In The Novel, by James Michener, one of the characters learns the hard way that critics should not also be writers. Perhaps the reverse is also true, that writers should not be critics, but I expect he would not brand these ramblings as criticism anyway.
The book is divided into four parts, each told from the point of view of a different person. All these people’s lives are intertwined, and as the book progresses it is very interesting to see how the various characters interpret their relationships. Through it all is the title character, the novel, which at the start of the story seems to be a concrete thing, a particular work by a specific author, but as the story progresses through changing points of view we also see The Novel become more abstract, until by the end Michener is discussing the novel as an art form and its role in modern society.
We begin with The Author, told by Lukas Yoder, a bestselling writer who is finishing his latest—and last—novel. His editor, Yvonne Marmelle, has been with him since his start, and it was only through her force of will that Yoder was not dropped by her publishing company after his first books didn’t sell. It is in the second part of the book, told by Marmelle, that we begin to see that while Yoder’s work is beautifully written, there is a part of her that yearns for something more. She wants passion. She wants a writer who takes risks. She wants to find an artist.
Michener’s characters are all archetypes, idealized versions of the Steady Writer, the Intelligent and Combative Editor, the Incisive and Controversial Critic, and the Philanthropic Dowager Reader. The last is less of a cliché than the first three, as there really is no stereotypical reader.
When I got to the section told by the critic I almost put the book down. I really didn’t like this arrogant jerk at all, but what really cheesed me was Michener’s description of his classroom methods (the critic is a professor of creative writing of growing renown). When I read about the way he taught he sounded to me like about the worst writing teacher imaginable, yet he was presented as a favorite among students. I took a breath. Michener is not a teacher, but he’s seen the inside of a lot more academic writing classes than I have. Somewhere along the way he got confused.
Once we dispensed with that part of the characterization the rest of my objections to the critic were, I think, exactly the ones Michener wanted to elicit. The man is an elitist asshole. But, and this is a point Michener eventually brought me around to, was, just because he’s an elitist asshole doesn’t mean he’s wrong.
Yoder is accused by the intellectual elite (their term) of helping to bring the vacuous television age of fiction to the masses. “He does little harm, but no good,” one critic says. Yoder seems (mostly) immune to the criticism, and later we learn why, when we investigate a pile of letters he is answering. Some of them say, “I wouldn’t be reading books at all if it weren’t for you.” Yoder is quietly proud of being a gateway drug, a stepping stone on the path to intellectual freedom, happy that perhaps one of the steel workers that reads his work will pick up another book and another and another, though Yoder would never express such an ambition out loud.
Michener provides an interesting cast who are compelled to dig further into questions on the nature of art and the responsibility of artists. Is true art an act of rebellion? What are the responsibilities of an artist, both to his vision and to a society as a whole? Are ‘popular’ and ‘artist’ opposed?
In the end, it is the Reader who decides. Turning to a favorite old tome, she finds it oddly disappointing, lacking the substance she had recently discovered in more challenging works. And Yoder, in the shadow of tragedy, sits down to write a new novel, the one after his last, in a bold, new style. It’s fun to cast forward past the end of The Novel. A new journey is beginning, filled with promise, fraught with risk. I like stories that have me writing new chapters long after I’ve consumed the last page.
As a side point of interest, The Novel gives a good look behind the scenes in the publishing industry, as we discover just what a manuscript has to overcome to find its way into print. (One of every 900 manuscripts that come in gets serious attention.) You’ve heard some of it before in these pages as I discuss my own efforts to crash down the gates. A couple of things I knew intellectually but really hit home for me upon reading: recommendations from elitist assholes are really, really valuable when it comes to reaching the right people, and writing school is not just for perfecting your craft and broadening your horizons. It’s a great place to meet elitist assholes. I’d like to believe that the ‘learning to write’ part is still more important. I could really benefit from some of that.
As I read the arguments in the story, I was compelled to consider my own efforts against the yardsticks of the various points of view in the story. My completed stuff is more oriented to entertainment through a story well told than it is about big-A Art. Sometimes I get closer, though, and that feels good. Reflecting on some of the things said in The Novel, I also feel better-prepared to defend my breaking of rules. That’s what writers do. The ultimate goal for me is to write something that is Art without forgetting the story well told. I think that goal puts me in good company.
Addendum: I was prepared to surrender the field to the Artists, but you know what? I put that yardstick against my story and while it is foremost an enjoyable read, upon further review The Monster Within is about freedom. It’s wrapped in a good yarn, but in just a few seconds I could enumerate four different types of freedom displayed and it’s the tension between those forms that drives the story. I didn’t plan it that way at all, but when you do something you love, it’s going to carry your beliefs along with it, and that’s a good thing. When I get panned (let’s all hope I achieve the stature to be panned) I’ll respond with, “That was about freedom! You got a problem with freedom? Are you with us or agin’ us?” (Critics understand irony, right?) I’m not yielding the big A yet.
Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.