This is not my usual monthly reading post. Instead, I’m using four books I read this month as a springboard into a pair of barely-thought-through meander/rants.
Autofiction vs ‘the novel’, followed by Value for money in bookbuying. If you fancy that, please read on:
Here are two interesting novels that seem, to me, to epitomise the two dominant modes of being for the novel at the moment, rather as Netherland and Remainder did for Zadie Smith in her much-discussed ‘Two Paths for the Novel’ essay, which you can also read in Changing My Mind. For Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, used by Smith to represent the way things used to be, may I suggest Happiness by Aminatta Forna, a writer I’d never read till now, and maybe never would have if I hadn’t been given the book by my parents as a birthday present. Smith set in opposition to O’Neill’s Franzen-esque ‘well-made novel’ Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, a more difficult and dicey proposition that, now, I’d be tempted to call ‘neo-postmodern’. In place of that, how about Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, as good a representative of the ‘autofiction’ genre as you can imagine, outside of Rachel Cusk’s Outline/Transit/Kudos trilogy.
I won’t say too much about the Heti, as I have a review of it forthcoming in the excellent Brixton Review of Books, but I will say that, although I am a big fan of autofiction as a genre, I am becoming annoyed with its willingness to play fast and loose with the title ‘novel’ – even if it’s not the writers themselves who do so, but rather than nebulous publishing-promotional-journalistic apparatus that surrounds them. When I think of the books that have most impressed me so far this year, I think of Esther Kinsky’s River, Jessie Greengrass’s Sight and Heti’s Motherhood – and that’s not counting the latest Cusk, which I haven’t read yet, but which if it is as good as Outline and Transit, will certainly be up there too. All of those are books that seem to come under the autofiction bracket – though Kinsky’s blue Fitzcarraldo livery would seem to mark it as fiction rather than non-, and Sight gets called a novel on the blurb.
Now, what I like about autofiction is that it problematises the very notion of what a ‘novel’ is, but what I don’t like is that in doing so it seems to sideline the very worthy, if unfashionable idea of what a novel used to be. It seems at time to equate the view that the line between fiction and non-fiction is blurred, and in fact more of a zone than a line with a wholesale annexation of the fictional landscape. As if autofiction wants to be what a novel should be. This doubtless reads like some kind of awful exaggeration, but it does seem to suggest to me rather where we headed – which is a place where to write a good old-fashioned novel, with rounded characters, and realist description, and manufactured plots, is, oh dear me yes, something that is beyond the bounds of tastefulness. As if to write a traditional novel is akin to producing ‘likeable’ characters.
Which is where Forna’s Happiness comes in. It is told in the third person, and splits itself between two principal protagonists. Its main action takes place over 11 days in London in February 2014, though it opens with and has long italicised sections that jump back in time as far as 1834 and, geographically, to the United States, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Iraq. Whereas autofiction states its themes upfront, Happiness embeds them in the narrative, and in the novel’s very structure. It is a social novel, and so it shows how the various characters are linked in underground ways (rather as Mukherjee does in A State of Freedom) – at the risk of London seeming like rather a small pond to be swimming in. It is a novel about immigration, and so it is rather obvious, though never explicitly stated, that almost none of the main characters are native Britons. It is a novel about immigration, and so ‘invasive’ species – ring-tailed parakeets, urban foxes in London, and coyotes in New England – are central to the plot. All of this is very effectively done, but rather too neat, too on the nose.
It probably helped that I was able to read Happiness over a short span of four days, away from home, with two long train journeys included. It is the kind of novel that would be easy to be distracted from – compare to Heti, which is such a distracted book to begin with that it almost seems to assume distractedness as the default setting of its readers. But Happiness rewarded my attention. It is to Forna’s credit that although the book interweaves its characters and themes as it builds towards the end of the book, it doesn’t do so via the medium of plot. Not much happens. The threads that are interweaved are tied off in pretty bows, but not big dramatic, climactic bows. Disbelief is never dangerously threatened.
And it did move me, and make me care about the characters (if not ‘believe’ in them), and it did make me think about the themes, exactly as – presumably – intended by the author. It is a very well-made novel, and it clearly demonstrates what that form does well: creates a snow dome world that the reader can observe, perhaps from inside, perhaps from outside, and compare to the world around them. The central gambit of autofiction – that the world cannot be considered without a consciousness to view it through – is ignored.
This feeds into an interesting Twitter thread by Daniel Davis Wood following The White Review’s ‘Writing Motherhood’ event with Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti and Lara Feigel, which I had a ticket for but couldn’t attend. Wood particularly highlights comments from Cusk that denigrate multiple POV narratives, especially when they seem to suggest that this is a better representation of the world, because there is more of it. Now I agree with this, but I was more intrigued by Wood’s characterisation of Cusk’s position here:
Which sounded to me as if Cusk has come to a point where she can’t credit an act of imagination except perhaps by consciously framing it as an act undertaken by a single human subject…
— Daniel Davis Wood (@danieldaviswood) May 24, 2018
…and she did actually say that she has a problem with writing that is purely imaginative, and not embedded (explicitly or implicitly) in subjective experience.
— Daniel Davis Wood (@danieldaviswood) May 24, 2018
Which also sounded to me as if she feels, now, that there’s no way out of writing in the first-person voice…as if she’s come to the limits of her discipline somehow, or as if the discipline has reached its limits developmentally.
— Daniel Davis Wood (@danieldaviswood) May 24, 2018
What I love about autofiction is that prioritises consciousness (aka subjectivity) as a strong filter through which to view the world, but what I love about the old-fashioned novel is that it does the opposite. And I suppose this is simply what has made the novel such a dominant cultural form for so long: that it has been able to encompass the objective and subjective, the world-as-realistically-presented and the world-seen-through-consciousness. I suppose James Wood would say that at its height – Flaubert’s style indirect libre – it does both at once. And I suppose autofiction is simply produced by people who have had enough of that rather refined literary style, and want to push the novel towards the speculative, the philosophic, the contingent: the novel as scattered notes, Wittgenstein with characters.
I like both, or rather, I like all three.
But I want my novels to be novels, and my autofiction to be books.
Call me an old stick-in-the-mud.
Motherhood and Happiness are both biggish books. Two slimmer books that I read this month are Will Harris’s Mixed-Race Superman and Michael Chabon’s Pops, and I want to write briefly about these from another perspective, that of books-as-objects, and as objects of a rather unliterary category: value for money.
Mixed-Race Superman is the first book from new indie publisher Peninsula Press, and I received it as I contributed to their set-up crowdfund. Now, I’m slightly dubious about people using kickstarter/crowdfunding websites to set up new indie publishers, when the ones that already exist often do so on the edge of survival. (Consider becoming a Patreon supporter of Influx Press, or joining the #justonebook campaign to help Salt through a tough period.) But I liked Peninsula Press’s launch plan of a series of ‘pocket essays’ – essentially, to my mind, a junior cousin to the Notting Hill Press’s heritage hardbacks. So I chipped in, and I got Will Harris’s book, and read it on the train to work.
Now, really, I didn’t think that much of Harris’s essay, especially as a standalone piece. It was an interesting take on mixed race identity, but it could quite easily have been a piece in a collection like The Good Immigrant. It was fun on Keanu, and illuminating on Obama, but its choppy structure didn’t do it any favours, the personal angle wasn’t strong enough to really draw me in, and some of the stuff on Nietzsche was over-familiar. I didn’t come out of it feeling like my thinking had been fundamentally changed, which is what you want from an essay, am I right? It was good, but not that good, not buy-me-as-a-book good. (I mean, you can get a Penguin Great Ideas for that price, and nearly have enough over for a coffee, though of course those are out of copyright…)
If Mixed-Race Superman wasn’t really worth my £6, then is Michael Chabon’s Pops worth £10? Again, review pending, so I’ll hold back, but I’ll say this: the book is essentially seven pieces of journalism, plus an introduction. Two of the pieces, including the longest one in the book, are available online. At least two of the others used to be, but have been taken down from the author’s website.
Mixed-Race Superman is 121 pages long and the cut-about structure gives it a fair amount of white space. The number of pages that are at least half text is, by my count, 78.
Popsis 127 pages long, 104 of which are at least half text.
Both books are beautifully designed, M-RS a very pocket-sized paperback, Pops a neat little hardback. Both want to be read.
Both of them I gave more attention to in book form than I would have online.
I’m all for print books. It’s how I like books best.
But I do wonder if value for money might be something that we should be factoring into our review system. (And I’m not accusing either of these are being poor value for money as propositions. I’ll be happy to pay £6 for future Peninsula Press books, and £10 for neat little hardbacks, when they hit the sweet spot in the shop and I feel like I have the readies to cover it.)
Yes, we know that the hardback first edition model is a dead end, and I know that we are paying for more than just paper and ink when we shell out, but if we are going to keep indie bookselling, indie publishing and indie book-reading alive, then we need to rely on more than great design to justify the price – because we’ve been living in a golden age of great book design for some time now, but I sometimes wonder if great design is camouflage, rather than flag. And no I won’t be reading my books on a kindle because of it. But I do wish I had time to do some proper research on book costs against inflation, against other cultural outlays. But I don’t, because I’m too busy reading – and writing – indie, and loving it.