Notes Toward a Manifesto on Modern Fiction

Charles Finch (via):

In other words, here we are: smack in the middle of the second dominant style of the novel in our century. The first, beginning in the late 1990s, produced what was sometimes called “the information novel” or, pejoratively, “hysterical realism,” and its dizzy energy suited the frenzied, glossy, techy turn of the millennium. Its proponents are still major figures, from Zadie Smith to Michael Chabon to Junot Diaz. But it’s no longer their moment. Instead, the fashion has turned toward granular introverts like Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ben Lerner and Teju Cole, who write barely novels, all in an ambiguous first-person indistinguishable from the author’s own voice. These books are pointed, alert, not very funny. Their subject is the fundamental strangeness and unavailability of the world. Their authors have gone back inside themselves, as if in Kantian response to how restlessly external the information novel seemed.

Very well said. I am skeptical of this frequently asserted binary between information and inwardness, and the writers named are not my favorites. Michael Chabon and Teju Cole are certainly talented novelists, though Chabon is too poptimistic for me and Cole as an essayist is an insufferable moralizer. This is as opposed to Zadie Smith, who is probably better at essays than novels; I have read only On Beauty, admittedly, but I thought it was surprisingly flat and schematic, while her essays exhibit an agile, witty, emotionally-grounded intelligence that makes them a model of the form. And I am in fact puzzled by the breathless acclaim Díaz and Knausgaard have received, as I find both all but unreadable, which is no doubt more my problem than theirs. I have not read Ben Lerner yet; maybe he will redeem the passive-introverted novel for me when I do.

Anyway: surely the only choices available to the modern novelist are not energetically exaggerated journalism or the overcorrection thereto of narcotized reverie? I am not calling for a simple return to story, à la genre fiction, or to character, à la psychological realism. Nor do I much admire the contemporary avant-garde, such as I’ve experienced it in the works of Blake Butler or Tom McCarthy; what on earth is avant about repeating gestures devised fifty to a hundred years ago, which have since then congealed into lifeless dogma in our modern art museums? I want the novel to be surprising, fascinating, different, novel—even salvific in its transfiguration of reality and tradition—as much as anyone else does. So how to escape this tiresome upper-downer cycle Finch so aptly describes? I will sketch a few ideas below, more as reminders to myself than exhortations to anyone else:

1. Read more (and more out-of-the-way) older literature. I know I should say, “Read more widely in contemporary fiction,” and we certainly should. But at the risk of being a bad “literary citizen,” I would like to propose some alternate advice. The late D. G. Myers used to cite a rule invented by one of his mentors: that one should not read a book less than a decade old. The point is not to take this literally—I like the sense of adventure that comes from reading a brand new book—but to use it as a reminder not to get too caught up in the hype cycle and in the present’s ephemeral culture wars. The conflict between the postmodernists and neo-modernists staged in Finch’s review is very twentieth century, going back to Woolf’s polemic against the Edwardians and the Western Marxists’ fierce arguments over realism. But what about the vast library of literature from before the twentieth century, much of which fits poorly into the categories of modernist/anti-modernist aesthetic debate? It would renew one’s sense of literary possibility to read such gloriously strange old books as—I will look over at my bookshelf—Elective Affinities or Sartor Resartus or Aurora Leigh or Marius the Epicurean or even The Aeneid or Troilus and Criseyde. (Let us not indulge an irrational fear of verse!) Take a page from David Mitchell and read an Icelandic saga; I read Egil’s Saga years ago and, while I’ve admittedly forgotten most of the details, I remember its deft and grotesque physical handling of motivation’s mystery, the brittlenesss of human community in a harsh landscape.

2. Seek out more ideas. Everyone talks about multiculturalism, but is it not all a bit monocultural? The ironies of left-liberal subjectivity cosseted in its enabling matrix of privilege cannot be the only ideological subject of interesting fiction, and yet it is pretty much our fiction’s main theme, from Freedom to Open City. Much is made, not wrongly, of economic inequality’s distorting effect on fiction, such that the class of professional novelists becomes an isolated and aloof caste. But this is not absolutely disastrous; much as it offends my and probably your democratic sensibilities, history records great literature proceeding from courtly or aristocratic contexts. Our fictional elite, though, seems to be ideologically immobilized, stunned into self-lacerating irony by postmodern skepticism and desirous above all to seem nice, innocent of metaphysics and ignorant of what could possibly persuade the vast majority of people in the world, past and present, to embrace forms of social and intellectual order that are not left-liberal. I am not saying we should give up our values, though I admit I would find it somewhat refreshing—in a strictly aesthetic sense—if only one acclaimed young American novelist turned out to be a Stalinist or a lesbian separatist or even just a Republican. We should be able to reconstruct, intellectually and emotionally, rival value systems rather than just dismissing them as mere irrationalism or pitying their partisans as economically deprived folk who don’t know any better. Here the great model is Dostoevsky: his novels famously give each worldview its full expression, even those Dostoevsky fears and hates.

3. Think more critically about language. Despite contemporary fiction’s reputation for over-refined lyricism, I think it is not poetic enough, if poetry is defined as an uncommon use of language. One modernist legacy that could be productively repurposed is the desire to push language beyond description and proposition. Employ free indirect discourse, sure, but take it as far as Joyce took it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (“pick, pack, pock, puck”) rather than using it as an excuse to be slovenly and slangy. Put verse and drama into your novel, as Toomer does in Cane. Restrict your lexicon to short sharp words in the name of an imperiled honor (Hemingway) or adapt your sentences to your characters’ frenzied desires and your setting’s overgrown vegetation (Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom!). Study Virginia Woolf’s commas and her conjunctions in Mrs. Dalloway; they will repay the analysis. Don’t be weird just to be weird, but do shape the form to the theme, and let the form shape the theme in turn. Do not adopt the language fed to us by TV and Twitter and think it will make for a compelling aesthetic creation.

Taking these hints for an itinerary, we may yet reach some new or else forgotten destination; let us travel hopefully. Of course, all this advice will make for a harder sell in a crowded and conformist marketplace. But I doubt any of us got into this occasionally thankless business for the sake of worldly success.

6 thoughts on “Notes Toward a Manifesto on Modern Fiction

  1. I wouldn’t worry about what’s popular now. Set out to create your own literary trend. Like Toni Morrison said, write the book that you want to read.

      1. I worried that I was reading too much older literature. I planned to force myself to read some contemporary stuff, but this article gave me an excuse to continue with my current addiction to classics. Thanks for this excellent post, John.

  2. Much to ponder here, but I like the three points you make in your “manifesto.” Inspired now to read an Icelandic saga., and study Woolf’s commas and conjunctions. I also like way you summarized Finch’s argument into an upper-downer dichotomy. Surely life is filled with both, an outward frenetic energy and an inward poignancy that together should fuel our finest fiction.

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