Sunday, November 7, 2010

It's Not the Size of the Book That Matters, It's What You Do With The Book That Counts

Currently, I'm on page 548 of Jonathan Franzen's latest novel, Freedom, which--at last count--comes in at a total of 562 pages. (And even though I've never been accused of being a savant--"idiot" or otherwise--I think I can even do the math on this one enough to know that, at long last, I am nearing the end of the book.)

Franzen, as one of the "young," meteoric writers in the American literary sky at the moment, is seemingly enwrapped in a love/hate relationship with his sudden claim to fame as the supposed spokesperson of his generation. Freedom hit the shelves this past fall with much anticipation following his heralded previous novel, 2001's The Corrections (not to mention that novel's media oversaturation, including--if not, in fact, highlighted by--the author's outright rejection of Oprah Winfrey's nod to include it as one of her Book Club's selections.) The more I read of him, in fact--and notice I said "of him," as a person, much like me, maybe--the more I am convinced that Franzen is a bit of a wingnut. But I don't really care so much about that. After all, I'm not asking to be his friend, I'm just choosing to be a reader of his. I'm simply choosing, as we always do anytime we open a book and turn to page 1 and start at the beginning, to be in the company of someone who is--by all intents and purposes--a complete stranger. And for as long as the book lasts, we are willing and hoping and indeed banking on the fact that the author will prove to be good company. Will, indirectly, be a friend, I suppose.

For at least as many pages as the book holds, anyway.

And if such a hypothetical book holds--oh, let's say 562 pages--then we assume said book's author to "hold" us (metaphorically speaking, of course) for 562 pages. And if not entirely hold us, at least keep us in his/her embrace long enough and meaningfully enough so that when we feel that embrace perhaps start to loosen--like, say, around page 281--we at least trust the author enough or remember enough the hold he/she had on us up to that point that we can feel ourselves hanging on to get us through the times when it's not so easy to make it through to the end.

And maybe that's not so difficult to do if in the world of Raymond Carver's or Amy Hempel's famously minimalist short stories. Or perhaps in the Salinas Valley of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Or Albert Camus' Algerian beach of The Stranger. (All of which, of course--in one way or another--can hold you in the course of one sitting.)

But what about the dense, uber-detailed worlds created--for example--by the 19th-century masters of literary Realism--writers like Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Hardy, Dreiser, James, Dickens? (All of whom, by the way, Franzen can maybe try to dismiss in a typically hip, ironic, postmodern wave of the hand as being influences on him, but he would fail miserably in such an attempt; for after all, what is he writing in his typically hip, ironic, postmodern kind of way but a "19th-century" type of novel for the 21st-century?)

Some stories, as we all know (or should), are better suited for particular formats. The emotional power of George and Lennie's plight would not have been improved had Steinbeck doubled the count of pages in their book. By the same token, the story of the Joads' mythic displaced journey west would not have had the same social and psychological impact had Steinbeck halved their book's page-count. Like Louis Sullivan's famous 20th-century architectural credo, "Form follows function," the literature of any age is shaped--along with the historical and social milieau--solely by the story the writer is trying to tell. That and nothing else.

It is our willingness as readers--or unwillingness, whatever the case may be--to follow a writer wherever he/she takes us. And whether that journey takes 2 pages or 562 pages, it doesn't matter. What matters is the story and its ability to embrace us. That and nothing else.

*[Aside: Let me interrupt myself for a moment here, if I may. Please don't misunderstand me and jump to the conclusion that anything a writer puts down on page--no matter how short or long it may end up being--is all to the service of the best story told. That is most clearly not the case. As evidence, I offer Exhibit A: Stephen King's novel, The Stand. As originally published in 1978, what would eventually turn out to be known as the "edited version" of his novel still weighed in at a whopping 823 pages. Again, I'm not a math whiz by any stretch of the imagination, but even I can push the pencil to see that King's early novel still managed to leave Franzen's Freedom in the dust by an impressive difference of 261 pages. No small feat. But never one to be outdone by another writer (even when that other writer is himself...), King returned to his "edited" apocalyptic opus and rereleased the book 12 years later with nothing less than an extra 330 pages restored to the text, bringing it to a total of 1,153 pages. That's a lot of words. And did all that extra "restored" verbiage illuminate the text? Did it shed light on the original version? Did it improve the story and the characters and the overall "hold" that said story and characters had on readers back in 1978? Of course, each reader can answer that for him/herself. But this reader prefers the earlier version of The Stand. I find it to be much tighter--if an 823-page tome can be called a "tight" narrative--and much more focused and powerful in its overall effect. The restored 1.200-page monstrosity suffers from what much of King's later work also suffers from--a sprawling egomaniacal talent run amok, desperately in need of a stalwart editor brave enough to hit the "DELETE" key and say, "You know what, Stephen...the old adage 'Sometimes less is more' is an old adage for a reason."]

Franzen is a writer of some supposed importance in the early part of the 21st-century. Whether he is deserving of such attention will play out in the years to come, of course. But one thing is certain: as an American novelist practicing an art form which has seen dramatic changes in its accepted form and style over time, Franzen is daring enough to fly in the face of postmodern "less-is-more" conventions. In an age of the quick sound-byte, and "text-novel," and audiobook, and e-reader, Franzen is writing old-fashioned, dense, character-driven, word-laden novels. He is a fiction writer of long fictions. Would his writing be better served if it were shorter? I don't know. But I don't think so. Maybe his next work will be a novella. Or perhaps a play. Or a collection of short stories. Time will tell.

The long and short of it, of course, is that in the end it doesn't matter if a narrative is long or short. What matters is if the story works. What matters is if--by the time you reach the words "THE END" on the story's last page--you feel justifiably rewarded for spending time in the presence of the story's characters and in the hold of an author who--whether you like him/her or not--compels you, in a strange turn of events, to turn back to page 1 and start all over again.

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