More Notes Toward a Manifesto on Modern Fiction

(Continued from here.)

Let me invoke again D. G. Myers’s Dizikes Rule, which says that you should avoid reading novels less than a decade old. While there is no need to be religious about this rule, I do not hesitate to apply it to vast door-stoppers; life is too short, and I am still only a volume and a half into Proust, and so A Little Life and City on Fire and even A Brief History of Seven Killings (“even” because that one actually sounds like a good book!) will have to endure in esteem and prominence at least a decade before I take the time over them. A decade is not sufficient to determine if a novel is a classic, but it is, I think, long enough to establish if a book’s success was all attributable to marketing rather than to some intrinsic merit.

(I think I have made it sufficiently clear that I am not a Marxist, which I hope will lend some added credibility to what I am about to say: the current intellectual elite has made it next to impossible to resist commercial culture, precisely because it—the elite!—will accuse you, even or especially if you are a nobody, of elitism when you do so. The fraudulence of this should be evident.)

It used to be more common for writers to claim not to read their contemporaries, out of a desire not to be influenced. I once read an interview with Nadine Gordimer, in which she raised the obvious objection: if you weren’t reading contemporary fiction in the 1920s, you would have missed out on Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Proust, Kafka, etc. To which superficially convincing statement let me make the obvious riposte: those writers, by and large, were being read by one or more coteries in the 1920s, not by the general public; someone not reading contemporary fiction in that decade would be more likely to miss Sinclair Lewis, Arnold Bennett, Anita Loos, Mary Roberts Rinehart, etc. And the extent to which Joyce and Co. made their innovations by turning to the past rather than to the present should not be understated. Woolf, a book-reviewer for most of her career, was the most in touch with contemporary writing of all the modernists, and even she gained impetus from rejecting the mainstream fictional modes of her day, insisting as she did so that “our quarrel is not with the classics.” The renewal of literature often involves a return to the classics—from Dante reading Virgil and Shakespeare reading Ovid to Joyce reading Dante and Woolf reading Shakespeare. As a classic is that work that can have the most disparate meanings read into it, one returns to the classics to find what meanings only the present can make available (cf. Freud on Sophocles or Adorno on Homer). A transformed sense of classic form can then shape one’s own work in the present until the contemporary work seems to have influenced the older one, so that we have the uncanny experience of reading the Philoctetes and finding it to be a play by Beckett or discovering that Milton narrates the complete revolutionary utopian cycle from rebellion to tyranny to the anarchic withering-away of hierarchy (“God will be all in all”). So no writer should have to apologize for reading more old books than new ones (my only caution is not to forget to read the weirder old books—where would Sebald be, for instance, without Sir Thomas Browne?)

All of this is a long apologia for not having read Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, even though I would like to quote from two reviews of it, which I think get at some of today’s literary problems.

First, Erik P. Hoel on the televisual traces in Hallberg’s novel:

City on Fire’s television-like plotting, pacing, characterization, and writing, as well as the lengthy and episodic nature of it, is undeniably mimetic of Golden Age TV. But City on Fire can equally be seen as a challenge to contemporary television: Everything you can do I can do better. Hallberg’s book is perhaps implicitly trying to offer up a strategy to novelists for dealing with the popularity of contemporary television: appropriating its playbook.

The problem with being influenced as a novelist by television is that the “Golden-Age-of-Television” series is nothing other than a crude replication of the nineteenth-century novel—it keeps the complicated structure and the melodrama without the complexity of language and psychological insight. It seems to me that to aspire to the structure of the modern TV season is to try to reverse-engineer the social novels of Dickens, Eliot, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, even as you eschew their most compelling aspects, as well as their almost ineffable temporality. TV, like film, goes by as fast as it goes, whether you like it or not; whereas novels, in ways hard to describe, move at different speeds depending on the mood, tone, theme, setting, or character type being evoked. Can a television show modulate—spiritually, as it were—from the city to the country as Anna Karenina can?

(A more justifiable literary aspiration for television is to aim at the wordplay and identity-destabilizing plots of stage comedy; along those lines, I find such linguistically rich comedies as Awkward and Gilmore Girls to be far more literary—because authentically heir to the theatrical legacies of Aristophanes, Shakespeare, and Wilde—than the breathlessly acclaimed dramas that are supposed to recall Dickens even though they have nothing of Dickens’s incomparable style about them. But I do not really watch enough prestige television to comment further.)

Anyway, an art form is usually better off eyeing the competition warily and trying to do what it cannot rather than trying to compete on the same ground. Television impresses me little because it is so reliant on novelistic structure. The novel in the age of television should, it seems to me, resist the lure of the linear narrative, even of the back-and-forth present-to-past-to-present variety that was the Woolf-and-Faulkner-influenced novelistic dominant before the Golden Age of TV (cf. Beloved, The English Patient, etc.). This would be a good time to rediscover fragmented or “Cubist” structures, as well as the art of writing shorter books. If we will read Dickens, let us make it Bleak House (not a short narrative, but a narrative in pieces); and this is no time to neglect masterpieces of concise confusion, from Heart of Darkness to Cane. It would be too much to say, in the present context, “Kill your television,” but at least Youtube some Maya Deren between episodes.

Back to City on Fire. A second, more scorching review by Peter Marshall notes the pop-culture structure but also quotes some examples of “interesting writing,” most of which sound unbearably clever-clever (“a mesozoic half-stick of butter”) to me. But he concludes that the novel ultimately fails by being moralistic and banal:

The horse pill we are meant to swallow is that every character comes out of this a better person. We are blasted by moral pontificating, bludgeoned by an insistence that people can change, that hope springs eternal, morning rises out of darkness, and so forth. And this is not a momentary transformation, a trick of the night. Based on the evidence given in the book, they apparently stay as good people; the change is long lasting.

The night of the blackout is Hallberg’s attempt to give his novel a visionary stature. Like many contemporary American writers, Hallberg lacks the capacity to confront tragedy that is needed to make his vision viable.

Here, I think, is the most serious damage caused by commercial culture; it is not that commercial culture can’t be “dark,” but it has to be so in consumable form. Research has revealed that the most graphic warnings printed on cigarette packages—e.g., photos of blackened, cancer-riddled lungs—failed to deter smoking, because they filled consumers with such despair over the inevitablity of illness and death that the consumers gave up trying to change their habits. Any message meant to inspire action—even if that action is only “tune in next week” or “press play”—must avoid calling into question the audience’s sense of its own agency and empowerment. While this might be a useful political task, where it does not descend to mere Stalinism, it is unreasonable to ask serious works of art not to transmit despair, and despair, anyway, is politically undervalued (it is perhaps better to do nothing than to drop bombs). In Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus Warren Smith is inspired to fight in the Great War because of English patriotism derived from his reading of Shakespeare. After the war, suffering from shell shock, he tries to take up Shakespeare again and discovers, now that he has seen death up close, that the bard’s works contain nothing but nihilism and hatred, that they cannot inspire anything. He would have been better off if he had discovered this nihilistic message on his first reading. It seems to me that the greatest works, because they touch the limits of our lives, because their horizon is death—death as silence, finitude, limitation—inspire a quietude, a radical passivity, a state of rare calm in the face of the hard truth that no one escapes alive. Advertisers fear this calm, understandably, but the economy was made for humanity, not humanity for the economy.

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