Monday, June 27, 2022

it is only necessary to try to write a novel


The Defoe of Robinson Crusoe and A Journal of the Plague Year has no ambition to signify novelistically or to have his pseudomemoirs classed as "art." In the flux of his true-seeming stories, intentions are concealed and unrecognizable, questions the non-form refuses by virtue of its opacity [...]. It is a virtue of his pseudomemoirs that they are almost infinitely conformable to what each reader thinks life is. Moll, Jack, H.F., and the Cavalier are in their widely accommodating ideological spaces like the speakers of naive memoirs Defoe intends them to resemble, and Defoe is the original "readerly" writer. While the psuedomemoir may be a trick, it is a wondrously skillful one. To see just how difficult Defoe's task is, it is only necessary to try to write a "novel" today that succeeds not only in seeming like a true story (the easier task) but also in fixing the attention of readers dull and acute, naive and sagacious, superficial and penetrating. It is as if Defoe found in the older factual literature and its imitations a principle of ambiguity that is itself stable: narrate in such a manner that nothing is predictable and nothing, once it happens, is at all unbelievable.

From Narrative Innovation and Incoherence by Michael Boardman. If I were to try to name recent novels that follow Defoe's model of pseudomemoirs that pass themselves off as more "real" than "novelistic," I can only think of two early Peter Carey books: Jack Maggs and True History of the Kelly Gang. Most of Carey's novels are quite novelistic, some overtly postmodernist. My own fictions, no matter how thick I decide at the time to make the veneer of "realism," are all plainly artificial, representation rather than presentation, all the elements chosen to interlock in a system of symbol and theme, blah blah blah. I grew up on myths and legends and fairy tales, all expressionist forms more or less, so that's what I think stories look like.

Monday, June 6, 2022

Which Defoe wrote when, and for what purpose?

Another possibility that must be considered is that the new novel is always in a relationship of hostile competition with other novels, even with ones yet unwritten. The authorial task is always to achieve the truly new, to break with influence and strike out alone, with all the many consequences detailed by Harold Bloom (1973). The logic of such an explanation seems unassailable. Authors prize originality unless they are writing only for money, and even that goal does not necessarily discourage innovation. Yet I wonder if most novelists would accede to such a description of their efforts to create new structures. Such a work of "fiction based on scholarship," as Geoffrey Hartman put it, seems more like the hypothesis of someone who studies--probably poetry, at that--rather than creates novels, for it puts uppermost that which makes the author a solitary, tormented character in his or her own drama rather than a more or less stodgy worker, a short of shoemaker trebly vexed with sore fingers, recalcitrant leather, and grumpy customers. Among other things, novelists are makers, and as such they are often more interested in getting their novels written than they are in shedding influence, even if they are aware of it. Critics always construct "plausible" authors--I fabricate my own in the pages that follow--so that they can endow them with behavior that makes their own theories more convincing. One of my imaginary authors, who bears some resemblance to a real novelist I met in Chicago not long ago, finds my notions of what novelists "do" surprising. For example, I have always preferred to believe that most novelists are engaged in "imagining a world." This novelist, however, looked very skeptical and said, "Oh, no, I always write about myself. I don't know anything else."

From Narrative Innovation and Incoherence by Michael Boardman (Duke University Press, 1992). I underlined almost every word of this passage in my copy.

For it is true that every time I read a literary critic talking about the creative process, what is described is nothing like how fiction is written, at least not in my experience or in the experience of any of the novelists I know in real life (some of whom, yes, are actual published novelists). In my (unpublished, yes) novel Mona in the Desert, the narrator (a literary critic) writes about how literary critics fill the lacunae in novels with imagined themes and authorial intent that reflect their own ideas and not necessarily any ideas belonging to the author of the texts in question. Literary criticism, I claim, is sometimes just the working of yet another unreliable narrator, this time speaking from well outside the text. Of course I continue to read literary criticism, and my novel's narrator continues to write literary criticism. Perhaps Bloom's famous book should be titled The Influence of Anxiety. I am not the first person to make that joke.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

art for the masses


I had written three long and dense paragraphs about fiction written with an eye to the public, but I realized that I have nothing particularly interesting to say about that topic. I am probably generally against it, is all I'll say. Though some polemical fiction is highly entertaining and perhaps even instructional, and a bit of that fiction survives the changing times and is revealed to be good art in terms of craft and workmanship and the polemics fade into historical footnotes where they belong. That's all fine. I sometimes have thought that I needed to engage in social work when writing fiction, but nowadays mostly I write about what interests me, using the techniques that interest and challenge me, and I call it good. None of my writing finds a marketplace and as I get older I become more certain that none of my fiction will ever find a marketplace (a book deal, in other words), and I think I'm pretty well fine with that idea. I keep writing fiction, too, knowing that there's no money in it for me, nor even any public ego gratification. Though yes, I have this blog, so I am a liar and a hypocrite.

Speaking of which, which is to say that I just noted that I continue to write fiction, I have a lot of unpublished novels lying around that get no interest from agents or publishers. That could well mean that they are not very good novels. I don't know what a "good" novel is anymore. I have no clue at all, and the idea gives me a headache so I try not to think about it. And my opinion wouldn't matter to anyone anyway, which is also fine. Though yes, I have this blog, so I am a liar and a hypocrite. 

Anyway, I like the photo I took during Yard Sale Day (an annual event in my neighborhood, of something like three hundred simultaneous yard sales all on one Saturday) of the Vespa with the Black Flag and the Woodie Guthrie stickers. It is so very, very Seattle so I wanted to share it with the handful of people who wander by this blog. I also wanted to remind people of my growing page of unpublished novels here, to which I've added some stuff in the last few months, and more is to come. Read if you like, don't if you don't want to. I do not require knowing if anyone's reading, and you don't have to say anything to me about it. It is, frankly, none of my business if anyone reads any of that fiction. But it's there, that's all. The novels are not, very likely, machines that kill fascists. But that's probably okay.