Monday, February 25, 2008

Is Contemporary Fiction Tired?

There's something in the air. The Guardian Review Diary reports (as did Vanessa Gebbie on her blog last week) that George Steiner has told a meeting of the Royal Society of Literature that contemporary fiction, and in particular British contemporary fiction, is 'in deep trouble'.

'The power of metaphor is located in constraint,' he is reported as saying, and 'now that anything can be said, fiction is in deep trouble ... I believe the narrative form is very tired.'

In the same edition of the Review, Gilbert Adair, paying tribute to the innovative novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet who died last week, expresses much the same opinion (although presumably he doesn't share Steiner's faith in metaphor as the defining characteristic of fiction, since Robbe-Grillet famously set out to 'emancipate literature from the seductive tyranny of metaphor which he accused of anthropomorphising the material world'.)

Adair says: 'Whatever the qualities of McEwan, the Smiths Zadie and Ali, and any other contemporary English-language writer one cares to cite, can it honestly be said of them that they have reinvented the novel?'

I have to say I'm a bit put out on behalf of Ali Smith and her fictive project (partly I guess because I'm currently trying to do something similar myself). Smith's fiction is specifically concerned with the contingency of narrative, both in subject matter and, quite brilliantly, in form. The titles of her novel sections (she eschews conventional 'chapters') indicate her concerns - 'past', 'present historic' etc (Hotel World), 'The beginning', 'The middle' (The Accidental) - and her books sing with the fluidities and uncertainties of being which no conventional narrative mode could convey, and thus are exhilarating and anything but tired.

Edited in:

I omitted Adair's concluding and most important point: he lays the blame for the conservatism of contemporary British fiction with the current market-driven literary culture in which publishers are forced to seek what they know sells:
'Literary fiction is thriving, so why tamper with it? Yet as the case of Alain Robbe-Grillet proved, the most influential artists are those who choose to fix something that no one else noticed was broken.'
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