zadie smith on the novel
Provoked it seems by the imminent release of David Shields’s Reality Hunger, a forthcoming book I’ve grumbled about before, Zadie Smith has another one of her big state-of-the-novel via the state-of-Zadie-Smith’s-writing-block pieces in the Guardian today. (You might remember her previous stab at this sort of thing in the course of reviewing Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s The Remainder in the NYRB). Here’s a bit:
[…] Shields argues passionately for the superiority of the messy real – of what we might call “truthiness” – over the careful creations of novelists, and other artists, who work with artificial and imagined narratives. For Shields it is exactly what is tentative, unmade and unpolished in the essay form that is important. He finds the crafted novel, with its neat design and completist attitude, to be a dull and generic thing, too artificial to deal effectively with what is already an “unbearably artificial world”. He recommends instead that artists break “ever larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work”, via quotation, appropriation, prose poems, the collage novel . . . in short, the revenge of the real, by any means necessary. And conventional structure be damned. To make the point, Reality Hunger is itself without obvious authorial structure, piecing its arguments together by way of scattered aphorisms and quotation, an engaging form of bricolage. It’s a tribute to Shields’s skill that we remain unsure whether the entire manifesto is not in effect “built” rather than written, the sum of many broken pieces of the real simply shored up and left to vibrate against each other in significant arrangement. The result is thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it, as I do.
A deliberate polemic, it sets what one could be forgiven for thinking were two perfectly companionable instincts – the fictional and non-fictional – at war with each other. Shields likes to say such things as “Story seems to say everything happens for a reason, and I want to say No, it doesn’t”; to which I want to say, “Bad story does that, yes, but surely good story exists, too”. Anyway, there’s a pleasure to be had reading and internally fighting with Shields’s provocations, especially if you happen to be a novelist who writes essays (or a reader who enjoys both). The pages are filled with anti-fiction fighting talk: “The creators of characters, in the traditional sense, no longer manage to offer us anything more than puppets in which they themselves have ceased to believe.” And: “All the best stories are true.” And: “The world exists. Why recreate it?” It’s tempting to chalk this up to one author’s personal disappointments with the novel as a form (Shields hasn’t written a novel since the early 90s), but in expressing his novel-nausea so frankly he hopes to show that he is not alone in having such feelings – and my sense is that he’s right.
Ultimately, though, Smith wants to stage a defense of the novel as a form. Problem is, she can’t quite get beyond two moves that don’t add up to all that much. On the one hand, she lists a bunch of good novels without quite establishing why they are good let alone if they have anything at all in common – Bathroom and Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, and so on. On the other, she argues against Shields’s claims about the over-conformity of the genre that the history of the novel is a history of nonconformity. Fair enough. Beyond these two claims, all we get is a single sentence of praise for Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (oy) for providing “‘a convincing imitation of multiple consciousnesses’, otherwise known as ‘other people.’)”
Disappointing, I must say. I was excited enough when I saw – but did not have time to read – the piece this morning as I was ferrying children to a kids’ play that I actually stopped and bought her new collection of essays on my way. While the death of the novel is the sort of news that stays news – when are we not hearing about the failure of this form, its readership, its profit model, its quality, etc – I’ll admit I’ve been thinking dark thoughts about the genre of late. I’ve got as much of myself as anyone invested in the form – I have just finished a book on the novel, I spend my days teaching very talented students about it, and I tap away at my own when the welter of academic work of all sorts momentarily recedes. But the academic humanties are in even more chaos than academia in general; the discipline of English has lost its path in the wake of theory; and to be honest I’ve not read anything new and good in 2009 save for Summertime by Coetzee, and as Smith explains in her piece, Summertime is an fin de la genre sort of novel down to its core. And let’s not even talk about dollars and pounds, bookshop placement, and failing publishing houses.
People say this sort of thing all of the time, and probably it’s just the rough time I’ve been going through lately that makes it stick, but Philip Roth’s recent prediction that within 25 years the novel would be a “cultic” niche-market object (presumably, even more so than it is today) has been echoing around in my head the last few days. At any rate, adswithoutproducts will devote itself, primarily if not exclusively, to trying to provide some sort of answer to the question of the future of the novel. In particular, I’m going to consider both the value of the form and a few possibilities for its renewal. Another way to look at this turn, perhaps more of a relief than anything else to some, is that I will try to stop live-blogging my protacted early-mid-life crisis and do this instead. Many have suggested, perhaps with good reason, that work issues underlie a lot of the meta-mess that I get up to. So let’s see if I can’t figure out a few things to say. I’ll start very soon with a long overdue gloss on the title of my blog.
But for now: was joking with a couple of friends, apropos of I can’t tell you what, that ZS probably wouldn’t share the disdain for us academics that many in the writerly circuits do. The reason being, we speculated, that she in fact wants to be one of us. In part anyway – she probably isn’t fantasizing about board of studies meetings and the like. I don’t mean this in either a snarky or (certainly) a conceited way, and it’s something that definitely something that suggests something very promising about her, a sort of aspiration to gravitas that’s almost entirely missing from the scene nowadays. But of course the problem is that unlike us, and let’s extrapolate and say also unlike the best living practitioners of analysis of and speculation on the novel, she refuses to let actually enunciated politics muddle these essays up. For, and here’s a bit of a leap that I hope I’ll be able to land as I move through what I’ll say next, the central problematic of the novel has always been aligned with the problematic of politics, even left politics. That is to say, what novels have always tested and probed is the question of what’s in it for me and me and me to get onboard with an immersion in the they. This is the reason why the style indirect libre has long since stepped to the center as the definitive formal innovation (and question) of literary fiction, as it’s a form that negotiates between the atomised solipsistical I and the chattering, vulgar they. But I’m getting way ahead of myself. More to come, soon….