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June 17, 2007

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'Steal from The Simpsons, Not Henry James'

Totally agree with the Globe Ideas section that this essay on how sorta lame modern novels are is really great and definitely worth reading. I’ll blockquote the same passage they did:

Novelists can take from these new art forms [e.g., sitcoms and HBO-quality TV dramas] new structures and techniques for telling stories, as Joyce did from cinema. But who has? Weirdly, the modernists have a more accurate take on now than the most recent Booker winners. Finnegans Wake reads like a mash-up of a Google translation of everything ever. But John Banville and Anita Desai read like nostalgia (for Nabokov, for Dickens, for traditional virtues, for the canon). They feel far less contemporary than The Waste Land — which is what Bakhtin would call a novelised poem: a poem that escapes Aristotle’s Poetics and hitches a ride on the energy of the novel … Since Joyce and Woolf (and Eliot), the novel’s wheels have spun in the sand.

So steal from The Simpsons, not Henry James.

The line “Finnegans Wake reads like a mash-up of a Google translation of everything ever” is gold.

Seriously, though: I want a sharp, funny, forward-looking novel that reads like a cross between Samurai Champloo, Joss Whedon’s run on “Amazing X-Men,” and a Facebook wall. Not another tome about, like, “the nature of memory and loss”* set in 1965 Buenos Aires.

*Not actually a quote from anything but it might as well be.

Posted June 17, 2007 at 10:02 | Comments (12) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Briefly Noted


actually, try googling "the nature of memory and loss." it turns up some pretty lame sounding novels. so you know, way to be tapped in.

Posted by: Laura on June 18, 2007 at 12:36 AM

This is really great. I'm trying to think of examples of authors who borrow tropes from pop media -- maybe Mark Leyner? Nicholson Baker? Chuck Palahniuk? Haruki Murakami? I'm not sure any of those examples are satisfying though...

this probably explains why i've just about given up on fiction, and this from someone who used to read about a book a week. all the novels from the last 5 years or so are about autistic collectors of butterflies in paris in 1960, or have the same name as the author, but aren't about the author, or something equally eccentric, and i don't want to read dozens of books about quirky people. i just want a good story, not a quirky story, not a depressing story,(i'm looking at you ian mcewan) just a good story. a few months back i read "the road" and yeah, it was really depressing, but it was original, and well told. i also just read "no country for old men" also by cormac mccarthy, which was also a damn good read. there's something to be said for simple, but well told stories.
maybe authors who would have normally written fiction feel like they are excluded, and have gone on to write non-fiction. the last 10 years have had so many non-fiction books come out that are so much more entertaining to read than any booker prize winner.

Posted by: alana Jackson on June 18, 2007 at 02:03 PM

I recently read Zadie Smith's /On Beauty/, which is somewhat based (of course!) on a 19th century novel. But I would also say her writing shows good signs of being in touch with popular culture, although not borrowing so much in the way of stylistic/technical ideas.

I like Smith's smooth and natural way of incorporating contemporary culture into her story. Murakami's pop references suffer from name-droppiness to my mind. But Murakami is more experimental stylistically, with good results in some cases (e.g. Hard Boiled Wonderland).

Actually Murakami sometimes seems aggressively pomo/deconstructivist to me, but maybe it's because I'm a scientist. Sometimes his science is so off I get the feeling he's doing it intentionally, as if to say "this is /not/ science fiction; I'm just making up a system that works with my story that you could call science but I'm explicitly divorcing from any real science."

My pet theory is to compare the novel to classical music. Both are past that 18/19th century heyday of grand monumental works in the classic, direct style. Both have gone through a period of smaller, more experimental works centered around technical conceits, etc..

I don't think it's such a bad thing to step back and get in touch with the classic style again. As Prokofiev said (roughly) "but there's so many wonderful things left to be written in C Major". Of course, it's good to be in touch with contemporary culture. But I don't think we want to say "stop rehashing the 19th century classics and start rehashing 20th century experimentalism".

Again, I will recommend Christopher Logue's /War Music/, a retelling of the Iliad, this time as an example of speaking in a credibly contemporary, 20/21st century voice and really adding to the old canon, at the same time creating something new, without trying to be too outrageously experimental.

1. Had you mentioned 'War Music' before? If so I missed it -- and it looks TERRIFIC. Really really interesting.

2. I think that Prokofiev paraphrase is actually really provocative. Okay, so yes, there are plenty of wonderful things left to be written in C Major. There are also plenty of wonderful realistic landscapes left to be painted in oils. And plenty of side-scrolling platform games left to be coded on video game systems!

But -- I have definitely heard articulations of art that hinge on things being NEW, on being reasonable 'arguments' or 'statements' in an ongoing conversation -- and isn't just writing a symphony in C Major or painting a landscape sort of like laughing at a joke that somebody told two hours ago, or saying 'Wait, wait, hey, about that thing... that thing Matt was saying earlier...' and it's like yo, everybody's moved on.

I realize I am getting my signals crossed a bit here, as we didn't start out talking about 'art' at all, but about good, fun experiences, and on that count there's a lot to be said for the established form... but it also seems like part of that Prospect guy's argument is that we need to get out from under the shadow of those forms, b/c they constitute a conversation that is sort of done...

A bit rushed & not quite able to make my point here with much clarity but will go ahead & post, as I am interested to hear what the Snarkmatrix has to say about this.

What I like about Prokofiev, is that he did try to keep the classic elements in the picture, but he also sounds completely like himself and in my opinion was still doing something new and exciting. People complain that he was not as modish as Stravinsky or Schoenberg, but to me there is such as thing as being too self-consciously new. As the aphorism goes: "to do just the opposite is also a form of imitation".

Prokofiev also had a sense of humor and was willing to try a lot of things, moving back and forth from retro to outre. Check out the "classical" symphony (no. 1) for his most conventional writing, but still in his own voice. Or you can try Symphony 6 or 3 for something more adventurous.

Puccini is another interesting case. For the period he was writing, his music was seriously retrograde. But when you listen to it, it's unmistakably his own voice, it's exciting and interesting, and of course quite pleasing (if you like that sort of thing). And I think he did contribute some new sounds that although in the conventional model, were still largely unheard before.

Mahler is another one who is pretty retro, but found his own way of doing things. And has enjoyed lasting popularity. Although I find him a lot less exciting; a little too retro for me.

Another interesting question is, "where did the more avant garde people end up taking the form in the end?" A lot of people would answer "into a dead end". Perhaps precisely because although they were insisting on being "new" they were getting out of touch with the real zeitgeist. When you hit those dead ends, it's good to have some big brains willing to backtrack a bit, reconsider where you're coming from, and try a genuinely new, and hopefully more in touch, way to move forward.

But actually my point about the original post was more just that I don't see the point in whining "why are people imitating 19th century writing instead of imitating James Joyce?". /Finnegan's Wake/ has been done, as much as the 19th century has been done. We need people who are in touch with the now, and willing to riff off the best of old traditions to forge something new. I don't see how a return to Joyce or Woolf accomplishes this.

You could say "well, there was a time period when people were experimenting more and things changed faster and we should return to that". But I don't really see it that way. Maybe things were more experimental in a sense, but trying to recreate that is still moving backwards.

I don't see Gough's essay as advocating a return to Joyce or Woolf, or even an injunction to experimentation. The defensible thesis (if there is one) seems to be that British novels in particular seem to tilt towards self-conscious seriousness, because that kind of novel is more likely to get published and win awards like the Booker. And this author likes comic, contemporary novels, like Martin Amis's Money or Kurt Vonnegut.

His grand-historical narrative of why this is the case is more a "riff" than an argument. His framing of literary history is... well, to be charitable, I'll say it's loose. (So is the consistency of his position.) Sort of a pop-cultural, anecdote-heavy, detail-light version of the Western canon. He's stronger on the British novel -- he falls back on that tradition more than once, especially when he starts to look at the twentieth century, and I think that's where his focus and concerns really are.

There are all sorts of other strains in twentieth-century fiction that one can point to: Kafka, Proust, Chekhov, Faulkner, Garcia Marquez, Svevo, Calvino, Borges, Hemingway, Queneau, Perec, to name some of the biggies. The comic, the experimental, and the contemporary clearly haven't gone away. They just get reconfigured and redeployed.

I think the novel is actually probably more elastic than it's ever been -- there are a greater range of models, and readers are more willing to indulge dips and dives in certain directions without necessarily requiring a kind of precommitment to a certain virtuosity. And contemporary novels don't really all read like Henry James, E.M. Forster, or D.H. Lawrence. If you think so, take a page from one and compare it to the other -- there's a very different kind of game going on now.

Read anything by Richard Russo, especially Nobody's Fool or Empire Falls. It's not James, but his characterization is the most real I've read in a long time (and I read a lot).

Posted by: kirk on June 19, 2007 at 12:44 AM

speaking of zadie smith, after she wrote "white teeth" which everybody liked, (which i also quite enjoyed) she decided that she didn't feel that she knew enough about writing, and wanted to go back to school. (she did some time at harvard after her 2nd book came out) which i think says a lot about the world of modern writers. especially english ones. and yeah, her third book was nominated for a booker.

Posted by: alana Jackson on June 19, 2007 at 05:49 PM

I think it's been said before, but it really is eerie how much of /On Beauty/'s "small liberal arts college outside of Boston" recalls Harvard, a large research university in Cambridge. Descriptions of places (Malkin Athletic Center, Middle East, etc.) and events and even people (including an oblique reference to Smith herself as a "visiting author on fellowship") seem to ring many little bells...

I'll second Calvino as someone who was clearly doing funny, smart, quirky things with style and form. Kundera also stretches the form without making a big deal about it. Contemporary to Joyce, Nathanael West clearly took some cues from popular media and made some great stories. I think all three also had the good sense to make *concessions to readability*, one of my favorite topics when discussing experimental work.

"Since Joyce and Woolf (and Eliot), the novel’s wheels have spun in the sand."

So weird that he would say this when he seems to be a sci-fi fan...

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