The Verity La Forum was conducted by Alec Patric from July 2011 to December 2011
As a writer – albeit an unpublished writer, a putative novelist – statements about “the death of the novel” infuriate me. The first statement, especially, usually spouted by the kind of smug, unimaginative, untalented university literary theorist or cultural studies academic, searching desperately for something to say in time for their next ARC application or whatever pointless literary theoretical conference they’ve managed to wangle, especially enrages me.
A slew of books by flashy, quotable academics like Elif Batuman or David Shields, pronounce fiction obsolete or suggesting that creative writing degrees are inferior to literary theory ones. Obscure and unreadable “ficto-critics” use wild and incomprehensible punctuation to distract from the sloppy scholarship and awful writing that defines their “experimental” work, asserting that they can offer “new writing [and/or] aesthetic strategies” that supersede fiction, which they regard as obsolete, even if nobody reads their work – even, from the look of it, they themselves.
For such carpetbaggers, literature is always in a “state of emergency” – although, it must be added, not so much of an emergency that the usual 16 weeks’ holiday and two overseas conferences can’t still be taken – and readers compliant in a massive system of “co-option” in which “the self” is “subsumed” into some great, capitalist “hegemony.” Which could just as easily describe most university humanities departments, focused on “rationalisation” and “service delivery” and unwilling to countenance any other opinion than the usual gnomic French suspects.
As Jonathon Franzen points out in his essay, ‘Mr Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books’, “One frequent problem with the literature of emergency is that it doesn’t age well,” and these frequent pronunciations seem to be the apocalyptic cries of people who – most tellingly in Shields’ and Batuman’s cases – often seem to be failed novelists. Salman Rushdie didn’t seem to think the novel was dead when he’d written Midnight’s Children or The Satanic Verses – in fact, in the case of the latter, it had taken on a terrifying life of its own outside his authorial control – rather, he made his famous polemic announcement when nobody had really read any of his books for years (interesting, too, that he now considers television to be the “new literature,” having just written the screenplay for the upcoming miniseries of Midnight’s Children.
It seems the sky keeps falling in, year after year, with the introduction of each new technology – or the failure of each new Jeremiah to come up with anything beyond their own failing imaginations. Even Jean-Luc Godard has come out of creative seclusion to pronounce film is dead, and the future is cut-and-paste YouTube mashups.
Searching for something to justify the airfare to whatever conference is on in Bologna that year, many cultural studies academics will alight on whatever new, gimmicky, pop-culture phenomenon arises, applying outmoded, obfuscatory post-modernist theories to Buffy! Twilight! Interactive media! Computer-generated poetry algorhythms! the ironic, wanly funny mental gymnastics (and accompanying self-written Wikipedia articles) only reflecting a shrill and desperate desire for relevance that only being read can bring.
It’s a similar fallacy to assume that every new technology somehow makes everything else obsolete.
Books are an obsolete technology, no doubt about that. They’ve been obsolete since their inception, if you measure how little progress has been made on “the book” as compared to what seems to constantly be going on with “the mobile phone.” Yet nobody pronounced the book dead with the advent of cinema, radio or television – in fact, book readership rose exponentially in the United Kingdom between the wars, despite the burgeoning popularity of the “Golden Age of Hollywood.”
So why on earth do we think the internet is somehow going to kill it?
In fact, the book’s very obsolescence makes it even more vital in this tweet-drenched, status-updated world, where information is quickly discovered a hoax or publicity stunt, where everything is tweeted and blogged into logorrhoeaic streams of data, filtered of much meaning and any connection.
When you read on an iPad, for example, you can just read the book. But many e-books now have a number of useful tools to help read them: annotation tools; formatting options; and hypertext links to look up particular words. You can spend hours getting the font and font size and page colour just right; and worst of all, as you read, you can look up whatever word or concept you may find momentarily confusing. If you’re focussed, you’ll look it up and return to the whatever you were reading. But we are less and less focussed nowadays, with emails and pop-up ads and alert boxes and instant messages and status bars all clamouring for our increasingly limited attentions. And we’re likely – as I often do – to fall into what I call the “Wikislide,” in which one link leads to another link which leads to another and then another and then … like an alzheimer’s patient lost in a supermarket, I’m not sure what I was looking for, nor what brought me here in the first place.
Even if you are focussed and you can return to whatever you were reading, something is broken in that moment – which is why I hardly ever read Will Self novels, because the act of looking away (to look a word up, in his case), breaks the intimate contract between writer and reader (or really, work and reader) in which imagination on both sides knits together a vision that filters and shuts out the press and thrum of the world outside. And looking up a word in the middle of that knitting together only exposes the stray threads.
And reading on the internet is even worse, making us skim, rather than read; look, rather than see; hear, rather than listen. As Peter Hodges points out: ‘I tend to skim-read on the internet. “Real” books (meaning books I can work my way through by physically turning pages and that won’t disappear when I press a button), newspapers and journals (similarly defined) are required for serious reading.’
Reading and writing a novel are as close as I get to meditation: that shutting out of the world, and most importantly, of losing myself in another person’s life. Alain de Botton once remarked in his “novel of ideas” The Romantic Movement that some people read for escapism; others for self-discovery. But I think that for the engaged reader, there’s an element of both.
When I read a well-written, engaging novel, in which the characters aren’t trapped by the plot or buried by the language, in which these devices are as thin a meniscus between my empathetic imagination and the characters’ lives and problems, then I don’t merely forget the trials or worries of my own life, but more importantly, I forget myself. And if the writing’s really good, I discover that the characters live on, long after the last page is turned and I forget the details of the plot: I see them in others around me, and most importantly, I see them and their flaws, their fears, their frailties, in myself.
It’s the same when I’m writing, really writing: if I concentrate on the characters, seeing what they see, feeling what they feel, I forget the plot-holes and prepositions and adverbs and most importantly, me, and the writing – suddenly free of my ego and thought – feels its way into my subconscious, and writes itself. And if it makes me feel that way, there’s a good chance it will make you feel that way too.
I often discover, after I’ve finished writing, that those characters have done things I could never have expected or planned on, acting in the same contradictory, confusing ways I do, revealing more truth in their flaws, fears and frailties than I ever could be brave enough to, even writing a journal or blog.
Reading and writing are a reprieve for me from myself, from my petty neuroses and pointless worries, from the reverberating whorl of self-commentary and thought and chatter that fills my head day and night, the noise of it competing with the car alarms and advertisements and competing voices on the TV or radio or internet.
But most importantly, that reprieve from myself, that opportunity to lose myself, also offers me a chance to find myself in the pleasures and regrets of the people about whom I’m reading or writing. In their frailties and flaws and fears I find my own.
That’s the wonder of literature: that in losing ourselves, we can find ourselves.
But it’s a spell that can only be spun with dedication and concentration, and that dedication and concentration can only be developed with practice. I write every day – partly because I’m on strict deadlines this year, but mainly so I don’t have to think about the writing and I can concentrate on the characters.
And in the same way, I have become a faster, better, more perceptive reader because, although I don’t consider myself a fast, good, perceptive or well-read reader, I have read so much for so long that I can read a book in one sitting, reading up to four or five books a week. Creative writing students are notorious for not reading, for fear of their work being “contaminated,” but the more I read, the more I write, and the more I write, the more I read. I can’t say I really read for pleasure anymore – years of reviewing and writing will do that – but everything I read informs my work: whether non-fiction during research, or more importantly, fiction during writing. The flaws in the glass are as important as the glimmers, and they all swirl, like half-remembered dreams and snatches of childhood memory, to ferment, unseen, in the deep delvèd earth of my subconscious to hopefully pop, sparkling, into my work in ways I – as opposed to all those confident albeit incomprehensible pronouncements by creative writing academics who’ve never actually written a novel – couldn’t quite tell you.
There are as many disconsolations and disappointments to reading as there are to writing, but the rare pleasures and successes make those other imposters disappear. I am just as disappointed by reading many polished, bloodless, mannered, calculating, prize-winning creative writing course novels as I am by what I write most days struggling through the mire of my first draft.
But in a way, the relentless mediocrity of these novels inspire me to write something good, almost as much as the great novels I’ve loved have done. Still, I can’t remember I ever read – much less wanted to read – any of the books that have won major literary prizes in the last few years. It seems they’re talking to judging committees comprised of the very academics who consider fiction obsolete or not challenging enough, rather than speaking to me. And I think the low sales of many of these prize-winning novels speaks volumes about their relevance to many readers. Like Franzen, I don’t only to be entertained, but I don’t expect to be bored or harangued either. Art isn’t measured in how many or how few sales it brings, nor in the way it’s made, but in the way it makes you feel: the art is when, without knowing quite how, the work has made you feel and think without you realising it – or, as in the worst academic writing, pointing out just how it did it.
Of course, as in all cultural production, publishing is an uneasy relationship between art and commerce: in an age when the publishing model seems drawn on the lines of the music or film industry, you’re only as good as your last book, and if you want to keep writing, you need to ensure people will buy it.
But interestingly, just like the music industry, the publishing industry is apparently in big trouble. Go to any publishers’ drinks and everybody is drowning their sorrows. Big chains are closing, the net is driving down profits, nobody knows what will happen next.
Funnily enough, when I consider how many times I’ve been sacked from mindless, pointless jobs I took to keep my mind free for writing, when I think about how little I make from it, and when I sit down to write without a clear idea of what’s going to happen (or when I press send to my editors), I have to ask: what’s new? Writers have been living like that as long as we can remember, and certainly long before “territorial copyright” and “literary estates.” The great writers of the past, right through the “Golden Age of Classic Fiction” in the Nineteenth Century, wrote without copyright, royalties, creative writing degrees, literary prizes or literature board grants. So why do we need such protections and assurances to write when Shakespeare, Cervantes and Gogol didn’t?
They continued to write, even as unscrupulous publishers underpaid them (if at all), often in penury and desperation: the greatest, most quoted writer after Confucius in Chinese literature, Cao Xue Qin, wrote in obscurity for forty years before his work was published forty years after his death.
Nobody who really writes does so for the money: when they say art is priceless, they mean its value comes without a price that research outputs or ERA rankings or marketing campaigns or highly publicised advances can ever quantify. If writing, as even the rich, famous and prolific Simenon – who resented not winning the Nobel, Goncourt or any other major literary prize – is “a vocation of sorrow,” why do so many people want to write?
Of course many, myself included, started with Rowlingian dreams of fame and fortune, and many, like Simenon, do so for critical acclaim and rich prizes. But I, at least, write for a prize far more precious than that awarded by a committee. I don’t write for the money, much less the therapy, but, like E M Forster, for connection.
I am all too aware of the irony that I must shut myself away from the real people around me to immerse myself in the lives of imaginary people, and that I can only really connect to other people who must shut themselves from the real people around them to immerse themselves in the lives of those same imaginary people; and that our connection, through those characters’ lives, will always be a vicarious one. But it’s one of the most powerful ones we can imagine as well.
As David Foster Wallace noted:
“Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.”
While I love some poetry, much music, all sex and a little religion, I’d be prepared to go even further and say that unlike the many kinetic art forms that have captured the popular attention (if not imagination) recently, with all their colour and movement and sound and fury, such as blockbuster films, reality TV, celebrity memoirs, news aggregators and blogs, literature is the only art that can definitively place you within another person’s consciousness, without them even being aware of it. It’s not the cheap entrapment of looking at the footage from a hidden camera on Big Brother, which, like much film, is effective, making us see the consequence of an action. No, literature is affective, making us feel and imagine that consequence, long before its eventuality.
If action is edited speech (I’m going to do this, I say, and then I do it, contingent on the constraints the world places on my intention); and speech is edited thought (I think this, but I reframe the thought to make it comprehensible or acceptable to my listeners); then thought is edited feeling (I feel this, but I edit it to order the sequence of feelings logically). And out of feeling, we educe belief, which is the source of action. I can tell someone what to do, and they may do it if I offer an incentive or punishment; but if I can make them believe, I can make them do anything.
And isn’t that what freedom is? To feel you could do anything – even if, of course, you don’t always. The right to write, the right to read, the right to imagine. Like Foster Wallace, I believe that “the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” And like Franzen observed in his powerful and moving masterpiece, Freedom:
“This is what was keeping me awake at night,” Walter said. “This fragmentation. Because it’s the same problem everywhere. It’s like the internet, or cable TV — there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement. There’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.”
Like a cultural studies academic spouting inanities about “hermeneutics” and “aesthetics” in their self-written Wikipedia article or ARC grant application, the internet is comprised of much the same egotistical bells and whistles: what Franzen called in the seminal ‘Why Bother? (The Harper’s Essay)’ “the unfettered testimony of the self”. The anonymity of blog comments pages and chat rooms is not the same as the egolessness of real reading and writing: rather, it’s a mask to hide behind as you spew trollish cruelties or offer your inchoate thoughts on anything and everything: Masterchef, other drivers, the inanities and trivialities of life.
What is interesting is that in the last few years – Franzen, Foster Wallace and a few others (like Blake Morrison, Christos Tsoilkas or Fiona McGregor) aside – “literary” fiction has been fixated on the historical. Some commentators, like Mark Lawson, have suggested that the prominence of historical fiction on literary prize shortlists reflects a timidity or unwillingness by modern authors to engage with the complex problems, issues and realities of the modern world, a failure of imagination, a retreat to the safe distance of the past, and a disingenuous desire to appropriate the literary weight of the classic Nineteenth Century canon.
Given a choice between an historical novel and popular history, readers choose Peter Fitzsimons hands down over Kate Grenville. As the historical novelist Wendy James observed in Meanjin, ‘Fiction, it is constantly lamented, is being outsold, outread and pretty much outdone by “reality”’
Franzen also laments the paucity of contemporary social-realist novels, similar to those written by Dickens, Balzac or, in an Australian context, Kylie Tennant, Ruth Park or Xavier Herbert. Yet, when writers do take on the “state of the nation” or the zeitgeist, their books, like The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Slap, The Corrections and Freedom, storm to the top of the bestseller lists. We have to lose ourselves in the lives of others to find ourselves, but they have to be like us – and the measure of classic literature is how, despite the distance of time and space and culture and even language, they are: whether a thrice-widowed middle-aged woman who hides deep sadness behind her bawdy stories or a bored provincial French doctor’s wife or a Russian conman buying dead souls.
The “canon” is not a fixed list: like language and society, it’s constantly shifting, and as old books get forgotten, or perplexingly praised ones eventually sink to the obscurity they deserve, new novels rise up to take their places. A common mistake of many historical novelists is the suggestion that “fiction completes history.” Apart from infuriating historians, this fallacy doesn’t reflect the fact that historical fiction, no matter how mimetically faithful, cannot ever completely capture the feelings or perspectives of a past period or culture, these often being influenced by the feelings and perspectives of the time in which it is written (for example, would Fagan be as obviously Semitic if Great Expectations were written now?.
When we try to know the past, we turn to history. But when we seek to understand it, we turn to the literature of that time. We can read about English workhouses in any number of historical texts, filled with statistics and scraps of official correspondence and even personal testimony, but when we read Dickens, we find ourselves not just in the workhouse, but in Oliver’s shoes.
With Catherine Deveny’s inane tweets and Anthony Wiener’s penis being automatically archived in the Library of Congress it is easy to say that it could be the key artefact for a new archaeology. After all, obscene graffiti was preserved in Pompeii and it is an invaluable artefact outside the official record. But given the choice between ‘Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!’ and Catallus or Petronius, I know what I’d prefer.
If “literary fiction” is doddering, it’s not just about the technology. After all, as noted above, the novel has been pretty much obsolete since its inception, and apart from new and improved production and distribution methods (from movable type to e-books to print-on-demand), it is and always will be – despite the unintelligible prancing of ficto-critics – words on pages about people’s lives.
What makes literature so great is its essential democracy, especially now. It doesn’t matter whether you read it in a first edition or a paperback or a photocopied samizdat furtively handed out under the table, whether it’s on an iPad or a Kindle or on Project Gutenberg, because the words will still be there, and if the writing’s good, the characters will live on inside you long after you forget the details of the plot. We still call a collection of digitised MP3 files an “album,” even if few of us even have a phonograph player. We still call a collection of digitised JPEG files taken on our mobile phones a “camera roll,” even if no film was involved. And we’ll keep calling those words about people’s lives “books” or “novels” long after paper is a distant memory.
Much has been made of self-published writers selling “millions” of books without an agent or publisher. Could this be the future, where writers can make clear profit without having to sell their souls to avaricious agents and callous publishers who don’t respect their art?
I have to cry a resounding NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
Have you read any of these “million-sellers”? They are, frankly, not just trivial entertainment: they’re shit. The worst kind of pretentious, badly written, woefully edited, derivative, evanescent, puerile logorrhea, not much more than fan-fiction or Roman brothel graffiti, sold for 99c or given away for free to increase Google or Amazon page rankings. Stuff that has to be self-published because even publishers of Lee Childs or Bryce Courtenay must have their limits (and is, at the end of the day, published anyway, even if only because a service provider is allowing it to be stored on their servers or publicised on their site).
And for all their bravado about going their own way, most such “million-selling” authors – none of whom I’ve ever heard of, but probably because I’m not a teenage girl devastated there won’t be more Harry Potters or Twilights coming out – jump at the validation and money a “conventional” publishing deal can offer. It seems their independence is merely a marketing ploy. And one has to ask: if they actually dared to charge retail prices for their verbiage, would anybody buy it?
Having said that, just as a medium being obsolete doesn’t make it irrelevant, a medium being new doesn’t make it trivial. Comic books become graphic novels; nickelodeons give rise to The Birth of a Nation; Pong evolves into LA Noir. It’s interesting to note, isn’t it, that what makes them art is narrative: a story. And if there’s anything that can do that well, without the distraction of banner ads and hyperlinks and 3D, it’s the novel. We may find myriad ways of telling a story, but whatever my enjoyment of other forms, nothing can beat a novel.
As Franzen notes:
“Fiction is the most fundamental human art. Fiction is storytelling, and our reality arguably consists of the stories we tell about ourselves. Fiction is also conservative and conventional, because the structure of its market is relatively democratic (novelists make a living one book at a time, bringing pleasure to large audiences), and because a novel asks for ten or twenty hours of solitary attentiveness from each member of its audience. You can walk past a painting fifty times before you begin to appreciate it. You can drift in and out of a Bartok sonata until its structures dawn on you, but a difficult novel just sits there on your shelf unread — unless you happen to be a student, in which case you’re obliged to turn the pages of Woolf and Beckett. This may make you a better reader.
“[However], to wrest the novel away from its original owner, the reader, requires strenuous effort from theoreticians. And once literature and its criticism become co-dependent the fallacies set in.
“For example, the Fallacy of Capture, as in the frequent praise of Finnegans Wake for its “capturing” of human consciousness, or in the justification of J R’s longueurs by its “capture” of an elusive “postwar American reality”; as if a novel were primarily an ethnographic recording, as if the point of reading fiction were not to go fishing but to admire somebody else’s catch. Or the Fallacy of the Symphonic, in which a book’s motifs and voices are described as “washing over” the reader in orchestral fashion; as if, when you’re reading J R, its pages just turn themselves, words wafting up into your head like arpeggios. Or the Fallacy of Art Historicism, a pedagogical convenience borrowed from the moneyed world of visual art, where a work’s value substantially depends on its novelty; as if fiction were as formally free as painting, as if what makes The Great Gatsby and O Pioneers! good novels were primarily their technical innovations. Or the epidemic Fallacy of the Stupid Reader, implicit in every modern “aesthetics of difficulty,” wherein difficulty is a “strategy” to protect art from cooptation and the purpose of this art is to “upset” or “compel” or “challenge” or “subvert” or “scar” the unsuspecting reader; as if the writer’s audience somehow consisted, again and again, of Charlie Browns running to kick Lucy’s football; as if it were a virtue in a novelist to be the kind of boor who propagandizes at friendly social gatherings.
“If you’re having a good time with a novel, you’re a dupe of the post-industrial System; if you still identify with characters, you need to retake Postmodernism 101.”
Most writers I love and respect don’t have the sniffy, snooty pretensions of literary theory, which determines a work’s value in such abstruse ways. In fact, like me, they enjoy a wide variety of different narrative forms: Michael Chabon celebrates comics in The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; David Mitchell pays homage to science fiction in Cloud Atlas; Haruki Murukami writes to the riffs of cool jazz in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. What unites all of these is a sense of story, and it’s these writers great talents that raise such once-seemingly trivial entertainments to profundity.
Most writers are and should be magpies with very catholic tastes, reading and listening and observing voraciously and indiscriminately. It’s in the output they must be discriminating: not of their subject or of their readers (like all those unread Gaddises and Azuls) but of what they create.
And that’s the problem with blogs and tweets and Facebook updates and unedited tracts that infest the murkier corners of the iBooks shop. They are, indeed, the “unfettered testimony of the Self,” supremely and solely concerned with a narcissistic self-regard. How many hits? How many likes? How many followers? How many comments? All not so much interactivity as a constant, desperate, needy demand for attention, and a self-absorbed sense of entitlement that the “consumer” is always right, turning readers into “stakeholders” who have as much right to determine the story as the writer.
Much is made of such “interactivity.” Why can’t we do as we wish in any narrative, just as we do in Second Life? Some older readers may remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books, the vanguard of such “interactivity” (leading to the cumshot compilation, the half-listened playlist, Shields’s preposterous “collage” of other writers’ work). Although you could choose between two alternatives, and there were multiple ways of working your way through the adventure, making for multiple narratives, you were still only given the choices offered. Ditto seemingly “free world” video games or comments on blogs, which are only published if the moderator sees fit. As Alfred Hitchcock once observed, a good director (or writer, or story teller) asks the questions they think the audience will ask.
Writing is a constant process of such anticipation, with the narrative offering questions the writer knows the answer to for the audience to keep wondering about. Narrative is the imaginative line connecting plot point to plot point, making a story that will connect with the reader.
The mistake much academic writing and bad art makes is to offer profound answers to complicated problems, asserting that it is addressing the world and everything in it, when on closer inspection, it’s usually merely about the author themselves. Tracy Emin’s tent is really about Tracy Emin. Despite my recent admonishment by a creative writing academic that “everyone has a story to tell” I still believe not everyone with a story has the ability to tell it.
Rather than speaking to us, such bad art talks at us, one eye on the critic over our shoulder, proclaiming its importance in the catalogue notes, reminding us what it’s about, rather than letting us find out for ourselves.
But great art only offers us simple (albeit troubling) questions about us, our lives, our world, inspiring us to discover whatever answer best helps us understand it. Carravaggio offers us a bowl of fruit, and in looking closer, we see not just the fecundity of life, but the inevitable decay of all flesh: in a dusty fig, we see a worm, and in that small detail, we can grasp in a moment beyond words the sweetness and sadness and precarious preciousness of existence. And we needn’t know a thing about Caravaggio, much less who he ever fucked, to feel its effect.
Now, that’s interactivity! Not the random gimmickry of weird punctuation or randomly generated noise but a conversation – albeit silent and vicarious – between reader and work. Not the pretentious, bloodless, riskless creative writing course writing that passes for modern literary fiction, which seems to harangue us with its lumpen, affected, theory-infected pose, like a kind of long short story with all the adverbs removed and the feeling leached out, an interminable grant application or monotonous monologue to literary prize committees, only occasionally deigning to turn from its tight literary party circle to acknowledge the reader, standing meekly outside, before it checks its hair in the banquette mirror.
No: great writing, great novels, are out in the cold with us, holding us close, offering us another smoke or their coat, laughing and crying with us, whispering and shouting, digressing, losing the train of thought and recovering it with a flourish, confessing secrets and making us see, in the foggy window, not just the wankers making fools of themselves inside, but in our misty breath on the yellow panes, ourselves. What do you think? The great novel asks. How do you feel?
(As the wonderful, thoughtful Marjorie Garber – a literary theory academic of all people – observes in her heartening book The Use and Abuse of Literature, ‘literature is a form of writing that offers unanswered (and potentially unanswerable) questions. Literary language is rife with figures of speech, allusions to other writings and characters facing ambiguous moral decisions… the absence of answers or determinate meanings is exactly the set of qualities that make a passage or a work literary.’)
Of all the people that make writing great, the least important is the writer: in fact, in the more you can see of the writer, the less you’ll see of the writing, and even less of the characters, and nothing of yourself.
That’s why we consider great novels, the books that really touched us and made us fall in love with them, to be as dear and cherished as friends, sharing with us their deepest secret shames and follies, and in so doing, allowing us to acknowledge – albeit silently, secretly, our own. Those books come with us when we move, they are shared with new lovers and good friends, and we carry them around with us not only in our book boxes but in our hearts. Great literature is and always will be about people and as long as people exist and feel and believe, they will always return to great literature, no matter what form it takes. Whatever postmodernists and critical theorists may continue to feebly and incomprehensibly assert in those empty lecture theatres at that conference in Lausanne – if anyone, even whoever’s in the auditorium at the time, is actually listening anymore – the medium is even less important than the author. All that matters are the people who read a novel and the people in it.
No doubt I’ll be accused of Luddism or anti-intellectualism. I’m an inveterate gadget geek, and a very early adapter of certain technologies which have, in certain ways, improved my life greatly. There are many new opportunities and possibilities offered by the digital age, as Leo Benedictus observed in a recent essay on the joys of e-reading. Perhaps, rather than losing local libraries or bookshops, we’ll all be getting our own, carried around in iPads. And there’s no doubt that many great, now out of print books are available because of the great work of Project Gutenberg. Words and people and places and times ideas and feelings that might have once been lost forever.
Yet we shackle ourselves to this technology. If the sat-nav loses the signal, we’re lost. If our mobile gets lost, we have no way of remembering numbers we once would have. If there’s a blackout, we start panicking about our wi-fi signal and how we’ll be able to check our emails. How did we manage even ten years ago, when hardly anyone had a mobile phone or internet connection? As Clinton Caward observed in his recent novel, Love Machine, “The more people rely on the machine for human connectivity, the less they need [it], even though that’s the desire that leads them to the machine.” Everywhere, it seems, we are free to check our Facebook status, but only as long as we’re chained to the wi-fi signal.
As Malcolm Knox points out in his wonderful essay, Driven to Distraction:
“Email, digital news alerts, SMS, phone calls, attention-grabbing stunts, even letters and faxes (and, since my time, RSS feeds, tweets, blogs, social networking pokes) pour in so torrentially that the requisite isolation becomes impossible.
“As my attention was being filleted, I became restless and anxious and wondered if I was suffering from some form of attention disorder. The more of a skim reader I became, the more I was “distracted” in both the modern and archaic senses: scatterbrained and upset. I could not stay on top of what the blogger and fiction writer Cory Doctorow calls the internet’s “ecosystem of interruption technologies”. Nor, as a writer, did I necessarily want to.
“I felt myself becoming one of what the playwright Richard Foreman calls “pancake people – spread wide and thin”. I could have made a case study for the psychological research that, Carr writes, “long ago proved what most of us know from experience: frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory and make us tense and anxious. The more complex the train of thought we’re involved in, the greater the impairment the distractions cause.”
“As I struggled to recover my powers of concentration, the most telling analysis came from the author Mandy Sayer. She said that writer’s block didn’t originate in a lack of inspiration. It wasn’t a lack of anything, she said. The problem was an excess of connectedness.”
Writing can be so fragile that most authors see over-connectedness as a hazard to be avoided. Only on the fringes have authors changed the way they write.
But a book sits on a bookshelf, waiting to be discovered – and, as I’ve found serendipitously over and over and over again, at just the right time. I would still be a stockbroker if I hadn’t discovered Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt in an old secondhand bookshop, waiting for a late train. And finding Randolph Stowe’s Merry-Go-Round In The Sea in a damp bedsit in North London made me realise how far I was from the home I’d always thought I wanted to escape, and how much a part of me it was, just as Rob and the book did.
And I stand guilty as charged if the charge is anti-intellectualism. There are no two words that fill me with greater dread (apart from performance artist, ficto-critic, Lacanian theory or haemorrhoidal leakage) than “public intellectual.” Anybody who presumes to be such is worthy of all the derision the phrase suggests. Intellectualism puffs and preens, prancing about on study leave and at literary festivals, laughing too soon and too hard, making sure everybody else knows they got the joke first. It wafts about uttering gnomic and nonsensical statements about nothing, its eyebrows arched, presuming it knows better. It doesn’t, and just as the people who least deserve power are the ones who jostle most noisily for it, often the people we should ignore the most are the ones shouting the loudest, even as it’s the quietest ones who have the most to say.
I don’t just read to think: I read to feel. For though thought can be debated, feeling is the well-spring of belief. And belief is the cornerstone of action. We may know the facts, but unless we feel for the people whose stories are being told, we cannot ever understand or be moved to do anything about them. Facts and argument are like statistics: numbers and words and lies. But the meaning of great fiction, whatever form it takes, is the belief it inspires to make us feel differently, to see differently, to live differently. I’ve heard some young writers say they “write for themselves” or that they “just want their work to touch one person:” to which I’d say ‘why not print it out, take it into the toilet, and touch yourself? It’d save everyone else the trouble.’
And that’s the reason, I think, that “literary fiction” is doddering. Not because of the technology it employs, but because rather than offering readers an opportunity to see themselves in the lives of others, writers – and I include myself here, writing a sort of historical novel on a university scholarship – are guilty of retreating to the false security of the academy (now corporatized and delivering “learning outcomes” to “customers” while “rationalising” department budgets), the safe confines of the past, and allowing stylistic gimmickry (such as the present tense, rightly criticised by Phillips Pullman and Hensher as being faddish, limiting and claustrophobic: to overtake and overwhelm the most important thing about a novel, the one thing it does well: to tell a story. We need to grab the present and hold it up to our readers’ faces, showing them not only themselves, but the world around them: to take back the transformative role of fiction from “creative non-fiction” and “reportage” and Twitter and make it relevant to our readers.
I also think, that like the music industry on which it has recently modelled itself, the publishing industry needs to change its business model substantially. Not like this but returning to the essence of what good writing is all about: simply telling stories that mean something. If lower profits mean less crappy books get published, then surely that isn’t a bad thing: there are literally hundreds of great books I am devastated I’ll never read, so the evanescent distraction of millions of awful celebrity biographies or misery memoirs or vampire trilogies is one I can do without. As Will Self, of all people, pointed out.
“I do think electronic publishing is likely to further subvert the print media in the next few years, but I’ve no doubt that the medium isn’t altogether the message. Simply because there’s another way of making views known, it doesn’t mean that good style, research, or engaging opinions aren’t required. There’s an aspect of the internet forums that presupposes — and enacts! — that old canard that everyone has a novel in him. I don’t think everyone does at all — and the Net is a medium which unfortunately makes it easier for those who have bad novels and miscellaneous other screeds to get them out.”
If publishers believe, really believe in a book, it will get published, no matter how much or how little it sells. And it’s heartening to see how small, independent publishers like Scribe, Text, Transit Lounge, Sleepers and others continue to thrive, precisely because of that passion.
Although, as W H Auden once noted, ‘some books are undeservedly forgotten, none are undeservedly remembered,’ like Cao Xue Qin’s masterpiece, the great books will always be remembered. Not just on Amazon bestseller lists or in academic treatises, but where they belong, in our hearts and in our own work: to bring back the intimate connection of art from the oblivious rapacity of commerce.
Much has been made of the recent closure of major book chains like Borders, but what passionate, engaged reader ever bothered with the overpriced books or desultory service offered by its underpaid staff? The future of bookselling is as intimate as fiction should be: specialised, passionate, informed, like Readings, Lesley McKay’s, Shearers. These booksellers will, if they concentrate on what they do so well, always exist, and possibly thrive, even in the shadow of Amazon.
As the iPad-owning Hodges points out, ‘type “J. M. Coetzee” or “Jean-Paul Sartre” into the iBooks store search engine and “no results” is the response. Until, I can find the same range of books as I would in Carlton’s Readings shop — so that the e-store responds to my reading needs, rather than encouraging me to consume the limited range it offers — my interest will be limited.’
And though may get cheaper prices on Amazon or iBooks, we’ll never get that meaningful human interaction. After all, like a city, the point of a library is the other people in it. Like literature.
Chekhov famously said that ‘a writer should be humane to their fingertips.’ And I’m starting to realise that it’s not a sense of consequence that makes us human – even Pavlov’s dogs could be trained to it; nor even emotion – animals feel too. No: it’s imagination, that sense of empathy that comes with connection and compassion, putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes and feeling what it must really be like for them. This is the almost religious, meditative transcendence of great literature. As Einstein says on a popular t-shirt, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge,’ knowing isn’t enough: understanding is.
Belief is an extension of that humane imagination. We want more than anything to believe, and we readily suspend our disbelief in church, in love, in fiction. No doubt my faith in fiction, despite the many supposed terrors and doubts that surround it, might be considered quixotic. But all writing, especially novel writing, is, by its nature, essentially quixotic (recalling that first great novel): unrealistic, romantic, visionary, impractical. No writer I know writes only for the money, though we cannot eat our words and we need money to survive and to write. Writing is bad for you: lonely, poorly-paid, full of drudge and doubt, in which we sacrifice our health and sanity and personal relationships with no idea at the end of our Sisyphean labours if anyone will even read it, much less like it. But if that’s the whole story, why do so many people want to be writers?
The returns offered by writing are rare, but that’s what makes them so precious. They’re not reflected in publication or sales or prizes or even just getting it right, but in that thing which makes art great and our lives meaningful because of it: that connection with each other, regardless of time and space and distance and race, in which our paltry, chattery, restless selves are subsumed into something more profound than we can ever touch in the course of our thrumming, mundane, noisy, internet “connected” lives.
Art is priceless precisely because it cannot be commodified or priced: and the prize any good writer should seek is worth far more than any offered by a literary panel or arts funding body: that connection, that human connection. Without people to read it or see it or listen to it or be moved by it, without people to see each other and themselves in it, it is meaningless. Great art, as Salman Rushdie, points out in Imaginary Homelands:
“Literature is self-validating. That is to say, a book is not justified by its author’s worthiness to write it, but by the quality of what has been written. There are terrible books that arise directly out of experience, and extraordinary imaginative feats dealing with themes the author has been obliged to approach from the outside. Literature is not in the business of copyrighting certain themes for certain groups. And as for risk: the real risks of any artist are taken in the work, in pushing the work to the limits of what is possible, in the attempt to increase the sum of what it is possible to think [and feel]. Books become good when they go to this edge and risk falling over it—when they endanger the artist by reason of what he has, or has not, artistically dared.”
This doesn’t mean the failed gimmickry of “experimental writing [and/or] aesthetic strategies.” Great writing is great because it takes those risks and succeeds beyond our wildest imaginations. Experimental writing is merely a hastily published failed draft. No: taking the risk of great writing means picking up the blunt tools we have, the obsolete technology and the inadequate material, and fashioning it, without fear or favour or fame, until our fingertips bleed.
It’s not as if literature doesn’t offer us a dazzling array of voices, perspectives, tenses, themes, settings and genres to choose from and make whatever we want of them. What makes a detective novel like, say, Newton Thornberg’s Cutter and Bone art is that it transcends not just its genre, but its time and place and author, to become what all great writing imagines: a land without borders, a language beyond translation, a community of like-minded people, all believing in the very things that make us human.
We have to believe in what we do, for without that belief, without that passion, what’s the point? If we cannot believe in fiction and its transcendent, transformative imaginative power, how can we ever expect our readers to? And as long as we can imagine and believe, and our work can offer our readers that quiet, still, rich place to imagine and believe, to give them the space to face the inevitable disappointments and heartaches of life with new inspiration and courage, then isn’t that more than enough, regardless of how they discover it?
This is the artefact we leave to the ages, to supposed posterity: a vision of us, right now, right here, flung into the aether like the brass plate in a lonely space probe, without any idea of who will ever read it, much less understand it. As writers, we must resist the distractions of virtual “over-connection” on the internet to make the real, human connections that matter – just as we must as readers. If whoever finds these tarnished relics sees their own reflection in the brass, that vision will speak across the ages, the spaces, all those distances between knowing and understanding.
Vox Populi: More Voices from The Forum…