Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Remind Us Why the Novel Matters

This is a summer re-run originally published at the end of 2012 - a gift to our readers to remind us why the novel matters.

Throughout 2012 we've been holding a conversation here at Novel Matters, a year-long exploration of the question, Why does the novel matter?

To help us poke around for some answers, we invited ten writers to weigh in with their thoughts. Those writers, Joy Jordan-Lake, Alice Kuipers, John Blase, Tracy Groot, Rosslyn Elliot, Sharon K. Souza, Athol Dickson, Claudia Mair Burney, Cynthia Ruchti, and Julie Cantrell, all offered their thoughts, impressions, and perhaps even more questions to why the novel matters.

Today, as a gift to our readers this Christmas 2012, we offer this “conversation” between 10 writers we love, to inspire you to read, write, create, and become who you were created to be. It is a conversation that never happened, but, of course, it did.

Novel Matters: Make room for Joy, everyone. She’s last to arrive. The room is a bit tight, but we’ll make do. Everyone smile for the group photo! Great. Uh, John? Rabbit ears? Really? Never mind, I’ll photo shop it out later. Sit, everyone, let’s talk about why the novel matters. What good does it do anyone anymore?

Alice Kuipers: Personally, the thrill of reading, of being consumed by a story so much so that the real world ceases to exist, is one of the great joys of my life.

Sharon K Souza (nodding emphatically): The novel matters for the sheer pleasure it provides. I often read two or three books at one time, a non-fiction of one type or another, a book on the craft of writing, and a novel. The novel is always what I conclude my evening with. I’ll read an hour or two before bed, and that hour or two is the dessert I look forward to all day.

Claudia Mair Burney (waving a hand): Novels take the edge off a brutal reality. Sometimes they distract me. Sometimes they make me laugh. Sometimes they remind me that I am not alone in my suffering, and often, they fuel the most reckless, glorious hope.

Tracy Groot (standing to address the group): Totally agree. Novels supply society with needed diversion, needed respite, and needed truth that may not come when it's served up cold.

Novel Matters: Oh, sorry Tracy, I thought you were standing so we could all hear you better. Could someone pass her the veggie dip? Thanks, Athol. Tracy, I love what you said about truth.

Julie Cantrell: There is no better way to deliver truth than through fiction. It’s as simple as that.

Tracy Groot (high fiving Julie): If we're really lucky, truth may come through a kid named Huckleberry, a ghost named Marley, a hobbit named Frodo, or a place due east of Eden.

Novel Matters: A ghost, a hobbit, and the Salinas Valley. How could this trio possibly have anything to do with truth? How do those stories manage to tell the truth about life while still telling a story?

Joy Jordan-Lake (looking professor-ly, but still very kind): As novelists, we have to figure out how to spin our stories for the modern, harried, distracted reader so that the old-fashioned words-on-page print form makes sense, is worth the time and trouble because the reader comes away changed—becomes a part of the Story, and the Story, a part of them.

Alice Kuipers: Novels allow me to live other lives, explore other realities, exist in places and in ways I never could otherwise. 

Athol Dickson (wiping veggie dip off his fingers with a napkin): The novel is uniquely qualified to weave the spiritual and physical realities of life together.

Rosslyn Elliot: Stories need to be told in a way that ignites our passion for us to imitate their sincere and courageous example.

Novel Matters: Great point, Rosslyn, but doesn’t non-fiction do that just as well?

Tracy Groot: the world is always looking for a good story.

Julie Cantrell: I believe that’s where sermons and non-fiction books can be useful. Novels should tell a good story that encourages the reader to close the book with questions. I’d much prefer to read a book that makes me think, than to read a book that tells me what/how to think.

Sharon K. Souza: The novel matters to me because a novel is a window into the soul of a society, an age, an era.

Alice Kuipers: The novel . . . is one of the best contemporary ways to encapsulate story without visual influence – letting our imaginations as readers do the work that other mediums may not allow.

Joy Jordan-Lake: . . . to allow ourselves to be transported to a different world, to see things from someone else’s perspective, to allow ourselves to be moved and frightened and inspired and entertained---and changed. It’s that chance to slow down and step away and look deep into what makes us tick as human beings, what really matters, what really doesn’t.

Cynthia Ruchti (jumping in): Every novel I've ever read has informed me, influenced me. Some have taught me what not to do or challenged me to write in a more compelling way. Some have edged me forward in my understanding of the human spirit and what it's capable of enduring, or strengthened my grasp of concepts like hope and grace.

Sharon K Souza (after the shouts of “amen” and “yep” and that’s it! Die down): You learn the things that make one age different from another, and that in more ways than not, we aren’t that different.

Claudia Mair Burney: And when the pages are all read, we put the book down with a sense that our lives matter; our troubles and our trifles. We matter, because we see ourselves right there in print. And we find ourselves in the work. Sometimes we say, "amen." Other times we say, "I'm sorry."

(there’s a little hush here, while we all absorb the wonder of this statement.)

Novel Matters: What we’re talking about is transformation. Or, maybe better, human formation. The novel matters because it helps us form as human beings?

Cynthia Ruchti: Every time a reader opens a novel of any significance ... [she doesn't] walk away the same.

Athol Dickson: Art is one of the objective proofs that human beings have a soul or spirit, and novels, of course, are art, so novels matter for that reason. Only in a novel can we become a kind of proxy for the work of art itself.

John Blase (raising two fingers to indicate he has something for us here): For example, a lower middle class poet (me) can read about a man dying of ALS (Jim Harrison’s Returning to Earth) or about two sisters being raised in Fingerbone, Idaho (Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping) or about the lifelong friendships of two married couples (Wallace Stegner’s Crossing To Safety) and to some extent I become a better person for it because I’ve entered into these lives that I have never lived and might not want to lead but nevertheless it stirs, I think, the sense of possibilities within life. . . You understand to some extent their lives, plus your own a little more, and to a greater degree this mystical incarnation we call life. It’s quite beautiful, really, this becoming more sympathetic or human. It entails becoming more compassionate and friendly and sensitive. I like that.

Novel Matters: Thanks, everyone. Can we try for another group picture, this time without the rabbit ears?

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