Aug 242010

from Robert Collins, “The Novel: Rewound and Remixed,” The Sunday Times 4 July 2010

Less than a century ago, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf took the 19th-century realist novel and forged it into the blinding experimental thunderbolt of high modernism. Ninety years later, with more novels being published than ever, and most of them uniformly aiming for the same realist goal, it’s as if Ulysses, Finnegans Wake and Mrs Dalloway had never happened. Where did the zeal for unfettered innovation go? Even in the brilliantly able hands of David Mitchell, Zadie Smith or Ian McEwan, the novel has regressed almost completely to its realist origins. With commercial expectations in publishing more desperate and unforgiving than ever, the room for experimentation has shrunk to virtually nil.

A recent book, Reality Hunger, by the American author David Shields, has generated febrile literary chatter about the novel’s future. Shields argues that the form, tied to phoney invention and creaky artifice, is no longer a viable medium for the tastes of the hyperconnected age, with its urge towards hybridisation and cross-pollination. Nonfiction — memoir, the lyric essay, rap, all freed from fiction’s dusty strictures — is where it’s at.

Read the rest at Surplus Matter here.


  10 Responses to “The Remix the Novel Has Been Crying Out For”

  1. The Never-Ending Story: The Novel is Dead.

  2. Thank God! Now I can get back to watching season three of Paris Hilton’s Best Friend! Will VCFA refund my money?

  3. “Nonfiction — memoir, the lyric essay, rap, all freed from fiction’s dusty strictures — is where it’s at.”

    1. What a dull sentence.

    2. A book that fits this bill, except for the rap, that is authentic and well-crafted and has received much attention in some quarters is Theresa Cha’s Dictee, described here:

    You can get parts of it from Google Book — the URL is a monster. Just go to Google Books and enter author/title.

    I worked with her briefly at the University Art Museum while at Berkeley. Such a quiet person, and I didn’t know she was a serious artist/writer. She moved to NY where she was murdered by a complete stranger, just days after Dictee was published.

    3. There has to be art. I read Shields’s Reality Hunger. It was one of the most unmemorable books I’ve ever read. Nothing stuck with me at all. The only parts that struck me were quick quotes from a handful of other writers, out of context, and which suffered by their juxtaposition with the others. He didn’t identify sources in the text, and I kept going back to find out who they were. Shields’s own writing was just boring. It was a book full of self but without art or substance. What good is a self without art or substance?

    4. Why are we still listening to rap? Why aren’t we bored with it? The rhythms and its forms haven’t changed much at all in over 30 years.

    Listen to how jazz evolved, John Coltrane, Chasin’ the Trane, Live at the Village Vanguard (first part — YouTube broke it up. You can get the 2nd. part at YouTube).

    • (I couldn’t embed — click the text to take you to YouTube, then come back.) Or buy the album. Can you imagine being at the Village Vanguard the night he performed this? Has much like this happened since?

  4. “Past masterpieces are good for the past. They are not good for us. We have the right to say what has been said and even what has not been said in a style that belongs to us, reacting in a direct, immediate way to present-day feelings everybody can understand. … Our adulation of what has already been done, however beautiful and valuable, paralyses us and keeps us from connecting with the underlying power in us….”
    Translated from Antonin Artaud,
    “En finir avec les chefs-d’oeuvre,” (“No More Masterpieces”) in Le Thêatre et Son Double (Paris: Gallimard, 1938; rpt. 1964), pp. 114-127. Translated by Guy Allen.

    This (1938) quotation has been bothering me for the last few days because it suggests ignoring history in order to be present. Ridiculous, since history got us here. But, I like the idea of finding artistic freedom and power by loosening the grip on conventions and expectations.It sounds like McCarthy is defying contemporary convention by immersing himself in history.
    The pendulum swings…

  5. I’d never heard of this guy before, though my interest is piqued first. Unfortunately the article didn’t much indicate in what manner McCarthy’s novel is Beckett- and Joyce-esque.

    Guess I’ll just have to read it, huh.

  6. I’m currently reading McCarthy’s novel ‘Remainder,’ and, hm…how should I say this? A wee bit boring? A tad predictable? It’s interesting, and it has an obsessive madness about it, which I’m enjoying.

    I’ll admit that my reading habits have been skewed more towards shorter fiction lately. But I find myself wandering a lot as I read this novel. Skipping whole passages and such. It’s predictable in a sense. The main character is injured by a something falling from the sky (we’re never told what) and he spends a bunch of time in hospital. When he recovers, he can’t experience emotions. He wins a bunch of money in a lawsuit, goes to a party, sees a crack in a wall and feels something, some emotion he can’t quite describe. This feeling prompts him to hire an agency that specializes in helping the mega-rich do, basically, whatever they want. This guy wants to recreate the entire apartment where he saw the crack. I mean the whole building, surrounding streets, etc. He hires actors to stand-in for the party guests. They work around the clock and the narrator keeps checking in, trying to re-experience this feeling. Then other things happen and he experiences something, a flat tire, a shooting, and he keeps buying more land and hiring more actors to recreate the scene. (I’m not done yet with the book, so no spoiler alert needed.) It’s interesting, and it started out strong, but to be honest, I find myself flipping through past sections because I know exactly what’s coming next. The recursive quality about recreating scenes feels redundant to me. Having said that, it does succeed on a pattern imaging. The story constantly looks back on itself. (I started reading this on a suggestion for my lecture and knew nothing about McCarthy or the book.) I don’t know that I’d call this guy as the next Joyce yet. I don’t see this book saving the novel. I don’t hate it, but I’ve not been swept away by the language, the images, by the characters. They’re rather flat. The whole story is rather flat. To me, this arcs a bit back to Gary’s notion of how certain authors (Chabon in his example) are suddenly thrust at us at literary saviors. I’d be curious to hear from others who’ve read this.

  7. Actually, I thought Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union was very well plotted, the ending satisfying — this is rare for me. Action came with development of the other elements, meaningful tensions and releases, engagement with the characters. I get frustrated with plots that are just action, where we are propelled by one event after the other without engaging or developing anything, where conflicts are simple, the mysteries blind. It’s what we get along the way. How many books do we reread because they are so good, so engaging step by step, even though we know exactly what’s going to happen?

    Haven’t read McCarthy.

  8. You know, I may be batting for the other team here (hey, I have written my share of fiction before writing mainly NF) but I find David Shields a bit unbearable. I haven’t read his manisfesto, but I’ve read articles by him and heard him speak, and they guy just seems to hate anything not “real” – he doesn’t like Garcia Marquez or seemingly any writer who explores collective mythologies, and loves Proust, perhaps the most boring, self-obsessed writer I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading.

    But hey, he’s on faculty at Warren Wilson so he must know something, right?

    Sorry for the outburst, but that guy really rubs me the wrong way. Back to Montaigne’s self-obsession.

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