There must be something other than pollen in the air, because literary disputes have been both more frequent and more heated than usual: the novel isn’t dead, one earnest article claims, it just happens to be the focus of a rearguard attack by the defenders of privilege. The ongoing debate over the value or worthlessness of creative writing degrees has escalated as well, oddly, with charges of aristocratic elitism also coming into play.
Attacks have been followed by counterattacks, with forays by neutral parties trying to offer more balanced arguments. But it is these demonic aristocrats and their political power that has come to dominate the debate. So instead of the writers and novels, even hypothetical ones, the supposed defenders of the novel and MFA programs have brought out “dour Maoists” and novelists of color as personifying forces of their main concerns. Literary issues that don’t play a role in the progressive betterment of mankind just don’t seem relevant enough – too art for art’s sake perhaps.
European fiction: admirable, but not very helpful
In a parenthetical aside in “The Novel Is Not Dead: Despite Critics’ Best Attempts” in the Boston Review, Jess Row quotes Virginia Woolf, who he paints as the modernist protector of upper-class privilege, on why she didn’t include Joseph Conrad in her list of old-fashioned Edwardian novelists: “Mr. Conrad is a Pole; which sets him apart, and makes him, however admirable, not very helpful.”
He rightly finds this dismissal bizarre, though the irony is that throughout the rest of this long essay, and in virtually all these defenses of contemporary writing, European writers get similarly lumped in the “admirable, but not very helpful” category by going virtually unmentioned (Beckett represents the most contemporary European Row names the rest of the way).
In author of The Program Era Mark McGurl’s somewhat incoherent response to Elif Batuman’s review of his book, he poses the question of whether contemporary fiction is really so mediocre. He mentions fiction – not American fiction, though he plainly means the latter. The point isn’t that he should specify his actually much narrower field of inquiry, but whether judging the quality of contemporary fiction has any merit when you are only looking at it within a single country.
When McGurl goes on to defend his claim that postwar American writing has “as rich and multifaceted a body of literary writing as has ever been,” the reason for the avoidance of even a single European writer becomes evident.
Considering the international history of the novel it’s a curious omission. Imagine a debate on the death of painting which similarly ignored European art or an attack/defense of contemporary independent film that overlooked the fact that Americans make films outside of Hollywood.
Speaking the universal language
Stuck in a horrible traffic jam once I ended up listening to a sports radio show where they were talking about a local football team coming off a truly miserable season. The team’s African-American coach had been fired and when the subject of the still vacant coaching position came up and the potential candidates were being debated one caller reacted irately to one of the names on the list.
“Him! But we just had a black coach and you all saw how well that worked out,” he said in so many words. It wasn’t only the obvious racism of this objection that struck me then and that has remained in my mind after all this time. It’s more how often I find the same mentality among supposedly sensitive, open-minded, educated literary types – among writers even – in reference to the books they choose to read.
“Oh, that Serbian novel sounds interesting, but I read a book from somewhere in Yugoslavia not too long ago so I think I’ll pass.” It isn’t said with the same venom as the frustrated football fan, but the odd and totally illogical connections these two statements represent are essentially the same.
For most American readers a story of unrequited love or ruthless ambition set in New York City is a story about unrequited love or ruthless ambition. Put that same story in Damascus and it becomes a story about Damascus, about Syria, about Assad, father or son, depending on when the novel takes place. In other words, American writers (and to just a slightly lesser degree all native English-language writers) have the distinct advantage of being able to set their novels in reality whereas writers from everywhere else can only make their way into the English-language book market if, Columbus-like, an “angle” is discovered that makes their scribbling relevant to the wider world.
E still = mc²
It is 2011 and the subject of “experimental” writing is very much alive. You could look on the bright side of this and say that writers continue to experiment – at least some – so why not draw attention to it. And while there has been scrutiny of the avant-garde credentials of individuals writers, such as Garth R Hallberg’s take on Zadie Smith’s take on Tom McCarthy at The Millions, there has been virtually no questioning of the category of experimental or avant-garde fiction itself. This debate has also suffered by a virtual quarantine of English-language work in any discussion, as if their chief avant-garde influences were from nowhere more exotic than Ireland or New Zealand.
Writers have always experimented, of course, but being experimental in the sense still used by critics today refers quite specifically to the innovations of early 20th century Modernism. Defenders of the variety of contemporary American writing can rightly point to an abundance of explicitly experimental work – particularly online – but it is a writing filled with conviction that it is much more radical and avant-garde than it really is. After all, adapting an aesthetic over a century old might be justifiable and even useful, but one thing it is not is innovative.
Compare the literary situation with that of painting. No one refers to abstract painting, or painting descending from early 20th Modernism as “experimental.” Imagine being at an art school exhibition and seeing a Freshman’s imitative attempt at a Pollock, De Kooning or Picasso and hearing someone say “Oh, so I see you are opting for experimental work!”
The truth is that what was once truly experimental is now the virtual norm. In painting the avant-garde decisively won the war, both in Europe and eventually in the Americas as well. In fiction it fared much less successfully. For one thing, the opposition was never quite as stark. You could find extremes – the Surrealists calling for the end of the bourgeois novel and those convinced that the Joyces and Kafkas and Borgeses were willful obscurantists who would soon be forgotten. In the end they both turned out to be wrong.
Realism and mental senility
In much of European literature the aesthetic of the writers formally designated as experimental has been incorporated into the overall aesthetic of the novel along with the aesthetic of its realist practitioners. In the English-speaking world, realism in the novel is like an un-hyphenated American, while everything else needs an adjective to describe it. Millions of museum-goers will stand in long lines to see Picasso retrospectives, but they are far less willing to read his literary contemporaries, still less to consider their work the foundation of modern fiction.
In his classic history of Russian literature D.S. Mirsky referred to Chekhov’s ascendancy as the greatest Russian writer over Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as “the strangest of occidental whims.” It is a preference reflected in the type of contemporary American writing being so vigorously defended in the name of both MFA programs and the apparent health of the novel.
“It is left to the future to show whether the wheel will turn again, or whether the advanced elite of the Western world has definitely reached a stage of mental senility that can be satisfied only by the autumnal genius of Chekhov,” Mirsky wrote.