Knausgaard’s Reinvigorated Realism

Once again the publication of a new volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle has been met with a flurry of extremely well-considered responses, but none so incisive as Anthony Macris’ long essay in the Sydney Review of Books. Although it’s ostensibly a review of Some Rain Must Fall, it’s actually goes much further in order to extrapolate from commonplace remarks on Knausgaard’s style in order to articulate precisely the governing aesthetic of the entire My Struggle series:

Much has already been written about Knausgaard’s literary style: the plainness of his language, the massing of detail, the ostensible tendency to over-narration. Critics seems divided as to whether his writing is long-winded and sloppy, his talent failing his ambition, or whether it’s fit for purpose, admirably serving the drama without overly drawing attention to itself. At any rate, there’s more than enough praise to counter the negative view, with writers like Zadie Smith and Jeffrey Eugenides lining up to support his work enthusiastically. Whatever your view I would argue that, no matter what camp you fall into, it’s hard to deny that with My Struggle Knausgaard has pulled off something extraordinary, that he has to some degree, if not reinvented realism, then refreshed it for a contemporary literary readership that is perhaps growing tired of tightly scripted novels that resemble movie scripts, or maximalist fictions that rely on outlandish hyperbole. In turning his back on the trappings of standard conceptions of literariness — for example, the kind of high-blown lyricism and overweening self-romanticism that sank Harold Brodkey’s much vaunted autobiographical novel, The Runaway Soul — Knausgaard has effectively employed a cruder mimesis, one that refuses to engage with the kind of trompe l’oeil effects that can in their own way achieve verisimilitude.

Instead, his style is based in part on what I word term a naïve epistemology, one that harkens back to the Cratylic tradition of the word, a belief that there’s a natural correspondence between words and things, and that by naming things we can create worlds. Metaphor, simile and other poetic devices are virtually non-existent in the My Struggle novels. While comparisons to Proust abound in discussions of Knausgaard (a comparison he invites), his style couldn’t be more different to Proust’s filigree, hypotactical sentences whose sinuous lines, in the great tradition of modernist subjectivity, mimic the train of thought. Knausgaard, like Proust, may draw upon the great internal sweep of remembrance to generate his novel, but his conveyance of choice is made up largely of concrete images, dialogue and simple declarative sentences. Often, in paratactical mode, these sentences are strung together with commas, breaking every rule of ‘good’ grammar. It’s tempting to think this style is a new kind of rendering of consciousness, but I would argue differently. Consciousness in Knausgaard is a kind of extreme ossification of realism, a near empirical entity, gleaned principally from observation of the external world and thoughts narrated as statements of fact, which is easy enough to claim in first person, where the narration of thoughts and emotional states correlate with the authenticity of the narrating subject. Consciousness as a mediating factor, a substance that distorts reality and that must be shown to do so, isn’t evoked. Language is at the service of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sensibility, and it’s a sensibility that isn’t afraid to dwell on lived experience at length, a Stendahlian mirror that reflects not in a series of tableaux, but that is as vast as the universe it captures, and is somehow co-extensive with it.

This is a somewhat technical way of saying that Knausgaard’s realism is not the kind of realism we are accustomed to. In fact, while working in a realist paradigm, Knausgaard, in his desire to write rapidly and in volume (the near 700 pages of Some Rain Must Fall took, he claims, a mere eight weeks to write), has challenged the limits of contemporary realism. All the standard tropes of realism are there: concrete events plotted in chronological time (there is some achrony, but within the acceptable limits of realism); a hero narrator whose consciousness is the spoke of the wheel; carefully selected conflicts that drive the story forward; internal struggles with self, external battles with people and institutions. But the edicts of contemporary realism that Knausgaard chooses to flout are those of tightness and brevity, and of relegating description and ‘undramatic’ events to the background in order to foreground the ‘real meat’ of the narrative: heightened events, turning points, moments of conflict. There is instead a merging of foreground and background in order to create more vivid textures of lived experience.

Proof positive, as if any more were needed, of the extraordinary value of the Sydney Review, and a real enrichment of the experience of reading Knausgaard.

The Next Word, and the Next

Continued from the previous post.

Perhaps the strangest element of John Mullan’s essay on the pleasures of plot is the way in which Mullan identifies as ‘plot’ all those aspects of literature from which he derives pleasure, even when the pleasure demonstrably does not come from the sophistication of the plotting. He finds, for example, a “pleasing moment in the very first instalment of Bleak House when Dickens uses a parenthesis to hint at his buried design.” Dickens introduces “Lady Dedlock (who is childless), looking out in the early twilight from her boudoir,” and, as Mullan writes, the words in parentheses “turn out to be untrue” so that “[w]hat is treated as though it hardly matters is in fact a clue.” That’s a fair enough assessment of the significance of Dickens’ aside, but while Dickens’ sleight-of-hand with regard to Lady Dedlock’s parental status might well be an issue of plot, the effects of his use of parenthetical remarks are arguably an issue of style. And since these sorts of remarks don’t fall within the aesthetic capabilities of artforms other than literature, the real source of Mullan’s pleasure here lies in Dickens’ use of an aesthetic resource that is particular to the artform in which he is working.

All of this is to say that the pleasures of literature owe much more, I think, to things like style and structure than to secrets concealed, motives revealed, sudden betrayals, uneasy alliances, moral epiphanies, and other twists and turns of plotting. Funnily enough, Mullan would seem to agree with that, even though he still credits plot for the resultant pleasures. “Plot is not just a sequence of connected events,” he writes, echoing E.M. Forster’s distinction between a story as a sequence of events and a plot as a sequence of events that obtain meaning by way of their causal connections. “Plot,” he insists,

is… the unfolding of a hidden design. Plot involves the laying of clues, the implicit promise to the reader or viewer that the true significance of what we read or see is not self-evident, but will eventually be revealed. A good plot exploits not just suspense, but also a kind of retrospective curiosity. When we know that a story has a plot we find ourselves asking not so much, ‘What will happen next?’ as, ‘What has already happened?’ The hidden design has, we trust, been contrived by an author, so when we enjoy a plot we are enjoying being manipulated by him or her.

No disagreement from me. How could that not be the case? A work of literature is essentially a bundle of information. In places, the information it contains is quite simple. It might be, for example, information about a particular event: where it took place, who was involved in it, what caused it to happen, and what its consequences were. In other places, the information can become much more complex. It might involve exploring how somebody responded to something that happened to them, how the emotional aspects of their response conflicted with its psychological aspects, and how their response as a whole evolved and changed over time. It might involve information about things of a scale far larger than that of an individual life or a single moment in time, or it might involve information about a multitude of things that interact and intersect in countless ways that are significant but not necessarily causal in nature. Whatever the case, the totality of the information is there inside the work of literature, contained within its pages, and the work serves to transmit the information to the reader one piece at a time, one word at a time.

But I could say pretty much the same thing of my MacBook Pro setup guide, couldn’t I? What exactly is it, then, that might distinguish a work of literature from the corporate publications of Apple? What is it that makes one of them capable of giving pleasure and the other one virtually incapable of it? Does it really just boil down to a difference in the interest level and the emotional depths of the information that is disclosed in words? Or is it a difference in the means by which, the ends towards which, and the effects with which each written work approaches the task of disclosure in words? If, say, Bleak House were to be rewritten from top to tail, to have every sentence reworded, without altering a single plot point or changing any of its narrative information, would John Mullan derive precisely as much pleasure from it as he does at present? Or is it rather the case that Dickens has chosen to transmit the information to his readers through a selection of stylistic and structural devices that work in concert with the information itself in order to produce the unique pleasures of Bleak House?

Words possess properties beyond those of direct and literal reference for the purpose of disclosing information. They possess prosodic qualities, tonal qualities, connotative meanings, and multiple meanings any one of which may be suppressed or called forth by the surrounding words and by the place of a particular word within a broader context. Stylisation involves, among other things, the purposeful exploitation of these and similar properties of words. Since these properties are precisely the sorts of things that the writers of MacBook Pro setup guides don’t exploit — not least because they’ll leave the readers of those guides confused and irritated — it’s fair to say that the particularities of style are part of what make a written work identifiably literary.

Information, too, is unstable. A work of literature may be essentially a bundle of information, but as readers we can’t and don’t receive the information in a bundle. As above, the work transmits information to its readers one piece at a time, although to phrase the situation in that way is to combine and simplify three important points that warrant a little elaboration. First: that, without exception, every work of literature has been structured so as to keep some information concealed while allowing some to be disclosed. That’s just the nature of the beast. Second: that every work of literature adds to the totality of its disclosures and subtracts from its concealments as the pages turn. Obviously, though, there’s no guarantee that cumulative disclosures entail a clearer or more coherent understanding of the information as a whole. Third: that the process of writing a work of literature involves deciding, on a word-by-word basis, which information to keep concealed, and why, and which information to disclose, and how. In other words, it involves decisions about the perspective from which to make disclosures and the order in which to make them, as well as assessing the effects of every possible variation in the sequence of the disclosures. Structure is a reflection of the sum of those decisions. If you’re writing a MacBook Pro setup guide, you probably want to structure your disclosures in the way that most clearly spells out, in order, the key steps in setting up a MacBook Pro. If you’re writing literature, however, you have an effectively unlimited range of possible effects to produce in your readers, and an unlimited range of possible ways in which to structure your disclosures, and each possible structure will of course produce its own unique effects. Structural particularities therefore make a written work identifiably literary just as much as do particularities of style.

“When we know that a story has a plot,” writes John Mullan, “we find ourselves asking not so much, ‘What will happen next?’ as, ‘What has already happened?’.” I think that’s fundamentally right, but it’s also much too restrictive. Actually, I think it’s more that we ask some version of those two questions in combination: “What has already happened, in the sense that the information is predetermined? And which piece of it will I receive next, and in what words, and how will all of that resonate or clash with what I have received so far?” And when readers begin receiving answers to those questions from a work of literature, whether or not the answers relate to a plot is entirely incidental to their potential for producing pleasure. They might produce pleasure as successfully, and they often produce it better, if they exercise a range of literature’s other, less cinematic aesthetic resources. That way, the disclosure of ‘what happens next’ involves not just using words to record events involving characters, but using the purposeful selection of words as an ongoing event that involves the reader in a particularly literary experience.

Plotted Pleasures

This weekend’s Guardian Review features an essay by John Mullan on the pleasures of a good plot. “How we love plots,” he begins, “and how we look down our noses at them. … [P]lot lovers who are also novel readers might think that [the excitements of a plot] are guilty pleasures.” Mullan encourages his readers not to feel guilty about enjoying novels that place a premium on plotting, and instead to see the orchestration of “a good plot” as “one of the highest arts.”

On one level, at least, this reader needed little persuading. I’m one of the umpteen million people who binge-watched The Wire and Breaking Bad, and like so many others I remain addicted to House of Cards and Game of Thrones. With religious fervour I also bow down at the altar of Marvel Studios, heading to the cinema on opening day to pay the extortionate price of admission to every new superhero brawl, and I don’t feel the slightest pang of guilt about admitting any of this. On another level, though, I found it hard to follow Mullan very far into his argument. Halfway down the first column, he swerves off in an absurd direction. In pursuit of a tussle with critics who fail to see the brilliance of contemporary novels that invest heavily in plot — novels by the likes of John le Carre, Michael Frayn, Sarah Waters, and Ian McEwan — Mullan points out that those novels share a kinship with other, more celebrated works that are neither contemporary nor novels at all. Let’s slow down right there. The particularities of both historical context and use of artform are not incidental to the ways in which we might appreciate the contemporary novel, with or without a plot. It’s worth taking a little time to think about the way they shape what we think we want from a novel, and how we respond to what we actually get.

Here’s exactly what Mullan writes in that opening column:

No longer satisfied with the mere whodunnit, the prime-time [television] audience can satisfy its plot hunger with the elaborate conspiracy narrative of the BBC’s Line of Duty or the psychological indeterminacy of ITV’s Marcella. … TV drama, especially the one-off mini-series, is where we can go for the special pleasures of plot. …

In the Victorian age, novelists such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins treated the compulsive powers of plotting as fiction’s strongest resource. The most literary novelists respected the engrossing powers of plot: even George Eliot’s Middlemarch has at its heart a secret tale of seduction, larceny and hidden identity waiting to be discovered.

How to diplomatically recap the logic underpinning all this? Novelists working in the nineteenth century ago expended great energies on the intricacies of their plots. Popular television series continue to do so today. Contemporary novelists who neglect plot are therefore betraying both the innate desires of their readers and, worse, their artistic heritage. If I managed to get the gist of it right, colour me unconvinced.

Here’s a question to be answered in all seriousness. Why would someone who cherishes reading novels not read a novel for the plot? Far from being ignorant about how the typical novel was read in the nineteenth century, I do it precisely because of what happened to the novel and its capacity for plot in the two hundred years between then and now. Circa the 1850s, literature began to encounter rival artforms. Photography came first, then cinema, broadcast radio, comic books, and television. Each of these artforms brought with it a set of aesthetic capabilities that overlapped with those of the nineteenth century novel. Among the most notable of these capabilities were the representation of the real world and the narrative sequencing of events. Yet each of these artforms also brought with it new aesthetic resources which allowed it, in its own particular way, to realise those same representational and narratorial capabilities much more fully than literature could.

What aesthetic resources were those? I’m thinking especially things like photorealistic mimesis, by which photography was the first to diminish the success of literary attempts at verisimilitude, as well as scene cuts and shot-to-shot cuts, by which cinema and television have diminished literary efforts at managing narrative causality, tempo, and overall pace. I’m also thinking of the simultaneous transmission of verbal and visual narrative information. That’s an aesthetic resource by which cinema, comic books, and television have created complex new narrative structures that aren’t possible in works of literature with their commitment the singular focus of the written word. It’s also one of the aesthetic resources that Mullan praises for its effect on plot, without pointing out that literature can’t replicate it. Writing of Bryan Singer’s film The Usual Suspects, Mullan points out that its “surprising success stemmed from its devotion to plot and its willingness to deceive the audience quite as comprehensively as its villain was deceiving the detectives. Certainly the means by which it did this was postmodern: the film broke with old cinematic conventions by showing on the screen events that had not happened. What the trickster narrated (though untrue) was turned into images on our screen.” I wouldn’t dream of denying the validity of the observation, but Mullan argues in bad faith when he calls for contemporary novelists to play these sorts of game with plot. As well demand that airplanes be built to sail the seas and paraplegics take the stairs.

To put all this another way, new and emergent artforms have, over the last two hundred years, encroached upon and constrained the supremacy of literature as a vehicle for an immersive plot. You’d be crazy to say that literature can’t do plot at all, but literature in this day and age simply isn’t the best available artform for making plot convincing and compelling. That’s why I find I’m not able to read a novel for its plot without wondering, every step of the way, why the author didn’t decide to let the plot unfold someplace other than on the page. I can’t read a novel for its plot when I know I could see the same plot executed more realistically and at a better pace on television or in the cinema. To use literature as a vehicle for plot is to not make use of the aesthetic resources that are particular to the artform, and a novel that results from this use therefore fails to answer the fundamental question of why it might be something worth reading.

Continued in the following post.

The Effects of The End of the Tour

I haven’t yet had a chance to see The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt’s film adaptation of David Lipsky’s book-length interview with David Foster Wallace, but I’ve found a lot to like about the responses it has drawn from critics so far — or, rather, the breadth and variety of those responses. At one end of the spectrum, you’ve got Tom LeClair lamenting that even though The End of the Tour “offers itself as a respectful homage to and elegy for David Foster Wallace,” “exploitation mars the film from its origin through its casting to the final product.” The result, writes LeClair, is “a movie that Wallace’s widow and his editors said Wallace would have hated” and, worse, “the kind of commercial entertainment that Wallace’s best work critiqued.” But then you’ve got Christopher Schaberg taking a more generous view of things — “the movie is perfectly okay!” — and pointing out that, far from downplaying or bypassing its treatment of Wallace’s major critical concerns, The End of the Tour gives consideration to most of them. “Nothing in the movie breaks from the overt themes of Wallace’s actual writings,” Schaberg insists, “unless you want to go meta and insist that the movie itself is everything Wallace would have hated — but then, the joke is on us, too.”

But by far the best assessment of the film comes from James Ley in the Sydney Review of Books. Paying careful attention to the technicalities of how The End of the Tour portrays Wallace scene by scene, rather than simply in sum or on the whole, Ley finds that “the film both relies on and participates in the construction of Wallace as a cultural symbol. It is very much about him as an object of fascination rather than as an artist” and, more than that, it works hard to make its viewers aware that they, too, “are no less complicit in [its] process of objectification.” “The End of the Tour is a film that is aware of the delicacy of its task,” Ley writes:

It does not presume to know its subject beyond his outward manifestations. Wallace lives alone in a small house on the edge of a large snowy field and speaks to Lipsky of loneliness, but we never see him alone. The film preserves the basic interviewer-interviewee structure of [Lipsky’s] book, such that our sense of Wallace is always framed by Lipsky’s observation of him. …

This interest in the tension between the man and his public persona — the way that the film implies Wallace’s success has made his isolation more acute — is the most obvious way in which its themes resonate with his writing. The tendency for a media-saturated, visual culture to engender a self-consciousness that sharpens the conflict between the part of us that is seen and the infinitely more complicated part of us that remains hidden is one of Wallace’s defining themes. The difference is that The End of the Tour is itself a part of that visual culture.

“This is an irony of which the film is aware,” Ley contends, “and which it negotiates with understated intelligence” by appropriating and reconceiving Wallace’s own techniques for “satiris[ing] the terminal involutions of self-referential postmodern art,” “turning [them] around in order to reinforce our sense of Wallace’s objectification.” What I find particularly striking about these words — aside from how respectfully they treat a film that a good number of Wallace devotees have shown no hesitation in trashing — is how in tune they seem with Wallace’s own writings on films and filmmaking. They do him the sort of posthumous honour that the filmmakers were likely aiming for, capturing very acutely the analytical spirit in which Wallace himself approached the artifice of the cinema and picked apart its effects on its audience.

All Over the Place

Gary Saul Morson has an essay in Commentary entitled ‘Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature.’ It’s a real piece of work. He begins by taking a few pot-shots at Martha Nussbaum’s familiar concerns about declining enrolment in literature courses at colleges and universities, then he identifies himself as the teacher of “the largest class at Northwestern University, with an enrollment of about 500 students. The course is about Russian literature.” He continues:

I speak with students by the dozens, and none has ever told me that he or she does not take more literature courses because every moment at school must be devoted to maximizing future income. On the contrary, students respond by describing some literature course they took that left them thinking they had nothing to gain from repeating the experience. … What can students learn from literature that they cannot learn elsewhere? Why should they bother with it? … For understandable reasons, literature professors assume the importance of their subject matter. But students are right to ask these questions. … To teach anything well, you have to place yourself in the position of the learner who does not already know the basics and has to be persuaded that the subject is worth studying. You have to subtract knowledge and assumptions you have long since forgotten having learned. And one of those assumptions is that literature is worth the effort of reading it.

That sort of stuff is music to my ears. I teach literature partly because I love exactly that aspect of the job: challenging myself to approach the familiar from an outsider’s perspective, dismantling my own assumptions about literature at the beginning of the academic year, and finding new and creative ways of introducing students to the discipline without ever taking for granted their interest in it. But then Morson drops this paragraph:

More sophisticated students usually have in mind some version of what might be called the Wikipedia test. If a book has a point, and the point can be briefly summarized, why not just read the summary? If a teacher cannot give a coherent reason why such a shortcut simply won’t do, then why should the student assume anything important is left out?

Good questions, no doubt, to which I’d answer that the “point” of a book is the word-by-word experience of the particular effects it generates in the act of reading it, not some post hoc claim or statement to be extracted from having read it. This means, for teachers of literature, the focus of a literature class has to be the aesthetic capabilities and resources of literature as an artform, with any analysis of things like narrative momentum and character development and thematic concerns taking place in an aesthetic context. But then, a few paragraphs later, Morson rails against taking an aesthetic approach to the study of literature:

Time and again, students tell me of three common ways in which most high school and college classes kill their interest in novels.

The most common approach might be called technical. The teacher dedicates himself to the book as a piece of craft. Who is the protagonist, and who is the antagonist? Is there foreshadowing? Above all, this approach directs students to look for symbols. … At a more granular level, this approach involves teaching a dense thicket of theory focused on “the text.” But literary works are not texts; that is, they are not just words on a page linked by abstruse techniques. Does anybody really believe that Dickens set out to create a sort of puzzle one needed an advanced humanities degree to make sense of? And that he wanted the experience of reading his works to resemble solving a crossword puzzle?

As someone who actively discourages his students from leaning on the rickety old crutch of symbolism when undertaking literary analysis, it’s mystifying to me to see that my preferred approach to the study of literature involves hunting out symbolism “[a]bove all.” Putting that aside, however, I have to say that I really don’t understand what a teacher of literature is actually teaching if he or she isn’t teaching students how to pay attention to the words on the page. I don’t believe that Dickens set out to create some sort of unsolvable puzzle, or that he wanted the experience of reading his works to resemble solving one. But an appreciation and understanding of that experience is quite distinct from the experience itself, involving as it does a reflective intellectualisation of an affective encounter with a text, and one cannot thoroughly appreciate or understand how the experience has come into being without paying close attention to the words from which it arises. At the end of the day, the words on the page are all we really have.

Morson’s general point is that “the real literary work” has less to do with authorial technique than with “the reader’s experience,” and this means that “the first thing a teacher needs to do is help students have the experience the author is trying to create. There is no point in analyzing the techniques for creating an experience the students have not had.” He ends his essay, bizarrely, by basically adopting Martha Nussbaum’s view of the importance of literature as a cultural force that expands one’s capacity for empathy, and his conclusion is just flat-out embarrassing:

[G]reat literature allows one to think and feel from within how other cultures think and feel. The greater the premium on understanding other cultures in their own terms, the more the study of literature matters.

Because literature is about diverse points of view, I teach by impersonation. I never tell students what I think about the issues the book raises, but what the author thinks. If I comment on some recent event or issue, students will be hearing what Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, not I, would say about it. One can also impersonate the novel’s characters. What would Ivan Karamazov say about our moral arguments? How could we profit from the wisdom Dorothea Brooke acquires? Can one translate their wisdom into a real dialogue about moral questions that concern us — or about moral questions that we were unaware are important but in light of what we have learned turn out to be so? Authors and characters offer a diversity of voices and points of view on the world from which we can benefit.

Such impersonation demands absorbing the author’s perspective so thoroughly that one can think from within it, and then “draw dotted lines” from her concerns to ours. Students hear the author’s voice and sense the rhythms of her thought, and then, when they go back to the book, read it from that perspective. Instead of just seeing words, they hear a voice.

I don’t think you have to be a teacher of literature, or even an experienced reader of literature, to see that this is crazy talk. I’d defy Morson to put Dostoevsky and Tolstoy aside for a term and try using those techniques to teach something like Gravity’s Rainbow or Lolita. Those are just two novels, among many, that are clearly artistically ambitious and yet make a problem of the very possibility of empathy. I doubt that Morson’s students would get anything of much value out of their attempts to use empathy alone to fully experience those sorts of novels, but experience tells me that students who receive guidance in approaching them aesthetically develop a real love for the extraordinary capabilities of the written word that is, after all, their lifeblood.