Death of the American Novel? Really?
I’ve always considered writers to be storytellers. If the story had what one of my college professors called “a deeper, hidden, secret meaning,” that was fine as long as it had a proper beginning, middle and ending, as long as it–warning: I’m about to use what some self-proclaimed literati consider to be a dirty word–ENTERTAINED.
I’ve spent my career wedding entertainment with a “deeper, hidden, secret meaning.” Readers who pick up my stories to be entertained will be satisfied. So will readers who want to analyze them. The two conditions are not exclusive, as critic Harold Bloom seemed to suggest in 2003 when he scolded the National Book Foundation for giving a “Distinguished Contribution to American Letters” award to Stephen King because good literature could not be that popular.
The idea that a story can be meaningful and entertain is not new. Many of the classics, novels that are taught in our schools and universities, were popular.
Mark Twain made lots of money with his books (he had to because he also lost lots of money investing in inventions that tanked). Huckleberry Finn in particular can be read as an adventure story, but for those who want to delve deeper Twain is saying plenty about the human condition.
John Steinbeck had hit the best seller lists before he published The Grapes of Wrath, which not only was popular, but it also rocketed him to the top of many corporate America sh*t lists. In a nutshell, the story was about the crappy treatment of displaced Oklahoma farmers during the Great Depression. For those who want to delve deeper, though, there’s lots of stuff to think about.
For example, the Rev. Jim Casey is a Christ figure. Writers of literature like to put Christ figures into their stories. When I first read this book for a college English class, I took it a step further. An angry mob beats Casey to death with pickax handles. Pickaxes, before they are separated from their handles resemble crosses…you can probably see where I’m going with this. It may be speculative bullsh*t, but my professor was pretty excited about my analysis.
Other popular novels which also encourage the reader to think are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is an amazing novel considering that it was a first novel and its author was only 23 years old at the time of publication.What’s amazing is not that a 23-year-old could write a novel that is both popular and literary, but that one so young would have such a depth of understanding about the world.
Some more modern practitioners of literary fiction that also is popular are Ann Patchett (Bel Canto) and Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife)
A favorite phrase of many English teachers, particularly in high school, is: “What was the author trying to say?” Then they look meaningfully at the class as if expecting some student to pipe up with the “theme” of the novel in one or two sentences. I always hated that phrase. If you want meaning in one or two sentences, open a Twitter account.
The meaning in a story is in the characters, what they say and how they react in different situations. The meaning is in the conflict of the story and in its resolution. The meaning is in the emotions that the writer arouses in the reader.
It is possible for a novel to be both entertaining and meaningful, and some of the meaning will rub off on the reader whether he or she does a deeper analysis or not. For instance, many readers may not get all that business about the Rev. Jim Casey being a Christ figure, pickax handle theory and all, but they will be incensed at the crappy way an uncaring society treats the displaced Oklahomans.
The American novel is not dead, as critic Lee Siegel claimed in a New York Observer article. His reason: because the public no longer talks about books. This is not the Nineteenth Century. We have movies, TV, and video games to talk about as well. And even novels continue to be talked about, although probably not during the series finale of Lost. The Internet provides countless forums for literary discussion. You can also find book discussions on TV, and many communities have organized reads like my hometown’s One Book One Lincoln where a particular book is read and then discussed in small group settings around the city.
So, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the novel’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
For additional reading see: “Literary storm rages as critic Lee Siegel pronounces the American novel dead.”