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There’s an interesting (and fairly scathing) review over here of a new book called Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. The author of this new book talks about the alleged irrelevance of the contemporary novel. I suppose saying this raises the ire of the novel’s defenders, kicks up controversy, hence publicity, hence more sales or Web hits, hence, mission accomplished… If that’s not being too cynical about the whole thing.
Is the novel at death’s door? Some art forms have died over the years; as the Salon article points out, hardly anyone reads or writes epic poems anymore. The radio play has almost entirely gone the way of the dodo. I don’t know why the former died; maybe it’s something to do with the decline of the oral tradition. The latter almost certainly died because of television.
It wouldn’t be unprecedented for a once-mighty medium to go down.
Fortunately, with enemies of the contemporary novel such as this, those of us who are deep friends of the ongoing medium can breathe a little easier. In Reality Hunger, according to Salon, the author: “keep[s] dodging and feinting in celebrating the irrelevance of originality or the supremacy of the documentary mode.”
It sounds like the disdain for the novel rests on some pretty flimsy argumentation. (And as an aside, I shout point out that Reality Hunger‘s author discards the merits of Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections without even reading it. Well done! To slightly even the score, I won’t read his book either, especially since, well, as the reviewer points out, he was actually too lazy to write it all himself.)
So, back to the irrelevance of originality… The assertion is a familiar one. A year ago, when the documentary film RiP! came out, the central argument seemed to be that almost no idea – artistic, scientific, technological – was entirely original, hence the most important aspect of an idea was its utility to the people. So you should liberate art from outdated notions about copyright — the idea that an author, musician, filmmaker etc. could “own” the ideas in his or her own artwork and then profit from them — because freedom from copyright increases the number of people being exposed to any given artistic artifact.
Which is an argument I only partly agree with.
But a problem arises with the concept of originality. What exactly does it mean to create new art only by pasting together pieces of old art? The Salon review of Reality Hunger briefly cites Dogme 95, the Danish proclamation for a return to basics in filmmaking. Dogme 95 is worth pondering, because the rules of the manifesto certainly encouraged Dogme filmmakers to be a little more original. Dogme 95 wanted to get back to essentials like plot and character. It had a purifying effect; watch the first Dogme film, Festen, and point to single Hollywood film that can rival it for sheer depth of story and character. It’s unflinching in its focus.
So to return one last time to the Reality Hunger, apparently, quite in opposition to the genuinely subversive manifesto of Dogme, this latter-day “manifesto” apparently cobbles together its argument using, for the most part, other people’s words.
The book’s format only accentuates this slipperiness: It contains a lot of passages cut and pasted from the work of other writers and artists. This technique, which Shields calls “literary mosaic,” is meant to imitate hip-hop sampling and other kinds of musical appropriation. In the book’s final pages, he explains that initially he didn’t even want to identify the sources of these quotes, but “Random House lawyers” talked him into naming them in the endnotes. (Salon)
Personally, I think if art, and especially narrative art, becomes too self-referential, allusive, or too preoccupied with the flash of the surface, it simply succumbs to the governing logic of the society of the spectacle, since everything becomes a representation of a previously-represented iteration of our existing power dynamics. Whereas if you try really hard to get outside previous representations of reality, which obviously is not entirely possible – but if you try – and by this I mean, genuinely attempt to engage with reality directly; i.e. you visit Gaza instead of relying on the mediated account of events there, then your understanding of reality is enhanced and deepened and you up your chances of making an artistic representation of reality that is more truthful, meaningful, and original.
Here’s a great article about a great novelist, Michel Houellebecq, who is celebrated in Europe for being about as truthful, meaningful and original as any writer can be. Here’s a morsel:
…the best reason to read Houellebecq, the one I would give if I were asked, anyway, is that his work produces the scandalously rare impression of being relevant, of connecting to how life is, rather than how it might be if there were more adventures.
Along with Franzen, oh and probably hundreds more besides, here’s a living, breathing novelist. A relevant novelist. Some might say, an original one.
Long live the novel!