The Novel: Dead or Just Difficult? Part 2

In this post, editors from Fiction write back and forth in response to a post by Mark Mirsky, "The Novel: Dead or Just Difficult?"

Michael Troncale

I certainly did not intend to revive the old war-horse debate about the "the death of the novel," because that has been argued about into oblivion.

I am concerned that some of the quotes from my emails will make me look like I agree with Tom Wolfe and John Gardner about why experimental fiction is worthless. I do not agree with them. I'm on the side of the metafictionalists. Obviously I love Barthelme, but I also love Barth, Heller, Vonnegut, Wurlitizer, Pynchon, Coover, Ismael Reed.

Part of my frustration is born out of my experiences last summer when I read as much of the Latin Boom novels as I could. (Lezama Lima's Paradiso has been called the Ulysses of Latin America. I read all of Paradiso and enjoyed it much more than Ulysses)

I read tons of fiction by Marquez, Cortazar, Arenas, Puig, Onetti, Fuentes, Cabrera Infante, etc. etc.

(Have you ever read I the Supreme by Augusta Roa Bastos? Check it out if you haven't)

As I read as much as I could, I eventually found Severo Sarduy from Cuba. From what I read about him, he sounded perfect for my taste. So I attempted to read his "Cobra."

Michael snaps at Sarduy and goes on to criticize Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. Both books deserve a longer discussion and some sense of what is lost in translation. I don’t agree with all of Michael’s list—Vonnegut and Heller have never moved me. I couldn’t find my way into Pynchon or Coover, possibly my fault. To quote the last line of Beckett’s First Love, “There it is is, either you love or you don’t.”

Marie Barrientos, Online Editor

It’s difficult for me to consider difficult reading without the indulgent pull of reviewing my own early reading history.  As a an adolescent during the 70s in California, the school system took on an educational experiment that most, in hindsight, agreed was a miserable flop. As a result, I kind of knew my pre-college schooling was lousy.  Within a few years of graduation, I would not be able to recall any of my English teachers beyond grammar school.  However, what I did recall were the reading lists.  I recalled them because what was listed were often books I had already been reading on my own.  I didn’t need a teacher to tell me to, though I really would have benefitted immensely from some guidance.  My parents had a generous library full of excellent literature or “old stuff” as well current and controversial books of the day.  I read a lot.  I picked up Dickens, Austen, Thackeray and Hardy, ventured into Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev.  I was dazzled by Lolita, in part, due to whispers that it was a “sex-crazed book” yet the language was so puzzling that I thought I heard its music.   There were friends of mine who believed books, certainly anything on an English reading list was difficult, not worth the bother when there were swells to conquer at Wind ‘n Sea.  Who could read that stuff?  I could and did.  However, I don’t think I understood much of what I read. I was charged by words and sentences, I felt their electricity and authority, as in Lolita or Sot-Weed Factor (“that’s a hard read,” my mother cautioned me; it was, I didn’t get it at all but I crossed it cover to cover brooking it stone by stone). I would stick with a difficult book, a hard read, because there was something that said there’s something here.   I can understand Michael’s dismay at having intelligent friends who won’t read books he suggests.  I work with lawyers and in my first few years there I discovered that most didn’t care to open anything more hefty than the NY Law Journal. Or, some bright new associate would rave about a New York Times listed bestseller, and believing that made it a hands-down future classic. Don’t ask why I thought lawyers would read. Maybe because I saw “Ivy-league” in their C.V.'s and made a tidy assumption about professionals and reading that doesn’t match up.  My dad had been a doctor, and he gave me one of the most important books I had ever read back then, still important, Winesburg, Ohio. Because of that book, I missed half the country when we crossed it on a family road-trip while sprawled out on the backseat.   Again, my past.  But is anything worth reading that seems too difficult especially in works where you feel you’re constantly trying to get your bearings; who’s talking now?  Where are we? Wait, something just happened, what was it?  I allow for the fact that the term “difficult” is an inadequate term, measuring what?  I know of a well-established author who so dislikes whenever the term is ascribed to his own work that it has ignited to him to write an essay on this same subject of difficult reading.  The term targets such a wide range of novels that I hardly know exactly what it defines; easy for me, hard for you and vice versa? Or, lots of people have it on their shelves but have never opened?  And, who wrote it anyway?   I recall a few years ago reading To The Lighthouse  for the first time.  It became part of my 30-minute subway ride and read to work each day. I had been told it was important book, it was Woolf’s best, etc.  I could not get beyond fifty or so pages and those pages I was either scratching my head, or just mindlessly munching upon. I count five times I tried to break and enter into that book.  And then, it happened. Suddenly, the pages opened and I glided in, for a few pages at a time at least, having to go back on occasion over the previous paragraph but I was captured. (What am I talking about? It just hit me now, the language above with "first time" and such; who's the virgin here.) But, finally, I thought, I made it.  It was one of the most concerted efforts I’d made to read a book since I was a kid.  Currently, I’m reading several things, a play by August Wilson, two novels, (what Mark once termed as having reader’s A.D.D.), Roberto Bolano’s Los detectives salvages, and Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch.  Both novels are from Latin American writers. The first one is difficult as I’m reading it in its original Spanish. When I began the book, my Spanish was middling, maybe less, but since reading it, my spoken Spanish has improved big-time. Bolano’s written Spanish is very conversational, it’s a diary followed by monologs tracing the comings and goings (as in, disappearances) and a lot boredom and humor of an outcast “club” of writers and artists.  I said “currently” so it’s clear I haven’t finished but I am enjoying the book a lot even though I don’t know where it’s going at 600-some pages, and I’m suspecting nowhere, plot-wise.  The other, Cortazar, I’m reading in English. I tried reading this author in Spanish, it was too difficult. The expressed thinking turned about and I cried “Uncle!”  Fortunately, the translator, Gregory Rabassa, is a good one.  I chose to accept the author’s guide of chapter sequence  (though he states, like any good post-modernist that you can read it in any order), and performing as entitled, hopscotching or jumping around the book from one end to the other and back.  Yet, the story does take shape, more than Bolano’s has so far, yet both deal in disappearances. Difficult, but worthy books.  Worth spending the time, the effort.  But, like Michael, I feel alone amongst most of my friends going along this path. Anything too experimental, or heavy in theme unless dealt with in journalistic fashion, is not worth the time to read.   And, frankly why question them when I have my own Waterloos. To date, Dante.  And, Don Quixote.  In these, it’s not so much getting one’s bearing as I mentioned above but rather I have yet to be caught up in either the language or the story. Yet.  I allow that sometimes, these things take time and I return to them just in case I might finally breach the book.  And there are Michael’s suggestions, which like Mark, I have yet to read. It doesn’t mean I won’t go back to attempt or pick up something, because I believe in the trying, the persistence and the seeking. 

As you said, Mark, there is no conclusion.  But what breaks open for me in the question of Difficulty (and I haven’t touched upon issue of the “dead novel” especially when I got suckered again into reading yet another article, so slight, this one in the New York Times, “Is Poetry Dead?” I mean, really, that hackneyed mode of questioning should certainly be dead) is where does this lead future writers if there aren’t the readers?  What will people write?  As Will Self noted, kid-adult fiction and fantasies in trilogies, vampire and zombie books are thriving. Anyone recall that there were lines of people waiting for the next Harry Potter the minute it hit the shelves?  And if writing is difficult, too difficult, not easily “accessed,” if it is writing that makes us stop, take time, get our bearings, strive to hear the “laughter” or music in the language, will it be read or reach beyond a disgruntled devoted followers, reduced to a lofty, but exiled sort of fan-dom?  An initiated few, who struggle to read closely and in many case are swept up into the beauty of the written line because they will “bother” to read the lines, period.

Writing is thinking and, we hope, at its most precise.  When we crack open the Difficult, there’s a surge of feeling and emotion, understanding, that “I get it!” moment.  If we’re wanting to avoid the Difficult (notice I’ve started capitalizing it, what is that about?) novel or short story, then what are we feeling?  And, what are we thinking? 

Kristen Hamelin Tracey, Managing Editor

Like Marie, coincidentally, I am currently reading The Savage Detectives. It's six hundred pages, basically, of characters talking about literary squabbles, sex, and violence. I haven't been able to get into it; I'm reading it out of stubbornness, hoping to learn something, working through page by page without much investment and complaining to myself that it's so damned “difficult,” not in language exactly but in that it is very difficult to emotionally invest in the novel, for me, and therefore difficult to keep track of the (often brilliant) things it's doing. (But I did read and love 2666; it took me about three weeks, a dizzying ride through all sorts of modes of storytelling, what seemed like hundreds of characters and thousands of ideas picked up, toyed with, and refracted into a multi-faceted whole.) So it's interesting to be drawn into a conversation about this while two of us are reading the same difficult book.

It's mistaken, I think, for Michael to think that no one likes dark, experimental fiction. For one thing, almost every young book-lover seems to go through a period where dark experimental fiction is all she reads. In particular, I read all of Beckett that I could find when younger—Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable. (That's not to downplay either the effect that Beckett had on me then or the effect it had when, older, I returned; I got the humor in the first round and it took till the second round, the third decade of my life, to get the gut-punch of the sadness of it.) And even now, Beckett, and other “dark” experimental writers, have a huge part in my reading life; I don't think I'm alone there, though my sample is skewed since I hang out with so many other young writers. People who read seriously tend to read dark.

But there is a strain of optimism in American culture that rejects dark books, or more simply, I think, fails to see their existence at all. There's a way to stake out the social position of being a Person Who Reads by being the person who can always send out a link to the newest social psychology study and, for good measure, compare it to something you read in Freakonomics. Reading, rather than being what I would call a pursuit, becomes a type of glorified, highly elite consumption: reading for self-improvement, for self-understanding, for life-hacking. Organic juicing for the intellect.

(I'm oversimplifying here—I see this trend and roll my eyes at it, but I have so many friends who are entirely separate from the literary world, who work in finance or consulting, and who have read The Goldfinch and The Luminaries and other recent, highly ambitious books... so it isn't a trend that's taking over everything. It's just there, and dismaying.)

In any case, I think it's less a harbinger of doom than it seems, that there are so many people out there who read and are highly educated but don't read difficult fiction (or in other ways engage with serious art). You can read novels throughout the ages and realize that the Dorothea Brookes and the Lily Briscoes and the Stephen Dedaluses of the world—the thinkers and questioners and skeptics—have always been in a stark minority, surrounded by people who think they know quite a lot because they've absorbed enough contemporary wisdom to have an answer to any common dilemma. Of course, being alive is no common dilemma, but it's not new for serious readers to feel very alone in feeling that way.

That doesn't mean that I'm so optimistic the novel itself, as we know it, will live forever, or even through my lifetime. Is it so bad, though, if the novel becomes more like the play—still produced, still read as literature once in awhile, still even seminal, so that Joyce and Woolf become like Shakespeare, the reason that people still remember novels; and if our choice of long-term fictional worlds to immerse ourselves in, as a culture, turns towards the visual media, like Netflix-bingeable TV shows? I don't think so; there are always trade-offs with any medium, and the novel's ability to be intensely knit with an individual consciousness is something that TV shows of course lack; meanwhile, I've seen convincing arguments that television has the advantage of being told over many many more hours than any but the longest series of novels could take to read, covering time in a particularly moment-by-moment but long-reaching way, and (when not binge-watched all at once on Netflix) growing up with the audience because as the characters feel the passage of time the audience, too, feels it week by week, and so the show has time to sink deep into their psyches.

So I do agree with Mark that TV is doing some of the same work that novels are doing and have done; and I agree that probably TV can't be as experimental as novels, at least right now. It's subject to criticism well before the experiment is done, and so the further the experiment goes, the harder it is to continue on with it. You need much more funding than you need to continue on with a novel, which costs only as much as a few hundred sheets of looseleaf, and in TV, when you subvert expectations too much, fans fall off, puzzled and disappointed, advertisers follow, and the networks pull the plug. Still, there is experimentation in TV, sometimes in absolutely brilliant ways: Look at the way Community plays with format (claymation, for example), with metafiction (poking fun at cheesy fan-made montages of two main characters who are supposedly “in love”), with storytelling (the great episode when, choose-your-own-adventure style, we got to see what would have happened one night if different characters had gone to open the door for the pizza delivery). I think of experimentation and I don't just think of House of LeavesI think of the supposedly straight-laced college romantic drama Felicity's brief forays into fantasy with time travel and magic spells. I think of Lost and its incredibly non-linear, twisty narrative. I think of The United States of Tara, with Toni Collette's many personalities. And I'm thrilled Mark mentioned Battlestar Galactica, a show that was textured and long-term and infinitely careful with its character development, just like the best long novels.

All of which is to say that there will always be a strain in us that reaches for what lies just beyond what we've accomplished before—i.e. “the difficult.” I don't know what it will look like, though.