The Books We Talk About (and Those We Don’t)

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Abner Dean

What is the social function of the novel? I’m not thinking about the pay-off for the author, who gets to develop a skill and earn a living from it and accrue a prestigious public image into the bargain. Nor about the rewards for the publisher, who may, or more likely may not, make a significant amount of money. Nor even the pleasure for the individual reader, who enjoys hours of entertainment and maybe feels enlightened or usefully provoked along the way. What I’m asking is, what’s in it for society as a whole, or at least for that part of society that reads novels?

Conversation. A shared subject of discussion. Something complex for minds to meet around. This is particularly the case when we’re talking to people we don’t know well, people we meet, as it were, socially. Of course there are plenty of other topics available. The weather. Sports. Politics. But there’s only so much that can be said about cloud formations, not everyone sees the fascinations of baseball, and politics, as we know, can be dangerous territory. Novels—or films or television dramas for that matter—offer a feast of debate and create points of contact: are the characters believable, do people really do or think these things, does the story end as it should, is it well written? The way different people respond to Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, or J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, will tell you a lot about their personalities without anything personal needing to be said. Novels are ideal subjects for testing the ground between us.

When Laurence Sterne started publishing sections of Tristram Shandy, newspaper book reviewing was in its infancy. The novel’s droll sexual innuendoes, its constant flirtation with incomprehensibility and obscenity, provoked excitement and consternation among more or less everyone who read books at the time. How could fiction be written in this way? What relation did Sterne’s tale have to real experience, and indeed to other books? Did the unreferenced inclusion of work from other writers (Rabelais, Francis Bacon, etc.) amount to plagiarism? The debate was fierce. Sterne thrived on it, including reviewers’ comments and his reactions to them in later parts of the book. Since Tristram Shandy was seven years in the publishing, other writers chipped in, offering unauthorized alternative versions, sequels, and prequels. There was a snowballing effect. Enthusiasts invented Tristram Shandy recipes, set up graveyards with the tombs of the novel’s characters, and named racehorses after them. The book had become part of a national—and on occasion international—conversation. People understood their relations to each other by gauging how they related to the book.

More than a hundred years later the debate was even more heated around the publication of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, famously subtitled A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented. How could she be pure, reviewers demanded, when first she had an illegitimate child with a man, then lived with him as his mistress while married to someone else? It was a good question. But Tess was so attractive, so endearing, and so incredibly unlucky. The divergence of opinion was so acrimonious that it became difficult to have supporters and detractors sitting side by side at society dinners. Essentially the novel had forced readers to reconsider received Victorian opinion on sexual mores, exposing the phobic side of polite society’s moral rigor. Inevitably, the more people raged against the book the more it sold.

One could list any number of novels—Hard Times, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Native Son—that have provoked an intense level of public debate, usually because they combined a seductive plot with issues that mattered deeply to people in that particular time and place. A novel becomes a focus for such issues, provoking conversations perhaps only latent to that point, and these conversations then guarantee the work’s further success and the writer’s celebrity. Beyond a certain level of readability, however, the ultimate quality of the writing, or the “art” involved, is largely irrelevant, at least for this social function. A poorly written book, whether it be What is to be Done? by the nineteenth-century Russian intellectual Nikolay Chernyshevsky or E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, can stimulate intense general conversation far better than an extraordinary but taxing piece of writing—Beckett’s Trilogy or Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten—or even a genre work, that, however popular, raises no underlying issues: Simenon’s Maigrets, Fleming’s Bond books, le Carré’s spy stories.

So as well as categorizing novels as well or poorly written, popular or unpopular, one could also, and perhaps more usefully, distinguish those that become part of the conversation, and those that do not. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections became part of the national conversation; Lydia Davis’s short stories, for all their brilliance, did not. In Europe Michel Houellebecq is part of the conversation, like it or not (but not liking it intensifies the conversation); Peter Stamm, an author whose work I always look forward to, is not. Social issues and literary ambition may be important here, but are really not essential. Arguably there was a huge conversation generated around the Harry Potter saga that had nothing to do with social issues, but was perhaps very largely a discussion about the appropriateness of adults avidly reading stories written for children. Conversely, many writers who deliberately try to provoke a conversation by novelizing topical issues that are already at the center of debate, often fail miserably. John Updike’s Terrorist was arguably his least talked-about novel.

But whatever the content or quality of a novel, in order for a general conversation to take hold, people, or enough people, have to have read it. It is no good if everybody is reading brilliantly provoking, perhaps electrically interesting, but quite different books. How often have we been involved in conversations, at a party maybe, where four or five people ask what others think of this or that novel, only to find that no one else has read it? Even, or perhaps especially, among people who read a lot it is often difficult to find a single recently published book that we have all read. The conversation founders, literature fails to bring us together, no debate is provoked. Or to find a book to talk about we have turn to one of the blockbusters or media-hyped works of the day, something one almost feels authorized to talk about whether one has read it or not: Underworld, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Interview with a Vampire, My Struggle. Regardless of quality, regardless even of sales, since Knausgaard’s are nowhere near on a level with the others, these are books that have been as it were chosen for the conversation, perhaps precisely because it’s often embarrassingly difficult to find a book we’ve all read to settle on. Instead of the conversation occurring ‘naturally’ as with Tristram Shandy, or Tess of the d’Urbervilles, it is to a certain extent thrust upon us.

The extraordinary increase in the number of novels published each year together with the internationalization of fiction is in good measure responsible for this changed state of affairs. Victorian England produced a considerable number of novels but at any one time only a limited number were being serialized in the major weekly and monthly magazines of the day. This guaranteed that those books had sufficient readers to generate a conversation. Novelists writing for the magazines knew who their readers were, more or less, and, reluctantly or enthusiastically, adapted their work accordingly. Since readers had much in common, it was more likely that a piece of fiction would open up issues that animated conversation and since there was far less journalism available than today, difficult topical issues would often be tackled only through novels.

But how does a book enter the conversation today? The serialized novel has been replaced by serialized television fiction that has become so successful at generating discussion that those of us who didn’t follow The Sopranos or The Wire were often made to feel left out. Meantime, in the bookshops, readers choose from literally thousands of recently published titles. In the countries of western Europe a good 50 percent of those books will come from abroad; so people’s reading is not focused on the society they live in and the stories read are often set elsewhere. In 2011 when I ran a little survey in a Dutch bookshop on the kind of novels people were reading, younger readers in particular said they often chose to read popular foreign, particularly American or English, authors—Dan Brown or Ian McEwan or Philip Roth or Zadie Smith—so that they would have a common subject of conversation when meeting other young people during their summer travels. Their choices seemed random and were taken regardless of quality. Rather than a situation where people are naturally finding themselves reading the same thing and then talking about it, some readers are responding to celebrity in the hope that what they read will enable them to join an international conversation.

And yet it still does happen that quite unexpectedly a book, a writer, becomes successful beyond the wildest dreams of their publishers, and perhaps in the absence of publishers at all, causing people to read things they wouldn’t normally read and to talk together about things they wouldn’t normally talk about. I’ve recently read and reviewed two authors who have had this extraordinary fortune, E.L. James and Haruki Murakami, the one accused of writing trashy soft porn, the other praised for his evocation of everything disorienting and surreal.

Is it possible that two such different authors have anything in common, anything that drew this level of attention to their work and created such animated polemics around them? For while Murakami is sometimes touted for the Nobel he is also frequently attacked for poor writing, adolescent sensibility, and deliberately seeking a dislocated global public. (I was recently invited to speak at a conference whose sole purpose seemed to be to attack Murakami.) And E.L. James, though dismissed by the literati, found her work reviewed in the most serious literary papers and attracting a readership far broader than has ever before occurred with a work of soft erotica.

Both authors, it seems to me, in their quite different ways are fascinated by the same thing: the individual’s need to negotiate the most intimate relationships in order to get the most from life without losing independence and selfhood. If Shades of Grey had any seriousness, it was in asking these questions: How is sexuality to be negotiated in a couple? How can I give the other what he/she wants and remain myself? In a sense, How can I control what appears uncontrollable? In an infinitely more sophisticated and certainly more mystical fashion, Murakami invariably asks, How can I avoid being overwhelmed on the one hand by others, on the other by loneliness? Where is the middle way?

Of course there are many other authors whose work deals with these issues. But how many books can the world be talking about at any one time? A dozen, twenty? It’s hard not to feel that a certain amount of the merest chance is involved.