Why Write Novels, Anyway?

Why make the supreme investment of time and effort it takes to be a novelist now, when communications are so technologically oriented –when film and television and gaming, not books, seem to be the ascendant forms of communication, art, and entertainment?

When I was a student, I read hundreds of novels: science fiction, epic fantasy, historical fiction, mainstream literature, and, later, the classics. Often these novels seemed like way to escape from the difficulties of being a young person in America. Back then I discovered – though I wouldn’t have articulated it this way – that fiction, and especially novelistic fiction, has the power to strike an almost musical chord of emotions. The result is a kind of transportation effect, in which one is swept up into the world of a story.  The novelist John Gardner referred to this effect as the “vivid, continuous dream” of fiction. It’s a special feature of good novels; it gives them the power to colonize the reader’s imagination so completely that putting them down is like parting with a beloved friend.

Don’t get me wrong: film is a wonderful art. It’s a vital and fascinating art, and one of the great things about being human in the twenty-first century is the availability of so many good movies – and, lately, so many good and even great television series. But you can’t get the same kind of transportation effect from these visual narrative media that you can from a novel. The experience of watching a movie is nowhere near as deep as that of reading a novel; the kind of enrichment film offers is different, more superficial, and less comprehensive than that offered by literature. Why? Because the less imaginative exercise required to fully construct a scene, the more passive and removed the audience. The less of oneself one puts into something, the less one gets out of it. Good novels generate a connective electrical current; they create a living interface between two minds, and in the process, they give readers a personal stake in the creative process.

The novelist Robert Stone once told me that we all have two stories: the one we’re carrying around inside, and the one we’re experiencing in the exterior, material world. Where interior and exterior meet is where viable literature happens. With literature it’s possible to find yourself laughing and crying at the same time. And that’s just it. Film can’t fully capture the interior story. The world you inhabit when you read a good novel is unique. You and the author work together to create a one of a kind, intensely vivid landscape, a landscape that is troubling and beautiful and populated by fascinating characters undergoing deeply perilous journeys, external and internal. This world bewitches your consciousness. It complicates and enlarges your perspective.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote:

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”

Film can’t really do that, not in the same visceral, all-encompassing way, which is why novels are not going away any time soon. Novels meet a basic human need. They are an essential art form, because they offer a way of experiencing life not possible with any other art.

Narrative is an ancient craft. It’s one of the few aspects of consciousness that sets humanity apart from the rest of the animal realm. Think about it. We evolved as a species sitting around a fire in a hostile wilderness. Unlike other animals, we had no particularly effective evolutionary tools – no armor or stinger or great speed or built-in camouflage – but we did inherit remarkably large and malleable brains. And make no mistake: storytelling became one of our best tools for survival. Telling stories about hunting, for example, allowed our early ancestors to encapsulate and remember important information. With stories, that information could be deployed repeatedly; it could be refined and perfected and applied to future hunts. Similar patterns of narrative would have been used for avoiding predators, locating new resources, and defeating rival groups. A man or a woman that could tell a good story was thus always welcome around the fire, and the ability to create compelling narratives became ingrained in our consciousness. Like any other evolutionary adaptation, this aspect of our brains was refined and elaborated over thousands of generations of natural selection, until it was capable of creating things of great beauty. Storytelling became the equivalent of a peacock’s tail, or a meadowlark’s song. The novel, of course, is just storytelling’s latest and most beautifully elaborated manifestation. 

Today, narrative is still crucial for our survival, because it helps us make sense of a universe teeming with random information. We live in a time where more knowledge is available to us than ever before. It’s an information superhighway out there. Narrative, in effect, is the molding of information into a shape that makes sense. Connecting the dots; identifying cause and effect. When things are plentiful, they’re cheap. When things are scarce, they command a higher price. Sure, there are a lot of novels being written, but these days, which is more scarce: information or narrative?

Words activate the imagination in a way pictures cannot. Viewing and hearing are relatively passive activities; reading is not. Reading, on a deep level, is communion. What writers read is like organic matter from the collective unconscious tamped down into the ground of their souls, which will bubble up in a transformed way, like crude oil, when it comes time to write their own stories. For writers and readers alike, novels increase our faculties of compassion and understanding; they allow us to imagine our way into solidarity with a greater human community. They enable us to conceive of new possibilities, to see the world or the universe in an entirely new light, and, therefore, to define the terms of our existence in a manner of our own choosing. There is a saying: Books are our grandfathers. Books are our teachers; they equip us to live independent, conscious, intentional, rich lives.  As the great Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her essay collection, The Wave in the Mind:

“We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people.” 

This is the essential importance of novels in our age.