Sunday, September 18, 2011

Major Novels and Major Novelists: Jonathan Franzen, Donna Tartt, Michael Chabon

This NYT piece by Dwight Garner has been raising the rafters on Twitter this afternoon as Tweeters both rail against his argument and wholeheartedly support it.

Garner's premise is rather straightforward: the tendency for "important" novelists to spend eight or nine or more years writing their next big masterpiece is a reflection of the diminishing role that the novel plays in modern life. If nine years passed between Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and Freedom, Garner suggests, then perhaps this has as much to do with Franzen's individual style and approach to writing as it does to the fact that we expect writers to hole up in their writing rooms and write huge tomes commenting on shifting cultural tides. We expect masterpieces, in other words. Garner writes:
Suddenly our important writers seem less like color commentators, sifting through the     emotional, sexual and intellectual detritus of how we live today, and more like a mountaintop Moses, handing down the granite tablets every decade or so to a bemused and stooped populace.
It's a provocative argument and certain one that is fraught with exceptions and evidence to the contrary. Garner cites Michael Chabon's work as an example, indicating that he hasn't produced an "important" work in a decade though Chabon has written several other works since his 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (one novel but several other shorter works of non-fiction, books for young people, and some genre fiction). This case itself seems to contradict Garner's entire premise.

Donna Tartt - 300 words a week?
Yet other cases like Donna Tartt do seem to suggest that we've moved to a new kind of publishing reality for today's serious novelists. Since her novel The Secret History (an excellent book) was published in 1992, Tartt has published only one other novel (in 2002, The Little Friend). Interviews with Tartt, though, suggest that she simply writes slowly. This has much less to do with some cultural or societal shift and much more to do with Tartt's refusal to be rushed or to just crank out books for the sake of cranking out books.

And let's face it: prolific writers such as Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates and Saul Bellow certainly have put out their share of shlock or intellectually soul-less works. Perhaps today's novelists are simply better at gauging when to just shut up when they are faced with nothing to say.

Also, if writers like Chabon can be used to illustrate again, perhaps not everything needs to be so seriously inclined. If one argues that his book Manhood for Amateurs doesn't have the intellectual heft of his better novels, that really misses the point of the work in many ways. Engaging with the culture (even low brow pop culture) doesn't have the same eyebrow raising necessity (whether from academia or professional reviewers in the media) as it once did. We have the gradual disappearance of the gulf between high and low culture to thank for that.

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