The “Real” Deal

What is it that we want from novels? Do we want adventures and escapism? Art? Big Ideas like Truth? Maybe some sort of readerly cocktail of all of these things in greater and lesser amounts? I’m reading the introduction to Steven Moore’s ambitious book The Novel: An Alternative History, which was inspired by the complaints of critics and authors like B.R. Myers, Dale Peck and Jonathan Franzen that the “new” “experimental” novels don’t give readers what readers want, which is apparently some form of the 19th century realist novel which continues to be popular (oh so popular) with literary publishers today.

Specifically, Moore points out that these complaints usually center around books like Ulysses, authors like Gaddis and Pynchon, completely ignoring the fact that the novel has always been “experimental” (whatever that means) in nature and that the ideal Novel (19th c., realist) as held up by the likes of Myers, Peck and Franzen (in Moore’s intro he refers to them collectively as MPF) is really a brief aberration in the long and strange history of the novel form. The Aethiopica, Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, the Arabian Nights–all centuries old, all completely bizarre and wonderful, and all sharing more features with those writers we label post-modern than, say, Jane Austen (many Austen scholars might disagree. Let’s say then that they have more in common with post-modernists than with what our initial, surface perceptions of, say, Austen, might be). In other words: if realism is what we want from our novels, fine. But it is only a tiny part of the history of the novel.

This longing for realism is familiar. It is what we ask of our novels and each other as writers (“I liked the scene where the man blows himself up with a bike tire pump and floats away into the clouds, but it’s not really believable“). But why? What is it about the “real” (whatever that means) that turns it into a bottom line for so many readers, even smart readers? Even smart readers who recognize they are reading fiction?

I ask because I read a review of The Quickening in the New York Times recently where the reviewer only seemed interested in reviewing the novel as compared to the “real” journal entries that were the author’s inspiration for that novel. (Full disclosure: I have also read and reviewed The Quickening and that review is currently submitted and awaiting approval for publication.) She writes, “Although it may seem unfair to measure Hoover’s novel against the real account, so much of the book’s publicity is geared toward the story behind the story that such comparisons feel invited.” I guess that seems fine, on the surface (Although, maybe not. Is she reviewing a novel or a press packet?), but the reviewer never actually discusses the novel on its own terms. Instead, she decides that the journal entries are more engaging than the novel, and then dismisses the novel as failing “to tell the real story of how a woman like [the journal writer] suffered and persevered.”

I find this attitude problematic mostly because, very simply, this is a novel. A novel is something made of fiction, as generically distinguished from, say, a memoir or a biography, an historical account or a journal (though certainly there are works that blur all of these lines). The review misses the point that the novel is not an attempt to robotically copy the voice of the journal, or even to tell a real story of anything. Instead, it’s the author’s exploration into the relationship of characters of her own creation. The novel is not, in other words, the real story of how farm wives survived during the depression, but a beautiful, strange, atmospheric and compelling narrative about two, specific, made-up farm wives, and their decades-long entanglement. In short: apples and oranges.

I suppose I can’t fault the reviewer for finding the journal entries more compelling than the novel. That is, after all, just her opinion, which she is being paid to give. I’m just not entirely sure why that opinion is relevant here. And maybe this is my own generic expectation of book reviews: I’d like to know what her review would have looked like if she’d never clicked that link and read the journal entries on the publisher’s website. I want to know what she thinks of the book. Not in comparison to supporting materials found in a press packet, but the book itself, on its own terms, for the story told and not the story she wishes had been told.

What bothers me is the reviewer’s insistence, through the last line of the article, that the novel is a failure because there is some other, realer (and therefore better) story that should be told. An argument which just totally confuses me. I literally don’t understand what she is saying and/or implying. Does she mean that instead of writing this novel, the author should have published her dead relative’s journals? Does she mean the author should have copied them verbatim into the novel? Does she mean the author should have done a more “realistic” job of representing fictional voices? And what does that mean? And why? What is the value of the “real” story (an historical object) vs. the fictional story that has been written? Which brings us back to our opening questions, of course, about the value we, as contemporary American readers, place on what we perceive to be and call real. It’s not that I don’t believe the reviewer when she says she found the journals more compelling than the novel, it’s just that I don’t understand the binary she has set up between real and fictional, journal and novel. Hasn’t she read both? Can’t anyone read both and get different things out of each document? Why is it one or the other? They both exist in the universe. One could just as easily say, “I found the biography of RFK by Evan Thomas to be more realistic than The Odyssey.” Okay, well, yes. But to say, “I found the biography of RFK by Evan Thomas better than the Odyssey because it is more realistic”? That is where I become a stumped wonderer.

Perhaps because Hoover’s novel is historically set, the reader’s expectation is for some sort of historical authenticity. But I think Hoover delivers historical authenticity. I also don’t think she needs to. Why? Because this is a novel, and like all novels (hey Bakhtin) it mixes genres. It is, in some moments, dreamy and strange (we could open a new bag of worms and call those moments “experimental” but…nah.). In other moments (those moments of historical authenticity) it is realistic. But to say a novel, any novel, which is made of fiction, is not “real” enough is to miss the point of novels entirely and to punish (in the form of a bad review) a writer who is perhaps not as interested in towing that MPF 19th century line as the culture, at large, is. Words like “realism” and “experimental” (okay yes and “fiction,” “memoir,” “biography” etc.) are just packaging stickers, neat little pigeonholes.* If we want to continue to expand our ideas of what the novel can be, of the possibilities that the novel, as a form, can provide, we should probably lose the stickers and the straw-men and try to listen, for a moment, to what the text is actually saying instead of being disappointed when what we’re reading does not feel “real” enough.

We are so in love with what we think of as “real” and so angry when something touted as real does not end up being very real at all (see: James Frey). I already think this is wrong-headed in terms of non-fiction (short reason: there is no one, overarching reality, no matter how much we would like that to be true). But to begin to apply the “real” rules to fiction too? That is what happens when MPF gets its (myopic and ill-informed) way.

*I realize that I am saying the reviewer has conflated fiction with the real, while at the same time I claim that these kinds of classifications are restrictive, but that is the messy nature of talking about genre: it does exist and it does set reader expectations, for better or worse, but it also can be applied too stringently or (as in this case) weirdly, in an unintentionally mixed-up way. If the reviewer had smacked down a nonfiction book for not being “real” enough, I might have politely disagreed, but I probably wouldn’t have written a (way too long!) blog post about it.

3 thoughts on “The “Real” Deal

  1. I saw the TBR to which you refer. You give the reviewer some benefit of doubt; she just doesn’t know what a novel is. I think it is actually much worse.

    I read a few books a year, mostly narrated accounts such as The Blue Bear [Schooler] and more recently One Mountain Thousand Summits [Wilkinson] which is excellent so far. Occasionally I end up with a novel in my hand which recently included Out Stealing Horses [Petterson].

    As I read this posting, I was recalling a book discussion on NPR which included 3 reviewers (maybe 4). The topic du jour was Out Stealing Horses. The panel was gushing over the book except for the USA Today contributor. The USA posture was, ‘I just didn’t get it’, though they did confess a fondness for the scene at the end (when he got his new suit with his mom).

    Having read ‘Horses’ I was surprised. There was much to connect to in this novel. Even simple activities like cutting wood were described with such precision that you just knew Petterson had handled a chainsaw since youth.

    So here is where I should give USA Today the benefit of a doubt, but I won’t. I don’t think the reviewer read the book, not really. The understanding of the key points in the book were so vague, the criticism so unfocused that it had to be a skimming at best. USA did read the last chapter, of that I am sure (probably just before going on the air).

    I have not read The Quickening (yet) so maybe I should stand-down, but when I read the review, I had a similar reaction. Something does not ring true here; there is something wrong with the voice in the review itself. I really don’t think she read this book (probably one of those pesky deadlines).

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