Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Orthodox Marketing of Experimental Fiction

I've often wondered why literature hasn't learnt something from the success/hype of contemporary British art over the last decade or so. If there's not the equivalent of a literary unmade bed or pickled shark, perhaps there should have been. It's perhaps no surprise that its taken a writer steeped in artistic interventions, Tom McCarthy, to bring into the public eye the very idea of a British experimental writer. In her famous comparison of McCarthy and Joseph O'Neill, Zadie Smith posited these as two directions for the contemporary novel. (I didn't agree that these two novelists were actually doing so much that was different, simply approaching similar subjects in a different way.)

What has happened since, is that McCarthy's 3rd novel, "C", has been longlisted for the Booker even though it is only available to read from next week, and as a result, McCarthy is suddenly news, and his novel, and a discussion about it, are everywhere. Now signed to a "major" rather than tiny Alma Books (it appears that his second novel "Men in Space" may have been one he had prepared earlier), a very orthodox marketing campaign seems to have replaced any "guerilla" appeal to the blogosphere.

Amazingly it's 2 and a half years since I reviewed his debut "Remainder". I recognised it's European debt, calling his writing "taut, and unshowy", and that his response to our current "unknowable" world was one of "fascinated ennui." Its certainly not a realist novel, yet it inhabits a world that is more geographically accurate than, say, the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro.

My sense for "Remainder", and from much of the blogosphere interest in it, and McCarthy, was because it fitted a certain aesthetic drawn from writers such as Beckett, and which, to be fair, has been somewhat absent from British fiction for a while. (Though, I use the term British warily - surely readers of Kelman, Gray, Warner and even Welsh might baulk at being drawn in to that world.)

Last week we had a fascinating piece by McCarthy sketching the development of his new novel in the context of technological and artistic developments almost a century ago. Its a fascinating, if selective article, as it wasn't just the modernists, but late Victorians such as William Morris, and Edwardians like H.G. Wells who were most interested in how the technological age was changing both the world, and art. The Futurism exhibition at Tate Modern recently highlighted the electric charge of that period, yet like the imagists, the Futurists, didn't necessarily produce first rate art, for all their fascination with the electric light and the mechanical engine. Where McCarthy's piece is at its most interesting is where he talks about how a "technologically savvy sensibility might see (literature) completely differently: as a set of transmissions," - rather than as a work of self-expression. This is fascinating, and is also quite a subtle position, for it unhooks his work from modernism (which was nothing if it wasn't self-expression), and places it elsewhere. Where that "elsewhere" may be might be problematic. I already see literature absent from discussions of digital technology, arts, culture - even politics - and have a suspicion its to do with language. A poetic or descriptive language doesn't survive long in a technocracy.

In interview with McCarthy in the Observer today, is well worth reading as it reinforces the subtlety of his position. McCarthy gives good quote, but also he's unafraid to talk about his intellectual (re)sources. "The avant garde can't be ignored, so to ignore it – as most humanist British novelists do – is the equivalent of ignoring Darwin" says McCarthy, and it succinctly puts a point that I've often made about the head-in-the-sand quality of much English fiction (and poetry). Like all good writers, McCarthy is careful to map out his own canon - for him its Tristram Shandy and Cervantes as well as the modernists. It can be argued that a canon that doesn't include George Eliot, E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence isn't one that I'd subscribe to, (and I have no idea whether these are writers he would in/exclude), but I'm glad the argument is being had at all. (Just as Leavis was perfectly at liberty to leave Sterne out of his "Great Tradition.") At times like this you wonder if this is the critical-theory wars all over again...yet refreshingly, we now have writers like McCarthy, China Mieville, Alan Warner and others who have read theory, who have read philosophy.

Accompanying the McCarthy piece, William Skidelsky writes briefly about what this means for "experimental fiction?" Without having read the unpublished "C" its hard to know whether the book will fit into any such description. Tellingly he says that David Mitchell is "hardly an avant garde figure", though I'd say, and have said they are steeped in the tropes of post-modernism as McCarthy, to say the least. Mitchell, of course, has no aspirations to be a counter-culture figure. I think the problem is that the avant garde as it was defined in the post-war years is in itself a genre with its own orthodoxies. Are books like Sylvia Smith's "Misadventures", Graham Rawle's "Woman's World" or Magnus Mills "Three to See the King" "avant garde" novels for instance? What about Adam Thirlwell's recent "Miss Herbert"? Are is the term only to be used for counter-culture writers like Stewart Home?

The cross-genre book (whether its "Me Cheeta", "Elizabeth Costello" or "Schindler's Ark") has been a staple of publishing over the last two decades, whilst we've also had novels in verse, novels in email et al. The "novelty" is alive and well and probably living in a bestselling novel near you. Off-the-wall fantasias like "Pig Tales" or "Atomised" remain rare in British fiction however.

Reviews of "C" indicate it is a very different beast to the intricate but page-turning "Remainder" and as a reader with a facination for the years immediately before and after the Great War, I'm sure I'll find much of interest in it. Whether it's as modern and as innovative as Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier" (the first chapter of which appeared in Wyndham Lewis's "Blast") will be an interesting test of what those words actually mean.

(*Addendum: I've just read a chapter of "C" which was in last month's Granta Magazine, after having written this piece, and the chapter reminded me massively of "The Good Soldier" - with its sanatarium setting. Looking forward to the book immensely after reading this extract.)

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