There is the desire of readers for Something that Really Happened; my ten-year-old feels this way. Things don’t hold his attention unless they are Actually True. This speaks, too, I think, to the failure of a voice to cast a spell. If prose can cast a spell we will listen to it no matter what it’s saying (and maybe decide afterward whether we like what it’s saying—how else could, say, Lolita work?) If a narrative uses language in a magical and enlivening way, we will listen to the story. But if the language doesn’t cast a spell, we will listen to it only if it is telling us something that actually happened. So in this way, there is a wider range of prose abilities in memoirs, it seems to me.
I think, extending the discussion beyond memoirs, there is a case that we are increasingly becoming concerned with all factual matters, a devotion to what Donald Barthelme described as the ‘hard, brown nut-like word’. Like the narrator of Barthelme’s story, I prefer ‘strings of language extend[ing] in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole.’ But I think I’m becoming more unusual in that. My partner and I only usually watch television at the weekend and, when we do, it is invariably a documentary or non-fiction programme of some sort. We watch virtually no television drama. I simply don’t remember the last one we watched – Life on Mars, perhaps, but before that heaven knows. Only if there is nothing on do we resort to the fall-back – a film on DVD.
This is all very well. It’s a pattern that suits us. And yet there are times when I long for some drama. I hope there’s nothing on TV so we can watch a film instead, so we can get caught up in a fiction, something creative, something new. And it is this thirst for the imaginative that I think is dissipating.
It would be easy to go in for some cod psycho-sociology at this point. Kids today are never left to use their own imaginations, they are constantly stimulated and constant stimulation can only ever lead to stultification, like the drug user needing more and more gear to reach the same high. There’s probably something in that, although it feels simplistic. It is also clear that tastes have changed so that narrative is no longer the driving force, and storytelling has been compromised by the need for “action”. In modern films, so often we find that nothing actually happens. Sure, there are lots of events – chases, explosions, climax after climax – but nothing really happens, in as much as there no cycle of event-consequence-conclusion-change. And after all, this idea of repeated climaxes is a nonsense, but that is what we get. No film appears to be able to last longer than five minutes without some climactic event thrusting itself out of the screen towards you.
And that, perhaps, is the real problem. We seem to have developed this need to be enveloped in the action, as though we are somehow part of it, as though it is happening to us. Okay, that is what fiction has always done, from Robinson Crusoe onwards, but the relentlessness with which it is now pursued has made superfluous all those traditional elements of storytelling – characterisation, dialogue, narrative, even theme. Who can honestly apply any cogent theme to most films and, increasingly, novels written today? There are stand-out examples that do, of course, such as Crash, but Quantum of Solace? And the same can be said for novels, where action predominates.
But what is also happening, and this actually strikes me as a more dangerous threat to the novel than the gratuitous blood’n’action brigade, is that a cohort of writers is striking out against what I have been talking about in the above and creating their own, rarefied fictions. Theme? they say. Hell, yes. I’ve threaded theme through my work so tightly that the characters can’t breathe for it. Every single event works thematically on at least three different levels, sometime seven, eight or more. You’ll need a degree in metathemantics (a new word, to represent something so profound) just to be able to understand the titles of my books.
And off they float, these theme-merchants, into a world of their own where they can demonstrate their cleverness and leave the reader breathless at their wondrous abilities. In the course of time, these fictions become more and more manufactured, unreal. We see again and again those cliches of theme and symbolism which, for the practiced reader, help to unpick the author’s intent. What becomes evident is that theme becomes so pre-eminent it is increasingly driving plot: things happen only because it is important for the author that they do, in order to promote his or her message. Again, you might argue this has always been the case: Raskolnikov decides to murder someone because he – and Dostoevsky – wanted to explore the act, almost as an intellectual exercise; it is, essentially, a metaphysical McGuffin. Indeed so, but in these modern novels that manipulation of plot is being driven down into smaller and smaller fragments of action, not just the central conceit of the story, and every decision made by a character or every chance event seems to be driven by the author, to the extent that all semblance of realism has gone. It is as though these authors are creating their own authorly iconography, and the result is that their novels feel as mannered and inauthentic as a fourteenth century Russian icon. Because of this, because they do not reflect a reality with which the reader can connect, they cannot, in Lorrie Moore’s description, ‘cast a spell’. You can admire their artistry, perhaps even applaud their message, but they do not reach into the soul.
So we have this disparity: action-centred stories on the one hand and theme-driven novels on the other. It is too crude to characterise this as entertainment versus education, but there is an element of truth in it: the worthiness of JM Coetzee and his troupe is ultimately as boring as the brainlessness of Dan Brown. Neither approach is serving the novel well.
And in the void where good storytelling should reside, we look instead for entertainments where Something Really Happened. We watch instead documentaries and non-fiction programmes, and we read memoirs and follow reality TV. We’ve lost the ribald whole.