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The Novelist Wars?

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Lots and lots of healthy debate lately here and elsewhere about coverage of fiction, and ultimately the place of fiction in our culture.

The novel has always been a contradictory form. Here is a long form narrative mainly read originally by consumers who were only newly literate or limited in their literacy. The novel ranked below poetry, essay and history in prestige for a long time. Anxiety about proving the novel's seriousness has receded but never really left us. "Modernist" novelists of the first half of the twentieth century were kamikaze, creatively speaking, counting on experiments to overthrow the novel itself. We still subconsciously try to prove, as writers and readers, that the novel is "real" enough to merit attention -- perhaps part of the appeal of historical fiction.

While today we tend to think of the book in terms of its lack of technology, the mass production of the novel became feasible only because of cutting edge technological, industrial and business practices, particularly advanced in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, film has been a shadow thrown over the minds of all novelists. Ever since, novelists have strained to make themselves more relevant and, whether consciously or not, novel writing has been influenced by cinematic doctrines -- by turns, embracing and defying it. We can think of William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway tossed around by Hollywood in different ways. I think in the last few years, however, there has been a big change in Hollywood, which has been gearing most films for twelve-year-olds. Films have become shorter in length, jumpier in style and simpler in story so that they can be more easily transferred to once under-exploited international markets. Interestingly, this creates the opportunity for the novel to define itself in contrast to film by shifting back toward a nineteenth century voice and style of narrative. Dickens had little interest in experimentation, at least in any sense we would use the term today related to "literary" experiments. He was a storyteller first and foremost -- in his novels, in speeches, in theater -- and understood how importantly story guided the public imagination.

As new technology emerges as the greatest challenge to novels since the advent of film, it may be that the fragmentation of storytelling into installments key to Dickens's era will be recreated in some way. Readers already frequently sample the first chapter of a novel on their mobile phone screens.

Never before have there been so many novelists trained in various academic ways of thinking about the novel, and, especially in the United States, boasting academic degrees in fiction writing and armed with complex critical vocabulary about the book. Do you think academic versatility helps the novelist?

Now, on to the war of words between so-called literary and so-called commercial (or popular, or genre) writers. Personally, the categories do nothing for me. It's notable that the attention to Jonathan Franzen (and his new novel, but more to him as an entity) has prompted this tussle. Does he spend his life sitting around grateful for all the controversy he unintentionally provokes while being, as far as I can tell, absolutely uncontroversial? (It almost seems like something that would happen repeatedly to a character in a novel.) I don't have too much to say that is particularly insightful about the gender issue--in addition to the Huffington Post articles, Tess Gerritsen, Laura Lippman, David Liss and Jennifer Vanderbes have interesting asides. Recall that what made Franzen such a known figure among the public: not receiving the blessing of Oprah but (supposedly) spurning it. Unwittingly, Franzen's act became an almost allegorical recreation of the liberation of the novelist from the system of elite patrons that had controlled writers' destinies for centuries--with Oprah cast in the role of the elite. Haven't we always looked for the novelist as rogue against the establishment? Because we see the novelist as someone "like us"? Most of us do not think we can compose a symphony or direct a film, but many of us feel there is a novel inside of us somewhere, or maybe a novelist inside.

Filmmaking has always been a "popular" medium -- that is, it is supported and shaped by the purchasing power of the public at large buying tickets, whether for fifty cents in 1950 or twelve dollars in modern-day New York City. Fine art, by contrast, remains laregly a patron-supported medium, since there are such a finite number of people who can and will support artists by paying ten or hundreds of thousands of dollars for paintings, sculptures and so on. What about poets? Poets still for the most part rely on grants and academic positions for funding. Writing has taken both forms, and at certain times and places in history depended mostly on the patronage system. Not storytelling, mind you. That had been an oral tradition and usually had no authorial figure or patron attached. There is a vagueness about the way we perceive many of our poets -- Homer or Dante or Edgar Allan Poe -- and dramatists -- Shakespeare. But the novelist has traditionally been sketched in the public eye with very specific, human contours. Dickens, bucking the system by rising from nothing, remains a paradigm. I don't like categories for novelists, but some novelists rely on earning their incomes through "popular" patronage and others supplement this through the sanction of university appointments and federal and private grants. Does this create more of a cultural divide among our writers than the categories of "literary" and "genre" fiction?

After all, these categories are very unstable, as far as I can tell. Even from bookstore to bookstore the same book can be classified differently. I would propose that many readers have not even heard of the category of "literary fiction," even if they read books so classified. Perhaps it comes down not to who the writers are, but who they see as their readers -- the general public or some smaller class of judges.