Big Books vs Small Minds: The Intellectual & Literal Heft of 'Night Film' & 'A Naked Singularity'
Marisha Pessl and Sergio de la Pava have both found success with novels that are defiant in their length and ambition. Yet critical and editorial prejudice against their 'Bigness' -- in scope and heft -- won't budge.
A Naked SingularityPublisher: University of Chicago Press
Author: Sergio de la Pava
Publication date: 2012-04
Night FilmPublisher: Random House
Author: Marisha Pessl
Publication date: 2013-08
"I know it's hard to fathom today, but a true artist needs darkness in order to create. It gives him his power. His invisibility. The less the world knows about him, his whereabouts, his origins and secret methods, the more strength he has."
-- Night Film by Marisha Pessl
When William Gaddis's 956-page debut novel The Recognitions was published in 1955, the response was unedifying, to say the least. Of the 55 initial notices the book received, wrote the novelist William H. Gass in his introduction to the 1993 edition, "only fifty-three of these notices were stupid."
Jack Green, so affected by the novel he quit his job as an actuary to become a freelance proofreader, found the critical reception even more infuriating. In 1962, his rage was given voice in the form of a self-published, 79 page screed which has, in the intervening decades, achieved notoriety in critical circles as a cautionary tale, proof, if it be needed, that those who sit in judgment may one day be called to account.
In an epic, strangely-punctuated rant of denunciation, Green lists with disgust what he perceived as the errors and failings of those who had reviewed the book which changed his life. He reserved special contempt for those who dwelt negatively upon the book's length, or even boasted of not finishing it at all. "Constructive suggestion:" wrote Green, "Fire the bastards!"
Not wishing to anger Green's wrathful ghost, I should admit that I have not read The Recognitions -- we have not yet had a winter long enough -- and therefore cannot offer any judgment of my own on it, its critics or its critics' critics. Nevertheless, I have been reminded of their arguments in recent weeks by two novels, Marisha Pessl's Night Film and Sergio de la Pava's A Naked Singularity, the lazy treatment of which eminently deserves a dose of Green's righteous bile.
At what point do we decide a novel is too long? For most of us, the answer is the exact moment at which we decide the time and effort put into the reading are no longer worth the reward. Unfortunately, such conclusions are usually only reached with certainty on the final page. Otherwise, questions of length in literature have no definitive answer. It is what we can learn from how we approach such questions that may have more value.
A similar imponderable is establishing what exactly the relationship is between a book's length and the ever-nebulous concept of 'difficulty'. It was no accident that Jonathan Franzen, in his infamous 2002 essay 'Mr. Difficult', concerning "the problem of hard-to-read books", chose the meganovels of Gaddis as a prime example of the self-regarding complexity which Franzen felt modern fiction must escape. Of course, the argument could be made that ploughing through a Stephenie Meyer paperback is far more arduous than completing Ulysses, but that is neither here nor there. The perception remains widely entrenched, however erroneous: length equals difficulty, and difficulty requires more justification than simplicity. Yet there are virtues in both.
By no means are Night Film or A Naked Singularity actually bad books. Quite the opposite in fact, as many of the reviews make clear. Yet the fact that their sheer heft, in either case, makes them weighty enough to inflict blunt force trauma upon the skulls of one's enemies has prejudiced the critical reaction they received in a way that has gone largely unexamined.
It's more than just the length of these two novels that makes them worth talking about, rather than say, George RR Martin's stream of increasingly swollen paperbacks. In the house where I grew up, Night Film and A Naked Singularity would be described as 'big damn books'. This is to say they are big in every important way a book can be big: size, scope, artistic ambition and authorial hubris. While vast gulfs separate them in style and subject matter, both novels (Pessl's second, de la Pava's debut) easily live up to every one of these qualifications. For doing so, they have received both praise and punishment in almost equal measure, and it's worth asking exactly why.
“And don’t you find, the longer you live, the people in power and control actually don’t know what they’re talking about?”
-- Marisha Pessl, interview at Vulture.com, August 2013
Night Film, published with great fanfare this August, is one of those novels that deliciously frustrates any attempt at categorization. It could, very loosely, be described as horror, both psychological and occult, or as a noirish investigative thriller, but only with a laundry-list of qualifications, each unlocking a fascinating and complimentary new layer within the narrative. It is also, quite incidentally, the philosopher's stone of the publishing industry: a novel of literary merit that simultaneously serves and subverts the genre conventions it employs.
The presence haunting Night Film is that of filmmaker Stanislav Cordova, a reclusive cinematic auteur so pure he could not possibly exist in reality (though there are echoes of Kubrick, Polanski and perhaps an evil mirror-universe version of Alejandro Jodorowsky). In Night Film's alternate world, Cordova movies have transcended pop culture and become a truly underground phenomenon, existing only on the periphery of civilization, capable of driving fans to obsession, transfiguration and insanity.
Either a fearless genius, an inhuman sadist or both, Cordova's reputation has become a malevolent mythology in itself, drawing untold victims into its web. Throughout the novel, the truth behind Cordova is sought, at great cost. But Cordova's truth lies where reality and fiction meet, in a synthesis that Pessl exploits with all her creative powers.
When a novel is described as 'cinematic', this generally means that the story might easily and successfully be transplanted to the big screen. Though this is also true of Night Film (to the surprise of no one whatsoever, the film rights have already been bought), the novel is cinematic in the same way that Napoleon Symphony, the novel Anthony Burgess patterned after Beethoven's Eroica, is musical: it succeeds in transmuting the special qualities of one artistic medium into another. This is just one of the novelistic near-impossibilities that Pessl casually and wonderfully achieves.
Night Film is a book about the power of film, the motivations of journalism, the attraction of enigma, the interplay between life and art, and the dangers inherent to all of the above. Bearing this in mind, the fact that it is a big damn book should not be surprising to anyone. Ah, mai non!
Critically, Night Film has suffered from Flawed Masterpiece Syndrome, which is to say, many reviews seem so concerned with dissecting its arguable flaws, the fact that it is an uncommonly good piece of fiction -- far better, one might wager, than most of the titles released this decade -- is only mentioned as a kind of afterthought.
This is not a mere case of underplayed or unappreciated virtues. Many professional commentators did not hide the fact that Night Film seriously irked them. Some seem to have a strange, bitter obsession with Pessl's use of italics, which I shall not pretend to understand. Others take issue with her style of writing. The review at Slate, God help us all, even refers to "basic standards of best practice in literary prose," without elaboration. What exactly these standards are remains murky. What's important is that Pessl has somehow transgressed them.
More than one critic have decided that Night Film is a hundred or so pages too long, and took the time to say as much. Naturally, if anyone asks which specific pages they would cut, such critics unaccountably fall silent. This is probably for the best. Critics are not editors. And, for that matter, editors are not writers.
To make an unworthy suggestion, such comments perhaps tell us less about aesthetic arguments than they do about the life of a book critic. When a deadline looms, the sight of some doorstopper with an intimidating page count does not always fill the heart with joy. Sometimes, unjustly, these feelings can leak into the review.
This is all a long way of saying that the length and ambition which so intimidated the novel's critics appears not to have bothered the folks at Random House, though the fact that Pessl already had an acclaimed first novel under her belt (Special Topics in Calamity Physics) may have helped ease her way in this regard. Sadly, such editorial support -- which may amount to nothing more (or less) than non-interference -- is rarely available to emerging writers. It was certainly denied to Sergio de la Pava.
How did the publishing industry fail this book? Someone should be paying Sergio De La Pava for the right to publish him; that work of this caliber is being published by a vanity press is depressing. The publishing industry prides itself on being a filter saving us from the mounds of garbage that are annually written; but honestly, this book could advantageously be pitted against almost any novel published in the past ten years by the big houses, especially the endless raft of New York novels. This is a book that deserves to be read more widely; in a better world, people would be reading this rather than Freedom."
The Quarterly Conversation review of A Naked Singularity opened with an editor's note: "It is unusual, at the least, to review a self-published book that is nearly three years old. This book, we believe, merits continued attention. There is a growing body of evidence that it is a remarkable work of fiction that has been unjustly ignored."
The recent winner of the Pen Literary Award's Bingham Prize, A Naked Singularity was not exactly widely reviewed upon its initial release. It took a years-long build-up that is only now reaching its highest point, which has less to do with being a 'slow burner' or requiring 'word of mouth', or any of the other clichés routinely employed, and more to do with the fact that, until recently, most critics wouldn't touch it if they were wearing radiation suits.
As the world of bookchat has belatedly come to realize, A Naked Singularity is a truly remarkable work of art. If it qualifies as a 'legal thriller', then so does Crime and Punishment. The practice and philosophy of law does loom large in the narrative, via its prodigy of a protagonist, 24-year-old public defender Casi, whose perfect streak of courtroom victories soon comes to an abrupt and absurdist end. Yet it is also the story of an epic crime caper, a thousand slices of New York life, and a series of intertwining meditations on boxing, physics, justice and history so entrancing that the reader somehow forgets to become exhausted. It is obsessively digressive, exuberantly prolix and utterly sincere. It sprawls, in the best sense of the term, stretching in all directions, embracing all possibilities. Some elements are more successful than others; none could be stricken without sacrificing the sense of the whole.
De la Pava has stated the "excessive" level of detail was intended to subvert the simplistic, romanticized perception of the criminal justice system as it appears in most popular entertainment, but as a literary style, it also subverts the rarely challenged norms of brevity and sparseness having inherent virtue. Some critics have balked at the novel's dramatic shifts in tone, but it's hard to imagine getting through the mammoth narrative without some variance in the overall mood. Such techniques, along with the nonstop whirlwind of escalating events, keep A Naked Singularity from growing stale or familiar, even after 688 pages.
The story behind the novel is almost as compelling as the book itself, and a great deal more infuriating. The situation in which A Naked Singularity found itself was almost the complete inversion of what befell Night Film. Where Pessl's novel was championed by its publisher, de la Pava's was rejected by every agent he sent it to; Pessl's extravagant plotting was treated with suspicion by literary critics, whereas de la Pava's expansive prose style was (eventually) celebrated.
De la Pava, a Manhattan public defender himself, first self-published A Naked Singularity in 2008, via the on-demand publishing service XLibris. This followed almost 90 rejections from prospective agents, most of whom mentioned the book's prohibitive length as the deciding factor. As many writers will be uncomfortably aware, it is all but impossible to get a book considered by a publisher without an agent, but not one would consider representing a novel of such size and scope from an unknown like de la Pava. New writers, apparently, do not have the right to dream big.
And so, though wary of how such ventures are usually perceived, de la Pava decided to self-publish. Since the book's belated success, de la Pava has been keen to point out that the text of the novel remained unaltered. The explosive literary sensation now under consideration is, word for word, the same book that so many industry professionals felt was utterly unpublishable. The irony is hard to ignore.
Following its chance discover by Scott Bryan Wilson at The Quarterly Review, the critical community steadily came to realize what de la Pava had achieved. The novel was picked by the University of Chicago Press (possibly its best decision this century) and the reviews gained in prominence and enthusiasm. Nevertheless, a few could not quite bring themselves to accept the truth behind de la Pava's underdog success. As impressive as the book was, they grumbled sullenly, it would have been better with an editor.
Personally, I never tire of those critics whose powers of prognostication are so extraordinary, they can push back the veil of reality and tell us what might have happened, if only X, Y or Z had occurred. A Naked Singularity would have been better with an editor? To these critics who have suddenly become oracles, I can only respond: how the fuck do you know?
Sure, we can build a hypothetical picture of a perfect editor -- insightful, kind, humble, productive, genuinely at one with the creative vision of the author but with enough distance to prevent mistakes before they happen -- but we have no way of knowing whether such a person exists, or if de la Pava would have enjoyed the sensational luck of being paired with one. Such variables do not bother the naysayers. Better that things remain unreliable, but familiar.
"The truth elitists in the literary world are the ones who have become annoyed by literary ambition in any form."
-- Ben Marcus
There's something unsatisfying about the conventional wisdom which defines anyone who bucks that wisdom and achieves unexpected success as an 'exception to the rule'. Of course, once it becomes great enough, talent is always exceptional, but such thinking seems more like an attempt to keep a broken system dominant and unchallenged, no matter how many times it has been proven wrong.
The publishing industry has always been an exercise in throwing shit against a wall and seeing what sticks. Once an especially adhesive sample has been located, the job then becomes finding shit of similar quality, if you will. True, as its defenders are prone to point out, the industry can be something of a straw man. Its successes are credited to the writers who achieve fame under their imprint, while its failures and mediocrities ultimately reflect on the company that signed them in the first place. There are, absolutely, many talented, curious and intelligent people working within the publishing industry, tireless in their efforts to enliven and expand the state of modern literature. So why, in all the world, could A Naked Singularity not find an agent or a publisher?
When de la Pava self-published A Naked Singularity, it was less a matter of principle than a lack of options. Nevertheless, the effect was the same: an entire industry has been chastised by one man, and is unlikely to forget it. I pity anyone foolish enough to try and edit de la Pava now. And yet, from all the depressing absurdity, a principle does emerge, best articulated by Allison Moon, another author who found uncommon success in self-publishing, and as a result, answers to no one:
Being told to traditionally publish (as I have been told many, many times) is akin to being told to marry a nice, rich man. A nice rich man will take care of you. A nice rich man is smart and sexy and doesn’t ask for anything in return other than your docility. but a nice rich man also holds all the power. You are only ever as happy as he is happy with you. So you stop focusing on your own happiness and you begin to focus on how happy he is with you. And if you do this, you’ve stopped acting on behalf of your art."
-- Allison Moon, 'Self-Publishing Manifesto'.
There is good, undiscovered literature out there, and it is not a hare-brained conspiracy theory to suggest that there are forces standing in its way. Those forces may believe they have good reason for doing so. For a lot of people, money is the best of reasons. But when a crime is committed against culture, we should have no interest in the perpetrators' self-justifications. Green called them "enemies of art". That is, of course, a deliberately provocative statement of opinion. And like the best of such statements, it is impossible to entirely prove wrong.
In his aforementioned essay 'Mr. Difficult', Franzen, our current scourge of social media, made the weirdly arbitrary distinction between what he called 'Status' and 'Contract' writers, or those who felt their status as artists precluded them from any compromise with their audience, and those who served an imagined contract with readers to make their writing as uncomplicated as possible. The essay, punchy in tone to begin with, continues to attract literary pugilists eager for a fight (anyone who's interested should read Ben Marcus's masterly evisceration, 'Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life As We Know It'), but may be thanked even by its detractors for proving what they have long suspected: a prejudice exists against those who would shun populism, plain-speaking prose, and books of bite-size length.
In response to such a prejudice, writers trying to survive inadvertently find themselves subject to Kafkaesque rules and Mad Hatter logic: Never make something longer than it has to be. How long does it have to be? As long as your editor decides.
So what conclusion does this point towards? That what is unacceptable to publishers may be not only acceptable but gladly welcomed by the public at large? This is not quite so revolutionary as it sounds. Critics who enjoy their ivory towers have always embraced the fact that their tastes are of a different and higher breed than those of the masses (it's only when everyone else fails to recognize this that such critics start getting tetchy). What then, instead? That readers may have greater patience, curiosity and intelligence than publishers (or critics) give them credit for? Again, this is not earth-shaking news.
The final truth may be nothing more than that rare thing, a useful tautology: How good is a book? As good as it is. Its size, its complexity, its entire character, are all a reflection of the author's intention (that sound you hear is the screaming of post-structuralists). We are under no obligation to like the book, but we must trust that intention. In turn, they must trust - and hope - that their readers are willing to work for the rewards that others would deny them.
And, y'know... Fire the bastards.