Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Catch-22: Great Lit, Lousy Novel?

I've been re-reading Catch-22 for the past few weeks, and it got me to thinking about all those "rules" that aspiring novelists should follow. If you read agent blogs, writer blogs, etc., you know what I'm talking about: show don't tell, make the first five pages count, no prologues, ad inf, as if novel writing can be reduced to a formula.

I'm thinking about all of this because Catch-22, a mega-bestseller and one of the most influential books of postwar American literature, breaks a lot of those and other novel rules. There's an awful lot of telling and not so much showing. There's no real plot in the sense of an arc of action, just a series of vignettes in which the plot, such as it is, is re-told, sometimes in more, sometimes in less detail.

Yet there's no question that Catch-22 is an exceptional piece of literature. So is it a lousy novel even so? I'm having a hard time deciding. Just as I'm having a hard time getting through it -- it's taking me forever. I'm now pretty sure that I didn't finish it when I last read it, in high school. Despite the fact that it's awfully funny.

So what makes a great novel, after all? Do you have to be an authentic genius like Joseph Heller to break all those rules that are out there? Should I even care, given my lesser talents, and just stick to the rules as I flesh out my new book?

(If you're interested in Heller, by the way, you might skim through Yossarian Slept Here, the memoir by Erica Heller, his daughter. It disappoints in many respects, since it reveals so little about what made Heller tick. What's clear is that he was supremely self-confident -- he said he would write the most important novel about World War II, and arguably did -- and that he was both an indifferent dad and surprisingly cheap for a guy who sold millions of books. But insights into where that humor and genius came from -- not so much.)


Jennifer Walkup said...

Great point. Many great works don't follow the so-called rules! Also I'm finally back to reading blogs, hope you're doing well!:)

Steven J. Wangsness said...

Thanks, Jen. Good to hear from you.

Roland said...

I say break all the rules. What have you got to lose? I remember reading Catch 22 almost in one sitting when I was 20, but I wonder if it would be so compelling today. Same with Something Happened. I loved that book but I know no one who has made it all the way through it. Nothing much happens until the very end.

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