Thursday, March 10, 2011
CHARLES JOHNSON ON THE NOVEL
The garden variety novel is quite easy to create, and that, of course, is the reason why so many people can write them, especially formula fictions such as murder mysteries, second-rate horror and science fiction, and romance novels. I once had a student who made a decent living writing romance novels, and she explained the very strict rules of plotting and characterization required by her publisher; readers of those kinds of novels, she informed me, whip through three a day (one after breakfast, another in the afternoon, and a third before going to bed) since the boilerplate for the stories varies little from book to book. John Gardner once wrote that in order to write good junk fiction one has to have a good junk mind. My friend writer Fred Pfeil (author of Goodman 2020) once referred to novels of this kind as “industrial fiction.” They pay a publisher’s electric bills, and help writers put their kids through school so they do have some value.
In my case, I wrote six novels in two years before Faith and the Good Thing (1970 through 1972), one every ten weeks, ten pages a day, five days a week. The basic tools for writing a novel are really just a few---characters, plot, (dramatic) scenes, description and narration. These tools can be learned by anyone in a short period of time, and over the course of three decades I taught them to undergraduate and graduate students. One of the great virtues of the novel, as a literary form, is that a writer has room to create an entire fictional universe and people it with as many characters as he or she pleases. (My unpublished, pre-Faith novels 4-6 were actually conceived and composed as a trilogy intended to be 1,000 pages, about the childhood, young manhood and middle-age of a black musician, and over three academic quarters I wrote 949 pages on it before bringing it to an end because I got bored with it. The 1,000-page novel is, obviously, a young man’s folly, driven more by his ego than the aesthetic demands of the story itself.) Another virtue is that the novel is capacious enough to contain other, shorter literary forms within itself. Indeed, it can contain whatever you want. As Ishmael Reed once said, “a novel can be the 6’o clock news.”
So the garden-variety novel is not much of an intellectual or artistic challenge. Again, this is why we have so many of them. (Clarence Major once said one meaning of “novel” in French is a “new thing,” and, yes, I believe each novel should be that---something we have not exactly seen before.) But even the “literary” novel runs the risk of what the French call remplissage or “literary padding” to fill up pages. There’s almost nothing more boring that I can think of than seeing a novelist pad out a work that has a slim premise, not much of a story, and no artistic or intellectual surprises. Oh, wait, there is something more boring: spending 300 or 400 pages with characters you don’t enjoy hanging out with and for whom you couldn’t care less about “what happens next” to them.
By contrast, a well-wrought short story demands---like a poem---a rigor, discipline, compression and economy not always found in the garden-variety novel, where padding, the lack of careful plotting, verbosity, thin or stereotypical characters, and poor pacing can be absorbed and made (barely) acceptable simply by the novel’s length. (Or the length can cause us to not see that lack of rigor.) The flaws of excess and slippages in focus that we forgive in the novel are simply not permitted in the finely-crafted short story, a form capable of creating in its unique format, where every paragraph and sentence is as essential as elements in an equation, the perception-altering insights and lasting emotional impression that most novels strive for but usually fail to achieve. And, as Edgar Allen Poe (who just about single-handedly invented the modern short story) pointed out in essays such as “The Aim and Technique of the Short Story” (1842), it can be experienced in a single sitting.
So, in my view, both novels and short stories, as forms, have their strengths and weaknesses. Clearly, for either to be effective they must have a compelling, original story as their foundation. There’s no reason to write in either literary form unless one has a special story worthy of an intelligent, learned and sophisticated reader’s time and attention. Without such a story (one that is burning to be told) for either the novel or short fiction, you (and a reader) are better off spending your time working out, having a little quality time with your children or spouse or other loved ones, practicing meditation, or just enjoying the beauty of Nature during a walk in the springtime in the afternoon.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 8:46 PM