Friday, November 8, 2013


This struck me as a Retromania-ish argument

Reversing the logical sequence: first, the critique / rebuttal / counterblast.... Sam Sacks in the New Yorker , starts with a swipe against the tradition of "death of the novel" essays ("the vocabulary of literary ennui is now so familiar that it produces its own kind of boredom"), then moves to take issue with a post by novelist/critic Tim Parks at New York Review of Books blog, titled "Trapped Inside the Novel", which Sacks calls "an honest, provocative, and maddeningly wrongheaded meditation about his unhappiness with what he calls “traditional novels.”:

"He feels “trapped” within the expected forms of fiction writing, especially those of realistic fiction. These books’ basic traits, he thinks—“the dilemma, the dramatic crisis, the pathos, the wise sadness, and more in general a suffering made bearable, or even noble through aesthetic form”—have become mannered and artificial to the point of irrelevance...  Parks isn’t talking only about mediocre novels when he invokes the tyranny of tradition. By his way of thinking, anyone who uses elements of conventional forms has done so out of either unthinking habit or unwilling necessity"

Sacks counter this with  the "fresh content in familiar forms" argument: "for many, if not most, writers, things like plot, character development, and catharsis are not narrative fallbacks but dynamic tools that give shape to the stories they’re passionate to tell or develop ideas that are uppermost on their minds.... It is a flighty kind of world view that automatically equates oldness with staleness. Missing from Parks’s essay is the recognition that talent transmutes tradition. Gifted writers can make accustomed methods feel as new and vital as a work explicitly devoted to structural innovation"

Sacks also does the "actually, the problem is you" move, a tactic rather familiar to me having been on its receiving end more times than I can count in the last three years!

"If Parks’s essay were strictly part of a memoir, there would be no cause to object. But he is also a critic, and, to a dangerous extent, he is putting forth his disillusion as a judgment on the state of literature. This tendency to project one’s own cynicism onto the books that failed to magically prevent it has become a little too frequent these days, and it needs challenging."

There is also the "if you expect too much, you set yourself up for disappointment" argument:

"... Implicit in Parks’s essay is a discontented yearning for something quite different from ingenuity—the groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting “way forward” that he desires sounds oddly salvational, a newly discovered way of seeing that will break him out of his present funk like a religious epiphany. Yet to imbue something as abstract as narrative form with talismanic, revelatory properties is to insure the very disillusionment that he is desperate to dispel."

Now,  the original Parks post and its subsequent elaboration in a follow-up titled "Literature Without Style" . Starts with his own dissatisfaction with the phenomelogical gap between long-form narrative and the fragmented, connected digireality we inhabit, while acknowledging that such fiction is still hugely popular,  precisely because "its very distance, in most cases, from the texture of modern life, the impression it can give of shape, continuity, and hence meaning, may be its most reassuring and attractive aspect." 

Then reiterates his own dissatisfaction:

"My problem with the grand traditional novel—or rather traditional narrative in general, short stories included—is the vision of character, the constant reinforcement of a fictional selfhood that accumulates meaning through suffering and the overcoming of suffering. At once a palace built of words and a trajectory propelled by syntax, the self connects effortlessly with the past and launches bravely into the future. Challenged, perhaps thwarted by circumstance, it nevertheless survives, with its harvest of bittersweet consolation, and newly acquired knowledge....  the tendency to reinforce in the reader the habit of projecting his or her life as a meaningful story, a narrative that will very likely become a trap, leading to inevitable disappointment followed by the much-prized (and I suspect overrated) wisdom of maturity, is nigh on universal. Likewise, and intrinsic to this approach, is the invitation to shift our attention away from the moment, away from any real savoring of present experience, toward the past that brought us to this point and the future that will likely result. The present is allowed to have significance only in so far as it constitutes a position in a story line. Intellect, analysis, and calculation are privileged over sense and immediate perception; the whole mind is pushed toward the unceasing construction of meaning, of narrative intelligibility, of underlying structure, without which life is assumed to be unimaginable or unbearable."

Contrasts the modernist strategies of language and style (Beckett et al) with surfeit of "passable imitations of our much-celebrated nineteenth-century novels" and argues that "the problem lies exactly in feeling that one’s skills are only suitable for a project that no longer makes sense...  [These narratives]'s very facility becomes an obstacle to exploring some more satisfactory form.

In the "Literature Without Style" follow-up, Parks explores the stylistic innovations of Henry Green and F. Scott Fitzgerald and argues that these elements are almost impossible to translate into foreign languages. Then he circles around to more swipes against retro-fiction, specifically Booker prize winning The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, an "eight-hundred-page mystery story set in 1860s New Zealand":

"Removing us from the present, pastiching what the modern ear assumes the eloquence of the past to have been, the writer can appear “stylish” without appealing to anything in his readership’s immediate experience. Catton’s prose has been likened to that of Dickens in The Pickwick Papers. But for readers who followed Pickwick in the 1830s, the book was drenched in references to the world they shared and the language itself was not so far away from what could be heard and read every day.. If one translates Dickens into another language, an enormous amount is lost; even for the Londoner reading him today, half the references mean nothing. But Neuman’s and Catton’s novels have dispensed in advance with this intense engagement with a local or national readership and seem set to lose very little as they move around the world in different languages..."

His melancholy conclusion:

"Such is the future of literature and literary style in a global age: historical novels, fantasy, vast international conspiracies, works that visit and revisit the places a world culture has made us all familiar with; in short an idea of literature that may give pleasure but rarely excites at the linguistic level, rarely threatens, electrifies, reminds us of, and simultaneously undermines the way we make up the world in our own language. Perhaps it is this development that has made me weary with so much contemporary fiction."

Reminded me of a thought, which may or not be true, but seemed potentially true: 

Things that we think of as "classic" today almost always were innovative in their own time (Dickens being a good example).  

To reproduce or imitate or model oneself on the classic is necessarily to forego for oneself the very quality of newness that led to the object of admiration/emulation ever having acquired the status of classic.

Being "classic" in the present  requires having once been insistently not-classic...  perhaps even opposed to the classic.

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