Despite my thoughts on Dickens-as-novelist yesterday, I try to avoid deciding what a novel should be – its singular benefit over other forms is, after all, surely its expansiveness. But my sense that Dickens’s didacticism is somehow at odds with what I understand to be the open-heartedness of the novel form was in part inspired as a response to two recent attempts to close down precisely that heterodoxy. Here’s Robert McCrum in the Guardian:
Once upon a time, when the novel was young and self-confident, inventiveness was its raison d’etre. Telling a story was all it had to do and it celebrated being made up or, as Daniel Defoe put it, “lying like truth”.
Not any more. Not only has it lost its mojo, it often seems to want to be something else – a travelogue, perhaps, or a psycho-history or (ghastly term) a “meditation” on who knows what.
Rather oddly, McCrum’s example of this retreat from the form is the choice of Andrew Miller to point out, in his Costa-winning novel Pure (which I have no read), that, “This is a work of imagination,” begins the author’s note at the back, “a work that combines the actual with the invented.” McCrum complains that this is “queasy self-justification” in the face of brave early innovators of the novel. Yet Robinson Crusoe, as Katherine Frank has most recently shown, is intensely related to the hugely popular genre of the ‘true life’ shipwreck stories doing the rounds in early Hanoverian London. McCrum makes much of the necessary “transcendence” of the novel, but its great strength has been its endlessly recursive relationship with the realities the literate public – let us eschew that pejorative, ‘bourgeois’ – imagine for ourselves.
This might be where we take up Dickens again, but instead I’d direct you to Jeanette Winterson, or at least to an uneasily affectionate evisceration of her latest book in the latest LRB. “Winterson’s new memor, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, revists the material of the first novel [Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit],” writes Adam Mars-Jones, “[… but] there’s a frequent effect of slippage, a grinding of gears between memoir and newspaper column, that secular sermonette.” I’ve collapsed almost a whole column into that linking ellipsis to emphasise a slippage of Mars-Jones’s: he can’t seem to decide to which genre the book under review belongs. Is it a memoir or a sequel novel to the “first” one? This is actually part of his criticism of it – “The tone of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is highly unsettled” – but, again having yet to read the work, I can’t help but wonder if that is the point:
No one reading such a passage could reasonably expect transcribed memory. It could only ever be fabulation – if this was a true-crime programme it would have the word RECONSTRUCTION at the bottom of the TV screen. But there’s so much adrift here, so much that is actively unreal, impossible to take seriously. It’s not just unreliable but ostentatiously unreliable.
This seems to me to approach McCrum’s diagnosis of the novel’s ills: it is too diffuse, too interested in muddying the lines between fiction and fact. Is this multivalency really a sign of the death of the form, or the failure of a book, however? In its multiple perspectives or contradiction of character, its heterodox apeing, cuckoo-like, of other written forms, the novel is of course in rather ruder health than restrictive diagnoses might allow. Distrust, dear reader, a systematiser.