Why Novels Matter – Barry McCrea, Professor of English

Why do we read novels and why do we
write novels? We live inside our heads which is a place of dreams and fantasies
and wishes and desires, but we live out our lives in this shared real world.
Novels offer us not just a map of the human mind but a way to understand how
the individual human mind interacts with the real world outside. When I was
writing my first novel I was sure it was all about the main characters, especially
about the main protagonist, but as I was finishing it more and more minor
characters kept arriving into the novel almost without my wanting it! It made me
think that we should look at minor characters as a way to understand what
might be going on in the novel that isn’t immediately apparent on the
surface. This is one of the things that I always try and emphasize in my classes
to look at the peripheral action of a novel. That’s really where you’ll find
interesting, urgent questions being played out. My first scholarly book was
about the relationship between ideas of family and narrative structure in the
modernist novel. The idea of family that allows us to feel connected to the
past in a meaningful way. Narrative stories do the same thing. For that
reason narrative and family have always gone closely together; the marriage
plot, the orphan plot, the paternity plot.
One of the things that happened, I think, in the modernist period with writers
like Joyce and Proust is that they started imagining other ways in which
one could be meaningfully related to other people that weren’t biological.
It was a very exciting moment, not just for the novel, but an exciting moment in how
we think about what makes lives meaningful. There is a problem that not just a novel, but all kinds of narratives are facing,
because what narratives depend on for a lot of their effect is distance and
delay. So you need a delay in news coming to you or you need to not be able to
communicate with somebody else. Nowadays our mobile technologies mean that many of the options for plots have been closed off for novelists. What stories
can we have in this world where were all permanently connected to each other all
the time? How do you have adventures and how do you have stories in a world where
you can’t get lost? Odysseus, you know, would now have GPS so he’s not going to get lost and end up stranded on Calypso’s Island. How can
the world be an adventurous place as it needs to be in a novel? I believe that
our instinct for narrative and for fiction is so strong that it will find a
way. I think we’re going to need novels very much formally interesting novels in
the future to really give us again a sense of our world as being an
adventurous place. It’s hard to have that feeling in a world that is so connected,
but I think novels will help us find it.

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