The End of Realist Stories

This appeared in Guardian Books on 12 November 2013:

The End of Realist Stories

The limitations of mimetic storytelling are ever more apparent, but what should come next is less clear

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter's painting 'Strip' showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter’s painting ‘Strip’ showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Literary fiction is dead — or if not dead then finished, according to the Goldsmiths prize-shortlisted writer Lars Iyer, who argues it has become a “repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas” and suggests that novelists should spread the word that “the time for literary novels is over“. But literary fiction has always been dead, has always needed the mould-breaking writing which the Goldsmiths prize celebrates.

Ever since its birth, writers have been suspicious of the novel, reaching for the authenticity of the real — often presenting their work as memoir, à la Robinson Crusoe. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. Ashamed of its frivolity, fiction drapes itself in the gravitas of non-fiction.

If literature needs to be something more than just storytelling, then perhaps one could argue with Maurice Blanchot that it only truly becomes grown-up when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno’s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth“, but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree“.

But things were never as simple as that. The original realist novel was no straightforward attempt to describe the world; rather, an attempt to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality already present in literature of the time. For Fredric Jameson, realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary , for instance, carries romance in its narrative in order to kill it off, and turn into its antithesis.

Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of the secularisation of society; a process that ran counter to the “universalising conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels sought to focus on the singular, contingent, and therefore unliterary aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomisation of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of “affects”, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told.

The realist novel was a product of this tension between telling and showing; between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the narration of a tale that has happened “once and for all”) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” was explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention frequently broke down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognisable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new conventions, sub-genres, and stereotypes, which would have to be deconstructed in turn. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of fiction today. With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s idea of capitalist realism, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is fiction’s unsurpassable horizon.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its made-up nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. As Borges warns, “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete”.

The history of the novel could thus be reinterpreted as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. Don Quixote perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Emma Bovary is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing”, and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and EM Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. Similarly, the realist novel attempted to dissolve whatever smacked of literariness. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists”, and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”.

Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality“. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe”, and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. For his part, the nouveau romancier was convinced that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he called for, the presence of the world — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Reality is no longer a given, but a taken; something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

The nouveau roman may not be very new any more, but there’s no shortage of writers lining up alongside Iyer to call time on the traditional novel. For David Shields, novels are “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. JM Coetzee is “sick of the well-made novel,” while Zadie Smith says she suffers from “novel-nausea”. Even the thought of fiction is enough to make Karl Ove Knausgaard “feel nauseous“.

Tim Parks is the latest to confess he shares “Shields’s changing reaction to traditional novels,” but he’s less convinced that Shields’s hunger for reality is the answer. Writers such as Beckett or Lydia Davis may have avoided the trap of the traditional novel, he argues, but “this kind of writing … seems to derive its energy by gauging its distance from the traditional novel, by expressing its disbelief and frustration with the form, and there is a limit to the pleasures, comedy and wisdom of negative energy and deconstruction”.

If the novel is dead — always already — as Iyer suggests, then it’ll take more than a dose of reality to infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing lying at our feet.

****

Here is a longer, earlier incarnation of this piece:

Fictive Realism

The Goldsmiths Prize, whose first laureate will be announced next month, was launched “to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. Hopefully, it will act as an antidote to the blandness of the Booker and the spread of so-called fiction fatigue. Reports of the death of the novel have always been greatly exaggerated, of course, but David Shields clearly struck a chord with his Reality Hunger manifesto. Novels, he claimed — reprising arguments which Robbe-Grillet and John Barth had rehearsed in the 50s and 60s — are “works of nostalgic entertainment,” “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. J. M. Coetzee declared that he, too, was “sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings”. Zadie Smith came down with a similar bout of “novel-nausea”. Karl Ove Knausgaard reached a stage where “just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made [him] feel nauseous”. According to Lars Iyer — whose coruscating comedy, Exodus, graces the Goldsmiths shortlist — literary fiction has become “a kind of repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas”. In a recent interview, he even argues that the task of the novelist today is to spread the word that that “the time for literary novels is over”.

According to Nietzsche, the terrible truth about existence was revealed but also beautified in tragedy at its Grecian best. Offered a glimpse into the abyss, the spectator was saved from the temptation to jump by the aesthetic anaesthetic. Likewise in literature, where fact is viewed, obliquely, through fiction. This tension between the Dionysian and Apollonian accounts for some authors’ ambivalence towards the narcotic of narrative: its reassuring reordering of chaos, and entertainment value. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. This, no doubt, is why so many early novels purported to be authentic documents — frequently memoirs, à la Robinson Crusoe. Ashamed of its frivolous lack of necessity, fiction draped itself in the gravitas of non-fiction. After Maurice Blanchot, one could argue, contrarily, that literature only truly emerges when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno‘s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth,” but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days,” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree”.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its fictive nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, are wary of the consolations of fiction, with their whiff of prelapsarian micturation. They sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete,” warns Borges, in one of his most famous stories. The history of the novel could thus be construed as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. In Don Quixote — arguably the first great novel — the eponymous anti-hero perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Likewise Madame Bovary. Emma is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing,” and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and E. M. Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists,” and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”. Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality”. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe,” and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. The nouveau romancier believed, for his part, that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he called for, the presence of the world  — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Although the world is simply there in all its awesome weirdness, reality is no longer a given, but a taken; something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s “capitalist realism“, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is literature’s unsurpassable horizon. The paradox is that the original (real?) realist novel, set out to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality, as Fredric Jameson explains in The Antinomies of Realism. The title of his latest work refers to the conflicted, agonistic nature of this literary trend. Realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary, for instance, carries romance within its belly in order to abort it, and turn into its antithesis.

Uncontentiously, Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of a process of secularisation of society, that ran counter to the “universalizing conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels took on an Adamic quality by focusing on the singular and contingent — aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomization of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified (and literary) “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of affects, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told. The realist novel was the result of this tension between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the telling of a tale that has happened “once and for all” in the preterite tense) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” would be explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention would frequently break down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognizable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new sub-genres and stereotypes which would have to be deconstructed in turn. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of the novel today. “A book that does not contain its counterbook”? Sounds like literary fiction to me.

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