Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Meaning and condescension

Scattered thoughts on certain aspects of contemporary literary fiction

He was thinking of his mother; of the dog; of Osman, in whom death was advancing cell by cell. He felt malevolence gathering force and drawing closer. The children crossed the street, hooded figures from a tale. Life would set them impossible tasks; straw and spinning wheels waited. Tom crossed his fingers and wished them luck: lives reckoned on the blank pages of history. And thought of a night in September when Nelly and he had sat contented in a pub, until people began to gather in front of the TV mounted on the wall at the other end of the bar.
It was their faces that had drawn him: uplifted and calm as churchgoers.
When they parted, Nelly said, 'Everything changes when Americans fall from the sky.'
The Lost Dog, Michelle de Kretser, pp. 140-41

Maybe I'm just tired of novels in which the mopey, passive protagonist wanders around having epiphanies about The World In Which We Live, but I found this passage, and others like it in The Lost Dog, fairly cringe-inducing. I'm going to advance the argument - dwelled upon at length, but admittedly not fully thought out - that a lot of contemporary fiction is diminished by the fact that its characters (protagonists in particular) are unrealistically self-aware of their roles as subjects of history. I don't mean that characters ought to remain blissfully unaware of geopolitics or ideology or local council noise regulations or whatever. I mean that it is contrived to have characters walk around acting, thinking and speaking beyond the ordinary limits of contextual awareness, ie. as self-conscious agents of or actors in historical events. This sense of contrivance includes characters responding to cataclysmic events by saying things like "Everything changes when Americans fall from the sky" - unless it's said in a Don DeLillo novel, in which case the contrivance is itself part of the novel's aesthetic apparatus. (However successful or unsuccessful that might be.)

I'm grasping here at something that has been bothering me about contemporary fiction for a while now. It's related to what I see as the reliance of many authors on a kind of forced profundity, an eagerness to explain great matters through necessarily reductive fictions, which tends to be inimical to the creation of fiction qua fiction, and in most cases has the paradoxical effect of weakening the explanation and undermining the profundity. There is a jigsaw quality to a lot of recent fiction: metaphor, character, setting, etc, all interlock to create an overall meaning or set of meanings that is itself the point of the novel. Of course I don't wish to suggest that meaning in fiction is a recent invention; it does seem to me, however, that the jigsaw method of composition, and the primacy of meaning, has recently become dominant, at least as far as "literary fiction" goes. Peter Ho Davies' The Welsh Girl, nominated for the 2007 Booker, is an example of just such a "jigsaw" novel. My review of the book read in part:
Inevitably, Davies draws Karsten and Esther together for one of those unlikely collaborations that mutual longing – although not necessarily for one another – sometimes conjures. In fact, despite the incongruity of their union, the German soldier and the Welsh farm girl share a common status. Karsten may be literally inside but he is a natural outsider, while Esther is so far outside her native community she is practically neck-deep in the Irish Sea. The reader recalls Rotheram: isn’t he also, in many ways, an outsider? And isn’t the village riven with various permutations of the outsider/insider dichotomy? And isn’t Wales itself an outsider nation? And isn’t – well, you get the idea.
Reading The Welsh Girl I could almost see the flow chart tacked to Davies' wall, plotting out the thematic relationships between the elements of his fiction. I find this approach incredibly condescending; the dialogue between reader and writer (or reader and text) becomes an authorial monologue - this is the message of my book, this is what I want you to take away from it. There is no space for ambiguity, no space for the reader at all. Tolstoy at least had the courtesy to sequester his didactic asides away from the main business of the novel.

To a certain extent I blame 9/11. The preference for literary fiction that tells us things about the world in which we live was already long established when the towers collapsed; the impression I have is that post-9/11 some writers felt that this preference now conferred upon them an obligation. Who would make sense of our tragic times if not the poet-seers, the writer-intellectuals? You might recall how quickly writers like Ian McEwan and Martin Amis recovered from their vocation-denying shock (Amis: "after a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12 2001, all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation") and began turning out fiction in which 9/11 and its consequences were the abiding themes. The truth is that far from being a burden 9/11 was a gift to some writers. No longer was one required to turn to the past for grand themes of life and death, war and peace, love and hatred – now you just had to look out of your window at the sun glinting off the fuselage of a passing jet, describe what you saw, implant your feelings of fear and confusion and outrage into an appropriate fictional vessel (while you’re at it why not make him a neurosurgeon with a talent for squash?), and profundity is your reward.

9/11 didn’t explode the consciousness of our major writers, it imploded their egos and gave them a perpetually renewable “subject” and the license to explore it at the expense of whatever aesthetic they had hitherto developed. All of a sudden it was deemed important that literature – more specifically the "great minds" behind literature – be seen to be tackling the big issues of our time. The irony is that so many of the products of this attitude are a little too polite, a little too safe, a little too pre-9/11 to do justice to (fallacy alert) their authors’ intentions. A novel such as Ian McEwan’s Saturday, while in a limited sense successful as a political handgrenade, is about as safe as fiction gets, a comfortable stroll through the “issues of the day” written in professional prose and with a consolatory structure. The whole business of the impending war is distanced. Surely, however, one feature of post-9/11 life is the immediacy and pervasiveness of events. The attacks on New York were so shocking partly because we all saw it, as it happened – however silly it sounds in hindsight, at the time it felt like it was happening to all of us. In this sense, a trashy-but-entertaining movie like Cloverfield has more to "say" about the post-9/11 world than "serious fiction" like McEwan's. There is something contemptible about the way McEwan and others use their complacent fiction to present diagnoses of these events. It is arrogant art: here comes fiction with all the answers! Doesn’t it make you think? What it doesn’t do is confront and disturb because that would require moving beyond certain safe modes of thought and presentation.

I suppose it's unfair of me to begin this post with a quotation from The Lost Dog, a novel that for the most part avoids the kind of simplistic interplay and faux-profundity I have been describing here. Another Booker-nominated novel, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, is however the acme of the post-9/11, thematic-jigsaw novel, and it's got a mopey, passive protagonist to boot. Netherland is sober and "realistic" and terribly sincere - a real "missive to the future" concerning our interesting times. I doubt I've read a less engaging novel all year, and I only wish I had my copy here so I could quote some of the deep thoughts O'Neill has his standard-issue white Western male protagonist think.

This post is less a consolidated essay than a collection of (possibly intemperate) "thoughts" about contemporary fiction and I'm not sure how coherent it is. I think what underlies everything I've said is a wish to read fiction that is honest. Not honest in the sense of realistic, but honest as in truthful to the work rather than to some facile "message". I'm tired of didacticism and "research". If I want argument and editorialising I can read the newspaper. If I want to know what happened when and to whom I can read history or biography. I read fiction for other reasons - aesthetic pleasure; intellectual diversion; a sense of possibility coupled to an implicit acknowledgment of limitation - things that are either beyond the ability of writers like Davies and O'Neill to provide, or else do not interest them. I suppose they have bigger things to think about.

Edit (14/08/08): I have altered and expanded upon the second sentence of the fourth-to-last paragraph in order to clarify my meaning. The sentence originally read: "The demand that literary fiction tell us things about the world in which we live was already long established when the towers collapsed." It now reads: "The preference for literary fiction that tells us things about the world in which we live was already long established when the towers collapsed; the impression I have is that post-9/11 some writers felt that this preference now conferred upon them an obligation. Who would make sense of our tragic times if not the poet-seers, the writer-intellectuals?"


Mark Lawrence said...

A very challenging post with quite a compelling argument, Tim.

The disgruntledness with literary fiction's predilection for novels that are predominantly character studies/ settings/ emotional introspection/ social reflections and such – stories where nothing actually happens – has been building for a while, and I share it.

Michael Chabon made a similar point in his editorial to the McSweeney's collection celebrating stories with plot a couple of years ago. But his beef was pretty much centred around the lack of plot and action, and with writers failing to make their characters do something, or make something happen to them, rather than just inside them... And that's not quite the same as making characters mouthpieces for the author's 'lesson'.

But then again, I don't just want to read about a character going around doing stuff – I want to have to think a little more about why they are doing these things, or why they are responding to events they way they do.

I guess the question is how does one balance this with it being "contrived to have characters walk around acting, thinking and speaking beyond the ordinary limits of contextual awareness, ie. as self-conscious agents of or actors in historical events."

Your picking up on the jigsaw them is one I haven't come across before, and it opens up some more ways at looking at current literature fashions.

Recently I heard an artist – specifically a film maker, I think, – on TV responding to the interviewer's point that they were trying to convey a 'message' to the audience.

The artist's response was that they thought the artist's first task was to entertain their audience – to give them a good enough reason to stay with them through the book/film/etc. Any message or agenda that got through was secondary – or a bonus.

By the way, I haven't read her book yeat, but I've very impressed with de Kretser's writing, from what I've seen. "Life would set them impossible tasks; straw and spinning wheels waited," has probably one of the best uses of an allusion that I've seen in writing for a while. I found myself immediately drawn to it and marvelling at how she contrived it. And I think its quite lovely.

I really think you should post this at Sars and open up the debate to a wider audience. It could be fun.

Kirsty said...

I second Mark's call to cross-post this to Sars. It's quite a brilliant and thoughtful post--far more coherent that you seem to suspect.

I'm no great expert on these novels--though I have read Saturday--but the attitude towards television in the line you quote from de Kretser does get up my nose. It merely confirms the same old cultural prejudices held by some of the readers/audiences for these novels (I hold out hope that consuming one form doesn't necessarily mitigate against the consumption of the other) : 'Oh yes, television is the new opium of the masses, its stories couldn't possibly offer any insight into our cultures. Anyone who watches it is clearly a total dupe.'

It's a fascinating concept you propose that literary fiction could be more patronising towards its audience than an overtly popular film like Cloverfield.

Anyway, I wonder if you've read Suite Francaise written by Irene Nemerovsky at the moment of the occupation of France in WWII? I wonder what you make of it in view of your comments about the events of 9/11 as fodder for contemporary writers?

TimT said...

I love the old-fashioned didactic books that just flat out have one of the seven holy virtues in dialogue with one of the seven deadly sins, or whatever. They're grouse.

But there's a big difference between them and the modern didactic novel, where the authors often attempt less to deliver a received truth, or praise some moral authority, but rather deliver their own original thoughts or individual inclinations with the same force as a received truth.

genevieve said...

Get thee to Sars, my boy. I am off to convince eldest son that he needs afternoon tea and more Olympics. I will digest these pretty nuggets later. But do share them with an even larger audience PLZ.
I'm guilty of thinking similar thoughts about the jigsaw argument regarding Gail Jones as we speak. But afternoon tea beckons.

Tim said...

Hi everyone. Thanks for the comments and the suggestions that I post this piece on Sars. I have now done so. I will try to respond to your comments, however I am quite ill with the flu at the moment (which may account for my concerns as to how coherent I was being in this piece), so it may be a couple of days.

Mark Lawrence said...

Get well soon, Tim. The conversation continues at Sars apace...