Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Writer's 'n' Beans
You answer the door. It's your cousin Margaret, presenting you with a hot caserole dish for the Thanksgiving dinner. You smile, or wince, and accept the dish. “Baked beans?” you say, dreading the answer. She silently smiles — or smirks.
The family gathers around the table, the dishes are served, and everyone has to admit: those are damn fine beans. “In fact,” your husband offers, “I don't believe anyone does beans quite like our Margaret.”
“They're different this year,” says your mother. “Margaret, you've done something different with the beans.”
Again the smile/smirk. “Cardamom,” she says. “I try to do something different every year. This was the year for cardamom!” Happy laughter and smiles all around for cousin Margaret's incomparable baked beans.
Your cousin Margaret's beans are my metaphor in response to Dwight Garner's plea for our Important Novelists to step up production. I say, with one caveat, that a novel every ten years ought to be the writerly ideal, especially if the writer is really good at what she does. The list of Important Novelists whose yearly dish of baked beans wore out my welcome — incomparable though that dish may be — is a very long one, and recedes to a vanishing point as time goes on.
Garner trots out Dickens and Trollope as examples of what volubility can accomplish, but what about Thomas Hardy? Much has been made of the negative review that truncated Hardy's career as a novelist, but what if the poisonous toad who wrote it actually did Hardy a favour, making Hardy's the name that rings through the ages? If Hardy had managed a Dickensian output, would we still talk about him? Who wants to read 30 novels detailing the carnage that occurs when our flightiest romantic yearnings meet the hard whetstone of reality? No, three or four books of that nature will do just fine, thank you. And, let's face it, soul-crushing disappointment is what most Important Writers are all about. If you want to deluge the market with product, best to be cheerful and unassuming (like Trollope) or a sly crowd-pleaser (like Dickens).
Caveat: there are some Important Writers who apparently need to get three or four questionable books out of their system before they knock off something truly delicious and nutritious. T.C. Boyle comes to mind. Actually, so does Hardy. Really nobody should be actively discouraged from writing — or publishing. But even if you're an Oates or an Updike or an Atwood who can be relied upon for a delicious bowl of beans every Thanksgiving, don't take it too personally if the overwhelmed guests at the table forgo the pleasure of eating them.