Thursday, April 23, 2015

the oppression of "reality"

What is it with all of this discussion about representations of "reality" in fiction these days, as if fiction were some sort of universal reflection of modern society's conception of truth? Novelists do not (good novelists, that is) write novels as challenges/corrections to received ideas about representation of the nature of the world. I am tired of and oppressed by critics and commentators who attempt to hijack the formal conceits of novelists in order to present the in-no-way-original observation that we live in Plato's cave. Plato, boys and girls, has already shown us that. I doubt he even got there first; we only have his word for that and every narrator, as we all know by now, is unreliable. So can we please stop talking about mimesis and the falseness inherent therein, please? What do we talk about when we talk about "real?" Who cares? Who is talking about "real?" Novelists (good novelists, that is) are not, not talking about the nature of reality except as metaphor for the human heart's unknowableness, because the human heart, ladies and gentlemen in the shadows, is far more important to the novelist than anything else back there in the shadows or even beyond the shadows. Nabokov wrote about the uncertainty of knowledge because he was getting at the uncertainty of knowing we are loved. Critics obsessed with ideas of the "real" get that backward. It's easy to churn out 5,000 words about the antinomies of realism; it's much much easier to do that than it is to churn out 500 words about the human heart (because for even those people who cling to easy sentimentality, it is easier to spot untruths regarding the human heart than it is to tease apart poorly-argued mush about representational art). This must be why literary criticism is such a popular sport. Every sport is pointless unless you're a fan, I guess.

I did not mean to say anything about criticism in general, useless as criticism is (in general), parasitical beast on the back of an activity critics can only dream of engaging in when they aren't dreaming of revenging themselves upon it. No, I didn't mean to say anything about that. I feel that all of this discussion about "reality" is not only little more than a small-scale academic fad that expands (seemingly without limit) around the simple and obvious idea that nobody really sees the causal links between everyfuckingthing and that all representations of reality are abstractions because the only accurate map of the universe is the universe itself and that a stop sign (which represents the abstract idea of demanding temporary cessation of forward motion) is just as formally experimental and unreal as any novel (be it one from Flaubert or one from Gide), and everyone already knows this. The stop sign (and the novel--take your pick from what year or artistic movement) are abstractions, as is everything expressible since any human expression is at best an abstraction. This is old news. To pile all of this weight, all the responsibility for the limitlessness of the universe and the human mind's inability to encompass that limitlessness, upon the back of the poor novelist, is just wrongheaded and, you know, apparently also a good career move in certain industries.

This little rant lacks sharp focus. How on earth can that possibly matter? My internal pendulum is clearly swinging from "thoughtful reader" mode back to "active writer" mode.


  1. Yes, agree--am always getting forced into using critical terms when I don't want to do so because I think that every story ever told is fabulous, as nothing can duplicate our world, and if it did, it would be the world...

    1. I'm not exactly sure what my issue with current literary criticism is, except that certainly it fails in general to treat writers and poets as real people. Either writers/poets are stand-ins for contemporary culture and are being blamed for a failure to somehow fully mirror the world, or else writers/poets are treated as nonentities whose works somehow think and act for themselves within a landscape occupied by only literary works, as if they are self-generated and the questions of "how writer x actually composes" is disallowed in conversations about the genesis of writer x's works. But I can't quite write a specific rebuttal to these goofball ideas because literary critics tend to write in vague, figurative language while pretending to be engaged in some sort of careful, rational thinking. So one can only respond to them in figurative language because there's nothing solid to push against.

      On the other hand, Daniel Green points on his blog today that the most visible form of literary discussion is in the form of book reviews written by novelists, which provide marketing material but no useful discussion of the novels. That may however not be a new thing at all; Green might just be reacting to it as if it's a historical break when in reality he's suffering from a false nostalgia. Dostoyevsky edited a literary magazine and wrote reviews rather than formal criticism. Literary criticism in the Victorian age was mostly argument about the perceived morality of the authors under examination, and certainly you had novelists writing articles recommending (or not) the novels written by their contemporaries. In any case, I have little use for book reviews so I don't read them.

      This particular post was a reaction to a series of articles that examine how "the modern novel" fails to be "realistic" and how "the modern novelist" has been for about a hundred years now writing novels that allegedly battle against received notions of how reality (or "reality") is portrayed in fiction. As if someone busy writing a novel is actually thinking in those terms rather than battling against his own technique and vision of what must be portrayed in that particular piece, and as if writers themselves "develop" in anything like a linear manner rather than simply following the vision wherever it leads them. So I'm uncomfortable with a certain basic stance taken by critics with regard to writers/poets, who are not generally treated like humans involved in making things, but rather as arguments fighting by proxy for critics who are unsure of how actual art is made (or who never consider that art is made by actual humans). And stuff. This is too long.

    2. I think I have it: I don't mind when critics say what they see in the work, but in general whenever critics make claims about why writers/poets make a particular piece of art in a particular way, the claims ring false.