The novel as a medium has a scandalous reputation, which is -- of course -- why we love the category so much and also why we argue over it so much, as though we were arguing over the true nature of a shared lover. Must it exist only after the invention of the printing press? Is it only a matter of the European continent, mostly England and France? If one writes a Great American Novel, does that make one great? Rich? A genius?
I’ve spent a whole year reading “The Novel: An Alternative History. Beginnings to 1600.” by Steven Moore, a page or so at a time. Part of my drive towards ever broader inclusion of all categories in my reading and thinking (even if it threatens to destroy the category) comes from the delight of discovery I’ve had in this book. To give you an idea, the chapter headings (each including a half-dozen “nationally” defined categories) are: Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Mesoamerican (though there was so little material that he calls the short chapter a “bridge), Eastern and Far-Eastern. And I say again, many of these examples have no nationalities because there were no nations yet, or sometimes there has been a sequence of nations in the same territory without the same boundaries. Moore is largely dependent on translations and previous scholarship. He is not in a position to address oral narrative. Nevertheless, this fat book is jammed with wonderful stuff.
What keeps him from the pedantry of a Harold Bloom is his irreverent, insouciant, slangy appreciation of what he finds and there’s plenty to appreciate since the ancient texts are chock-full of sex, combat, fabulism, family intrigue, strange webs of understanding, strategy and -- inevitably -- mysticism. He flinches away from none of it. The real danger in reading this book about books is that it will make you want to acquire more books, the main one being the second volume by Moore that hasn’t been published yet.
Being of modest means, I’ve only checked out from the library Volume I of the new Malcolm C. Lyons translation of “The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights.” I suspect it’s unexpurgated, given that the library also has on its shelves the notorious “Fifty Shades of Gray” trilogy, Reading Moore’s overview one soon realizes how much politics and religion have radically narrowed our idea of what a book can include. We’ve been missing a LOT. Moore’s droll use of modern terms and references to contemporary tales removes the wall between us and human history. We see that small town dynamics are forever story-drivers and that urban settings are not that different. What DOES begin to count is the skill of the writing and the grasp of larger issues than murder, incest, combat, greed, et al.
That’s where modern novels begin to fall apart. The librarian reports that her readers (rural women) say that “Fifty Shades of Gray” is a “good read except for the crap.” They evidently define the crap as the sex, which is sort of Penthouse/Nancy Friday -- the sort of thing that requires ordering toys on the Internet. But what I found was that it was the plot that was crap: all narcissism and jealousy with a bit of stalking and a lot of product placement.
By larger issues and skill in writing I mean qualities like irony, particularity of description, sharp ideas, the main moral issues, all of which sometimes demand that the reader have a larger picture than the characters -- possibly even the writer. A politician, now leaving office, remarked to a journalist that voters are a lot dumber than they used to be. That goes for readers, too. We could blame it on the schools or the media. Or we could blame it on fear, which a counselor I once had suggested flattens one brain to the extent of making thought impossible. It almost feels like a real force bearing down in the skull. What can be the value of a book that prevents thinking?
A “Great American Novel” would somehow have a strong enough plot line to keep even dumb readers interested while including all the literary traits that lift a narrative out of the immersive/genre drowning machine. One of the classic American elements has been activism, a story that supports a point of view, either outrage or reform. The Progressive Era was full of them, sometimes rather disguised. Today there are too many sources of outrage. I guess because of highly technical issues that are hard to understand, moral standards rising in some ways while descending in other ways, the return of issues we thought had been settled, and the expansion of our consciousness around the planet and back into history. Should I worry about expended radioactive ordinance? Should I worry about generic drugs? Should I worry about the dog down the street who gets tied in full sun in July? Should I get mad at Mark Twain for using the “n” word? I should worry about all of them. Can I sort of consolidate by looking for causes in common or shared themes? I try.
There is another issue. Can there be a cross-media Great American Novel? The simplest way to put it might be whether the narrative of pop music vids can be conflated with the print novel. Music holds so much of the passion and energy of our times. Tim pulls in music and video all the time when he blogs. Interaction among media has fueled ideas for as long as there have been media to cross. And here’s another issue that comes from my friends who listen to novels as they drive (a very adaptive strategy in Montana): how is a literary novel changed when it is read out loud? At what point does it become a performance with sound effects, music, actors, et al? Does that mean it’s not a novel anymore?
From my point of view, the issue of “truth” (did it REALLY happen?) is totally irrelevant even if one is writing “memoir.” Human memory is faulty, just another code that reassembles elements. (Google “how memory works” and read what comes up.) The mind is NOT a camera and every camera has a point of view that edits, even before Photoshop. Anyway, how you get there matters to me a lot less than where I got to as a reader and what I traveled through. Jesus has never been independently documented but that hasn't hindered his story from becoming the basis of a worldwide religion. On the other hand, trawling the bottom of society should offer some insight and prompt compassion. Fabulism is old and honored. I love sci-fi done well.
This is only a beginning of reflection and one speck in an ocean that amounts to “a sea change.” (Less cold, more acid, they tell us. Suits me.)