Maxwell Donnewald’s ‘The Indescribably Real’ has been on my mind for a few days now, ever since it went online at Full Stop. Essentially a lengthy review of Atticus Lish’s debut novel, Preparations for the Next Life, it pits Lish against Karl Ove Knausgaard and mounts a defense of Lish’s more conventionally realist aesthetics against certain admirers of Knausgaard who have celebrated My Struggle as an antidote to Lish’s brand of “fiction fiction, organized around characters who don’t actually exist.” What’s interesting about Donnewald’s essay, however, has less to do with the conclusions he reaches than with the path he follows in order to reach them. Donnewald basically takes William H. Gass’ stridently anti-realist, anti-humanist definition of “character” and then reads it into Preparations for the Next Life in a way that allows him to use Lish’s characters as ciphers for a narrative structure that he finds aesthetically rewarding. Read More »
In the latest New Yorker, James Wood challenges David Shields on some of his assumptions about the tension between authorial intentions and the representation of reality in fiction:
Does literature progress, like medicine or engineering? … Perhaps it is as absurd to talk about progress in literature as it is to talk about progress in electricity — both are natural resources awaiting different forms of activation. The novel is peculiar in this respect, because while anyone painting today exactly like Courbet, or composing music exactly like Brahms, would be accounted a fraud or a forger, much contemporary fiction borrows the codes and conventions — the basic narrative grammar — of Flaubert or Balzac without essential alteration.
By grammar, I mean the rather lazy stock-in-trade of mainstream realist fiction: the cinematic sweep, followed by the selection of small, telling details (“It was a large room, filled almost entirely by rows of antique computers; there was an odd smell of aftershave and bacon”); the careful mixing of dynamic and habitual detail (“At one of the computers, a man was unhurriedly eating a spring roll; traffic noise pierced the thick, sealed windows; an ambulance yelped by”); the preference for the concrete over the abstract (“She was twenty-nine, but still went home every evening to her mom’s ground-floor apartment in Queens, which doubled by day as a yoga studio”); vivid brevity of character-sketching (“Bob wore a bright-yellow T-shirt that read ‘Got Beer?,’ and had a small mole on his upper lip”); plenty of homely “filler” (“She ordered a beer and a sandwich, sat down at the table, and opened her computer”); more or less orderly access to consciousness and memory (“He lay on the bed and thought with shame of everything that had happened that day”); lucid but allowably lyrical sentences (“From the window, he watched the streetlights flicker on, in amber hesitations”). And this does not even touch on the small change of fictional narrative: how strange it is, when you think about it, that thousands of novels are published every year, in which characters all have different names (whereas, in real life, doesn’t one always have at least three friends named John, and another three named Elizabeth?), or in which characters quizzically “raise an eyebrow,” and angrily “knit their brows,” or just express themselves in quotation marks and single adverbs (“‘You know that’s not fair,’ he said, whiningly”). At this level of convention, there is a shorter distance than one would imagine between, say, Harriet the Spy and Disgrace.
So even if it’s hard to decide whether the novel can really progress it’s easy to see that it can congeal — that certain novelistic conventions grow steadily more conventional, and lose some of their original power. The French literary theorist Roland Barthes called this “the reality effect.” He was talking specifically about fictional detail (the kind that pretends to be quietly “irrelevant,” like Bob’s mole, in one of my hypothetical examples); his larger argument, made elsewhere in his work, was that realistic fiction, like ideology, tries to palm itself off as the most natural and real of literary modes but is in fact the most artificial and unreal. Barthes is ninety-nine per cent right. His rightness is felt every day by any novelist who sits down to a blank piece of paper or a computer screen and tries, despairingly, to think beyond the familiar grammar of narrative. All this silly machinery of plotting and pacing, this corsetry of chapters and paragraphs, this doxology of dialogue and characterization! Who does not want to explode it, do something truly new, and rouse the implication slumbering in the word “novel”?
Avant-garde anti-realists probably err in assuming that realist novelists are just complacently or venally recycling convention; my experience is that many intelligent novelists are painfully aware of their bated means, their limitations and timidities and uncertainties, and look with writhing admiration at writers like Beckett or Saramago or Bernhard or David Foster Wallace, who seem to have discovered new fictional languages.
In his literary manifesto, Reality Hunger, David Shields writes of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections:
I couldn’t read that book if my life depended on it. It might be a “good” novel or it might be a “bad” novel, but something has happened to my imagination, which can no longer yield to the earnest embrace of novelistic form.
In response, Steve Mitchelmore writes:
So he (rather than we) has lost something; something has happened to him. …
Entry 69, attributed to Saul Steinberg, is the dynamic beating the wrongheaded heart of [Shields’] manifesto:
There are two sorts of artist, one not being in the least superior to the other. One responds to the history of his art so far; the other responds to life itself.
[W]e know which [one] we’re meant to favour. Yet both respond only to distance. To ask what life is in itself is already to open an abyss. It’s not a question that troubles this book because it knows that life is what is “actually occurring in the world” independent of the viewer. To achieve all Shields’ favoured elements then one must discharge agency, which is strictly impossible for the artist; discharging is agency by stealth. So what Shields wants instead is for the artist to efface agency, risk nothing but being found out.
Fiction isn’t dead or dying, and neither is the literary magazine. Maybe the academic model for supporting it is, but that’s a wholly different thing. Instead of pining for the glory days, maybe we should instead turn our attention to the great independent literary magazines, whose futures are dependent on readers, not university decisions: Try Unsaid or Hobart or Barrelhouse or New York Tyrant or Keyhole or Annalemma or any of the other great online and print magazines out there. The people editing these magazines and publishing them without drawing a salary or having institutional funding have already shown the importance they personally put on the publishing of new fiction, and their contribution to the literary community is consistently ignored by academics writing articles like this one.