Thoughts on The Social Novel

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was held this weekend on the USC campus. I spent Saturday walking through the booths, checking out local bookstore offerings and featured authors. I also found a couple of indie author promotion and marketing booths and made contacts with them in regards to my current novel. It was a fun and interesting day for me. In addition, I attended a couple of “conversations,” moderated author panels focusing on fiction. One panel was appropriately labeled “Looking for Trouble,” considering the wild and erratic conversation that came from the four authors. However, the other panel turned out to be more intelligent and thought-provoking in its discussion of the “Social Novel.”

At first, the authors on the panel wondered at why they had been selected for a panel entitled the social novel. Rachel Kushner had a recently released novel, “The Flame Throwers,” which followed characters in rebellious New York City neighborhoods in the late 60s and equally rebellious neighborhoods in Rome during the early 70s. Marisa Silver’s recently released novel, “Mary Coin,” examined a fictional history of a photographer and her subject based on a famous photo of a migrant mother and her children from the 1930s. Jonathan Lethen was about to release a novel in the summer that appeared to be hard to explain in the session. There appeared to be no common theme in the narratives of these authors, except for the general concept that actions of their characters had to interact within the social network and individuals within a common social group. The conversation became a discussion about the concept of the individual within society and the contrast between the two. The panel defined two perceptions that was recognizable in literature – the American perception that favored individualism within societal relations and the European perception of a social commonality and responsibility among the individuals within the group. The general impression I received from the panel was that writers usually expressed themselves on one side or the other. What I wished there was time to consider was whether any of the authors felt a sense or possibility that modern literature might move toward a balance of the two perceptions, a sort of global perception that the individual has an innate responsibility toward the social community, while the social community depended upon its recognition of the individual contributions supporting it.

I can see the difficulty in trying to examine this delicate balance within a literary structure. Like all balances, it is dependent upon competing forces. While trying to understand this balanced competition, each of us tends to sympathize and side with one perception over the other. We feel that society must recognize each of us and it is up to us to present our own individuality to society as a whole – or we feel that society needs each of us to come together so we must submit our feelings and talents to the good of the whole. It becomes hard for us to see how both perceptions are just as valid and just as necessary in finding that balance. Also, even if we accept and explore the necessity of balancing both perceptions, we find it hard to not try and calculate an absolute formula in which to find and impose this balance. In nature and the universe, this balance is always fluid and constantly under recalibration. No wonder it is hard for any writer – past, present and future – to explore any story or set of characters working within a balance of the individual and society. Maybe something to discuss at next year’s Festival of Books.