Friday, October 16, 2009

The point of novels

A couple of quotes from Ronald Suckenick, from 1974:

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.

I don’t think that people trust novels anymore. I don’t think that students 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.

I don't know. Is that the case? There's a difference, surely, between the news and truth. The news is a subset of truth which is focused purely on the matter-of-fact events of the day. Truth is wider. Truth asks the questions. You don't get that from the news, or from television, I would suggest. There was an enormous amount of gloominess in the sixties and seventies about the state of the novel. Ironically, this was a time which was rich with memorable novelists. I don't think our current age is so rich in talent, and yet I still do not see any need to worry about the future of the novel, or of ideas, or of people using the former to help shape the latter.

Or am I being naive?


Donigan said...

You are not being naive, and I ditto your response here to the Suckenick quote.

Facts are facts, data is data, information is information, and all these things MAY contain some version of what we use the word true to indicate. While it is a contradiction to say that a fact is not true, data and information may or may not be either true or factual.

Biographies, for example, are no more "true" than good novels are. When you come across dialogue or "he thought" lines in biographies, that can be nothing more than guessing, novelizing in a way, from the author. Even in memoirs, most if not all, lines of dialogue, rendering thoughts from the minds of others, especially when decades have past, is no different from the "truthful" dialogue and thoughts employed by good novelists.

The news is a rendering of a series of facts, at least one hopes facts are the basis of news accounts, although what passes for "fact" on pseudo news cable channels like Fox in the States is so distorted as to be useless as viable information.

The best novels tell stories that reveal the truth underpinning all experience.

It is not the novel I worry about continuing, it is the book itself.

Mark said...

Fascinating. I continue to be astounded by how much this blog seems to strike at the things that have been pressing to me in the last year or so.

John Lukacs writes a good bit about the rise in popularity of history and biography in the last fifty years as people find themselves attracted to the concrete reality they seem to find. The novel is a product of the Modern Age, right? It's not that old. Lukacs thinks that with the ending of the Modern Age, the novel may disappear too. I'm not convinced, but I do believe it may be losing it's place at the center of literature. And you do see more and more novelists pulling towards history, I think. And more popular historians writing like novelists.

Donigan is on to something, I think. Fiction and non-fiction are closer than we often think because both involve construction. No account is ever "a series of facts," but is instead a construction. There's no such thing as "just the facts" because a fact without associations is meaningless. So accuracy, as Donigan implies, never guarantees truth. And there are perfectly accurate accounts that are lies.

Still, I do think that reading a biography or history is a different kind of truth than the novel can offer. The novel's source is the author, while in history and biography there's this tension between a kind of dual historicity of the writer and his subject. While both are constructions (and so we should be wary of any history that claims or pursues some kind of finality), history wrestles with forming a narrative out of something that actually happened.

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks Donigan. You're right, of course, about novels revealing the truth underpinning existence. The best do it almost without you realising it. The worst are when the author is out to deliver a message and you get the feeling of being preached to. I reckon McCarthy slips into that quite frequently.

the future of the book: yes, that seems to be a major concern of yours. I'm going to read your blog piece on this properly in a while, and will probably comment over there.

Mark, glad there seems to be some synchronicity in our areas of investigation...

The first novel is usually reckoned to be Robinson Crusoe or Don Quixote, so relatively recent, yes. All the French writers and their coterie - Robbe Grillet et al - were predicting the death of the novel in the sixties. No need for characterisation, no need for plot, everything post modern. It didn't really happen. Novels are still by and large written in the same way, narrative driven. Think of serious novelists: how many are truly experimental? I don't know the answer to that, offhand, but I suspect not that many. Compare that to, say, music, where the influence of jazz has been far-reaching and consistent. Or the visual arts, in which painting - the equivalent, surely, of the novel - is regarded as somewhat old-fashioned. But literature seems to be resisting.