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.
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