A Unified Theory of Novels

So, I’d like to do something a little different this week, and instead of talking about one book which I finished in the past seven days, I’d like to talk about novels in general.

I said something a little while ago: “It doesn’t, for example, make any sense to complain that there weren’t enough battles between zombies and werewolves in ‘The Notebook’ – ‘The Notebook’ isn’t that kind of story.” But when I thought more about it, I felt that I had, as usual, been glib. And not merely because I have never read ‘The Notebook’, but because while I believe that this is a true and self-evident statement, why is it true?

It’s true because there are different kinds of novels.

I don’t mean Good versus Bad novels – I mean that there are different categories of novels. Partly, yes, this is what we’re talking about when we talk about genre: romance versus horror, but even within that great non-genre, Literature, there are different categories of literary novel. And I know that this is obvious to everyone, but it bears a little reiteration, because it has implications which we rarely examine with any care.

Let me put it this way:

Which is the better novel: ‘Ulysses‘ or ‘Jurassic Park‘?

There are a lot of ways to answer this question.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because it is a technical accomplishment of such complexity and beauty that it transformed the very idea of the novel.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because that’s the book that people are more impressed when I say I’ve read it.

You might say: ‘Jurassic Park’, because more people like it.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because more informed people like it.

You might say: ‘Jurassic Park’, because, unlike ‘Ulysses’, it’s actually fun to read.

None of these answers is quite satisfying, is it? Yes, ‘Jurassic Park’ is more entertaining, but ‘Ulysses’ was more complex. How can you adjudicate ‘better’ in a case like this?

The problem, of course, is that the question is nonsensical. Neither novel is strictly ‘better’, because they are different kinds of novels, and so have different novelistic goals.

Over the years, I’ve come to think about three broad categories of novels (in my head, I call them Tiers). Within each Tier, a novel can be either successful or not successful, which means that there is such a thing as a Very Good Tier 1 novel, which is, for my money, ‘better’ than a Very Bad Tier 3 novel, in so far as goodness can be read into execution of intention.

These are my Tiers:

Tier 1 Novels: Plot

Tier 1 novels are novels where the primary purpose of the novel is plot. ‘Plot’, in this case, is distinct from ‘story’ – most, if not all novels, have a story of some sort, but not all novels are plot-driven.

Plot-driven novels are characterized by action. Action moves the novel forward, and action is the necessary resolution of the plot. ‘Action’ does not necessarily, of course, mean a sword fight – action can also be the discovery of a murderer, or the culmination of a magical quest, or an exorcism.

Because, of course, most of what are traditionally called ‘genre novels’ are contained in this tier: fantasy, murder mysteries, techno-thrillers.

My favorite Tier 1 novelist is Michael Crichton (as is probably clear from my obsession with ‘Jurassic Park’). I’ve read everything he’s written, even that pirate one. I could wrote a whole essay on my deep love of a Crichton premise. Stephen King is another beloved Tier 1 novelist for me; so was George R. R. Martin, before he ghosted us all.

Tier 2 Novels: People

Tier 2 novels are novels in which the story isn’t, necessarily, plot-driven: these novels might be novels of character development, emotional crisis, personal tragedy or triumph.

Tier 2 novels are not characterized by subject matter – they are characterized by their limitation. Tier 2 novels are only about what they are about. They do not, by design or failure, transcend their own story. If they are a story of a young man’s descent into madness, then they are only about that particular young man and his particular madness – they are not a metaphor for anything larger.

This is not necessarily a comment on the value of these novels; on the contrary, Tier 2 includes some of the most absorbing novels I have ever read. They are often powerful, moving stories, stories you may perhaps relate strongly to, but they are stories from which you do not learn anything about the greater problems of humanity.

Jonathan Franzen is the exemplar Tier 2 novelist: his novels are beautifully imagined, richly, even elaborately, detailed, intricate and specific. But his protagonists, his beautifully-imagined protagonists, are what his stories are about. They aren’t about you or me, us, the great mass of humanity – they are about the people that appear in their pages, and no one else.

Sometimes, a Tier 2 novels transcends category: it is a story only about the specific people and specific incidents described, but it is so beautiful and perfect, so finely and humanely drawn, that it feels as though it touches on something universal, and so becomes about the common human experience without ever becoming a metaphor. Elena Ferrante’s novels are, in my opinion, the best of example of this kind of category-straddle: indisputably, to me, Tier 2 novels, the depiction of the two women at the heart of those books is so deft and true that it becomes about us all, in the ways that we are all alike.

Tier 3 Novels: Metaphor

Tier 3 novels are novels which transcend the specifics of their story. They are novels which use their specific stories to tell a bigger story, a more universal story. Their characters are metaphors, archetypes, allegories, from which we might learn something about ourselves. They can be bad or good, successful or unsuccessful, but their characters or stories mean something more than the specific circumstances that afflict them.

Tier 3 novels are the novels we are all used to thinking of as “great” novels. Most of the canonically “great” novels are Tier 3 novels, but this is, I think, a limitation of the canon.

Of course, many of my own most-loved novels are Tier 3 novels: ‘East of Eden‘, ‘Infinite Jest‘, anything by Graham Greene, ‘The Age of Innocence‘, ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘, by George Saunders – all Tier 3. Most of the really excellent or seminal science fiction, Tier 3: Wells, Orwell, Huxley, Asimov, Dick, Herbert, Gibson, Le Guin, you name it: all Tier 3.

And, of course, some of the most bloated, irritating ‘classics’, the books with which we are all flogged in high school, are also Tier 3: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, ‘The Sound and the Fury’, ‘The Golden Bowl’, ‘Sons and Lovers’, ‘The Alexandria Quartet’ by Lawrence Durrell – all Tier 3, lord help us.

But some great classics, books beloved and admired, are Tier 2’s: most of Jane Austen’s novels, ‘Brideshead Revisited‘ by Evelyn Waugh, anything by E. M. Forster.

I don’t argue for the perfection of this system. Some of my favorite novels defy categorization according to my system:

I Love Dick‘, by Chris Kraus, ‘World War Z‘ by Max Brooks (no, I’m not kidding), ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler‘, by Italo Calvino – what are they?. Or how about something like ‘Bleak House‘, by Dickens? You feel as though it ought to be Tier 3, it is Dickens after all, but is it? Only in the most insipid sense: a fable about how goodness will be rewarded and wickedness punished, but on that level the book is garbage anyway – ‘Bleak House’ lives in its specific characters and prose, so maybe it would be happier in Tier 2.

Or how about ‘The Screwtape Letters‘: it’s clearly a Tier 3, but it isn’t a metaphor, it’s a fantasy, and so in some ways feels more like a Tier 1 novel than anything else. It’s a fable, an exposition, it’s barely a novel, more a series of lectures in a funny framing.

But, for better or worse, this is how I think about novels, and my tiers have given me a way to love and exalt ‘Jurassic Park‘ as much as I love and exalt ‘Infinite Jest‘, a way to express what I feel: that these are books of equal quality, in which I might take equal joy, because they are trying to do different things. There are a lot of ways to be good, and ‘literature’ is just too broad a category.

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