I’m happy to report that I have a long review of the George Saunders novel Lincoln in the Bardo in the latest issues of the Quarterly Conversation. In it I express many thoughts and feelings, not just about Bardo in particular but about the demilitarized zone between writing short stories and writing novels. I had so many thoughts and feelings that here are some fragments that didn’t make it into the review.
It’s an American cultural truth universally acknowledged that you can spend a lifetime writing brilliant short stories and be all but ignored—by publishers, critics, readers—while one mediocre novel with more soft spots than a week-old pear will make people’s heads turn. It takes a short story writer 40 years of highly praised work and an 800-page collection to garner the same level of attention that a garden-variety, 400-page, family melodrama receives. It makes no sense. Pile it upon the pyre of garbage that makes no sense.
The Novel is the Stanley Tape Measure of literary categories—the measurement by which all forms are measured.
Even books that are thrown together and simply labeled novels garner more acclaim than prose classified as anything else. It’s essentially neurotic. For example, you can see the yearning grasp for status in the label “nonfiction novel” that Truman Capote applied to his book-length reportage In Cold Blood (though, to be sure, that alleged work of nonfiction contains plenty of fictional wiggle)—this from a writer who never wrote a successful novel.* Of course I’m not counting Breakfast at Tiffany’s, at most a novella, which can be otherwise defined as a piece of literature publishers won’t publish as a stand-alone book.
Often what’s missing in these story-writer novels is the crucial ingredient of time; not enough of it passes. Whereas stories distill moments from a life, which is why they are hard to remember afterward and harder yet to use in larger cultural conversations, novels gain strength as they gain pages, enough time passing to show the gears of fate or character grinding out its pattern. Think of how the multiple generational narratives in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! overlap in a way that feels accidental and yet utterly unavoidable. This might be one of my favorite feelings a novel can generate. Obviously, there are many others. But the expansive treatment of time helps the novel work its magic, or a type of magic. Novels end up creating their inhabitable worlds not so much by overbuilding them with characters and information, as the short story writer is wont to do, but just by letting time pass. Think of One Hundred Year’s Of Solitude, and how that town feels like a known place simply because so many fictional feet have trod through it as the pages pass by. It’s a kind of sleight of hand. Think of Lolita, when the word “waterproof” is uttered at the end, and the reader’s attention-over-time is either rewarded or tested, and the unseen pattern emerges. Maybe a novel is just a prose work that contains more than one season. As I write this list, exceptions fly toward my face like asteroids.
Why do story writers feel pressured to write novels? Why is the novel so dominant? I don’t know, but I suspect the reasons are fairly plain: money, for starters. There is a splinter of a chance that people will actually buy your novel. After all, people once read them! And they still might turn them into movies, or an extended Netflix series, or whatever new entertainment package they’ve invented before I publish this. Second, and relatedly, it was the genre of the heyday of mass literacy, a historical coincidence we will never be able to forget. They didn’t line up on the docks of New York to hear about the death of Bulbasaur. Finally, novels are like milk jugs; if they reach a certain size, they contain their own handles; novels are simply easier to talk about, can be picked up and passed around a culture, can be used for all manner of misunderstanding. Meanwhile the short story sits inert, implacable, and glowing. The novel’s trickster shadow, never to be fully caught and sown back on.
I’m mixing my metaphors. And I sound like an old man.
It’s a little weird that our most popular shorter contemporary literary genres are the graduation speech and the advice column. The former has now become how we recognize deep thinking writers and the latter is now a legitimate way to build a body of work. It’s like a more soulful op-ed column. All of which is fine, I guess. What do I know? But are we that starved for love and instruction that these are the greatest hits of the age? Have we been that abandoned by our parents, figurative or otherwise? Rather than another novel, it seems like what we all really need is a big hug.
They won’t publish a novella as a standalone book but they’ll publish a graduation speech, each sentence blown up like a billboard slogan.
These thoughts are just practice swings before stepping to the plate. Overworked but underbaked taken as a personal aesthetic.
All of these fragments come from a short story writer who’s been thrashing within his own drafty, overbuilt novel for longer than he’s willing to admit, and who has become desperate for explanation as to why novel-writing is so consistently defeating. He’s hoping it’s not simply a failure of imagination.
*Other Voices, Other Rooms is a mess. Sorry! The Grass Harp is too much a book for children, and Answered Prayers is unfinished. There’s nothing more judgmental than a novelist working on his novel.