Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Modernist, Schmodernist, Postschmodernist

Or: what I'm not doing with my novels.

Lately I've been reading and re-reading more postmodernist novels. Some of them are pretty straightforward (Waterland or The Fates Will Find Their Way or anything by AS Byatt) while some of them are not (Pale Fire or Life of Insects or the stories of Borges or even New York Trilogy). I have been feeling a sort of guilt, for lack of a better term, that I'm not playing more formal games with my own narratives. That I'm not experimenting or in any real way pushing the boundaries of the narrative frame. Magical realist elements, I have read lately, are all the rage in American literary fiction. Why am I not incorporating elements of magical realism into my novels? After all, I like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass, don't I? Sure I do.

I realize that this post is little more than an apology I'm making to myself for being in reality less cutting edge than I imagine myself to be. Having realized that I should just stop now, delete all I've written here and move on with my life as the writer I am. That would be healthy, right? But for whatever reason, I continue being my own apologist when there is in fact no accuser. What the fuck? Yet I still go on.

The focus of my work as a writer is, and always has been, the English language. I love the English language. I love what's been done with it and what can be done with it. Whole worlds can be pulled out of nothing, out of the vacuum, out of the aether, and built up with nothing but words, sentences, paragraphs. Good prose is something a guy like me can roll around in, wallow and rejoice and lose my inhibitions and get drunk upon, again and again never to be sated. I am a sucker for beautiful or startling language. For me the worth of a novel rests primarily on the power of the prose. Weak writing cannot be redeemed by anything. Powerful writing can carry a lot of narrative shortcomings a long way, in my book. Read Shakespeare and you don't care about the preposterous transvestite mistaken identities. Read Dickens and you don't care about the moralizing and the propaganda. It's all gorgeous.

Certainly I'm a modernist. Woolf. Beckett. Joyce. Chekhov (I claim him as the first real Modernist writer). Bulgakov. Conrad. Eliot. O'Connor. Faulkner. Forster. Hemingway. Kafka. Porter. Lawrence. &cet &cet &cet. All of them have given me a path to follow, blazing a trail across the narrative into the heart of character.

Not so much Borges or Nabokov. Not so much Burroughs or Pynchon or Calvino or Barthelme or Gaddis or Bolano or Murakami or Wallace or Huellebecq. Some of their irony and playfulness is appealing to me as a reader, but when I sit down to write a story, none of their narrative concerns has a place at my table. Which, as I say, surprises me. Apparently I don't think postmodern concerns are important. Or possibly I don't see them as a way of exploring character. I think, maybe, that postmodernism is often about the nature of socially-constructed reality, if one can speak of that sort of "aboutness" in a meaningful sense. The nature of reality, the epistemological/ontological underpinnings of a great deal of newer fiction, isn't particularly interesting to me as a subject. The nature of character is, and I guess I don't think that postmodernism (which I am sure I am oversimplifying here) shows a way to get closer to character than modernism does. I don't see postmodernism as adding anything useful to my toolkit.

I am not attempting to bewilder so much as to beguile and bedazzle. I understand the urge to bewilder, to show how bewildering the world has become, or simply to play around with the idea of what a narrative can be or do. But I'm not ready to privilege form the way I do character and language yet. Apparently I am searching in my fiction for some kind of formal certitude, which I must tell you surprises me quite a bit. I guess the puzzle that's always nagged at me--the meaning of the word "story"--continues to nag at me and so I'm still formally trying to hem story in rather than expand/explode it. Possibly I'll never move far beyond that.

Perhaps I'm comfortable with the cliches I've inherited from my realist and modernist mentors. Or perhaps I'm just not aware that what I'm doing is riddled with cliches. One of my current preoccupations is to eliminate all cliche from my narratives; not just because cliches are a hallmark of lazy writing, but because I don't believe that cliches in language or character development or plot reflect the way real life happens. I'm reading Great Expectations right now and, while I adore a lot of what Dickens is doing, his plots are big creaky machines that telegraph all the punches and no longer have the power to surprise. Surely Dickens' plot devices were fresh enough in his day, but I can't let myself trade in the sort of coincidence and improbable revelations Charles ran past his readers on a regular basis.

Anyway, enough of all this. Possibly some day I can write about writing without a) exposing how little I actually know about the history of literature, and b) talking about nothing but myself. The odds are against both of those possibilities, however.


  1. If you need to write posts like this, more power to you, Scott. I think it's good to look at your work in a screwed-up sort of way, wondering where it will ever go and which direction your choices will push it, or if it will just go any damned way it wants without your conscious interference. Sometime I wonder if the most profound thing we'll ever do with our writing will ever be planned, or if it will just pop out of nowhere - possibly not realized and appreciated until we are dead. I'm getting pessimistic now. Sadness.

    But is it something profound you wish to accomplish in your writing, or is it simply to surprise yourself only? I ask myself these things all the time, even as I'm struggling to rid my prose of cliches and finding they stick there like weeds I can't seem to pull up. And oftentimes, I never see them growing there until its too late.

  2. My goal is to write The Perfect Novel. That's not so much to ask, is it?

  3. Useful exercise. Writers who fight too hard against their creative temperament are asking for trouble, so it is good to know what that temperament is. Then you can concentrate on the real fights, whatever those might be.

  4. I don't know about useful. Likely it's more that I'm writing the middle of a novel and at this stage I traditionally question what I'm writing, why I'm writing, etc. So just the usual foolishness, I suppose.

    But I do remember when I was younger, 25 or so years ago, reading Burroughs and Grass and Barthelme etc and thinking, oh yes, this is what I want to write. I had a series of fractured stories based around a character named Aunt Anomie. That sort of thing. It was empty, all of it. I sort of clawed my way backwards to the early 20th century and have stayed there, with frequent forays back into the 19th century under the guise of research. But the Big Secret is that I'm not Innovative, not a Real Clever Guy.

    I like what you said a few weeks ago about wanting to write perfect sentences. I'm sort of looking for perfect chapters, and then maybe I can build a perfect novel out of them. But whatever. As Gertrude said to Horatio, "Your book, your book; enough on your book!"

  5. Don't concern yourself with writing "the perfect novel," if there is such an animal. Just write what comes out of you and then elaborate on it, digress from it, and play with it until you are satisfied with it. Write about how you see the world in the language that you choose to use.

  6. Tim, my problem with that sort of advice is that it seems to discourage serious analysis of form and craft. Too many writers spend too much time thinking about themselves and not enough time thinking about the tools of their trade. It's like a carpenter worrying about how he feels about being a carpenter but never worrying about learning how to properly use a circular saw. That's a guy I don't want building my kid's bedroom, you know?

    I think that asking what I'm doing, why I'm doing it, what others are doing/have done and why they do/did it are good questions to ask. "Know thyself" is solid advice.