Saturday, January 10, 2009

The point of the novel?

This is something I’ve quoted before, by Terry Eagleton, in the wake of his spat with Martin Amis over Amis’s remarks about Muslims.

I have no idea why we should listen to novelists on these matters any more than we should listen to window cleaners. I don't know where their status comes from. When someone like Ian McEwan stands up and says, "I believe in individual freedom," you know, it's like: "Hallelujah, put up your hands all those that don't," but such words do not respect a much larger problem.

I disagree with Eagleton profoundly on this. Novelists – good novelists – have something to say, and whether or not you agree with them you can still learn something from reading them. But Eagleton does point to a malaise within literature, and within novel writing in particular. There is a sense that, today, it is going nowhere. It is drifting in its own sea, remote from the reality that each of us is confronted with, and when it does try to connect, as with the series of 9/11 books I have reviewed in this blog, it does so in a shallow and ephemeral way.

This is not a recent development, however. Here are some quotes from a collection of interviews brought together by Joe David Bellamy in The New Fiction in 1974. Bellamy himself was optimistic. In the preface, he wrote:

Fiction, until recently that most arriere-garde of contemporary art forms, may suddenly be in the process of catching up with painting, music and film – may suddenly be in the process of catching up with the age.

John Barth also saw something reflective about the nature of literature, finding it ‘more refractory to change in general than the other arts.’ Dostoevsky would have less difficulty understanding Saul Bellow than Tchaikovsky would in understanding John Cage, for example. And so, to his way of thinking, literature was still well placed to both reflect and lead cultural change.

Other interviewees, however, disagreed. William H Gass noted:

I distrust people, including artists, who make pretentious claims for literature as a source of knowledge… I see no reason to regard literature as a superior source of truth, or even as a reliable source of truth at all. Going to it is dangerous because it provides a sense of verification (a feeling) without the fact of verification ( the validating process).

Now this is subtly different from what Eagleton was saying. Eagleton, good Marxist that he is, is simply refusing to place one group of people above another; in other words his complaint is against the individual, not the medium. Gass, however, is complaining that the novel – the medium – should not be considered to be a holy grail of truth. He mistrusts the art, not the artist.

Ronald Sukenick takes this further, with an assault on the substantiality of the novel form itself. He suggests:

Well, how can I put this? – one of the reasons people have lost faith in the novel is that they don’t believe it tells the truth anymore, which is another way of saying that they don’t believe in the convention of the novel. They pick up a novel and they know it’s make-believe. So who needs it – go listen to the television news, right? Or read a biography… Nobody is willing to suspend disbelief in that particular way anymore, including me.

Because of this, he suggests, students do not ‘go to novels now in the same way that they used to in the fifties – with the sense that they were going to learn something about their lives, the way that people used to read Hemingway, say. I think that in its realistic forms it’s just lost its credibility.’

Again, this is not the same as Eagleton’s argument. Again, it is a fault of the novel, not the novelist. In other words, it can be put right, if the novel adapts.

And this is the crux of it. What is the role of the novel today? What form should it take? How can we overcome those stale debates about postmodernism and post-postmodernism which have overtaken literary criticism and ensured that debate on the novel takes place in a rarefied, impossible atmosphere, far removed from everyday existence? How can the novel come to mean anything?

People have, of course, been lamenting the death of the novel for fifty years or more. It isn’t dead. But it’s not in good shape. Take another look at that New York Times list of the best of the past twenty-five years. Be honest: firstly, the list is absolutely not a list of the best novels in the past twenty-five years so much as a summary of the output of the grand-hommes of American literature in the past twenty-five years; and secondly, it is a list that says remarkably little about what it means to be alive in 2009.

So who is going to step forward? And how? After all, Eagleton has to be proved wrong. To finish with another quote from Vonnegut – a different one from my favourite canary-in-the-mines one, but the same sentiment:

My motives [for writing] are political. I agree with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the writer should serve his society. I differ with dictators as to how writers should serve. Mainly, I think they should be – and biologically have to be – agents of change. For the better, we hope.

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