Monday, June 26, 2006

Business as Usual

Using Dara Hunt's novel The World to Come as a jumping off point, Dan Green discusses the ways in which much contemporary fiction does not challenge received ideas on what fiction ought be like:

...if I were an editor beginning to read The World to Come for potential publication, I would almost immediately conclude that it [in Sven Birkerts phrases] "assumes a basic condition of business as usual," that numerous "tired assumptions remain in place," that while the novel does attempt to "create its own world," this attempt comes not from the "threshold," but from a place where fiction is regarded as a set of fixed assumptions and techniques from which is chosen the one that will most efficaciously carry the narrative burden to be placed on it. In this case, Horn doesn't so much lean on the "literature of a former era" (she actually takes this as part of her subject, and her examination of Jewish artistic/literary traditions is one of the more compelling aspects of the novel) as on this set of presently-established conventions, themselves a product of "modern" storytelling practices but, as I have been contending, now urgently in need of reexamination. In invoking the "world to come," Horn's novel is, of course, endeavoring to capture something essential about this world, about our longings and frustrations, but it is impossible to read such passages as the one quoted above without thinking that this is at odds with its very prosaic language and method of character creation, which do depend on customary "props."

This is a common theme of Dan's, but this is one of the few posts I can recall in which he's used a new novel to grapple with them. I believe he's recently expressed a desire to post more about current fiction, as well as fiction in translation; I look forward with great interest to more such posts from him.

When I wrote about Jonathan Coe's novel, The Rotters' Club, I said that he used a variety of narrative techniques and that the novel was entertaining enough. The truth is, I was occasionally bored with it, and this was largely because Coe's prose wasn't terribly inventive and, though Coe tries to shake things up with the differing techniques, none of these techniques is novel in its own right. In the early pages, I found my attention starting to waver because it felt to me that the prose was often merely at the level of a series of "and thens", the main minor novelty for me being that it was more English than American in syntax and vocabulary. I was ultimately able to enjoy the book, for the most part, but I definitely saw it as being outside my main reading focus. It's possible that my greater enjoyment of Coe's earlier novel, What a Carve Up!, is in part due to my having read it earlier in my development as a reader (but I also nevertheless still think it's a much better book).

I have actually read very little of the literature that built these sets of readerly expectations for what fiction should be like. I've read only two novels by Jane Austen, two by Dickens, nothing by James or George Eliot or Fielding or any of the Bront√ęs, none of Tolstoy's novels (though I have read several of his stories), two by Dostoevsky (one of the long ones, one short), one by Flaubert... the list, alas, goes on and on. I consider this a major gap and I have been trying to address it, but slowly, slowly. I've read Mansfield Park, Oliver Twist, Notes from the Underground, and Madame Bovary (not to mention Tristram Shandy!) all in the last couple of years, and have plans to continue to read several more novels of similar vintage mixed in with everything else. The point of this mini-confession, though, is not some sort of self-flagellation, but to say that, even having missed most of the major path-setting works in the genre, I nevertheless still come to a book with a received set of generalized readerly expectations, so that I'm afraid that I haven't always noticed when a writer is following the well-worn path set by previous writers. I mean, hey, the book is (or is not) enjoyable, or well-written, or whatever, and that's just fine (and sometimes it is). Among my reasons for wanting to read the classic novels, other than simply wanting to read great literature, is so that I may better appreciate when writers are doing something new, when they have departed from established modes of storytelling.

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