I hear it all the time: “Pierre, you’re such an interesting-looking creature, why don’t you pursue an acting career as a bent-faced, chain-smoking gambler in the upcoming Gun Shooty Bang Robot Boom reboot?”
And I always say, “Naw, babe. I love novels too much.”
And I do. A lot of people do. You ask people who don’t even read what their favorite book is and they’ll still tell you a couple of novels that have stuck with them over the years. So let’s talk about novels. More importantly why novels are, specifically, so important to the human experience? Maybe how.
By and large, people will read a novel once and only once. There are exceptions to the rule, but it’s different from, say, re-watching your favorite films or rediscovering an album from high school that friggin’ Jocelyn burned for you. Songs and scenes might get stuck in your head but it’s hard to capture in any directly relatable way what exactly got you with your favorite book, isn’t it? It’s less about the isolated moments that are so easily defined in music and film and more about the experience itself. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”
What sets novels apart from anything else is the participation of the audience to help create what’s being seen, said, smelled… it’s a sensory illusion that the reader, on some level, hypnotizes themselves to believe is a felt, interior reality– if the writer did their job right. It’s a collusion between the two to create the suspension of disbelief. And unlike other art forms, it requires active participation.
(Which isn’t to say that film and music are solely passive experiences– it’s just that reading cannot be so.)
That intermingling of minds has always fascinated me. There’s a strange intimacy there between the author and reader that isn’t experienced elsewhere. Films have a lot of hands that touch the project– and while that is a remarkable thing of itself, that a collaboration of people came together to create something potentially beautiful– it only takes a producer’s (or an actor’s, or a budget’s) soiled fingers to spoil the whole pot of soup. When it’s a singular vision (editors notwithstanding) conveyed directly to the reader, the experience becomes thinking with another person’s brain. This is likely why reading novels makes you a more empathetic person.
That author-reader relationship is only possible through the design of the novel. It’s strange to think about novels as technology, but in the historical context of formatting of stories, novels are sleeker and more easily digestible in its modern form than epic poems or the travelogues that birthed them. There’s no baby fat of repetition for repetition’s sake (like you see in fairy tales) or the loose skin of extraneous oration that bogs down Greek narratives.
While the rule of threes has been commonplace for centuries, the novel perfected the three act structure by shaving it down to its base components. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the novel was developed concurrently with the re-popularization of the triptych in western culture during the 1500’s. The Japanese invented the novel at least a good 300 years prior— and, not coincidentally, had been enjoying cohesive scroll ink paintings for at least a 100 years before that. Classical painting is emotionally and intellectually stimulating but is still more sensed through the lens of the viewer. Even with the triptych’s cohesive storytelling ability, a direct means of story remains elusive. That’s where the novel comes in as a continuation of that tradition– able to paint a picture in the reader’s mind and then able to explain the painting.
Speaking of the 1500’s, it’s also not a coincidence that the novel technology is also concurrent with the spread of literacy. Once a privilege held only by clergy and bards, the ability to read leaked out from the clouds above and pissed on all us sinners in a baptism of critical thinking. Without an interpreter, individuals were given the means of direct processing of written content. The result, of course, was an explosion of experimental writing (aaaand institutional upheaval), as well as a certain power regained by the common person: the ability to read and write your own stories. As much as the newborn readers found a sense of individualism with this new privilege, so did the authors– and it’s on that mental platform on which this medium was able to speak from the perspective of an individual and reach people on a personally affecting level, despite that thousands of people were reading the exact same content.
Now you might think I’ve forgotten about poetry. So what about poetry? Didn’t it have the same bloom along with the democratization of literacy? Sure did. I’m not talking shit. It’s just a different, more ancient, technology. My understanding is that poetry is the perfect distillation of emotion and moments into words. If the poet has done their job right. Poetry can be wonderful. But to me it often feels voyeuristic into the mind of the poet and the poet alone. The audience didn’t get there themselves. A journey’s missing. The crystalized truth within the poem often feels like an ill-gotten treasure.
So why obscure the feeling with arcane logic when you could just tell the reader what’s actually happening?
Some of the most powerful fiction I’ve ever read has been a short story. Still, I struggle to engage with a lot of it. Ideally, a short story identifies the moment before a life-changing event in a character’s life, not the moment itself. One of my all-time favorites is Jodi Angel’s A Good Deuce (Tin House Summer Reading 2011, issue #48) which takes place after the narrator’s mother has died from an overdose and ends right before the narrator has sex with an older woman in a car in an overtly oedipal exorcism of the tragedy. This is damn near as perfect of a short story as you can get– but it might’ve been untenable as a part of a full novel. The whole story has already been implied and would feel lopsided in the frame of a different story.
But more often, there’s the opposite problem. Short stories have the general policy of “you get what you get,” and often have the shortcoming of ending just a little too soon. In “Trouble Is My Business,” by Raymond Chandler, everything gets wrapped up just as the characters are beginning to flesh out. I didn’t feel cheated, necessarily, as I felt like the payoff was rushed and, as a reader, that I didn’t earn it. (It’s not unlike that Rick and Morty true crime spoof.)
Like a good (or bad) psychedelic experience, the books you read change you. Feel free to disagree, but I’ll forever maintain that novels are the most effective devices for changing you for the better.