From Criteria to Credo

In a new article at American Prospect, Benjamin Markovits has suggested that we can clearly articulate “What makes fiction good.” Daniel Green, upon reading the article, complained that Markovits made “not one mention… of the writer’s use of language. It’s all about various gradations of story. If a work of fiction isn’t first of all its style, what the writer can do with words, it’s literally nothing but a plot.” Finally, in response, Emmett Stinson argued against using language alone as the sole criterion for literary merit:

[T]here are great writers (even within a literary tradition that prizes style over plot) who are bad or inconsistent stylists. … Style is not an “element” [of literature]. Visual narratives, spoken narratives, and written narratives are not the same. There are great writers who are bad or inconsistent stylists… especially in genres outside the literary. … Writing can do many things beyond rhetorical mastery (style). Fiction can be deeply affective or ideational without rhetorical complexity. Science fiction is arguably conceptually more complex than much lit fic, though stylistically less masterful. Many options for greatness… [and no need for] a subordination of all categories to “the writer’s language effects,” which strikes me as an attenuation of the possibilities for literature — just as a narrow focus on only narrative forms is.

Now, with Philip K. Dick being floated as an exemplar of a “great” writer who is also a terrible stylist, I’ve waded in with some rough thoughts of my own. Continue reading

After the End of Point-of-View

Last week I went to an event in London organised by the people behind the White Review: a panel discussion featuring Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, and Lara Feigel, on the topic of “Writing Motherhood.” I was struck by most of the things said by Cusk, in particular, and especially one remark she made and prefaced with “We haven’t spoken about literary form yet,” so she could open the doors to a discussion of form. What she wanted to say was this: “Point-of-view fiction has led the novel into a carpark full of overflowing skips, or some such un-aesthetic place.” That’s a slight paraphrase, but the key words were actually spoken by Cusk: “point-of-view,” “carpark,” “skips,” “un-aesthetic” or “not very aesthetic.” Continue reading

In Memoriam, Ursula K. LeGuin

It’s the use of language, and the conscious, purposeful exploitation of the unique capabilities of language, that distinguishes literary fiction from genre fiction. That’s an article of faith for me. The distinction has nothing to do with the material of the story. Which is why The Left Hand of Darkness, in particular, is an outstanding work of literary fiction. Not because it proves that science fiction can rival conventional literary fiction by telling complex stories with equal sensitivity, but because it does mindbending things with language, specifically the use of gender pronouns, with all their implications. That, above all else, is what makes the novel unadaptable, unfilmable, irreducibly literary. Extract the story from the language and you have a compelling, philosophically provocative science fiction tale, but you don’t have literary fiction. It’s the language that makes the difference; it’s in the language that LeGuin’s genius resides.

In Memoriam, John Ashbery

Following the death of John Ashbery earlier this month, a number of eloquent, incisive memorial essays have been appearing on the web. Given Ashbery’s long history of publishing in the New Yorker, it’s no surprise that some of the best would come from others involved with that magazine. Here, for instance, is Ben Lerner, a great admirer of Ashbery and effectively his protégé:

The first time I met John (a decade ago), he thought I was someone else. This became slowly clear to me because he kept asking me questions about the poet Landis Everson, about whom I knew basically nothing. (It turned out that John thought I was the writer Ben Mazer, who edited Everson’s collected poems.) There was something appropriate about being misidentified by the poet who’d become my hero, in part because of the beautiful fungibility of his “you”: the way sometimes the poems address you, are alone in the room with a particular reader (yes, you), and sometimes address all possible yous, expand until we feel the mundane miracle of address as such — that there are other people, that there might be a common language.

Lerner’s remarks on the experience of reading Ashbery’s poems, which appear in his novel Leaving the Atocha Station and should rightly be attributed to his narrator Adam Gordon, have also been haunting me since Ashbery’s death: Continue reading

Why the Fugue?

I clicked over to Margot Singer’s recent post at the Paris Review in a bit of a panic. Singer asks whether a novel can be a fugue, or can be structured akin to a fugue, and she offers up her own début, Underground Fugue, as an example of a novel built upon a fugal framework. Since I’m in the midst of writing a novel that also takes its cues from the fugue, I worried that Singer had beaten me to it and undercut me before I could even finish. Not that either one of us imagines that we might be the first writer to take this particular path (Joyce, Burgess, et al) but still, nobody wants to exhaust themselves labouring over a book that ends up reading mostly like an echo of someone else’s. Continue reading

On Poetry

Yesterday, the New York Times offered a nice surprise: an eloquent little essay by Matthew Zapruder on learning how to read poetry. It begins in the classroom, with Zapruder describing a problem that any teacher of literature will be familiar with:

Do you remember, as I do, how in the classroom poems were so often taught as if they were riddles? What is the poet really trying to say here? What is the theme or message of this poem? … [I]n school we are taught that poetry is inherently “difficult,” and that by its very nature it somehow makes meaning by hiding meaning. So our efforts at reading poetry begin to reflect this.

“But,” Zapruder goes on, “it turns out that the portal to the strange is the literal. As a teacher, I’ve found that regardless of how open or resistant my literature students initially are to poetry, real progress begins when they get literal with the words on the page.” That’s my experience too, and it’s refreshing to find someone else saying it. Continue reading

The Escape Artist

Jeremy M. Davies, "The Knack of Doing"One of the books I got a kick out of last year was Jeremy M. Davies’ absurd and hilarious novel Fancy. Now, at Full Stop, Walker Rutter-Bowman has a great review of Davies’ collection of short fiction, The Knack of Doing. The collection, he says,

is a master class in writing by constraint. The constraints are playful, as if Davies has posed a series of small challenges for himself — write a story by letter, by repetition, by list, by blurb. Davies delights in the unlikelihood of stories. That he can draw drama from unlikely forms and sources animates his writing. He has the defiant air of an escape artist, finding elaborate ways to constrict himself, then freeing himself with a flourish. These escapes are displays of his talent: his virtuosic language, his grammatical panache, his narrative dexterity.

But the review is ultimately not a rapturous one, or at least not without reservations; Rutter-Bowman identifies some interesting ways in which Davies’ mastery of self-imposed constraints also leaves his stories a little stunted.