Monday, April 30, 2007

Destroys the Idea of the Novel

Ten days ago at Ready Steady Book, Mark Thwaite articulated a manifesto of sorts, "Against Establishment Literary Fiction":
When I talk to folk, especially publishers, about what kinds of books I like to feature on RSB, I often reach for the phrase Literary Fiction ... and then I quickly backtrack. Literary Fiction is one of the genres of fiction that I'm happy to feature on TBD's homepage, alongside a host of other types of books. And Literary Fiction is, undoubtedly, the genre that many of the books that have been reviewed on RSB in the past have belonged to. But, editorially -- and by that I mean, via the blog, and from my heart -- I'd actually like RSB to be seen as being anti-Literary Fiction. Indeed, what I've taken to calling Establishment Literary Fiction is, to me, the very antithesis of literature: it is hubristic, formulaic and trite; it is non- essential.

Literary Fiction is genre fiction; literature, art, is writing that deconstructs the very idea of genre. Proust's In Search of Lost Time isn't literary fiction, but a novel that destroys the idea of the novel in its very realisation. Beckett's famous lines from Worstward Ho -- Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. -- are in themselves a manifesto for writers and writing. If Literary Fiction is defined by its proud masterpieces, its smug perfections, literature should be known as a failed art that in its failing helps us to understand our own feeble inadequacies and helps us to fail better.
Mark rather pithily captures some of what I've been trying to get at here, where I've been banging away on this topic for a while now. I see The Existence Machine as, in part, engaging in this type of conversation. I, too, want to reach toward the phrase "Literary Fiction" when trying to characterize what I read and want to write about. But the term feels, aside from pretentious, false. The word "literary" is what grabs me, of course. I am interested in the literary, aesthetic qualities of fiction. I'm interested in figuring out what those are, in understanding them. I'm interested in discussion that attempts to deal with these things. But I am less and less interested in the hot "literary" titles. Certainly plenty of what I enjoy reading, and have written about, would fall under the rubric of "establishment literary fiction" (Philip Roth is surely establishment, no?). However, that some actual literature gets marketed as literary fiction is no reason to not read it. At the same time, I feel no particular need anymore to try to keep up with the latest releases. The point is not that none of this fiction is worthy, but that so much of it is as unquestioningly formulaic as the non-literary fiction genres. And all the chatter about it tends to obscure that.

One of the great things about blogs, of course, is the multitude of voices. It's useful and important to hear these voices. However, one of my personal frustrations with blogs--lit blogs in particular--is that there is so little baseline agreement on what is meant by certain ideas. For example, what is meant by "genre". Every so often a genre-fight/discussion will erupt in the comment section at this or that blog (like here, or here; see also Jonathan Lethem's much talked about piece on the alleged provincialism of science fiction, an exchange between Lethem and Ray Davis here, and Davis' longer reply here), but all too rarely, it seems to me, does the conversation build on itself. Each time the discussion appears as if anew--even as some of the participants express weariness at once again having to explain their particular point. And very few people seem to understand the word genre in the sense used by Mark, above. I've been trying to straddle that line. I've been trying to write about literature in a way that recognizes that "literary fiction" is merely another genre, but also trying to write about the more commonly understood sense of "genre"--science fiction, mystery, crime, etc.

About three weeks ago, Ellis Sharp had an interesting post in which he defended Philip K. Dick from the charge of writing awful prose:
In the case of Philip K. Dick, I don’t find the prose that bad. Yes, sometimes it’s very tired and lazy. Other times it’s dazzling. And when it comes to writing fiction, style and gleaming prose isn’t everything. Think about (for example) Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson. Henry James might well seem to be the better writer, with a massively accomplished oeuvre. But I would argue that ultimately he never wrote anything as important as what Stevenson achieved in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which manages simultaneously to be a hugely accomplished piece of writing and a brilliant exploration of the contradictory nature of human identity and a very insightful account of Victorian society and its hypocrisies. And Stevenson arrived there by way of genre writing. Interesting.
Here, of course, Ellis uses the second sense of "genre" noted above. But more on Dick:
Dick reminds me of Stevenson in some ways. He’s more than just a great storyteller. He’s very good on paranoia, alienation and the self under stress. I first discovered Dick’s work as a young teenager, when I read his early work Eye in the Sky. At one point the characters discover their genitals have vanished, replaced by nothing more than smooth skin. I found that very disturbing. Rather more disturbing than, say, Gregor Samsa waking up and discovering that he’s turned into a giant insect.

[. . .]

What I require from any piece of fiction is: does the writer’s vision engage me? If so, is it true to itself as art? And is it true to the world? In the case of Philip K Dick the answer is yes, yes, yes.
In what way might a work of "establishment literary fiction", say, be true to itself as art and be true to the world? Is working within established forms necessarily lazy? What does it mean to arrive at an effect "by way of genre"? Could a writer not arrive at that effect by way of the genre of literary fiction? Or, instead, does the work written using the apparent tropes of an established genre (including that genre of literary fiction), cease to be of that genre when the work achieves a kind of artistic truth? (Even perhaps when the author might not be aware of it?) That is, when, for example, we speak of Proust's work which, in its realization "destroys the idea of the novel"--in what sense does this include or exclude fiction that appears to merely be of a genre (science fiction, etc), but instead in its realization itself destroys the idea of the novel? Proponents of genre per se might (and do) accuse readers who stick to that which can be called "literary fiction" as not being able to see those so-called genre works that do exactly that.

Anyway, this post has rambled on long enough. I feel these questions help illustrate the confusion that occurs when different types of readers try to talk about genre. Still further confusion occurs when the question of entertainment--escapism--versus literature arises. . .


Anonymous said...

Should music be known as a failed art that in its failing helps us to understand our own feeble inadequacies and helps us to fail better? Or painting? Or art in general?
Surely the only sense in which art must fail is if people are stupid enough to imagine they can somehow be saved as a result of the artistic experience; presumably this the sublimation of the religious experience into the artistic.

Anonymous said...

sublimation of the religious desire...not religious experience. The desire being for enlightenment, absolute meaning, etc