I was thinking the other day about how many truly great novels are being turned out today as opposed to, say, a hundred years ago or longer. Many people believe that writers back then cranked out the best literature around, and most modern writers can't compete.
Me? I'd say, that, throughout history, most published novels have been garbage, no matter when they were written. And, most novelists don't merit the designation. Back in the Golden Age of long-form fiction writing, probably 95 percent of all novels were junk—words on paper that some publisher hoped would catch fire and sell. Most of those publishers were wrong, and most are long since gone.
Today, I imagine an equivalent percentage of novels being cranked out are pure crap. Either the novels' storylines are weak, their plots are convoluted, their logic is skewed, their dialogue is unrealistic, their narrative is weak and wandering, their conflict and resolution are inadequate, their characterizations are shallow, and their grammar and punctuation are suspect (See? I can put things mildly, too!). And, for the really bad novels, check the box marked "All of the above."
In truth, I can count the number of great or even good novels I've read throughout my life on my fingers and toes. To be a great novelist, an author has to know his craft and how to practice it inside-out. He should have experience as a nonfiction writer, a reporter, a teacher, a critic, and a dramatist to be most effective before setting out to become a world-class novelist. Unfortunately, most novelists today as in yesteryear want to write novels. Period. Regardless of the fact that they're unprepared to do so effectively. Period.
So, they do so ineffectively.
The results are predictable because it takes more than raw courage and sheer determination to write an outstanding novel. It takes much more to crank out a truly remarkable, memorable, moving work of art that will last throughout the ages. Today's long-form fiction is so bad that I rarely waste my time even trying to read something new. Most of the classics, both the old and the more contemporary, I originally read years ago. And I'll say this: I'd rather go back and re-read Moby Dick or The Catcher in the Rye than tackle any of this year's NYT bestsellers.
Of course, that's only my take on the matter. Others may differ. And, I confess to being a little (spelled L-O-T) more of a perfectionist than the vast majority of writers and readers out in literary land. I put in my time learning the craft of writing effectively, and I've earned kudos from those I've taught over the years. As I reflect upon my career, spanning more than five decades, it would be safe to say that I know everything there is to know about writing. It would be safe, but not correct. The fact is that I'm still learning and won't ever stop because education is what separates the wheat from the chaff. The apes from the orangutans. The bluejays from the doves. And there are plenty of the latter out fluttering around Literature Land today.
All this makes me wonder: Why is it that medical students have to invest eight years in higher education plus an additional three to seven years of residency to be qualified to diagnose and treat various diseases and ailments? Meanwhile, writers have only to roll out of bed one morning and slip behind a word processor. In many ways, writing a compelling novel is far more complex than writing a prescription. Both involve intense scrutiny, observation, and diagnoses. Yet, while medical students know they have a long, tough road ahead of them, most writers think creating the Great American Novel is as simple as sitting down behind a keyboard and pecking away.
I know the American Dream is believing that the untrained, imperfect, overly ambitious writer who wakes up one morning with a brilliant concept for a story will crank it out into a wildly successful novel. But, how often do dreams come true in the real world, and how often do they morph into reality?
Maybe one day things will be different. Maybe one day in the not-too-distant future writers will be expected to prepare themselves through education and experience for what many literary analysts believe is the most difficult task on earth—namely, turning out a first-class novel.
Maybe one day they will, but I doubt it.
Smoke if you've got 'em.