Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Novel is Dead. Long Live the Novel by Dan Holloway

Who am I? How do I define myself? Of all the seething morass of components that make up my life, which ones survive every sifting through the filters of experience and introspection to become the things by which and in relation to which I think of myself – however much I may be right or wrong in such thinking, if it is possibly to be mistaken about who one is – as me?

I’m not going to enter (too much) into that minefield of defining what constitutes the psychological core of the novel, or try to make comparisons across the arts by saying the novel is the literary symphony, a unified, Hegelian, progressive, developmental narrative. Though the fact that people *do* have such discussions is a good enough segue into the observation that for me as a writer the novel, or longform fiction, offers a way of exploring characters’ sense of identity, the choices they make or rather the process by which they come to decide how they decide who they are.

In order to capture what it is to struggle to find one’s identity, the form of our fiction needs to embark on a similar struggle to attempt to mirror the form of that struggle for identity. The question for the novel is whether the traditional narrative arc can be an appropriate form.

Now, it would be very easy to suggest that the fragmentation of the modern world has changed the way that we define ourselves and in doing so has moved the goalposts for the novel. I think it would be truer to say our current experience of life has made obvious what was always true – that self-discovery is not a linear journey, is not a series of either/or choices or resolved conflicts. That model is a fiction that Platonism, Stoicism, Judaeo-Christian salvation-historical narrative, and ultimately and decisively for the novel, Hegel and Romanticism, have led us towards. As Hume and Nietzsche explain, the reason we have bought into this notion of self-discovery as questing journey is straightforward enough – it’s a convenient simplification of the complexities of life. If we didn’t simplify things by creating a “line of best fit” fiction for ourselves we would never get beyond the first step of the process – we would never progress (see how insidious that idea of progress is!).

It has never been that simple, of course, and we see partial recognitions of this even within the overarching religious narratives of redemption in the early modern world. Late sixteenth century Puritan thinkers, for example, talked at great length about the economies of life – the different spheres of being in which we find ourselves and the way to balance those spheres – the church, the household, the family, society – each of those is at one and the same time a closed system and yet a system that has to interact with all other systems in the life of the individual.

But religion ultimately allowed all those interesting questions to be put to the back of the mind, to be subsumed beneath the metanarrative of personal redemption.

It was in the early twentieth century that those questions suddenly came right back to the cultural forefront. Wittgenstein’s language games are the direct descendants of William Perkins’ economies, only by the time of the Vienna Circle, Bloomsbury and Modernism, the religious roof had been sliced off and what was left was simply a sea of equal and competing categories, a giant hypermarket from which we have to shop for our identity. Modernism fought valiantly to find forms to offer some kind of mirror of this overwhelming choice. Broken narratives, new syntaxes, expressionist art, Dadaism and Situationism – all to one extent or another are answers to the question of what identity does – or doesn’t – mean in a world that has no metanarrative. As previous generations had found, though, the effort and complexity of these attempts proved too much for Modernism to keep its head above the waterline of culture for long and the subtle shift from equal but competing narratives to the equal but non-competing narratives typified by Andy Warhol soon came first to deconstruct the question of identity through Postmodernism, a rigorous intellectual attempt to advance from Modernism that soon outgrew itself into the rather flabby shrug of the intellectual shoulders that says “Why bother with the question of identity?” not in an interesting but in a lazy way.

What the atomisation of modern communication has done is re-opened the case file that Postmodernism closed. We can no longer escape the fact that many of us find ourselves part of many communities each of which places competing demands on our time. Postmodernism has by and large stripped us of the conceptual equipment to deal with these competing demands and we feel that lack of mental structure as an acute anxiety, and in the not-so-dark hours when our neighbours sleep but our Facebook friends all over the world are waking we find ourselves once again whispering those questions about the balancing act of identity.

As writers, this reawakening of identity-anxiety cannot but confront us with a fundamental question about the forms our writing takes. How can we take ourselves seriously as writers and adopt the narrative arc? How can we deal in resolved conflict, character growth, obstacles overcome, beginnings, middles, and ends and still consider ourselves commentators on life rather than contributors to the opiate fug of self-deception that needs to deliver a bigger and bigger hit of implausible linearity with every iteration? We can’t. By all means we can choose to be part of the machinery of cultural anaesthetics. But I genuinely believe that it is impossible for a serious reflective artist to write a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

We need to wrestle with form. We need to do justice to a notion of identity that is based on complexity, on the selection of a few seemingly random strands from a giant quilt, on matrices not polarities, on the non-linear, on the confused, on the unbeginning and unending, on world-building that is not closed but porous I every possible way. How we do that each of us will have to wrestle with on our own and maybe collectively.

In the novel Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, I took some tentative steps by having the central character realise the choices through which she had always considered her life (art vs industry, East vs West, city vs country, lover vs family, modern vs traditional) were simply props she held onto to keep her from stepping into life in its fullness. In TheMan Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, I went further and played with three unrelated narrative strands, one of them in the first person plural. There were points of connection and disconnection between them, and within them there were realities and unrealities, characters trapped inside smartphones, online personas, political and private faces of characters, masks, art installations that appeared from nowhere offering commentary on the places where they materialised, personifications of counterfactual desires, and an absolute lack of commentary on which aspects were or weren’t “real” – within “reality” or any of the realities within the unreality of the story. For the past year I’ve been wrestling with twentyfoursevendigitalwonderland, a book that takes things further still and tells the “story” of the last day of its protagonist’s life without using words – just numbers, a challenge to the notion that our identity is only formed by our conceptualisation it, in words, and has nothing to do with our raw experience of it. Using language at all strikes me as at least a partial capitulation to the hegemony of the fiction of narrative. Art had that moment of disjunction with self-representation with Abstract Expressionism. Literature has had its moments of doubt, its cut and pastes and automatic writing, but has never really cut the ties.

How you wrestle with the written form is a matter for you to decide. But wrestle you must.


Lee said...

One could just as easily argue that life's complexity is what makes the conventional narrative arc so satisfying.

Anonymous said...


Pauline Fisk said...

Oh, Dan. Enjoyed reading everything you had to say, not least as the question of what identity does or doesn’t mean in a world that has no metanarrative is one that interests me too. But numbers? You failed - in words - to convey that one to me! Disunction doesn't do it justice. Words are part of what makes us human. I chill at the thought of any writer giving up on them.

Dan Holloway said...

Lee, I think that's absolutely right - but as writers I think one of the most important things is to push things beyond satisfying (depending what we're trying to do with our writing of course)

Pauline - yes, language is certainly part of what makes us human - it is what we use to make sense of our experiences - but as such it is removing us from them in order to make sense and we are locked into the idea both that we have to make sense of the world and that language is the only way to do it. So one very important thing the writer can do is question whether these assumptions are right/necessary. Of course, there are further problems because numbers are a language just like any other (as Russell shows when he uses logic to unify mathematics and syntax). I think a novel written in numbers is also a key way of describing life in the digital age

Roland Denning said...

I agree, Dan, we must wrestle with form. But does that mean we have to wrestle with the novel? To me that's a bit like wrestling with the sonnet or the haiku - push it too far and it becomes something different.

To challenge the form of the novel without disappointing the reader is hard - and sometimes even if you achieve it, it feels like a trick.

Sometimes I think it is necessary to just let go of the novel form, which is still essentially a 19th century form, and use words in another way.

Lee said...

Dan, have a look at what Helen de Witt is doing with information design and statistics.

Dan Holloway said...

Yes, I think you're probably right. I oscillate between optimistically saying wrestle with the novel and realistically saying wrestle with the written form but I think you're right that it's a back to the drawing board approach needed - I do think it's important to understand why we're turning our back on the novel though - what exactly it is that makes it inappropriate so that we can avoid those problems

Dan Holloway said...

thanks, Lee - very interesting - here's the reference to her blog for people who are interested

CallyPhillips said...

Dan. I am asking myself why YOU are not one of the 'acclaimed 50 writers' tasked with debating this very question on Tuesday 21st at the World Writers Conference. I'm going to put my money where my mouth is and say that I predict that what you've written here will kick ass over whatever they end up concluding!

As for
But I genuinely believe that it is impossible for a serious reflective artist to write a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

For many years (in plays as well)I 've played around with having beginnings, middles and endings but NOT in the usual places. CHASING WAVES clips at the ebookfestival site explore this. My 1999 play Love is an Urban Myth is ALL about this and the trilogy I'm currently 'wrestling' with is also about this too.
I am going to read and re-read what you've written and think and think about it. Thank you. I like it when someone sticks their head up and has something significant to say! All this AND I get to see HUNGERFORD BRIDGE tonight at 9pm.
Thanks Dan. Ceud mille (1000 times)

Dan Holloway said...

Ah, that'd be because I don't have a Guardian column :)

Beginnings, middles and ends in the wrong places sounds very cool - proper Modernist cut-up. It's interesting thinking about how we think about our lives in the light of that - how do we experience our autobiography? It's not just that we don't remember a clear and continuous line, it's that for every point on that line the way we remember it is tinted by every other point

Sulci Collective said...

Dan, Dan, Dan, as you know I'm stood both feet squarely in your camp, BUT...

The trad, careworn novel form is getting a huge adrenalin injection through self-publishing as new writers faithfully cling to the moribund beginning, middle, en narrative, charcater arc and redemption.

I am fascinated why so many people come to writing and choose to express themselves through writing a novel. Why does someone want to write a detective story and spin us a yarn we'vbe probably heard/read hundreds of times before?

I can only think it is to do with their identity. That because their life is not all neatly joined up and linear, they assert some control by producing a fictional narrative in which a life is joined up and linear. It's probably related to why grown ups read Harry Potter, why people see an Olympic cyclist gold medal winner and then go out and buy a £1000 bike, why half the women in this country bhave opted for an off-the bpeg mass produced erotic fantasy by numbers read in the 50 Shades phenomena.

The novel isn't dead. It's without life, but it is cryogenically twitching believing it is respiring...

Dan Holloway said...

yes, that's exactly why I think people write and read novels - because they give an appearance of simplicity and order to something that is complex and chaotic. We look for things that short circuit thinking about reality too hard because if we do it can be very troubling

Lee said...

People write & read novels for all sorts of reasons, but a simplicity of form doesn't necessarily shortcircuit thinking. If anything, it's probably extremely difficult to express complexity in a simple manner, but that's one of the reasons why archetypes (and to quote McKee, not stereotypes) work so well - and have done for thousands of years.

To put it another way: something that is chaotic doesn't necessarily capture complexity and chaos - at leas not effectively.

Lee said...

Talk about fortuitous stumbling! Here's Frank WIlson's (booksinq) thought for the day:

'An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.'

— Charles Bukowski


Dan Holloway said...

yes, I completely agree with that having spent more years than I care to mention in academia where people simply refuse to use one simple word when ten long ones will do - just to show how "clever" there are. There's a big difference, though, between difficult and complex - the complexity of life comes from the fact that every experience of every sensation is different and the moment we start to generalise that complexity we lose the glorious diversity of life.

tim said...

Definitely look into this brand new Facebook community, "Who says that serious literature is dead?":

Lee, what is Helen DeWitt doing? Can you elaborate?

Stephanie said...

Experimental writing. Interesting!

Dan Holloway said...

I've liked the page Tim, thanks - funnily enough there's an article in The Millions (on Sergio De La Pava) linked to on the page that mentions Helen De Witt