Monday, May 27, 2013

Volume and depth

Over the weekend in New Haven I was talking to my old roommate Gus about the most recent crisis of the humanities and the need for artists to get paid and whatnot, and I found myself thinking about the serialization of the novel in the 19th century. Which is to say, the way that novels were published in journals in monthly installments, with the authors getting paid by the word. This is how we come to have such voluminous and numerous novels from the likes of Dostoevsky, Balzac, Dickens, Trollope, Eliot, and others. These folx were getting paid by the page, so they had strong incentives to crank them out. And with some of these writers (for me, Trollope and Dickens wrote novels that were often too long, and Balzac just cranked out a shitload of them.

Often, particularly with Dostoevsky, who is clearly the most significant writer amongst them, we are tempted to see some sort of tension between the volume and the quality, as if it's some miracle that he was able to delve the depths of the human soul as well as he did while grinding out the pages to book some ducats. But what if the opposite is true, and the need to churn it out in fact drove the process of discovery forward. Think about it, if he coulda just wound it up at 210 pages and still charged $18.95 for the hardcover, would he have needed to create Ivan and Dima and Alyosha and Smerdyakov and Zosima and so on and so forth. What need would he have of the Grand Inquisitor if he could have been over at the Algonquin tinkling ice cubes and trading barbs with Dorothy Parker or, perish the thought, if he had needed to chat up Terry Gross and tour an endless succession of Barnes and Nobles, scribbling in copies while making significant eye contact with adoring readers and subsisting on a steady diet of iced caramel lattes? What then? I for one am glad the guy had a quota, and a bunch of gambling debts he needed to service, bookies to evade.

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