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“One Novel a Decade Isn’t Going to Cut It”

Not if American novelists hope to regain a prominent place in the culture, concludes Dwight Garner in the magazine section of Sunday’s New York Times. He singles out Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen for special reproof. Eugenides’s last novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, was published nine years ago. (The Marriage Plot, his third novel in 18 years, will be released in three weeks.) Franzen has been equally deliberate, taking nine years to finish this third novel and then another nine to finish last year’s Freedom.

Garner is convinced that something “meaningful” is going on here, even if his prose style is not up to the task of saying what the thing might be:

[T]hese long spans between books may indicate a desalinating tidal change in the place novelists occupy in our culture. Suddenly our important writers seem less like color commentators, sifting through the emotional, sexual and intellectual detritus of how we live today, and more like a mountaintop Moses, handing down the granite tablets every decade or so to a bemused and stooped populace.

This much is sure: Garner would be well-advised not to write a novel of his own. From what I can make out between the strained grunts of pseudo-profundity, novelists need to publish more often to keep their names before the public. What they lack is market presence. A whole generation of writers, Garner moans, is relatively absent from the culture. Maybe they should hire Sidney Falco.

Garner has muddled together two separate observations. On the one hand, some novelists are slower and less prolific than others. Yet their rate of production has little or nothing to do with their “place in the culture” (whatever that means exactly). W. Somerset Maugham (b. 1874) and E. M. Forster (b. 1876) were contemporaries. Maugham published 20 novels at the rate of a new one every two-and-a-half years. Forster started quickly, publishing four novels in five years. But he took a decade to write his masterpiece — A Passage to India — and then did not publish another novel in his lifetime (he died in 1970). Even Maugham, though, worked for seven years on his best book (Of Human Bondage). In the long view of literary history, Forster is easily the more important, the more “meaningful,” English novelist. And not even Maugham’s most dedicated readers have longed for more books like The Bishop’s Apron or The Hour before Dawn. Good books, not more books — that’s the message of literary history.

On the other hand, the novel has obviously declined in cultural significance. No one would deny that. The empty-headed distinction between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction,” which continues to be thrown around as if it referred to anything more than an inability to read intelligently, is testament to the novel’s decline. As much as I disliked Freedom, Franzen’s ambition to write a “big social novel,” to undertake the “job of social instruction,” is admirable. Novelists may not be “color commentators” (my God, what stupid language!), but they are part of the American discussion, the constant back-and-forth over American ideals and values, and they should write as if they are.

If what Garner calls their “lagging output” is not the reason for their cultural decline, then, what is? The answer is not so difficult. “Our important writers” — the writers who are known as “literary,” the writers who are “serious” about literature — belong to a coherent and homogeneous social class. They receive a common education in English departments and writers’ workshops, where they inherit a common set of assumptions and principles. They are employed in a common profession, which nurtures a common lifestyle. Their entire approach to human experience is literary (this is the sense in which they deserve to be known as “literary writers”), because they know little else than literature. Their politics are shallow and predictable, because their political views are public displays of self-identification with their class. They have not the first idea what non-writers and non-academics do with themselves all day. The only conceivable human problems are the problems of literary intellectuals.

There are exceptions. Earlier this year Roland Merullo’s Talk-Funny Girl and Lee Martin’s Break the Skin plunged into the lives of people far removed from literary society, whose problems are matters of life and death. Neither book, however, received much attention. No surprise, really. Readers have come to expect a certain uniformity of tastes and social habits, a certain language of class fellowship and commonality, from fiction that is known as “literary.” And even good books by good writers suffer by association.

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