Pursuit of the Novel
Laban Carrick Hill
Captain Ahab cried to the men on his ship to join him in the hunt for
the monster that took his leg, he brought to words the kind of quest that
writers who seek to create a novel know well. More than the well-turned
essay, more than the finely-tuned short story, more than the exquisitely
lyrical poem, the novel has come to represent the loftiest literary achievement.
And not just a novel, often it must be the Great American Novel. With
critics and readers unceasingly on the hunt for the next great thing,
the pressure for writers to produce the grand tome is immense.
The stakes are high. Look no further than the stir created last year by
Jonathan Franzens The Corrections. The novel sold millions
and earned the author six figures from Hollywood for the film rights.
It was the talk of the literary world, took the National Book Award, and
even made the gossip sheets when Franzen dissed Oprah then watched his
And the risks humiliation, even scorn are steep as well.
Just ask James Atlas. Not content with the critical acclaim and financial
security earned through his biography of Delmore Schwartz, the writer
succumbed to the lure of the beast called novel. When his attempt at fictions
long form was published, reviewers were merciless. Lauded for his biographical
work by the literary establishment, he now found himself avoided on the
street. Perhaps needless to say, Atlas shelved the manuscript of his next
novel and set to work on a biography of Saul Bellow, novelist.
I think there is no way to get around that ambition, says
UVM English Professor David Huddle. Over the years, I vowed to myself
that I was not going to write a novel. I dont have to write a novel.
I dont really want to write a novel. But I always kept wanting to.
Eventually, Huddle, who had three decades of widely published poetry and
short stories to his credit, admitted to himself that the pursuit was
inevitable. The novel is the higher ambition for a writer in the
same way that the desire to write a symphony is the higher ambition for
a composer, or to write a three-act play must be for a playwright. Its
just the larger form and I think its the high achievement
Still, Huddle danced around the edges of becoming a novelist for years,
convinced that his natural inclination and talent in writing rested with
the short story. He even rejected a publishers notion to turn one
of his books of short stories, Only the Little Bone, into a novel.
I had a couple of problems with that, Huddle says. One
was that I really didnt know how to go about doing it, and the other
was that I felt a little bit insulted by the idea. There was certainly
successful precedent for the strategy. Julia Alvarezs How the
Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and Tim OBriens The
Things They Carried first came forward as story collections, but were
marketed as novels. Still, Huddle admits to some uncertainty with the
blurring of forms. There is a territory where you can clearly say
this is a book of short stories and thats a novel with a lot of
story-like chapters in it. But its a territory that can seem pretty
In 1999, at the age of fifty-seven with twelve books of poetry, short
stories, and nonfiction in print, Huddle published his first novel, Story
of a Million Years. He followed it up with last years critically-acclaimed
La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl, but Huddle admits that he still
wears the novelists mantle uneasily. A novel for me is a kind
of unnatural act, he says, but Ive found a way to make
For Annie Proulx 69, Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist (The Shipping
News) and UVM alumna, the novel not only came late in life, but also
was a surprise. For most of my life I simply didnt think of
myself as a writer, explains Proulx in an Atlantic Monthly
interview. But I was always a reader an omnivorous, greedy
one. Its probably natural for readers to move into writing, and
thats essentially what happened to me. Shes grateful
she waited until she was into her fifties to begin her first novel because
it gave her time to grow as a person, which she believes is essential
to all good writing. She bristles at the most common advice given to aspiring
writers, Write what you know. It is the most tiresome and stupid
advice that could possibly be given, asserts Proulx. If we
write simply about what we know we never grow. We dont develop any
facility for languages, or an interest in others, or a desire to travel
and explore and face experience head-on. We just coil tighter and tighter
into our boring little selves. What one should write about is what interests
Unlike Huddle and Proulx, bestselling novelist Stephen McCauley 77
found embarking on a novel inevitable. As a kid I was always writing
stories. It was kind of a fantasy to write a book, because like most readers
it was my main source of pleasure when I was growing up. I came from a
family where reading wasnt ever encouraged. Neither of my parents
and neither of my brothers read for pleasure so it was always considered
a little bit suspect, which was some of the appeal for me. So the idea
that I wanted to write a novel seemed so completely audacious that it
was a secret desire for a long time. It wasnt until I was in my
later twenties, after I had been dropping in and out of a lot of graduate
programs, that I realized I couldnt commit to any one career because
I had this desire to try and write a novel. Since then McCauley
has written five novels, including The Object of My Affection,
which was made into a movie starring Jennifer Aniston.
For first-time novelist Eric Rickstad 94 the moment he realized
he had a novel in him still hangs strongly in memory. Shortly after
leaving UVM, I was writing a character sketch about this woman that ended
up in the novel. I thought it was going to be another short story because
that is what I had been writing. By the time I got done writing that evening,
I had barely scratched the surface of this woman and realized I had a
novel and I needed to pursue it. Rickstad was so thrilled that he
had to break his usual rule of silence. I went home and told a friend
about it. I dont usually talk about writing in process, but I was
that sure. I needed to let someone know. Still, he was guarded about
sharing too much because of all that the novel signifies. Its
a larger undertaking than a short story or a poem because the expectation
is that youre working on the Great American Novel. It cant
be just a novel, but inherently you have to be working on the big
novel. His book, Reap, set in Vermonts Northeast Kingdom,
was published by Viking in 2002.
The pressure on a first-time novelist can be immense because publishing
houses are also looking for that next big thing. If the debut is not a
home run, the authors second book can be a hard sell, even more
difficult than the first, and will often attract considerably less money.
Yesteryears Boob Tube
Such reverence for the novel has not always been the case. In fact, for
much of the novels history it has been attacked as frivolous entertainment
that distracted readers from proper concentration on their spiritual states.
Eighteenth century poet Samuel Johnson derided readers of novels as the
young, the ignorant, and the idle.
Philip Baruth, a UVM English professor who has increasingly shifted his
focus from literary scholarship to writing his own fiction, puts Johnsons
comment into perspective. In the 18th century when the novel was
just crystallizing, it was really fashionable to criticize it, says
Baruth. There was supposed to be a specific moral payback visible
in what the person was reading. You read sermons and didactic essays.
Novels were considered frivolous in the same ways that we talk about television.
Its passive. You dont have to think. You dont improve
yourself. You dont work. And then over this two hundred and fifty
years weve gradually flipped the terms so that any kind of reading,
reading a comic book, is preferable to watching TV. So there is a premium
placed on the act of reading rather than on what youre reading.
If youve got two people sitting in a room and one is curled up on
the couch with a Jackie Collins novel and the other person is watching
the History Channel, theres somehow the assumption that the reader
is doing work and the other person is doing entertainment.
Bestselling science fiction novelist and UVM alumnus Michael Stackpole
79 has little patience for what he considers the fetishizing of
the novel in American culture. The easiest analogy for me to draw
is cabinetmaking, he says. There are some people who craft
beautiful, artistic pieces that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars
and eventually end up in museums. There are other people who turn out
pieces that people actually use everyday. The work of art that is a chest
of drawers may in fact be a chest that has no drawers. It is just a chest.
It has no drawers because they detract from the overall art of the thing.
Its artistic merit supercedes its usefulness. I think that the analogy
holds in respect to how people perceive the Great American Novel.
Such great artistic achievements might be exquisite, but nevertheless
not particularly entertaining. What is sometimes assumed is that something
utilitarian cant be artistic. Any number of people will dismiss
novels, which are popular or written in a genre, and assume that they
are just escapist crap. Stackpole is the author of thirty-five science
fiction novels, including books for the Star Wars series, and also
designs games and computer games. He understands the second-class citizenship
in the world of literature that so-called genre writers receive
and objects to this ghettoizing of his craft. He knows just how much these
books are the secret pleasure of many scholars and writers.
In fact, genre writers have written some of the most powerful and respected
books in literature. The list is long and diverse, and includes Tolkiens
Lord of the Rings and Raymond Chandlers mystery novels. More
recently, James Ellroy has transcended the detective category with his
highly acclaimed American Tabloid, while lauded literary novelists,
such as Don DeLillo and Paul Auster, have written mystery novels. On the
other hand, many literary blockbusters go unread by the people who display
the books prominently on their coffee tables. How many people really read
Umberto Ecos semiotic masterpiece The Name of the Rose, or
David Foster Wallaces monstrous 1,100-page doorstop Infinite
Jest? These books climbed the bestseller lists, but most question
whether the books were actually read.
Most writers agree with Stackpoles belief that a novel can be many
things and still be good. UVM alumna Lesléa Newman 77 has
published forty books, including the controversial childrens book
Heather Has Two Mommies, and two adult novels. Newman bristles at
the idea that the novel is the great white whale that every writer pursues.
She likes to think in less hierarchical terms, preferring to value other
forms of literature nonfiction, memoir, childrens literature
on par with the novel. Nevertheless, she believes the novel is
the most satisfying form to write in because its such a huge chunk
of time and you can do so much.
Novelist and UVM alumnus Garret Keizer G78 understands this compulsion
as much as anyone. Fifteen years ago he wrote No Place But Here,
an acclaimed memoir about being a high school teacher. Still, he felt
there was unfinished business until he completed his first novel, God
of Beer, about a group of high school kids in the Northeast Kingdom,
the area where he taught and still lives. I felt I had a story to
tell and sometimes there are not rational or conscious decisions that
make us choose a subject or genre. The novel challenges us first of all
to find out what the questions are because they are usually not stated
as explicitly as they are in an essay. Novels leave questions unanswered
and challenge us to come up with our own answers. Keizer suggests
that the novel is unique in its form and cannot be duplicated. You
create characters and you create a situation and if you are fair to them
and if you allow them space to move they will show you things that you
dont know yet.
Both Rickstad and McCauley suggest that its the room to roam
that makes the novel so alluring. Without breadth, Rickstad claims, a
writer cannot develop the story and characters over time. With short
stories youre constrained by a certain page length, while with a
novel you can stay with the characters longer and explore them in greater
depth and reveal more about their relationships with each other and also
build a sort of tension or mystery or suspense between the characters.
You cant quite get that out of a short story. A novel is a slow
unspooling of events culminating in a complex and rich effect.
McCauley echoes Rickstad when he says, When you read great novels,
like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, you get at these great
psychological truths about people that are universal and timeless and
that you cant really get anywhere else. Since, of course, the number
one rule of fiction is to show, not tell, youre actually shown a
life and emotions and reactions to decisions and consequences. And then
you get to become engaged on a much deeper psychological level.
In that statement, McCauley captures what might be the novels greatest
lure, beyond the promise of fame, riches, or landing literatures
grandest fish. Of all the literary forms, the novel is the most complete
mirror of our world in that it recreates the complexity and ambiguity
every one of us confronts every day. Whether it is Keizers Northeast
Kingdom, Proulxs Newfoundland, or Stackpoles fantasy-land
Oriosa, novelists have the rare opportunity to create a world in the imagination
and share it on paper. Its an intoxicating chance to play God, a
chance that is nearly impossible for a writer to pass up.
novelists & their work
That Old Ace in the Hole, by Annie Proulx
Proulxs new novel is set in the dusty Texas and Oklahoma panhandle
region. Publishers Weekly says, Proulx imparts information with
such minute accuracy that its like seeing a painting up close and
magnified, with each tiny brush stroke lovingly emphasized.
X-President, by Philip Baruth
The X-President, due out summer 2003, is a darkly comic satire of the
Clinton years, opening with the 109-year-old ex-president in the year
2055, trying desperately to avoid blame for touching off a series of global
conflicts called the Cigarette Wars.
In Every Laugh a Tear, by Lesléa Newman
Newmans work often explores lesbian identity, Jewish identity, and
the places where they meet or, fairly often, collide. With this novel,
Newman takes on those themes in addition to the emotional ties among daughter,
mother, and grandmother.
The Dark Glory War, by Michael Stackpole
Stackpoles tales of military fantasy and Star Wars novels have made
him a frequent flyer on The New York Times bestseller list. Dark Glory
War tells the story of four young men who face the prospect of an invading
force overrunning their homeland of Oriosa, in addition to the usual coming-of-age
Reap, by Eric Rickstad
This alums debut novel takes on hard lives in the hardscrabble landscape
of Vermonts Northeast Kingdom. Says Booklist: Rickstads
world is littered with ramshackle homes, broken-down trucks, souped-up
hot rods, alcohol, tobacco, torn jeans, and dashed hopes.
La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl, by David Huddle
Professor Huddle, a longtime UVM faculty member, splits his tale between
the contemporary life of a University of Vermont art history professor
and the 17th-century life of painter Georges de La Tour.
True Enough, by Stephen McCauley
Once dubbed the secret love child of Edith Wharton and Woody Allen
by The New York Times, Stephen McCauley applies his deft comic touch to
themes of marriage and fidelity in his fourth novel.
God of Beer, by Garret Keizer
The versatile Keizer has two new books on the shelves these days with
The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin and God of Beer,
his first novel. The latters characters are Vermont high schoolers;
setting, the Northeast Kingdom.