Thursday, October 31, 2013

Don't like novels? Don't write one, then.

I have been, I realize, slowly sort of groping my way toward a response to the currently fashionable idea (in some circles) that narrative long-form fiction—that is to say, the novel—no longer presents a meaningful way to present stories and ideas about life. There is today a constant babble of “reality,” which is shorthand for, primarily, internet news soundbites and bullet-pointed miniature articles, a babble that continually interrupts the narrative flow of our days. It is foolish to embrace the artifice of the unbroken long-form story, a self-sustaining and self-contained world unto itself, as a reasonable representation of “the world” in which we live, and therefore readers of today are estranged from the novel because it is not a mirror of the times. What readers today can embrace is a form of narrative where fiction is interrupted by—or interleaved with—bits of “reality.” What readers want, we are being told, is a narrative experience that is broken into—or perhaps made out of—the constant babble which surrounds us. David Shields, a failed traditional novelist himself, has written that book Reality Hunger, you know, a pastiche of quotations from better writers shaped into something that appears, prima facie, to be an argument in favor of “narrative nonfiction” or whatever you choose to call it. The novel is broken, you see, the novel is artificial and false, the realist novel is unreal and we must seek some other form. That’s the argument.

The response, of course, is that these claims about the novel are pure nonsense. “Nonsense” is easily said, and certainly sums up how I feel about all of this, and has been expanded into essay length articles by brighter folks than me, but I should probably do my own expanding here, since it’s me who has broached the subject, right? Here is the thing: this “reality hunger” argument is predicated on at least two false assumptions:

1. That the novel has at some time been an accurate depiction of “reality” and that this depiction is now no longer accurate, and
2. That there is a growing number of readers who are unable to engage meaningfully with the outdated novel form.

So let’s take these one at a time. First, the novel’s history is long and complex, and many people might be quite surprised to learn that there has been no linear evolution of the form. Everything that’s going on right now in novels has been going on for a long time. All of the experimentation of today’s most experimental post-post-postmodernist experimentalists has been done already, hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Check out Book XII of Homer’s Iliad, why don’t you, where the poet leaps forward in time for hundreds of years, to talk about the appearance of the Trojan beaches after the Greek ships have all withdrawn and the Greek fortifications have all been pulled apart by the waves and storms, while meanwhile the primary narrative has gotten nowhere near that point in time. Nowadays we’d point to cinema and claim that the author has been influenced by “Pulp Fiction.” Good one, Homer. Good one, Quenton. But I digress and miss my own point.

The novel is and has always been a work of art, of artifice, an abstraction of a set of ideas about the world. A novel is—and pretends to be—no more “real” than a symphony, a painting, or a dance. Novelists might talk about life and the world, but they are not creating an accurate map of life and the world. To ask the novel to accurately mirror our own lives is to ask the novelist to do something that isn’t his job. Apuleus’ Golden Ass is clearly only a glancing blow against reality. The same can be said of Shakespeare, of Chekhov, of Chaucer, of Dickens, of Tolstoy, of O’Connor, of Woolf, of Manning, of whomever you care to name. Tristram Shandy contains many truths about life, but it is not a strict depiction of reality. The same can be said of Finnegans Wake. The same can be said of The Old Man and the Sea, or Lolita, or A Visit From the Goon Squad. I will also point out tangentially that every good book is an amalgam of what the author believes to be factually true and what the author has invented. The ratio of fact to invention is no indicator of the success of the book. And every representation of the world is imaginary, because the only accurate representation of the universe is the universe itself; anything else is an abstraction, an illusion, a fantasy, a falsehood, if you will. Art is artifice. There has never been a “realist novel” that was not a fantasy. There has never been an epoch where a work of fiction was equivalent to the actual experience of life.

As to the second claim, that readers are no longer able to engage meaningfully with the novel, I confess that I just don’t believe it. What I do believe is that there are now more people who have tried unsuccessfully to write novels and have afterwards managed to publish essays about how the novel-as-form is meaningless. David Shields, for example, has not managed to make a career for himself as a novelist. In the wake of his failure, Shields has successfully become the figurehead of the latest “the novel is dead” movement. The claims of Shields and his supporters seem to really come down to their own failure to engage with fiction, and a generalization from that experience resulting in a call for something new to take the place of the novel. Some form that, maybe, David Shields can understand and create. The death knell of the novel is being rung by folks, I am telling you, who do not understand the novel, do not enjoy the novel, and cannot despite their best efforts write a novel. I believe this is actually a small group, who are nonetheless pretty vocal just now.

There have always been people who don’t like to read fiction. This does not point up a failure in fiction. Novels remain a hugely popular method of communication between writers of fiction and readers of fiction. The classics of the world continue to be printed and sold in large numbers, because they continue to be read in large numbers. The novel is not failing humanity, and humanity is not turning its back upon fiction. There are some writers who want to write books, but who don’t get along with the novel, or with fiction. Some people, you know, read mostly memoir, a form I don’t much appreciate. I am aware however that my lack of engagement with memoir does not indicate a failing on the part of memoirists. I just don’t dig the form, that’s all. David Shields just doesn’t dig the novel. The novel, I must assume, doesn’t much care and goes on about its business despite the hectoring from Shields and his admirers, who I maintain are small in number despite their relative noisiness.

To sum up: bollocks to you, you hungerers after “reality.” Go ahead and write your narrative nonfiction or whatever (you might notice that “gonzo journalism” has been around for almost fifty years by now, and probably people were doing it for a long time before Hunter Thompson got there), but kindly lay the fuck off the novel. The more you guys talk about the limitations of the novel, the more clear it becomes that you know very little about the novel and what it does. It’s sort of like Jonathan Franzen saying that writers of historical fiction have “no skin in the game” and cannot be taken seriously as writers; which only shows, I think, that Franzen is ignorant of the importance of both history and fiction to culture. Oh Jonny, you’re such an adorable little dope. Were you not real, it would be necessary to invent you. I apologize for being possibly unnecessarily unfair to Mr Shields (who is, after all, employed by the same university that issues my own paycheck); he is, I think, just a guy trying to figure out why his own fiction is so unsatisfying. But he needs to stop blaming the novel for his failure. He needs to show us the worth of his work, and “it’s not a traditional novel” isn’t a good enough reason to read him. He needs to try harder. He needs to stop damning the forms in which he cannot work, and find the one in which he can.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"Mitzi, Mitzi, Mitzi, I adore ya"

Mighty Reader and I are just back from ten days in the Old World, specifically Prague and Vienna. Mighty Reader took a thousand-and-some photos and I might post a few at some point. I might say a few words about Praha and/or Wien at some point, too, but probably not; I find that Wittgenstein was, after all, correct. I will say, however, that the most striking thing about Austria turned out to be--no, not the proliferation of shops offering shoe and key repair (which still strikes me as a curious combination)--it's the Viennese Bread Scam, which works as follows: the diner enters a restaurant/cafe; the diner orders a meal and with it, a side dish of bread; an order of bread in this example is one slice of brown bread and costs 1.4 Euro; the server brings a dish with two pieces of brown bread; no mention is made to the diner that extra bread has been brought to the table; the diner shares his second piece of bread with his fellow diner; the server adds 1.4 Euros to the final bill for the second serving of bread. This Viennese Bread Scam is common practice at restaurants no matter the price/trendiness/whatever of the place. It took us quite by surprise, and thankfully it only happens with bread (we imagined servers saying to us "Did you eat the entire bowl of soup? That was two servings and I must charge you 5 Euros 70 additional."). Mighty Reader pointed out the strong possibility that whenever bread is brought to table in Vienna, half of it has been pawed over by previous diners. Wien, Sie sind eine seltsam Stadt, but it was a good time anyway.

Edited to add: This is my favorite photo from the trip, Mighty Reader on the Charles Bridge in the shadow of the castle (yes, that castle). No golems spotted.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Best stay inside tonight: Finished with The Hanging Man for now

"Best stay inside tonight" is the last sentence in the final chapter of the first draft of the novel The Hanging Man. I wrote that sentence about 45 minutes ago, at lunch. So that's novel number (pause to consider for a second) eight, I think, though possibly I've lost count along the way. Only one of those eight has been published. It would be nice if someday I could get another one to market, but I'm not holding my breath. Still and all, I have finished the first draft of the novel I've been writing and that's a relief and I don't have to think about it until next month, when I will actually read what I have wrought and do a provisional sort of revision before setting it aside for several months. The final pages of The Hanging Man please me a great deal.

I pause yet again to consider the state of American publishing. I confess myself baffled by it. It's rare when a new novel comes out that excites me, and when I look at the catalogues of independent presses I feel a definite estrangement from the books they're putting out. Everyone claims to be transgressive or experimental, but to me it's just a lot of formal gameplaying to hide, I strongly suspect, some pretty pedestrian ideas and inelegant writing. One is not supposed to say that aloud, if one is a writer, but there it is. I am aware that every novelist who can't get a book deal says the same thing. I am unable to critically evaluate my own novels, of course, as every novelist is unable to critically evaluate his own novels. So I can't even claim, honestly, that I write good books. I can only claim that I write books, that I have written eight of them. The most recent book I've written is called, for now, The Hanging Man, and I wrote the final sentence of the first draft around 1:00 PM, PST, today.

Also, Blogger informs me that this is my 666th post. Huh.

Friday, October 4, 2013

the dead center of the novel

I have begun work on the final chapter of the first draft of The Hanging Man. I want to end the book by revisiting the images and characters with which it opened, and I want the tone of the final chapter to match (more or less) that of the first chapter, so yesterday afternoon I dug out the first chapter and read it over. It is, I am quite too pleased to say, pretty good stuff. Some of my best work, even. “What was I reading when I wrote this?” I wondered. I had no idea. I began this draft way back in May, and there have been a lot of books read since May, but fortunately I have this blog to tell me what I thought at the time was good writing. My three minutes of research here informs me that while I was writing the first chapter of The Hanging Man, I was finishing up Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls and also Marly Youmans’ Thaliad. You should read both of those books if you haven’t yet. I don’t see the connection between my first chapter and those two books, but if people like the novel I’ll credit Gogol and Youmans; if people don’t like the novel, it is no reflection on those two fine writers. Just so we’re clear.

Last night, quite late, I wrote out a six-point outline for Chapter 12. I may even follow it, though today I’ve got some research reading to do in order to flesh out one or two of the characters who made appearances in Chapter 1. One of them threatens already to overwhelm the chapter, so I must be careful. I have also decided that whatever loose ends there might be by the end of Chapter 11 will just stay loose; no attempt will be made to tie them up in the final chapter. This book has a theme of ambiguity, anyway.

Speaking of ambiguity, I’m about 60% into Gustav Meyrink’s wacky 1915 novel The Golem. It’s uneven and the translation is not brilliant, but some of the ideas Meyrink shoved around are amazing. During a scene in about the dead center of the novel, where Rabbi Hillel’s daughter talks about accepting the miraculous part of faith as well as—or even instead of—the moral/ethical side of religion, I was quite breathless. Good, good stuff:

Wenn ich ihnen dann klarmachen wollte, daß das Bedeutsame— das Wesentliche — für mich in der Bibel und anderen heiligen Schriften das Wunder und bloß das Wunder sei, und nicht Vorschriften über Moral und Ethik, die nur versteckte Wege sein können, um zum Wunder zu gelangen, — so wußten sie nur mit Gemeinplätzen zu erwidern, denn sie scheuten sich, offen einzugestehen, daß sie aus den Religionsschriften nur das glaubten, was ebensogut im bürgerlichen Gesetzbuch stehen könnte. Wenn sie das Wort ‚Wunder ‘ nur hörten, wurde ihnen schon unbehaglich. Sie verlören den Boden unter den Füßen, sagten sie.

Als ob es etwas Herrlicheres geben könnte, als den Boden unter den Füßen zu verlieren!

Die Welt ist dazu da, um von uns kaputt gedacht zu werden, hörte ich einmal meinen Vater sagen, — dann, dann erst fängt das Leben an. — Ich weiß nicht, was er mit dem ‚Leben‘ meinte, aber ich fühle zuweilen, daß ich eines Tages so wie: ‚erwachen‘ werde. Wenn ich mir auch nicht vorstellen kann, in welchen Zustand hinein. Und Wunder müssen dem vorhergehen, denke ich mir immer.

Also, The Golem is set in Prague, and reading it is sparking my interest in parts of that city I hadn’t originally planned to visit.

Also, today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Don't forget to bless your pets.

Also, I have been asked what the quoted text means in English. So here's my own loose translation:

Whenever I wanted to make it clear to them that what is significant--what is most important--for me in the Bible and other holy books, are the miracles and only the miracles, not rules about morality and ethics--which may be just hidden ways to get to miracles--they could only answer in platitudes because they were afraid to openly admit that they only believed those religious writings which could just as well be part of the civil code. Just hearing the word miracle made them uncomfortable. It made them feel as if the ground could open up under their feet, they said.

As if there could be something more glorious than for the ground to open up under your feet!

The world is there for us to examine, I once heard my father say--then, and only then, does life begin. I do not know what he meant by 'life,' but I feel sometimes that I will one day 'wake up' to real life. Though I cannot imagine what that will be like. But it will begin with a miracle, I always think to myself.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Let's just say that I give away the ending

"The War is long over, Mademoiselle Helga. We are no longer in Europe. Your hatred of me serves no purpose."

"So all is forgiven because we meet in Kansas rather than in Alsace and Lorraine? Nein. Ich bin Amerikanerin now, Fräulein. I am free to despise whomever I like. This is the glory of the constitutional democracy."

That's from Chapter Six of my soon-to-be-complete-in-draft-form novel The Hanging Man. Yesterday I began writing Chapter 11, the penultimate chapter. There's a huge dust storm and some other hijinks. Chapter 12 is all denouement, and will be pretty short, I think, which means that this first draft should be complete within the next two weeks, and I'll take a nice break from writing at that point.

I've been telling Mighty Reader that this one is a better mystery-as-mystery than The Transcendental Detective, and I also think it's a better novel-as-novel than that one. I also realize that my idea of structure for a detective novel has been influenced by the two Leonardo Sciascia books I read this year, which has had...erm, interesting results.

I'm not actually sure how to talk about what I've done with this novel, especially in the last third or so of the story. Spoilers, you know, for the handful of people I'll let read the second draft in a couple of months. Let's just say that I give away the ending far in advance and worked to give the reader reasons to keep reading past that point. Novelistic reasons, that is, as opposed to mystery-fiction reasons. I don't know how that'll all work out. I think it's a pretty good book, though. Full of irony and ambiguity. Likely traditional mystery fans will despise it. I'm not sure I care much about that, though.

Sometime this winter, I guess, I'll start work on revisions to Mona in the Desert. The plan at this point is to cut away about 30% of the draft and write gobs of new text. I still think this will be a shorter sort of novel, maybe 60,000 or so words. Unless I get a really good idea that requires a lot of room. So far, I have not had such a really good idea. I may find, once I begin carving away at the book, that there really isn't anything left, and I might abandon the project or turn it into a long short story. Hard to say.

When that's all done, whatever that ends up being, I just don't know. I just don't know. I am beginning to think about taking up a different hobby.

Update: (3 October) I have finished Chapter 11, which looked like it was going to be a lot of chatting in the dark, but then I found interesting things to do with the material so I'm happier with this chapter than I thought I'd be. It's quite a short chapter, for this book, but that's fine. I was writing along, as one does, when suddenly I found myself composing the concluding lines of the chapter, not quite aware how I had arrived at that point. Onward now to the final chapter, which takes place on a train. The first chapter of the novel takes place on the same train. This is a technique known as bookending, which is not to be confused with a framing device. It's entirely possible that I'll have this first draft finished by the end of the weekend. As usual, I am once more surprised to discover that I've apparently written an entire novel.