The Terror of Great Novels
Should we be afraid of them or not?
Society, almost by definition, loves simplicity. We’re fond of commodities tailored exactly to our needs and innermost desires. We adore the clear-cut and unambiguously delineated demarcation lines between the agendas of political parties. We have a weak spot, if not two of those, for succinct and, above all, lucid advertising slogans that leave no doubt as to the purpose of a given product or its intended target audience. And there’s nothing more infuriating to most of us than the blurry and imprecise boundaries between concepts as well as the vague descriptions of goods that leave us bewildered, floundering, and, what’s worse, needlessly consume our precious time by forcing us to decipher the message that the author strived to convey, that now lies dormant somewhere in them, and that should have been obvious and perfectly explicit from the very beginning.
That’s most probably why we like to think of authors in terms of a single great novel that we immediately associate with their names.
That’s most probably why we like to think of authors in terms of a single great novel that we immediately associate with their names. Thus, the so-called literary one-hit wonders ideally meet our requirements for simplicity and intellectual brevity: J. D. Salinger equals The Catcher in the Rye; Harper Lee means, to most readers, nothing more, nothing less than To Kill a Mockingbird; and, from the dominating point of view, Oscar Wilde is the author of only one work of fiction: The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Things become a bit more complicated when it comes to writers who penned more noteworthy works than a single novel, but which have unfortunately been obscured by one indisputable masterpiece: Fahrenheit 451 is, by far, a more recognizable title to a casual reader than other sci-fi yarns that came out of the prophetic typewriter of Ray Bradbury; A Clockwork Orange beats in terms of popularity and renown the rest of Anthony Burgess’ oeuvre; and, no matter how many times you may have read it, All the King’s Men unquestionably stands out from the other texts authored by Robert Penn Warren.
When we finally get this issue out of the way, here comes another one: What should we do with those who had never produced a single literary marvel, an ultimate and seminal belletristic gem, but rather whose entire artistic output should be treated and thought of as one spectacular achievement? What about the prolific likes of Émile Zola and Balzac whose works ought to be read and appreciated and analyzed en bloc rather than separately?
And — to muddy the ink-stained waters a bit more — what about the authors who had more than one unquestioned magnum opus under their bookish belts? What about such illustrious names as Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, or Henry James, the sheer breadth and scope of whose literary achievements incessantly spark passionate debates among their readers and scholars hoping to establish which one of their texts should be hailed as the best one and lauded as the full-fledged representative of the particular author’s entire body of work?
Why does one great book, one spectacular achievement, have to eclipse a lifetime of dedication to, and passion for, writing?
Because, which one is better, more profound, and more relevant to the progress of literature, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, or, perhaps, As I Lay Dying? Each one of them has as many loyal supporters and stalwart defenders ready to champion it till their last literary breath as the next one on the list. What about Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada, or Ardor? In which one of them the zany imported genius of Vladimir Nabokov manifested itself to the fullest extent possible? The same can be said about Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Song of Solomon; it’s insanely hard to judge which one of them should be studied and taught about the most.
Whenever we pose such a troubling question, there, without a doubt, will sprout whole legions of readers opting for this title or preferring that one, but the real dilemma lies somewhere else: Why do we need to make that kind of problematic choice at all? Why do we feel compelled to compose those insufferable the best lists in which every single position has to be fought for and paid for with the inestimable amounts of novelistic blood? Why does one superb title have to be more superb than the other? Why does an author have to pen a supreme masterpiece to be worth mentioning at all? Whence does that incurable obsession come, that ineradicable obsession with perfection, with fierce competition, with rivalry, and with hoping for a clear and incontestable winner to emerge from a raucous peloton and break away from them, unstoppable, triumphant, as well as unthreatened by any of them?
Consequently, why does one great book, one spectacular achievement, have to eclipse a lifetime of dedication to, and passion for, writing? Why does a few hundred words have to overshadow a few millions, or hundreds of millions, that have been written by a given author both before and after conceiving that unparalleled masterpiece of theirs?
Similarly, why does this unnamed pressure have to be transferred and dropped — like seismic bombs — on the supple shoulders of the still excitable and still aspiring authors who also sense that insupportable burden of the unrealistic expectations that they should outdo, with their each next word, with their each next metaphor, or with so much as their each upcoming punctuation mark, not only themselves but also hundreds of centuries of the history of literature teeming with great names and even greater books? Why can’t we leave them alone and let them write what they intend to write, what they desire to write, and what they were born to write, without exerting that maddening pressure on them, and thus, as a result, stifling their creativity?
Why does a few hundred words have to overshadow a few millions, or hundreds of millions, that have been written by a given author?
Wasn’t, after all, Thomas Mann consumed by chronic self-doubt and the fear of not being able to measure up to none other than himself and his own splendid coming-of-age debut novel, Buddenbrooks? Wasn’t he starting and then, after much deliberation, fearfully abandoning countless projects while laboring hopelessly in the overpowering shadow of his own early, if not premature, success? Hasn’t the same kind of dread been paralyzing the pens and silencing the typewriters of the likes of J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee, afraid of being unable to surpass their own iconic works?
The act of writing is not a car race in which you can bet on this or that vehicle based on its previous performance and raw technical data, based on the endless columns swarming with numbers and percents and percentiles helping you assess the probability of its roaring across the finish line as the first one while leaving the cluster of opponents engulfed in a thickening cloud of exhaust fumes; writing is a creative process — somewhat mysterious, inscrutable, and delicate at that, still unfathomed in spite of the advancement in technology and rampant digitalization of everything around us — that requires a dose of freedom, the pervading sense of safety, and, above all, a touch of self-confidence to bear the finest literary fruits, which ingredients necessary for one’s success that pressure can shatter irrevocably like no one and nothing else.
Nonetheless, we still treat it as if it were a kind of race, and writers were book-producing machines bent over the starting blocks, ready to leap and pounce forward at the first bark of the starting pistol.
It hurts the struggling authors; it also hurts the long-established and even long-deceased ones as this deleterious practice pushes the less known (yet not necessarily lesser in terms of quality) books of distinguished writers into the shadow. This stubbornly undying prejudice against “the just-good” works or “not-as-good-as” texts is guilty of, ironically, giving birth to a boundless cemetery of forgotten literary greatness, that bookish gray zone, strewn with the corpses of the otherwise superb novels that were only a notch less thought out or a bit less polished than their widely celebrated cousins. It is responsible for spreading a misconception that they are somehow unworthy of a serious reader’s attention, even if, in most cases, the middling work of a renowned writer is better, if not immeasurably better, than the best effort of a mediocre scribbler. After all, Faulkner even at his most drunk and incoherent worst made more sense and did it with far more style and character than James Patterson does at his cheap and sober best.
The middling work of a renowned writer is better, if not immeasurably better, than the best effort of a mediocre scribbler.
Thus, this insidious way of thinking, this noxious terror of great novels, deprives us of the pleasure and of the rare chance to commune with art through the great works of literature that remain forgotten and unread simply because they are not their authors’ finest performances. Fortunately for everyone all is not lost, because the tastes of the general public tend to shift and change swiftly and it often happens that the book that had been celebrated by the author’s contemporaries is dismissed as insignificant and trifling by posterity only to belatedly elevate the long-forgotten one to the pedestal of excellence. After all, Jack London’s Martin Eden wasn’t one of his best-loved novels during his lifetime; The Great Gatsby wasn’t appreciated in its time; similarly, Moby Dick was hardly the first choice of Melville’s contemporaries expecting from him yet another thrilling sea yarn. You never know what posterity may snatch from the depths of obscurity to relish it without moderation.
But until that happens, the only losers here are we, readers, even if the unbearable and inherently patronizing the best lists are mere excuses for book columnists to have something — anything, really — to write about. Shouldn’t we, therefore, abandon the innately human compulsion to compare things, to compare books, to pick winners and shame losers, and take them for what they are: the supreme products of human creativity that ought to be enjoyed and savored without the pressure of the second-rate sensationalization? And if so, I wonder how long we will last given the fact that such resolutions, just as the New Year’s ones, are cursed with the startlingly short expiration dates.
Thank you for reading.
Copyright © 2019 by F. R. Foksal
F. R. Foksal is a Polish author writing in English, his second language. His short story collection, Hour Between Late Night and Early Morning, is available at Amazon. He believes that writing about literature doesn’t have to be boring and that books still stand a chance in today’s high-definition reality.