Monday, July 29, 2013

My Struggles With Realism

Over a period of around ten years, from about 1995-2005, give or take six months, I wrote six very different novels and a novella. (Not that the novels were all that long, but the novella clocked in at less than thirty thousand words.) In one sense my writing hurtled back and forth between genres and styles and between the comic and serious, and had this motley collection of books found publishers (I came close), then who knows whether I would have still have written in such a variety.

Since then I've struggled a bit to write a longer piece of fiction, caught, I think, a little between the need to tell  a story and the desire to write something good. Rather than gain confidence over time, I feel I've lost some. It makes me think that all writing is hard won, at the end of the day.

Yet for all my "variety" of tone and style, I think that fiction is essentially a struggle with realism; and increasingly I begin to think that the nature of that struggle is actually more meaningful than any split between the experimental and the naturalistic, or between the commercial and the literary. There's a default setting, it seems, in contemporary fiction (but perhaps going back further), that is very recognisable in its tropes. In the 80s and 90s, there was some talk about a "return to the Victorian novel." This mostly meant the "realist" novel or even the "socio-realist" novel; yet as time winnows the field, and the canon of books we remember from fifties, sixties and seventies becomes smaller, I wonder if the key "struggle" in literature is not between the modernist and the realist, or the linear novel and the postmodern, or even between the storyteller and the existentialist, but between those writers who acknowledge their struggle in their work and those that don't.

For all novels are untruths attempting to tell a truth in some ways. They are "fictions", "constructs", and yet want us to believe in them. The fantasias of Tolkein or Rowling, even of Mieville and Asimov, are rooted in our realities: they have to be in some ways, to engage us however alien their settings are. Our default setting is a somewhat dreary realism, which is why the books that began as cults, but remain popular, "Catcher in the Rye", "1984", "The Naked Lunch", "A Clockwork Orange" remain with us.

Going back to when Zadie Smith compared Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" with Tom McCarthy's "Remainder" as different paths for the modern novelist, the difference, now I think about it, is to some degree one of the admittance of artifice. "Netherland" purports to tell a real story, McCarthy's novel, though it plays it deadpan, never does. Yet its something that we see in Smith's latest, "NW", where the most realist parts of the novel are shown in a kind of snippet-shorthand, whereas the one truly imagined story is given a straight treatment. It is all artifice and yet we are trying to make the reader believe in this world, these characters. We struggle with this - so its not surprising that the default setting is to just set things down. In this sense its possible to believe that the possibilities of the novel have all been done, are so limited that all we can do is just tell the story straight, even when its the Russian doll-like stories of "Cloud Atlas" or the chopped up narrative of "A Visit from the Goon Squad." Inventive novelists like Mitchell and Egan are enjoying the struggle; but lets not kid ourselves, the stories included here are realistic vignettes.

There was a time when writers were more explicit about what they were doing  though sometimes this comes down to the admittance that this is a "writer" doing it, rather than a story being told. In Roth's "The Ghost Writer" we are in no doubt that we are reading a contrivance, yet by "American Pastoral", an unbelievable story is told with the straight-up panache of the on-the-scene reporter. Roth hadn't abandoned the artifice, the later novel just required readerly connivance. In "The Ghost Writer" he's playing with us, as Amis is in "London Fields," Fowles in "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and Ellis in "Lunar Park." Plonking the writer in the very text is less, I think now, a postmodern trope, as an admittance - maybe a baton passed down writer to writer - that they are at least engaged with the struggle with realism. At its most explicit, we get B.S. Johnson telling us the whole novel is bullshit; at its most ironic, Salinger's Holden Caulfield giving the game away by not wanting to tell us any of that David Copperfield crap.

So, here we go, making something up that is very like life, and we want it to tell a truth; and because we've moved into prose, rather than poetry, where the artifice is less on the page, we either have to go the whole hog and say, "this is the saddest story" (but its still a story) or find another way round the struggle. Because, whether we ignore the description of the street down which our character walks, or make the description of the street the most important bit, we are engaging in that struggle. Contemporary fictions like "Remainder", like Lee Rourke's "The Canal", like Nicola Barker's "Clear", are explicit about the place they are writing of: name, postcode even. Zadie Smith's London is the same; yet its her most realist novel, "On Beauty" that she actually pretends the more: I'm not sure these places are real, even as she apes the pseudonymous sense of place of "Howard's End". In "NW" you are expected to take the same amount of time to walk from A to explicit B as her named character. Sometimes the struggle with realism is to given in to it, and play around with something else: with form, with y, with structure.

A Joycean will rejoice in the mapping of time and place so exactly in "Ulysses" and we've been a bit spoilt I think by these modernist titans - who had a slightly different battle: to tell a truth rather than fictionalise the truth. Its why contemporary writers seem drawn to Proust or Joyce when they can't write half as well as them; there's something about such comprehensive "telling" that seems to have the whiff of truth - of a struggle won. Was Fitzgerald's allegorical take on the Jazz Age in "The Great Gatsby" so unsuccessful at the time because it was winning that struggle with realism - for we now see that period through Gatsby, through Fitzgerald's prose (and the prose becomes the main tool the best writers have, for telling this story anew).

So I'm trying to write something new; and to come to terms with the five or six or seven novels I've written previously, and think that maybe they were just too explicitly "turns" trying to be unified in their take on reality and I should loosen up more, admit I'm making it up, or pretend its all true, whatever works best. Its about learning that what is real in fiction is not mere ventroliquism; though ventriliquism (say, "Wolf Hall") can be seductive at its best. If contemporary poetry sometimes tears itself apart with the need to find a new way of writing about feeling (or honesty, or the self, or any of those interior things that poetry is mostly struggling to describe) then fiction has the same battles with the realistic. A Foster Wallace (or a Brett Easton Ellis or even a Tao Lin) may go down the symbolic or the ironic or the plain clever route, but they're still at heart, describing a thing in all its thinginess; whilst Frantzen may pretend that he's nailed realism with his unspun sentences; yet I'm beginning to think that there's not so much difference. There's good and bad of course, and there's the level of engagement; but the novel's an infinitely simple thing. We should perhaps not expect to rewrite the very rules of it this late in the day; at least not when we're all trying to do the same thing.


Tim Love said...

I think I've asked before, but have you read "Reality Hunger" by David Shields? He begins with "Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art" - see my write-up for more quotes.

I don't mind seeing the Artifice (in poetry, people sometimes say that forms/rhymes shouldn't be too obvious. That's perhaps sensible advice for beginners, but that's as far as it goes).

Adrian Slatcher said...

Just the highlights not the book - and it was on my mind, but was thinking about fiction here, and the false distinctions we make between different types (as with music, its all closer than we like to think) - how practitioners are often doing similar things. maybe its publishers and readers who do the categorising of books, not writers.

Jim Murdoch said...

When writers are asked to give advice to newbies the first thing they tell them to do is read, read and then read some more. I’m not necessarily opposed to that advice—it’s certainly not bad advice—but I also think that reading too much can be as unhelpful as not reading enough. When I wrote my first three novels I couldn’t have told you what the difference between modernism and postmodernism is and even now there’s a part of me that can’t be arsed remembering it because I don’t want to be influenced by it overly much. You seem much like me when it comes to your novels—I’ve written five and a novella—and I get some comfort from the fact there might be someone out there a little like me. I’ve never set out to write any kind of novel just like I’ve never set out to write any kind of poem. The form appears naturally in the writing; I’m certainly no plotter. My novel Left is actually a mystery novel. It’s like no mystery novel you’ve ever read because we never get to know the truth. We only get to know what might’ve happened, what the truth might’ve been and that’s fine by me. That’s realistic. Most of the time we never do get neat endings. It’s like Grant Morrison said in Animal Man #26: “Life doesn't have plots and subplots and dénouements. It's just a big collection of loose ends and dangling threads that never get explained.” That’s the kind of stuff I like reading. People comfort themselves with what might’ve happened: “I suppose he was a good man at heart. I suppose he meant well.”

There’s nothing new under the sun. We’ve had silent music and empty books and blank paintings. It’s all been done. I do what I need to do. Once I’ve written something it has entered my reality; it has become real. Catcher in the Rye is real to me; it contributed to me becoming the man I am today. I have no idea what my next book will be other than necessary. It’ll be something I have to write. I may never write another one. I’m surprised I found that much to say to fill the six books I have written. I thought every one would be my last. I spent two years working on (or, to be honest, thinking about working on) a novel called A Well-Crafted Novel (after Schopenhauer) but gave up on it and only once I’d given up—and admitted to myself that I’d given up—did I get the idea for the novella and in five weeks it was written. Scary quick.

Part of my problem was the Internet. It’s hard not to talk about yourself online and I felt the pressure to answer the questions: What’re you working on now? I felt I ought to be working on something and so I forced myself to. I started writing the book I thought I ought to be writing and not the book that needed to be written. I didn’t give myself time to be bored enough so that I could see what that need was. Just because a writer can write doesn’t mean he ought to. It’s not writer’s block if you have nothing to say. It’s just not time to put pen to paper.

Not sure how much this has to do with your post but clearly this is what I needed to write.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Yes, Jim, similar to myself; I do like a bit of variety in music, in fiction, in poetry, but I tend to see the similarities between my work rather than the differences. My post above was really saying that I'm trying to do the same things always - rendering reality if you like - but trying different ways. As time goes by my work flattens out I think, rather than peaks and troughs in particular directions. And as you say sometimes the idea suggests the form etc. The novella I wrote, which was my last concentrated piece of fiction, came as a first line, and a clear view of its (3 act) structure, and then I wrote it. Hard to keep that original thought in the head when you're embroiled in the book - but hope not to stray too far from it.