My last post here criticized a writer, a university president,emeritus, for writing a novel that he hoped would be emblematic of a life project of his. Even though the book was a first novel, with many of the common rookie flaws and strategies, it did show writing talent.
Having just re-read what I wrote, I want to put a bandage on that wound. I had called his book didactic, but for the most part it was the story of a family, almost biblical in its tromp through that family’s history, complete with all the banality of modern family life. The part that moved see to call the book didactic seems in retrospect almost an afterthought with much less impact on the novel’s true essence than I had first thought.
My point here is that the novel is changing. Always has been. Movies have had a great impact on the novel; I was taught to write in a way that would have a cinematic effect on the reader (Camera on? Okay, shoot that narrative with a wide angle lens, then keep the film rolling; it’s a close up! Close up! This is an intimate scene!) And since the public’s interest in literary fiction has been sadly flagging for decades, now writers with literary chops are using the structure and language of genre fiction in their work. Non-fiction is being blended into fictionalized accounts. (Yes, even I. My next book to be published is a fictionalized biography of a uniquely interesting combatant in World War II.) It’s not been uncommon for writers to use the novel as a philosophical device. I’ve even read recently a fictionalized autobiography. And I’ve reviewed one interesting first novel to be used to articulate business practices.
So where do I draw the line? What do I consider too much in stretching the novel’s raison d’être? Too much dogma is wrong, I think, whether that dogma is a philosophical, religious, scientific one, or any manner of one-sided posturing. When a novel preaches, its purpose is blown. The novel should always provoke, and it can count instruction among its virtues. But the reader must always be in charge. Truth, after all, is often a subtle thing, buried in opposing viewpoints and situations. And the novel is at its best when it’s successful at becoming a roadway sign that helps the reader navigate the many arduous paths to truth.
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