Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sex, booze, joy, and the modern novel

Perhaps because it's summer, critics are talking about joys of the body as it relates to writers and writing. They sound rather wistful.

We'll start with an essay by Geoff Nicholson in the New York Times about writing and drinking.

There are only two cocktails: “a slug of whiskey” and a martini. This isn’t my opinion, but the law as laid down by Bernard DeVoto in his book "The Hour" first published in 1948 and recently reissued.
I find myself wondering why on earth writers would bother setting down rules for other people’s drinking. People telling you how to drink is every bit as tedious and annoying as people telling you not to drink at all.
When you think about it, rules for drinking are not so different from rules for writing. Many of these are so familiar they’ve become truisms: Write what you know. Write every day. Never use a strange, fancy word when a simple one will do. Always finish the day’s writing when you could still do more. With a little adaptation these rules apply just as well for drinking. Drink what you know, drink regularly rather than in binges, avoid needlessly exotic booze, and leave the table while you can still stand.

In the Observer, Tim Adams mourns the lack of imagination regarding fictional depictions of sex:

DH Lawrence probably did not have Mr East's oeuvre in mind when he offered this maxim to aspiring writers: "Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you have got to say and say it hot." But it seems saying it hot is no longer the cool thing to do.

I've talked about the fashion for bad/boring/self-conscious sex in fiction quite recently so I won't subject you to it again. (Tempting though it is to repeat that rant.)

Over at the Telegraph, Harry Mount and Michael Deacon, try to figure out what's gone wrong with the modern novel:

You can read a lot of novels nowadays that are perfectly good – there's nothing particularly wrong with them. But there's also nothing particularly right with them, either. Their writers think it's enough to take a character from the sitting room to, say, the kitchen, describe their movements, and leave it at that. None of those sad, funny, interesting etc. elements required.

Their conclusion: joylessness. What I want to know is: why has this taken so long for them to figure out? Most of us have known for at least a decade. In fact, I did a whole Guest of Honour speech about it at the 2001 Celebration of SF at Liverpool University.

The whole rant (genteel rant, fitting the circumstances, but a rant, nonetheless) was triggered by a publisher turning down one of my novels because it was too much fun, and therefore not serious enough for Real Literature.

Ah, what the hell, I'm just going to paste the entire thing in here. If you've read it before, skip it. If you haven't, enjoy.

Beauty and Brilliance and Risk

A couple of times in the last few months I've seen myself described in print as a British writer. Each time, it startles me. I don't know why, exactly, because I don't think of myself as American--I'm English, born and bred, still a citizen, still with at least the remnants of a Yorkshire accent--but it does. Perhaps it's less to do with the nationality than with the writer part of the description: I haven't had anything published in this country for six years. In fact I got the most amazing rejection letter the other day from an editor at a reputable London literary house. She was turning down my latest novel, Stay, on the grounds that it wasn't literary fiction because, and I quote, "while reading, more often than not, I felt completely caught up in the suspense of the novel." She then went on to say that she wouldn't be able to market it as suspense because the plot lacked murders, car chases, and even identifiable bad guys. In other words, it's not a suspense novel. But she couldn't position it as a literary novel because she had a great time reading it.

This attitude, of course, is not peculiar to the English. When I was trolling for blurbs for The Blue Place in the US I talked to a literary author known for her southern novels who said she loved the book but wouldn't give me a quote. "Why?" I asked. "Because it's obvious you're having too much fun," she said. "I wouldn't want to encourage that. You shouldn't be wasting your talent. You should be writing more serious fiction."

So my question is: how did the definition of literature become so narrow that we aren't allowed to have fun? When and why did it become passé to actually enjoy reading or writing a novel?

A few years ago, the New York Review of Books announced, with great fanfare, the death of fiction. Fiction, they said, could not provide the proper moral or intellectual seriousness of non-fiction. Fiction was mere make believe. Let the masses indulge in escapism if necessary, but the movers and shakers of the world should not pollute their intellect with such frippery. Now what surprised me about all this was how much it seemed to surprise others. To anyone who has ever paid attention to the treatment of science fiction it seemed obvious that this was inevitable, the end result of the process of privileging reality over imagination which began long ago.

The urge to divide the world between the good (us, familiar), and the bad (them, unfamiliar) is a very human trait. We do it with everything. In the story I tell myself about this process as it applies to literary criticism (and, as John Clute reminded us yesterday in the opening plenary, those of us who aren't academics are absurdly free to make up what we want without having to provide footnotes), I like to pretend that critics first began dividing writing into Good and Bad based on the quality of the prose. (Why? No other reason than that it comforts me to believe that once, in some dim distant golden age, good writing mattered.) So we began with the Good box and the Bad box, based on prose quality but, human being what they are, that left far too many books in the Good box. So the critics added a second Bad box to the first, and in this one they tossed anything containing people, places, or experiences that those doing the judging could not possibly become familiar with through experience: fantastical animals or places or human powers. In other words, all science fiction and fantasy. Once a process has begun, it's pretty hard to stop it, and to the first two boxes was added a third, this time for fiction that was merely unlikely to be or become familiar. We're talking here of war, survival, heroism and wickedness, exotic locations and extraordinary events, plus the kind of characters the average white, upperclass urban literary critic was unlikely to encounter in every day life. This meant that the third box got filled with historical fiction, crime fiction, westerns, plus stories about people of colour or lesbians or stupid people or prostitutes or whatever. It wouldn't matter how well-written any of this stuff in the Bad boxes was--how finely the characters were delineated, how brilliantly the narrative constructed or the themes developed--it wouldn't be familiar, it wouldn't match the critics' reality, and so it wouldn't be Good. This winnowing continued until all that was left were novels about the probable and the everyday: mostly straight, mostly white upperclass urban people in unexciting situations and boring places. In this way, what became classified as good literature is claustrophobic fiction that is afraid to leave the apartment and walk around in the big wide world, afraid to leave its familiar world and be vulnerable. This is fiction that eshews plot, because it wouldn't want to risk some critic saying that it was even slightly unlikely, because that could be construed as melodrama. The hipper you want your literary novel to be, the less personal struggle the better, and the less big emotion, because if you get it even slightly wrong some critic will call you naive or sentimental. In fact, if any character feels anything at all it's probably safer to tip the reader an ironic wink; after all, you wouldn't want them to think you actually believe this stuff.

So literary fiction cowers behind its urban irony, growing smaller and smaller--so small that it's not surprising that some idiot in New York can't see the point of it. There is no point in this kind of fiction. But to go from saying there's no point in this kind of fiction to declaring all fiction dead is not only laughable but very possibly dangerous.

Fiction--storytelling--helps to make sense of the world and our place in it. You could say that without story there is no discourse: discourse is the story we tell ourselves and each other. In a very real sense, story creates the world. If we look only at science fiction, we see that stories about cloning and artificial intelligence, information and communication technology, the environment, cyborgs and virtual reality have helped shape the last fifty years of western culture. They have even changed the way we see humanity itself, introducing the notion that the nature of body and mind are mutable, no longer fixed. That's a gob-smackingly big thing.

So when someone tells me fiction is frivolous, I get pissed off. When someone tells me science fiction is bad therefore they never read it--but, hey, they did read Slow River and enjoy it, therefore Slow River must be good, therefore it can't be SF--I get pissed off. When someone tells me that my novel--although supposedly beautifully written, quite moving, and about real life issues such as grief and identity--isn't literature because it's suspenseful and (I quote again) "a phenomenal read," I get really pissed off.

I try write the kind of thing I like to read, and Federico Garcia Lorca summed that up neatly when he said, "Senze duende, nada." As Ursula Le Guin has pointed out, duende is a difficult word to translate. It means something like passion, or heart, or courage, or risk. Without passion, nothing. Without risk, nothing. I like fiction that isn't afraid to put on its party dress and go out there and dance, that isn't afraid of looking foolish or trying something new. When I say new here I'm not talking novelty for its own sake--writing an entire novel from the second person viewpoint of, oh, a three-tined dinner fork or something--and I'm not saying the plot has to be stunningly original (how many original plots are there?). I'm talking about taking some risk with the story, finding a way--using whatever it takes, any tool from any genre--to make that story believable.

I find a lot of fiction unbelievable, genre and otherwise. To use SF examples, generally what I find hard to swallow isn't the genre-specific convention designed as a short-cut to the meat of the matter--the interstellar hyperdrive, the artificial intelligence, the time machine (although it's always nice when the author at least takes a stab at an explanation)--it's the other shortcuts: the assumptions left unexamined, the plug-in characters or backgrounds, the thoughtless acceptance of stereotypes.

Every culture has its own set of cultural stereotypes and cliché, its master stories: the rich are more important, domestic animals feel no pain, progress is inevitable, whatever. A storyteller has to be alert to these because--if you accept the idea that story creates the world--every time a cliché is reiterated it is reinforced, and that simplifies the world, it reduces it. And it's easy enough to avoid: you just have to do the work. If a writer takes the time to really look at a cliché--a character, a situation, a culture--to examine it with a clear eye and strong prose, then the cliché melts, because the reader sees individual people in specific situations. (Perhaps this, amongst other things, is part of what Jenny Wolmark was getting at this afternoon in her paper on the pleasures and otherwise of being posthuman. When writers are specific, they free themselves to go more places, and more believably.) We understand that this is happening to them for particular reasons; that a different choice, or different circumstance would have led to a different outcome. In other words, exposing the cliché, writing it out, renders it powerless because we see there are other ways of being, that there are alternatives.

What's interesting to me is that often the stories and phrasing that seem so tired and cliched today are the ones that changed the discourse of yesterday--because their innovation became the new cliché. Take Sappho as an example: she was the first writer (at least to my knowledge) to talk about the moon in terms of being silver. She was one of the first to talk about love and desire in terms of the dry mouth and pounding heart. Shakespeare spoke of death as sleep, jealousy as a green-eyed monster. All stock phrases now. The work of Russ and Le Guin--particularly "When it Changed" and "The Left Hand of Darkness"--influenced the discourse of gender, yet when we read the Le Guin novel today, we roll our eyes at the idea that using the masculine pronoun won't influence the reader's perception of gender.

I want to talk about the Russ story in a bit more detail.

A couple of years ago I wrote an essay which included some thoughts on "When it Changed." My complaint in the essay was that Russ, while dangling before us a gleaming vision of women as autonomous, whole human beings, actually fails to take a more important imaginative leap. The way I saw it, when the men return to Whileaway after a nine hundred year absence, Janet, instead of feeling like a second class citizen in their presence, should feel superior. After all, they don't speak her language, they don't understand her culture, how Whileawayans have children, and they look "like apes with human faces." It seemed to me as though Russ was reinforcing a particularly dangerous cliché, the one that goes, "Hey, women only have what they have because men let them, and the men can come along and take it away any time they like." It seemed to me that she had thrown away a golden opportunity to show how generations of freedom from prejudice might change a woman's psychological response to a man, that she should have pointed out that only someone who has grown up in a sexist society would be preprogrammed for such otherwise inexplicable, instant feelings of inferiority.

When I wrote that essay a couple of years ago, then, I was remembering reading the novella for the first time fifteen or twenty years before. What I remember of that first reading was an intense sense of anger and betrayal: the feeling that Russ had held out this delicious vision but, when I reached for it, she snatched it back, threw it to the ground, and trampled on it. Recently, though, it occurred to me that one of the reasons I was able to be angry with Russ twenty years ago, that I was able to see her work as a failure of imagination, was because of the way this novella--and her novels, and Le Guin's novels, and Sturgeon's, and Delany's, and many others--had influenced the cultural story, the discourse, my understanding of gender. If she hadn't written it a few years before I read it, I might not have known enough to be angry.

So fiction is important. Fiction is what shows us the continuity and difference between people then, and now, and soon. It gives us an awareness of what being human means--whether we're talking about the psychologically broken killer in Sturgeon's Some of Your Blood or the idealistic Don Quixote. (Llosa, in a recent essay on the necessity of fiction, wonders: What would our concept of idealism look like without Cervantes? How would we have articulated it? Would we have articulated it?) Sometimes I think of fiction as a kaleidoscope: each story is a twist of the tube, bringing some of the set bits into a new pattern, reflecting new shapes and hinting at new possibilities.

Fiction does not have to mirror real life. None of mine does. For example, in my novels, none of my characters ever talk about being a lesbian; they just are. Naturally, not everyone likes that, but when some editor or critic reads Slow River or The Blue Place and complains that "It's not like that in the real world!" I respond: "And your point?" I think I have a pretty good idea what their point is, of course, but for me the point is to create an imagined space that didn't exist before. If a reader wants to know why Lore or Aud never mentions being a dyke, she'll have to work it out for herself, she'll have to imagine a world where who you have sex with just isn't an issue. With luck, that imaginative exercise may change how she thinks. Virginia Woolf's novel, Orlando, has been similarly criticised for being fanciful in ignoring the constraints of gender and not dealing with the harsh facts of life. In Arguing With the Past, Gillian Beer points out that Woolf moves her fiction away from the arena of real life facts and crises because she denies the claims of such ordering to be all inclusive. In other words, she wanted to change the discourse. This is what good fiction does; it also gives the reader a fabulous ride.

This ride, this escape, is vital. It's why so much mainstream literary fiction fails. It's also why I don't think it's a coincidence that there's been a recent resurgence of interest in--and critical acceptance of--historical fiction. With a historical novel, a crafty writer can bypass the prevailing wisdom about reality and literature. "Well, you see," they can tell the critic, "it's about this girl who actually really was painted by Vermeer, she really existed, so it's serious and worthy novel, not like that frivolous invented nonsense." They can take advantage of the perception that people in those days weren't, well, you know, weren't as sophisticated as they are now. So of course it's natural that their characters fall in love or get patriotic and that sort of thing because then they don't know any better. And it's a known fact that there were wars, and kings and queens, and everything, and people nearly died a lot because medicine was pretty bad. Oh, and the clothes were gorgeous.... In other words, they get to write good old fashioned stories, where stuff actually happens and interesting characters move through a vivid world feeling big emotions, without having to worry about being accused of being na•ve or escapist.

What is it about escapism? Why does it bother critics so much? Tolkien was right, I think, when he remarked that those most likely to be upset by the notion of escape are the jailers.

Good fiction, the kind that teaches us things and changes how we think, almost has to be escapist. It has to take the reader on a ride, sweep him to a world outside his own. Only if he's sufficiently caught up in your people or places or situations will he temporarily set aside what he knows to be true and play by your rules.

So I don't believe fiction should mirror reality. If I were forced to compare fiction to real life then I'd want it to be larger than life, not smaller. Fiction, in my opinion, should be super-saturated, drenched in a kind of brilliance. It should be more, not less.

Guest of Honour Speech delivered in Liverpool, June 2001

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