A few points have been brought up in the last few posts I’d like to expand on. Sorry for the length, and any weird formatting issues. I’m still getting the hang of this “blogging” thing.
First off, Ian made some really good points about the short story, back in his original post on Artless. I agree: short stories tend to be depressingly similar, and in part due to their length. Charles Baxter has a great essay that I think everyone in the world should read, in his book Burning down the House. The essay is called “Against Epiphanies.” Ever since James Joyce, the model of the short story has been one where the main character has some “realization” that changes his/her perspective. Joyce handles these moments subtly and well, because he’s an amazing writer. But over time, our society has latched onto the idea that short stories should provide some “useful insight” that we can package away. Barbara Kingsolver — who, despite the home-town pride factor, in that she lived in Tucson, Arizona, for many years, I have increasingly grown to loathe — has an introduction to her edition of “Best American Short Stories” in which she says that after every short story she read, she summarized what she had “learned” from the story, in a sentence. If the point was somehow uninteresting, or something she already knew, i.e., “alcoholism destroys families,” she dismissed the story.
I have many problems with this approach. For starters, most “lessons” in life are obvious, and even the most uninteresting subject matter — alcoholism destroys lives! — can be made vivid and amazing by a talented writer. And, it implies that the job of literature is to “teach you a life lesson” which I disagree with. Even were it true that the job of literature was to grant you some insight into life (which it isn’t), life is stupid and complicated. Most “insights,” most “epiphanies” that we are granted with — as Charles Baxter neatly points out — are either obvious, or dead wrong. Life lessons can be both stunningly trite — love is hard! — and incredibly difficult to accurately comprehend and convey in a work of art. And, as Ian points out, the very shortness of the short story makes it tempting to flatten and compress observations into simplified, uninteresting forms.
This, I would argue, however, is precisely why long, messy novels are worthwhile. I just wrote what is arguably the world’s worst paper on Chekhov, but in the course of my research, I ran across the work of a theater critic whose work I’ve used before, Francis Fergusson. His point is that writers like Shakespeare use multiple plots — think of all the love plots from As You Like It, or the weird sub-plots of Hamlet — to reflect around a central theme. So, your play is about “love,” and instead of one love plot that stands in for your idea of what love is like, you have, say, five love plots. And each love plot has characters from different social classes, and each love plot is different. So the play operates, not because any one of the plots is so amazing, but by “a vast and intricate web of analogies.” The audience makes connections between the different plots. Each plot illuminates a different aspect of love. The author doesn’t necessarily have to make the analogies explicit — that’s often clunky — but the audience can make their own connections. It allows for a more complex and multi-faceted whole.
So, the length and scope of a novel allows for this. Rather than having a small set of characters, one of whom comes to some aw-shucks revelation, you can have multiple characters, lots of plots. Different aspects that may or not seem at first to fit together, but they all illuminate central concerns and preoccupations. My hesitation over the novella, is the same concern I have over the short story. That short, streamlined effect can be a little too easy, lend itself a little too much to easy, reductive reading, i.e., Gatsby = America! Not to pick on Gatsby, because I do admire the book. But I do think one reason for its popularity is that you can read it in that simple, reductive way. I’m all for books and plays that illuminate life’s messy, complicated reality. And for that reason, big novels have a much chance of succeeding, because there’s literally more room to include all sorts of things, and all of these things add another perspective, keep you from reducing the point down to deceptively easy revelation.
Of course, I feel like I’m running perilously close to the mimetic fallacy, that just because life is “big” and “messy,” that novels should be big and messy. And that’s not true. I have to disagree with Colin on that — he says, of Underworld: “It is long, it is messy, it doesn’t always make linear sense. Neither did the second half of the 20th century, which is kind of the point.” Well, if you grant that, then if you’re writing about something that is boring — someone’s dull life, or dull job — it follows that it’s okay for your writing to be boring. And if you’re writing about someone who is shallow, your writing should be shallow. And if you’re writing about something impossible to completely understand — like, um, life — your writing should be impossible to understand. And all that is clearly not true. You can write coherent, readable prose about something that is complicated and non-linear. I don’t have any sort of problem with literature imposing an artificial structure on its subject matter, as long as it’s done in a subtle, artful way that is illuminating of life’s complexity.
One last word, on the investment of time. Aren’t you commiting to invest your time anytime you pick up a book? During my brief, unglorious career in publishing, this was drilled into my head many a time. You are not selling the book as object, really — the money, in many ways, isn’t the issue. Books can be expensive, but lots of things are more expensive. What you’re selling is the investment of time — the knowledge that, when someone buys a book, they’re devoting hours, days, or weeks to it. And you have to convince the audience that the time will be well spent. That investment of time is part of why we love the books we love so much and also explains why we feel so vehemently about the books we hate — you seriously expected me to devote hours and hours of time to this crap? So it’s really hard to draw the line. What’s a reasonable investment of time? An hour? Two hours? It depends on your life, your schedule, your preferences. But, it’s also why, I would argue, that writers can’t just raise their middle fingers at their potential audiences. If you pick up a book, you’re agreeing to devote a certain amount of time to it, in a thoughtful, considered way. So I think the authors’ part of that contract is to ensure — within their own vision and power — that the time is well spent, and for that reason books that seem to deliberately not give a damn about their readers can be particularly aggravating.
So, I guess I agree and disagree with both of you. How unhelpful of me. I do think writers need to be respectful of the investment of time readers put in, but, I happen to think big, messy novels are the best, and to me the most enjoyable, use of that time.