Novel Anxiety: Notes from the Genre War Trenches

Martha Cooley | March/April 2011

Martha Cooley


I'm bored by out-and-out fabrication… by invented plots and invented characters. I want to explore my own damn, doomed character… Everything else seems like so much gimmickry… For me, anyway, the fictional construct rarely takes you deeper into the material that you want to explore. Instead, it takes you deeper into the fictional construct, into the technology of narrative, of plot, of place, of scene, of characters. In most novels I read, the narrative completely overwhelms whatever it was the writer supposedly set out to explore in the first place.1

Those are the words of David Shields, a writer of fiction and nonfiction whose newest book, Reality Hunger, has garnered glowing endorsements from the likes of J.M. Coetzee, Jonathan Lethem, and Richard Powers. Shields has thrown down the gauntlet, that's for sure. Yet although it's noisy and attention-greedy, his anti-novel rhetoric deserves consideration. It locates and exposes real anxieties among contemporary fiction writers.

What does the future hold for the novel? If there's still a place in our culture for the genre—if it hasn't overstayed its welcome—then what does the novel need to do to renovate and refresh itself? For don't conventional modes of storytelling strike many writers and readers alike as outdated, not clearly responsive or germane to our lived experience? In form as well as content, do contemporary novels really address the extraordinarily rapid and deep transformations going on in our world—transformations that have clobbered how we assimilate sensory data, communicate with one another, conceptualize problems, deal with fear and trembling and sickness unto death?

Yes, one might reply, but it's been ever thus: each successive generation of novelists confronts new obstacles and challenges. Haven't people bemoaned the state of the novel since it first came into being? Didn't Henry James call it a "loose, baggy monster"? Wasn't the effort of writing a novel enough to make Anton Chekhov toss up his hands in the air? ("What do you know? I am writing a novel!" Chekhov wrote in a letter. "I am keeping at it, but can't see the end in sight..." A little later he offered a skeptical update: "I have the feeling I am making loads of mistakes. There are going to be overlong passages, and inanities." He shelved the project thereafter.)2

Writers have been griping about novels forever. But that's not a sufficient response to current critiques of the genre. After all, the way in which the new arrives and gets digested by us twenty-first-century folk is different—really different—from how it arrived for James or Chekhov. Or even for, say, Milan Kundera (who's eighty-two) or Italo Calvino (who'd be eighty-eight if he were still with us), two writers whose thoughts on the novel I'll explore shortly. Unlike any of them, we contemporary writers and readers are bombarded by YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and endless streaming of text, images, and sounds. Unlike them, we conduct our lives in an attention-shattering environment. Phenomena of all kinds obsolesce in a flash, and much of our daily experience feels reified and inauthentic.

In short, we're up against pitfalls and delimitations that weren't operative in public or private life even as recently as a decade ago. That said, a lot of us share this much with the likes of Kundera and Calvino: we're still looking to literature to tell us something we don't already know. And too many contemporary novels just aren't doing that.

Such notions aren't mine alone, of course. They've been voiced recently by numerous authors of literary fiction. Listen, for instance, to novelist and short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg's musings in the New York Review of Books in 2008:

Here in the West, fiction writers are welcome to be absolutely outspoken; maddeningly, no one much cares what we say—we pose no threat. Is it because...what contemporary writers perceive and say is in some fundamental way divorced from reality?... In our life of the moment, which is both highly politicized and highly commodified, whatever we have to say is in danger of being transmuted, as soon as it hits the paper, into something trivial and inessential. Perhaps part of the problem is that not only have we not located the obstacles to our meaningful expression, we hardly discern that there are any.3

Now, I get where Eisenberg is coming from. Devotees of literary fiction have reason to think that contemporary novels are too often replete with the trivial and the inessential. Moreover, a lot of them take for granted certain features of the old dispensation—a world in which new technologies didn't deeply implicate our psyches and bodies, and in which class structures, global financial arrangements, and violence—suffused religious beliefs and practices could be more easily overlooked. In both content and form, too many novels published today fail to startle, unnerve, or exhilarate us, or to speak in fresh ways to the actual complexities of our experience. In response, readers are increasingly asking themselves: gee, I've only got so much time, and might I not get a bigger kick—in the pants, in the gut—from a work of nonfiction?

A brief example: recently I read J.G. Ballard's novel Super-Cannes. (Ballard is the author of the much-touted novel Crash, whence the film of the same name.) Super-Cannes has incisive things to say about multinational corporations, about the anomie of the upper-white-collar class, about sexual need, about rage, and about the French city of Cannes. As a novel, though, the book is a total failure. Right from the start, its first-person narrator is nothing more than an embarrassingly clunky vehicle for the author's critiques of contemporary capitalism. Each chapter ends on a note of melodramatic portent—something along the lines of "if I'd known..." or "as it would turn out..." The characters and plotting are risible. Finishing the book, I found myself wishing for the essay Ballard should've written about modern office parks, using his fictive model as a springboard for a penetrating analysis of alienation, greed, and the weirdly parallel vectors of power and perversity. As it was, I ground my teeth as I slogged through what Shields calls the narrative technology, by which I refer in particular to Ballard's ersatz suspense, banal scene-making, and tinny characterizations.

In both content and form, too many novels published today fail to startle, unnerve, or exhilarate us, or to speak in fresh ways to the actual complexities of our experience.

Now, of course it's absurd to pillory an entire genre just because a few (or even more than a few) dud novels make their way into print. Nonetheless, I'm far less inclined to feel what I used to, years ago, when opening a new novel—that near-giddy sense of "oh boy, I can't wait to lose myself in this..." Instead, I brace myself for disappointment. I expect that even with a book I'll end up admiring in some ways, there'll still be stretches of considerable tedium. The carpentry-work of the narrative is likely to be more apparent than I'd like it to be. And I may have trouble recalling the story a month later.

I should stop here and confess, by way of full disclosure, that I've been trying (for what feels like forever) to write a third novel of my own. Every time I tell myself, okay, ditch it, the book behaves like Glenn Close in the bathtub scene in Fatal Attraction—lunging at me right when I turn my back on it. But when I attempt to take the story forward, it goes slack and immobile, and nothing I do seems to snap it out of its torpor. I might as well try to heave a hundred-pound sack of sand across the floor. Would that I could simply say, all right, I'm done with this manuscript—and I'm done altogether with writing novels...but I cannot seem to do that, either. Dare I say that this is an unpleasant cul-de-sac in which to wind up, particularly as I've defined myself chiefly as a novelist for the past two decades of my life?

I thus have a strong personal stake in questions concerning the future of the genre itself. I'm frustrated and uncertain about novel-writing, and I've noted that I'm not alone in these feelings. An aesthetically diverse array of writers have expressed their own doubts quite publicly. Even before David Shields penned his manifesto (as he calls his new book), plenty of novelists were already on record with some version of "I just don't know about novels any more..." The sense of novel-fatigue out there seems palpable to me—and not just because I'm between a rock and a hard place with my own efforts.

Let's have a look, then, at some of the concerns being articulated by several well-regarded practitioners. And afterward I'll propose (with the help of Kundera and Calvino) some possible ways in which we might extricate ourselves from this sticky mess, and get back to reading and writing novels.

Thus Kundera believes that the creation of characters, far from being an escape-hatch, an act of control-freakiness, or a pointless detachment from whatever a writer ought to be investigating, is instead an essential and powerful act of engagement.

Three years ago, in a long review of two novels, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland and Tom McCarthy's Remainder, Zadie Smith claimed that as a genre, the novel now finds itself at a crossroads. Netherland, stated Smith, is an instance of what she called lyrical realism, by which she meant that in that novel's pages, everything personal is aestheticized, the self is celebrated (even if in tones of irony), and only subjectivity is authentic. The result, according to Smith, is indulgence rather than challenge: the novel as ratifier mainly of readerly fears and anxieties and of narcissism.

On the other hand, said Smith, McCarthy's Remainder stands in sharp contrast as an instance of what she termed "constructive deconstruction." Proceeding by way of repetitions and recyclings, Remainder attempts to "rid the self of its sacredness," as Smith puts it. McCarthy's narrator isn't in search of authenticity; indeed, as Smith notes, "he finds all of his own gestures inauthentic and everyone else's, too." Instead, rather than obsessing over subjectivity as it navel-gazes, Remainder pays "a rigorous attention to the damaged and the partial, the absent and the unspeakable."

Now, in the course of reviewing these two books, Smith wasn't casting a solid vote for any particular aesthetic. She did, however, make a pointed claim about novels in general. "In its brutal excision of psychology," she wrote, "it is easy to feel that Remainder comes to literature as an assassin, to kill the novel stone dead. I think it means rather to shake the novel out of its present complacency."4

This comment serves as an implicit addendum to Eisenberg's remarks. And it dovetails as well with remarks made recently by Rick Moody when he reviewed a novel he deemed salutary for the genre as a whole: namely, The Interrogative Mood, written by Padgett Powell. As you may know, that novel is narrated entirely as a set of questions—a bold formal choice. Powell's unusual book has appeared, Moody noted, "in a moment of revanchism in American fiction, in which books that don't conform to quaint standards of plotting and characterization...are considered less reliable by a jittery publishing industry." For Moody, the audacity of Powell's novel lies in its ability to "imply [italics mine] narrative and context, and in this way to make the life outside the margins of the page particularized and deeply felt."5

So: we have Smith vexed about lyrical realism, and Moody put off by old-fashioned novel-making modes favored by nervous editors. Then there's Hari Kunzru, himself an author of several well-received novels, who, in a review of Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, lodged yet another complaint against contemporary novels. He described Lethem's book as "at times...almost a caricature of the type of writing (the critic) James Wood (has) skewered as 'hysterical realism.' The irritating names, the hyperactive plotting...and the general atmosphere of conspiracy and connectivity are all hallmarks of a genre that...vastly expanded the possibilities of the postwar novel but has now ossified into a repertoire of gestures."

Kunzru went on to observe, accurately, that Lethem "isn't terribly interested in the kind of muted psychological realism that characterizes...that strand of postwar American fiction running from Richard Yates and James Salter, through Richard Ford and Raymond Carver." Concluding his review, Kunzru stated that novels such as Chronic City do offer "a fierce intellectual engagement with the large-scale structures and networks that govern contemporary life," and, moreover, that such novels run directly counter to "the humanist claim that the individual subject is the only window through which it's possible to understand the world."6

Hence, although in his review Kunzru wasn't happy about Lethem-style excess, he was also skeptical about a fastidious attention to subjective experience at the expense of what he called the "precise observations" and "dry wit" of novels big-minded enough to tackle systemic challenges and dilemmas. In short, Kunzru couldn't get fully behind either the lyrical-realist or the hysterical-realist way of proceeding. And, like Moody, he expressed displeasure with "polite, minor-key stories that end in plaintive dying falls."

So where does all this leave us?

It's time to bring out the big guns pointed at the genre of the novel by David Shields. He's tired of the pretense and jerry-rigging of novels; he's hungry, he says, for reality, and he doesn't think novels deliver it. He wants a very direct and continuous use of what he calls "chunks of the culture" in novels.

Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for...semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all the fabrication-autobiographical frissons or framed or filmed or caught moments that, in their seeming unrehearsedness, possess at least the possibility of breaking through the clutter. More invention, more fabrication aren't going to do this. I doubt very much that I'm the only person who's finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels... [W]hy is the conventional novel moribund? Because [it's] ignoring the culture around [it], where new, more exciting forms of narration and presentation and representation are being found [or rediscovered].7

Shields goes a step further, questioning the usual distinction between fiction and nonfiction. Indeed, he all but refuses it. "The line between fact and fiction," he states, "is fuzzier than most people find it convenient to admit. There is the commonsensical assertion that while the novelist is engaged on a work of the creative imagination, the duty of the journalist is to tell what really happened, as it happened. That distinction is easy to voice but hard to sustain in logic. For imagination and memory are Siamese twins, and you cannot cut them so cleanly apart. There's a good case for arguing that any narrative account is a work of fiction. The moment you start to arrange the world in words, you alter its nature. The words themselves begin to suggest patterns and connections... Then the story takes hold."8

Continuing with his provocations, Shields maintains that the real action is with memoirs and not novels. "[N]othing is so unreliable as memory," he writes, and "[t]o this extent, memoirs really can claim to be modern novels, all the way down to the presence of an unreliable narrator."9 Interestingly, in an echo of Deborah Eisenberg, Shields undercuts his praise of memoirs by expressing skepticism about whether we actually have much of significance to recall and recount to ourselves. "Our culture," he observes, "is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any"10—a comment that's equal parts chilling and sad, and difficult either to refute or to agree with, hence typical of the aphorisms that litter this book like so much sparkly confetti.

One thing I should pause to point out is the fact that the passages I've cited from Reality Hunger are by no means all authored by Shields himself. He quotes a great many people throughout his book—authors and filmmakers, musicians and intellectuals—and his attributions are not terribly precise, to put it mildly. "Most of the passages in this book are taken from other sources," he states in catch-me-if-you-can fashion. "Nearly every passage I've clipped I've also revised, at least a little—for the sake of compression, consistency, or whim."11 He further admits that his list of citations is missing sources he "couldn't find or forgot along the way." Then he asks, grandly: "Who owns the words? We do—all of us—though not all of us know it. Reality cannot be copyrighted."12

I get Shields's game here, which is to treat the writing of his manifesto as if it were itself neither fiction nor nonfiction but a hybrid form, immune from the need for an accurate appendix or any other such apparatus. I do feel, though, that one author owes another the courtesy of accurate citation. (It's fine for Shields to extol the aesthetic virtues of appropriation, but not so fine for him to use those virtues as a cover for a refusal to give credit where it's due.)

But back to Shields's anti-novel arguments. As he pushes further into the question of what he's seeking when he reads, it becomes clear that his problem with fiction isn't merely that the narrative technology is overpowering. His problem with fiction, especially with long fiction, is ontological and epistemological more than technical. "No matter how traditional or experimental a novel may be," he writes—or rather, Joan Didion writes; I can't tell whose words are whose—"the reader is meant to be struck by its fulfillment or frustration of story. [W]e expect autobiography, on the other hand, to be an examination of the process by which it, and its author, came to be. It's easier for autobiography to be about itself than it is for fiction."13

Thus, what Shields misses in most novels, he claims (or maybe this is Phillip Lopate's claim; the appendix doesn't clarify) is "the real drama, an active human consciousness trying to figure out how he or she has solved—or not solved—being alive."14 And, Shields adds (this time I think in his own words): "I want the overt meditation that yields understanding, as opposed to a lengthy narrative that yields—what?—I suppose a sort of extended readerly interest in what happens next."15

To sum up: Shields wants whatever he reads to be about consciousness at work, or, put differently, to be about the writer trying to figure out what she's doing as she's doing it, or how she's living as she's living. This, for him, is the "reality" he's hungry for. What long fiction doesn't usually offer its writers, says Shields, is "the freedom to emphasize its aboutness, its metaphysical meaningfulness."16 Instead of offering us an experience of consciousness attending to itself, novelists do something considerably less compelling, even distasteful, to Shields. Rather than showing us how we make sense of the world, novelists make veiled attempts "to educate us on the limits of disorder held together by the civilizing process of creation." Fiction, he concludes, "seeks eternal rationality. [But] the burden shouldn't be for me to find myself in the work of the great fiction writer.... I don't want to be inside the fiction writer's head unless he first agrees to kill his characters."17

Calvino clearly has a poet's respect for silence, along with a healthy scorn for what he calls the rainfall of visual images in which we live—many of which fade quickly yet leave us with "a feeling of alienation and discomfort."

When writers start kicking down the fences between literary genres, good-neighborliness is evidently put in some jeopardy. At certain moments, Shields softens his position. "I think of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, and all forms of storytelling," he says, "as existing on a rather wide continuum, at one end fantasy...and at the other end an extremely literal-minded register of a life... And in between...are greater and lesser imaginative projects."18

What he ends up voting for is "critical intelligence in the imaginative position." This he finds in such genre-bending works as Anne Carson's Eros the Bittersweet, Nicholson Baker's U and I, Renata Adler's Speedboat, and Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights, among other books. "To be alive," he observes, "is to travel ceaselessly between the real and the imaginary, and mongrel form is about as exact an emblem as I can conceive for the unsolvable mystery at the center of identity.... The books that interest me sit on a frontier between genres. On one level, they confront the world directly-real places, real people with real names and addresses. On another level, they mediate and shape the world, as novels do. The writer is there as a palpable presence on the page, brooding over his society, daydreaming it into being, working his own brand of linguistic magic on it."19

Enough for the moment of David Shields and his manifesto. I'd like to draw attention, though, to that final phrase of his—"linguistic magic"—and to the fact that in everything I've quoted from his book so far, the one word that almost never makes an appearance is language. Put a pin in that, as my grandmother used to say. Tack that thought up there on your mental blackboard; we'll be returning to it anon.

Next, though, I'll ask Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel to shed some light on the questions raised thus far. When I read that book for the first time, I was smitten by how cleverly and usefully Kundera addresses what he calls the sequence of discoveries which constitutes the only meaningful history of the novel. For Kundera, the novelist's job is essentially exploratory; his or her mission is to discover "hitherto unknown segments of existence." And Kundera is very clear on one point: novels examine not reality (a word, by the way, that I feel should always be placed in quote-marks), but existence—that is, "the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he's capable of."

Novelists, therefore, collectively generate what Kundera calls a map of the territory of existence. "Territory of existence means: possibility of existence," he states. "Whether or not that possibility becomes a reality is secondary."20 Potentiality is what matters, in other words.

All novels, he goes on to say, are concerned with the enigma of the self, an enigma that can't be resolved: there is no answer to the question that the self is to itself. Thus, Kundera constructs his own novels as what he calls "meditative interrogations," or extended investigations of existential conundrums. His job as a novelist, he says, is first to generate characters facing particular dilemmas of living, and then to explore how and why those characters respond to those dilemmas as they do.

Reflecting upon Jaromil, the protagonist of one of his early novels, Life Is Elsewhere, Kundera speaks directly to Shields's contention that novels can't do as good a job as memoirs or essays do in revealing an individual consciousness as it tackles the puzzle of selfhood. "I don't show you," says Kundera, "what happens inside my Jaromil's head; rather, I show what happens inside my own: I observe my Jaromil for a long while, and I try, step by step, to get to the heart of his attitude, in order to understand it, name it, grasp it."21

Thus Kundera believes that the creation of characters, far from being an escape-hatch, an act of control-freakiness, or a pointless detachment from whatever a writer ought to be investigating, is instead an essential and powerful act of engagement. A character, he writes, is "not a simulation of a living being. It is an imaginary being. An experimental self."22 David Shields might well respond that the self who shows up in a memoir or personal essay is no less an experimental self—and he's right. But the big difference here, as I see it, is that while the memoirist or personal essayist chooses to draw upon certain objective facts and events in order to enact particular dramas of that experimental self, a fiction writer chooses to invent a context for the experimental self. And it's in the course of inventing and setting into motion this surround for the experimental self that the novelist tries not only to address the experience of other selves but also, as Italo Calvino says, "to give speech to that which has no language"—all the things of this world, animate or inanimate, concrete or ephemeral.

Like Shields, Kundera is interested in terrain shared by literary genres. Acknowledging the frustration felt by many writers and readers of novels today, he asks: "But hasn't the novel come to the end of the road by its own internal logic? Hasn't it already mined all its possibilities, all its knowledge, and all its forms?" No, he answers, not yet. He likens the history of the genre to "a cemetery of missed opportunities, of unheard appeals"—of play, dream, thought, and time.

By the appeal of play, Kundera means the novel as a grand game, reveling in its own playfulness and in what he so memorably termed the unbearable lightness of being. By the appeal of dream, he is referring to the novel as "a place where the imagination can explode as in a dream," breaking free of the constraints of verisimilitude. By the appeal of thought, he means that novelists should "marshal around the story all the means—rational and irrational, narrative and contemplative—that could illuminate" our being. And by the appeal of time, he's hoping that novelists can go beyond a Proustian approach to personal memory and widen their inquiry so it encompasses "the enigma of collective time."23

Kundera isn't terribly sanguine about the future of the novel, despite his launching of these four appeals. In his view, the spirit of the novel is continuously violated by the reductiveness and shallowness of the mass media. He doesn't believe that novels can live in peace (as he puts it) with the zeitgeist; they must progress against the progress of the world. You may agree or disagree with this, but here's a final Kunderan provocation to ponder:

Once upon a time, I too thought that the future was the only competent judge of our works and actions. Later on I understood that chasing after the future is the worst conformism of all, a craven flattery of the mighty. For the future is always mightier than the present. It will pass judgment on us, of course. And without any competence.24

Italo Calvino's ideas about what makes for good literature offer some relief from the frequent shrillness of Shields's distress and the occasionally forced mordancy of Kundera's observations. I also find in Calvino some helpful practical guidance for how (and, just as importantly, why) novels might be written today—so I'll turn to him now.

In 1985, shortly before his death, Calvino penned a set of essays entitled Six Memos for the Next Millenium. In them, he conveyed his belief that regardless of genre, certain literary values ought to be upheld by serious writers. Those values are lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. (There's also consistency—but Calvino didn't get around to writing about that, alas.)

The human need for lightness, Calvino says, is "a reaction to the weight of living." For the writer, "lightness isn't a succumbing to frivolity but a recognition of the world's inertia, weight, and opacity." To escape its heaviness, a writer should be prepared to change her approach—looking at the world with "fresh methods of cognition and verification." And her language must strive for what Calvino calls thoughtful lightness, a lightness that "goes with precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard." Ultimately, he says, meaning is best conveyed "through a verbal texture that seems weightless, until the meaning itself takes on the same rarefied consistency."25

Just as lightness is a tool for reducing the world's mass and weight so that the essential in our experience can be more readily reckoned with, so quickness—another of Calvino's literary values—is a means of working creatively with time. A story of any kind, according to Calvino, is "an operation carried out on the length of time involved...either contracting or dilating it." And so the god of speed, Mercury, should be our patron, "with his winged feet, light and airborne, astute, agile, free and easy."26

Like David Shields, Calvino praises the richness of short prose forms, citing as examples the prose poems of Francis Ponge (particularly in his collection The Purpose of Things), Henri Michaux's short works, and Valery's Monsieur Teste. Calvino himself generated a number of shorter works—in particular, his peerless Invisible Cities—which beautifully meld swiftness and density. His longest novel, The Baron in the Trees, moves as quickly and lightly as its hero, a young nobleman who decides to live not on the ground but in and amongst the trees. Though that novel's action spans a long period of time and covers a great deal of territory, it is a masterwork of economical plotting.

Calvino's privileging of brevity leads to another of his literary values, exactitude. He complains of what he calls "a plague afflicting language (in our time), revealing itself as a loss of...immediacy, (and) an automatism that tends to level out all expression into the most generic, anonymous, and abstract formulas." The right use of language, he says, "enables us to approach things (present or absent) with discretion, attention, and caution, with respect for what things (present or absent) communicate without words." Above all else, Calvino hates vagueness, calling it "the worse blight in modern writing."27

Calvino clearly has a poet's respect for silence, along with a healthy scorn for what he calls the rainfall of visual images in which we live—many of which fade quickly yet leave us with "a feeling of alienation and discomfort." That's not to say that he rejects the visual; far from it. Indeed, visibility is one of the central literary values he espouses. But he has his own way of thinking about it.

When an image arrives in his mind, he says, it starts developing what he calls its own implicit potentiality, the story it carries within itself. Here's the process as he describes it:

Around each image others come into being, forming a field of analogies, symmetries, confrontations. Into the organization of this material, which is no longer purely visual but also conceptual, there now enters my deliberate intent to give order and sense to the development of the story; or rather, what I do is try to establish which meanings might be compatible with the overall design I wish to give the story and which meanings are not compatible, always leaving a certain margin of possible alternatives... (F)rom the moment I start putting black on white, what really matters is the written word, first as a search for an equivalent of the visual image, then as a coherent development of the initial stylistic direction.28

The fifth literary value Calvino addresses is multiplicity—and here, he's specifically interested in the genre of the novel. A contemporary novel, he says, is best conceived of "as a method of knowledge and...a network of connections between the events, the people, and the things of the world." And a novel can manifest its own brand of multiplicity in a range of ways. One way expresses the tension between rational exactitude and frenetic distortion, as Calvino puts it. To illustrate, he cites the Italian novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda, whose work is rich in neologisms. Gadda once held that "to know is to insert something into what is real, and thus to distort reality." The consequence, as Calvino points out, is an amusingly vicious circle: "the more the world becomes distorted before (one's) eyes, the more (one's) self becomes involved in this process and is itself distorted and confused."29 Naturally, Gadda's prose reflects this muddle.

In contrast, the writing of someone such as Robert Musil (author of the long, unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities) takes quite a different tack. Musil uses a controlled irony to express the tension between what Calvino calls mathematical exactitude and the imprecision of human affairs. Unlike Gadda, who was keenly aware of the distortions that cognition itself wreaks—and who, in his novels, threw himself willy-nilly into messy networks of interrelationships among systems and systemizers—Musil held himself back while stuffing his novel with all manner of thoughts about those networks. Although both authors (like many who've succeeded them, from Pynchon to Lethem) were drawn to the idea of multiplicity and interconnectivity, they went at it in divergent ways.

Still other tacks are possible, of course. Calvino notes that Alfred Jarry generated his novel L'Amour Absolu (Absolute Love) as the expression of a single voice that makes itself readable on several levels. In contrast, writers such as Dostoevsky replaced a single thinking "I" with multiple voices, subjects, and viewpoints, thereby generating the polyphony of which Kundera is so fond. A different approach altogether can be found in the work of Paul Valery, who freely admitted to seeking what he called a totality of possibilities—but who did this in aphoristic prose, or "sudden, discontinuous flashes of light," as Calvino says. And then there's Borges, whom Calvino reveres for his astonishing ability to model the universe's workings with great economy, to mess with time, and to play with genres such as spy and mystery tales.

Of course, none of these ways of proceeding are mutually exclusive. Nor can any contemporary novelist, no matter how astutely she contends with multiplicity, hope to provide the kind of totalizing vision of reality generated by, say, Dante in his Divine Comedy. As Calvino observes, we live in a time when scientists have largely given up the notion of a general explanation for the workings of the world. Instead, science and technology alike offer specialized solutions or hypotheses, and leave us to deal with a consequent sense of fragmentation. Perhaps, then, Calvino concludes, "the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge...into a manifold and multifaceted view of the world." And the implications of this for the form of a novel are clear. "Today," he writes (and remember, this was over twenty-five years ago), "the rule of 'Keep It Short' is confirmed even by long novels, the structure of which is accumulative, modular, and combinatory."30

Let's agree that the self in a work of nonfiction is no less a contrivance than a character in a novel. Then why bother getting agitated about the use of characters in the first place?

So, to repeat my earlier question: where does all this leave us?

We can dispatch one central criticism leveled at the novel as a genre: that it is irrelevant and inessential because it fails to address reality—to prepare a face to meet the faces that it meets, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot. If this is a problem for the novel, it must be a problem for fiction as a whole, in which case we're really throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Yet what is problematic about too many current novels is that they're false engagements with experience—false to the commingled workings of body, mind, and heart, and reductive of complex historical, socioeconomic, and political realities.

Going back to David Shields for a moment: he says he wants literature to explore "actual experience" and "what the writer really cares about." All well and good. But there's no de facto reason why a traditionally narrated work of long fiction can't do this just as effectively as an experimental work, or a lyric essay, or a memoir. Scorning most novels' narrative technology as an "elaborate, overbuilt stage set," Shields praises those fiction-makers who're able to compress radically, to make use of collage, to dispense with linearity. Fine. But formal strategies are ultimately matters of taste, hence difficult to legislate. I'm not, for instance, a huge fan of David Foster Wallace's work. But he's more than sufficiently fascinating as an honest explorer of the map of existence for me to concur with those who think he's among the most talented writers of his generation, even though I can't sit with his mammoth Infinite Jest for more than five minutes without getting nudgy. Same goes for William Gaddis's The Recognitions. Yet I love sitting with Joyce's Ulysses or Helen de Witt's The Last Samurai. All are very long novels that warrant the time and energy they ask of their readers.

Shields further misses the point when he asserts the following, by way of favoring nonfiction: "I like the way the temperature in the room goes up when I say, 'I did this' (even if I really didn't)." This way of thinking simply underwrites the desperate narcissism that fuels our celebrity-besotted culture, in which everyone tries to yelp I this and I that loudly enough to be heard over the din of their neighbor's self-congratulations or self-lamentations. It's certainly not a compelling argument against long fiction.

Let's agree that the self in a work of nonfiction is no less a contrivance than a character in a novel. Then why bother getting agitated about the use of characters in the first place? We can of course get impatient with genre boundaries and opt for a melange of forms. But Shields takes things a step further. "I find it very nearly impossible," he states, "to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unself-consciously as a novel, since it's not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now."31 Here's where his smartness turns into dumb bravura—for why should he or anyone else tell us readers which forms of literature can convey what it feels like to be alive right now, and which can't? There's more than enough linguistic fascism to deal with in the public realm; I'm not willing to brook interference at the artistic level.

So: we can safely assert that novels needn't be shouldered aside in our times; it'd be stupid to do so. But they do need refreshment. They do have to answer to profound shifts in how and why people read any sort of fiction, particularly longer works. And they do have to show us something we don't know (or haven't yet come to see in new and vital ways) about the operations of consciousness.

Speaking directly to this last point, in an essay called "Modern Fiction" Virginia Woolf argued that novels should trace the patterns that events and sights inscribe upon the writer's consciousness—no matter how disconnected or incoherent those patterns might seem. In so doing, Woolf said, novels should exclude no formal experiment or method whatsoever. The only things she disallowed (and this shouldn't surprise anyone) were falsity and triviality.

Which leaves us with that phrase I asked you to pin up on your mental clothesline, a while back: linguistic magic. In the end, language is the whole game, the only game—the real game. As Virginia Woolf knew very well, linguistic magic is a function of skill, to be sure, but not solely of skill—or even of talent. It comes about in unplanned, unplannable ways. I'd say that linguistic magic arises from a confluence of the novelist's sensibility and her musicality. In her best work, her "take" on the world is naturally integrated with the way words sound to her. Using whatever narrative technology she likes, in whatever idiosyncratic manner seems right to her, she cuts to what Woolf called the quick of the mind. And she does this in a language that's transparently fitted to her subject and themes. Her story is paced and shaped artlessly, and its reader, fully taken in, doesn't notice any wizard behind any curtain frantically flipping any levers, nor any Toto yapping about artifice or artificiality. Instead, the reader feels simply as if (and here I paraphrase from a short story by Roberto Bolaño called "Meeting With Enrique Lihn") the whole thing were a play in which we actors suddenly remember our and our fellow-actors' lines and bring it all to life.

That's what we aim for, anyway, we novelists. To embolden us, there's always Ralph Waldo Emerson's wise counsel. Emerson was a prodigious reader, consuming things randomly and without letting himself get too caught up in any one volume or author. "Learn to divine books," he told one fellow writer—"to feel those that you want without wasting much time over them."

Emerson was a big proponent of what he called creative reading, which, he felt, was the bottom-line prerequisite for creative writing. When our minds are "braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion."

Labor and invention, yes. Work and play. And as Emerson said: "The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent."32


Martha Cooley is the author of two novels, The Archivist and Thirty-Three Swoons. An Associate Professor of English at Adelphi University, she also teaches fiction in the Bennington Writing Seminars.


  1. David Shields, Reality Hunger (New York: Knopf, 2010), T-519, 520.
  2. Simon Karlinsky (ed.), Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. 135.
  3. Deborah Eisenberg, "The Genius of Peter Nádas," New York Review of Books (NYRB), July 17, 2008.
  4. Zadie Smith, "Two Paths for the Novel," NYRB, Nov. 20, 2008.
  5. Rick Moody, "Ask Force," Bookforum, Sept.-Nov. 2009.
  6. Hari Kunzru, "Smoke and Mirrors," Bookforum, Sept.-Nov. 2009.
  7. Shields, op. cit., H-239, J-262.
  8. G-192.
  9. C-63.
  10. H-242.
  11. J-296.
  12. Appendix (p. 211).
  13. Q-429.
  14. Q-433.
  15. Q-436.
  16. Q-438.
  17. Q-457.
  18. G-184.
  19. G-217, 207.
  20. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (New York: Harper Perennial, 2003; orig. pub. 1988), pp. 5, 42.
  21. Ibid., pp. 30-31.
  22. Ibid., p. 34.
  23. Ibid., pp. 15-16.
  24. Ibid., pp. 19-20.
  25. Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millenium (New York: Vintage International, 1993; orig. pub. 1988), p. 16.
  26. Ibid., p. 52.
  27. Ibid., p. 56.
  28. Ibid., p. 89.
  29. Ibid., p. 108.
  30. Ibid., p. 120.
  31. Shields, G-212.
  32. As quoted in John Banville, "Emerson," NYRB, Dec. 3, 2001.

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