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.

The Booker Steps Away From Being its Own Genre

This appeared in The Guardian (Comment is Free section) on 28 July 2012:

The Booker Steps Away From Being its Own Genre

The inclusion on the Man Booker longlist of four debuts and three novels from excellent indie publishers is a welcome sign

[Science Fiction novelist China Miéville has criticised the Booker Prize for becoming its own genre. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian]

The announcement of this year’s Booker longlist, just a few days before the opening of the Olympics, reminds us that literary jousting originated in ancient Greece. Modern literary competitions appeared shortly after the revival of the Olympic Games at the end of the 19th century. The Nobel prize in literature (1901) was followed by the Prix Goncourt in France (1903), the Pulitzer prizes in the States (1917) and the James Tait Black memorial prizes in Britain (1919). Compared with their Greekish forebears, they are far trickier affairs. Australian author Richard Flanagan is clearly no friend of contemporary book contests: in his view, they are often barometers “of bad taste” that only serve “to give dog shows a good name”.

The aristocratic authors of an earlier period often felt that there was something a little common, even humiliating, about wanting to be read by others, possibly of an inferior station. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, René Girard describes some of the excuses they came up with to give the impression that their works had got into print without their knowledge. La Rochefoucauld (to whom I am vaguely related through one of his descendants’ bastard offspring) claimed, for instance, that his manuscript had been stolen by a servant.

Thomas Bernhard had similar issues with literary prizes. My Prizes: An Accounting, published posthumously, is a series of diatribes against the nine eponymous prizes he received up until 1980 and the “assholes” who bestowed them upon him — which brings us back to the Booker.

In François Ozon’s film Swimming Pool, a bestselling author (played by Charlotte Rampling) pays a visit to her publisher, where she bumps into an up-and-coming novelist who has just won a minor literary prize. After the latter’s departure, the publisher tries — and fails — to clear the air by describing the award as “hardly the Booker prize!” Charlotte Rampling’s character reminds him of what he always used to say at the beginning of his career: “Awards are like haemorrhoids: sooner or later, every arsehole gets one”. This scene epitomises the Booker effect: the petty rivalries and insidious corrupting influence.

Launched in 1969, the Booker was always conceived of as a publicity stunt designed to shift units. I think it is fair to say that no other literary prize in the world has ever received so much media attention. By 1990, when Gilbert Adair included a chapter entitled “Le Booker nouveau est arrivé” in his Barthes-inspired Myths and Memories, the prize had already become an institution, thanks to a marketing strategy not dissimilar to that of Beaujolais nouveau.

The Booker has always worn its commercialism on its sleeve: its official name — the Man Booker Prize — derives from its original (Booker-McConnell) and current (the Man Group) sponsors. This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. Trying to sell more books is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, and the Booker has two big advantages over the Gallic Goncourt: it is not controlled by the publishing industry and the judging panel changes every year. However, financial considerations do, regrettably, play a part in the selection process: a publisher must “contribute £5,000 towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist” and “a further £5,000 if the book wins the prize”. Indies may find it difficult to stump up this sort of money.

The Nobel is awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Aimed at “the intelligent general audience,” the Booker never entertained such lofty ambitions. It was always resolutely middlebrow as last year’s controversy over “readable books” that “zip along” amply illustrated.

Since its inception, the prize has championed a type of well-made mainstream novel that reflects the liberal humanist world view of the Home Counties (sometimes with decorative postmodern knobs on). When a thriller found its way on to the longlist, many people thought that the judges had lost the plot, and were no longer able to recognise a Booker novel. This reaction only confirmed China Miéville‘s argument that despite traditionally shunning genre fiction, the Booker had itself become a genre. This, I feel, has been the prize’s most pernicious influence. The novel — which was meant to be the genre to end all genres in which philosophy and poetry would be reunited — has been reduced to innocuous literary fiction narratives written as though modernism had never happened.

This year, there has been no populist talk of jolly good reads or zip-along page-turners. On the contrary, chairman Peter Stothard signalled the judges’ intention to focus on “texts not reputations“: books “that you can make a sustained critical argument about”. The kind that “you don’t leave on the beach” and want to “read again and again”. Hence, perhaps, the presence of four debuts and three novels released by excellent indie publishers (And Other Stories, Myrmidon Books and Salt).

The inclusion of Deborah Levy‘s Swimming Home, one of the finest new novels I have read (and already reread) in a long time, seems like a very good omen indeed. It radiates the sensual languor of sun-drenched afternoons in the south of France and the disquieting, uncanny beauty only perceived by a true daytime insomniac. At times, it reminded me of Ozon’s film. Let us hope this year’s Booker will not be awarded to an arsehole.

****

Here is a longer — uncut and unedited — version of the above text. A draft, if you will:

The announcement of this year’s Booker longlist, just a few days before the opening of the Olympics, reminds us that literary jousting originated in Ancient Greece. These early competitions, however, were more akin to poetry slams or the itinerant Literary Death Match, than to the sedate book prizes we are accustomed to. Dithyrambic contests were collective, all-singing-and-dancing renditions of poetic works. The name of the victorious chorus would often go down in history, while that of the poet himself would be forgotten. It was, above all, the performance that was being assessed.

Modern literary competitions appeared shortly after the revival of the Olympic Games at the end of the nineteenth century. The Nobel Prize in Literature (1901) was followed by the Goncourt in France (1903), the Pulitzer in the States (1917) and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in Britain (1919). Compared with their Greekish forbears, they are far trickier affairs. Australian author Richard Flanagan is clearly no friend of contemporary book contests: in his view, they are often barometers “of bad taste” that only serve “to give dog shows a good name”. Whether or not most prizes “get it mostly wrong,” he clearly has a point when it comes to the Nobel: “No one I know hails Sigrid Undset or Frans Eemil Sillanpaa or Par Lagerkvist — Nobel laureates in 1928 and 1939 and 1951, respectively — as globally significant writers, important as they are to their own national literatures, perhaps because no one I know has ever read them. Yet Tolstoy, Chekhov, Kafka, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Cortazar, Nabokov, Borges, Kundera, Roth and Bolano have all been passed over for the gong of gongs”.

According to Lars Iyer (whose novel Spurious was shortlisted for last year’s Not the Booker), “the prestige of authorship” — producing great works — has given way to “the prestige of an ephemeral kind of literary careerism,” which is sanctioned by book clubs and prizes: “With pomp and circumstance, the award ceremonies vainly bestow medals of greatness on novels that vaguely mime our fading memory of masterpiece. The prestige, the debris, the body of Literature remains even as the spirit has fled”. The aristocratic authors of an earlier period often felt that there was something a little common, even humiliating, about wanting to be read by others, possibly of an inferior station. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, René Girard describes some of the excuses they came up with to give the impression that their works had got into print without their knowledge. La Rochefoucauld (to whom I am vaguely related through one of his descendants’ bastard offspring) claimed, for instance, that his manuscript had been stolen by a servant. Thomas Bernhard had similar issues with literary prizes. In the autobiographical Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1982), he describes a cursory acceptance speech as “a few sentences, amounting to a small philosophical digression, the upshot of which was that man was a wretched creature and death a certainty”. My Prizes: An Accounting, published posthumously, is a series of diatribes against the nine eponymous prizes he received up until 1980 and the “assholes” who bestowed them upon him — which brings us back to the Booker.

In François Ozon’s film Swimming Pool (2003), a bestselling author (played by Charlotte Rampling) pays a visit to her publisher, where she bumps into an up-and-coming novelist who has just won a minor literary prize. After the latter’s departure, the publisher tries — and fails — to clear the air by describing the award as “hardly the Booker Prize!” Charlotte Rampling’s character reminds him of what he always used to say at the beginning of his career: “Awards are like haemorrhoids: sooner or later, every arsehole gets one”. This scene epitomises the Booker effect: the petty rivalries and insidious corrupting influence.

Launched in 1969, the Booker was always conceived of as a publicity stunt designed to shift units. I think it is fair to say that no other literary prize in the world has ever received so much media attention. By 1990, when Gilbert Adair included a chapter entitled “Le Booker nouveau est arrivé” in his Barthes-inspired Myths and Memories, the prize had already become an institution, thanks to a marketing strategy not dissimilar to that of Beaujolais nouveau. The Booker has always worn its commercialism on its sleeve: its official name — the Man Booker Prize — derives from its original (Booker-McConnell) and current (the Man Group) sponsors. This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. Trying to sell more books is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, and the Booker has two big advantages over the Gallic Goncourt: it is not controlled by the publishing industry and the judging panel changes every year. However, financial considerations do, regrettably, play a part in the selection process: a publisher must “contribute £5,000 towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist” and “a further £5,000 if the book wins the prize”. Indies may find it difficult to stump up this sort of money.

The Nobel is awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Aimed at “the intelligent general audience,” the Booker never entertained such lofty ambitions. It was always resolutely middlebrow as last year’s controversy over “readable books” that “zip along” amply illustrated. Since its inception, the prize has championed a type of well-made mainstream novel that reflects the liberal humanist world view of the Home Counties (sometimes with decorative postmodern knobs on). When a thriller found its way on to the longlist, many people thought that the judges had lost the plot, and were no longer able to recognise a Booker novel. This reaction only confirmed China Miéville‘s argument that despite traditionally shunning genre fiction, the Booker had itself become a genre. This, I feel, has been the prize’s most pernicious influence. The Novel — which was meant to be the genre to end all genres in which philosophy and poetry would be reunited — has been reduced to innocuous literary fiction narratives written as though Modernism had never happened.

This year, there has been no populist talk of jolly good reads or zipalong page-turners. On the contrary, chairman Peter Stothard signalled the judges’ intention to focus on “texts not reputations“: books “that you can make a sustained critical argument about”. The kind that “you don’t leave on the beach” and want to “read again and again”. Hence, perhaps, the presence of four debuts and three novels released by excellent indie publishers (And Other Stories, Myrmidon Books and Salt). The inclusion of Deborah Levy‘s Swimming Home, one of the finest new novels I have read (and already reread) in a long time, seems like a very good omen indeed. It radiates the sensual languor of sun-drenched afternoons in the south of France and the disquieting, uncanny beauty only perceived by a true daytime insomniac. At times, it reminded me of Ozon’s film. Let us hope this year’s Booker will not be awarded to an arsehole!

All the Latest

I was asked to write a piece about the Booker longlist. You can read it here in the Guardian‘s Comment is Free section:

[…] The inclusion of Deborah Levy‘s Swimming Home, one of the finest new novels I have read (and already reread) in a long time, seems like a very good omen indeed. It radiates the sensual languor of sun-drenched afternoons in the south of France and the disquieting, uncanny beauty only perceived by a true daytime insomniac. At times, it reminded me of Ozon’s film. Let us hope this year’s Booker will not be awarded to an arsehole.