I’ve read way more novels than most people. And if there’s one thing that you’d think a novel would be good it, it’d be teaching you about the emotional life of a person. But it’s actually very bad at that. Other than from my own experience, I know almost nothing about what day-to-day emotions are supposed to feel like. How often do people wake up just feeling happy? When someone compliments your work, how long is the glow supposed to last? What does lasting contentment feel like? What is its relationship to euphoria? None of these very important questions get answered by novels. Not even plotless novels, because plotless novels are frequently about people having breakdowns. I mean, I love The Bell Jar, but it’s really a very specific sort of thing.
I think the problem is that novels usually have all this dramatic conflict. Which is awesome, and it keeps you reading, but it really skews the emotional focus. I know a ton about how someone feels after someone dies, or suffers a tragedy, or an overwhelming failure, or comes close to dying…but that stuff only happens maybe twice in a decade. What do people feel on all the other days?
Novels are better than every other art form (except maybe poetry [hah!]) at incorporating the meat of human existence: the routines, the little details, the relationships, the prosaic. But they’re still terrible at it!
I think this is one reason why people like J.D. Salinger so much. Even though they’re often comic and exaggerated, stories and novels always feel like they’re about a person’s day to day life, same with A House For Mr. Biswas. But very, very few novels–even great literary masterpieces–have the same concern for the subtle shadings of the human experience that are pretty much the entirety of our life on earth. Even mimetic fictions tend to be about love, oppression, or career striving. And all those things are great, but there’s more to life than that. There’s the experience of what it’s like to be within yourself. And you’d think that if anyone would be good at writing about that, it’d be novelists. But that isn’t the way it’s worked out.