Wednesday, November 25, 2009

novel-nausea AND essay-ennui

Writing in the Guardian Zadie Smith speaks of her own novel-nausea, a recognisable imaginative writers block, in response to a polemic that has just come out in America asking that novels should be more full of the "real" and less of the made-up. A novelist who has been having a sabbatical reading other peoples' novels, and writing essays about them, Smith, as so often in her non-fiction is easy to both agree and disagree with. (A fine essayist, she's not one for inclusive conclusions.) As someone who has most recently had published three essays, two that are kind-of memoirs in Mostly Truthful, and one, an essay about the contemporary novelist's choices, in Horizon Review, perhaps I'm sharing some of that novel-nausea.

Yet it's actually an argument like this, as Smith indicates, which sends you back to the wonders (and truths) of imaginative fictions. Rather, she says, than a good novel being a predictable thing, it always surprises us, in a way that good non-fiction rarely does. But it is the word "good" that matters here, of course. Bad novels are everything that can give you novel-nausea. What she doesn't mention - and I'm not sure if the source book by David Shields (that will be the well known David Shields then?) mentions either - is the role of "style"; for it is surely style as much as plot or character that gives a fictional or imaginative work its enviable strangeness. David Foster Wallace, who, like Smith, I have alot of time for, writes memorably strange fiction and non-fiction; the latter, using the toolkit of the novelist, of the imaginist. In America the long essay flourishes in magazines, and, to a lesser degree, here as well, in "Prospect" and (most recently) Manchester's "Corridor8." These essays have made stars of Malcolm Gladwell, John Gray and other thinkers (or re-thinkers, I know their ideas are not uniquely theirs). In a world that craves certainty and explanation; yet at the same time asks for celebrity and opinion; the essayist probably has a stronger foothold than at any time since Matthew Arnold. Reading, as I did on my degree, his "Everlasting Yeah", or Ruskin or Mills, I couldn't help but think how much more fun it was to read George Eliot's fiction, hewn from the same raw materials, but fed through the intimately real characters of Dorothea Brooke or Daniel Deronda. It is Orwell's last 2 novel-polemics we read now, rather than "Under the Whale".

For the essay has its own achilles heel, its lack of imagination. Whereas the novel can smuggle in any kind of truth - even if the more it takes on journalism or the moral essay, the less successful it usually is - the essay can only use the tricks of the novelist, not the imaginative heft. Smith's listing of "perhaps 10 great novels a decade" seems about right, but that's her ten great novels, mine would be different, as would be yours; and it is their strangeness and their messiness that makes them great. For instance, the flaws that an unsympathetic reader might find in Barbara Kingsolver's highly politically charged tale of western malpractice in the Congo, "The Poisonwood Bible", are as nothing to it's many wonders.

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