Fiction Fatigue

An extract from Robert Collins’s interview with Tom McCarthy:

Robert Collins, “The Novel: Rewound and Remixed,” The Sunday Times 4 July 2010

Less than a century ago, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf took the 19th-century realist novel and forged it into the blinding experimental thunderbolt of high modernism. Ninety years later, with more novels being published than ever, and most of them uniformly aiming for the same realist goal, it’s as if Ulysses, Finnegans Wake and Mrs Dalloway had never happened. Where did the zeal for unfettered innovation go? Even in the brilliantly able hands of David Mitchell, Zadie Smith or Ian McEwan, the novel has regressed almost completely to its realist origins. With commercial expectations in publishing more desperate and unforgiving than ever, the room for experimentation has shrunk to virtually nil.

A recent book, Reality Hunger, by the American author David Shields, has generated febrile literary chatter about the novel’s future. Shields argues that the form, tied to phoney invention and creaky artifice, is no longer a viable medium for the tastes of the hyperconnected age, with its urge towards hybridisation and cross-pollination. Nonfiction — memoir, the lyric essay, rap, all freed from fiction’s dusty strictures — is where it’s at.

You can see novelists showing chronic signs of fiction fatigue. The twice Booker-winner and Nobel laureate JM Coetzee has strayed ever deeper into autobiography in his novels, and has rallied to Shields’s cry: “I, too, am sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings.” He was joined by Smith, who recently swore off writing another novel and, “out of exactly the kind of novel-nausea Shields describes”, decided to produce a collection of essays, Changing My Mind. “Novels,” she writes, “are idiosyncratic, uneven, embarrassing, and quite frequently nausea-inducing — especially if you happen to have written one.”

Novelists, catching the mood of despair, are falling like flies, turning to what now appears as the verdant, promising land of nonfiction. This year alone, Chinua Achebe, Jonathan Safran Foer, Siri Hustvedt and Rupert Thomson have published nonfiction debuts. There are, of course, fiction writers of astounding virtuosity out there, such as Mitchell, McEwan or Hilary Mantel. But these novelists are, it is no disparagement to say, going through the motions. Where’s the novelty, the newness, that the novel promised in Joyce and Woolf’s hands? The contemporary novel’s not dead. It’s sleepwalking.

Then along comes Tom McCarthy. Forty-one, and born in London, McCarthy has stood until recently at the outer edges of the literary world. With his third novel, C, a supercharged, fizzingly written Bildungsroman about a morphine-addicted radio operator in the early decades of the 20th century, he is arguably about to take his place at its centre. …