The N word – Against the novel
Though famous for being amorphous and expandable, why do novels seem less able than poetry or the essay to make room for truly ‘novel’ varieties of language and telling?
Joanna Walsh: Why, instead of novels that attempt to construct something, not welcome novels that try to break something down; instead of novels about people, why not novels about objects; instead of “believable”, why not “unbelievable” scenarios; instead of narratives that desire the affirmation of ending, novels that examine this desire? Photograph: Lauren Elkin
A friend recently sent me along to see his agent, who was looking for new clients. We met in a West London cafe one empty afternoon. Clearly unacquainted with each other, we might have been planning a heist.
– So are you working on a novel? he asked me.
– I have this series of linked essays I’ve nearly finished. At least, they’re sort of essays; they’re kind of autofictional.
– I wouldn’t lead with them; you could publish them after your novel, he said. Do you have a novel?
– I have a kind of… novelly thing I’m working on.
– Right, great!
– It’s a nonlinear, digital narrative written in tiny interchangeable sections.
– Not really a novel, then?
– Um… I also have a load more short stories.
He paid for my coffee and left. I didn’t hear back from him.
I don’t like most books: I think most writers are the same. I’ve spent years honing my tastes, working out not only exactly what I want to do, but what I don’t. And what I don’t want to write right now is a novel.
My literature BA course was traditional, and the 19th- and 20th-century novel was at its core. While I often enjoyed reading them, I found these were works that in no way made me want to be a writer: my own life didn’t go like them, and I had no desire to force the world as I knew it into the structures so many of them seemed to demand. As Marguerite Duras said in her novel from life, The Lover, “The story of my life doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any centre to it. No path, no line. There are great spaces where you pretend there used to be someone, but it’s not true, there was no one.” I spent years thinking there must be something wrong with the ways I experienced the world, until I began to think there might be something wrong with some of the ways I’d been given to tell them.
Though famous for their amorphous, expandable capacities, why is it that so many contemporary novels continue to be encumbered by the realist demands of plot, character, place? Why do they seem less able to make less room than poetry, or the essay, for the truly “novel” varieties of language and telling we encounter every day, at home, at work, online? Instead, what many a novel most closely resembles is… another novel.
The stereotype of the Anglo-American novel can be measured in inches. Its characters are rounded and so are its contours. It’s a paper brick that takes the novelist 10 years to write, an endurance test for both writer and reader. The best thing about it is not reading it, but being able to say you have read it.
Why does the novel continue so often to be an endlessly self-referential, and self-affirming form? Could it be because of how it is read? The novel, at least in its Anglo-American incarnation, is largely a liberal humanist construction, relying on certain ideas about people and society, the novel’s place within it, and its intentions towards its reader. The place of reading within these parameters is something that is turned to in private, an alternative to the outside world, a place for personal reflection, a refuge. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is not the only way to read. And why have only cosiness when we could also have play?
Why, instead of novels that attempt to construct something, not welcome novels that try to break something down; instead of novels about people, why not novels about objects; instead of “believable”, why not “unbelievable” scenarios; instead of narratives that desire the affirmation of ending, novels that examine this desire? Why strive for “consistent” characters rather than explore the inconsistencies of subjectivity? Instead of the great insert-country-here novel, why not the slim novel of the particular, the non-“universal”; rather than “10 novels everybody should read”, why not many novels, not all of which suit everyone; instead of novels that strive to create a world, why not novels that highlight their own artificiality, stretching the seams at which language is stitched to meaning, shuffling experience as it is shuffled in memory?
The recent success of innovative titles from independent publishers has proved that, where adventurous writing is available, readers will read adventurously. I’m a judge on this year’s Goldsmiths Prize, which was set up “to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”, and I’m looking forward to see what sort of cracks can be made in its many surfaces.
Nowadays it will take very interesting writing to make me put myself through the rigmarole of reading conventional character, place and plot. But, there are contemporary novels that buck those criteria, and it might be significant that many of my favourites were not originally written in English. To name just a few, I like Marie NDiaye’s (French) experiments with the unstable self in time in Self-Portrait in Green; Elfriede Jelinek’s (Austrian) brutal fairytale dialectic in Women as Lovers; Gregory Howard’s genre-patchwork of anti-narrative, Hospice; Chris Kraus’s auto fictional essay/novels, Torpor and Aliens & Anorexia; Bae Suah’s (Korean) slippery Nowhere to be Found; Claire-Louise Bennett’s uncategorisable Pond (it may not quite be a “novel” – or a memoir, or an essay – but I’m not sure it’s quite a collection of short stories either). These are “novels” that – challenging the form itself – make me hope that, one day, I might even write one.
Throughout June, we shall publish a series of articles by the author, writers and critics exploring Vertigo, culminating in a live interview with Irish Times journalist Laura Slattery at the Irish Writers Centre on Thursday, June 23rd, at 7.30pm, which will be made available as a podcast on irishtimes.com on June 30th. Readers are invited to read along, comment and engage.