna Karenina when I bought a Kindle. How cruelly Tolstoy punishes his heroine for loving outside of her marriage and yet that he spent so much time with Anna and the cast of characters around her, is a form of Tolstoy’s secret autobiography. The novel is, and will always be, about secrets, and I think we will always have secrets, even in a world of robots. The long narratives that are being spun out in T.V. serials, Battlestar Gallactica, Orphan Black, are the space ships in the advance of Western Society that Brave New Worlds and Orwell’s 1984 were in their day. They deserve serious attention as forms of the novel. Still they usually lack the resources of language—they are unable to manage as Shakespeare did, plot, character, and the mystery of human speech and something more. Leaving the world of the novel or epic, the questions and experience we have shared with the writer, seems to call us back to find a further understanding both of what we lived through in this imaginary world and what we return to in the one we call real. I go back over and over in my imagination to those narratives, call them epics like The Bible, The Odyssey, the Commedia, plays like Hamlet, Lear, or novels, Don Quixote, Pride and Prejudice, Crime and Punishment, to sort out my own riddles.

There is no conclusion here—novels are adventures, and they draw history, sociology, memoir, philosophy, in staking out the territories to which they offer to bring a reader, whether it's Malone’s bed, or Joyce’s Dublin.