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In Pursuit of the Novel
Literature’s Leviathan

by Laban Carrick Hill

When 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 Franzen’s 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 sales sputter.

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 fiction’s 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 don’t have to write a novel. I don’t 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. It’s just the larger form and I think it’s the high achievement…the big prize.”

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 publisher’s 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 didn’t 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 Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and Tim O’Brien’s 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 that’s a novel with a lot of story-like chapters in it. But it’s a territory that can seem pretty vague.”

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 year’s critically-acclaimed La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl, but Huddle admits that he still wears the novelist’s mantle uneasily. “A novel for me is a kind of unnatural act,” he says, “but I’ve found a way to make it happen.”

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 didn’t think of myself as a writer,” explains Proulx in an Atlantic Monthly interview. “But I was always a reader — an omnivorous, greedy one. It’s probably natural for readers to move into writing, and that’s essentially what happened to me.” She’s 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 don’t 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 one.”

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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t 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 couldn’t 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 don’t 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. It’s a larger undertaking than a short story or a poem because the expectation is that you’re working on the Great American Novel. It can’t be just a novel, but inherently you have to be working on the big novel.” His book, Reap, set in Vermont’s 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 author’s second book can be a hard sell, even more difficult than the first, and will often attract considerably less money.

Yesteryear’s Boob Tube
Such reverence for the novel has not always been the case. In fact, for much of the novel’s 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 Johnson’s 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. It’s passive. You don’t have to think. You don’t improve yourself. You don’t work. And then over this two hundred and fifty years we’ve 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 you’re reading. If you’ve 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, there’s 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 can’t 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 Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Raymond Chandler’s 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 Eco’s semiotic masterpiece The Name of the Rose, or David Foster Wallace’s 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 Stackpole’s belief that a novel can be many things and still be good. UVM alumna Lesléa Newman ’77 has published forty books, including the controversial children’s 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, children’s literature — on par with the novel. Nevertheless, she believes the novel “is the most satisfying form to write in because it’s such a huge chunk of time and you can do so much.”

Novelist and UVM alumnus Garret Keizer G’78 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 don’t know yet.”

Both Rickstad and McCauley suggest that it’s 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 you’re 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 can’t 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 can’t really get anywhere else. Since, of course, the number one rule of fiction is to show, not tell, you’re 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 novel’s greatest lure, beyond the promise of fame, riches, or landing literature’s 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 Keizer’s Northeast Kingdom, Proulx’s Newfoundland, or Stackpole’s fantasy-land Oriosa, novelists have the rare opportunity to create a world in the imagination and share it on paper. It’s an intoxicating chance to play God, a chance that is nearly impossible for a writer to pass up.

UVM novelists & their work
That Old Ace in the Hole, by Annie Proulx
Proulx’s new novel is set in the dusty Texas and Oklahoma panhandle region. Publishers Weekly says, “Proulx imparts information with such minute accuracy that it’s like seeing a painting up close and magnified, with each tiny brush stroke lovingly emphasized.”

The 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
Newman’s 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
Stackpole’s 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 challenges.

Reap, by Eric Rickstad
This alum’s debut novel takes on hard lives in the hardscrabble landscape of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Says Booklist: “Rickstad’s 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 latter’s characters are Vermont high schoolers; setting, the Northeast Kingdom.

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