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

Beckett Without Beckett

Here’s another double-take. Earlier this week, at Splice, I reviewed Sam Thompson’s new novel, Jott, which depicts a lightly fictionalised version of Samuel Beckett and even includes fragments of pastiche representing the fictionalised Beckett’s outpourings:

[But] Jott… is really a novel whose various elements — the characters and their situations, as well as styles of thought and expression — are assembled in an array of delicate equipoises and counterpositions. At its heart is the dynamic of antagonism and conciliation between two oppositional personalities. Arthur is a buttoned-down young man so polite and cerebral, so emotionally distant and contained, that he remains ashamed of himself for the secret he harbours: he is “two months from his thirtieth birthday” and he has never had “a sexual experience”. Louis, conversely, is puerile and lascivious, deflationary and iconoclastic, a provocateur “burning with conviction to the fingertips, living by a hunger that would not be satisfied, incapable of doing a dull or conventional thing”.

Then, later in the week, I spoke to Thompson about the place of this type of writing in the current literary landscape:

Were you conscious of contributing to a minor trend in contemporary literature? Jo Baker fictionalised Beckett in A Country Road, A Tree (2016), and a version of Beckett appeared again in Alex Pheby’s Lucia (2018). What’s your response to writing on a similar wavelength to these books?

You know all those ‘punk’ genres in SF — cyberpunk, steampunk, dieselpunk and so on? I like that terminology because it captures how fiction can take a certain setting, with its associated sensibility, paraphernalia and preoccupations, and work it up into an aesthetic which becomes an end in itself. Writing Jott felt that way to me. The whole business of writing á clef was really just an excuse to get inside an atmosphere and invent a world. So maybe that’s the nature of the kinship with A Country Road, A Tree and Lucia — I wasn’t conscious in advance of joining in a trend, but maybe Jott belongs to the micro-genre of Beckettpunk.

Only Language

Marc Nash’s Three Dreams in the Key of G is a difficult, demanding novel of absolutely virtuosic language. After David Hebblethwaite reviewed the novel for Splice, I put some questions to Nash about his creative ambitions and his process:

Let’s kick off with something notable about the title: the assonance, four rounds of “/e/”. This seems to be a signal to the reader, before page one, that Three Dreams will be a novel that relishes prosody and the possibilities it opens up: rhyme, wordplay, double entendre, and so on. How do these elements of style become part of your writing process?

I think about words a lot. Words that fail, that don’t quite convey the meaning I’m after (oh, for the German language’s facility for compound words); words that have more than one shade of meaning, and my attempting to suggest both meanings within a single usage in a sentence; and as you say, prosody, the sounds of words, puns, lexeme echoes and so on. I like using words in unexpected contexts, in sentences where you wouldn’t expect to find them. I like veering between high and low vocabulary, from scientific or words with august roots in ancient Greek or Latin, through to street slang or online speak. And when I say ‘like’, I mean that that tends to be my focus in the writing.

Because I’ve written a lot of flash fiction (fiction of 1000 words or fewer), I’ve written stories sometimes riffing off a single word. So a single word can prompt a whole chain of words in its wake. The words lead me. When I write, I don’t think about plot or character so much as voice and language. Character is fully contained within voice, so that takes care of that. And as for plot: again it comes back to the voice, what it’s saying and how it’s saying it.

On Difficulty

Now that this year’s Booker Prize has gone to Anna Burns’ Milkman, we’re back into a discussion of the value of “difficulty” in literature, as distinct from “accessibility.” The novelist and critic Sam Byers has a typically astute take on the situation, on Twitter:

I think this year’s booker has demonstrated that in fact we do have the means to reward daring, challenging writers. The problem is that we no longer have a mainstream media that’s capable of responding to that intelligently.

I’m not saying anything new by pointing out that there’s something of a crisis in British literary critical culture, at least as represented by the major newspapers, but I think this year’s booker has helped me understand that the way the prize is *covered* is most of the problem

The press is increasingly reluctant to do anything that comes too close to old fashioned textual analysis. All their braying about the booker has in many ways just been a slightly desperate shout of “give us something we can turn into a story”. There has been very little idea of how to cover the books in question. Instead there has been an increasingly blundering effort to talk about “sales”, “readers”, brits, booksellers, “difficulty” etc.

So I wonder now if this year should be the year we come to understand a rather thorny problem. Not only are we over-reliant on book prizes to make books “successes”… [but] book prizes themselves are over-reliant on a media ecosystem no longer adequately equipped to consider in any meaningful detail what they do and decide. Meanwhile, an increasingly anti-intellectual, populist atmosphere has encouraged a way of thinking about literature that is generalist, insubstantial, frequently patronising, and based on limited textual reference.

This sort of “criticism” relies on profoundly woolly concepts: “readers” (always characterised as a homogenous mass), and a fairly useless “difficulty vs readability” metric that apparently no-one has noticed is entirely subjective.

I think that’s exactly right, and worth elaborating on. My suspicion is that there are two really basic, often unarticulated assumptions underpinning 99% of literary criticism and reviews in the press. Continue reading

Flash!

This week, on Splice, I published a double-take, so to speak, on the flash fiction of Helen McClory. First up, I reviewed McClory’s two collections of short short storiesOn the Edges of Vision and Mayhem & Death:

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes a short story by Helen McClory so distinctive, but without fail you’ll know it when you find yourself reading one. McClory has been mining her own particular patch of territory for almost five years now, traversing the terrain between fabulism and domestic drama, surveying the stuff of folklore and mythology and weaving it into serious fiction with vivid imagery and poetic flair. Earlier this year, the publication of her second collection of stories, Mayhem & Death, was accompanied by the republication of her first, On the Edges of Vision (2015), and the two collections work in concert to give readers a more expansive sense of McClory’s inventive world: its breadth and contours, its alternately whimsical and sinister atmosphere, and its uncanny rules.

Then, a couple of days later, I spoke to McClory about her aesthetic preferences and her decision to return to flash fiction after having previously published a novel, Flesh of the Peach:

Why keep going back to [flash fiction], then — unjustly under-appreciated as it is — when you know you can do amazing things with forms that attract more respectability, and more readers? What does it give you, creatively, that longer forms don’t?

I’ve never thought about this before: why return to flash? I think that’s because ever since I discovered it as a form, flash has felt right, the right use of my tendency towards hybridisation. There’s something between the dog and the wolf about it: the poetic prose, but not prose poetry, able to shift into direct, more traditionally realistic modes, but then swiftly about-face and become wild again in a moment.

Longer forms don’t have that specific quality. A novel drifts through its moods over years, a big galley ship. A novella is an exercise in staging a set and following the story through to its end. Flash fiction shivers, mutates, blooms in its tiny space. I don’t know what I’m going to write when I set out to do it. I hope that the fluidity and experimental feeling of it is transmitted to the reader, too..

Obsession and Repetition

At Splice, I’ve got a brief Q&A with the poet Katharine Kilalea, whose début novel OK, Mr Field is published this month by Faber:

You’ve written a novel that has all the basic ingredients for tension, suspense, mystery — a plot to be complicated and resolved — but the tone, and the things you focus on from scene to scene, don’t work to generate those sensations. Why take this route with your first novel? How did you settle on this idiosyncratic form?

What intrigued me was not what happened between Mr Field and Hannah Kallenbach so much as the intensity of his affection for her. Sometimes when I wondered about his feelings for her, I thought of K in The Castle. Why does K persist in his fruitless pursuit of the Castle? Why doesn’t he just give up on the whole business of wanting to be a land surveyor and go home? What makes someone (or something) so wonderful that they’re worth pursuing endlessly?

The problem with writing about a persistent feeling, like obsession, is that it seems structurally at odds with the form of a novel. A novel is built on the idea of progress — that one thing leads to another towards some kind of end or conclusion — whereas an infatuation is about someone stuck in a rut, doing or thinking or feeling the same thing over and over again. So the issue here was to find a way of writing a plot in which nothing really happened. Or rather, in which the same thing kept happening. And, when you think about it, why not? There’s an implied criticism in the idea that something is getting repetitive, as if progression, rather than repetition, were the correct order of things. But of course, if something gives me pleasure, I might say I want to do it all over again.

Zambra’s Intimacy

Following on from Jason DeYoung’s review of Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read, published this week on Splice, I spoke to Zambra’s translator, Megan McDowell, about Zambra’s profile as a critic:

In your introduction [to Not to Read], you also say that by the time Alejandro Zambra “stopped contributing criticism to the Chilean press”, circa 2009, he had “consolidated both a certain renown and a voice, and developed a way of thinking about literature”. His criticism has some noticeable features — unashamed enthusiasm for his subjects, the use of the first-person voice, a focus, above all, on the impressions made by works of literature — but, in your judgment, what is it that makes his “way of thinking about literature” so distinct?

It’s hard to separate his way of thinking about literature from his literature. I think you highlight some key things, but I would focus on the intimacy of his writing. I think both his criticism and his fiction are examinations of received ideas about literature (and received culture in general), in which he searches for his own voice within that context. These critical pieces show Alejandro looking at other writers who have struggled to find, and who have found, their voices, and he clearly learns from them. They don’t tend to be canonical writers, the writers of Literature who have a solid, ‘authorial’ voice (think Vargas Llosa), but rather writers who are engaged and really struggling with questions of how and why to write.