When I was a 30-year-old MFA student just starting the Creative Writing program in fiction at UC Irvine, I sat down with my advisor.
So, she asked me, what are your plans for your two years here?
Well, I said, I figure I’ll write a collection of stories. So that I can, you know, sort of work my way toward writing a novel.
My advisor, a wonderful British woman and a fine writer in her own right, gave a subdued nod. Then she looked me in the eye and said: “Well, you know, a novel is much more marketable.” I wasn’t sure I actually had a novel in me, but I went for it anyway. I stumbled for two years writing it; and two more years after I graduated, I finally sold it.
I remembered that conversation as I read Adrian Chen in Gawker (adult language) tell the great short-story writer George Saunders to get off his butt and write a novel already. Saunders was recently pronounced, in an often annoyingly hagiographic profile in the New York Times, as America’s Greatest Living Writer.
Saunders has published five story and essay collections. If he’s so great, Chen asks, where’s the novel?
“To be polite, everyone pretends there's nothing really wrong with Saunders having not written a novel,” Chen writes. “But, come on. If George Saunders is the Writer For Our Time … and if his stories can literally make the world a better place then he needs to write a novel and get Oprah to talk about it on TV and put it into the hands of as many of the sad but nobly struggling people who are the subjects of so many of his stories as possible.”
Personally, I think this is a childish thing to say. Art is what art wants to be. Saunders is a prose stylist with a half-dozen different styles in his literary arsenal. In each of his stories he’s showing his mastery over one, or two or several of those weapons. And he's doing so with a truly rare combination of compassion, insight and a willingness to go to all the freaky places his imagination will take him. If he goes his entire career without writing a novel I won’t complain, just as I have very little complaints about there not being a big Chekhov novel.
At the same time, I think I understand why Saunders hasn’t written a novel, even though, as Chen points out, he’s tried.
Simply put, I think George Saunders hasn’t written a novel because he’s too much of a prose perfectionist. Because he’s unwilling to write a mediocre page. Because he likes the control the short-story form gives him.
“A novel is a work of a certain length that is somehow flawed,” a wise critic once said — and as I was told during the first few weeks of my MFA program.
To write a novel, and see to it through from the first word to the 150,000th, you have to be willing to embrace the idea that every once in a while your prose is going to be, for lack of a better word, more prosaic than it would be otherwise. Why? Because to get a reader to make it through 150,000 words (the length of my last, and about the length of your average robust novel), you need this clunky, unattractive but very utilitarian thing called a plot.
A plot is an engine with that compelling force that will push your reader from one page to the next, 300 or 400 or 500 times in a row, and it’s very often based on a simple idea that goes to a basic human emotion: revenge, desire, loss, etc. You have to get your protagonist out of the house, or on the road, or into the courtroom, from Point A to Point B.
And sometimes to do these things you have to write something you’re not really great at writing but which you can do a pretty good job of faking. Otherwise, your novel will suffer from that fatal flaw whose name floated around like an insult in my MFA classes: It will be “episodic.”
Take, for example, Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom.” A lot of people declared “Freedom” the Great American Novel when it came out a few years back. It’s a wonderful book, sweeping, a tour de force. But there are passages in that book, and subplots, that don’t have quite the artistry of, say, Franzen’s beautiful evocation of life in Minnesota. “Freedom” works as a book because we appreciate Franzen’s ambition in taking on so many different elements of the American experience and stitching them together. It’s the boldness of that project that makes it work.
Mastering a bold plot hides your weaknesses as a writer. (And every writer has them, trust me.) I wasn’t the greatest prose stylist when I wrote my first novel, but I slogged along well enough. I actually murdered a few people — on the page, of course — and in the end I convinced an editor and four different publishing houses (there were several editions) that it really was a novel.
A successful short-story writer, however, can’t get away with crafting two or three mediocre paragraphs. Writing to that kind of standard is a habit that can become so deeply ingrained, I think, that many of those writers can’t bring themselves to build the one or two clunky rafters that are required to hold up the roof of a novel. With a short story, the reader’s attention is more focused. George Saunders is building perfect, if smaller constructions, with nary a wasted word. And we writers and readers love and admire him for it.
Having said all that, I’m sure that if he does conquer the novel one day, it will be pretty awesome.