Athena's Head

On Writing, Parenting, and Pop-Mom Culture

Martha Nichols

Martha Nichols
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
March 18
Editor in Chief
Talking Writing
I am Editor in Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine. I'm also a contributing editor at the Women's Review of Books and a freelance journalist in the Boston area. Martha on Twitter: (I cross-post most OS entries on my website Athena's Head. I am not paid a cent for any reviews or product references—these opinions are mine alone.)


Editor’s Pick
JUNE 13, 2010 9:19AM

Do Novels Still Matter?

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As far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to read people’s minds. I was obsessed by everything I knew adults hid: unspoken nastiness; unshed tears; passion—so much passion and swallowed rage.

Which means that even at the age of ten, I was destined to love novels above all other forms of writing.

I still do. After a hiatus from novel-reading this past spring, I’ve re-discovered the joys of sinking into a long work of fiction. Moreover, Jonathan Franzen’s "Rereading The Man Who Loved Children" makes me want to defend the novel, any novel, partly because Franzen gets at least one thing wrong.

His piece about Christina Stead's 1940 novel, which recently appeared in the New York Times Book Review, is wonderful. I feel encouraged to give Stead another try. But what strikes me most are his opening questions:

“[H]aven’t we all secretly sort of come to an agreement, in the last year or two or three, that novels belonged to the age of newspapers and are going the way of newspapers, only faster? As an old English professor friend of mine likes to say, novels are a curious moral case, in that we feel guilty about not reading more of them but also guilty about doing something as frivolous as reading them….”

With all due respect to Franzen and his professor friend, no.

I haven’t secretly kissed off novels. I disagree that they represent a moral dilemma, except maybe for academics who think they should be reading “serious” nonfiction. And to equate novels with newspapers (or the dying print distribution system of news) is silly. What’s endangered is the journalistic long feature, and, yes, novels are long form. But there the comparison ends.

His opening is a rhetorical device. By the end of the review, Franzen has made the case for the value of reading Stead’s novel or any other challenging literary work. I doubt he takes the newspaper/novel comparison seriously.

Yet what comes through is a particular definition of “the novel”: a literary epic like Ulysses or To the Lighthouse or The Corrections. From monolithic works such as these, Franzen claims, we are all far too distracted by the multitasking demands of modern life. As he notes in one annoying aside, “shouldn’t you be dealing with your e-mail [instead]”?

Franzen’s high-brow assumptions have gotten him into trouble with the likes of Oprah in the past. While I have a love for many literary novels, I don’t think great literature defines the form. Literary fiction has always had a comparatively small audience. (Long ago, I made peace with my inability to tolerate Ulysses.) Sure, you can say literary novels are endangered by BlackBerrys and iPhones, but people were saying that 50 years ago about TV.

It’s the serialized, “what happens next?” aspect of a page-turner that still makes novels popular—and lucrative for some writers—whether you like Dan Brown or not. No matter how much I loathe The Da Vinci Code, it is a novel.

We still do want to know how the story ends. We want to know what’s going on in other people’s emotional lives. I do, anyway.

For years, memoirs have been shoving novels aside, but in certain basic respects they are alike: page-turning stories of triumph and disaster, with reality highly reconstructed. Even in this kind of “true” story, the truth is open to interpretation. But Franzen keeps beating the wrong drum:

“Because haven’t we left this stuff behind us? High-mindedly domineering males? Children as accessories to their parents’ narcissism? The nuclear family as a free-for-all of psychic abuse?... [W]ho wants to look into the mirror of a novel and see such ugliness?”

Um. A lot of people? Unless you’re one of those domineering narcissists.

Of course we want to read this stuff, although maybe not in the demanding "private family language" of Stead or Joyce—or at least not always.

What’s more, I’d argue that novels matter because they offer multiple points of view. Their narrators often have self-evident flaws. Unlike the omniscient news-writing voice—which is suspect in its supposed objectivity—a novelistic narrator reminds us that we all see the world through our own judgments.

In the constantly morphing, self-replicating online universe, we need that reminder more than ever.

In mid-May, at the end of my teaching semester and during a difficult family trip to California, I was suddenly struck by the need to sink into a novel. A 12-year-old friend of mine suggested Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, a young-adult novel about a near-future world in which all teens undergo an operation that turns them into “pretties.” I was hooked.

From there, in the space of two weeks, I read through the Irish comfort food of Maeve Binchy’s Heart and Soul, the literary weepie Sometimes Mine by Martha Moody, and the historical Rashomon-style kaleidoscope of  The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier.

I’ve now embarked on Scott Turow’s Innocent, which feels like revisiting a well-loved vacation house. Twenty-plus years ago, Turow’s blockbuster Presumed Innocent kept me up late at night—not just the story, but his gutsy approach of using a first-person narrator who's a possible murder suspect.

OK, I have decidedly middle-brow tastes.

But here’s Turow in Innocent, via his soul-stained protagonist Judge Rusty Sabich, who is brooding at the dinner table on his sixtieth birthday:

“I shrug, but somehow in retelling the story, I confront something that has grown on me over the hours, which I am reluctant to acknowledge, even to my wife and son: I am sorely guilty that I sent a man to the penitentiary for the sake of prejudices I’m now ashamed I had…. Contemplating the moral force of the point, I go silent.”

I make no sweeping claims for novels like this except that they’ve immersed me when I needed to be immersed. I’m reminded of the standouts from my youth: Childhood’s End, The Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice—and every trashy gothic romance that took me to other worlds and time periods and revealed, even in the most rote way, the secret emotional nooks of others.

It’s in sharing the secrets nobody wants to admit—the shame, the guilt, the missed opportunities—that we learn empathy and, I hope, the ability to embrace complexity in a messy world. Yes. Oh, yes. Yes. Novels do matter.


This piece also appears in Talking Writing.

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Mark -- You make great points about the form and content of novels evolving as we evolve. They are a pop literary form, and I'd say they've always done so. I do think that's what Franzen is pointing to in saying that Stead's literary novel may seems even less relevant than it did in the '40s. But I think you could argue that her dysfunctional-family focus makes it more so now because of our current fascination with unraveling families. Regardless, literary novels are not the yardstick for measuring what's happening to the form.
As long as there as desperate housewives who need "book club" as an excuse to slip out on a weeknight, the novel will exist.

Oh, but if you mean a certain kind of novel - with a high ratio of characterization to plot, and lack of vampires - then Franzen may have a point. But hasn't there been a market for pap? The novels that we now recognize as classics probably sat on the shelf next to pulp fiction.

You could also make the case that people like us- tapping out stream of consciousness manifestos and uploading them on the Internet without so much as a proof-read - are the ones killing the novel.
I can't wait to read Franzen's next novel. He could write Twitter posts, and I would subscribe!
Novels still matter to me.
Funny thing, Grace, I don't think us online writer/blogger types are killing the novel. I'd say our love of text is keeping certain kinds of print stuff alive in ways I didn't expect a few years ago. For the "millennial" 2000 issue of the Women's Review of Books, a number of us editors wrote about what 20th-century things we hoped wouldn't go away in the next century. I wrote about my love of the novel, sparked by some actual dread at the time.

Now I don't feel the same dread. (And back in 2000, I wouldn't have believed print newspapers would expire so quickly.) What I do think is that plenty of writers like Franzen may begin experimenting with serialized novels as Twitter posts. It's like Dickens on hyperdrive.
The talk of the death of the novel has been going on for ages. I read Franzen's rhetorical questions as kind of tongue-in-cheek, because with his life's work as a novelist and critic, he must believe they matter, and "The nuclear family as a free-for-all of psychic abuse?" is basically The Corrections.

You might be interested in a book called The Anxiety of Obsolescence, written by one of my college professors, Katheen Fitzpatrick (

Part of its argument is that authors, including Franzen, are the ones declaring the novel's death, and doing so in order to create an endangered, and therefore valued, space for themselves within society.
Anne: Yes, that's an interesting point about writers like Franzen making the enterprise seem endangered in order to give their work more value. I also read his opening questions as tongue-and-cheek, but his need to frame the discussion this way indicates that he's still framing "the novel" in a particular way. Thanks for the insight.
You have illuminated what matters to me in books - the emotional, human element. Which I find lacking in so much hoity toity modern and post-modern LITERATURE.
That said, if your taste is middlebrow, mine's lowbrow -I worship Lee Child. Give me a character I care about, a nasty villain, then let 'er rip. What happens next? That's what has me turning the pages.
Oh Franzen always writes these death of the novel polemics right before he's about to release a bestseller. Okay, maybe he's only done that once before. But I wasted a year of my life having silent raging debates with him in my head over his notorious Harper's essay.

Of course he wasn't a major novelist when he wrote that piece in '96, so I immediately forgot his name. Then he published The Corrections, and all the while I was reading I kept thinking about "that stupid Harper's guy" and his dumb ideas about the death of the novel. Only discovering a couple of years later that they were one and the same.

It's almost a schtick now.

As for Oprah. They were obviously looking for a reason to dump him anyways. Few of her viewers liked the book. Franzen is uncomfortable on television and radio and doesn't, as they say in the business, give good byte. He hated the fact that the producers insisted on dragging back to his childhood home, which he hadn't been to since his father had dies. It was just a bad fit.

Of course novels still matter. But that doesn't mean memoirs are somehow elbowing them out. And check out the sales on YA fiction. It's insane how many books there are for bookaphile kids. I don't think that generation is suddenly going to stop reading anymore than we did.
I just finished the first draft of my fourth novel. This post came at a great time for me. So encouraging. r
Still read novels. Still write them.

Some day, we will be reading about the death of Jonathan Franzen.
I'm nearly finished with my blog/novel here on Open Salon. I've been posting twice a week for nearly nine months. It's been a great and interesting experience, and leads me to believe that the serialized novel has some sort of future--if anyone can figure out how to make money from it.
Yes, novels still matter. xox
I love how you wrote "the Irish comfort food of Maeve Binchy's..."
I'd never liked her work until my Mother died then I couldn't get enough of her...and Rosamunde Pilcher (Scottish comfort food)-- like wrapping a cozy blanket around...
People have been writing about the death of the novel for more than a century now. And yet novels, in all their permutations, are still flying out the door.

I'm proof of why.

I'm trapped in hospital and have been for weeks. I have the internet and DVDs at my fingertips, but it's reading that's getting me through this. I can take a novel with me when I'm wheeled down to have a scan, or when I'm waiting for a doctor. I can read when I've checked my email and there's nothing else I want to look up online. I can read when I just want to escape from this room I'm trapped in for a while. At the moment, I'm reading a novel a day and wouldn't be able to get through this ordeal without them.
I am in the group who loves to read a good novel. I am also in that group of people who are hoping to publish one of them. I am also hoping that I might realize enough from the sale of a memoir to finance the writing of that novel. Part of the problem is that with the death of print is resistance to publishing anything with no track record for earning. Wish me luck.
The irony for me in this piece is Frazen's Corrections is one of my favorite novels.
So nice to come home to these comments, after a long flight from California.

Juliet -- You are so right about Franzen's frequent pronouncements. And, yes, YA novels -- now there's a reason for hope -- and maybe some of those writers are actually making money.

MadamRuth -- I know exactly what you mean about having a good novel during medical tests and hospital stays. In those places, the TV always seems to be on and magazines are everywhere, but I find those things are only mild distractions and actually make me more anxious. A good, immersive, plot-heavy novel? A godsend.

Frank -- I'm curious about how serializing your novel on OS went. I'd love to hear more details.

Bobbot -- I'm wishing luck to everyone writing novels and trying to get them published (or to make money on them).

tomreedt -- Call me a happy optimist, then. I'm "sensibility" to your "sense."
I don't believe that the novel is dead, it's just morphing into a more natural form.
The story!
Frankly, I find that most of the "great" authors that I have ever read were just way too wordy.
Everything that Hemingway for example ever wrote except for "The Old man and the Sea!" was either self-indulgently (in my opinion anyway) or for sheer commerciality so.
"The Old man and the Sea!" stands out to me as poetry amongst his other stories precisely because of the precious paucity that he exercised in it in comparison to the fleshed-out, pumped-up, butcher's block commercialization of his publicly demanded prose.
Does your writing dream include as a common denominator the worship of the adoring masses, or an erudite, demanding and understanding, albeit smaller audience who can appreciate texture and nuance?
Not to run on here, but the medium of the web frees us to write our stories at exactly the pace that the story calls for, and at the length that is best for the story, and on the subject and in the style that I/we choose and not some editor's idea of what will sell.
I think that OS is wonderful, and I will happily write here for decades!
Franzen is crap -- a shallow attempt at ripping off the great William
Gaddis whose "The Recognitions" and "J.R." are towering masterpieces of literature.

News Flash: Not only is Thomas Pynchon not dead -- he's still writing great novels.
it's interesting to me how everything is interrelated. in thinking of a response to this, it came to me that if we don't have an educational system that produces critical thinkers and readers, the novel will in fact die as itself. and be reborn in another form, perhaps as suggested, serialized on twitter; which is actually an interesting idea.
No, the novel is not dead - just pining for the fjords...
Rusty is a judge now? I need to get to the Turow I have piled in my stock-pile bookcase!

If novels were to disappear, I think I'd die. And if I had to read them electronically, I think I'd weep.

When I was kid, my parents' best punishment option was to take away my novels. It would still be the best punishment option!

Our son is 6 and begs to be read to (I'm on the Harry Potter series right now) every night. I hope that, growing up surrounded by shelves groaning under the weight of "real" books, he will use his phone as a phone, and will love to read like his parents.

And I hope that novels continue to be available in dense, long, short, weighty and frivolous forms. I'm on a goofy, wacky Janet Evanovich detective novel right now - #15 - I can't read it without thinking of our own OSer Deven, the prose sounds so much like her voice!
Fred: I love your positive frame for all this--yes, the story, in its manifold forms, written and spoken. I think we're hardwired for storytelling, which does give me some hope. And there's hope, too, in the freewheeling online world without all the traditional hurdles writers used to have to jump (along with all the perils, especially for those of us trying to make money as freelancers).

Tichaona: Interesting speculations. It's why a book I have called "The New Journalist" has at least one chapter that focuses explicitly on the need for reporters to develop critical thinking skills. No kidding. Even with Twitter serializations of novels--or whatever novels become--I don't want to give up critical thinking.

Blue: Yep, Rusty is a judge. And boy, is he in big-time trouble.
I savor the comfort and joy of holding a book in my hands. I read, lend, reread and give them as gifts. I love wandering through bookstores new and used. I love libraries. Holding a Kindle or any other book "reader" has no appeal to me. I read novels. I read mysteries. I read some fluff. I work in the harsh reality of healthcare, when I read I want an escape. I do not read romance novels, horror and a few other categories. I do not apologize for being a lover of books, the real ones you treasure and sometimes pass on to others.
Liberal -- I've gone off Kindles, too. I found it an interesting experiment (and, yes, the iPad is very pretty), but I'm not sure why I need another electronic gadget for reading--why not just use some of the tech innovations and continue to produce ever lighter, more versatile laptops which do everything?

As for print books, how I love them as objects infused with memories and comfort. I've got another post germinating in me about books and my father--stay tuned.
Novels matter. Novels make good or sometimes great movies. Your point of view idea makes me think that novels enlarge our intellect--if we can be wise about people.

Cathertine Griffiths
Excellent post. Also excellent comments! One of them really struck with me: our educational system doesn't embrace the novel as a valuable teaching device. Except for the old, often overdone classics, reading novels is considered optional and therefore inferred "unimportant". Libraries and schools do fewer reading programs, books aren't assigned, and it essentially becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Although I do find it terribly ironic that the LA Times Obituary Editor was just promoted to Books Editor. There's something sad in that statement...hopefully his previous speciality will not be helpful in the book section.
As a former magazine publisher and photographer(film only),
I enjoy reading the novels I missed. When I find an author who
writes well and matters to me, or gets me involved, I read everything I can find by that author. As Mailer said in an interview before he died "America is populated by more Louts." Find what is pleasing to the Mind, it doesn't exist without cultivating your own taste and ability to choose. The internet is fast food.
Novels matter. Stories that inform and reveal our social processes and force us to consider alternatives will ALWAYS matter.

What I don't understand is why anyone thinks anything Jonathan Franzen has to say (or write) matters?

Great article, by the way.

I have indicated my antipathy to this literary Phoebe here --

Apparently to no avil.

The state of literature does not depnd on Mr. Franzen's every belch. As usula it's dping just fine -- if you bpther to look beyond the confines of the NYT and other gatekeepers of the status quo.

It is in that spirit I'd like to (ever so immodestly) reccomend "Smohterd in Hugs" by Dennis Cooper, and "Galmorama" by Brett Easton Ellis (my fave of his most recent novels, though they're all good)

If the present doesn't suit you there's always the past: "Dhalgren" by Samuel R. Delaney, "J.R." by William Gaddis, "The Wings of the Dove" by Henry James, "Au Boheurs de dames" by Emile Zole (the first novel of modern cosumerism), "Madame Bovary" by Gustave Flaubert, "Little Dorritt" by Charles Dickens (a preview of coming attractions), "L'Hitoire de 13" by Honore de Balzac, and of course "A la recherche du temps perdu" by whatshis face.

Jonathan Franzen is a major novelist who seems fated to be remembered for being a weenie as much as being an important writer. The eclipse of the novel, the death of the novel, the erasure of the novel are things that have been argued before, and lo, here we are, still reading novels and talking about them, arguing about them, still trying to minimize their importance. Tom Wolfe argued with typical bombast in his anthology of New Journalism that fiction had become irrelevant because reality had outstripped the novelist's imagination, and that the narrative techniques of he novel were better used for non-fiction. The fiction writer's concept of the world had become a sorry trove of self-reflective theory and it was up to the journalists and the historians to properly tell the tale of our time. Wolfe, of course, desires to be the Dickens or the Balzac of our time, and considers the nineteenth century ideal of precisely capturing the surface the surface of things to be enough for those tasking themselves with working the long quills; to know a man, merely observe what things surround him. To dare to think that a novelist could render a character's interior life negotiating the flow and flux of the external world (to say nothing of the task of making an entire cast of main characters just as complex) amounts to a terrible heresy against the storyteller's art. Or at least Tom Wolfe's version of what a story teller is; but we remember, Wolfe is a journalist, finally, not a story teller, he is beholden to the 4 W's, who, what , where, when. Pesky novelists, though, strayed beyond the bemoaning and constraining tide of naysayers and they continue with their stories, dealing with people and their complexities, and readers continue to read them. The only task of the novelist, I would say, is to put the reader in the respective shoes of a set of characters in a world they , the reader, might not otherwise experience; the notion is to live a little fuller without having to buy a plane ticket, to experience the world for a period in a way that has nothing to do with what one's instinctive resistance to change instructs us to do. Novels matter. Fiction matters. Arguing that they don't is a species of tedious grand standing. Jonathan, Tom, take the lampshades off your heads.
Novels matter only in so far as they offer something other media do not. Primarily, that something is interiority. Simple narrative (this happened, then this happened, then this happened) can be accomplished just as well, and in some ways better, in more visual forms such as television and movies. We don't need prose fiction for that, just as we had less need for photorealistic painting once photography was invented. That's why prose fiction will continue to exist, even if it loses its elite position among media.
Have you read Franzen's novel Freedom? "High-mindedly domineering males? Children as accessories to their parents’ narcissism? The nuclear family as a free-for-all of psychic abuse?... " is exactly what the book is about. So, I think he's being ironic in his question.
I haven't read "Freedom," but I have no doubt that Franzen is referring to his own work and being ironic. The thing is, while he may use irony as a defense it also ends up undercutting the whole interior sensibility that novels get across. They are a unique medium in the way they can portray what's going on in someone's head. I remain fascinated by the hidden depths in people, and Idon't thinkmyinterestis just anachronistic or old-fashioned.
I am reeling! I am shocked! This thoughtful piece about the place of the novel in this new "atomized" world in which we live is an Editor's Pick! ("Atomized" is David Foster Wallace's word that his friend Jonathan Franzen borrowed.) Unfortunately, it will be lost amid the rest of the bullshit on that front page.
Oh, not to worry. I just noticed the date of this great blog entry. It was lost long ago.