On Saturday I went along to the Free The Word festival event ‘The Shock of the New’ at the Free Word centre, Farringdon Road, to hear Geoff Dyer, Gabriel Josipovici and Dubravka Ugresic discuss the future of the novel under the chairy eye of Alex Clark.
So, anyway, it turns out that the novel will…. Ah, but that would telling. Let’s take things as they came. This is not a direct transcription, but a paraphrase of some of what I found interesting. (If it seems like Geoff Dyer spoke twice as much as everyone else, then that I’m afraid is a result of my personal prejudice rather than him lording it over the other two.)
Alex Clark started by giving the floor to Josipovici, inviting him to run through the argument of his last book, ‘Whatever Happened to Modernism’. Which he did, viz: that while Europe has spent the last century giving due credit to the artistic innovations instigated by, among others, Kafka, Mann, Proust, Joyce, then Woolf, and later Nabokov, Beckett, Robbe-Grillet and Thomas Bernhard, British literary culture has largely failed to take on board their lessons, and follow their various leads. Contemporary novels have none of their severity and experimentation.
Ugresic took a shorter run-up to the present moment, remembering how fired up she had been by postmodernists like Robert Coover and John Barth, and the South American magic realists. But “we have the literature we deserve,” she said, and “as we live in corporate times, so we have corporate culture, and a corporate novel.” The two great disjunctions of our time, however, are the internet, and the “disappearance” of the author (the first of which she came back to, the second, I think, not).
Dyer took a similar approach, listing an early set of seminal influences (“and I think I’m entirely representative of my generation in this,” he said) as American authors like Kerouac, Salinger and Heller. He said that he had been impressed by their postmodern inheritors, too, but had recently tried rereading Coover’s ‘Gerald’s Party’, and, he said, it “just seemed dreadful to me now, so tired with its own experimentation.”
He admitted a certain hostility towards experimentation for the sake of it (books with “something of the lab coat” about them) and quoted David Shields’ ‘Reality Hunger’, where Shields says (or quotes) “what is the point of conducting an experiment when the result is known in advance?”
However, Dyer said, a sense of anxiety over the state of something (is the novel dead?) can often be a sign that the thing is actually in rude health, and gave as evidence a recent conference at SF Moma entitled ‘Is Photography Over?’ and the perennially announced death of jazz.
“That said,” he said, “I’m not so hung up about the novel” as a genre. Contra Marguerite Yourcenar, whom he quotes as saying, in effect, that “nowadays the novel is so powerful that one is almost obliged to use it as a means of expression,” he said that “I feel that if you want to express yourself creatively, you don’t have to express yourself in the novel, and that is a freedom.”
Ugresic then began a line of thought that accentuated the elite, bourgeois status of everybody in the room, and suggested that “the whole institute of literature is deteriorating”, shifting from a time when “everybody agreed” on the preciousness of the novel, whereas now literature departments were turning into cultural studies departments and books were “becoming unimportant.”
Dyer took issue with this (there was a slight current of – not antagonism, but perhaps miscommunication between Dyer and Josipovici on the one hand and Ugresic on the other; she thought she might have annoyed them by saying ‘you’ which they took as second person when she meant it in the sense of ‘one’) and brought up Raymond Williams’ ‘The Country and The City’ as a book that recognised – in terms of ‘rural paradise’ – the permanent positioning of the golden age somewhere in the past, “just over the horizon, and you can keep going back until you reach the Garden of Eden.”
Dyer then made points about the (positive) influence of US writing programs, to which someone from the audience pointed out the MFAs were a success because writers wanted to teach them, so as to get health insurance.
A general discussion of the canon – of the 95/5 split between the forgotten and the ‘great’ – was enlivened by a vivid digression by Josipovici, whereby the voice of the ghost of Hamlet’s father became that of The Canon, but “is he to be believed?”
Dyer talked about the increasing speed of canonisation, the rise of the awards and lists that honoured people even before they were published, and the absurd temporal shift contained in the trajectory ‘Classic > Modern Classic > Contemporary Classic > Future Classic.’ “Canon formation is in danger of turning into hype.”
To this Ugresic said that she at least liked her novels “to be novel” and Dyer agreed, citing the increasing problem of writing for an audience, and he spoke of David Eagleman’s ‘Sum: Tales From The Afterlife’ that was impressed him for its garret-written, hobbyist idiosyncrasy, whereas Eagleman’s second book seemed to be more clearly written with an audience in mind, and less interesting for it.
Ugresic returned to the subject of the internet, which is drastically affecting the way we read. This met a comment from a member of the audience, who suggested flash fiction, the short stories of Etgar Keret and the shuffleable iPhone App of Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit From The Goon Squad’ as possible responses to this.
Alex Clark here stepped out of her neutral role (she clearly knew the audience member, calling her Kirsty; a quick Google search seems to suggest she was novelist Kirsty Gunn) to say that, for all its formal qualities, and enjoyable elements, there were plenty of clichés in ‘Goon Squad’ – I agree, as my review of the book and of the App will show.
Another audience member, sitting next to Gunn, then lamented the fact that all the talk had been of consuming literature, and why can’t we talk about art.
Ugresic (I think) responded that we had to consume art, whether we liked it or not, and then returned to the internet, talking about a conference she had just been at called Amplified Literature (seemingly part of Kosmopolis 11, which took place at Barcelona in January of this year), and read out some of a manifesto she had been given there, which said that “the hegemony of the printed word is starting to make way for older and brand new words,” and that the “seismic eruption of the electronic word is changing the way we write, publish, and distribute literature,” leading to a “new species of reader and writer” It’s not clear to what extent Ugresic agreed with this, or was simply offering it as a topic for discussion.
Josipovici certainly found it laughable: “What is a new species?” he asked. “We’re all human beings.” To which Gunn (I think) responded that the iconoclasm of the manifesto sounded rather similar to the attitude of the Modernists that he had been talking about. Dyer ironically added that it was a “canonical manifesto… change a few adjectives and you’ve got the Futurists.”
(The debate was livening up now, in no small part I think to the contributions from the audience – always useful as they will feel less beholden to maintain a sense of academic propriety.)
Comments flowed fast and loose here, including a digression into the idea of the promiscuous reader, who happily mixes the high and low, which ended in an attempt to decide if it’s even possible to compare the tweets of Ashley Cole and the novels of Thomas Bernhard. (Happily, no.)
The final question was from Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, clearly trying to link the conversation into the title, or theme, of the Free The Word festival (‘Translating Power’), which was, can we see the contemporary novel as possibly being able to “speak truth to power”?
To which Josipovici replied that “it is utopian to think that art is ever going to be able to do anything to power.”
Dyer said that he wasn’t worried about the novel’s ability to speak truth to power, as long as there were other forms of writing doing so. He compared Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’ to Eric Schlosser’s ‘Fast Food Nation’, which had a similar cultural impact, except that it was non-fiction. Also, he wasn’t waiting for a great novel to come out of the Afghanistan war, in part because there’s so much great long-form reportage doing already doing just that.
Ugresic gave Heawood a blunt answer, “No,” to which she added the observation that “art for social change” was a buzz phrase all across Europe at the moment, because “European politicians have no ideology, so they look to culture and put the responsibility for it on the shoulders or artists and writers.”
Dyer finished up by remarking, with mock alarm, that he’d been sat there for an hour and a half and not mentioned John Berger. He recalled how impressed he had once been by Berger’s imperative, that (paraphrase) “I look at a work of art and ask it, does this work of art help a man seize his rights”, but that now he’d be more likely to side with Rebecca West, who hoped we would settle for the agreeable over the disagreeable.
That was more or less it: many of the positions were familiar. The issue of new digital forms was not really addressed, beyond being blown into the straw man free-for-all whereby values are levelled such that Ashley Cole can equal Thomas Bernhard.
I won’t go on with my personal response to the event, other than to say that if the digital future means flash fiction and Etgar Keret rather than book-length novels, then so much the worse for us. There is a huge difference between making something out of fragments, and producing only fragments. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” Eliot wrote. That shoring is important. The fragments are used to build something, or at least to prop something up, not just scattered about willy-nilly.
The novel is still an art form that requires time and dedication, and repays that investment over the days or weeks that it is, on and off, consumed. The novel works on you between reading sessions; it is split up into fragments in the reading process anyway.
However, to simply and solely work in unrelated fragments and then justify that by recourse to a) the speed of our lives b) the mechanics of the world wide web c) the post-structuralist dissemination of meaning away from the centre, leaves us in a terribly poor position. If the fragment is the basic unit of contemporary existence, then so be it, but please don’t think you can’t make something out of fragments, however shored up and ruined it might be.
Oh, and I’m almost certain that was Jonathan Franzen in the audience. I held the door open for him as we went out, and the woman with him had a definite US accent. Is he in town for the London Book Fair perhaps?