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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 16, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

    The literary novel is undead

    Fiona McCann

    “I don’t think the literary novel is dead. I think it’s undead. In order to save it from annihilation we have made it a genre: we have taken our understanding of the word “novel” as a kind of writing with no rules and replaced it with a formula of exactly predictable progressions, illuminations and tragedies. If you’re having trouble figuring out what some character in your new novel is going to do, give me a call. I can tell you. But, more importantly, who cares?”

    So said Greg Baxter in his review of Reality Hunger by David Shields, which appeared in our books’ pages last weekend. So far, no Letters to the Editor expressing outrage, umbrage or even an opinion. So let’s try you lot then. Do you agree that the novel is undead, predictable and formulaic ? And, more importantly, as Baxter adds, do you care?  Bueller? Anyone?

    • db says:

      Maybe for most it has more to do with WHO is saying the novel is undead, predictable, etc, than what their message? It’s like a jury of Banvilles staring you down, saying ‘no, stupid, it’s like THIS.’

    • Stan Carey says:

      Don’t ask me — I’m still catching up on the 19th century canon.

      More seriously, I think a great deal depends on what readers expect from their books. Some want exciting or moving escapism, and they often get it; others want an unforgettable, transcendental experience, so they have to choose their reading material more carefully.

      Novels used to carry unique introspective insight and social weight, but these functions became absorbed by psychology and public political discussion and so on. Yet novels are still expected to matter as much as they once did (and the financial pressure adds to the sense of expectation). I think they do matter, sometimes, but disappointment is the more typical experience.

      That’s a wild guess, of course. I love a good yarn, literary or otherwise, but I get most of my kicks from non-fiction.

    • Ed Dublin says:

      Have a look at another rant by Julian Gough on his website, specifically on the Irish novel:

    • Eleanor says:

      Perhaps if there is a problem with the novel (and I’m not entirely convinced that there is a problem with all published works) it is that the filtering mechanism of agents and publishers is eliminating from the pipeline any book that is deemed to deviate from what is “commercially viable”.

      Novelist Declan Burke seems to be encountering this very issue with publishers extravagantly praising his work whilst at the same time deciding that it does not have sufficient commercial appeal. He is now considering publishing it himself & I for one would take a chance on his latest for €7.

      See http://crimealwayspays.blogspot.com/ for details of his innovative scheme to bypass the gatekeepers.

      There’s danger inherant in always applying the “what formula has worked in the past & how many copies can we shift in Tesco” model of publishing. Some truly unique gems could be lost to us and some of them might have shifted millions of copies as well.

    • mise says:

      Well, the death of the novel and its various afterlives have been bandied about since our fathers wooed our mothers with readings from Frank Kermode on the porch swing, so I imagine that death is still ongoing, if only for the sake of rhetoric. The literary novel certainly seems slow to mutate, but that’s due to its size and poor turning circle, the latter a characteristic shared by the ‘death of the novel’ genre. How does “undead” rather than “dead” move the argument along, I wonder?

      How about yourself, Fiona, do you care?

    • Kerry Brandon says:

      I don’t agree that literary novel is always predictable. Although I mourn about the shallowness of trash novels and many best sellers, there are still decent novels that make our hearts jump with joyful surprises. One good example is this experimental novel called ‘Somewhere carnal over 40 winks’. This book clearly demonstrates how far and high a story can bring us in the literary realm.

    • Diego Fasciati says:

      Mr Baxter’s question (“who cares?”) assumes that one reads literary novels solely for the purpose of finding out what a character does next – a sort of Poirot-like quest to understand the psychology and narrative arc of fictitious people. This is not necessarily the case. I, for one, read literary novels primarily for the quality of the prose. Therefore, I will not be availing of Mr Baxter’s I-can-tell-you-what-that-character-is-going-to-do-next hotline – because that is not the point of a genre that is alive and well and living on my bookshelf, nightstand and bed.

      However, Mr Baxter’s review touches on an important and valid point: we seem to value novels as “art” and as superior to other forms of writing such as biography, memoir and essay. In Ireland, this is epitomised by the tax exemption scheme: a bad to mediocre novelist (e.g. Cecilia Ahern) can get a tax exemption a priori whereas an excellent biographer is excluded from doing so (unless you are Cecilia’s da).

      Writing should be valued for it quality and not its genre.

    • Steven Byrne says:

      Literary novels are still being written but they are finding fewer and fewer readers, struggling to get published, let alone reviewed.

      As far back as the 1930’s Walter Benjamin observed that the distinction between author and audience was about to lose its essential character as access to publishing outlets increased. How much more true is this today – with ready access to the internet we are all authors. Added to this, Tv and internet have supplanted books and the last ten years of popular TV have created and then fed a massive appetite for ‘reality.’

      It should be no surprise – though of great concern to me – that many, particularly men, can no longer be bothered to suspend disbelief and enter the fictional word of the novel.

      And, yes, there may be a moment when autobiography has the edge but it will be short-lived. Just like TV audiences are becoming increasingly aware that reality shows are scripted and events manipulated to conform to a formula, so too we are finding that we cannot believe autobiography. Notorious examples in the last few years include James Frey’s A million little pieces’ where whole incidents were invented and the fake holocaust memoir: Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years where the author owned up, admitting it was “not the real reality.”

      The premise underlying autobiography is that the author is telling the truth about their experience. The truth-fission a large part of autobiography’s lure. But how can we know if they are truthful and how does it affect our reception of the book if we doubt this?

      In time we may no longer be willing or able to overcome our suspicions and doubts about the veracity of what we’re reading when we read autobiography. To read an autobiographical book will require just as much suspension of disbelief as reading a literary novel does. When that happens the novel and the autobiography will be in the same, unloved place – along with poetry. Perhaps then the philosophical polemic, the personal essay or something like psychic geography will have its day. Perhaps.

      I can’t comment on Reality Hunger as it’s not even in the shops yet but the bigger question may be whether we are prepared to engage with anything outside of work and study that requires effort these days. Has mobile technology and the internet fatally damaged our capacity for the sustained attention with little immediate reward required by a book, or an extended online article – or even a comment as long as this!

      Here we are now, Entertain us.

    • Darragh McKeon says:

      I think Don DeLillo is pretty interesting on this. He’s quoted in an interview with Johnathon Franzen:

      The novel is whatever novelists are doing at a given time. If we’re not doing the big social novel fifteen years from now, it’ll probably mean our sensibilities have changed in ways that make such work less compelling to us–we won’t stop because the market dried up. The writer leads, he doesn’t follow. The dynamic lives in the writer’s mind, not in the size of the audience. And if the social novel lives, but only barely, surviving in the cracks and ruts of the culture, maybe it will be taken more seriously, as an endangered spectacle. A reduced context but a more intense one.

      Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.

      And in a P.S he adds:
      If serious reading dwindles to near nothingness, it will probably mean that the thing we’re talking about when we use the word ‘identity’ has reached an end.

    • Breda says:

      The Irish literary novel is going through a phase where ‘big name’ authors are profitably exploiting the tired — though sellable, especially to US and UK markets — stereotypes. Tobin’s Brooklyn is an example. Brooklyn is a crowd pleaser, a novel that rings hollow on home ground, and on close reading. It is a novel without heart.

      Shields’ Reality Hunger calls for literature as “. . . wisdom seeking”. In it is the understanding that “when all your arrows are spent, the way to write is to throw your body at the mark”. I agree — yet I would go further, “the way to write is to throw your ‘soul’ at the mark”.

      The Irish literary novel lacks both wisdom and soul, and no amount of carefully crafted prose can disguise that fact.

      We want more!


    • Fred Johnston says:

      Let us not forget the Irish literary agent who complained that the problem with the manuscripts passing over their desk was that they were too literary. So long as publishers use literary agents to act as their editors we will have a problem with pushing the literary novel. Publishing houses need to take back their essential editorial responsibilities.

    • Nate says:

      Amen, Fred Johnston, testify — but let’s not forget the large book seller chains who demand discounts so high you practically need to be a profitless imprint of random house to even exist in that market, much less stay alive

    • Jimmy Joe Joe says:

      I think this Baxter guy is all-right. As JG Ballard put it, anything that passes for a novel these days is an anemic enough offering. If there was something urgent, and more to the point, relevant then by all means, let’s have it. But there isn’t, especially in Ireland where everything revolves around crazy drunken pedophiles or historical stories set in the states.

    • Ali says:

      Not all Irish novels revolve around crazy drunken Irish paedophiles or historical stories set in the states. What about Claire Kilroy’s Tenderwire? What of Mike McCormack’s Notes from a Coma? Banville’s latest offering, The Infinities?
      Writers, agents, publishers, booksellers – perhaps they are all responsible for the undeadness of the literary novel. (Whatever ‘undead’, or indeed, ‘dead’ is supposed to mean here.)
      But there is also some very interesting work out there – readers have a responsibility to search it out, engage with it, and, if they like what they find, to demand more.

    • Jimmy Joe Joe says:

      Derivitives…..unveil yourself Kilroy.

    • Niall says:

      Has anyone ever come across an illiterary novel?

      “Literary Novels” remind me of Oscar-bait movies. They’re no better or worse than most other forms of fiction, but they’re marketed as “literary fiction” in the hopes of being considered for certain awards. If these books should be shortlisted or even win the awards, then the publisher scores big.

      50 years from now, something like Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Graveyard Book’ will probably be read along side the works of Wilde, Lewis and Carroll. Toibin’s ‘Broklyn’ will be less-well remembered, if at all. Yet, when it comes to award season, anything by Toibin will be considered simply because he is a “literary” author, while Gaiman’s latest will be ignored because he is a “genre” author.

      Brecht said that “sometimes it’s more important to be human, than to have good taste” but I think even that misses the point. For me, fiction is good when it helps us to enjoy, appreciate and/or understand what it means to be a human being. If we’re going to have awards for fiction, that is the criteria I’d like us to use.

    • barbera says:

      I don’t read fiction and “the novel” (literary –what other kind is there?) or, “le roman”, can rest in piece or roam about in land of the undead for all I care. However if a favourite theorist (for example, Julia Kristeva) chooses to scribble a novel (for example “Murder in Byzantium”) I will read it, since this often works on a ‘lighter’ level and those theories/insights, which may be incomprehensible (in an academic text) may sometimes be brought down to earth in ‘a novel way’. (btw “Murder in Byzantium” doesn’t work though, as a detective novel — especially as it is read in English — and perhaps this is because it loses a lot in translation — from the French).

    • Fiona says:

      Mise: Sorry it’s taken so long to put in my two cents worth. Agreed that undead doesn’t necessarily move things along, apart from being a kind of pleasing wordplay in its way. And while I see his point that the first “novel”s had that Tristram Shandyesque anarchy about them, not all of the novels I read today are formulaic by any stretch. While there are plenty out there playing with the genre – Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate was a novel in verse, Jonathan Safran Foer made particular use of flip book photo images in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – there are also who manage to follow a traditional novelistic form and still producing works of wonder. And I do care, about good novels, though remain unworried about their death or undeath.

    • Elizabeth Bennett says:

      Re: 17… snigger!

    • Elizabeth Bennett says:

      @5 What a charming image, although I am more familiar with Kermode as a literary critic, he was Professor of English at my Alma Mater, but before my time so I did not have the priviLege of attending any of his lectures.
      So what would be wecommended weading in the wooing department would you weckon…sorry just gone a bit Monty Python…

    • Lizzy Bennett says:

      Coooeee…anybody out there? Still waiting to find out what Frank Kermode wrote in the romantic oeuvre…?

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