Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Future of the Big, Social Novel

Can novels still do for society what Dickens' novels did for his? Can they entertain, while still educating us about the state of our society? Can they paint a huge canvas, while still presenting us with characters we care about?

Today is the birthday of Jonathan Franzen, one of the authors currently writing who has most come to be associated with that question. In many essays and interviews since the publication of his massive book, The Corrections, he talks about his belief in the big, social novel, and his abandoning of his plan to write one, a process which led to The Corrections. Of course, some people will argue that The Corrections was just that big, social novel.

His next novel, Freedom, will be released momentarily, and I look forward to reading it. I loved The Corrections, more so the first read than the second read. I felt like I knew those characters, from the older mother who always denied herself so many things and was thus resentful (I most remember her rejecting a piece of fruit tart as much too big a slice) to the adult children who are trying to figure out how to make sense of their lives. The portrait of the patriarch losing his mind was particularly terrifying as I watched all these characters trying to figure out what to do. I would argue that the eldercare/medical drama aspect of the book comes closest to big, social novel status.

The larger question for me is whether or not any of us--or more optimistically, how many of us--will continue to have the patience for these big, sprawling novels. Even novels that are fairly accessible (small casts of characters with a less complicated plot) are a tough slog during the work week, especially if it's a doorstop of a novel. And if I say that, and I'm a speedy reader, imagine the difficulty for others.

Could we write a social novel that wasn't vast? Could I do what Dickens did, but in 250 pages? I'm sure that the economics of the book world means that plenty of authors are doing so, but I can't come up with a list just yet. Any suggestions?

I like a book with some degree of larger, global meaning, but I have trouble with a novel that goes above 500 pages in simple terms of finishing it. Will paper publishing mean that shorter social novels are our future? Or will electronic publishing mean that writers feel less restraint?


Radish King said...

I have trouble with a novel that goes above 500 pages in simple terms of finishing it. Is this in terms of physical weight, dragging it around? Or the sheer knowledge of the road ahead once you're committed? I keep thinking of all those school children reading Harry Potter books not a bit afraid of their length? Most of my favorite books could be considered tomes (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Infinite Jest, Bleak House, Dune (all six books), House of Leaves. Maybe I just like feeling like a showoff by dragging them around but OH! the joy of knowing I can get lost in a story for more than a week is my great joy.

Dale said...

I find myself almost unable to read new fiction, and I can't tell if that's because of the fiction or because of me. I'll read old favorites with great pleasure, but to new stuff I have the alarmingly naive response of but this isn't true, they're making this up!

I don't quite know what to make of this response. But I most read either poetry or nonfiction now.

Kristin said...

Rebecca, you make good points. I don't mind the physical weight, but when I'm trying to read during a normal work week, I'm burdened by the fear that I won't finish the book, that I'll lose the thread of the narrative, and be left with no story in which to lose myself.

Dale, I feel the same way about modern pop music, even if it's by a band I've loved for years/decades. I buy the latest U2CD, listen for a few days, and then pull out the older stuff from the 80's.

I decided long ago that even if I'm doomed to only loving something that I loved when I was young, whether it's music or books or making bread, at least I have activities and stuff I love.