More On The Novel

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.




2 thoughts on “More On The Novel

  1. What does seem to be happening, particularly with historical fiction, is a convergence of the novel and the biography. I’ve recently been looking closely at both forms in relation to Shakespeare for my MA dissertation. I think some of the supporting material you refer to is in fact a response to the public demand for greater clarification of the boundaries between fact and fiction. One hundred years ago, sentimental anecdotes about Shakespeare’s childhood, with no historical veracity, were regularly inserted into apparently factual biographies. Now we are more likely to demand evidence in a work that purports to be non-fictional. As a response, writers who desire to recreate episodes in history imaginatively are drawn towards the novel.

    I, for one, welcome this greater clarity. I recently reviewed a novel about contemporary North Korea (The Orphan Master’s Son). A lengthy Afterward discussed the author’s painstaking and thorough research. I was therefore somewhat perturbed to find that some of the brainwashing techniques he described belong to the realm of science fiction. Although the book was clearly a novel, the supporting material had led me to believe it was an authentic depiction of conditions inside that unhappy country. I was left with the sense that a contract had been broken. A conversation between a fictional character and Kim Il Jung is clearly a work of fiction, but to discover that detail that is apparently authentic has in fact been invented casts doubt upon the whole enterprise. I like to know, more or less, what is real and what has been invented. In Victorian times, these issues would have arisen in relation to biographies rather than novels. Today, the reverse is generally the case.

    • a response to the public demand for greater clarification of the boundaries between fact and fiction.

      I’m not sure what I think about this: are readers really making this demand? After all, isn’t the very act of providing ‘support material’ to a work of fiction doing just the opposite – blurring the boundaries between historical source and literary fabulation? Likewise, in the case of Shakespeare, biographical fabrications are still ten-a-penny at places like the Birthplace Trust.

      I think your concept of the ‘contract’ lies at the heart of this discussion: when I read a novel, I don’t really expect it to be true in the sense of this actually happened; this could happen is a more interesting question to me, in literary or science fiction alike. The writer’s contract is therefore surely to convince the reader rather than evidence his fictions – and in this Johnson did a number on you! I’m not sure about quibbling over what parts of a fiction need to be ‘true’ necessarily helps us understand how fiction works, or should work.

      Thus my rejection of McCrum and, to a less extent, Mars-Jones: the novel for me seems at its brightest when its successfully blurring, rather than respecting the lines (indeed, that this enhances Defoe’s “lying like truth” rather than limiting it). And thus my trouble with Dickens: not that, a la Henry James, he is insufficiently realiistic; but that his unrealism is also unconvincing precisely because it is so insistent on its own veracity.

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