Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Experimental Versus Realist

The work of fiction doesn’t really exist until it is read.* And thus the effort of keeping a reader’s eyes and mind (and maybe heart) glued to the page is attending to the entertainment value of the work. This brings up the question of, is what we do as writers meant to entertain? This idea can seem sacrilegious, because we’d like to believe our work is about artistry. Yet why should artistry exclude being entertaining?  Though I’ve often felt people will try to argue me into this position, particularly those people who imagine they will become the next Steig Larson—claiming that “Fiction isn’t art, it’s only meant to entertain.” The problem with this is the absolutism. A lot of the party lines established in these arguments exclude this one notion by which a work succeeds or fails: did the writing keep you reading?

Sometimes in reading you can become bored and can be assured that the writer must have been bored when writing.

This is a truth I hold to be self-evident: At the very least, a piece of fiction has to keep you reading.

This, for some reason, has become the determinant of the experimental versus realist divide.

There is an assumption that if you like avant garde work, or experimental fiction, that you can’t have much interest in making your work desired to be read, and this follows around any writer who professes an interest in experimental work.

While researching the review for Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, (available to read here via Rain Taxi), I read his long Harper’s essay “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destory Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It: A Correction.” Written in 2005, the piece, which isn’t dated at all, is an intriguing insight into just how much of a struggle there is in this divide for a would-be commercial fiction writer who aspires to practice in a strain of the experimental.

One conclusion? Jonathan Franzen suffers from having bought into the idea of the ascendancy of experimental literature in the late 80s and early 90s, only to have failed to have actually written any novels with spine or teeth--or known skeletal structure at all--and then feeling betrayed by the failure to achieve the requisite fame from his religion, only going on to find success when he sold out his po-mo leanings to write straightforward realism. Selling out his “radical” past is what he’s been doing ever since. Eventually atoning to the gods of realism because he feels betrayed by the evil Gaddis, Coover, Hawkes, et al. This occurred, according to Marcus, in the years between 1996 and 2005.

The turnaround for Franzen? He had been writing books that no one wanted to read. Which is not to say they resembled anything experimental. Rather, Franzen’s early work is only partially successful in terms of reader engagement, and bears no semblance to anything experimental. Mostly, I think, they are just unsuccessful as novels. If we’re talking about quality, it’s easy to criticize a writer who seems not to want to be left out of the flavor of the month game.

After The Corrections he figured it out. He wanted to keep a reader reading. Freedom is the full flowering of his mission and is successful on this eminent readability count, though the unexpected praise that he received from N+1 for this novel was strange and unwarranted adulation from a group that acts like it wants to be the rear-guard action of the avant garde.

With a lot of these arguments, I find myself questioning the either / or nature of whether one is an experimental writer or a realist. In my ideal world, I would like to think that one could write a number of different ways that suit their purposes for whatever piece they are writing. Yet so often, one seems required to pledge their allegiance to this camp, or that one. There is almost a defensiveness that creeps in to arguments as to the definition of the fictional journey for oneself.   

To quote Marcus, there is a strand of realism; “[a]t its worst, it’s uninspired, dull and oppressively devoted to its modern forebears Cheever and Updike, and it wears such a heavy tire mark on the exhausted assumptions of psychology that reading it is akin to constantly crawling from a trench of received ideas.” (Harpers essay, pg 43)

I’m guessing one could attribute to the opposite camp, for all intents and purposes, experimentalism, a similar kind of diagnosis—and any dull or uninspired fiction would fall into the category. In fact, I think it could be argued that this is more likely with experimental work, for how varied the parameters by which it might be judged successful. I feel a little sting at Marcus taking a gut shot at Cheever and Updike, yet I’m also skeptical. There is room for many approaches, even one that might find inspiration in Cheever, of whom frequent Marcus champion and, himself, equally criticized practitioner of his own realism (of a kind), Michael Chabon, has been known to idolize.

Though I have an open heartedness toward, usually, anything innovative and challenging which can border on an excited eagerness to read—maintaining my own not so secret pedestal for Beckett—I often imagine my leaning is toward the experimental (so many of my advisors were clearly in ghettoized experimental camps), though I’m quite sure I haven’t pushed the boundaries and am rather more working in the realism tradition. I assume that what Marcus is saying is, we should challenge ourselves, ultimately. And if you are engaged with your fiction, it’s hard to see how this won’t produce something novel, compelling and hopefully, inspired. And that will keep readers reading.

*I would have timidly denied this before I ever had anything published, I’m sure; now I tend to understand this idea as putting my will into my writing so that someone will want to read it. And it has to be at that level for me to put it out there—like I’m signaling a sinking ship, throwing up flares for some distant horizon.

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