Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Self doubt

Some people seem to think Will Self had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote an article appearing in Saturday's Guardian in which he compares the novel to the musical symphony and concludes that music has moved on from modernism in a way the novel hasn't.

Maybe it was his joking intention (with our backs turned on innovation, we too much want 'cosy certainties'), but it took me two reads before I could begin to grasp his argument, and I'm still not sure I can. As commenter JohnNewport1 says,
He's rubbishing Franzen for not pushing back the boundaries even further than Joyce but instead returning to a pre-modernist view of the novel; but at the same time he admits that Joyce is now unreadable. He laments the way that novelists have not pursued innovation with the same fervour as modern composers of symphonies; yet he also suggests that composers gave up on symphonies altogether not long after Joyce's Ulyses came out.
Self claims that while we've given up on Ulysses, 'concert-goers still crowd out auditoria to listen raptly to ['postmodernist' Mahler]', and I'm thinking, Hang on: most of the people I know who go to music halls much prefer Beethoven and Mozart. And actually, I don't know as many people who go to concert halls as who have read Ulysses (or at least say they have)! Do sales of Ulysses really pale in comparison with the numbers of people going to Mahler concerts?

And while I am taken by Self's assessment that both forms, the novel and the symphony, seek to 'simultaneously enact the most complete possible world-in-words or world in notes, while also actualising the creative personality itself', in many other ways we're just not comparing like with like, as other commenters point out. Seems to me that the verbal nature of novels creates a cognitive relationship between the work and the reader fundamentally different from the relationship between music and the listener (although Self labours the point that music shares the novel's 'struggle for a narrative voice'). We can let music wash over us, we can receive it emotionally without feeling the simultaneous need to understand it intellectually.  Furthermore, the novel is hitched to commercialism in a way that contemporary music (I think) isn't. As Marion Miller points out in the Guardian comments, it is publishers, rather than authors, who determine which kinds of novels reach the light of day, and inevitably they respond to this readerly need for clarity.

However, there is a fundamental pulse in Self's article I do respond to. Because of the increased commercialism of literary production, this need for clarity appears to have tipped over into the need for 'cosy certainties'. As a writer I've always specifically wanted to avoid the cosy certainties, but as a former schoolteacher I've always felt the need to woo readers, to allow them to feel comfortable in the world of my writing, and indeed get them on my side, before pushing them on further than they may have expected. But as I've said before, this challenge is now all the greater.

Dan Holloway points out in the Guardian comments that the visual arts are crucially missing from Self's discussion, and it so happens that tomorrow a guest post on this blog by Mike French, Senior Editor of The View From Here, will address this issue of innovation and indeed make reference to the visual arts.


Brian Clegg said...

I don't know about sales of Ulysses, but I would say Mahler is significantly more mainstream in terms of popularity. You will regularly hear Mahler on something like Classic FM, where I'd suggest Joyce remains limited to the literary equivalent of Radio 3.

Dan Holloway said...

Fabulous!! Can't wait to see how he weaves the visual arts into this.

I enjoyed Will Self's article, and I agree with a lot of what he says, but it's too simplistic. It fails to take account of Modernism as a moment in time that was both homogenous to an extent very few movements are (almost more homogenous than a movement as small as Dada or Futurism) and incredibky diverse.
It's very appealing to take the novel and the symphony together - what I think he is referring to is a particular aspect of the Great Romantic Project in the early 19th century, which swallowed large parts of Hegel undigested and mapped them onto artistic ideas of motif to create a kind of grandiose work that swept majestically forward to its apotheosis. Self's mistake is in seeing novels and symphonies as forms that arose from that Project, rather than forms where its practitioners found their natural home.

Modernism freed art from the constrictions that resulted from a convenient marriage of motif and progress in the medium of certain forms (being crude I would say that Modernism decoupled form and content in the particular instance where content equalled motif+progress), which marriage had become a set of formal strictures rather than a formlism that had allowed freedom to express a particular idea.

The problem literature faces is that it is the art form still most embroiled in postmodernism, and therefore unable to enjoy the possibilities Modernism opened up. By decoupling theme and progress, Modernism created the most wonderful possibilities for the use of repetition (be it repetition as meme, as variation [a pre-Romantic form that was lost for a century when Bach and Paganini's wonderful playfulness was forced into bed wit Hegel's earnest Grweat March Forward], or simply as the means of creating a transcendent state where content loses all perceptual coherence and everything is thrown back on the idea of form). Much literature has either, as a result, been embarrassed by shape and form, reducing itself to an endless referential slipperiness, or simply given up on the debate altogether and gone back to Romanticism and the idea of the-novel-as-thesis/antithesis/synthesis. There are promising murmurings, though. Lee Rourke's The Canal, for example. Lee speaks very interestingly about repetition, and that coes through in his work. And, of course, Bolano's towering "Part About The Crimes"

Elizabeth Baines said...

Brian, Excellent point re Classic FM. Much more pertinent than concert hall attendance numbers.

Dan, thanks so much for this. I will take some time to digest it...

Elizabeth baines said...

One point that occurs, Brian: do people hear Mahler as experimental in the way read Ulysses as being? Ie the difference between a verbal and a non-verbal form I mention above?

Brian Clegg said...

I'm not convinced they do any more, Elizabeth. Some music moves from experimental (as arguably Beethoven was originally) to mainstream. Other compositions never make the move. I would argue that great music that was initially regarded as strange/experimental will become mainstream, simply because it is great. Music that is pretentious/second rate never makes it and stays niche.

I wonder if the same applies to literature? Can something truly be great literature if most oeople don't want to read it, even when the initial shock has worn off?

Dan Holloway said...

On Mahler (I've been to many Mahler performances at the Barbican and Royal Albert Hall) - my experience is that he's a favourite of angsty students - I certainly first started listening to him at the same time as I was studying Kierkegaard. But of course there's so much more to him. One of the best hours of my life was spent at a lecture on Mahler given as part of the Ascents of Love series given by one of my absolute icons Martha Nussbaum.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Dan, the point about repetition (especially repetition as variation) is very interesting, and, to me, important. It's a mode of poetry that seems banned from the novel, and results in a real restriction. I'm interested in your concept of the contemporary novel as 'embarrassed' (by such retrictions), and this strikes me as very true.

Dan Holloway said...

Yes, though I wonder if it 's even there in poetry so much these days. I was re-reading Howl on the bus the other night, with its glorious structure of hypnotic relative clasues introduced by "who", and its ecstatic "I'm with you in Rockland" section, and when I got home I watched a few videos on YouTube of Henry Bowers (who is currently touring Hammer and Tongue across the UK), and started looking at a wider spectrum of performance poetry, and realised just how bankrupt so much of the spoken word has become. Rhymes and rhtythms are used simply to drive us forward in a frenzy, and the connection of words has become an exercise in ingenuity like a game of six degrees of separation. To go back to Modernism and Romanticism, the use of rhyme (it's the rhymes that are, to use a musical analogy, the emphasised beats in the bar) is all about movement, whereas the repeated "who" of Ginsberg, (or the looped film of Steve McQueen's Deadpan, or the ghostly image beneath the garish colour in Warhol) is all about bringing you up short, reeling in the movement, applying the brakes on a careering mechanism and as a result delivering an almighty g-force every time he does it (his sentences are never resolved, they movetowards their resolution and are jarringky recapitulated with another "who" before they get there, whereas much contemporary spoken word almost trails itself one sentence too far in pursuit of a resolved cadence).

I wonder if a further part of the novel's embarrassment over engaging with shape is that many rules have become associated with pulp, in particular the formulaicness of serialisation I'm working on a cellphone novel now, where each chapter has to be fewer than 200 words and a completely self-contained scene with no linking sentences. The strictures are incredibly liberating.

Do read Lee's book if you haven't already. He's one of the few people really taking these questions seriously and tackling them head on.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks so much for this, Dan.
I think it's the essence of the matter. Movement which 'carries' us forward - as well as the familiarity of the thesis/antithesis/sythesis pattern - makes passive readers of us, but a mode that makes us stop short/look back makes thinking readers of us.
For me the essential challenge is how to get through what I perceive to be a contemporary unwillingness to be made a thinking reader - indeed, to think!- to somehow avoid readers switching off before they've begun, the moment they see the unfamiliar.

Elizabeth Baines said...

And PS: yes, Lee's book is in my reading plans!

Dan Holloway said...

"the essential challenge is how to get through what I perceive to be a contemporary unwillingness to be made a thinking reader"

talking of which, are you following the very interesting and not a little heated comments about the new "Literature Prize"?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Good grief! Thanks for that link...!