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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Novel as Social Commentary

I think it was Gore Vidal who proclaimed the novel dead. He said it was dead as a form of relevant social commentary and that responsibility had been passed on to film. He and others felt that the form wasn't relevant enough, that it could not take on the fast changing stream of the world today. Muted in its form and stuck in it's history, how could  a  novel take on what changes in a nanosecond today? Only the Internet can give us our up to the minute interpretation of the world as we want it. Right?

This was Tom Wolfe's complaint. That nobody writes about today, the big novel of social relevancy. Well maybe. Film is a more flexible medium. It would seem novelist need more time to put the world in order and then spit it back. Franzen's Freedom is a record of America that has already passed is one example.The world he gives back to us is a few years back. I am still working through the book so I can not speak to how much of our world he captures, but safe to say he will not be commenting on the Chilean miners being brought to the surface or Christine O'Donnell.

But of course this brings up the role of the novel. It is not the Internet, it is not film. For the novel to succeed it has to have staying power and say something timeless about an era, a moment, a movement in history. The Great Gatsby is great not because of it's moment of twenties bacchanalia ,but because Fitzgerald pegged something about the dark side of the American dream. Maybe he just pegged something about America. And that story stands in history as a moment that is not tied to any moment.

So I think the great social novel is alive and well. It may not reflect back to us what we want at that moment, but for someone else, it might just give them a glimpse of the hell and the heaven we went through in a frozen moment of time. In that way it might be our last chance to see who we really are.

William Hazelgrove's latest novel Rocket Man is due out in the fall.

Books by William Hazelgrove