by Sarah Sullivan
“Dew has soaked everything. I could wash my hands in the ferns, and when I pick a leaf off a maple branch I get a shower on my head and shoulders. Through the hardwoods along the foot of the hill, through the belt of cedars where the ground is swampy with the springs, through the spruce and balsam of the steep pitch, I go alertly, feasting my eyes. I see coon tracks, an adult and two young, in the mud and maturing grasses bent like croquet wickets with wet and spotted orange Amanitas, at this season flattened or even concave and holding water, and miniature forests of club moss and ground pine and ground cedar. There are brown caves of shelter, mouse and hare country, under the wide skirts of spruce.
If you had to guess, you may assume the preceding paragraph was plucked from the annuls of naturalist writings. But you would be wrong. This beautifully crafted passage that rewards it’s readers with an almost visceral sensation of walking through a freshly showered Vermont wood is from Wallace Stegner’s 1987 novel Crossing to Safety. What is remarkable to me about this novel is that, unlike most fiction of today, nothing much happens in this story, at least outwardly. Instead, it is a quiet account of an enduring friendship between two mostly happily married couples over several decades replete with protracted descriptions of people and place. There is no sex or violence, no lies or promiscuities, no peril or financial ruin, no deeply disturbed families, addiction, murder or suicide.
Reading Stegner’s book made me wonder if such a novel would be optioned by a publishing house today or would it be destined to languish and die on the slush pile. Perhaps it would not even have been published in 1987 had it not been submitted by a Pulitzer Prize winning author. Recent books written by contemporary authors, while not always action packed, (think Jonathan Franzen, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy) nevertheless have big emotional payoffs or, in lieu of that, a frenetically paced plot. When writers think about filling the pages of a novel, very few must consider a simple marital study or a careful dissection of a healthy friendship. Even Stegner identifies this conundrum within his own book when one of his characters, a writer, asks “How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?”
In today's market, how indeed.
Do you think the quiet novel is a thing of the past or does it have a place in contemporary fiction?