Novels versus Stories: A Personal Reflection

Last July, I completed the first draft of my first novel ever. It was my third attempt at a novel, the first being when I was a senior in high school, writing 120 some handwritten pages. The second was a decade or so later, and that novel became unwieldy, at 400 some pages, and not even one third of the way through. It was at that point I realized that I needed to back up and understand how to write shorter forms to simply accomplish the goal of completion. I always knew I wanted to be a longform writer, I was always interested in novels rather than stories, but I had to be able to see the arc of a work of fiction and put it on paper. It was indeed a struggle. How does one create the architecture for a work of fiction? I had a lot of impulses, but what I lacked was technique. I had very little understanding of craft and how there were certain “tricks” to understand the underpinnings of fiction.

Certain things I grasped intuitively through writing; there are other things about stories that I still am trying to understand, years later. What a story needs is very different than what a novel needs: the structure and plot need to be tighter, everything has to be accomplished with an economy of words and space, there can be very little that is extraneous and we need to feel the arc very palpably, see the transformation of the character. It is interesting to study short stories and their writers (something which I have done quite a lot over the past decade, in my MFA program and in a short story discussion group), for the short story is not a monolithic entity. I, very oddly, I’m not a fan of the much-lauded Alice Munro, for I find her jumps in time to be rather jarring and disturbing. However, George Saunders’s omissions work, because they leave out information that is implied and that we can piece together. I feel that Jhumpa Lahiri’s shorter short stories are generally much stronger than her longer short stories, as the latter feel a bit meandering and padded. Anthony Doerr does wonderful work with showing the passage of time, writing clearly structured stories that still hold a lot of emotion. And finally, one of my absolute favorite stories is Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” which practically uses standup comedy to address serious issues that Native Americans face.

And what of novels? Why do I prefer them to stories?

To me, a novel is something soothing and complete. It is its own entity in a book, something you hold in your hand, a complete oeuvre from cover to cover. We talk about the accomplishment of “writing a book,” meaning a novel. A novel has the legroom, so to speak, the extra space to develop all the themes and thoughts and ideas we have as writers. I liken it to a Boeing 767 or Airbus 380 that needs a long runway to take off: it is a large aircraft and it needs it space to launch and to carry the passengers to a far off destination, covering a wide swath of time and distance. A short story is like a small Embraer jet that can maneuver small runways and take you where you need to go quickly and efficiently. I like the expansive nature of a novel, the way it can take us on a character’s journey (or multiple characters’ journeys). We can savor the prose, follow the various threads introduced by the writer, study the plots and subplots. We might even marvel at a slightly atypical structure–perhaps the novel is not written in traditional chapters, or the chapters are irregular, or it is fashioned into different sections.

19th-century writers such as Dickens and Tolstoy wrote their novels in serial fashion, with regular “episodes” that accomplished weekly or periodic entertainment for the reader. Therefore, their novels tend to be more conventionally structured, chapters more even in length. As novels became more and more available as their own printed form, the form naturally expanded and took on new shapes. Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop was a novel in stories (see the earlier post https://thewomenofletters.com/2019/12/16/in-defense-of-the-novel-in-stories-cathers-death-comes-for-the-archbishop/). The nature of prose also expanded, and over the decades in the 20th century we got writers as diverse as Hemingway, Kerouac, and Morrison. The phenomenon of metafiction arose, although one could argue that Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey was proto-metafiction, and also magical realism.

Today, we have a multitude of forms, styles, writers, backgrounds, and this makes the entity of the novel all the richer and more fascinating. And still, the pleasure of sitting down with a book that takes us on a literary journey from start to finish is incomparable. We have a human need to connect with a character, a family, a story line. Satisfying this need is a great challenge as a writer, for figuring out the architecture, so to speak, the structure and plot and sustaining it over hundreds of pages, is quite a task. I had the great fortune to ask Joyce Carol Oates after a Zoom interview how she managed the challenge of structure over an 800-page novel, and her answer was simply that the story had to be told, the characters’ stories needed that much space. Easier said than done for mortals like me compared to a literary titan! 

There is also the question of when to pause and shift gears from one character to another, one plot line to another, etc. This affects where we put in breaks either in the form of chapters or sections. Another challenge while writing a novel is not being redundant. We need to fill space, we need to expand the histories and backstories and details, but how much is too much? Have we repeated ourselves? Are the details we are presenting the reader necessary, or boring? And what about the themes and the basic idea of the story: is it interesting enough to engage a reader over multiple pages? Agents will often tell writers that the key to a successful query is to make the agent want to read past the first page.

Have things been resolved by the end of the novel? Have the loose threads come together, or are there aspects that leave the reader hanging? Is the novel put together in a way that feels cohesive? I recently read a novel by a Nobel laureate that felt like a draft: it completely lacked backstory, skimmed the surface of the story by focusing heavily on dialogue, and felt too long, like it should have been a novella. The novel clearly needed to be edited. This is proof that even the best writers struggle with the challenge of the novel, and that their output will vary from book to book. In a back-of-the-magazine interview in Vanity Fair, the interviewer said to Roth that surely, he must know he can write a novel by now. Roth’s answer was an emphatic no, that he couldn’t write all novels, only this one, the current novel he was working on at the time. 

I am still learning much about technique and craft when it comes to the novel, and I hope it will inform me in my revisions and subsequent works. Despite all the challenges, I still feel like it is a worthy and absolutely gripping pursuit to be a novelist. There are few greater thrills!

What Makes for Good Writing (Part I?)

This post may have to be written in installments, as there are so many things to discuss about the subject. And of course, tastes will vary greatly — anyone in the arts knows that tastes are quite subjective. That said, if we look at certain elements of technique and craft, I think there are some constants or things that everybody would agree upon. Let us have a look.

-The prose. The use of language that makes us see things in a different way, or a more specific or creative way. Toni Morrison is a master of this: she phrases things uniquely, but her prose is always accessible and readable. Salman Rushdie creates his own lexicon and own language in his novels, a very florid, convoluted style to be sure, but he has such fun playing with the language that we cannot help but enjoy the ride. And then there are the Zen like, minimalist writers like Cormac McCarthy or Raymond Carver, who are able to create full pictures with a minimum of words. And let us not forget the inimitable Oscar Wilde
– the unparalleled wit masks a lot of wisdom!

-Metaphor. Consider Nabokov’s stunning line in The Gift, in describing a street where the protagonist lives, “… It rose at a barely perceptible angle, beginning with a post office and ending with a church, like an epistolary novel.” Upon reading the sentence, I put the book down and shut it, simply blown away by the brilliance of the metaphor, sitting in stunned silence for a few moments. Toni Morrison’s work is rife with metaphor, as we can see many times in The Bluest Eye. Symbolism, metaphor, allegory – these larger themes enhance a work of literature, expanding it beyond what is merely on the page.

-Omniscient narration. This has largely fallen out of vogue in modern fiction, but omniscience truly gives us an understanding of the overarching picture of various things in a way that only omniscience can. Tolstoy is the first writer that comes to mind for most people, his penetrating insight into characters and the human condition and social mores is astounding. Willa Cather gives us this, as does Jane Austen. It suggests a certain wisdom on the part of the author, an understanding of human nature that, as above, expands beyond the words on the page. It can make sweeping generalizations and sum up grand truths that are part of why we need literature.

-Sort of on the flipside, intimacy. Edith Pearlman’s stories are warmly intimate; we truly feel we are with the characters. Philip Roth hilariously and disgustingly pushes the limits of intimacy in his brilliant Portnoy’s Complaint, which is a case of Too Much Information. Even the popularity of books like Bridget Jones’s Diary show the human need for confiding in a literary friend who is full of foibles and wants to share it with the reader.

-Unique subject matter. Ian McEwan’s Nutshell is brilliant: the retelling of Hamlet from the womb is unlike anything else. James Baldwin’s stories in Going to Meet the Man show a fresh perspective on Black life at a time when Blacks were still seen as the “House N—–” or The Other, only beginning to be integrated into American society. Dystopian novels like 1984 or Brave New World are still appealing because they are stories like nothing else. And even the success of the Harry Potter books shows that readers love a fantastical world where there is magic, villains, heroes, and an underdog hero. J.K. Rowling created a world of her own, and in doing so, her work developed a universal appeal.

These are but a few things that make for good writing. Perhaps this post shall be continued in the future.

The Need for a National Writer?

In countries all over the world there is a person or people who represent the collective conscious or Zeitgeist of the nation. S/he is a national figure, a symbol, an icon who is a great source of pride for her/his people. In these countries or cultures, the writer serves a different purpose, than writers usually found here in the U.S. The role of these writers is to create works that are much more than stories of dysfunctional relationships, romance, or barely-disguised memoirs: s/he voices an opinion of the masses, articulates the ideas of the whole. Sometimes the writer is not currently living, but rather a long-revered figure in the nation’s history. Her or his works are read and studied at school or at university; s/he is immortalized in a statue in a great public square or in a museum; or, s/he is a heroic figure that dares to speak out against the authorities—-and sadly pays the price.

Very often these writers are not the product of a literature department nor do they hold a degree in writing. They have not drawn upon a lot of conventional fiction writing techniques, and they probably haven’t attended book discussion groups (in the American sense), though they have most likely sat for hours on end in cafes discussing literature and their favorite writers and philosophers with their peers. Very often, they are individuals who have been involved in fields outside literature—-politics, diplomacy, labor, comparative linguistics, philosophy, journalism, activism, medicine, et cetera. Vaclav Havel, is just one such example: a renowned playwright who was politically active, he peacefully led the Velvet Revolution that separated the Czech Republic and Slovakia when he was President. Octavio Paz was a Mexican diplomat who served in India (his marvelous In Light of India serves as a testament to his time there). And the heroic Chokri Belaid led the Arab Spring movement in Tunisia before his untimely death: he was a lawyer and a poet.

Often, the work of these great writers takes on a political tone or is highly allegorical. I once had the great fortune to see Salman Rushdie speak, and what impressed me so much about him was the clear aim of his art to serve as the intersection between literature and society. One need only read his brilliant (and underrated) Shalimar the Clown to appreciate the political history of India and the Partition (with British and American involvement) cleverly disguised as a love story. In the same breath, one could naturally include Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, which is a love story set in the backdrop of modern Turkey and its issues of fundamentalism vs. secularism.

In short—-the Great Writer in other countries and cultures is more than a writer who has trained in writing and (perhaps) literature. S/he has a broader perspective on life that filters into her/his works. S/he is a (wo)man of letters.

Shrewd readers would immediately note that these are the types of writers who are awarded the Nobel Prize. This is absolutely correct, though there are many writers of this ilk who are not Nobel Laureates, such as Isak Dinesen or George Orwell, or Bulgarian/Macedonian writer and revolutionary Georgi Pulevski who wrote before the advent of the prize. And those same readers might raise the issue that, to define a culture by a writer, to use a writer as an icon or symbol of a culture, there must be a strong sense of nationalism. A sense of nationalism that harkens back to the 18th and 19th Centuries, when many European nations emerged and defined themselves culturally and politically. This is impossible to do, they might say, in a country like America, which is based on pluralism, diversity, multiculturalism, and a multitude of viewpoints ranging from class to race to gender to sexual orientation to region. We can barely agree on whom to elect as President; do we really think we can find a writer who represents all 315 million of us?!

All of this is true and well said. Can we actually have a National Writer who speaks for all (or many) of us? Is this actually plausible? We do have a Poet Laureate, but this is a relatively new phenomenon, and the sad truth is that only a tiny handful could name him or her (it is currently Natasha Trethewey, and I confess I had to look it up!) Literature is not necessarily a part of our culture, though we have countless excellent writers, scholars, poets, and the like. There are few American Nobel Laureates in Literature. If I had a dollar for every time someone lamented that Philip Roth has been neglected by the Nobel Academy, I would be wealthy: Roth’s tremendously prolific output and intelligence do not mean that he is a global, socially-conscious writer with a vision for humanity. We generally do not sit together outside of academic/scholastic or formal settings discussing Emerson and Thoreau, Zora Neale Hurston, or Mark Twain. So why even try to unite ourselves by the word?

Perhaps there is another reason why we do not seem to have national literary figures who cross disciplines and serve as more than entertainment (other than those who are interested in literature): our culture is very individualistic—-writers are not often encouraged to speak out for causes beyond themselves—-and insular, unaware of what happens elsewhere in the world. We do not have a sense of scope. Our literary culture does not draw upon other traditions, does not take frequently into account what is happening with writers elsewhere in the world. Our curriculum does not heavily feature literature from other countries, though we do have great diversity in our own tradition. We are a monolingual culture in terms of the common culture, and being a polyglot is a rare thing in the United States. It does not encourage (as a whole, there are always numerous exceptions) the plumber to become a playwright, an economist to write free verse, the housewife to write political theater.

But let our individualism and enterprising spirit serve to educate us, then. Let it lead us to explore writers (either in the original language or translation) from other nations and cultures. Let it allow us to form groups (such as the wonderful Stanford Alumni Book Discussion Group of San Diego) where people discuss fiction and non-fiction with an astounding range of viewpoints and knowledge of history, geography, and politics. Let it lead us to hear talks with visiting writers from overseas, or, if we are in a more isolated part of the country, to watch them online. It is time we really involve ourselves in the literary cultures and sensibilities of other nations.