Sunday, March 18, 2007

Whether Novels Matter

Plenty of meat in the newspaper literary pages this weekend, and some to delight the Bitch. Jed Mercurio, flouting Milan Kundera's warning that film adaptations of novels steal their essence, describes with relish in the Guardian the process of doing so (though I'd say not without revealing the odd doubt). However, a posthumous essay from Susan Sontag in the same paper sounds a deeply serious note about the growing encroachment of television culture on novels and on their crucial role in our social and intellectual life. Sontag says:
What serves "the modern" is standardization, homogenization. (Indeed, "the modern" is homogenization, standardization. The quintessential site of the modern is an airport; and all airports are alike, as all new modern cities, from Seoul to São Paulo, tend to look alike.) This pull toward homogenization cannot fail to affect the project of literature. The novel, which is marked by singularity, can only enter this system of maximum diff usion through the agency of translation, which, however necessary, entails a built-in distortion of what the novel is at the deepest level - which is not the communication of information, or even the telling of engaging stories, but the perpetuation of the project of literature itself, with its invitation to develop the kind of inwardness that resists the modern satieties
Television distances, she says, whereas novels pay attention and require the reader to do so:
I would argue that the mindset [the media] foster and the appetites they feed are entirely inimical to the writing (production) and reading (consumption) of serious literature... On the one hand, we have, through translation and through recycling in the media, the possibility of a greater and greater diffusion of our work. On the other hand, the ideology behind these unprecedented opportunities for diffusion, for translation - the ideology now dominant in what passes for culture in modern societies - is designed to render obsolete the novelist's prophetic and critical, even subversive, task, and that is to deepen and sometimes, as needed, to oppose the common understandings of our fate.
These should be words close to the hearts of us novelists but Henry Porter in the Observer suggests that our well-known writers are now colluding with this non-engaged market culture. None is engaging with the urgent issues, he says:
...the widening gap between poor and rich, the seething anger of the underclass, the steady attack on the rights of those who cannot protect themselves, the war in Iraq, the regular deaths of British soldiers in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, rendition. Instead, he says, the widening gap between poor and rich, the seething anger of the underclass, the steady attack on the rights of those who cannot protect themselves, the war in Iraq, the regular deaths of British soldiers in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, rendition.
Instead, he says:
Nowadays, there seem to be an awful lot of middle-aged blokes dragging their tortured souls around the literary circuit, fretting about their display in Waterstone's.

Maybe he shouldn't be blaming the writers, though. Maybe the reason they're tortured is that their most political and 'singular' work, like that of the Bitch and others of her acquaintance, is not always the work which is published or produced, but is pushed away into drawers, declined by the publishers and producers as 'too challenging' for the market.

2 comments:

bookbinds said...

I agree with Sontag's idea that "serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own."

However, Sontag's contention that other media outlets such as television, "distances - immures us in our own indifference" is overly generalized and fails to recognize that there is a difference between "serious" films and television shows just as there is a difference between poor writing and good writing.

Ultimately, any form of art should engage us in a broader discourse but surely this ideal is not limited to the novel.

Elizabeth Baines said...

I'd say this is true in theory , ie that other forms beside the novel are capable of involving us in a broader discourse. But Sontag is focussing on the issue of attention (and is clearly specifically talking about 'serious' novels). How much of contemporary television forces us to pay the kind of active attention a serious novel does? What Sontag is saying, I think, is that television, which is the dominant cultural form, can by its very 'pictural' nature more easily abdicate this responsibility, and indeed does. (And that the cultural trend it exemplifies is a threat to the serious novel).