Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Appropriately Insular

Two weeks ago at The Elegant Variation, Mark Sarvas posted in four installments his interview with Joseph O'Neill, author of Netherland. Much of the interview is of little interest to me, but I admit that I made a point to skim through the whole thing because Sarvas hinted ahead of time that they were going to be getting into the much-blogged-about Zadie Smith essay from last Fall, in which Smith discussed Netherland alongside Tom McCarthy's Remainder (for example, I wrote about it here, and, sort of, here). In the event, that particular part of the interview doesn't really go anywhere terribly fruitful. Nevertheless, there are a few interesting points I'd like to highlight, since they have bearing on questions that some of us have been discussing of late. I'm posting this now as a placeholder, which I hope will lead into future posts on these topics.

First, from the third part of the interview, in reference to Nobel Committee member Horace Engdahl's controversial remarks about the alleged insularity of contemporary American fiction:
TEV: Do you think that this question of the insular nature of contemporary American fiction afflicts the younger generation in a way that it didn't the Mailers and the Roths and the Bellows?

Joseph O'Neill: No, I think part of the problem for the young generation may be that they're not insular enough. I mean, Updike and Bellow and Roth achieved their finest, most resonant effects by disregarding conventions of universality. You wrote about what American Jews, or what you have you, were up to in these little towns, and the world followed you.

TEV: Very particular and very personal.

Joseph O'Neill: Yeah. There is no space between these writers and their concerns. You rarely get the sense with them that they are just trying to write a novel. I’m talking about their most successful work. And I think they were appropriately insular with regard to their raw materials.
"Appropriately insular". Whatever one thinks of the particular writers mentioned (I'm much higher on Roth and Bellow than I am on Updike, and I couldn't possibly care less about Mailer than I do), this is an excellent observation. I think it speaks to something important about literature, and has bearing on discussions about writing in general, modernism, post-modernism, and so on.

Then in part four they finally come around to addressing Smith's piece:
TEV: Because I agree with you. It's interesting that you have brought up Zadie Smith because I was going to ask about her next. I think that a lot of people draw the wrong kind of conclusions with a piece like the one that she wrote. I think that it sets up some false oppositions. I feel like this form of the novel is capacious enough to accommodate all different styles

Joseph O'Neill: Yes.

TEV: And the notion that one has to chose [sic] between Netherland or Remainder just seems silly. I liked Remainder a great deal, as well. I don’t feel that they're mutually exclusive, that one must declare an allegiance.

Joseph O'Neill: I'd actually read and liked Remainder before that piece. And I thought it was a perfectly good piece of writing. I'm not sure I would describe it as unconventional, not least because that description, as I've said, would not mean very much.

TEV: Yes. But I think that some of the sentiments that she expresses hold sway among this younger generation of writers, whether it’s people coming out of the McSweeney’s School or the purveyors of the uber-ironic, the tendency toward a hip nihilism or something like that that. That they mistrust, in essence, the idea of a beautiful sentence. Some people find that corny, the notion of a beautiful sentence.

Joseph O'Neill: Well, it depends on how you define them as beautiful. I mean, you know, Foster Wallace wrote many beautiful sentences. I mean, there's nothing but beautiful sentences in his work. Even though he had a particular way of doing it. What makes a sentence beautiful, for me, is its conscientiousness. A hip, ironic sensibility is not necessarily conscientious. Neither is a sensibility that latches on to dusks and dawns and roses.
Obviously O'Neill is put in a weird position, having to comment on such an essay, but TEV sets the terms of the discussion in a not very helpful fashion. Though he's not wrong to observe that Smith set up a false opposition of sorts, I would argue that the much celebrated "capaciousness" of the novel is actually a problem (and by the way think that TEV is one of those who drew "the wrong kind of conclusions" from the essay). But I'll leave further remarks for future posts.

1 comment:

Edward Champion said...

Interesting take, Richard. And I certainly look forward to more examples. Aside from the needless subjective definition that O'Neill is pushed into, I'm fascinated by the prejudice among certain literary types that aesthetics stand above emotional truth, or that one's visceral response to phoniness is cynical.

Interestingly enough, China Mieville and I got into this subject in a recent Bat Segundo podcast. He didn't see any distinction between aesthetics and emotion within prose. And these taxonomic distinctions, which I've been just as guilty of at times, do indeed lead one down a patchy post-structuralist path.

In fact, it's worth pointing out that Smith herself commended E.M. Forster's midway point between sincerity and disingenuousness in a NYRoB essay late last year.