Updated: Oct 29, 2022
Thursday, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded, and this makes me think about why longform literature is important to me.
In a world in which the ephemeral dominates, in which it seems like we so quickly know what we are supposed to think about everything, I like not knowing things quickly. I like
when I am immersed in someone else's world, fictional or factual, someone else's manner of giving artistic form to psychic experience. Or sometimes it is just what they do
with form, something that makes me see differently. I like when I don't get it, and have to keep reading until perhaps I can identify what it is that is drawing me in, put together some ideas about something I might not have thought about, or not thought about in exactly that way.
Reading longform literature is important to me because it is ontological, and it is ontological because it is narrative. As H. Porter Abbott writes, "We do not have any mental record of who we are until narrative is present...our very definition as human beings…is very much bound up with the stories we tell about our own lives and the world we live in.”
Through narrative we come to make sense of ourselves, of others, and of the world we live in, but often we do this unconsciously and automatically. What literature does is to
make this process conscious and creative. It suggests that we can think differently, that we can explore, at least in our imaginations, the many nuances, the potentiality of life. As Milan Kundera says, "A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything that he’s capable of. Novelists draw up the map of existence by discovering this or that human possibility.”
What I also love about longform literature, when it is good, is language. Language is everywhere - verbal language, visual language, musical language. It is not specific to literature. And there are different types of literary language. What is interesting about the language of the novel, or any longform literature, is its prosaic character. Novelist Jane Smiley writes, “Prose slips by, common as water…Poetry, in its search for concentration and sharp effect, contracts. In prose, one thought leads to another - it expands. [It] is naturally narrative.” She says of the relationship between the protagonists of novels and the language of the novel, "When the protagonist enters, a novel becomes specific and even peculiar…The prose, like the narrative, must be appropriate to the protagonist. It must express something about him that it could not express about any other protagonist.”
Longform narratives tell stories in the voice of narrators with particular qualities, of idiosyncratic characters who each think and speak in their own way. We tend to identify with narrators and/or the protagonists of stories who have the characteristics of ordinary people, characteristics that make us feel all that we have in common with them. But literature, when it is good, also shows us the kinds of complex and multifaceted philosophical questions that characters we can identify with us face. As Smiley says, “A protagonist is usually interesting not because he is someone special, but because something happens to him. Because the novel has to be long and organized, he has to become interesting as he deals with the thing that happens to him. This typical transformation from an ordinary person to someone worth remembering comes to seem both routine and appealing, encouraging readers to see themselves as potentially interesting and their lives as potential material for novels. Thus are the moral lives of readers encouraged to develop complexity…Every important character in a novel is portrayed as having moral complexity.” What Kundera says is similar, “Every novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader, 'Things are not as simple as you think.’”
All this is valuable to me. Longform literature makes me think because it is ontological, because it speaks in a voice that is not mine, because it uses language in a way I don't, because it makes me curious about terrain that I have not explored all that much, I don't read fast. Sometimes, I read a sentence and then stare into space for a while. A good book takes time to read, time to think, time to digest. I like that. Sometimes I read a book, think a bit, and then start to read it again from the beginning.