The Modern Novel: Why bother?

I spend a good amount of my free time reading novels. It’s a past time that is more like a personal compulsion; this form of storytelling has grabbed me ’round my neck since I started devouring The Bobbsey Twins. This need to read turned me into a collector of books, a lover of dictionaries, an English major in college. I care about this art form. A lot.

So if you are a reader, too, you may share my enduring heartbreak over what happened to the long form of storytelling that is the novel in the 20th century. Certain writers broke form, and turned the sweeping, luxurious narrative into a broken, piecemeal, fragment of story; a weakened stream of image, word and punctuation. What could have been beautiful became a stumble through words until you want to die from boredom.  (For me, the names of such writers as James Joyce, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and David Foster Wallace send me running for the door. ) The intelligentsia – the critics and editors and publishers – all lauded this development as a maturation, a transition to new greatness, and we the hapless readers were forced to endure it like bad medicine. I did what I think most regular readers did: I read everything else. There is no shortage of writers who can still write a good story.

Hence, my joy at reading the TIME news magazine cover story about author Jonathan Franzen, whose latest book, Freedom, is due out shortly. Finally, a popular literary fiction writer who is understanding the need for storytelling. Here’s what he said:

It seems all the more imperative, nowadays, to fashion books that are compelling, because there is so much more distraction they have to resist. To me, now, to do something new is not to develop a form for the novel that has never been seen on earth before. It means to try to come to terms as a person and a citizen with what’s happening in the world now and to do it in some comprehensible, coherent way.  

We are so distracted by and engulfed by the technologies we’ve created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful. The place of stillness where you can actually go to write, but also to read seriously, is the point where you can acutally make responsible decisions, where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world.                                      (8/23/10, p. 48)

So, here’s to Franzen’s perspective: a hope for the return of the value of story telling, the grand, wide sweep of a world that readers in the 18th and 19th centuries simply assumed. English majors, UNITE!

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