Saturday, September 12, 2009

The cost of a pint of Guinness in 1904

A good interview with William Boyd (a very much under-rated writer) in today's Guardian contains this quote, relating to the research that he does for his novels:

Researching a novel calls for "a magpie instinct for facts that do a lot of work. There's a great bit in Ulysses where Bloom goes into a pub and orders a glass of claret and a gorgonzola sandwich. Suddenly pubs in Dublin at the beginning of the 20th century come alive for you in a way that the price of a pint of Guinness wouldn't deliver."

Just so. There are writers out there who feel compelled to throw in every damned scrap of research they've done, just so you can feel how authentic it is. The result is that is reads as totally inauthentic.

And, in novels with a contemporary setting, he avoids wherever possible specific references to real events/people and so on. They cause 'built-in obsolescence', he suggests. I don't know I quite agree with that. It is going to an extreme, surely. But I suppose the difficulty is knowing which people/brands/events will still be remembered in ten years time and which are the Sarah Palins, about whom future generations will scratch their heads and ask 'who?'


Mark said...

A student who graduated with me at college was a minor sensation on campus for being equal parts brilliant, eccentric, and silly—the last mostly because he took himself so seriously. He said in an interview with the college paper that he avoids all colloquialism because he wants his prose to have a "timelessness quality." Because, naturally, he expects children to be reading it in their primers in 2070.

1. Timelessness is death in language. 2. Lived life is historical.

Data indeed strikes a flat note. I haven't read Boyd, but I can see how clogging a story with "historical" notes would be more distraction than immersion.

Yet the attempt to avoid any kind of clanking unfamiliarity seems misguided. The disconnect is paradoxically often the medium of connection. I'm thinking here of Nicholson Baker's footnote on footnotes in the Mezzanine: you don't need to understand every word in Shakespeare to sink into it, and it's often that occasional uncertainty—so long as it's surrounded by literacy—that creates warm pleasure, while the cold footnotes dispel it.

In anything I read there's a mix of familiar and unfamiliar, both pleasurable when properly balanced. Dropping data, avoiding all specificity, and trying to predict what will be notable from our era later… are seem equally misguided. And now I think of “Pafko at the Wall” by Don DeLillo. There’s a moment when J. Edgar Hoover sees a painting from inside LIFE magazine. I’ve forgotten the name, and when I read it I wasn’t familiar with the painting. But even had I never googled the painting, I don’t think that my ignorance was a distraction. In the context of the story, I think the uncertainty was striking.

[And now I can’t help think of Libra, which manages to be both excessively “accurate” while overwhelmingly false. George Will’s whole “bad citizenship” column was humorously self-serious, but the man had a point. The “only fiction” disclaimer at the end of the novel seems terribly similar to Dan Brown’s ridiculous posturing.]

Tom Conoboy said...

De Lillo wrote, in Mao II:

“Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids of human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.”

I think this is partly De Lillo's take on the Philip Roth idea that fiction is impossible when the reality is more crazy than anything a novelist can imagine. Nonetheless, De Lillo keeps trying. I haven't read a lot of him, but he doesn't seem to have a good impression of modern society.