Saturday, September 12, 2009

What Becomes A Novel Most?

Writing is a subjective business. While one person might love a book, another might find they can’t get beyond Chapter One. In a review in The Washington Post of A Gate at the Stairs—a much-anticipated novel by Lorrie Moore, a coveted and acclaimed short story writer—Ron Charles hailed the book, but referred to it as "an unhurried tale." Further on in the review, Charles states, "I should warn you that Moore is a lot more interested in her narrator than her plot. There is a fair amount of precocious riffing in this novel, a syncopation of sweet and mordant beats. Things do happen--even startling, gripping things--but any reader who needs that to stay engaged will have drifted away 200 pages earlier during one of Tassie's (the protagonist’s) soliloquies. Much of her fascination with words and wordplay is amusing, but some of it seems too clever by half, along with her super-duper writing-seminar descriptions of the weather that are polished to distracting brilliance."

I admire
Ron Charles's reviews. He is a conscientious, sensitive reader. He obviously spends quality time with books and takes great pains to fully absorb them in order to write such thoughtful reviews. But in a world (and an industry) where sensationalism often prevails, Charles's assessment of A Gate at the Stairs accommodates contemporary reader expectations. I'm well aware that publishing has become less about writing and more about book sales. But it seems that novels vying for bookstores must strive, first and foremost, for hook and page-turning ability—why else would Ron Charles need to issue that "warning"? Of course, an author of Lorrie Moore's literary stature and caliber of craft can cry herself to the bank. But why should it be that some books—gently-paced, well-written books by lesser-known or even unknown writers—those that serve quiet shifts in plot and subtle character transformations, are often considered of inferior quality and marginalized?