Why Does Everyone Want to Write a Novel?

The Novel. It’s like a high mountain peak which, once we have climbed it, will mean something.

Or not.

I frankly don’t know why so many otherwise reasonable people wish to, and often attempt–over and over again–to write novels. It’s a little bemusing when there are other formats: short story, novella, screenplay, collaboration, poetry, not to mention the field of nonfiction which can be an artistic endeavor, as Annie Dillard  and Timothy Egan and so many others have shown. If art is what you want. And many people are attempting to write highly commercial novels, so that can’t be the point, either.

Perhaps it’s the remuneration. You may never make significant money on short stories, and though novelists usually can’t support a family on book income, sometimes you can patch together a good income from speaking, teaching, etc. But honestly, the money is hardly worth the enormous commitment that being a novelist entails. Most working novelists freely admit this.

It’s the prestige, then. You can find prestige and validation from poetry–among it’s 200 readers and in academia. But the taste for poetry does not, alas, extend to popular culture or the further reaches of one’s own extended family, where poetry has sadly been relegated to the butt of jokes. (I’m a poetry lover, so don’t freak out on me, now.)

It’s validation. The culture “gets” novels. They actually read ’em. To be a novelist means that people at parties and at Rotary know what you do. . . and usually step a little back. Oh, so you’re a smart ass, huh? Have I read anything of yours? Are you on the shelves in airports? Still, there is a weird aura of celebrity accomplishment in being a novelist. However, writers who sell decently are so few–and sf/f writers so frequently dismissed by the general public–that validation is sadly relegated to the butt of jokes among career novelists.

OK, try this on: Novels offer a decently big platform (are long enough) on which to pursue the meaning of existence. OK, it sounds a little pretentious, but perhaps there’s a kernel of truth here? We don’t pursue Truth, but intimations of meaning. And novels are long enough to let character-based plot illustrate that our actions matter. Um, on secondthought, this one is starting to sound a bit defensive.

Lastly, I come to a landing place, building upon the concept introduced above, of “long enough.” Perhaps as writers or aspiring writers, we have an instinct that the novel length is the right length. There is something proper about it, satisfying, completing, organic. It is ineffable, like why language comes in threes, like haiku. Da duh, da duh, da duh. I know the same argument can be made for short stories. But if it were so very true there’d be more short story writers! Most novelists experience the extremely compelling feeling that they have a character or some events that will be spectacularly at home in the novel they will write. It will be just long enough to wallow around, dance your dance, explore side canyons, peek into the vista of a human psyche and come home refreshed and pleasantly sweaty.

On the other hand, I really don’t know.

16 Responses

  1. galdrin says:

    I think, for a serious writer, it has to be the story you wish to tell. In some cases, the tale and its characters can get it told in the length of a short story. In other cases, the story is so intricate it requires the length of a novel, or 2, or 3, to tell the whole tale. Poetry, on the other hand, is “of the moment”, hence tends to be much shorter in length by comparison.

    (just thinking out loud and off the top of my head)

  2. Speaking strictly for myself, I write because the stories occur to me, and I think they are worth setting down on paper — it’s what I was hard-wired to do. (I’ve been writing stories since second grade, though admittedly those stories were of questionable quality.) I would say that those who write for prestige (or, one might say, glamor) are doing it for the wrong reasons, in no small part because the glamor you’re likely to get is pretty small compared to the work that’s required to produce even one novel. I write the story (be it novel or short story) for it’s own sake. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

    And those who write poetry, I would bet, do so for the poem’s sake. It’s what *they* were hard-wired to do.

    My two cents. 🙂


  3. Kay says:

    Why novels

    I totally agree. But still, why so many novelists out there?

  4. barbhendee says:

    Oh, Kay, this post prompted me to write one of my own on a similar topic. Pop over and check it out (smiles).

  5. Kay says:

    There is that, I grant you. Some of the choice is hardwired or driven by the story. I wonder if short story ideas repeatedly get set aside for the long form ~ and whether there is some mystery about it.

  6. Kay says:

    Good one, Barb. Another dimension to topic. What IS success?

  7. Not in my case (again, speaking strictly for myself). I’ve found that when a story idea pops into my head, it’s best to get it down on paper so it will be out of my head — kind of like an exorcism. 😀 There was one point during my current novel project that I got a short story idea, and I knew I would have to write it down before I could get back to the novel.

    FWIW, I think this particular short story has merit.

  8. zornhau says:

    Re: Why novels

    People don’t really consume short stories. Asking “Why so many novelists?” is like asking, “Why so many electric guitarists?”

    Myself, my ideas come in novel sized chunks, so that’s what I write (and aspire to flogging).

  9. Kay says:

    Re: Why novels

    Except being a novelist tends to eat you alive. Thus it could be asked Why.

  10. carl_v says:

    You’ve certainly touched on what I would consider some of the main reasons why so many either openly or secretly wish to write the next great novel. I also think that so many people want to do so because novels touch our lives, inspire us, bring us happiness, makes us think, etc. There is something so powerful about our connection with story and so it doesn’t surprise me that so many people feel moved to be a part of that experience.

  11. Kay says:

    As you say, “that connection to story.” I just hope that the industry can put itself together in such a way that gifted aspiring novelists have a better chance to break in — and stay in the game.

  12. lmarley says:

    Re: Why novels

    Me, too. I heard Howard Waldrop say once that he only had short ideas. I seem to have a preponderance of long ones!

    I like Kay’s thought, though, that the novel length FEELS right.

  13. carl_v says:

    Me too, Ms. Kenyon, me too.

  14. timlavrouhin says:

    Prince of Storms et al

    Kay, I didn’t start reading fiction ’till I was almost 40. Someone gave me Frank Herbert’s “Dune” and I was hooked. From there I discovered Ursla LaGuinn, David Weber, Jack Mc Devitt, Peter Hamilton, and, of course, Kay Kenyon. I read “Seeds of Time” when it first came out, and it is still my favorite “stand alone” novel. I’ve given away a half dozen copies. I read “Leap Point” second and loved it. I’m now 60 and pre-order everything you write. Your concepts are so original and engrossing, the characters so real and interesting that I am genuinely transported. I’m half way through “Prince” and keep sneeking away from my work to read a page or two. Just wanted to say thank you for the fun you provide and the thoughtful writing. My life is richer.

  15. Kay says:

    Re: Prince of Storms et al

    Thank you so much for this. You made my morning!

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