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Of Form, E-Readers, and Thwarted Genius: End of a Year with Short Novels

This article concludes Open Letters’ “Year with Short Novels,” which throughout 2010 delved into a series of short novels, revisiting classics and considering neglected masterpieces. To read the series introduction, “The Sweetness of Short Novels,” click here while the entire series can be found here. To pass along praise or condemnation, write ingridnorton[at]live[dot]com.

Nathanael West may seem a deeply misanthropic choice for valedictory subject of “Year with Short Novels,” a column which spent 2010 delving into a wide penumbra of brief and intense novels. West crafted dark, undiluted parables of creative art in America, a fictional universe of exploded and frustrated dreamers: hucksters, flimflam artists, two-bit talents, and reluctant hacks. In his short novels Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, imagination breeds delusion. In Miss Lonelyhearts a writer with serious moral convictions cracks up amid the derivative work of answering a Lonelyhearts column, where the suffering of letter writers is far greater than anything he can make sense of through art or religion. In The Day of the Locust, set designer Tod Hackett aspires toward the art of Goya and Daumier but sinks into petty conflicts with the low-rent characters who live in his apartment building. He becomes obsessed with Faye Greener. Hollow, gorgeous, and talentless, Faye wants to be a movie star. Her vacuous, alluring self-sufficiency awakens Tod’s most jealous, violent instincts. When she describes scenarios for screenplays that could make them money, he realizes the source of all her vitality is these insubstantial colorful daydreams: “She seemed always to be struggling in their soft grasp as though she were trying to run in a swamp…His impulse wasn’t to aid her to get free, but to throw her down in the soft, warm mud and to keep her there.”

“A Year with Short Novels” began on a far more pleasant note than this: with J.L. Carr’s bittersweet A Month in the Country, where a shell-shocked art restorer finds hope and serenity in a summer of steady, satisfying work and his unspoken love for a vicar’s wife. The short form, I argued, was perfect for conveying the ephemeral and self-contained nature of happiness. Carr’s novel is vivid and moving. It ends as quickly as the protagonist’s perfect summer. Whereas in Miss Lonelyhearts newspapermen make gang rape jokes while a brutal cock fight occurs in The Day of the Locust. Nathanael West’s works are the short novel as quick-release dagger. Their power comes from their assaultive concision.

Yet the varied qualities of these works, the varied emotions, bespeak the great range of what is possible and of what is distinctive about short novels. The power of narrative brevity is its ability to focus: to delve into a mood, to cleave close to a character or situation. Concentration and intensity are the qualities that distinguish short novels from longer epics. Long novels have different, immersive gifts—discursion, multi-faceted characters, sprawl in setting and in scope, a wide angled depiction of society, even the passage of generations. Short novels are a different breed.

In my series introduction I used Partisan Review founder Philip Rahv’s concepts as a compass. Short novels, he writes, are a form which “demands compositional economy, homogeneity of conception, concentration in the analysis of character, and strict aesthetic control.” After a year exploring a wide range of short novels, I find that Rhav’s definition holds whether the subject is the rigidly controlled hierarchies of revelation in William Maxwell’s extremely stylized So Long, See You Tomorrow or the jagged, obsessively internal narration in Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing.

It would be hard to find two novels more different than A Month in the Country and The Day of the Locust, but they both exhibit this same level and kind of mastery, Rhav’s homogeneity of conception and strict aesthetic control. In A Month in the Country, Carr eschews the omissions and conflicts of a conventional plot, instead following the rhythms of daily life. In so doing, he evokes the beauty and fellowship in work against his protagonist’s difficult past and the disappointing future that awaits him. Carr slowly builds support for the idea that what makes happiness significant is its short life. In The Day of the Locust, the world is utterly different, a society without meaning, where despair and selfishness grind against each other. But the mood and singular drive forms a cross-beam between the works. Short novels require tight control from their authors but they are freer to mold their form to fit their emotional and intellectual content.

In an earlier essay, I set the informal anecdotal quality of Christopher Isherwood’s Sally Bowles beside the elegiac and carefully stylized grace of its descendant, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and found both have an open, impressionistic quality that perfectly captures the irregular ebb and flow of friendship. In Glenway Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk, the protagonist minutely picks at his own flaws while trying to make sense of the off-kilter personalities of two house-guests. Often the short novel’s intensity arises from its particular narrator. I didn’t do it consciously—indeed, I strove for variety—but the majority of novels I chose for this series featured strong first person narration. Looking back over the series, the voices which greet me range from Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’s True Grit with her clipped and folksy frontier formality to the narrator of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’s effusive cries of love and loss. In each of them narrative drive is sustained and fomented through the potency of a single perspective, the way events are filtered through personality. The short form often suits strength of voice uncannily well.

Concision also allows for tight plotting and subtle explication, as in the mannered The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, where the stories of five travelers who die in an accident are artfully revealed to overlap. The focus of short novels can make them serve as test beds: through the pallid, introverted narrator of George Eliot’s weird, gothic novella of ideas, The Lifted Veil, Eliot used a tightly focused narrative to experiment with observations about human nature she would later bring to fruition in great, multi-layered epics like Middlemarch. Joseph Conrad remains the giant of the form. In Heart of Darkness he merges a hallucinatory description of a darkly overgrown river with a suggestion about the dark potential of mankind. The narrative ambiguity and the narrator Marlow’s inability to verbally process all he experienced gives the work what he called “a sinister resonance…a continued vibration” which is implacable precisely because of the narrative’s masterful brevity and intensity. Novels like Conrad’s The Shadow Line are examples of brilliant characterization, evocative description, and succinct drama.

Such works are deep and distinctive products of their time, but may also serve as guides for the future. This column and my essay on Nathanael West mark the end of “A Year with Short Novels”—and the beginning of 2011. A new decade, and we are moving into what everyone agrees is a strange and precarious time for the art of the novel. The old economic structure of conventional print periodicals and publishing has combusted. After many pilots and proxies, e-books and e-readers are gaining ascendance, with over seven million iPads sold since their release in the spring, joining the Kindle, the Nook, and the Sony Reader. How the radical change in the form and consumption of art and information will alter reading and writing is one of the great questions of our era.

Some shrug that forms will change, but the needs they fulfill will not. “Literature is important,” says Andy Hunter, editor of the innovative journal Electric Literature, who is working on book publishing via apps. “The choice of paper or plastic is not.” But Hunter speaks of literature in general—what about the novel in particular? Latent in the discussion is whether there is room for the sustained and immersive prose narrative, whether the novel is an inevitable form or one that will fall by the wayside as habits change and attention spans contract. “I try to be positive about new technology,” poet and memoirist Blake Morrison says in a recent Prospect Magazine article, “but I worry about what’s going to happen to poetry books and literary novels once e-readers have taken over from print. Will they survive the digital revolution? Or will the craving for interactivity drive them to extinction?”

The fact of that paradigm shift has informed this series. Implicit in my admittedly idiosyncratic survey of short novels has been the contention that though novels have singular pleasures, they are far from a singular entity. The concentrated story-telling evinced in the short novels considered this year remains compelling as ever. More prosaically, that concentration may save them; new technologies may favor the short reading experience of a day or two to the longer epics that require weeks to consume.

These short works also tacitly suggest a wider range of economic models for the novel. The financial heart of contemporary literature has long been the modern publisher’s system, where lucrative authors tide themselves over on large advances and everyone’s returns and prestige revolve around bound and printed books. But many of the short novels I’ve written about didn’t originally appear in book form. Their various reprints and renown were spread across different forms of distribution, collated in anthologies of short novels such as those edited by Philip Rahv, and redistributed with new emphases as times and tastes changed.

These short novels serve as a reminder that the world of literature in general and of novels in particular is more mutable and varied than we may immediately recall. Skill and inventiveness find their way—or do they? I’m ending on Nathanael West, who left behind some short novels often championed as the best and the most distinctive in American literature. But West never made a living on his trenchant art. He supported himself as a hotel manager, relentlessly revised his novels, and watched the publisher for Miss Lonelyhearts go belly up while The Day of the Locust fast disappeared from shelves. West was turned down for a Guggenheim fellowship even though fellow writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald recommended him. He died young with no more than some good reviews, dismal sales, and B-movie film credits to his name. The acclaim, the Modern Library editions, and the Spark Notes all came later, and were hardly inevitable. Depending on your perspective, Nathanael West is either patron saint of failures or of misunderstood geniuses, and perhaps of both: thwarted and pigeonholed in life, belatedly revered and canonized in death. The radical changes in format represented by the digital revolution should hold no terrors for a reputation that’s suffered death and resurrection a couple of times already; it’s readers who need to have faith.

For every writer who finds the form that suits their vision and encouragement to sustain it, there a thousand who do not. West’s novels are a pertinent reminder of the thin line between commercial success and failure—and that commerce isn’t everything. West’s two most famous novels center on characters who want to refract the world around them in their work, but who are ultimately broken by the horrors and personal limitations they encounter. At the end of Miss Lonelyhearts, the columnist hallucinates submitting his column to God, “and God approved every thought.” The Day of the Locust’s Tod Hackett is crushed by the crowd at a movie premiere. He barely notices his injuries, imagining himself painting each face into his own dystopian masterpiece. We may sweep the temple steps of form, and hope the fickle muse alights—West would say, be careful what you wish for.

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Ingrid Norton has written for publications including Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Soundcheck Magazine.

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