Sunday, November 22, 2009

Revenge of the real

Another foray into the 'end of the novel' debate, this time by Zadie Smith in The Guardian. It's a very good essay, thought provoking and, although I don't fully go along with her, she makes some excellent points.

Her starting point is the apparent coincidence of a number of authors - Foer, Drabble, Achebe - writing essays recently, rather than fiction. Why?, she wonders.

She then refers to a forthcoming work by American novelist-essayist David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which sounds like it will be a provocative polemic. As Smith, who has read a pre-publication copy, describes it, Shields:

argues passionately for the superiority of the messy real – of what we might call "truthiness" – over the careful creations of novelists, and other artists, who work with artificial and imagined narratives. For Shields it is exactly what is tentative, unmade and unpolished in the essay form that is important. He finds the crafted novel, with its neat design and completist attitude, to be a dull and generic thing, too artificial to deal effectively with what is already an "unbearably artificial world".

Okay, there is much to agree with here. But equally there is much to disagree with. I have argued before about novels which are so intent on promulgating their theme they wrap it ever tighter round the narrative, until it becomes utterly constricting. Every damned event has to be linked to the theme somehow, every character has his or her role to play, and it all begins to feel utterly artificial. So, to that extent, I completely agree with Shields.

However, what he is describing is bad writing. And, in arguing so fundamentally against the novel's ability to catch the essential randomness of existence, he is relegating the whole of literature to the level of bad writing. That isn't so. It doesn't have to be like that. There are writers out there who very satisfactorily manage to overcome the sort of objections that Shields is raising. Let me cite Cormac McCarthy, for example, and I'm not naturally a great defender of his, but No Country For Old Men, for all its faults, is a superb example of a novel managing to mirror the unpredictability of life and not conform to a tedious, pre-arranged structure and plot. In strictly literay terms it is almost barking mad: everything is set up for a major showdown between Ed Tom and Chigurh, and yet they never meet, because Chigurh is badly injured in a car wreck and limps into the distance; the whole novel charts Chigurh's relentless pursuit of Moss, and yet Moss is killed off-page by the Mexicans; the novel ends with a long dialogue between Ed Tom and an old man we haven't even seen before, and then with Ed Tom recounting a dream he had about his father. It's a crazy ending, but it works. Absolutely nothing that the traditional novel would lead the reader to expect in No Country For Old Men actually happens.

Smith then explains further Shields' thinking:

He recommends instead that artists break "ever larger chunks of 'reality' into their work", via quotation, appropriation, prose poems, the collage novel . . . in short, the revenge of the real, by any means necessary. And conventional structure be damned. To make the point, Reality Hunger is itself without obvious authorial structure, piecing its arguments together by way of scattered aphorisms and quotation, an engaging form of bricolage. It's a tribute to Shields's skill that we remain unsure whether the entire manifesto is not in effect "built" rather than written, the sum of many broken pieces of the real simply shored up and left to vibrate against each other in significant arrangement. The result is thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it, as I do.

Hmm. Doesn't that sound awfully like the sixties and seventies experimental stuff that grew up around Robbe-Grillet and co? And doesn't it sound equally artificial?

Smith has the same reservations. She makes the excellent observation:

Novels... are idiosyncratic, uneven, embarrassing, and quite frequently nausea-inducing – especially if you happen to have written one yourself. Within the confines of an essay or – even better! – an aphorism, you can be the writer you dream of being. No word out of place, no tell-tale weak spots (dialogue, the convincing representation of other people, plot), no absences, no lack. I think it's the limits of the essay, and of the real, that truly attract fiction writers. In the confined space of an essay you have the possibility of being wise, of making your case, of appearing to see deeply into things – although the thing you're generally looking into is the self. "Other people", that mainstay of what Shields calls the "moribund conventional novel", have a habit of receding to a point of non-existence in the "lyrical essay".

That is spot on. In the past year I've written far less fiction than in the past, and have instead been writing academic essays. I like both, and I particularly enjoy researching, creating ideas, formulating theses, arguing them, coming to conclusions. It's very satisfying. But it isn't the same as writing fiction. It doesn't give the same exhilaration. It doesn't have the same sense of danger - that feeling that you might, just might, find out something about yourself that you don't like, but can't escape. The novel allows a degree of freedom that the essay simply can't. Shields appears (on the basis of what I've read in the Smith article) to have a valid point but he argues it to an untenable extreme.

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