Mark de Silva has written a superb polemic essay against the state of the literary novel in our time: “Distant Visions: Putdownable Prose and the State of the Art-Novel.” In it, he issues a challenge to the three-way convergence of memoir, journalism, and fiction today, which he sees as privileging easy-to-read prose and easy-to-identify-with situations, a mere flattery of the “university student,” with his or her “left-leaning, bourgeois” prejudices.
De Silva names names, criticizing Jonathan Franzen, of course, and, more interestingly, this depressing list of quasi-memoirist novelists: “Sheila Heti, Tao Lin, Ben Lerner, Geoff Dyer, and perhaps most notably, Karl Ove Knausgaard.” Against their transparent prose and recognizable worlds, de Silva counterposes “the visionary,” an artistic commitment to going beyond the mimetic replication of social reality (he labels mimesis a “party trick”) and seeking instead a transformation of the real, an addition to reality: “The importance of transformative reward in art fiction needn’t be understood in terms of its giving us a more accurate picture of reality than leisure fiction, but rather in its capacity to give us more reality, so to speak, by equipping us with more ways of coming to grips with what is.” He beautifully quotes Paul Éluard: “There is another world, but it is in this one.”
(I am grateful for that sentence; I have long needed a motto to explain my lack of interest in fiction that creates a fantastical world from the ground up, a literary technique I find distastefully literalistic. Yes, a novel should be a heterocosm, but a near one; to invent maps and languages, and flora and fauna, like any nine-year-old with crayons and poster paper sprawled on the living-room carpet, is cheating.)
De Silva’s three main examples of contemporary visionary writers are Javier Marías, Gerald Murnane, and William T. Vollmann. Aside from a few short pieces by Vollmann, I am mostly unfamiliar with these writers’ works; de Silva’s explication of them make me want to seek out Marías, in particular, very soon. I appreciate, of course, his dissent on Knausgaard, though I will not grant even the supposedly hypnotic power of My Struggle’s narrative, 100 uneventful, over-earnest, and indifferently-written pages of which I found more than enough for a lifetime. I would quarrel with a few of de Silva’s other examples, however; he sees Haruki Murakami and Tom McCarthy as visionary and Jonathan Franzen as merely mimetic, and I do disagree with these judgments.
On the basis of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami seems less like a visionary than like a “safety” packager of other, more extreme visions for the high-end market—the Neil Gaiman of Japan, if that is not too harsh an assessment, and it is not necessarily meant to be. Both Murakami and Gaiman are genial authors, and imaginative too, the best company for a rainy afternoon. But not transformative figures. (David Mitchell, inspired by Murakami, perhaps belongs in the same company.)
Tom McCarthy, however distinct he seems (in his art-school posturing) from Murakami/Mitchell/Gaiman, is only a slightly different version of the same thing. He sensed the obvious, indeed notorious, opening in the British fiction market—it is a land without an avant-garde—so he filled it by simply repeating the historical avant-garde’s gestures, which have lost all their dissident power in the time between the 1920s and now, as evidenced by McCarthy’s banal endorsement of Google.
Jonathan Franzen, on the other hand, is a more fascinatingly grotesque novelist than de Silva gives him credit for being. His fiction persistently portrays situations and conflicts of extreme ugliness and discomfort, moments that embarrass one to read them even alone, like Chip sniffing the chaise longue in The Corrections or Walter stealing the neighborhood cats in Freedom. This is not head-nodding recognition, but Dostoevskyan self-mortification—what miserable wretches we are behind our shining veneer! Moreover, Franzen is far less typical of the left-leaning bourgeoisie than de Silva suggests (doesn’t the left-leaning bourgeoisie revile and mock Franzen, so much so that it is starting to feel counter-culturally cool to admire him?). Franzen’s environmentalism is palpably misanthropic, and he is obviously, however he denies it, immensely skeptical of the claims of feminism; his novels describe weak men struggling furiously in tyrannical gynocracies. Feminists are perfectly right to assail Franzen, but his novels derive their emotional energy from his disavowed rage against—in his view—the fraud they represent. Ironically, this anger leads to Franzen’s creation of more interesting female characters (Enid, Patty, Anabel) than you would find from a mere nice-guy novelist trying to write “strong women;” the interaction between literature and ideology is never simple. (More below on the relation between being “left-leaning” and being visionary.)
Franzen’s novels are easy to read, yes, but so what? So are another popular author’s, those of Kazuo Ishiguro. His fictions, too, disquietingly challenge the liberal consensus, as in his masterpiece so far, Never Let Me Go, a novel about the inevitability of exploitation, the intractably hierarchical nature of humanity, and what Nietzsche called “the worthlessness of compassion.” (Another of his best novels, The Unconsoled, even suggests that art itself is useless, an affair of private satisfaction, the social organization of which is a nightmare.) De Silva repeats Ben Marcus’s error in attacking Franzen: the profundity of fiction has no necessary relation to the ease of difficulty of its prose.
And this leads me to a substantive problem I have with the central conflict that organizes de Silva’s essay. De Silva adapts Franzen’s status vs. contract taxonomy from the essay “Mr. Difficult,” but substitutes “leisure” for Franzen’s “contract,” and “art” for Franzen’s “status.” But “art” begs the question—it is the nature and purpose of literary art that we are debating—and the customary antonym of “leisure” is not “art” but “labor,” a word you will not find in the essay.
The implicit equation of art with labor hinders de Silva’s attempt to reject Franzen’s framing of the argument, because underwriting Franzen’s elevation of “contract” over “status” is a set of presumptions about production and consumption: i.e., labor should be socially useful; to this end, its efficiency should be maximized; and the whole cycle of production/distribution/consumption should be regulated so that it is optimally regular and predictable. Let us accept this as good and necessary for industrial products.
But “art”—as its partisans from the Romantics onward have defined it in modernity—was built as a desperately needed haven from the leveling administration of life in an industrial or post-industrial consumer society. Ideally, then, art is what escapes the nets of production/consumption, not only because it is neither exactly produced (the artist obeys no schedule, meets no quotas, follows no plan) nor exactly consumed (great writing cannot be exhausted or depleted by reading it), but also because its effects cannot be calculated or regulated. Art’s curse and burden in modernity is to be irregular—the only irregular social space left. So fiction that fails to rise to this challenge, or that does not even attempt to do so, should be called not leisure fiction but indeed “labor” fiction, or “product” fiction. It is standardized, like the machine on which I type. I would call fiction that does escape the production/consumption cycle “poetry,” after poiesis, a making that is not a producing, an imaginative transformation. Poems vs. products, then.
But this hardly solves all the problems de Silva so astutely raises. “Left-leaning,” de Silva describes the writers he demotes, an adjective he does not intend as a compliment. But he never elaborates on what might be the proper politics of what I want to call poetic fiction. I imagine the reader will suspect that he wants not the left-leaning but the left. Does history bear out an association of poetry with the left? What is the name of resistance to the modern? The last three novels I read or re-read—Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, Cynthia Ozick’s Heir to the Glimmering World, and Toni Morrison’s Sula—suggest an answer that we perhaps do not want to hear. (That all three of those visionary novels are by female writers should prevent the contest between product and poetry from decaying into the boys-against-girls playground fight some would like to make it.) And this is all without mentioning the novel I am currently reading: Michel Houllebecq’s Submission.
I hope my critical engagement with Mark de Silva’s essay will be taken as a sign of my respect for it, and my general agreement with its thesis, provided I can substitute my terms for de Silva’s. I am very lazy and so would never call for less leisure. But, yes, more vision!