Monday, January 29, 2007

A not so novel idea

While rummaging through back issues of the Virginia Quarterly Review (interesting how I'll spend two hours doing such things, then whine about having to write a 200 word reading response), I came across an excellent piece by Brock Clarke called "The Novel is Dead, Long Live the Novel" that critiques the media's prophecy of the "Rise of non-fiction" and the "Failure of the Novel." Having spent a summer interning in publishing, I can attest to the commercial veracity of this appraisal; philosophically, it brings up Big Questions about genre, politics, and the value/efficacy of artistic media that are worth considering.
"One pictures the lamest booth at the fair, with novels struggling to raise the big hammer, to hit the lever, to ring the bell, while the muscular nonfiction books stand to the side in their strongman singlets, holding their already-won stuffed animals, flexing, asking the tube-topped girls passing by if they’d like to feel their biceps."
Clarke--who is, naturally, a fiction writer--structures his analysis around a discussion of two novels, Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities (which I read in high school) and Heidi Julavitz' The Effect of Living Backwards (which I'd like to read now). Clarke's evaluation of the former is hardly favorable: After mocking Wolfe's self-importance in a 1989 "literary manifesto" he wrote about the Death of the Novel, "Stalking the Billion-footed Beast," he goes on to question the claims of verisimilitude that Wolfe ascribes to his own literary style, the "big, realistic novel."

Verisimilitude, a concept as context-bound as ever, is now complicated by new phenomena--globalization, the spread of information, postmodernism, etc. As Clarke writes, "We want literature to capture our troubled times." The valuation he's drawing into question isn't an aesthetic problem in the formal sense, but in the realm of social determination; the point of contention is relevance.

In claiming to write a big, realistic novel that takes advantage of the rhetorical facilities he perfected as a reporter, Wolfe promises a book that is more than a house of words: Like a piece of literary journalism, The Bonfire of the Vanities hopes to impress upon us the prescient concerns of its time and place--bloated, moneyed 1980's New York--and assert its value as a socially relevant work. This hope, argues Clarke, is irrevocably hampered by the text's flat characterization, empty symbols, unrealistic dialogue, etc.
"My point here is not that every journalist is doomed to write bad novels, or that fiction is superior to nonfiction, or that realism is inferior to whatever we choose to label its opposite, but that if one is going to write a novel, then one had best emphasize and pursue its virtues as fiction and not try to make the novel more like nonfiction."
His counter-example is The Effect of Living Backwards, a compressed, surreal work about (but not claiming to encapsulate) hijacking and airplanes and sisters that poses "a complete antithesis" to Wolfe's sprawling, "realistic" saga. Julavitz, according to Clarke, absconds thematic authority, instead opting to place a thin cross-section of humanity under her authorial lens, producing an indirect gaze that--paradoxically--evokes the Big Questions in a way that Wolfe fails to do with his reportorial approach.
"Wolfe means that fiction best approaches its big subjects directly, head-on, which—to use Wolfe’s rhetoric—is the only effective, honorable way of wrestling the beast. It might be true that nonfiction profits by approaching its subjects directly, but it is not true of fiction..."
Clarke's assessment of what fiction can do locates its efficacy in the very properties of genre: Art and society exist dialectically (as in, they have the ability to mutually determine each other), and literary works that are aware of their formal properties can demonstrate this relation. Aesthetic representation, then, is not only, per Kant's estimation, an "ontological vacation place" in which existential interests do not interfere, and its value transcends the detachment of the arts from the causal order of life. If non-fiction is like an enormous, detailed mural, venturing to simultaneously display all of the intricacies and relations of a varied situation, then a novel can endeavor to act as a simple portrait, whose focus on the complexities of a singular existence draws attention to the looming absence of all that cannot be represented.


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Waldo Jaquith said...

It's always nice to see people reading articles from issues prior to the current one. Clarke's article was especially canny, though I think it'll look downright prescient when we look back on it in a couple of decades. I'm not normally one for writing about writing -- it's a bit meta and masturbatory for my tastes -- but Clarke shows exactly why this practice is so important.

The shame of it is that I can't enjoy Wolfe as much as I once did. I tried reading "Bonfire" while at the beach in October, but Clarke's thesis kept coming back to me. :) Ah, well.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Hmm.... Good point about writing about writing. Sometimes the New Yorker runs like 8 cartoons in the same issue all dedicated to the charming quirkiness of being a writer. It's mega cheesy and I think off-putting to those who are not self-proclaimed literary types. Note, that last sentence was an allusion to that article in the New Yorker a few years ago that described its subject as a self-proclaimed Pepsi-holic.

I'd argue that books like the one by James Frey are a new genre of Fiction. In other words, non-fiction with no standard of factuality.... non-fiction as a trope rather than a genre.

Also, to make a sociological argument, there is now a difference between Fiction and Literature. Serious authors attempt to write Literature that will appeal to critics and those with degrees and authoritative expertise. Meanswhile, fiction is being written by James Frey and Danielle Steel and a wide variety of others.

There is still some real fiction being written, but it's as rare as hearing a jazz solo that isn't an intentional artifact of some other musician's style.

Jazz as a form of expression is dead. There is no youth energy, no sexual energy left. Most Jazz performance is studied and academic... devoid of cultural immediacy and relevance.

I can't think of the last time I read a work of contemporary 'serious' fiction that didn't leave the same kind of bourgeois aura.

Maybe I'm asking for a book recommendation...