Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In Search of New Terms for the Novel Debate

Modernism, Literary Fiction, and the Opposition of Popular and Serious

After the novel, it happens to the other popular genres of the bourgeois era: film and pop music, too, pass through their Modernism, and afterwards separate camps are established, and the genre can never again be unproblematically popular and “art” at once. The Madame Bovary of film in this regard, the movie that made people think that made doubters believe that film could be an art form, was, of course, Citizen Kane. Never mind that great European films had already been made, like The Rules of the Game and The Passion of Joan of Arc; never mind that the French New Wave critics would argue that classical Hollywood cinema was already art. With the end of the studio era in the 1950s and the advent of European Modernism in the 1960s, American movies became divided between the “mainstream” and the “indie,” and by the 1980s no one serious film lover could approve of popular movies unless they were willing to cast their lot with the Spielberg and Cameron spectacle interpretation of great filmmaking.

Likewise with “popular” music. As the story of rock goes, first there was Elvis, then The Beatles and Dylan; Dylan's example encouraged The Beatles to step up their game, and by the time of Sgt. Pepper, critics were quite willing to take pop music seriously. But it wasn't for another ten years that pop began to approach its Modernism. First, there was the decadence (which also preceded literary Modernism) of The Velvet Underground and Bowie, followed by punk (=Dada), and finally the full-blown Modernism of New Wave, immediately followed, again, by the division into “indie” and “mainstream” camps. If anything the division was more pronounced in pop music, because although some New Wave bands (notably Blondie) merged punk and dance, indie rock developed in opposition to the 1980s dance ethos: The Smiths and REM vs. Madonna and Prince. Thus, for the average popular music fan, there were only two main "genres" to worry about (before rap and hip-hop came along): indie and dance.

Quickly, however, at least in the case of music after the Nirvana explosion, “indie” became no more than a marketing label; not a designator of quality, let alone authenticity. It's possible to apply this sort of opposition to literature as well: suggest that the most interesting contemporary literature is published by indie publishers rather than the big-name media corporations, as Edmond Caldwell has done at his provocative blog Contra James Wood. There's a difference, though. Many people act as though “indie” is a genre of film, and many more as though it's a genre of music, whereas few readers, even “serious” ones, believe that “indie literature” is a genre. They do, however, often hold this belief about “literary fiction,” although literary fiction is as much of an empty marketing term and signifier of quality, or at least of a certain set of values, as “indie music.”

The Terms of the Debate

The terms of the debate over the “death” or future of the novel tend to go something like this: either literary fiction (meaning all serious fiction) is opposed to popular or commercial fiction (meaning all trash); or literary fiction (meaning the old-fashioned/social/plot-and-characters novel) is opposed to postmodern fiction; or literary fiction (back to meaning all serious fiction) is opposed to genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mystery, and the like, which can be defended as effective on their own terms or attacked as formulaic). Specific “serious” authors may then set out to heal the rift between the social novel and the postmodern novel, like Franzen, and in the process try to make meaningful, challenging fiction popular again, like it was in the 19th century, when everybody read because there was no technology (although Henry James was already complaining about the kind of trash that was popular, written – sound familiar? – by “lady scribblers,” and about a century before that, Austen was making fun of Twilight readers in Northanger Abbey); or they may try to make modern genre fiction and other, older  forms of popular fiction, such as the picaresque, viable again by bringing their "literary" concerns to it.

By “the death of the novel,” we usually mean one of three things (and we may not always be sure which): that great novels can no longer be written; that no one cares about reading; or that “the novel itself” can no longer be written. The first meaning relies on the idea that the novel exhausted itself as art form; Camilla Paglia conveniently and cheerfully places this event at just the time film was coming into being (the High Modernism of the 1920s), so the 20th century didn't have to lack for a great and popular art form even for a second. That no one cares about reading has a simple enough explanation: the competition from the various forms of media from film and radio through TV and the internet. In the 19th century, there was nothing for the middle class to do in its leisure time except read; today, with our busier, servant-free lives, the same person who would have read trash in the 19th century now watches TV. This argument has common sense going for it, but it's hardly foolproof, since if it were strictly true, no one would read trash anymore: they'd just watch TV and leave reading to the scholars.

As for the idea that “the novel itself” can no longer be written: this is where things get complicated, and a little more interesting. Because it depends what you mean by “the novel,” and it also depends on where you want to place the blame. Did those radical Modernists and mischievous postmodernists render the “traditional” novel non-viable by making the illusion of character, heck, the illusion of Western selfhood itself, unacceptable to sophisticated readers? Or – to tell the same story from a different perspective – did writers abandon the average reader (and thus contribute to the decline in reading – presuming it's true – or, anyway, the decline in the cultural centrality of reading) by abandoning character, plot, and/or the depiction of contemporary life? Which leads to projects like Franzen's and Chabon's. Did Flaubert screw everything up (as Leslie Fiedler has suggested) by trying to turn into “art” what was “intended” (the “real “novel, that is) as a vulgar form of mass entertainment? Or – my own preferred explanation – have social conditions changed so radically since the 19th century that even if we wanted to return to the “traditional” (pre-Modernist) novel, whatever that means, it would be impossible?

Well, somebody's writing something called “literary fiction,” if we take this for the moment to mean neither the postmodernist novel nor some kind of postmodern/traditional synthesis, but something closer to what Zadie Smith called "lyrical Realism" in opposing it to postmodern experiment. In this meaning, “literary fiction” is a sort of super-refined type of literature, in which, following Flaubert, prose style is elevated over plot. W. G. Sebald is one of the more sophisticated exemplars of this view, opposing the “carefully composed page of prose” to “the mechanisms of the novel” in an interview on Bookworm. Sebald cites a 19th century Germanic tradition, however, rather than Flaubert, a popular but poor example, since Madame Bovary has a gripping plot and a carefully observed heroine, even if she's lacking in the rich interiority often presumed characteristic of the 19th century novel protagonist. Flaubert just meant that style, not subject, determined whether a work of fiction was “art,” not that you needed to abandon social or psychological observation or a dramatic plot (far from it).

“Literary fiction,” however, insofar as it exists as a genre, does emphasize prose style over plot, with the result that the average reader may find it slow-moving, not to say impenetrable if the prose has too high a concentration of metaphors (and, as is often the case, the writer doesn't care, or may not know know, that they're not making sense), and face chastisement for not liking “challenging” or “artistic” literature and not appreciating “beautiful” prose. And then we get the division between the two types of writers: “real” writers, who are interested in language and prose; and the vulgar storymongers, who are interested in plot and narrative. Unlike plot, characters seem to do okay in literary fiction, if it doesn't get too postmodern (whence Smith's "lyrical Realism"). An obvious solution would be to write a novel with characters, plot and good prose, which is what I take the Franzens and Ian McEwans (and Byatts) to be doing, but the effect is somehow diluting, as if in reading one were to go: “well-drawn” characters and reader emotional investment, check; nice sentences, check; a real page-turner, check; serious investigation of serious stuff – it's all there, this is officially great! Instead of being carried away, involved, lost, stunned.

The Bourgeoisie and the Radicals

But more than mere aesthetics are at stake, for the “novel debate” also carries ideological connotations. If you read postmodern fiction, it's clearly because you're a radical, while those who advocate for the traditional novel and its even partial recovery are obviously bourgeois reactionaries. In consequence, famous apologists for the traditional novel, such as James Wood, may feel the need to prove the breadth of their taste (that is, their hipster cred), even in unseemly rants on lowly litblogs. Conversely, supporters of the traditional novel may feel that they are aligning themselves with humanist values, such as the belief in individual personality and the practice of empathy through “caring” about characters and their fates. This is what seems to be new to the contemporary debate: the idea that by advocating one type of novel rather than another, one is advocating a set of values not due to the subject of the novels, but rather to their form.

The problem with the radicalism of most postmodern fiction (my knowledge of which is based largely on summaries and reviews, such as Smith's of Tom McCarthy's Remainder in "Two Paths"; such descriptions do not encourage me to buy the book, especially when they're rendered in Smith's lyrical Realist prose) - I was saying, the problem is that so-called radical fiction of recent decades is not nearly radical enough: often it seems that it draws from now-hackneyed sources that were already well-tamed for us when we learned them in even the most backwater universities (self-reflexivity, deconstruction of the self), not to mention since postmodernism went pop. As for the traditional novel, it has to work really, really hard to seem better than TV, which has been a major aesthetic competitor, as well as a competitor for attention, ever since it went through its own Modernism (I'm making this up, but I'd point to the early 90s and shows like The Simpsons and Seinfeld). Because context is everything, and what the serious reader admires in a “well-written” TV show will disappoint as shallow, crass kitsch in a supposedly serious novel.

(I make an exception for comedy. The sitcom is still essentially Menander, and therefore compares quite well to the history of stage comedy, and can achieve unqualified “greatness” in these terms.)

Once we get to this point of the debate, we've backed ourselves into a corner where we start asking: if TV is so darn good, and “everybody already knows” all of the tricks of the postmodern novel, do we need the novel at all, or has it been outmoded by the forms introduced by 20th century technology, as the aristocratic forms, poetry and tragedy, were by the novel (itself made possible by printing technology)?

Yet this question seems ridiculous, inadequate, and so we have to back up and interrogate the terms of the debate that led us into this cul-de-sac. What's required, at the very least, is a more thorough investigation of the manifold forms of the European and Anglo-American novel and the social roles what we lump together under the term “the novel” has served. Currently I'm reading Franco Moretti's The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture, and in future posts I will return to this question, “What is the novel?”, as an open-ended investigation which, by revealing what the novel has been, may help to illuminate what it can be.