Saturday, September 15, 2007

W(h)ither the Novel?

Inasmuch as concepts, including the concepts Fiction and Necessity, are more or less necessary fictions, fiction is more or less necessary. Butterf_ies exist in our imagination, along with Existence, Imagination, and the rest. Archimedeses, we lever reality by conceiving ourselves apart from its other things, them from one another, the whole from unreality. Thus Art is as natural an artifice as Nature; the truth of fiction is that fact is fantasy; the made-up story is a model of the world.

Yet the empire of the novel, vaster once than those combined of France and England, is shrunk now to a Luxembourg, a San Marino! Its popular base usurped, fiction has become a pleasure for special tastes, like poetry, archery, church-going. What is wanted to restore its ancient dominion is nothing less than a revolution; indeed, the Revolution is waiting in the wings, the 2nd Revolution, and will not stay for the Bicentennial of the 1st . . .

--John Barth, LETTERS (1979), 33.
And an updated take, found while Googling about for something David Foster Wallace says somewhere about serious literature having always been "in trouble":
And I'm not saying that television is vulgar and dumb because the people who compose the Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.

--Wallace, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments

Wallace and Barth, while agreeing here on the cultural ghettoizing of the novel, don't agree on what the contemporary novelist's response--that is, his/her approach--should be to this circumstance. Each, though, argues in his own way that merely replicating contemporary culture and its responses to itself is at least an aesthetic dead-end, if not a moral one as well (Wallace's comments on irony in "E Unibus Pluram" are especially instructive on this point). Without this post's turning into a disquisition on how some recent writers have (or have not) risen to this challenge, I'll content myself for now with encouraging my reader(s) to think on what they've read recently and how what they've read can be seen as a response (or a surrender) to our particular cultural moment.

Supplemental readings: a summary of Barth's essay "The Literature of Exhaustion," here, another summary of that essay in conjunction with its later companion essay, "The Literature of Replenshment," and the transcript of Wallace's 2005 Kenyon College commencement address.


R. Sherman said...

How long have the worthies been fretting about the demise of "serious" literature. My guess is the critics in Shakespeare's time were saying the same damn thing because down the street from the Globe, the theater was showing the Elizabethan version of The Three Stooges, which I also like, by the way.

The bottom line is, the dross disappears over time and the silver remains.



John B. said...

Yup to all--which is why I was looking for David Foster Wallace's comment about "serious literature" always being "in trouble"--that is, in danger of being overwhelmed, if not lost entirely, due to cultural visigothism. But that passage of his that I quoted begs a question: These days, does there remain an audience large enough, despite their wildly-different "refined and aesthetic and noble interests," to sustain "serious literature"? And how large is "large enough"? Admitting up front my basic ignorance of the economics of book-publishing, it's my (anecdotal) sense of things that lots of really good stuff--"good" here meaning experimentally-adventurous and morally-thoughtful--is getting published these days.

There is some justice in the world--really--when our guy Cormac is getting recognition from Oprah.

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks for these good thoughts. Do you think there's a Revolution of "culture" coming? I think there must be some explosively new approaches to "high" (read: good quality) music, poetry, visual art, and novels coming soon, simply because there's been a relative lag for a long time. But I have no idea what form that explosion will take. What do you think?

John B. said...

Ms. Admonit,
Thanks for coming by and commenting, first of all.
You ask questions of me that I wish I knew the answers to. Here's one guess, though: Based on the success of Mark Z. Danielewski's novels House of Leaves and Only Revolutions and the rise of graphic novels, I think we'll see more mainstream presses take chances on novels that deliberately compel the reader to reconsider his/her notion of the book as a physical object--not just experiments with fonts and the incorporation of images as "texts" to be "read," though they are also part of what I mean. Personally, I think Danielewski, far from ceding ground to other media, sees himself in part as someone who believes that books can still do things that other "delivery systems" can't do, not even film or hypertext. Have a look at Only Revolutions to see what I mean.

The other trend is just what I sense is a preponderance of good writers these days who are writing serious yet entertaining novels and stories. The '90s had for me been rather depressing overall regarding American writing, but the '00s have seen some really fine novels. Maybe the millennium has inspired people? Maybe 9/11, more or less directly? This really seems like one of those rare decades, like the '80s seems to me now, when some of our very best writers (DeLillo, McCarthy, Roth) are still living and writing some of their best work and younger writers (Wallace, Richard Powers, Edward P. Jones to name three) seem awfully good in their own right.

But what do I know? I'm just watching, and reading when I have a little time.