If you have an idea you wish to share, write an essay. Not a book. Too often in recent times I’ve found that books are written because they sell. Essays don’t generate income to any significant degree unless published in collections. Thus, rather then granting a reader a significant viewpoint of a chosen subject with choice arguments in supporting roles, most non-fiction books act as soapboxes. From there the author preaches on the evils of the world they live in, maintaining the illusion of a single topic with periodic repetition of key words or phrases.
I come to this in the reading of Neil Postman’s book “The End of Education,” though it is only an example and surely not so great an offender as some others. Postman, in the discussion of modern education systems, spends chapters debating human and child psychology, the importance of a driving ideology, and other people’s thoughts on this, and other subjects. He, in the process, makes many good points and is correct the vast majority of the time. Yet, at the same time, most of these points could have been eloquently stated in single paragraphs or sentences, not the hypothetical-laden pages and chapters which Postman deems necessary. Then entire first half of the book, all of ‘Part 1’ serves the purpose of an introductory paragraph.
Clearly this problem does not pervade all of non-fiction. A book on the damage done to the Amazon Rainforest in the last century will often stay, for the most part, on task. It is non-fiction speculation, argument, and rhetoric that tend to stray. A problem is easy to state; trees have been cut down; here are times when trees have been cut down. Reasons and solutions are harder. Why were the trees cut down? How do we stop them from being cut down? Why is my solution better than her suggestion? Even the enormously popular “The Last Lecture” does this, though I beg you excuse this given the nature of the book and it’s conception. It was never meant to be a concise argument, and serves its purpose well.
This problem extends to fiction, though in a different way. Today various writers’ circles online, some of which I am a member of, are rife with unfinished novels. Some have even commented on the decline in the number of short stories present. Once it would be that an author became known first by getting a vignette published in a literary magazine catering to their target audience. Each short story would be expected to give just as much satisfaction as would come from a novel. If enough people liked them, and this often took numerous short stories to accomplish, they might be able to get a novel published- after all, people would clearly be willing to buy it.
And that’s the key- the fee a magazine might award for a short story is minimal when compared to the royalties involved in having a book published. The short story, like the essay, is becoming a lost art. And, like essays, short stories have, intrinsically, more value than books as they crystallize the moments we read for. Take Ray Bradbury for an example. I view him as a brilliant man and a fantastic author. Yet I also believe that his short stories by far outshine his novels. “The Veldt” has more power than “Something Wicked This Way Comes” because “The Veldt” is all about this single moment in time, the crowning evidence of the children’s adoption by technology. The novel is a good book, but nowhere near so good a story as “The Veldt.” There are individual portions that show characters twisted by the evil of the carnival, yet there is also much connective material, which drags the story down, relatively speaking.
The best novels, in my mind, are nothing more than sequences of short stories. Each story, or chapter, is complete in its own right. At the same time each story adds to the value of the others by lending credence to the characters actions and increasing the readers’ empathy. While Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” would be an acceptable example of this, I can think of a clearer, though lesser-known one. “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss has become an extraordinary cult-success among fantasy readers.
“The Name of the Wind” is a piece of metafiction, that is to say ‘a story within a story,’ similar to “The Canterbury Tales.” Yet unlike “Canterbury Tales,” Rothfuss’s story is focused on a single character’s epic life. Rothfuss divides the biography into segments, interspersed with views of the ‘present’ where the narrator and main character interacts with his captive audience. While I won’t claim there are no exceptions to the rule, the majority of chapters and snippets alike could stand on their own. Each tells it’s own story. Rothfuss has been criticized on the length of his first novel, but I find it hard to find any extraneous material. Yes, there are whole chapters that could be cut without disrupting the story but that is the beauty of it. Each chapter is as relevant as the next, and few are much hurt by the subtraction of all others.
If only all books were so happily divided.