25 April 2007

at the very least...

Lance poses the question What should fiction (or writing) do?

“Should” is one of those words that makes me nervous. Nevertheless, although I’d be loath to offer up a list of shoulds and should-nots to be observed by all writers, I’ve discovered, thinking about this, that I can come up with at least one should with considerable confidence.

Fiction should transport the reader to a place s/he has never been, however powerfully the work might resonate with the reader’s own experience and understanding. This is the minimum of what everyone demands of the visual, aural, and performing arts, and fiction should be no exception.

The fiction I love best induces a textured state of mind that I carry around inside me for as long as I’m reading it, that I regret losing when that state of mind fades a few days after I’ve finished it, but that I can recover whenever I begin reading the work again. This is above all an effect of language, and one that seems utterly magical when I think about it. How does it happen? I suppose it involves a certain sort of textual synergy in which many elements come together with such power and coherence that one is transported into an altered state, and because one is transported, one feels the reality of the book’s imaginary. By this I don’t mean simply that the characters seem “real” or the details of the setting plausible. I mean the imaginative logic underlying the work’s voice and style and, perhaps more intangibly, its choice of detail, syntactical preferences, rhythm of the sentences, and formal structure, all of which combine perfectly to create feelings and perceptions and sensations and thoughts that constitute a place we would never have been able to visit on our own.

Here’s Wallace Stevens:

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

Most writing, of course, doesn’t create a textured state of mind that infuses one’s whole reality for days at a time and leaves behind it a trace memory of such rapture that one never forgets. But any fiction worth reading should at the very least take us to a space that is outside of the one already in our heads (though it may be a familiar space we’ve visited often before, cozy and comfortable for some or boring and stifling for others, but always small and limited). Even the most mediocre fiction must be able to do that for at least some of its readers (though it’s obviously not going to succeed in transporting those who find such familiar high-volume tourist spots tedious and ugly).


Unknown said...

Well, great question, and I'll try to be brief.

Fiction, in specific, should put us into an uncomfortable relation with the narrative voice. As writers/readers, it's inevitable that when we encounter a narrator in fiction, we realize, consciously or unconsciously, that that narrator is not I, the writer, nor, I, the reader. This is very weird, the fact that I is not I. Something unaccountable in language allows for this dispersal of consciousness into a coherent other. I imagine that the modern novel was really born from psychoanalysis, and the Surrealists, Proust, Beckett, etc., make this evident. you know this is true. Our understanding of the narrative voice today is largely derived, it seems to me, from psychoanalysis.

jdeshell said...

Great answers both Timmi and Dmitri. Although I too am bothered by the “should,” I’d have to question the “do” as well. Does fiction “do” anything? Does it “act” in the world? Ah, but I’ve probably brought this up before.
I like Dmitri’s answer about fiction being an encounter with the Not I, but I wouldn’t necessarily place that encounter primarily within psychoanalysis (unless I’m missing this statement as a critique, Dmitri, in which case I apologize). It seems as if the question of the Not I is one of the questions of our culture. Do we place it in a primordial, irreducible Other (the ethics of Levinas)? Or in the world as such (some readings of Hegel)? Or can the Not I eventually be reduced to the I (other readings of Hegel)? This is all very interesting. J

Unknown said...

Jeffrey, the psychoanalysis bit is more of a historical reading than it is a theoretical critique. I don't think the Not I is a product of the psyche, necessarily. Rather, psychoanlysis has provided the dominant critique of the 20th century novel. Our best writers (Beckett, Proust, Kafka, esp. the Surrealists, etc.) articulate their work in psychoanalytic terms. Of course, many writers tried to move beyond this, but in the latter half of the century, much less attention was paid to the narrative voice than in the earlier part. A few, such as Blanchot and Lispector, remained committed to exploration of the narrative voice in a decidedly post-psychoanalytic fashion.

jdeshell said...

I would certainly agree that psychoanalysis has provided an important critique of 20th century literature, but THE dominant one? Even if we think historically, I really can't see Kafka in particulalrly psychoanayltic terms (nor Beckett for that matter): in fact, don't Kafka (and Joyce and the like, perhaps even Proust) RESIST the psychoanalytic? I have no argument with your reading of the Surrealists, but I'd like to hear moreof your reading of the high modernists as "articulat[ing] their work in psychoanayltic terms."
best, Jeffrey

Unknown said...

Jeffrey, In Prous's work, I don't have a real sense about his own feelings on psychoanalysis, but many critiques of "memory" in In Search of Lost Time think of involuntary memory as the interplay between the subconscious and the ego. Beckett himself reads Proust in precisely these terms, and he constructs for himself a memory/habit machine based in psychoanalysis, which I see influencing Beckett's work a great deal, especially Watt. Beckett's little Proust book is loaded with considerations about the ego and superego in Proust. Of course, Beckett's text may be seen as an assault on Freudian psychoanalysis, even though it's heavily interested in the subject. Nabokov had a similar bent. While constantly deriding the work of psychoanalysis, he was absolutely obsessed by it, especially in Lolita. I guess I'm emphasizing that the terms of critique in the first part of the century seem to be imposed by psychoanalysis, even if a few of our major writers are attempting to undermine those terms in their own criticism. It's very odd for me to read Nabokov's treatment of psychoanalysis in all his novels, and yet in his own book on Nikolai Gogol he mainly relies on an analysis of Gogol's "ghoulish" psyche.