Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Gough witless

Julian Gough isn't witless at all, it's just an irresistible pun. And it allows me to respond with a smile to his essay in Prospect calling for more comedy in modern literary fiction.
What is wrong with the modern literary novel? Why is it so worthy and dull? Why is it so anxious? Why is it so bloody boring?
Perhaps because "the modern literary novel" doesn't exist except as a generalisation. Gough does complain that Anita Brookner won the Booker Prize rather than Martin Amis' comic Money, which indicates where he's coming from, and also observes that of the most recent Booker winners "John Banville and Anita Desai read like nostalgia". But generally it's too lacking in precise examples. And of course he means Kiran Desai. Her mother never won the Booker. But never mind; the daughter seems to be older anyway. I heard her reading from her winning book on the Guardian's Haycast and was staggered by how familiar it was, as if a generalisation had been made singular. No wonder it's a prize-winner.

The problem, I think, is not that modern novels are uncomical but that they are part of a culture-wide tendency toward corporatism. Novels are produced and received as part of the movement and maintenance of a career. Gough is part of that tendency himself, equating the vitality of the novel with mass audience appeal. How can a novel make use of its freedom, as he wishes it would, if mass appeal is a guarantor of its vitality? Why does it matter whether a novel is popular or unpopular with other people? If it's popular with the reader, that surely is enough. What do we think will be gained by popularity? A revolution in sensibility? A moral improvement of mankind? Communal bliss? Maybe it will simply relieve us of the burden of individual critical judgement.

The blame Gough has to dish out goes, as usual, to the academy. (Why is it never the mainstream press, publishers, editors or even readers?). He's identifies US creative writing courses as a catastrophe. These created not great novels but an institutional path for struggling writers: “As they became professional, writers began to write about writers. As they became academicised, writers began to write about writing.” Again, no examples. Yet doesn't the Iowa Writers' Workshop, one of the most famous, champion the kind of dour realism he wants to move away from? Moreover, those who have written novels about writers writing about writing, tend also to be comic: Barth, Roth, Markson. Amis' Money itself isn't free of reflexivity is it?

Still, I don't want to address Gough's argument in detail, because I'd be here all night reacting against every straw man and the overrating of second-rank writers like Flann O'Brien. All I want to say now is: forget comedy, forget tragedy. Write what needs to be written; what you need to write. To quote Beckett on his own breakthrough: "Molloy and what followed became possible the day I became aware of my stupidity. Then I began to write the things I feel."

7 comments:

  1. Patrick3:30 pm

    I don't think a second-rank writer could be capable of writing a comic masterpiece like The Poor Mouth, nor would I imagine a second-rank writer capable of At Swim Two Birds. "That's a real writer with the true comic spirit," said Joyce of O Brien. And Anthony Burgess- "If we don't cherish the work of Flann O'Brien we are stupid fools who don't deserve to have great men. Flann O'Brien is a very great man." That O Brien didn't go on develop his talent may be a given but the idea that he weas second rank I find a bit ridiculous.

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  2. As you say, he didn't develop his talent. So, second-rank. To be second behind Beckett, who did, is no disgrace. It's just that there's a blindspot in many critics and readers, who are satisfied with brilliance rather than greatness, to make unconvincing claims based, it seems, on a wish to appease the demands of the market. This is often done with Beckett with an emphasis on his "riotous" early work or with Joyce with the polite formalities of Dubliners. They want the incontrovertiblity of these writers' greatness to give credence to their own philistinism.

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  3. Patrick5:04 pm

    No, Steve, I'd disagree- At Swim Two Birds is not a book of a second-rank writer, so O Brien not second rank. Lampedusa only wrote one novel but that novel is one of the first rank, and so Lampedusa a first rank writer.
    Regarding Beckett, I'm afraid I find his understanding of life to be simply false in essence and so would personally have very little empathy or love for his vision, regardless of his gifts as a writer. For instance, that opening line from Murphy, "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new," is a fine sentence but utterly false in terms of reality, each moment being new, and the idea of life's staleness being a neurosis of the person who sees things that way. So I wouldn't include him in the first rank as regards which riers matter to me.

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  4. Patrick5:11 pm

    Though perhaps I broadly agree with you, though this depends on what is meant by second-rank. It has quite a dismissive connotation which I would argue doesn't do justice to O Brien's genius. Though if I am left with who are my first rank writers, the list would be extremely small. Though I did re-read The Poor Mouth recently, and there are few books I've enjoyed so much in recent years.

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  5. Well "Murphy" was one of those early works. He failed better later.

    His gifts as a writer were not what made him great so much as the dismantling of them, which is why the commonsense English-speaking world has never embraced the Trilogy and what came later. A clever comedy is more to our taste.

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  6. Patrick6:34 pm

    I think what O Brien does is beyond clever though. I think he has quite a direct understanding of the strangeness of being, as though his imagination were fuelled by something like hallucinogenic Beamish(Guinness doesn't quite have the same ring- another stout just to clarify), and this we could argue more in tune with the nature of reality as it is than Beckett's ultimate inability to get beyond himself, even if he did strip things down to a bare level. Perhaps to compare with another art, how do the two writers conmpare with music like Tomorrow Never Knows by he Beatles, or Voodoo Chile by Hendrix, and these for me very powerfu lpure expressions of Being, and Being by its nature ecstatic certainty or whatever unsatisfactory phrase we wish to use. I think Beckett and this sense of reality don't mix particularly well. I'm not sure what it's from but you know that passage where he seems to realise that truth might be experienced if "he" stops, or thought stops, but despairingly climaxes with-"I'll go on." And so dooms himself to separation from Being.
    Sorry bout all that.

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  7. Patrick8:34 pm

    Just to quickly add, that doesn't mean I demand or expect hallelujahs from literature...I'm someone who derives huge worth from the likes of Dostoevsky and Goya.

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