In its Beginning is its End

“In its Beginning is its End.” The Guardian Weekly, 6 December 2013, p. 39.

What exactly is the problem with the realist novel and why does it persist, asks Andrew Gallix

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.

American literary critic Fredric 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.

It was a product of the 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. 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 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 essayist Jorge Luis 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”.

In the new novel Robbe-Grillet 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”.

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.

I’ll Be Your Mirror: Andy Warhol’s Writing Degree (Less Than) Zero

This appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 24 May 2008:

I’ll Be Your Mirror: Andy Warhol’s Writing Degree (Less Than) Zero

Life and books entertain complex and sometimes paradoxical relations. Authors routinely explain that the lie of fiction is a roundabout way of grasping the truth of fact. Although I suspect this to be the majority view, it is by no means the only one.

Take the Aesthetic Movement’s struggle for artistic self-determination (symbolised by Des Esseintes‘ rejection of nature). Wilde famously wrote that “Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life” and so it was with literature: fiction came to be seen as an alternative to, rather than a reflection of, living — an activity best left to servants according to one of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam‘s characters.

Attempts have also been made at a life-literature merger. Here, you can usually expect macho posturing, violent deaths and spontaneous prose that disappears up its own ars rhetorica — sometimes all three. A prime example is that of the hardcore Dadaists who tried to do away with the “revolting dualism of real and described life” (Boris Poplavsky) by turning themselves into works of art before committing suicide to prove that they were 4 Real, like.

There is a third way; one that chimes with our spectacular times: the literary takeover bid. This trend goes back to the beautifully-barmy magna opera which — from Coleridge‘s omnium-gatherum to Mallarmé‘s “Grand Oeuvre” and beyond — aspired to shoehorn the whole of Creation between the covers of a book. In 1974, Georges Perec wrote down everything he saw from his café table in a bid to record “what happens when nothing happens”. B. S. Johnson was guided by the equally hubristic ambition to include what he called the “enormity of life” in a novel. The infamous “FUCK ALL THIS LYING” diatribe at the end of Albert Angelo, which shatters the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, is nothing short of an anti-fiction manifesto: “telling stories is telling lies and I want to tell the truth”.

Jonathan Coe has convincingly argued that Johnson’s “pursuit of literary naturalism” — “his perverse desire to reduce the novel to the status of real life” — was one of the factors that contributed to his suicide. “Go into one of the cafés in Islington and turn on your tape recorder and record people’s conversations,” he advises him posthumously, “Then come home and transcribe them and keep doing that until you’ve got two or three hundred pages. There you will have your ‘authentic’ naturalism and you know as well as I do that there is not a single person in the world who would want to read it. It would be unreadable.” This “‘authentic’ naturalism” was implemented in 1968 (four years after the publication of Albert Angelo) by Andy Warhol.

‘Renaissance Man’ is an overused cliché, but Warhol fits the bill perfectly. He was a painter, illustrator, designer, photographer, filmmaker, producer, journalist, editor, anchorman, model and many other things besides. In her latest book — Warhol Spirit — Cécile Guilbert argues, somewhat more contentiously, that he was also a serious writer.


She highlights his influence on Bret Easton Ellis by juxtaposing an extract from American Psycho with a social column penned by Warhol in 1973. The similarities are so obvious — same tonal blankness, compulsive name-dropping and seemingly endless lists of designer goods — that no commentary is necessary. (Fittingly, the film adaptation of American Psycho was directed by Mary Harron whose previous movie had been I Shot Andy Warhol.)

Warhol’s name has cropped up time and again — silkscreen-print-fashion — in reviews of Ellis’s work, but never before had the connection been so clearly established. Except by Ellis himself, that is. One of the characters in Glamorama — his most Warholian novel to date — is mocked because she only owns two books: the Bible plus The Andy Warhol Diaries (“and the Bible was a gift”). The inference is that the Diaries only appeal to illiterate hipsters, but the juxtaposition with scripture is just as significant. The Pope of Pop presides over the celebrity culture and branded environment Glamorama is steeped in, but his all-pervasive presence runs the paradoxical risk of being taken for granted or even overlooked. When Victor, the protagonist, quotes one of Warhol’s epigrams (“Baby, Andy once said that beauty is a sign of intelligence”), it is immediately disproved by his girlfriend’s admission that she has no idea who he is (“Andy who?”). The fact that she could have walked straight out of the Factory or the Chelsea Hotel adds a nice touch of dramatic irony.

The two men met at a launch party for Less Than Zero in 1985. Warhol had not read Ellis’s debut, but was much taken with its title (a nod to Elvis Costello) that resonated with his own rhetoric. Cécile Guilbert zeroes in on the quasi-Zen minimalism of his interview performances. She sees Warhol as a Candide-like figure rather than the usual sub-Wildean ironist: a mystical idiot savant whose very passivity turns him into a mirror (to quote Nico and Lou Reed) or (more appropriately as we shall see) a tape recorder. In POPism, his memoir, Warhol claimed that the words he uttered during interviews always seemed to be “coming from someplace else, someplace behind [him]”. This oracular ventriloquism raises fundamental issues of authorship as does his approach to the novel.


a, A Novel — Warhol’s answer to Ulysses — is the verbatim transcription of a series of taped conversations between the author and actor Ondine. The typescripts (courtesy of four typists including Velvet Underground drummer Mo Tucker who excised all swear words) were themselves faithfully reproduced down to the last typo and abbreviation.

There is a stark contrast between this obsessive all-inclusiveness and the terseness of the truncated title. Guilbert points out that Warhol had contemplated calling his novel “Cock”, but finally plumped for a which just happens to be the missing vowel from his real surname (Warhola). One could argue that this “symbolic castration” also refers to the surgical removal (through the absence of editing) of the author’s authority.

Andy Warhol was a prescient writer if not a great one. With a, he deliberately set out to produce a “bad” novel — an experiment which announces the avant-pulp of people like Stewart Home. His hands-off approach provided a nice take on Barthes“Death of the Author” (an almost literal one given the Valerie Solanas incident which had just taken place). He can also be credited with taking the objectivity of the nouveau roman to its logical conclusion. Perhaps more significantly, he anticipated that the truth of fiction would be ditched in favour of the fictionalization of truth (and invented reality TV in the process).

Warhol is not usually thought of as a writer and in a way he was not one at all since his books were either dictated or transcribed from recordings. From this point of view, he was part of a curiously old-fashioned tradition that predates the Gutenberg Galaxy.