Sunday, November 20, 2011

The uselessness of novels?

It looks like a Guardian conspiracy to stir up a controversy. Here's the ever-clever Zoe Williams commissioned to write an article claiming to have given up reading novels because it's irresponsible (or that's the impression given by the sub-editors of the print and online versions respectively) when the political and economic facts of the world need our attention and understanding. And there's Viv Groskop on Twitter disagreeing and claiming that it's in fiction you find the truth. Still, if it focuses attention on the issues, so much the better.

'When the news is so apocalyptic, and there is so much to understand,' Williams says, ' feels more than frivolous to read about made-up people. It feels unpatriotic. Or, to put it another way, it is like watching the telly when you have homework.'

Hm. Well, that reference to patriotism makes me think from the outset she ain't so serious or committed to her argument. There is indeed an urgent truth in her declaration that we need to engage more, through reading, with the political issues of our day. She quotes from John Lanchester's Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, the nonfiction book he wrote as a result of research for his forthcoming novel, Capital. He sums up the way we have become politically-intellectually disenfranchised : 'We'd all rather be in the back seat of the car, with our parents in the front, driving. But now we've woken up doing 90.'

But it turns out that Williams' argument concerning novels is subtler than would at first seem. She appears in the end not to be talking about the novel per se but chiefly to be complaining that contemporary novels, rather than engaging with the issues of the day, are backward looking, 're-sit[ing] your large themes in the past, where they are more attractive and less political.' This needs unpacking. Is it a bad thing to make an issue more attractive to contemplate? Or is she right in her implication that the veneer of the past stops us seeing or caring about the modern parallels, so that any novel doing this lacks political dynamism?  But as Faber editorial director Hannah Griffiths, whom she quotes, says: 'You'd have to write a very ambitious contemporary novel, because they take so long to come out'. It's not only that, though: as we've discussed on this blog before, the time is in the digesting of issues: as we've noted before, most nineteenth-century novels that we now think of as addressing the hot issues of the day were written restrospectively.

Of course, though, Williams is using this as fuel for her argument that novels are beside the point in our urgent search for an understanding of our contemporary world, and in any case she quotes Damien Barr, who runs the Shoreditch House Literary Salon, as accusing contemporary novels of failing to engage with big/political issues in any form whatever: 'There is this false idea that fiction has no particular stance because it is made up, as a result of which it doesn't have to be informed, and it doesn't have to inform. I think we desperately need to be informed about our times, and our history, and our human condition, and at the moment, the novel is really only good for the latter.'

But who ever said that because a novel is 'made up', it shouldn't have a particular stance? And when did a good novel never inform us, provide a searing insight? Ah, but what are we talking about here, of course, are things like the understanding of economics, the things about which we've become intellectually disenfranchised. And novels just aren't cutting it in that regard, they are - tut tut - only telling us about the human condition! There is something, though, I'd say, in what Williams quotes  Lanchester as saying: 'In general, the literary novel has turned slightly too far away from the things that press on people. It is an utterly bizarre place to have ended up, but if the subject of a novel is too interesting, that's not literary enough.'

It is at the end of the article that Williams' true attitude to fiction emerges, an appreciation of its power:
 A novel that does take on big contemporary questions, even if it then hinges on an understanding of complex warfare, or politics, or industry, or finance, if it can do that and not be boring, not be full of what science fiction calls the "tell me, Professor" moments, that will be more use to you, probably, than any amount of explication delivered in factual, readable, lay terms. "If I've learnt anything real," Griffiths concludes, "I've learnt it through fiction."
Assuring us that Lanchester's novel does just this, Williams tells us: 'That's when you fully comprehend something, when you can see its face.'


Dan Holloway said...

This made me think of Elizabeth Anscombe's famous dictum about giving up philosophy and reading novels.

For me novels fail worst when they try to be broadest in scope, and succeed best in conveying the widest scope when they zoom in on the tiniest detail. I don't buy into grand generalisations, commonailities, movements of history, because they are always lines of best fit, and are useful only in an explanatory sense. When one, as a reader, tries to connect such a best-fit line with one's life, one will fail, inevitably, to come up with a single concrete example. What novels do best is to show us the tiny details with an unflinching specificity, details we know are "real", and allow us as readers to extrapolate our own generalities, rather than hammering us with the general and hoping we can relate to it. I've seen some stunning examples of this in modern fiction, most notably in books like Dubravka Ugresic's Ministry of Pain, or Elfriede Jelinek's The Piano Teacher.

Which makes me wonder if English novelists are swallowing the "epic sweep" model of the "Great American Novel" rather than looking at the skilful unfolding of the most zoomed-in lenses in some European literature. It would be easy to say the answer lies in short fiction, but maybe it lies in better understanding the novel (as well as shorter forms - though the scope of a short story can be as misunderstood as that of a novel, and possibly more egregiously).

Elizabeth Baines said...

Couldn't agree more, Dan. As Williams says, novels show you 'the face': the human expression of it all within the detail of personality and personal circumstance.

Dan Holloway said...

Yes, it amazes me how little we seem as a society to learn - one only has to look at the number of times one hears the phrase "this time it's different" (the internet is *not* a bubble; when NATO goes into Afghanistan it'll be all wrapped up the way the Russians couldn't; Yugoslavia couldn't possibly trun into a blood bath etc etc) or the times one hears the retrospective surprise when it isn't different (the number of times I've heard General Sir Michael Jackson say "we never expected", thinking "then why on earth were you paid so much to lead the troops, because everyone I know expected it"). And I can't help thinking that no matter how good the non-fiction might be, a lot of the reason why we still so noodle-headedly refuse as a species to learn is that we spend *too much* time reading facts and theory (Fukuyama, anyone?) and not enough understanding the basic human nature that keeps, in the real world, getting in the way of these lovely metanarratives. I would have thought one shouldn't think about opening a "serious non-fiction" take on the current crisis until one has read at least some Dostoyevsky, for example.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Or Little Dorrit. Very well put, Dan.

Delia Lloyd said...

Maybe I just read different things than Zoe Williams but I utterly disagree with her premise. In fact, her article irritated me so much that I was going to blog about it, but my blog has been infected by a virus so I'll just rant here.

Off the top of my head, I can think of three books I've read in the last few years that were all very political and relevant: The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht, Saturday by Ian McEwan and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I could add to that The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid and The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and - while I haven't read them yet - Netherland by Joseph P. O'Neill and The Submission by Amy Waldman.

So the whole premise of her article strikes me as rather absurd.

But thanks for posting this as when/as/if my blog comes back up I will no doubt have many more titles that come to mind!

Delia Lloyd

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks for that, Delia.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Of course she has learned more about 'real' issues from fiction - because it is fiction that allows us to empathise, by stepping into someone else's shoes for a few moments.
And doesn't 'the human condition' (drat the thing) encompass the environment in which the human finds itself? Including political environment, social environment, where said human sits in the development of humankind...and blah de blah de blah?
I do get twitchy when people tell me what novels ought to be doing. Its like telling my imagination what to imagine.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well put. V! Oh, and re telling our imaginations what to imagine: there's plenty of that going on, too, I believe!

nmj said...

Hey Eliz, I was half engaged and half irritated by Zoe's article, I get what she is saying, sometimes I too feel tired of fiction and want non-fiction, I do think that is an age thing, but then I start to crave fiction again.

I did leave a comment at her column, and wanted to add another, but it's now closed.
I wanted to add that in *writing* about 'serious' stuff, truth can come more easily as fiction, I know that from my own experience, writing about my (very misrepresented) chronic illness would have been harder as a factual book, and also less accessible to readers.

The other point I wanted to make is those who are daily facing grimness in their jobs, A&E doctors, social workers, fire services, the list is of course endless, perhaps enjoy/need a bit of escapism - in fiction - that isn't hitting them over the heads with reality.

A Guardian journalist facing middle-age and weltschmerz is kind of hard to take too seriously.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hi Nasim,

Yes, I can hardly think she really is being serious.

Re your point about entertainment and relaxation, that's the angle that Norm takes: