The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

the realist novel

By the time I was studying "postmodernist" fiction--the late 1980s--its generally cited epitomizer, Alain Robbe-Grillet, was cited far more often than he was read. Not only have I never read him, but I remember no classes that I took or heard about in many years of schooling in literature assigning his works. Yet the critics always refer to him as the inventor of the "nouveau roman," the new novel, the form that utterly rejected 19th-century realism and that was purported to be the new wave. But of course, these new novels weren't fun to read; they were made for graduate students and comp-lit departments.

Robbe-Grillet died last week, a sad event that has predictably led literary critics to "reassess" his achievements, and the assessment is generally pretty pessimistic. The "nouveau roman" was a gimmick, a theory much better left as theory than as practice; Robbe-Grillet won't last, and, in fact, hasn't even lasted until today. The corollary to this rule is that the realist novel, with its 19th-century heritage, has become hegemonic. In the most hostile formulations, the novel is seen as essentially a realist form, suited for the bourgeois reader. The only difference between the 19th-century novel and today's literary novels is that since World War II, the bourgeois are much less concerned about the stability of their social position (looked down upon by the aristocracy, threatened by the roiling urban proletariat), their dominant position in Western society is unquestioned, and thus their pet form--the novel--is much more inward-looking, psychological, and concerned with intra-bourgeois relations rather than cross-class relations. Short stories are the same way. Our great writers of the day almost all practice some variety of the classic bourgeois realist, psychological NEW YORKER story mixed with the 19th-century realism of Dickens, Gaskell, James: Zadie Smith, Lorrie Moore, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud etc. If the precise reproduction of reality in "fiction" is the goal here, is it any wonder that the memoir is on such a roll? And that memoirists who fictionalize are so viciously reviled?

a thought--this insistence on pure facts in memoirs, I think, has some roots in our general unease with the political establishment's happy, if denied, embrace of postmodernism, of the idea that "facts" themselves are relative, just narratives--that scientific fact, whether it be evolution or the link between abortion and breast cancer or global warming or the actual number of people killed and dollars spent in this senseless war in Iraq, are just points of view, things to be debated and given equal time and treated as rhetoric.

Here Ron Suskind's great NYT Magazine piece (17 October 2004) needs to be quoted again: "The [unnamed Bush White House] aide said that guys like me [the reporter] were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''"

When facts are denied or derided by our president, when we have a president who has made it clear that expertise and research are of at best equal value to, and frequently worth less than, passion and religious conviction, it's no wonder that people want to grasp onto facts somewhere, and maybe this is why James Frey's pathetic little embroideries have taken on such importance to pop-cultural arbiters like Oprah, who seem to spend relatively little time and outrage on the Bush administration.

But in an interesting if perhaps too glib article today in, Stephen Marche argues that experimental novels got a bad name because of Robbe-Grillet and his insistence that HIS experimentation is the only valid kind of experimentation for the contemporary novel. Unfortunately, novel-readers didn't like the "nouveau roman" and didn't like being told that they were wrong for liking realism. Marche says that novels have always been experimental--he cites TRISTRAM SHANDY, of course, for this, but also ROBINSON CRUSOE and GULLIVER'S TRAVELS--and that 19th century realism is less the natural form of the novel than one style that managed to attain an exceptionally wide audience. And I agree. Even in the heyday of Robbe-Grillet, experiments in the novel that have proven much more appealing to audiences were occurring in Latin America--Garcia Marquez, Puig, Clarice Lispector, and so on. I also see, as does Marche, a strain of contemporary fiction that draws upon the more playful experimentation of the Latin American writers of the 1960s. I look to Jonathan Safran Foer (whom Marche cites), but also to Colson Whitehead, David Foster Wallace, even Dave Eggers as writers who can return a little playfulness and a little modernist sophistication to the novel.



  • At 11:47 AM, Blogger Anna said…

    I was wondering after book club- resoundingly people liked gunter grass- that there was some kind of tradition in experimental writing, and someone brought up g.g.marquez and jonathan safran foer (another book club read) as followers on the same path.

    I have to admit that Maeve Binchy, writer of bougie scone-filled novels of England, where there's always an ugly duckling 13 year old finds love and self-respect among the Cornwall beaches, is a super fun quick read, and gunter wasn't exactly fun, or quick. The average in our group was 25 pages a session , and it's 600 pages. Granted, we haven't read laurence sterne yet though I've presented his stuff about 3 times. There's some kind of spinoff on the bougie realist novel, that we want to be challenged, and think about the self-consciousness of writing, but not 100%.

  • At 1:20 PM, Blogger mantooth said…

    Philip Roth and J.M. Coetzee are pretty good authors to get people comfortable with experimentation.

    I know she's impeccable in terms of style and construction, but I cannot read another Alice Munro story. Ugh.


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