What We Can Learn From Big Clunky Novels


Kings Rowwas a huge bestseller in 1940, turned into a hit movie in 1942. The movie starred Robert Cummings and, in his finest role, Ronald Reagan. The supporting cast is equally impressive: Claude Raines, Ann Sheridan, Charles Coburn and the unforgettable Maria Ouspenskaya.
After watching the movie recently I decided to read the book. It has an interesting pedigree. It was the author’s first novel and he was 58 when it came out. Henry Bellamann was a musician, a composer and an educator. He wrote Kings Row(which takes place around 1900) based in part on his own home town. Indeed, there was quite a bit of controversy about it, as the citizens still alive from those days took offense at much of the content.
And what content! This sweeping saga concerns a boy, Parris Mitchell, who grows up in Kings Row and goes on to become one of the first practicing psychiatrists in America. His childhood friend is Drake McHugh. Parris is the sober-minded student. Drake is the wild ladies man. The narrative follows their growing up, their loves, their disasters.
Two very dark and sinister secrets dominate the proceedings. I won’t spoil them for you here. I recommend you watch the movie…and then know that one of the secrets is even darker in the novel. The studio ran up against the censors and thus had to soften it to some degree. I can see why much of the reading public was “shocked” by the novel.
Now, here’s the interesting thing. The book is not exactly what we’d call well-written. The prose is clunky, the dialogue sodden. Yet I couldn’t stop reading and by the time I was finished, I felt that sense of resonance that only a deeply affecting reading experience can bring.
My question to myself, then, was why, in spite of the deficiencies, did I feel this way?
Before I answer, let me mention another book that had much the same effect on me.
In the early years of the twentieth century, most critics would have named Theodore Dreiser as the great American

novelist. He ushered in a new school of urban realism. Here was not a Mark Twain, writing light-hearted fare. Nor a Jack London, with his fast-moving action.

No, Dreiser was our “important,” world-class novelist. But you hardly ever hear his name mentioned anymore. He’s not taught, except on rare occasions, in college lit classes. This is sad, because Dreiser has much to teach us.
His greatest work is An American Tragedy (1925). You can also watch the movie version. A Place in the Sun (1951) is a terrific film starring Montgomery Clift and, at her most gorgeous, Elizabeth Taylor.
This novel is also clunky in its prose. In fact, the New York Times famously dubbed it “the worst written great book ever.” Yet when I finished it, I found myself deeply moved.
Which brings up the same question I had about Kings Row. Why do I count each of these novels as among my most memorable reading experiences, even though stylistically they fall short?
Here’s my attempt at some answers.
1. Great themes
Both these books take up the great themes of human existence. Love, evil, sin, fate. These books were not meant to be commercial throwaways. The authors worked years on them. Indeed it was ten years between Dreiser’s The Genius and his magnum opus.
The main characters are thrust into situations that force them to confront all forms of death—physical, professional, psychological. Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy is obsessed with ambition and success, and then the lovely Sondra. Only problem: he’s impregnated another woman who threatens to spill the beans unless he marries her.
Therein lies the tale.
Parris Mitchell of Kings Row is obsessed with human behavior, why people act the way they do, and how he can help them. But his explorations of the mind lead him to dark corners he never could have conceived of growing up. It’s a loss of innocence and a confrontation with harsh reality.
Nothing seems “small” in these novels. The authors reach for the thematic skies.  
I don’t see why any novelist cannot treat a large theme in a book. Even in commercial fare, like a category romance. If  you’re writing about love, write it for all its worth!
2. Interior life of the characters
Both Dreiser and Bellamann spend a huge portion of their narratives explaining exactly what is going in inside the main characters. We cannot help but identify with the emotional stakes and inner conflicts.
Dreiser is especially explicit when, in omniscient fashion, he describes how Clyde is thinking and feeling at key points. What it came down to was not the style, but Dreiser’s uncanny ability to show us human behavior and thought in a way that truly makes us understand not just the character, but ourselves.
These days, the amount of interior time you spend depends on your genre and your own particular style. But take note you “plot driven” writers: when you get readers inside a character they tend to bond with them more. And that makes for a greater reading experience.
3. Huge action
Yet the emotional is balanced with the external. The action is not of the thriller variety, but is nevertheless is huge. We’re talking about murder, suicide, incest, lust, vengefulness. And of course the vagaries of romantic love.
Here is a lesson for you “literary” or “character driven” writers. You love rendering the inner life of the characters, but if you don’t watch it the action can be less than compelling. The best literary writers give us outer action that matters, too.

Here’s my theory about clunky fiction that has all of the above. By the time you’ve traveled with the characters through the narrative, you become, by a wonderful alchemy, totally invested in their fate. Whether the story ends on an upbeat note (as in Kings Row) or a tragic one (as in An American Tragedy), you are going to be affected in that fashion all us writers wish to achieve: the book is going to stay with you long after you finish it.
I do enjoy what Sol Stein calls “transient fiction.” I read many books that entertain me wildly, but when they’re over, they’re over and I’m not tempted to read them again.
Yet I often think about An American Tragedy. And likewise Kings Row.
What about you? What novel has stayed with you like this? What did it teach you about storytelling? 
[NOTE: I’m in travel and teaching mode, so may not be able to comment much. Talk this up amongst yourselves. Help a blogger out!]


19 thoughts on “What We Can Learn From Big Clunky Novels

  1. There’s this wonderful author, Elizabeth Goudge, who nobody remembers much anymore. But her books are like that. Green Dolphin Street is the story of a man in New Zealand who writes home for his bride, but accidentally writes the name of her sister. The conflicts between the two sisters, the guy who quietly marries a woman he doesn’t love, and the fascinating story of Europeans settling New Zealand’s North Island–it’s stuck with me. Fascinating.

    She has another book, The Scent of Water, about a small English village, and the secrets it keeps. But every character is brought into contact with the “scent of water”, a renewing of the spirit, and make a turn for the better or the worse. One character is a blind novelist who dictates his books into a recording machine. I often think about trying to write that way.

    Amazing books, amazing writer.

  2. A really sad but riveting book I read a long time ago was Willliam Styron’s, Sophie’s Choice. I still remember much of that book and I haven’t read it since the 70’s. And loved Ken Follett’s, The Eye of the Needle. Talk about suspense!

    And Kessie, I never read E. Goudge but now I’ll have to go check out. Sounds really great!

    Jim, hope you’re having fun wherever you’re teaching.

  3. Most of the long books I’ve read aren’t badly written (or enough to call them clunky), but I love them just the same. I love long sweeping novels you can fall in love with. “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman is one of my favorites, as well as “Shelter” by Susan Palwick, and “She’s Come Undone” by Wally Lamb. There’s something about curling up and getting lost in a book that makes you forget about the real of the world….

    Great topic!

  4. Books like this are successful in spite of their poor writing, not because of it. Think about how much more successful they would have been, at least critically, if they’d been better written.

    And anyone who thinks Mark Twain wrote light-hearted fare hasn’t bothered reading anything but TOM SAWYER. His books were dark and continued to get darker as he got older. He had a very poor opinion of the human race and desperately needed antidepressants.

    Books I’ve read that have fallen out of favor except for English majors are the works of James Fennimore Cooper and Hawthorne.

  5. I, too, loved An American Tragedy (read it in high school). But, later I loved the Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and what about all the wonderful Leon Uris books? And Susan Howatch’s The Wheel of Fortune.

    I agree they taught us so much history. I hated for each to end because I was caught up with the characters. There aren’t many books like that any more.

    BTW, when I read these wonderful books, I wasn’t as critical of the writing. Instead, I was swept away. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

    Thanks for reminding us about these “clunky” wonderful novels.

  6. I haven’t read either of these books. I must see A Place in the Sun.

    The book that has left the strongest impact on me was The Help. It’s not clunky at all, so I suppose it doesn’t fit well with this post. But the part that got to me the most was how REAL it was. Because it was set against the backdrop of real, horrible events, that story dug deep inside me. The movie was good, too.

  7. As for long, sweeping novels, James Michener’s Centennial started in the distant geological past. I was living in Cheyenne, WY, when it came out, and I think that influenced my appreciation of the novel, but it has remained important. And, it did not strike me as clunky writing. Great post. More additions for the TBR list. Thank you.

  8. JSB does not shy away from giving himself challenging assignments. This blog post is a perfect example. He asks us to “talk this up amongst yourselves,’ so here’s my two cent’s worth. JSB’s reading taste is both wide and deep. It was formed before the tech explosion that is profoundly altering consciousness, and therefore reading behavior. I have to think that the two “clunky” novels he examines–however deserving–will not get read by many readers under, say, fifty. They demand too much from readers, too much focused attention and, for want of a better word, caring. It’s too bad, and one of the prices exacted by a time of ever-shortening and fragmented attention spans.
    And that’s today’s upbeat observation from TKZ’s resident curmudgeon.

  9. I cut my reading teeth on Michener and Uris so my patience is infinite. But my fave fat book of all time is “Shogan.” That book took me away from my life at a time when I wanted to be anywhere but where I was. I still have my original copy and probably will never open it again because I know I can’t replicate its affect.

  10. I always appreciate your studies and observations, Mr. Bell. But one thing many writers seem to do when analyzing writing, is to make dysfunctional statements that are difficult to decipher. In this piece, the observation is that the the writing is clunky and sodden. It would be of great help to me to get an idea of what clunky is.

    And far be it for me to ever want to be seen as a writer who soddens. (The last quality sounds frightening. What if someone wanders off into sodden-dom and is arrested because he doesn’t know how to avoid it?)

    Perhaps because I am a writer I am expected to know these things. But in the completion of my studies in literature, grammar, and writing in my college years, I don’t recall either word being used in the description of anyone’s writing. So I freely admit I don’t know what either quality means except they must describe undesirable aspects of qualities of writing.

    So may I, on my own behalf if for no one else’s, request that such qualities of someone’s writing be described? I’m not being sarcastic here. (My children are yelling from the other room, “Yes you are! Yes you are!” Okay. I’m not being sarcastic THIS time.) But I would appreciate a little further explanation. It would truly be helpful.

    Thank you.

  11. Bloggerjim: are you seriously, un-sarcastically telling us that, after your no doubt demanding college studies in literature, grammar and writing, you are still unable to worry your way to an understanding of terms like “clunky” and “sodden”? Surely this can’t be the case. Think again: what does clunky make you think of? How about sodden? Don’t sell yourself short: I bet you have what it takes to grasp what such terms mean, even those that don’t appear in a handbook to literature.

  12. I was out yesterday and missed this. A few years ago I wrote up my list of fav “big books,” and y’all have touched on many of them.

    I have read every brick in the Michener wall. The Souce, in particular, has influenced my thoughts on history and religion, as did Leon Uris’ The Haj and the Trinity-Redemption series. What “light quick fast beach read” can say that?

    I started with Shogun and didn’t stop until I hit the last page of Noble House (do not miss King Rat as a sideline in the series.)

    I LOVE EPICS! *fans self* They just do not write them like this anymore.

  13. I remember being awe-struck by a few of Leon Uris’s books when I was young, particularly Battle Cry which played a large part in my enlisting in the Marines. Looking back at the book, the writing was indeed clunky at many points, but the story still stuck with me for many years.

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