Do Novels Still Matter?

As far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to read people’s minds. I was obsessed by everything I knew adults hid: unspoken nastiness; unshed tears; passion—so much passion and swallowed rage.

Which means that even at the age of ten, I was destined to love novels above all other forms of writing.

I still do. After a hiatus from novel-reading this past spring, I’ve re-discovered the joys of sinking into a long work of fiction. Moreover, Jonathan Franzen’s “Rereading The Man Who Loved Children makes me want to defend the novel, any novel, partly because Franzen gets at least one thing wrong.

His piece about Christina Stead’s 1940 novel, which recently appeared in the New York Times Book Review, is wonderful. I feel encouraged to give Stead another try. But what strikes me most are his opening questions:

“[H]aven’t we all secretly sort of come to an agreement, in the last year or two or three, that novels belonged to the age of newspapers and are going the way of newspapers, only faster? As an old English professor friend of mine likes to say, novels are a curious moral case, in that we feel guilty about not reading more of them but also guilty about doing something as frivolous as reading them….”

With all due respect to Franzen and his professor friend, no.

I haven’t secretly kissed off novels. I disagree that they represent a moral dilemma, except maybe for academics who think they should be reading “serious” nonfiction. And to equate novels with newspapers (or the dying print distribution system of news) is silly. What’s endangered is the journalistic long feature, and, yes, novels are long form. But there the comparison ends.

His opening is a rhetorical device. By the end of the review, Franzen has made the case for the value of reading Stead’s novel or any other challenging literary work. I doubt he takes the newspaper/novel comparison seriously.

Yet what comes through is a particular definition of “the novel”: a literary epic like Ulysses or To the Lighthouse or The Corrections. From monolithic works such as these, Franzen claims, we are all far too distracted by the multitasking demands of modern life. As he notes in one annoying aside, “shouldn’t you be dealing with your e-mail [instead]”?

Franzen’s high-brow assumptions have gotten him into trouble with the likes of Oprah in the past. While I have a love for many literary novels, I don’t think great literature defines the form. Literary fiction has always had a comparatively small audience. (Long ago, I made peace with my inability to tolerate Ulysses.) Sure, you can say literary novels are endangered by BlackBerrys and iPhones, but people were saying that 50 years ago about TV.

It’s the serialized, “what happens next?” aspect of a page-turner that still makes novels popular—and lucrative for some writers—whether you like Dan Brown or not. No matter how much I loathe The Da Vinci Code, it is a novel.

We still do want to know how the story ends. We want to know what’s going on in other people’s emotional lives. I do, anyway.

For years, memoirs have been shoving novels aside, but in certain basic respects they are alike: page-turning stories of triumph and disaster, with reality highly reconstructed. Even in this kind of “true” story, the truth is open to interpretation. But Franzen keeps beating the wrong drum:

“Because haven’t we left this stuff behind us? High-mindedly domineering males? Children as accessories to their parents’ narcissism? The nuclear family as a free-for-all of psychic abuse?… [W]ho wants to look into the mirror of a novel and see such ugliness?”

Um. A lot of people? Unless you’re one of those domineering narcissists.

Of course we want to read this stuff, although maybe not in the demanding “private family language” of Stead or Joyce—or at least not always.

What’s more, I’d argue that novels matter because they offer multiple points of view. Their narrators often have self-evident flaws. Unlike the omniscient news-writing voice—which is suspect in its supposed objectivity—a novelistic narrator reminds us that we all see the world through our own judgments.

In the constantly morphing, self-replicating online universe, we need that reminder more than ever.

In mid-May, at the end of my teaching semester and during a difficult family trip to California, I was suddenly struck by the need to sink into a novel. A 12-year-old friend of mine suggested Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, a young-adult novel about a near-future world in which all teens undergo an operation that turns them into “pretties.” I was hooked.

From there, in the space of two weeks, I read through the Irish comfort food of Maeve Binchy’s Heart and Soul, the literary weepie Sometimes Mine by Martha Moody, and the historical Rashomon-style kaleidoscope of The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier.

I’ve now embarked on Scott Turow’s Innocent, which feels like revisiting a well-loved vacation house. Twenty-plus years ago, Turow’s blockbuster Presumed Innocent kept me up late at night—not just the story, but his gutsy approach of using a first-person narrator who’s a possible murder suspect.

OK, I have decidedly middle-brow tastes.

But here’s Turow in Innocent, via his soul-stained protagonist Judge Rusty Sabich, who is brooding at the dinner table on his sixtieth birthday:

“I shrug, but somehow in retelling the story, I confront something that has grown on me over the hours, which I am reluctant to acknowledge, even to my wife and son: I am sorely guilty that I sent a man to the penitentiary for the sake of prejudices I’m now ashamed I had…. Contemplating the moral force of the point, I go silent.”

I make no sweeping claims for novels like this except that they’ve immersed me when I needed to be immersed. I’m reminded of the standouts from my youth: Childhood’s End, The Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice—and every trashy gothic romance that took me to other worlds and time periods and revealed, even in the most rote way, the secret emotional nooks of others.

It’s in sharing the secrets nobody wants to admit—the shame, the guilt, the missed opportunities—that we learn empathy and, I hope, the ability to embrace complexity in a messy world. Yes. Oh, yes. Yes. Novels do matter.

This piece also appears in Talking Writing.