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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Style in Contemporary Fiction

Friday, September 17, 2010

According to Elif Batuman's LRB review, Mark McGurl's book about the influence of creative writing schools on literary fiction, The Program Era, makes an interesting proposition. This is that as in technology or sport, "systematic investments of capital over time have produced a continual elevation of performance" in the sphere of writing. With regards to style alone, Batuman agrees:
If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. 
Such improvements will not, of course, be universal across all writers; but neither should they be limited to those who have directly been taught creative writing. Any amateur tennis player must perceive that because Roger Federer has overturned the assumption that the preceding generation of Sampras and Agassi would never be bettered, so too it ought in principle to be possible for the most modest player to supersede their own expectations; couple such inspiration with practical developments in sport science, and you have a potent formula for improving sportsmen across the board. Similarly, in creative writing, when the existence of writing schools is linked with the persistent if outdated New Critical doctrine that aesthetics can be understood and judged in absolute and even scientific terms, a powerful notion must take root in the mind of any aspiring novelist. That it is possible to to learn the techniques that make for well-written literature, coupled with the living examples of those successful graduates of such schools (McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Anne Enright, Naomi Alderman, to name some of the graduates of the University of East Anglia alone), puts paid to the myth that creativity is somehow god-given but untutored, a kind of demonic possession. So McGurk's central thesis that the mere existence of academies for writing, the professionalisation of the form, should see attendant improvements in the state of the art generally is a fairly reasonable one.

Certainly, as I am reading a lot of contemporary literature at the moment in preparation for a course that I am about to teach on post-war fiction, I think it is hard to find examples of bad writing, which goes hand in hand with many of the influences of the achieved practice of creative writing. Pat Barker's Regeneration offers my most recent example. Early in the novel, there is a conversation between the psychologist, Rivers, and Robert Graves, who has tried to manipulate his friend Siegfried Sassoon into admission into Rivers' psychiatric hospital. Graves at first tells Rivers that the reason Sassoon had let himself be admitted was that:
"He couldn't go on denying he was ill."
Rivers didn't reply. The silence deepened, like a fall of snow accumulating second by second, flake by flake, each flake by itself inconsiderable, until everything is transformed.
"No, it wasn't like that." Graves's knobbly, broken-nosed boxer's face twitched. "I lied to him."
The snow metaphor separating Graves's initial statement from his true admission is quite admirable. It works literally to fill the time and silence between the two pieces of direct speech, padding out the dialogue in a dramatic fashion, but also as a figure of time and silence in the abstract. Yet there is something not quite right about it. No - "right" is the wrong word to use, but it is precisely the problem: the metaphor is too right, too polished and perfect. The steady, successful poetry of the image contrasts with the next description, of Graves's "knobby, broken-nosed boxer's face." The idea of Graves, a war hero, as a mere broken-nosed boxer rather than one scarred by his actual experiences on the front, is slightly comic but also therefore poignantly incongruous. In this short passage I see two elements side by side. In the first, one can almost read the sign on the door of the creative writing workshop: "Day One: Metaphor." In the other, the more intuitive, naturalistic writer with the untutored eye for a telling detail that adds a nuanced and ambiguous definition to her character.

Perhaps I am being unfair here. Style is a subtle, tricky spirit and, of course, no one can finally identity which elements of it have been bottled and then taught, and which are the outcome of a more intuitive process. What one can say, though, is that across the board of much contemporary literature, it is hard to identify radical differences in style. The contrast here is with the modernists. A passage of writing about nature in D.H. Lawrence would be recognisably distinguished from a passage by E.M. Forster; Henry James's and Virginia Woolf's representations of consciousness take very distinct registers and narrative points of view. Not only is difference noticeable, it is - or was - also divisive. It is not particularly surprising or iconoclastic to hear of Evelyn Waugh complaining that "Lawrence had very meagre literary gifts," in the way it would be surprising to hear the same sort of thing said by Colm Toibin on John Banville. The two earlier writers are at different extremes, stylistically, and it is not surprising to see such literary opposition, even if today both writers can be incorporated as canonical. Indeed, modernism generally was unified more by its reaction against what was perceived to be the homogenously realist style of Victorian literature, than by a common agenda to produce its own, equally homogenous new style.

Some sort of homogeneity, though, does seem to be at work in contemporary literature, which lacks either a sense of what it is for or what it is against. Across my most recent reading list, there is a heavy debt to modernist authors, techniques, even basic plots. Smith's On Beauty reworks Forster's Howards End; Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty is indebted to The Great Gatsby; Regeneration uses the psychoanalytic dialogue to dramatise its characterisations of therapist and patient; McEwan's Saturday presents a contemporary Bloomsday, whilst Atonement ventriloquises Virginia Woolf; across her oeuvre, A.S. Byatt speaks back to any number of Victorian and modernist aesthetes. Most of these novels rely on the conventions of realism, but although they use omniscient narrators they do not ("Writing Workshop Day Two: Suspect Narration") succumb to a naive objectivity; events are always suspected, focalised through different points of view, contrasted against historical facts as we know them.

Although postmodernism still bickers at the ragged fringes, and makes occasional incursions (usually sneaking in via metafictional devices) the main crowd of literary writers flow onwards, combining a general realism with gentle pastiche, and giving assenting nods to readerly needs such as plausible and intriguing plotting. The voices of characters - by now of course multicultural and cutting across classes - speak accurately off the page. At the Chatterley trial the prosecuting barrister, Griffith-Jones, read aloud a passage of conversation that Malcolm Muggeridge had recently deemed “the most hilariously fatuous dialogue ever to be written in the English language":
Sir Malcolm gave a little squirting laugh, and became Scotch and lewd..."How was the going, eh? Good, my boy, what?"
"I’ll bet it was! Ha-ha! My daughter, chip of the old block, what! I never went back on a good bit of fucking, myself. Though her mother, oh, holy saints!" He rolled his eyes to heaven. "But you warmed her up, oh, you warmed her up, I can see that. Ha-ha! My blood in her! You set fire to her haystack all right."
Griffith-Jones asked, "Do you think future generations reading that conversation would get anything approaching the kind of way in which Royal Academicians conducted their conversations?" Griffith-Jones may have had prudish motives in pointing this out, but there can be little aesthetic defence here; it sounds awful, even to a modern ear, a kind of Wildean pastiche of how one imagines the upper classes might talk. There would be no excuse for such a failure in the era of television and the internet. Every novelist has their ear to the soap opera (probably sneakily overheard whilst they pretend to read The Guardian) and as a consequence can do everyone from the toff to the toe-rag in plausible voices. Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, for example, has the upper class affectations pitch perfect, and human, without ever descending to the unwitting caricature Lawrence produces. Compare the following conversation between the rich Toby and his friend Nick, about Toby's failed engagement to the daughter of even more wealthy Maurice:
"Of course he blames me for not hanging on to her, Maurice does. He thought it was a good match."
"It was a good match, darling, for her: far too fucking good."
"Mm, thanks, Nick."
"I suppose it wasn't all that great, you know, the sexual side of things."
"You know, she called it 'doings'."
"That's not very promising, I agree."
There's a lot in here that convinces, particularly the reticent awkwardness of Toby's "the sexual side of things," which then becomes relegated to "it," which compares with his fiancee's even more embarrassed "doings." But as well as this recognisably human pitch, there are moments of class consciousness, most obviously in the "darling" but also in Nick's final "That's not very promising." Down the pub, told this story, my reply would be "Well that's a bit pants." Nick's eloquence at this moment between two lads talking about sex testifies to his Oxford education. Realism is the order of the day, and unlike Lawrence's, this works, presenting these two characters as at once similar to but differentiated from "ordinary" people. Whether this is a hallmark of the writing school ("Day Three: Dialogue") is beside the point; the point is that we cannot imagine any practiced writer making such a hash of the speech patterns of anyone, upper or lower class, as Lawrence does, and remaining a respected writer, because readers - themselves attuned by television to a broad variety of speech styles - would so immediately pick up on it. Only rarely can dialogue rupture at the seams of credibility and the author survive as a literary writer. Lawrence gets excused, because he is descriptive rather than dialogic, writes of the mind rather than the direct voice; the contemporary author must learn to do both.

As a final test of my thesis - no, less a thesis on the basis of my limited evidence, more a hunch or feeling - ask yourself this. In fifty years time, will we use the words McEwan-esque, Barnesian, Ishiguran, in the same way as we apply Lawrentian, Woolfian, Joycian, Jamesian (with a fair idea about what the latter signify)? Of course, I am being selective here. It is just as possible to tell a piece of Rushdie's playful magic realist writing from A.S. Byatt's style laden with learned references as it is to tell Gertrude Stein from F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nevertheless, it is hard not to feel that there has been a smoothing of stylistic differences. This is indicated by my readerly tastes. I would happily read both Rushie and Byatt, or both Amis and McEwan into the small hours, but would never take Stein away from my teacher's desk and into my reader's bed. Like supermarket wine, it is today hard to find a bad example of modern literary writing (though turn to the lager aisle, of course, and you will still find your Dan Browns and Jilly Coopers on discount).

However, lest this all sound like Lee Siegel's lament for the death of the great American novel, let me make myself clear. Immersing myself in contemporary fiction has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I correlate my enjoyment of a book with the ache in my back, caused by the pathologically slouched position my six foot frame adopts when I am living in the world of the book. And my back has been very sore, these last few weeks. The novel has been, since its birth, the democratic genre that opens its welcoming arms to a mass audience, whereas poetry seeks to secrete itself in the mind. Before politics, before demands that it represent the greatness of a nation through the adventure of its form, the novel has sought to make itself popular. And if stylistic invariance - if a consistent, educated way of writing that simply works - is the price of the persistence of literary fiction in an age of competing narrative multimedia, so be it.

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Posted by Alistair at 3:08 pm


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