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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.


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