Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Fiction as Thesis

I like the way The Guardian gives the right of reply to (admittedly selected) artists criticized in its pages, and today I'm particularly taken by Anthony Neilson's reply to Michael Billington's critique of his new play Relocated (Jerwood Theatre Upstairs). I don't know the play, and I tend to admire the thoughtfulness of Billington's writing and his commitment to championing political writing, but Neilson says something which strikes a deep chord with me, and which I believe also has implications for the ways in which we read prose fiction.

Billington complains about the 'general thesis' of the play, thus, says Neilson, not only misunderstanding the nature of his play but revealing an acceptance of the kind of play - the 'play-as-thesis' - which Neilson goes on to condemn:
This is the great danger of the play-as-thesis. It assumes that the play is an expression of the playwright's character. And, since playwrights desire approval as much as the next person, it leads to dishonest and complacent work. A play should reflect life as the playwright sees it - not as they, or anyone else, wishes it to be. If one sees a world in which there are no permanent truths, it is dishonest to fabricate them for the sake of approbation. Worse, it is a dereliction of duty. A play-as-thesis is by nature reductive, an attempt to bring order to the unruliness of existence. But bringing order is the business of the state, not the artist.
Interestingly, a Guardian book blog yesterday by Sam Jordison echoes something of these sentiments in relation to JM Coetzee's Disgrace in particular (which he finds too much a novel-as-thesis) and Booker winners in general.

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