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.'
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