To me, a great novel says something. Beyond having compelling characters or page-turning plot elements, a great novel makes a point of some kind. It has something to say to the world. It might be as simple as “Love conquers all,” or “You can never go home again,” or “Do unto others.” Or it might be a far more complex statement about human nature or political systems or whether there is a God. But one thing that all great novels have in common is that they have something to add to the Conversation.
You may not be surprised to learn that someone who thinks this way—namely the writer of this article—was an English major in college. It’s such a delightfully impractical degree. Why would anyone get a degree in a language they already speak? Surely others have their own reasons, but my reason was that I loved to read and I wanted to teach others to love to read. I thought I’d be a professor and take my place as another happy cog in the futile wheel of teaching students literature so they could teach students literature so they could teach students literature.
Of course, that oversimplifies things a bit too much, don’t you think? As an English major studies poetry, plays, short stories, and novels she is learning plenty of “useful” skills: how to read a text closely, how to identify subtext, how to interpret symbols, how to think critically, how to defend one’s position on an issue. But that’s not why one becomes an English major. One becomes an English major because one wants to be part of the Conversation.
The Conversation I’m talking about is that time-bending, mystical union between writer and reader. That magical transference of thought from one mind to another over miles and over oceans, over years or decades or centuries. A writer speaks onto the page and sometime later a reader listens.
John Donne opines on the nature of love in the 16th century and 450 years later a brokenhearted man finds solace.
In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe exposes a generation of Americans who preferred to look the other way to the horrors of slavery and ten years later President Lincoln is said to have said upon meeting her, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”
In post-war Britain, George Orwell puts pen to his fears about humanity giving up freedom in exchange for safety, and in 21st century America his words ring out from countless memes shared on social media.
Personal or political, quiet or inflammatory, satirical or sentimental, the Conversation continues through the ages as new books are written and new readers are born. What a privilege that despite our own obscurity we can speak with the likes of William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison.
As it turned out, I went into publishing rather than academia, into the realm of creation rather than critique. I am adding my own thoughts to the Conversation, which will carry on without me after I die. So when I write, I want my novels to say something. Something about what it means to human, what we lose when we ignore the past, what it takes to forgive, what we gain when we love each other anyway.
I don’t regret getting a degree in a language I already spoke. Because all the while it was allowing me to speak to countless people I would never have the chance to meet. And those people have become some of my closest friends and greatest teachers.
Erin Bartels has been a publishing professional for more than fifteen years. Her short story “This Elegant Ruin” was a finalist in the Saturday Evening Post 2014 Great American Fiction Contest. A freelance writer and editor, she is a member of Capital City Writers and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and is former features editor of WFWA’s Write On! magazine. She lives in Lansing, Michigan, with her husband, Zachary, and their son, Calvin, and can be found online at www.erinbartels.com. We Hope for Better Things is her first novel.