Cooling down after a run this weekend, I stopped by a local cafe to pick up coffee and the New York Times. On Sundays I often turn first to the crossword puzzle, to delay the inevitable slew of international and financial crises. Yes this week, rounding the corner, even the magazine pointed to crisis for me as a reader, writer, and editor. Garth Risk Hallberg’s riff “Why Write Novels at All?” asked me to consider questions I wasn’t prepared to answer, and definitely not sweaty, pre-caffeine, at 8 AM. At first, the question seemed silly–as a writer I write because I must. Because I believe in the power of words to help us understand and make sense of an inexplicable and yet beautiful world, because it is rent with pain that needs voicing and from which we can learn. I write because it is something I can offer–a mainstay, and a crafted one, amidst chaos.
Hallberg writes that, according to many contemporary novelists, the main purpose of fiction is to make us feel less alone. The article goes on to question the ways in which a novel can do so, namely David Foster Wallace’s take that “if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own” and Jonathan Franzen’s reasoning that “simply to be recognized…simply not to be misunderstood: these revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.” To me, however, both of these seem unsatisfying and to a certain extent, egotistical takes on the value of novel reading and writing. A blog or Facebook page is also a place to broadcast one’s emotions, and, conceivably, receive some sort of community or comfort, in the same virtual way that writing and reading can. This is predicated, of course, on the assumption that people care and want to hear about one’s life, which I’m not sure everyone does. Hallberg directs us to the distinction–a key one–between writing to feel less alone and writing because one wants a reader to feel less alone. And yet I wonder the impulse behind many modern novels.
If the purpose of the art is, according to Hallberg’s sources, “to delight and instruct.” And I think the best novels (or poems, or short stories) do. But if our purpose is to feel less alone, to write out of our solitary condition, delight and instruction for others may not be inevitable. In writing to feel less alone or to imagine the pain of others we may write ourselves into a whole new type of loneliness, a loneliness born of inattention to the power literature has to “both frame the question and affect the answer,” and to do so beyond the scope of our own concerns.
This is not to say that many novels do not or cannot delight us as entertainment, or instruct us as to the pain or joy of another. But is it enough to make a novel worthy of reading or writing, enough to make a novel a good piece of art? Or one that lasts? I don’t know that I can answer that question. Maybe it is not the nature of fiction to have the Great American Novel, or classics in the way that we used to. Maybe this means that books become classic to individuals, when characters and language sticks with us even when they are not widely read and lauded and in mass circulation. Personally, I don’t think I’m wiling to concede that easily. I think it is a worthy endeavor to try, with each piece to delight and/or instruct someone else, whoever that may be. Some of that pleasure and learning will inevitably find me as I’m writing. Or picking up the next great novel.
“Why Write Novels at All?” New York Times Magazine, 50-51. Sunday January 15 2012.