Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The haiku is not for me

This n+1 essay, about Roberto Bolaño and his reception by American readers and critics, includes this passage (italics in original):
American critics and regular readers alike usually don't care for sweeping literary-historical arguments. And yet in recent years we have been celebrating Sebald and Bolaño as if we really do believe in some big metanarrative about the novel—one that proclaims that, even post postmodernism, the form remains in crisis. Sure, Sebald and Bolaño deal with fascism, and both died at the height of their powers. More decisive is that neither fiction writer writes as if he believes in fiction. Our canonization of these writers implies a sense, even a conviction, that you can't be a really important novelist anymore unless you can't really write novels.
In a post responding to this essay, Scott Esposito addresses this passage thus:
Of course, when the unsigned editorialist says "can't really write novels," he/she is referring to novels in the 19th century (and maybe early 20th century) sense. Sebald's and Bolano's works are certainly novels, just not in the sense that some critics would like novels to only be viewed as."
I've wondered why we insist on having the word "novel" encompass so much. Why must it be asserted that the books written by Sebald and Bolaño "are certainly" novels? Are they? What is a novel? A novel is, presumably, everything, the genre-less genre, as I've said previously. Those critics, such as perhaps James Wood, who appear to be seeking to "limit" the novel, must then emerge as the enemy. (Though even for Wood, the novel is so flexible as to be just about anything, so long as it is "real".)

I was recently reading through the archives at zunguzungu, the excellent blog written by Aaron Bady that has too late come to my attention, and I came across this post from March, about a talk given at Berkeley by Franco Moretti. Moretti made the "provocative point that the high aesthetic novel is more of an epiphenomena of a mass commodity culture than the transcendence of it", and the "major question . . . was why the Chinese novel didn't develop like the novel did in Europe" . . . there are all sorts of obvious historical factors Moretti addresses: capitalism, imperialism, China's pre-industrial development, and so on. For Bady, these sorts of questions normally bother him, because "Why shouldn't [the Chinese novel] be different?" The question for him is "why the Chinese novel even gets called a novel in the first place, why a term of art derived from the French word for 'new' under a very historically contingent set of circumstances, in Europe, would be considered appropriate (to anyone) for reference to the classic long fictive prose narratives in China." He goes on (italics his):
the intractable problem at its roots, which is whether a novel is a novel because of historical or formal characteristics. One narrative of the rise of the novel points to the historical circumstances, the social factors that produce a particular kind of textual object and invest it with particular meanings and significance. Another narrative derives it from a structural form: the novel is a fictional narrative which is long and written in prose. That these "objective" features are historically defined (what it means to be fictional, for example, requires a secular consciousness) needs to be suppressed, as does the fact that giving history a legible form requires treating unreliably contingent objective forms as if they really were objective. But while history and form define each other, and are really separable, neither do the narratives collapse into each other. Is Robinson Crusoe a novel because that's what it was called at a certain point in history, or because it achieved some essentially novelistic form? If the former, a historical paradigm, then there can be no Chinese novel at all, just something that looks superficially similar from a distance. Yet if its the latter, a formalist definition, then how can a Chinese novel be Chinese?
I remember I used to think it was strange that there were Japanese novels. In part, I'm sure this had something to do with the logographic form of writing: I had a hard time imagining such works reading as novels. (Are Japanese prose works even written logographically?) I generally dismissed this puzzlement as my own problem, but the question nagged at me on occasion, though usually it remained just out of focus. Anyway, pondering the Japanese novel, I would think about those forms we're taught in grade school that belong to this or that national culture. We would write imitations for class assigments--haiku being the example that comes most readily to mind. But clearly haiku is not a form truly available to the writer writing in English. Later I would think of older European forms--the sonnet, say--and think to myself that the sonnet is not available to the contemporary writer. I could set out to compose a sonnet, yes, but it would be at best pastiche; however well done, however beautiful (or, more likely, ugly), it would stand awkwardly in relation to literary history, imitative, inappropriate, suspect, wrong. Its form is not for me, just as I understood intuitively that the haiku is not for me.

I was never really sure what precisely to think about my problem with the Japanese novel, but Bady's post zeroes in on some of what was troubling me. What is a novel? It seems to me that it's become defined down as simply "prose narrative of a certain length". Gabriel Josipovici has argued that the narrative mode of the 19th century novel became so dominant (not least because of England's--and to lesser extent France's--role as imperial power, I would add), that we expect it to hold true for very different sorts of narratives. The Bible, for example, we approach as if it should yield the same sorts of effects as would a George Eliot novel. When it does not yield these effects, we find it wanting, incomprehensible; or, we read effects into it that are not there, and could not be, an approach with numerous interpretative and affective pitfalls of its own. Why should the effects be similar? Why should we read a Japanese prose narrative as if it followed the same rules, created the same effects, as a Dickens novel? Why should contemporary prose works necessarily be treated as novels? Why do we insist that of course a given work is a novel, just not the kind of novel some readers expect? Why, indeed, should adventurous or exploratory or so-called experimental prose writing be subject to the same expectations as a novel? Why called a novel at all? (As always, I am ignoring the needs of the publishing industry.) Are Thomas Bernhard's works novels? Or might it be better to call them, simply, "prose works"? What about Blanchot's récit? Is Josipovici's Everything Passes a novel? David Markson's This Is Not A Novel was titled, so I understand, in response to what one reviewer reportedly actually wrote in dismissing Reader's Block, his previous work. But what if we just saw the title as simply accurate and then worked from there?


zunguzungu said...

Cheers! My personal definition of the novel is the thing I never have time to read, since I'm spending so much of it tearing through history and anthropology. One of these days I'll get to read Bolano, dangit. And man, thanks for reminding me that I overuse italics.

More seriously, I do think, as you suggest, that we'd have much more interesting things to say about the taxonomy of ways of writing if we weren't so limited by the categories we've inherited. There's something about the idea of dividing literature into novels, poetry, and plays that makes me think, now, about what Rob Mcdougall said here about whales and fish could apply to terms like the novel:

"Whales are not fish, I know, but when you examine the taxonomies, “whale” and “fish” both turn out to be such messy, arbitrary, non-monophyletic* categories that the smugness with which I, and generations of eight-year-old know-it-alls before and since, have always reported that fact turns out to be a little unfounded. And historically speaking, whales were fish, by most people’s lights, until some time in the 18th or 19th centuries."

Or even Borgesian in the ways that a poem and the novel are defined from such significantly different points of departure as to make it a little like comparing genres drawn with a very fine camelhair brush and genres included in the present classification.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Of the many good things in this post I especially enjoyed the movement itself – how you managed to take us from Bolano to haiku, with a number of other stops (with interesting sights) along the way.

Reading this post and Bady’s in close succession, though, made me uncomfortably aware of a possibly imperialist impulse at work behind my own preference for the broad-school definition of the novel. Is my desire for every long prose narrative to be available to me as a “novel” only, or at least primarily, an echoing expression of this historical will to coopt, annex, and colonize?

But then I thought it might be possible to turn the argument around. Next to Bady’s division of explanations of “What is a novel?” into the formalist and the historical, I’d like, only semi-facetiously, to add a third: the polemical. I want the Bible (much of it in verse!) and Dream of the Red Chamber and the Satyricon and even, say, Anatomy of Melancholy to be “novels” because of the way this screws with the more restricted definition according to which C19 Euro realism sets the tune. I see it as a way to undermine, rather than affirm, the enthronement of a certain type of prose narrative as The Novel.

I realize as I write this however that I might only be displacing the question onto a different terrain. I’m still reading according to protocols that come from somewhere. I have the idea of the “traditional novel” in my mind even as my pleasure comes from reading against its grain, seeing how its conventions can be subverted or how other types of prose narrative can talk back to or interrogate it. This would seem to be, given my own history and conditioning, inevitable. However, I also think that I’d still be reading with the "classic" template in mind whether I called the long prose work in front of me a novel or not. Whatever we decide to call Bernhard's works, for example, I know that part of my pleasure is seeing what he's "doing" with "the novel." Same with Sebald, Bolano, et al.

Or, wait, maybe–-

You see, I’ll be thinking over these issues for some time to come. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, as well as for introducing me to yet another interesting blog!

Jim H. said...


Thanks for a thought-provoking post. The issue is thorny one. Over at Wisdom of the West, I've been looking at something I call the Ur-story. In a nutshell, it is the essence of fiction of which the novel—as well as many forms such as drama and, yes, even the Bible—is one an example.

The novel is one form in which stories are written (told). It has certain characteristics—e.g., it must be fiction, it must have a certain unity, etc. But what distinguishes the form of the novel from, say, the form of the pastoral or picaresque or the romance or the nouveau roman is a thornier one. Are the differences merely formal? Is there an essential similarity?

Wonderful ponderables—all provoked by your post.

Drop by my site sometime for a good read.

Best wishes for the holidays,
Jim H.

NigelBeale said...

The only thing that this post provokes is:frustration.

Writers are inspired to tell stories using varying numbers of words. Motivation varies. Readers read these words, and depending upon their experiences and predilections, either like or dislike, learn or don't learn anything from the text. Who cares what label happens to have attached itself to this form, or who happens to have attached it, other than literary conspiracy theorists?

Richard said...

I imagine you would be frustrated; it's frustrating consistently not understanding what people are talking about.

Or did you simply skip the part where I talked about expectations, and how they affect our reading?

Melissa said...

Personally, I like reading historical books and novels. When I can find one that involves both topics and interests me, I call it a "bonus". Speaking of Chinese novels, the only one I have found to fit the historical/novel genre that actually interests me would be "Return to the Middle Kingdom", by Yuan-tsung Chen.

Jacob Russell said...

I share your discomfort with the resstrictive nature of the lable... I addressed this in a comment on Dan Green's blog.

I like Montaigne's idea in calling his writing "essays."

Why not, Fictional Essays?

I've been thinking about this for some time, and call my almost finished "novel;"

Ari Figue's Cat: a Fictional Essay in 72 chapters.

Richard said...

Thanks, Jacob. I like your longer comment to Dan's post.

Andrew Seal said...

I meant to respond to this entry when you posted it, but now I'm glad that Dan Green's and Jacob Russell's discussions have brought me back to it.

I think Moretti is a really crucial reference here: one of the things that is tremendously powerful about some of his work is the way it questions the set of tools we think is appropriate to use when working with prose narratives. Close reading we've gotten from poetry, hermeneutics from biblical exegesis. Perhaps the problem is not so much an underlying assumption that novels resemble one another, but that there is an underlying assumption that our analyses/evaluations of different prose writings can all resemble one another.

I guess what I'm wondering is whether the term "novel" isn't used in critical or scholarly discussion to refer to the set of interpretive and evaluative tools we have become accustomed to using on prose writing, regardless of its formal vagaries.

That is, since the formal and historical diversity of prose writings is widely acknowledged without much problem, is the persistence of the term 'novel' not more related to a recalcitrant faith that there is a cohesive "toolbox" of interpretive/evaluative strategies which can be adapted and applied to the diversity of prose writing?

I don't think I expressed that very well: what I mean is, if I refer to Bernhard's works as "novels," am I making some claim about their formal similarity to George Eliot or that there is some historical link between the two authors' oeuvres, or am I saying that I intend to use analytical/evaluative strategies on "Woodcutters" which I could also use, with some adaptation, on "Middlemarch?" Is it the inputs to the critical machine that we're saying are the same, or the outputs?

I'm glad you mentioned "the needs of the publishing industry"--I think that's something to consider as well, although I do think critical classifications are primary--that publishers and booksellers (and libraries) follow critical conventions rather than the other way around. After all, booksellers just have to give readers a way of finding a book they want, not a way of classifying the reading experience.

bianca_steele said...

I also replied at more length on Dan Green’s blog. As I said there, I was struck by the same paragraph in the n+1 piece on Bolano (as I forgot to mention there, I think I was pointed to it in the first place by Andrew Seal), and -- though I’m not a particular fan of n+1 -- I give credit to the editors for recognizing that and feeling uncomfortable with it. I agree that their statements to the effect that “these novelists can’t write novels” and “these novelists don’t believe in fiction” are problematic, but I wonder whether their definition of “novel” is the best place to start. I wondered, rather, about why they concluded that the writers “don’t believe in fiction.” Just because their books “aren’t novels”? But isn’t that circular logic? To my mind, what a novel is depends on what novelists think more than what critics and literature professors think (but I didn’t study literature at a university so I would think that, wouldn’t I).

-- bianca steele
(apologies if the OpenID tag doesn't look right)

Richard said...

Thanks for the comments, Andrew & Bianca.

Interestingly, when I read the n+1 piece, it was the "they don't believe in fiction" line I was most interested in. I rather glided over their too easy conflation. It was Scott Esposito's assurance that they were indeed writing novels that sparked this post.

I should say that the post is meant to express an uneasiness, yes, but not a desire to strictly enforce boundaries. I appreciate Andrew (much food for thought, Andrew, thanks!) bringing it back around to Moretti, who I have not read, though now I have a few different ideas pointing me in his direction... and of course, for me Josipovici's work related to this topic, which I only hinted at above, is vital.