Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Long Live the "Difficult" Novel

I have read some difficult novels in my time. And I have read some page-turners. I've even read some literary page turners. But let's not think for a moment that the literary novel is dead.

Lev Grossman, in his Sunday article in the Wall Street Journal, "Good Books Don't Have to Be Hard," is under the serious misunderstanding that someone was forcing him to read hard books. He was apparently forced to shun commercialism, and he lumps us all in there, stating, "We crave such entertainments, but we despise them." This dichotomy between commercial and literary fiction has always been false. Indeed, there are the James Pattersons churning out book after book, but those books serve a purpose. And while I'm not going to like them, I don't despise them, or shame others for enjoying them. There are million shades of grey between black and white, though. Many of the book club books, books that are literary but sell like commercial fiction, are these page turners, these more accessible novels that Grossman think are just now returning.

I'm glad that Grossman's conscious has released him to read books with plot, but lets not "blame the Modernists." I agree with his assessment that "the Modernists broke the clear straight lines of causality and perception and chronological sequence, to make them look more like life as it's actually lived." And we should thank them for it, but the novel has moved on since Joyce and Woolf, and even Faulkner and Hemingway. But then he drags Cormac McCarthy into it. Neither No Country for Old Men nor The Road are anywhere close to a conventional model. I think some might call them downright hard, not to mention depressing. I don't think anyone could call McCarthy's fiction "a literature of pleasure."

"Should we still be writing difficult novels? Isn't it time we made our peace with plot?" Grossman asks. When novels are overrun by plot or simply difficult to be difficult, they fail and I'm not going to like them. The time for so-called difficult novels has not passed. There is no "revolution...from the supermarket racks." There is still place in this world for books by Denis Johnson, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, and Richard Ford. These are writers of books that are not driven by plot, but also not entirely commercially palatable. And I will take these books any day over something out of the mass-market factories. Call me me an "elite" if you wish, Mr. Grossman, but I'll take lyricism over simple "suspense and humor and pacing." You can have the novel that "entertains;" I'll take the one that moves me.

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