Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Successful Solutions

As has been reported various places, Rosalind Belben has won the James Tait Memorial Prize for her novel Our Horses in Egypt. I've only recently heard of Belben, in the form of effusive praise from, first, Gabriel Josipovici and Mark Thwaite, both at Ready Steady Book in the last year (for example, both cited Our Horses in Egypt in RSB's end-of-year symposium), and now Steve Mitchelmore. Steve suggests that recognition for Belben is long overdue, noting that praise appears to have been slow in coming Belben's way because she has been labeled "an experimental writer". He refers to a review by Laura Brandon of two earlier Belben novels (Dreaming of Dead People and Is Beauty Good, two books that have immediately joined Our Horses in Egypt at the head of my to-find list), in which Brandon calls Belben "an explorer". I haven't read Belben yet, but I agree with Steve in principle, that "exploratory writer" is a much more useful, and less deliberately alienating, term than is "experimental writer". To my mind, the word "experimental" carries a whiff of the sterile and is typically only used to separate certain books from readers, to indicate their position outside the natural order of things. "Exploratory", by comparison, is warmer, more inviting.

Steve's post brought to mind the final piece in The Mirror of Criticism (1983), in which Josipovici writes about this very issue. He notes that reviews of his novels Migrations and The Air We Breathe were mixed, but that positive or negative, he was seen as an "experimental writer", much to his surprise. In these novels, Josipovici was, the reviewers had it, "deliberately [trying] to make things difficult for the reader", and perhaps had, in one reviewer's phrase, "a lingering but still severe case of the Robbe-Grillet syndrome." He summarizes the assumptions shared by the reviewers of these two novels thus:
. . .there are writers and there are experimental writers; the 'experimental' is a sub-branch of fiction, rather like teenage romances or science fiction perhaps, but differing from them in being specifically highbrow, and, like other highbrow activities, such as abstract painting and classical music, it is totally unconnected with the real world; however, we should tolerate this for the health of art (and to show how tolerant we are).
It seems to me that the situation is much the same now, only such reviewers are more hostile toward what they see as "experimental" and less inclined to think it should be "tolerated". In this view, fiction is commodity and it is entertainment. As such, it should be generally accessible. There rarely seems to be any sense that fiction might be writing that finds its form, in which the writer finds the form necessary to say what needs to be said, as fiction. No: writers are storytellers peddling entertainment, nothing more, depositing amusing or diverting "story content" into pre-existing fictional containers. Any other sort of writing is deemed presumptuous or pretentious, or perhaps unduly infected by bad influences. As capitalism is the air we breathe, so that it seems to us natural, allowing us to imagine "no alternative", fiction naturally belongs in the form of the 19th century novel, with perhaps various Modernists' techniques thrown into the mix to spice things up (innovative techniques being all that the Modernists, in this view, were about).

Josipovici again:
The interesting question is why a reviewer should speak quite naturally of 'a lingering but still severe case of the Robbe-Grillet syndrome' but never, in the case of most novels being produced today, of 'a severe case of the Charlotte Brontë or the George Eliot syndrome'? Why is there this presumption that the novel as written by these two writers is somehow natural, while that written by Robbe-Grillet [. . .] is fabricated-with-intent-to-be-clever, or even with-intent-to-deceive-and-confuse?
Noting that these particular two novels of his had seemed, to him, far from distancing and coldly "experimental", the most personal of his novels up to that time. For him, writing these novels, as with his others, was about finding the right way to write, about solving certain problems, unique to each novel. Here is where he locates the difference:
. . . the distinction is not between 'experimental' and 'non-experimental' art, but between successful and unsuccessful solutions to problems. I suppose there is no such thing, strictly speaking, as an unsuccessful solution. If the artist is aware of something that needs a solution, he will find it. Looking at the history of art one sees that for most of the time artists aren't even aware that there is a problem. And the difference is really between the writer who, whether by instinct or by thought, 'gets it right', and the one who imagines he is writing what he feels, what he wants, but who is really only reproducing someone else's way of feeling. All talk of plagiarism pales before this much deeper and more prevalent kind of unacknowledged borrowing, which is the mode of working of nine artists out of ten.
One might add that, when the artist is aware of the problem, writing is necessarily exploratory.

Incidentally, to bring it back round to Belben just a little bit before closing, at the end of this essay, Josipovici compares books to friends. We can't justify them, and we don't ask "what do they mean?" But we return to them again and again, and to each for different reasons. In this light, he takes note of three then-recent novels that he regards as masterpieces: Bernard Malamud's Dubin's Lives, Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual (which was then as yet untranslated into English), and Belben's Dreaming of Dead People, mentioned above (which, though "well received" upon release, "somehow has failed to establish itself as the major work it undoubtedly is"). Malamud's novel sits on my shelf, awaiting my attention, Perec's has long been on my list (though I keep deferring acquiring it until I've read other books first), and now Belben's is there too. With these three novels in mind reminding him that writers do indeed find their way, Josipovici closes with these words:
My advice to anyone who asks about 'experimental' writing today would be: forget about labels and go out and buy these three books. Reviewers may be influential, but in the end it's the writers who count. And the good writers will go on producing the books they have to regardless of the reviewers.

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Anonymous John Self said...

Very interesting. I rate both the Malamud and the Perec, but I am afraid that when I read Our Horses in Egypt earlier this year (on Mark Thwaite's recommendation: he's done well for her!), I struggled to keep up with Belben and 'put it aside' for now. Life: a User's Manual is interesting because it removes the popular conceit that experimental (or exploratory) fiction must be somehow obstructive to the reader. The Malamud I haven't read in about ten years but I have begun to read him again this year, enjoying The Assistant for the first time, so will no doubt get back to Dubin's Lives - and to Belben - soon.

September 17, 2008 6:39 AM  

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