Why write novels?

I just read Claire Keegan’s ‘The Forester’s Daughter’, from her 2007 collection Walk the Blue Fields. It is a story of smouldering regret and awful intelligence, and has the emotional punch of a novel compacted into forty pages. This is a timely read for me, as it revives two questions: why read novels, and the more pressing one of why write them?

The novel, as I was personally reminded in an email correspondence only last week, demands linking passages, backstory, explanation, exposition, all manner of tedious filler that somehow has to be presented as though it were integral to the process.

You might argue that this is what the good novelist does – and that this is what differentiates the good from the mediocre. But why would you go to all that trouble when you can say what you need to say in 40 pages, as Keegan manages so effectively in ‘The Forester’s Daughter’? We are given a small community in rural Ireland, an old house, a farm, and a family: Deegan, Martha, their children (the son who wants out, the simpleton second boy, and the daughter, a rare bird, and a dog). The father, while not utterly wretched, is a man whose poor judgement is capable of snuffing out all capacity for love and trust. The story’s purpose is achieved without the excess 250 pages or more of padding that a novel would necessitate and the reader is left with something like enlightened gratitude rather than that familiar struggle just to get to the end – a condition I almost inevitably find myself in when reading novels these days. In an earlier piece on Borges in this blog I quoted the Argentinian as saying: “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books — setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.” If only more people heeded this advice, there would be less junk to get through.

Most novelists I talk to tell me that at least one point in the writing of every book they ask themselves why exactly they are doing this. It is exhausting, obsessive, wrecks your sleep, and, unless you are in a tiny minority, will make you a negligible amount of money, or none at all. And yet there is a widespread prejudice in the publishing world, and among readers, that the novel is somehow the highest achievement for a writer, and it is the writing of a bestselling novel that, whoever might say otherwise, still motivates most students applying for an MA in Creative Writing.

I write to a friend that I am working on a novel that I started five years ago and have been dipping in and out of ever since, trying to find where it wants me to go. At one point I was 35,000 words in. Now I am 20,000 words in, and shrinking. I am approaching the task with enthusiasm for a shorter word count by the day, and also with a healthy skepticism for the genre of the novel itself.

In the past I might have said I read novels in the remote expectation that the writer will tell me something interesting in a new or stimulating way, but now that I write them, I am not so sure. I write for the same reason that I read: to explore, to seek out boundaries, to ask questions for which there are no simple answers and whose scope or complexity cannot be abridged by the shorter form of the story. But after reading a story like The Forester’s Daughter’ I have to wonder whether that is necessarily the case.

6 Comments on “Why write novels?

  1. I think your friend is right, Richard. The only reason for reading a novel is to meet a great stylist (say somebody as Henry James, Joseph Conrad or, in other size, Scott Fitzgerald). But for long plots full of tiny details you have other arts that allow the audience to save a lot of time. Who cares about things like “Yes, he said, closing the door” or “It was a large bed with a burgundy quilt”? In many ways short stories (and poems) are superior. You don’t have the right of using useless chitchat. You don’t have to make a description, but a presentation (as Pound liked).

    Again, check ‘Antarctica’ also by Claire Keegan. And if you want longer stories by the same author, do read ‘Foster’. You will see we don’t need more novels. The biggest challenge are short stories and poems.


    • Perhaps we have the same friend, Jorge? Foster was the first thing I read by Claire Keegan, and I liked it very much.
      But I still reserve the right to disagree with you whenever I feel like it.


      • If your are compelled to keep writing novels the right is granted, Richard. But because of the time of your readers, please, make them short.


  2. Pingback: Writing Pitfall – Sleeping on the Job « bardicblogger

  3. I don’t think novels and short stories offer the same “pleasure” to the reader. The novel can be a lot less demanding to read than the short story. With the novel the reader might just be carried away by the narrative. I’m not saying that the novel is an escapist genre but it doesn’t operate in the same way. In this sense, Laura Mulvey’s theory about films might be applied to the novel, but if we read a short story with the expectation of being carried away, we’ll more than likely be disappointed.
    I think that the novel might offer a more immediate satisfaction than the short story.
    They require two very different modes of reading and what one will get from them will depend on the way one will read them.
    As a reader, I find that each genre fulfils different needs I have, yet each has its own merit and both are valuable.
    As a way of communication between the writer and the reader, one genre cannot be said to be more effective as it is ultimately the reader who will receive and interpret the work and the writer cannot anticipate, nor control how his/her work will be read.

    There is a lot of talk lately about the short story being a genre more suited to our modern pace of life. I’m sceptical. If readers indeed read short stories as abridged novels, they are probably completely missing their point.


    • Thank you for this helpful contribution, Em. I am in agreement about the two genres fulfilling different roles, or even needs. Our expectations are, and should be different – otherwise we will be disappointed, and it will not be the fault of the author but ourselves.


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