If a story is in you, it has to come out.
Writing simply means no dependent clauses, no dangling things, no flashbacks, and keeping the subject near the predicate. We throw in as many fresh words we can get away with. Simple, short sentences don’t always work. You have to do tricks with pacing, alternate long sentences with short, to keep it vital and alive…. Virtually every page is a cliffhanger—you’ve got to force them to turn it.
What interests me about novelists as a species is the obsessiveness of the activity, the fact that novelists have to go on writing. I think that probably must come from a sense of the irrecoverable. In every novelist’s life there is some more acute sense of loss than with other people, and I suppose I must have felt that. I didn’t realize it, I suppose, till the last ten or fifteen years. In fact you have to write novels to begin to understand this. There’s a kind of backwardness in the novel…an attempt to get back to a lost world.
Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.
The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.
Does a novel have to be culturally relevant to be “good”? Is a good storyline enough? What about strong characters, or nice plots with twists and turns? Lately I’ve read a barrage of articles in the Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and other various periodicals about the state in which the novel currently resides . The outlook? Not so good, according to the critics and other literary types.
But why? Why the negative atmosphere about the state of the novel? Is it really that bleak? What’s the point of fiction anyway? Can a novel have a great story and still be deep and rich in its content? I think it can. In fact, I think all the factors mentioned above—strong characters, nice plot with twists and turns, good storyline, and cultural relevance—are all needed to make a novel stand out amongst the crowd and be great. However, not all novelists write novels with all these elements in their novels. But this doesn’t necessarily make their novels, “bad novels.”
Like trends in art as paintings change, trends in art as fiction changes too. When the Cubists—Picasso, Braque, Gris, and the like—arrived on the art scene, their work (which was more surrealist in scope) was not well received. In fact, most art critics shunned their style, their lack of realism (which was the norm at the time), and these critics just didn’t get it. A hundred years later, looking back, art critics now realize the importance of the Cubists in the movement from one genre of art to another and how their art reflected the time.
Critics of fiction today (e.g. Lee Siegel from his New York Observer article titled Where Have All the Mailers Gone?), lamenting the lack of Mailers in the current arena of fiction, I think, have missed the point of fiction. Siegel has reduced fiction to something that must be culturally relevant; if it isn’t, it’s a sign that writers today are merely writing as a means of profession and not as a vocation (a calling if you will). According to Siegel, writing as a profession churns out marginal fiction that is irrelevant. Writing as vocation produces works that speak to a culture that needs to hear the message. I don’t completely disagree with Siegel in that fiction was, and still can be, an avenue by which writers communicate necessary messages, via stories, to the public. However, I do think the public landscape has changed dramatically since the “Mailers” were turning out their messages. Not only has the public landscape changed, but also the way the public gets its information, and writers of fiction (and critics of fiction) must realize that while a message still needs to be given, the way in which the message is presented may need to be tweaked.
I say this, not because I think novels are currently irrelevant, but to say that writers must be more entertaining and clever at how they present their messages. A writer must compete with many mediums in order to be read. So there’s a need for writers to be more innovative in their presentation. It’ true, the “Mailers” have faded away to a large degree, but writers like Rushdie, Wallace (when he was alive), McEwan, McCarthy, Russo, and even Irving and King are demonstrating a certain dissent to the public about various issues in their works. They’re simply not presenting their dissent the same way Norman Mailer did.
I agree with Siegel when he declares, “If fiction were still urgently alive, it would not allow itself to be so easily formulated, evaluated and assigned a grade.” However, all is not lost to formula writing, all is not lost to what Siegel calls the “PR ploy of the magazine” [The New Yorker and its 20 Under 40 series], or the lack of seminal mischief in the world of fiction. All is not lost. But the public has changed, and if fiction wants to stay alive in the way Siegel wishes it would, then writers of fiction must find different ways to present their “message” to the public. Going back to Norman Mailer when Mailer is, perhaps, no longer relevant, is not the answer. Take Mailers’ method, push it forward, tweak it, improve it, and move on. If fiction remains something that is “untouchable” to the public, and does not move with the changes, it will become irrelevant, and Siegel really will be left to reminiscing about the “Mailer days.”
[I originally posted this essay here at Word Painting back on July 31, 2010. Here’s another look at it.]
Create a world in which these things do or do not exist, or in which they are extended in some way. Test reality against this fiction. The reader will recognize the world that you’re talking about, even though it may be another one altogether