There is a fantastic essay over at the New Yorker called “An Answer to the Novel’s Detractors.” It’s a sort of rebuttal to the many recent writers who appear to have grown exhausted/exasperated with conventional fiction, a group that includes a couple of writers I admire greatly, Sheila Heti and Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Waldman’s essay takes issue with David Shields’ book Reality Hunger, which I admit I have not read. Her essay is by no means a polemic, or even a severe critique; it could be read, in some respects, as a call-to-arms for novelists to recognize the particular attributes that makes novels unique, and to deploy them skillfully, and to not lean on the many tired devices that can make narrative seem manipulative. (She is in agreement with Shields’ list of these tired devices, coincidence, eavesdropping, melodramatic reversals, kindly benefactors, cruel wills, to which Waldman adds “the revelation of long-buried family secrets”).
I really liked the way she set up her essay, suggesting a few ways in which contemporary fiction might be in trouble:
The novel form isn’t the reason so much contemporary fiction seems uninspired; for that, we’d do better to consider other causes, of which there are plenty: an emphasis on documenting social conditions and modernity over the study of individual characters, a post-Freudian tendency to lean on secondhand psychoanalytic ideas as a cover for incomprehension or shallowness, a corrosive commitment to niceness at the expense of the kind of social and moral judgments that used to be at the novel’s center, MFA programs, to name just a few possibilities.
I admit I got a quiet thrill out of reading “corrosive commitment to niceness.” There’s an awful lot of this lately. I don’t know so much about the USA (Waldman’s home is Brooklyn) but in Canada the idea is endemic that books have to be good for us, have to grapple with social problems, build bridges between communities, etc. I’ve often believed that Canada would be about the worst place to be a talented reactionary fiction writer, and yet we must concede that such a writer might be pretty worthwhile reading, not exclusively because he or she would most certainly trouble the rather milquetoast consensus that’s emerged among our nation’s liberal left-leaning taste-makers. (I say this as an unreformed leftie!)
Waldman also shows why good narrative is typically not ideological, and shouldn’t comfort us or confirm our worldviews, but rather, “baffle” us:
The novel’s tendency to work against generalization is not limited to political or social biases. When novel characters sound like mouthpieces for the author’s overarching theories about human motivation or psychology, even the least sophisticated readers recognize this intuitively as bad. And so novels don’t usually offer up simple theories about human nature—for those, one must look to self-help books. In this sense, good fiction doesn’t tend to console but rather to complicate, to baffle our desire for easy explanation, to give us not what we want but what we suspect is more meaningful, more akin to the complexity we encounter in life.
Since 2014 is wrapping up, I thought I’d look back on some of the books I read this year that truly stuck with me. One of them is Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. It was such a refreshing and original journey into the male psyche.
Some more highlights from 2014:
Woodcutters, Thomas Bernhard. My first Bernhard experience most certainly won’t be the last. The Austrian misanthrope’s 1985 novel is cruel, hilarious, and unexpectedly life affirming at the end.
The Freedom in American Songs. Kathleen Winter is one of my favourite short story writers since I discovered (very belatedly) Mavis Gallant. I haven’t even started on her novels or memoirs yet! Lots to look forward to.
How Should a Person Be, Sheila Heti. I read this for a second time and was just as impressed as the first time. There’s no plot, nor does there need to be. Just an examination of some of the most important questions of our times!
My Struggle, Book 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard. I now believe the hype!
Brighton Rock, Graham Greene. While promoting my own book in Edmonton, I publicly disclosed on the radio that I had never read Graham Greene. Embarrassing. Ran out, bought this, remedied my shortcoming. This is a mean, bleak book. I was hooked.
A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov. Just brilliant. I raved about it here.
Some Extremely Boring Drives, Marguerite Pigeon. Fellow NeWest’er.
Here are the books I am reading next:
On Beauty, Zadie Smith (currently reading)
North East, Wendy McGrath
Boundless, Kathleen Winter
In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje
10:04, Ben Lerner
419, Will Ferguson
My Struggle, Book 2, Karl Ove Knausgaard
Us Conductors, Sean Michaels
It’ll be a good finish to 2014, a strong start to 2015, hopefully!