by wjw on May 5, 2010

[Update: Due to the vagaries of Blogger, this essay was originally published as if it were written on April 26. Thanks to Ken, I’ve learned how to adjust the time stamp, so here it is, as if it were new.]

I just got round to reading an essay/review by novelist/critic James Wood published a month or more ago in The New Yorker. It begins as a reaction to Reality Hunger: a Manifesto by David Shields, and then goes on to review Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered both in terms of the Shields book and Wood’s own stance as viewed through the lens of the Shields book.

(A discerning reader, merely from a glance at the above paragraph, will conclude that during the course of this article Mr. Lee’s book gets totally boned. He will be right.)

The article begins by asking “Does literature progress, like medicine or engineering?”, and then goes on to point out, “while anyone painting today exactly like Courbet, or composing music exactly like Brahms, would be accounted a fraud or a forger, much contemporary fiction borrows the codes and conventions—the basic narrative grammar—of Flaubert or Balzac without essential alteration.”

(I should like to point out right now that anyone writing today “exactly like” like Flaubert or Balzac would not be published, except perhaps as a curiosity, or a pastiche, or a parody. And that while writers may use Balzac’s “basic narrative grammar,” contemporary painters very much use the same “basic painterly grammar” as Courbet without painting exactly like him. So we have a problem with Wood’s argument right here. But this isn’t the meat of it, it’s an illustration, so let’s press on.)

Wood then zooms back to the Sixties with a recap of theorist Roland Barthes’ notions of the “reality effect”— “realistic fiction, like ideology, tries to palm itself off as the most natural and real of literary modes but is in fact the most artificial and unreal. Barthes is ninety-nine per cent right. His rightness is felt every day by any novelist who sits down to a blank piece of paper or a computer screen and tries, despairingly, to think beyond the familiar grammar of narrative. All this silly machinery of plotting and pacing, this corsetry of chapters and paragraphs, this doxology of dialogue and characterization! Who does not want to explode it, do something truly new, and rouse the implication slumbering in the word “novel”? [Let’s just leave aside the dozens of writers I know personally who don’t want to explode this machinery at all. Anyway, none of them are people Wood ever heard of.] Avant-garde anti-realists probably err in assuming that realist novelists are just complacently or venally recycling convention; my experience is that many intelligent novelists are painfully aware of their bated means, their limitations and timidities and uncertainties, and look with writhing admiration at writers like Beckett or Saramago or Bernhard or David Foster Wallace, who seem to have discovered new fictional languages.”

But fortunately, Wood notes a problem with Barthes’ argument: “Convention may be boring, but it is not untrue simply because it is conventional . . . [People’s lives] do possess more or less traditional elements of plotting and pacing, of suspense and revelation and epiphany. Probably there are more coincidences in real life than in fiction. To say “I love you” is to say something at millionth hand, but it is not, then, necessarily to lie.”

Well yeah. Good that someone finally pointed this out.

Wood gets to the Shields book finally, which apparently features sentences like this: “I love literature, but not because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters’ names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting. [Brave of him to confess himself such a bad reader.] It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking.”

(Ah well, bravo for him. We’re all for enlightenment here, though perhaps next time Shields wishes to seek wisdom, he should enter a Zen monastery instead of picking up a novel, and stop criticizing novels on the grounds that they’re not Zen monasteries.)

Wood claims that since Shields doesn’t give very many examples, doesn’t do literary criticism, and doesn’t want to offend anyone by explaining what they’re doing wrong, the manifesto has a tendency to flail away without grounding itself anywhere in particular— in other words, that the manifesto demanding reality fails to ground itself in the aforesaid reality. All I get from Wood is the vagueish sort of feeling that Shields prefers reality to artifice, and nonfiction to fiction. (Wood could, of course, be completely wrong about Shields, so it’s not necessarily Shields I’m talking about here, but the version of Shields that belongs to Wood.)

In any case, that’s all fine, except that, y’know, fiction is what I do, so naturally I have an opinion.

Also, as a writer I am deeply committed to story, not simply because I like stories, but because story is what makes the reader want to turn the pages, and as I writer I’m always hoping to keep my readers turning pages.

Should I ask somebody, “What did you do this morning?”, the answer might in theory be a list of random, disconnected events, rather like certain kinds of literary works, or like my memory when I’ve just got up in the morning. Odds are, though, that the answer is going to involve a story. It may be a boring, repetetive, unoriginal sort of story (personally I will stop listening to any story beginning with the words “I went to the store”) but you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a story of some kind.

We are hardwired both to create and to consume stories. Fiction does not have to address that particular function in our psyches— you can make fiction that’s about nothing but beautiful writing, or fiction that’s so choked with matter that it’s impossible to arrange it into anything like a story (see Pynchon), or didactic fiction where the plot is only an excuse for the characters to engage in long rants about white supremacy, the inevitable triumph of Marxist-Leninism, or the virtues of selfishness. You can do these things, though you run the commercial risk of losing that part of the audience that reads only for story.

But it has to be said that, for me at least, story will keep me going when the writing, or the cool stuff, or even the rants that I happen to agree with, otherwise fail.

Wood notes that the lives of actual people can feature plots, revelations, coincidence, and epiphany. True, but it all depends on where you start and end. If your fiction consists of nothing but lists of everyday objects your protagonist finds on the supermarket shelf, there’s not a lot of any of those “basic narrative grammars” on display. If you start ten minutes before an accident, take your protagonist through the car crash, and end with her waking in the hospital, then you’ve got a story.

The point being, you still have to pick and choose what goes in your fiction. Even if you’re writing an autobiographical novel (as Wood has done), you still have to sort through the bits and pieces of your life in order to find the gems that are worth writing about. And you then have to put these in some kind of order, in such a way as to sustain narrative tension or at least interest, and before you know it you’re in the plot business again, dealing out climaxes and epiphanies like the most seasoned commercial writer.

Or, to put it another way, fiction is not real. It’s choice, and the imposition of order, and the impulse to narrative. Fiction is an artifact. So a call for real fiction is like a call for apples to produce peach pits. Any perceived reality in a piece of fiction is strictly a function of the skill of the author, and whether or not she can convince you that what’s happening in her narrative is real.

What Shields is really calling for is fiction that produces the illusion of reality better than the predictable stuff that he’s bored with. Which is fine. I’m all for that, too.

While what Wood (and Barthes) seem to be calling for is novelty. They’re bored with stodge, with the same old stuff over and over again, and they want writers to produce anti-stodge. (At least Wood seems to realize that nobody produces stodge on purpose.)

So what it call comes down to is a plea for us all to Do It Better.

Okay, let’s! We can all do better! Let’s do that! Let’s all produce novelty and excitement and the illusion of something real! Rah!

We can all do that. Right?

I note, by the way, that Wood never answers the question he begins with: Does literature progress?

I assume he doesn’t get around to answering that question because the answer isn’t very exciting. The answer is No. Fiction evolves, but it doesn’t progress. (Evolution and progress are not necessarily the same thing.)

The tools of fiction haven’t changed, and we all get access to all of them. Some fade from fashion. (Epic verse, the Homeric simile) Some go into fashion and out again. (Stream of consciousness, long social novels with plots that depend on coincidence) Some tools remain useful no matter what epoch you’re working in. (Irony, foreshadowing, raising the stakes)

The tools are all there. We can use them or not. We can use them well or not. We can use them to produce Shields’ idea of realism or not. It’s all up to us, and of course our talent.

Fiction doesn’t progress. But writers can. Get busy.

Ken Thomas May 4, 2010 at 12:09 am

I'm not a writer, so I don't think I'm in a position to offer an opinion on the specific proposals you discuss, but I can toss an observation into the conversation. When I hear someone announce their boredom with pretty much everything thus far created, and demand that someone *else* create something *new* which will alleviate the tedium to which they are subjected, one of my favorite lines from one of your books crosses my mind. "Assholes always advertise."

Florin Pîtea May 4, 2010 at 9:40 pm

Congratulations on the posting, sir.

I've always been partial to the idea that, in case one is dissatisfied with other people's fiction (like the critic in the posting), one can always go ahead and write one's own fiction, more suitable to one's tastes.

dubjay May 5, 2010 at 1:33 am

I can't complain too hard when people tell me that they're bored with fiction and want something new and exciting, because I make the exact same complaint myself.

Of course, I also write the sort of thing that I like to read, so it can't be said that I'm not trying to do something about the problem.

The Great and Powerful Oz May 5, 2010 at 4:15 am

I read a lot. Various technical books covering both my profession (computers) and a number of other interests. When I sit down to relax, I read lots of science fiction and fantasy. In those cases, I'm not looking for lots of deep meaning or a story that I will have to work at to even understand, I'm looking for enjoyment. This means that I'm looking for a well told story. To use your example of "I went to the store", there are writers out there who are capable of spinning a tale around something so mundane that will keep me entranced. That's some of what I enjoy. Stories that give me things to think about are even better, but only if the story is told very well.

There's a certain author who has been villified for a series of books he wrote. Yeah, they were uncouth and thoroughly politically incorrect, but they were also some really good storytelling. I read an entire 400+ page book while making a trip from a convention to home. In the airports and sitting on the planes, it was one of the least unpleasant trips I've taken in a long time.

So, maybe it is the difference between fine art and commercial art.

And this blog's owner is on my "buy anything he writes" list. I was just too lazy to enter the TINAG contest.

S.M. Stirling May 6, 2010 at 2:19 am

In fact, no, the arts don't "progress" the way engineering or the sciences do.

Note that this applies even to architecture.

-Plumbing- progresses, as do heating and so forth, but the actual elements of -style- don't.

Modernist architecture isn't any better than Georgian; it's just different. The difference is a mere fashion, like hemlines or wearing pants vs. a kilt.

Aesthetic fashions are just that — purely arbitrary preferences, signifying nothing much.

So no, we shouldn't expect fiction to necessarily do anything "new". We tell stories.

Fashions in precisely how change; storytelling doesn't and won't.

So to the author of the article: Suck it up, you grotesque poseur.

Daniel Abraham May 6, 2010 at 4:02 am

I thnik there's a disconnect between being bored and figuring out what would entertain us. My experience with literature and art that was bent on being new was that it was new at the expense of what was good about the old stuff. I am unsurprisingly in Walter's camp. I don't care about doing something new anywhere near as much as I care about doing something well.

S.M. Stirling May 7, 2010 at 5:28 pm

"I don't care about doing something new anywhere near as much as I care about doing something well."

Sigh. Dan says things so compactly… can I steal that phrase?

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