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Are You Not Entertained, or What Is the Purpose of the Novel?

When you Google “purpose of a novel,” the first returned item is the definition from a college’s curriculum: “to entertain and to give aesthetic pleasure.” The Miriam-Webster’s definition: “novel – a prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals with human experience.” Milan Kundera, one of my favorite writers, said “The novel is an investigation of human life … Knowledge is the novel’s only morality.”

One of these definitions is not at all like the others: entertainment vs. existential discovery. To a degree, they’re in conflict, different ways of absorbing information. Here’s an experiment: look up the Goodreads’ list of popular books with at least 4.5 rating. The Harry Potter series, The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Stormlight Archive, The Infernal Devices … there are no novels at the top of that list.

“The Hunger Games” with 4.33 rating and 163K reviews is better liked than“Anna Karenina” (4.04; 21K) or “Madame Bovary” (3.66; 9K). Perhaps the later novels would fare better? Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” easily beats anything written by Philip Roth. Or by John Updike, Haruki Murakami, Milan Kundera, David Mitchell, Michael Ondaatje, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mikhail Bulgakov, etc., etc.

In fairness, when I was younger - much younger, I’m afraid – I preferred the likes of “The Hunger Games” to such challenging works as Kundera’s “Immortality” or Ondaatje’s “The English Patient.” I haven’t learned anything from these easy reads, but I’m not the one to throw rocks here. Perhaps it does take years to appreciate the complexity of the novel. To understand why Flaubert said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” You read these novels and you feel that you’re not alone in this world.

A personal experience: one of my earlier works caught the eye of a publishing person. She commented on the draft I sent: “the plot is good, we can turn it into a fast read that’ll appeal to a mass audience. But you must simplify, cut out these philosophical asides, they are of no interest to people. And the ending is way too depressing.” I responded with “but then it won’t be my novel” and we parted ways. I felt somewhat indignant at her suggestion: to me, it was like saying that Anna Karenina should have run away with Vronsky instead of throwing herself under the train. I was kind of full of myself at the time. And I’m fortunate in that writing is a hobby for me: much easier to stand on your principles when your daily bread doesn’t depend on it. The publishing person was right, of course. She knew the business. Many reviewers complained about the complexity and hated the ending.

It does seem to me that Kundera was right: the art of the novel as an exploration of human existence is dying, marginalized by the mass media’s reduction of everything to stereotypes and sound bytes. From books to “action porn” of superheroes of assorted flavors, from letters to emails to tweets. One can’t puzzle the meaning of art or of human existence in a tweet, but we have gotten to the point where the public policy and the political discourse can be conducted on Twitter. Have we gone too far? We might be losing something valuable here.

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