Monday, June 5, 2017

On Fiction II

I have been making an effort especially since I retired to read a variety of writings, and since I began this blog in 2014 I have more or less given up on the Internet as a primary source, except to identify which books to read. Although I tend to like serious topics and enjoy good nonfiction, I find it mentally oppressive to get a nonstop barrage of technical or academic writing and need some artistic works in the mix. One of the main themes of the blog has become the unsatisfactory nature of literature, fiction in particular. This may just be a fetish of mine, since I am not easily entertained and become concerned when I notice deficiencies in a work. For an experienced reader like me, it is impossible to take a work purely at face value and blindly accept whatever premises an author uses to create his or her work. Their premises and motives may be conscious or unconscious and may be unsatisfactory to me in a manner that causes me to reject their book outright.

When I read something that is supposed to possess artistic merit, I am not easy to please. This isn't because I consider myself a connoisseur, but because I expect the author to be reasonably talented and to have made a substantial effort in the production of his or her book. That sounds simple enough, but I have found that it is rarely the case. There are many forces working against the production of the kind of fiction that I like, and I'll attempt to identify some of them. Most of the intractable problems related to fiction have to do with the wide social context in which novels are written. They are usually written in a cooperative effort between agents, editors, publishers and authors, and professional writers have limited control over this process. In effect, their preferences are subordinated to commercial expectations unless they have managed to become popular by some alternate route. Thus, the thematic content of most fiction is dictated by what a few people think will sell, just as the thematic content of most film is dictated by the film industry. I have the same problem in finding good films.

There is an additional force working against good writing that occurs most obviously in the U.S., namely, the habitual conformity of the population. To be sure, there are some regional differences in the country, particularly with respect to the outlooks that dominate in red and blue states, but compared to Europe, which in a comparable area includes multiple historical ethnicities, languages, geographical barriers and countries, the U.S. is remarkably uniform in culture. To make matters worse, many of the largest corporations in the world are located in the U.S., and they have become expert in the manipulation of the expectations of the population in the interest of profit. As I've said, even the literary end of fiction in the U.S. seems like a niche market controlled by specialists in academia and publishing, and a track has been created for aspiring writers to follow through M.F.A. programs. Writers' conferences such as the one here at Breadloaf in Middlebury are venues for the exchange of business cards.

Drawing from the ten novels I've most recently read, I'll say something about the ones I find best and worst, which I hope if nothing else will show the criteria that are important to me. The best, I think, is Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai. What I like about it is the mood created by the author, along with a penetrating psychological aspect that captures the psyches of the characters with basic realism with respect to their outlooks, and that he includes a few lighthearted moments in an otherwise gloomy setting. It is instructive to compare Satantango with the good but lesser work, Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy's world is unrelentingly gloomy and his characters are dark to the core – so dark in fact as to render the novel unrealistic. Compared to Krasznahorkai, McCarthy is incapable of writing with psychological subtlety. Thus, instead of Irimiás, the itinerant opportunist, we get Judge Holden, the implausible superhuman demonic figure. Though McCarthy may equal Krasznahorkai in the lyricism of his descriptions of the landscape, the psychological underpinnings of his characters are comparatively primitive and weak. An interesting facet of fiction that I have come to recognize is that its authors are trapped by the cultures in which they live, thus American blandness makes it more difficult for American authors to produce fine works compared to authors who live in culturally richer regions such as Central Europe.

Another favorite is The Mandarins, by Simone de Beauvoir. The best part of that book, I think, is the interaction between the female characters. It seems that de Beauvoir understands the women in her milieu extremely well and depicts them with some precision, such as I have not seen in American fiction. I also like the sections covering her relationship with Nelson Algren, which are only partly fictionalized. For whatever reason, I find women more interesting than men, perhaps because they often seem to have more nuanced lives and a broader range of emotions. The main problem I have with The Mandarins is de Beauvoir's subservience to the male characters, which I later found corroborated by her life with Sartre as described in her memoirs. Most of the book is wasted on man-stuff, which I find uninteresting. For all her feminism, she capitulates to the male chauvinist pigs.

This last point brings to mind a more general problem that I have with male novelists. My views on Darwinism extend far down into the actual behavior of living people, and I am tired of male aggression, which turns up everywhere, including in novelists. What men often do, regardless of their vocation, is dominate and attempt to impress, the purpose of which, whether they know it or not, is to improve their chances of successful breeding. There is a tendency in male novelists to present themselves as more omniscient than they really are. They pretend to understand the world better than they actually do by filling their books with excesses in facts or ideas that do not necessarily improve upon their primary narratives, and their hubris often results in characters who display a psychological deadness that puts me to sleep. Although I like the writing of Michel Houellebecq in some respects, the grand theorizing in his novels is actually rather superficial, and you end up experiencing the Houellebecq persona or brand rather than the best possible writing. Houellebecq has positioned himself as a cultural phenomenon and, besides writing poetry, exhibits his photographs as an artist in that sphere. He has also starred in a fictional film about himself, "The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq," a minor but amusing effort. I found Mathias Énard comparatively annoying in Compass, not for the ideas or prose, but because he pointlessly crammed in many irrelevant facts that contributed nothing to his paltry narrative. I felt that the novel lurched from one distraction to another and hardly cohered at all, and that it would be just as well to read random passages from an encyclopedia. When they write well, men can deliver compelling narratives, as in Sons and Lovers or Madame Bovary, but they more often resort to gaudy showmanship, perhaps on an instinctive basis. The male competitive drive sometimes, but not always, gets in the way of good writing.

For this reason, I tend to favor female writers such as George Eliot and Simone de Beauvoir, but I still have difficulty finding many to my liking. In the context of modern living, the conditions aren't auspicious for a writer like George Eliot to appear. When she wrote, writing fiction for a living was not considered a vocation, and she came to it almost accidentally, with an unusual amount of encouragement from her partner, G.H. Lewes. Were she alive today, she would probably attend college and pick a more stable and reliable career. Those conditions apply to most women in the developed world now, and becoming a novelist would have to fall low on the list of potential vocations for those who are sensible. If you exclude the works by various minorities that emphasize their cultural backgrounds and hardships, a form that doesn't generally interest me, though I thought Texaco, the novel by Patrick Chamoiseau, was excellent, that leaves a pool of upper-middle-class brats who self-selected to become writers and obtained the appropriate educational credentials. Judging from my readings of several successful female and male writers from this group, don't expect much from them.

Because of my failure to find enough fiction that I enjoy, I have turned to poetry and memoirs. Unfortunately, I haven't had much luck there either. I was able to find a few poems that I liked and even developed an appreciation of Emily Dickinson, but I usually have to read at least a hundred poems to find one that I like. I liked most of the memoirs that I read, but the good ones are rarer than good novels. Most of the best memoirs are written by novelists, and their memoir-to-novel ratios are low. If there aren't many good novels, there are going to be even fewer good memoirs. Under these conditions I will henceforth be reading very little fiction, but I will keep my eyes open.

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