Thursday, August 22, 2013

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Novel as language

In today's Guardian Review Zadie Smith writes:
What's this novel [her latest, NW] about? My books don't seem to me to be about anything other than the people in them and the sentences used to construct them.
And my reaction is Exactly! That's exactly how I feel about my own work, and I bet loads of other writers feel this too. A novel (or a story) is a construct, a construct of language, and the literary novel is above all about language: it's perhaps the defining characteristic of the kind of fiction we call 'literary'. Characters are supreme constructs, manifest not only in the narration (language) that conjures them, but in their dialogue (language), which is where people most self-consciously, and on a day-to-day level, construct reality about the world and themselves. None of it's real, but, as Smith (a wizz at dialogue) indicates, what we're engaged in is nevertheless a search for reality, the reality of the world that language constructs.

Yet always we are asked the question, 'What is your novel about?' and we are always expected to come up with some more concrete answer than the above, to refer merely to the story, or a political or moral theme, as though these are the be-all and end-all of any piece of fiction, when in fact they are common currency, and could be replicated any number of times. The real, defining and unique aspect of any novel is the voice or voices. And yet we do, don't we, we answer in the way we're expected, like dogs on hind legs? It takes a particular level of fame and status to be able to answer as Smith has done (although I'm daring to agree with her here, and wait wincing for the chop), for most of us are in thrall to the marketing machine that grinds along on those clattery superficial and ever-replicable cogs. Answering in the way we are expected, we feel afterwards that we have sold our work short.

And does it affect how we write? As it happens for me, a couple of days ago someone writing a PhD contacted me about one of my very early stories, and commented that I was doing something unusual and interesting with language. I was flattered, but my blood ran cold. For I consciously stopped writing quite in the way I did then. Mostly I think it's a good thing, that my work became more accessible, but it did make me wonder: have I simply been deflected, possible wrongly, by a sense of what's no longer linguistically acceptable in a dumbed-down literary marketplace?