What’s a Novel to Do?

Ok, I have a question.

A blog popped up on Freshly Pressed the other day that gave me pause. It is called The Reluctant Mom and it is an extremely candid account of a woman’s post natal ambivalence to her children coupled strangely with an overwhelming desire for a fourth child.

But what got me thinking was not so much this interesting dichotomy as the complete nakedness with which she describes her relationship with her husband. and children.

Here’s a small sample of her About Me section:

“The arrival of this baby made me anxious, paranoid, depressed and severely unhappy.

But, and I really must say but, I was not unhappy with him – of course I loved him with that fierceness of a love that a mother feels for a her child.  She knows she would lay down her life for him at the drop of a hat – no the pain and the unhappiness I felt was for me, my life, my relationship and well pretty much everything.

I struggled with ‘bouts of depression that had moments of light relief and others with shadows of wanting to end it all.

I hated myself.  I hated the fact that I could not cope.  I felt dreadfully alone and I began to hate Kennith because it was all his fault – well who else was I going to blame?

I felt abandoned and angry because I was becoming more dependent on him.  Dependency is a very ugly and frightening word for me.

Kennith (sic) assisted by decided nothing says abandonment quite like going off to do a two year MBA!!

I decided – I, not we, I – at my darkest lowest point, that I wanted to have a second child.  I can’t explain rationally why, it was a primal urge and had all the makings of a breakdown.”

The vast number of comments on the blog were also breathtaking in their poignancy and nakedness.

Here’s an example taken from one of the comments which ran to almost, I kid you not, I counted, 1000 words:

“It took me years to find peace, I think the fact that cancer had taken so much from me – my youth and my mobility, and now here was yet something else that it had taken, my fertility and the decision of how many children I would have. I resented my husband for a long time for “making” me stop trying. I was prepared to try anything and everything – donor eggs, surrogacy, adoption. He felt we had to focus on what we had and not keep spending vast sums of money on my dream.”

It all left me thinking. What is there left for literature to do?

I always thought you wrote a novel by peopling it with characters who have a problem. And as they walk around the problem, or drive over it, or attack it with a sledge hammer, or whatever it is they feel the need to do, you lay them bare. With a slice of your pen (or keyboard) you open them up chest to belly and let their insides dangle out.

Essentially, you tried to get inside the head of your character and reveal it to your reader.

All in the name of good literature.

But how can you compete with blogs which tell, in great detail, that blogger’s personal life? With facts and photos and at the end comments which tell even more self revealing true stories.

I ask you. What’s a novel left to do?

photo by unprose (flickr)


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16 responses to “What’s a Novel to Do?

  1. I feel like I should take a long time to think this over. But, since it’s unlikely now that I’ll ever write a novel I’ll just say what strikes me. When I was a teenage lost soul, Gone With the Wind was GREAT literature. A few years later when I sniffed at readers of such drivel, I had discovered writers like Eudora Welty and Jane Austen and it was similar to discovering I had a father and that he loved me. The first time I read Marcel Proust I wept. No so much because it was so beautiful, but because that “father” had put his finger on something beautiful in ME and said you have a lifetime to learn what that part of you is all about.

    Now, the pinnacle of my reading life was even later, when I found Emily Dickinson. Yesterday I found some statements by Lesley Dill about the affect of Dickinson on her, so I’m presently too intimidated by how wonderfully Dill articulated that experience to try to describe it for myself.

    However, I think the thread I’m trying to draw attention to in response to your wonderful post is that real literature draws something out if its reader that is better than she/he knew was there before. Sometimes identifiable. Sometimes not. Entertainment (not that it’s a bad thing), on the other hand, entertains. Shocking sometimes in the way we glam on to words or images. But, it doesn’t make my soul expand, grow and like itself better.

  2. David Bruskin

    Nina, I think deep down you know the answer to this. Like movies, most literature is not so much realism as naturalism. Reading a blog like the one you reference is akin to starting a book in the middle, or talking on an airplane to a seat-mate you’ll never meet again. These searingly naked, poignant blog entries are brief, concentrated articulations of real human pain. But we don’t know who these people are, certainly not the way we can get to know characters in a novel. We can feel for these bloggers intensely but only briefly. Not at all to diminish them or their pain, but for the blog reader, it’s like driving past a dead dog in the road; there is an acute painful reaction of shock, sadness, and more, and then it passes shortly afterward as you go on with your life. Such moments are emotional only in that the reader/viewer comes to it with the shorthand of years of living as a human being. By contrast, in any form of effective storytelling, a good writer may rely on the reader’s human existence only to be reasonably assured that the reader speaks the same emotional/experiential language and will grasp the sophistication, subtlety, and complexity that go into revealing a dimensional character. Whether getting to know a real person from the outside or getting to know a character from the inside, it’s a gradual process that cannot work with a quick ripping away of skin, flesh, tissues, and simply show what’s behind it all.

  3. Novels provide analysis, hope, a different ending, another point of view, humor, closure, inspiration, impetus, escapism, and education for those who haven’t had the same experiences as the characters.

    Novelists hold up a snow globe-sized portion of the world and then shake it.

    It’s not a competition. It’s a reflection. Keep writing.

  4. Sounds like some of these women are suffering from (or were suffering from) post-partum depression, a topic of which I know well from my own experience and those of friends. It seems to be almost an epidemic these days which may say something about this unnatural order of our lives these days and how we cone to motherhood. As a wittier whose written about PPD in fiction-plays mostly, but I believe a novel would be similar–the advantage of fiction over a blog or memoir or any other written personal statement is the ability to get to speak to everyone through a universal character rather than just one person’s experience. Andrea Yates the person is sad and depressed; Andrea Yates the fictionalized character is tragic.

  5. Interesting.

    I’d say what’s left for the novel to do is search for truth and perspective via art and craft.

    That’s all. How hard could that be?

  6. ninakillham

    Lois, that is so beautiful and true I’m printing it out and taping it to my computer. Thank you.

  7. ninakillham

    Thanks, David, for that. I think you’re absolutely right about that drive by quality to the reading of a blog. That oh my feeling, the brief stab of empathy. Very different to a prolonged engagement that a novel should provide.

  8. ninakillham

    Sarah, I especially like the idea of a different ending. So much of the essence of a novel depends on its ending…. Thanks for your thoughts.

  9. ninakillham

    Michele, you’ve got me really thinking now about the difference between the Andrea Yates. It’s a subtle and excellent point. Thanks.

  10. ninakillham

    I ask myself that every morning, Steve! Really, how hard can it be???? Thanks for commenting.

  11. Madi

    How many time have I heard people comment “gee, I could do that” while standing in front of a Pollack drip painting. No, I respond, I don’t think so.

    Just because you can hold a brush doesn’t make you artist. Handling a scalpel doesn’t make you a surgeon. Confessing in a diary doesn’t make you a novelist. There’s a world of difference between expression and crafting a story. I’d rather read your novels before a blog any day.

  12. Miranda Kemp

    Hi Nina. Is it not also, in part, about motivation and objective? It seems to me that the sort of blog extract that you reproduced is almost a therapy, a need for the writer to ‘get it off his/her chest’, to have it expressed. We can all share her feelings and empathise, in a passive way, with her but her intention, it seems to me, is not for us to have a particular engagement with what she is saying. In short – and I don’t mean this in a horrid way; she has clearly suffered tremendously – it’s all about her. Writing is (or usually is, if it’s any good) all about the reader and a desire by the writer to share an understanding of humanity, love, the world. I’m not a writer but the other important person in the relationship – the reader!

  13. ninakillham

    Thanks, Madi, and as I splash more squiggly lines onto my novel I remember it ain’t so easy. I think I’m always shocked at how difficult it is.

  14. ninakillham

    Absolutely, Miranda. And that certainly adds to the debate on what we owe readers. And I think that could run the gamut from nothing, it’s all moi moi moi, to everything, when it becomes light entertainment. Gosh, all these great comments. Really got me thinking.

  15. susan moffat

    A certain kind of great novel, say, Middlemarch, creates a world with a wholeness and coherence that real life does not possess. By controlling voice, and point of view, whether shifting or steady, the writer helps us see what we can’t as we whiz through life, the world a blur outside the minivan window, the phone calls and blogs and tweets clouding our comprehension. My friend Cris Benton takes photos from a camera he rigs to a kite. This low-altitude shift in point of view reveals patterns you can’t see as you walk through the landscape. Interestingly, though he could easily rig a monitor so he could see what he’s about to shoot before he pushes the shutter button on his remote control, he prefers to fly blind, pressing the button when he guesses the camera is seeing something interesting. Only when the camera comes back down does he see what the camera saw. Do you write like that–letting things be captured–or do you peer through the lens as you shift the camera around…I imagine either could work, but I’m not a novelist.

  16. ninakillham

    Hi Susan, what an interesting concept this way of capturing life. I tend to let things bubble up and write it all down and hope in the end it adds up to something. So there is a lot of shaping and tweaking. Lots of tossing boulders in the stream so that it flows in the direction I want. But often the story is stronger and just cascades over any obstacles. And everytime I think, there’s got to be an easier way!

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