Do Today’s Novelists Lack Balls?

There is a sort of old-fashioned conception of the novel as the “great book of life”: a synthesis of scientific, philosophic, and poetic speculation.

Certainly Tolstoy saw War and Peace as more than just a fictional work, and modernist authors like Joyce, Robert Musil, and Proust all expanded the techniques of typical storytelling by applying themes and idioms from psychology, opera, Greek myth, philosophy, and drama…among many others. Writing a novel wasn’t an enterprise equal to others in the humanities—at least for the most talented and ambitious—but a master-task that synthesized humanistic learning through verbal innovation: in other words, great writers had balls, and they backed it up with intellectual hunger and erudition.

This tradition of novelist is one that I can’t say is dead—but it is one that is decisively waning. The generation of writers of which I am a part (let’s say under 28) is the first generation that can say that it grew up with the internet—that is, that grew up with our brains wired for short bursts of information.

In one sense, we are perfectly suited to write the Musil-type novel– the novel of the polymath and philosopher–because we have access to so much more information than ever before. In another sense, while we do read widely, we are inclined to skim, meaning that we tend not to read deeply enough to really meditate on what we’re reading. I’m afraid, in other words, that my generation is too damned impatient to do the concentrated labor that great synthetic novels take—that we’re losing the tradition of intellectually rich writing.

The decline in—I won’t say serious, but rigorous—reading and writing, has coincided with a rise in the accessibility of audiences and markets for aspiring writers. Every form of social media, from blogs to Facebook or Tumblr or Twitter, presents a medium for public, written expression, and a program like CreateSpace lowers the cost of selling books online to almost nil—and the skills required to make a CreateSpace book are now familiar to any teenager with Adobe software.

The paradox of the situation I’m outlining is that my generation of writers is the one most capable of disseminating their writing, and the one most intellectually incapable of writing anything worth disseminating. This statement might seem hard to justify, but I’m willing to wager that a representative novel from a young, lauded novelist simply won’t show the same density of reading or thinking that it might have even fifty years ago. And while it might be an ironic funny riff on pop culture, or maybe just be an erotic-sci-fi-vampire-novel, it wouldn’t betray the surplus of existential or spiritual or psychological profundity that is the result of a long meditation on life and literature.

I do hope that this article gets its readers, especially its readers around my age (early twenties) a little angry—and admittedly, I would have to go through some contemporary writing at length to really prove my point—but I don’t think it should take much reflection to accept that our typical intellectual diet is not always so nutritious, and that chances are this is reflected in our fictional production. The reason I do hope that my readers (presumably independent-minded writers) do get angry, is that I do want to be proved wrong: as Emerson said, each generation must write its own books, and I want mine to be damned good.

We just can’t assume —and this ultimately the crux of what I’m saying—that it has gotten any easier to write great novels than it was for writers in the past, that the cognitive demands of learning to write through reading the classics haven’t lessened, and that the need for scope and variety (and in multiple languages, when possible) of learning haven’t gone away—that while how we process information has changed, what we process shouldn’t. Young writers can’t just fall back on the easy excuse that we’ve learned to think in different ways, but rather, that unless we give our literary standards and our personal standards for a literary education a serious redress, that the expanded access to publishing markets and mediums that we do have now, will have gone to waste.


17 replies
  1. Orna Ross
    Orna Ross says:

    The headline on this article is a misrepresentation of your article. What’s needed to produce the kind of book you’re talking about lots of thinking, and reading, and writing and meditating, yes, but mostly lots of living. Not balls, but wrinkles.

  2. Charles Dickey
    Charles Dickey says:

    I think it is hard for any young person to write the kind of novel you are describing. Experience and practice of craft are too shallow in youth–the length of which seems to grow longer as our culture grows more complicated–to produce a work of art. There are exceptions, as always, but I think most people need time, space, experience, reflection, and practice of craft in order to produce art.

  3. alen
    alen says:

    in the 1800’s most people didnt know how to read, so writing was something done by highly educated people for educated people. and since the costs of publishing and selling a book were so expensive, you had to write big books to make the price seem like a good value for the buyer

  4. Mary Tod
    Mary Tod says:

    Your title on Twitter was eye-catching so I came to read – and found your thought provoking piece. It reminds me of being in restaurants, waiting rooms, theatres, subways and so on where I look at younger folks (I’m in another generation!!) and wonder whether they ever take time to just think, or for that matter to engage with the person they are with. Folks jump on the net as soon as a question arises. A professor friend despairs of the lack of intellectual rigour in his college age students – perhaps these points are connected? But I’d have to do a little more thinking to answer that 🙂

  5. Pierce Minor
    Pierce Minor says:


    WOW. I just had a conversation similar to your posted topic, with a few educated friends, and man! I’m struggling with the same issue – both as a reader and writer. The generation we’re in – technology, speed, etc. – promotes a lack of depth in not only novels, but many other forms of art that we – collectively – used to take our time with. Writing, music, films. And it’s disheartening sometimes, especially when I want better for my own children, all while falling victim to the status quo. I think there should be a few national “give up technology” or “read a classic” days or… I don’t know, something like that. lol. One of my own novels has a character or two that haven’t been a part of the cell phone phone revolution yet – they’ve been sort of “locked away” and I LOVE living through them, even just for a while, and in my head. Here’s to the good ol days… the ones I’m too young to remember, and would love to see again. Thanks for your post!

  6. Alexandra Zamorski
    Alexandra Zamorski says:

    I think we’re entering a short story revival of sorts. I agree that most people, certainly those of the under-28 generation, are so used to instant gratification when it comes to information and entertainment that the novel is getting a bit lost. To think that one must sit and read for perhaps HOURS before divining the author’s secrets! For better or for worse, I see short stories and the novella making a big play over the next few years at least. Short bursts of information and/or storytelling is perfect for our hectic lives full of constant interruptions and distractions (both in “real” and online life).

  7. Mark
    Mark says:

    I agree with Orna and Charles. I know I wasn’t able to write anything (decent) in long form until I got into my thirties.

    Perhaps there should be an age requirement at CreateSpace, KDP, etc? Nobody under thirty allowed to self-publish a novel?

    (He said with tongue in cheek, and balls shielded with a copy of The Great Gatsby.)

  8. Belinda Roddie
    Belinda Roddie says:

    This is an interesting article. I think the issue I’m having difficulty diffusing is the idea that authors lack the cajones to write more speculative, poetic, philosophical fiction. My question is, what defines that? I have written two novels (one 79,000 words, one 53,000 words), both geared toward young adult audiences, one of them very LGBT-focused. I’m very snarky in my writing and don’t exactly go on for pages and pages deconstructing my society or what I observe in my culture or city. I focus on character and story, which I would hope brings out the more genuine thoughts I bear toward the world I live in.

    I guess what I would ask Matthew Gasda if I met him is what, in his mind, qualifies a novel to be worth disseminating. Should I be more interested in wit and character, is that worth disseminating? If I choose to write young adult fiction that youth can connect to with no intent of creating an opus of generational representation, is that worth disseminating? I don’t write for the sake of sparking a revolution; I write for the sake of writing. And I don’t know how I feel about my literature being scrutinized under a microscope to see if it’s worth remembering or as “rigorous” as he likes it to be.

    I don’t know, maybe I’m misinterpreting the article, but I’ve read through it a couple times over and I’m just skeptical. One of the things about the literary market is that, unlike ever before, it is saturated with stories. As writers, we are often prone to judging what is worth reading and what isn’t. Sure, I have my perspectives on smut and paranormal fiction, but we shouldn’t be shaming authors who decide to write it. I enjoy John Green’s work, especially his novel “The Fault In Our Stars,” but who am I to say it’ll be remembered? Who are we ever to say it’ll be remembered? It’s not like writers in the 1900s wrote and people immediately thought, “Oh. This speaks to me culturally.” Back then, it was a snapshot of their life. And if we can provide that snapshot, even if it’s not as deep or potent as some critics would like it, doesn’t that make our work valuable?

  9. Belinda Roddie
    Belinda Roddie says:

    Sorry for the long post, Mister Gasgda. It’s just that I am very much a person who believes that a writer should not be obligated, or pressured, to write things for the sake of a message or a potent theme. Writing is never forced like that, and regardless of what one’s opinion is of the mindset of past authors, even the greatest writers meant to tell stories and experiment with language – not necessarily charge into the fray with the intent of inciting the excitement of an audience. William Faulkner was once quoted as saying he did not intend any of the symbolism in his books – he was simply conveying the world he lived in in his own way. Any sort of environment that puts down a writer for what he or she writes, whether it’s saying it’s not deep enough or it’s not complex enough, is toxic to me, even if that’s not the point you’re trying to convey. I just think writers should be very, very careful judging their fellow artists’ work in terms of whether or not it’s “worth it” for their generation. It shouldn’t work that way. Every writer should be free to have his own voice, regardless of how “dense” or “profound” it is. Every writer’s voice is profound, no matter what the content or the genre.

  10. Serafima Bogomolova
    Serafima Bogomolova says:

    Matthew Gasda, though coming from an internet fed generation that has a short attention span, seems quite capable of writing… a long post, for example, on disseminating some worthy literature 😉 And jokes aside, I think that this young generation is a good audience for consuming short quality novels and stories. To write a short but interesting, informative, entertaining and meaningful book is a real talent 😉 ‘Brevity is a sister of talent.’ – Anton Chekhov (a Russian classic)

    Who knows, maybe Matthew’s generation is new Chekovs 🙂

  11. Oh Henry
    Oh Henry says:

    I think that by the early decades of the 20th century a presumption had developed that a single writer, if sufficiently well-informed — and generally if male (more on that below) — could encompass in a novel all the major social, political and cultural themes of his time. This was an illusion of course, but the ambition was commendable nevertheless, and it did lead to the creation of some important works. What has happened in the shift from positivism (which taught that virtually anything could be rationally examined and understood) to high modernism to post-modernism is that most novelists now no longer believe that it’s possible to see things whole and capture the essential workings of an entire society. What we have instead are fragments, each potentially illuminating in its way, but not providing much of an overall picture of the contemporary world. The artistic manner of the day is now the mash-up, not the “total novel.” I personally find that fact regrettable (and it’s probably why I don’t read much contemporary fiction) but we seem to be stuck with it.

    But the very title of your piece implies a curious identification of novelistic ambition (at least of a certain kind) with testosterone and with male authority. The question is, is it a co-incidence that the authors you cite (Tolstoy, Joyce, Proust, etc.) are all male, and if it isn’t, what explains the apparent lack of female writers of similar scope during the same era? Were women writers denied comparable opportunities and recognition, or do women writers simply tend to prefer kinds of writing that men tend to regard as perhaps fine enough in their own way but lacking in “balls”? Or is a kind of confidence in one’s own (male) authority a prerequisite for setting out on such an apparently presumptuous task as defining a society as a whole?

    I don’t pretend to have any answers to any of the questions above.


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