The New Postmodern Novel

The fall semester has begun and I find myself with only a few months until I jet off to England.  In the meantime there are still classes and, of course, self-important reflections on the nature of fiction.

Today’s offering comes from the Wall Street Journal, in the form of an article by Lev Grossman.  In it he champions the return of plot to the novel and a general abandonment of the Modernist tropes that for so long have made “literary” fiction an object of scorn for us plebes, namely abstruse narration and typographical trickery becoming of a faulty printing press.  Go ahead and read the article, I’ll wait here.

So I find myself sympathetic to Grossman’s aims, more or less.  Plot has been, as far back as Aristotle, the key feature of drama; for Aristotle, in fact, the construction of the plot was enough to favorably or adversely affect the work’s sum worth, even over characters, setting, actions, etc.  It is the magical ability of plot, writes Aristotle, that ineffable spell cast by fictionalization and construction and progression, that allows us to see something that would in real life be abhorrent (for instance, a dude killing his dad and boning his mom before stabbing out his eyes) as art.  But Grossman seems, in the article, to give the impression that Modernists didn’t have plots, which is pretty much untrue; rather, Modernist plots were quotidian.  Aristotle also makes the point that the only worthy stories were those about certain larger than life individuals and their families; in essence, people who do great things.  Modernism rejected this idea, by and large, and so instead of a story about Achilles killing a hundred dudes we have a story about Leopold Bloom wandering around Dublin for a day doing some pretty gross things before coming home and having makeup sex with his wife.

But the rule still applies.  The construction (plotting!) of Ulysses or The Sound and the Fury take situations that (depending on the case) would either be abhorrent, boring as hell, or more often than not both, and it makes them fascinating.  And of course, the only way to make them fascinating is by way of experimentation with presentation, since a general “A happened then B happened” approach isn’t going to cut it, since these are not great things.  Grossman is spot-on in his assessment of why the Modernists did this, and also how this sort of thing got to be too much for the common reader.  But I think there are some problems.

He points out the drop in sales of adult fiction and claims that these older readers are instead jumping ship and stowing away on the Young Adult Fiction Party Boat, which is to some degree true; Harry Potter is huge and so, unfortunately, is Twilight.  In YA-lit there’s never been a Modernist movement (at least in the sense that there was in adult fiction) and you can read The Hunger Games without worrying about stream-of-consciousness or how to understand when a writer is applying the formula of a fugue to prose or whatever the hell.  Meanwhile, the serious writers who champion genre fiction, like Chabon, are gaining more popularity and credence with some critics, and by Grossman’s assessment we’re all heading straight for a big old fashioned revolution, what he calls the “true postmodern novel.”

But most of these adult readers are reading YA-lit.  He quotes the stats himself; grown-ups aren’t buying the noble attempts to meld genre with literature, the sense of wonder with dreary adult life.  These people are buying books meant for children.  This is not bad in and of itself, of course; people can and should read YA-lit to know how the next generation of readers is shaping up, and there are a few special works that manage to be just as important for kids to read as they are for adults.  The problem is that YA-lit is not only more “lax” in what it allows as far as plot and action go, the standards are just generally lower.  The Harry Potter series, for instance, is sprawling and quite often shoddily constructed, but the books’ main themes (the redemptive power of love, the dignity of the human animal) are noble in essence.  They’re sometimes dealt with rather awkwardly, and there are other YA books that have dealt with the same problems with greater heft and more succinctly, but the thought is there.

On the flip side of the coin is Twilight, which has a handful of good themes (chastity and monogamy) but loses itself under themes of obsession, abuse, misogyny, and childish selfishness.  In fact the greatest irony about Grossman including Twilight with his examples of a “return to plot” is that the series, for most of its run, skillfully evades having a plot at all.  The first book is literally nothing but Bella thinking about and angsting over Edward, a romance plot without all the witty social interaction that writers like Jane Austen offer; the only real element of drama are some rogue vampires that show up near the end, but they are easily dispatched (after Bella passes out, saving her the trouble of actually describing something happening).  Likewise, the final book, Breaking Dawn, builds up expectations of an epic battle, but in the end a magical baby shows up and it is so beautiful that people forget to have conflict.  Seriously.  This is not just bad YA-lit, it is bad lit in general, but things like this can pass as an effort at fiction when they are geared toward a young audience without much reading experience.  Or, perhaps, an audience who wants nothing more than a series of events that promise some sort of danger, but never actually deliver — instead opting to make you feel good and self-assured.  Incidentally, Grossman wrote an article on Twilight comparing it to the HP craze, and he more or less ignores all of the points that I and many other critics have raised about the series.  Whether or not this is due to his (over)enthusiasm for genre or YA-lit or because he was simply writing an expository piece, I cannot tell.

Harold Bloom often speaks of the “dumbing down” of American culture.  I like Harold Bloom, but I disagree with him pretty broadly on a lot of points.  In general I disagree with him here, but when more adults are reading children’s literature than actual adult fiction, I begin to wonder.  I like plots, I really do, and I hope Grossman is right when he says that the true postmodern novel will be just that — one that has moved past the Modernist anxieties over action and the type of characters that should be portrayed.  (An aside — the question of why this should happen [or is happening] is worthy of some serious thought.) I also agree that if this resurgence comes, it will be from genre fiction, which has been patiently waiting in the wings this whole time.  But an over-reliance on plot can be terrible; it is possible to have a story where nothing but exciting stuff happens, but there is no real insight given for the human condition.  There are plenty of SF writers who have a million solid gold starships exploding in the heart of the Galaxy while entropy reverses or whatever.  But these people just might be writing fantasies to entertain, like Twilight, and there is no thought to them beyond that.  A return to clearer plots can be good for reading, but it may pose problems for the type of fiction that is produced.

Entertainment, I should clarify, is not bad in and of itself.  The best fiction, I think, is that which is entertaining, but also manages to deal in some significant way with what Faulkner called the “eternal verities.”  The Modernists, I would say, were entertaining; they just made you work for it.  They didn’t want to hold your hand during the journey, but instead of shrugging it away they went the extra mile and locked themselves in a room on the other side of the continent while you did your best to track them down.  It’s not necessarily the best way to endear yourself to your readers, but it can be rewarding for them.  Hand-holding (though not necessarily good) has a place in YA-lit, when kids are learning to read and understand, but it does not belong in a book read (for serious intellectual stimulation!) by an adult.

I’ll cut myself off here, but point out one final thing.  Grossman makes it sound like this divide between high and low, genre and literature, began almost entirely with the Modernists.  He’s wrong.  There has been “vulgar” literature — sensation fiction in the Victorian era, for instance, from which all or most of our modern notions of genre come — that was looked down upon by the establishment.  As evidence I link here GK Chesterton’s excellent 1901 defense of Penny Dreadfuls.  Note that Chesterton lauds the Dreadfuls for their clear moral universes and experimentations, and he accuses the literary establishment of being biased against simplicity.  This was before either World Wars — the general beginnings associated with the Modernist movement — and yet the argument is remarkably similar to what Grossman offers.

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