Novels aren’t like children, even if that’s how the old saw has it.
Let’s just stipulate that writing a novel is a strange endeavor. You spend perhaps years romancing your imagination, creating characters, putting them through awful and wonderful situations, tragedies and silliness. And then the novel is complete and you have to let it go.
If you’re certain kind of writer, in writing your novel you fall in love with your characters, even the bad guys. And so, completing a novel has a strange kind of bittersweet tinge. Even if you’ve shared it with friends, trusted readers, letting it go — getting it out there in the world for the world to do with as it sees fit fundamentally changes it, and your relationship to it.
By letting it go, I mean sending it out into the world to make its mark, or not. Almost by definition, a novel is a private place for writer and for reader. For the most part, reading, like writing, is a solitary endeavor. A good story carves a place in your mind, and there are novels that I so wanted not to end, I have been tempted not to read the ending. I so loved Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son that I still have not read the final story.
The novelist John Gardner referred to novels as “vivid and continuous dreams.” In one sense, a novel is very much the novelist’s dream, an intensely private thing. Reading, too, begins at least as an intensely private thing, a mind-meld, but then if you love a good novel, you want to do nothing but tell other people so they can experience it, too.
Because the novelist it does not write not to be read, this transition must take place. And no matter how much you love your own novel, it’s just unseemly to go around insisting other people have to read the greatest thing you’ve ever read.
Letting go tends to be a bit slow, so it eases the possible difficulty of the transition. You complete the novel (definition below), and send it out to agents and editors. The novel may change, based on suggestions from those fine folks, until you have come up with the finished version, which then goes out into the world to face whatever it faces—love, hate, indifference.
This is not at all like letting a child go.
Let me provide a couple of definitions that perhaps are useful only to me. A novel is “finished” when it’s published. That is different from “complete” – which in my mind means it is now a novel, with a beginning, middle, and end. I tend to be a writer who likes the back-and-forth of editing – you know what you’re trying to do, and you know what you want to accomplish, but without the reflection of other reader’s takes, you can never be absolutely certain that you’re accomplishing what you set out to do. For me, a really good editor is someone who is almost like a therapist for the novel, seeing themes or qualities that may come to seem completely obvious once they’ve been pointed out, but that you, the writer, may have been completely oblivious to. And in noting these things, he or she can make intelligent suggestions that can be of inestimable value to the overall quality of the work. Maybe it’s a bit like building a piece of furniture and then bringing in a professional to put the right kind of finish on it to make it complete and whole and beautiful.
But back to letting go.
That old saying about a novel being like a child is only true to an extent. As a parent, and as a novelist, I can tell you that there is no comparison, really. But there are parallels. Entrusting your child, the most precious thing in the world, to the world – sending him or her off to school – can be a scary thing. You’re never quite sure that you can protect them the way you might want to. But at the same time, they come home, full of new information, full of their own ideas, and it’s a fascinating thing to watch fussy little kid turned into a poised young adult who is both like you and nothing like you at all.
A novel, on the other hand, is precious to the writer in an entirely different way. Like childrearing, and writing a novel there are years of completely un-thanked work, some of it the sheerest of drudgery, some of it so sublime you couldn’t describe it. But unlike a child – that very concrete, crusty nosed, squalling creature who will over time spend your time and money, tell you his or her opinions – the novel is more like a dream, abstract, quiet, and essentially meaningless to anyone but the writer without it having been read.
But its meaningfulness to the writer, who has spent countless un-thanked and unpaid hours imagining it is fully and completely as he or she can, is enormous. Good or bad, in the writer’s mind it is a magical gem, a talisman that glows so brightly you’re almost surprised that others can’t see it.
A certain kind of writer might be tempted to tinker with it forever – who knows, maybe that’s what Salinger was doing all those years – just to keep it glowing. Sending it out into the world is what you wrote it for in the first place, and yet somehow, sending it out into the world makes it no longer yours. It’s safe to say that the novel I read most recently, The Art of Fielding, is not the same thing in my mind as it is in the writer’s. I know what Schwartzy looks like, and I know what Pella looks like, but I’m certain that my images of those characters is vastly different from those of other readers, or Chad Harbach himself. I’m going to venture that he doesn’t much care.
And I don’t much care, really, if you – whoever you are – read the novel I just completed, The Bob Delusion, and see Bob or Robert or any of the other characters exactly as I do. But I do hope, however, is that there will be sensitive readers who will care about them as much as I do. That’s a lot to ask. But I’m letting go and I’m asking.