Thursday, October 24, 2002

Is the novel dead?

Walking into any bookstore makes the question seem absurd. I was incredulous when Harold Bloom asserted it -- but then, I couldn't agree with much of his book The Western Canon. But now I've run into a very curious fact, and I'll have to give the whole question a rethinking.

I just finished I. Asimov. The man who produced over 450 books had trouble with novels! Towards the end of his life, he dreaded them. He wrote long history books in preference.

I have also had trouble with novels, but I thought it was personal. Someday, I hope, people will all treat each other with respect. I want humans to work together on wonderful projects like feeding everyone and building amazing bridges and exploring space and creating art and music. Oh, the things we could do if we weren't wasting our time fighting each other!

Ok, when someone is stealing others' abilities to live and create, stopping that someone is necessary. But I hope for a future when the human predators will be contained with only a small portion of human activity.

So, I dream of peace. A balance of tolerance and freedom that will allow each person the most choices and creativity consistent with allowing every other person the most choices and creativity as well.

Peace. But every novel has to have a conflict. How do you reconcile creating conflict, out of your pure imagination, and living with it for the year or more it takes to finish a novel, with working toward peace?

My other, lesser problem with novels is that they must end satisfyingly. Life doesn't do that. In some ways, it's part of the same problem. A novel's pattern includes conflict and resolution. Filling that pattern with a story, setting, and characters is artificial. And that shouldn't surprise me. The enterprise is fiction, after all -- art, creation, lies. No more ridiculous than crosswords requiring small numbered boxes or office buildings needing spaces people can walk through, really. It's what a novel is.

(Some have tried fiction without this structure. I haven't seen any yet that I like. So I wouldn't try to write that kind, and its existence has no relevance to my own concern about novels.)

The most useful perspective on the problem of writing about conflict while hoping for peace came from a study on how much stimulation people were comfortable with. It's a spectrum -- as I would have realized if I'd ever thought about whether people needed or wanted excitement. Some people need lots, some prefer very little.

So while we need excitement, let us work towards having novels, instead of wars.

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