One of the canards is of course that Philip Roth is unjustly overlooked for the Nobel Prize, while another is that genre fiction is looked down upon and does not receive the "recognition" it deserves. Yet in Zadie Smith's essay I find the genre versus literary fiction debate continuing in other words and thereby offering more hopeful directions for authors seeking an audience without compromise. She expresses both love and impatience with the Novel, seeking to break free of the familiar gestures and crafted perfection in order to find authenticity. However, the opposition of formal perfection and messiness – which is the argument of David Shields' book discussed in the essay – tends to conceal the individual choices artists have to make and replaces them with generic forms that mean something only to a consumer; in this case, messy or formal novels. These could easily be replaced by genre and literary fiction. Samuel Johnson can help here too.
His famous impatience with Milton's decision to express grief at the death of a friend in the form of a pastoral elegy deserves to be still better known.
Lycidas is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. Passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon Arethuse and Mincius, nor tells of rough satyrs and fawns with cloven heel. Where there is leisure for fiction, there is little grief.Johnson isn't saying Milton didn't experience grief, nor that his craft is in question, but that the unreflective use of genre betrays the inspiration of the work; as Smith puts it, the form "traduces reality". The debate then should be not be about genre and literary fiction but that which traduces the explicit inspiration of the work.
Late in the essay she refers to JM Coetzee's post-Nobel writing in negative terms and seems to believe he has eschewed the imaginative novel in favour of the "essayistic and self-referential". Yet these novels are great examples of inspiration taking priority over generic repetition. In Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a Bad Year there is less fiction and more grief. Both investigate the relation between writing and life, between writing and truthfulness, which both lead to the adoption of adventurous forms; not for the sake of adventure but in order to follow the logic of the inspiration (e.g. what it means to have singular opinions in a plural universe). It's a great thing that, rather than generating more novels out of writerly mastery (more Disgrace), Coetzee has continued to challenge himself and the form of the novel. It's also revealing that Smith sees the products of this seeking as "anaemic", as if choosing to write about the favelas of Rio would be somehow more real than writing about an aging Australian novelist. All writing, by virtue of being writing, whether it is formally perfect or messy, already submits to a unity independent of the physical world, even if it is only that of the book itself (this is why "book" has such an aura; the hope of containment). The writer who seeks to erase the well-craftedness of novels by producing a book such as David Shields' Reality Hunger is still appealing to a Platonic realm. Coetzee is aware of the irony and it is partly out of this that his novels emerge. His novels keep the wound of their isolation open.
In contrast, Smith praises The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek as a novel that presumably – despite its bloodletting – is not anaemic. Like Coetzee, Jelinek has also won the Nobel, but that's about all they have in common. In a piece about the Prize, Gabriel Josipovici comments on this particular award and reveals the important distinction:
The Nobel committee made the point that, in awarding [Jelinek] the prize, they were honouring a radical tradition of Austrian writing, and specifically mentioned Bernhard. But that is typical of the misleading generalisations committees are prone to make. Bernhard has nothing in common with Jelinek except a hatred of post-war Austria. His masters are Montaigne and Beckett, not [Jelinek's] Bataille and Adorno. His greatness stems from his ability to give voice to a wide variety of marginal figures, to harness comedy and vitriol, and to accept that he, too, is implicated in his own criticism, like another of his masters, Kafka ("In your quarrel with the world, back the world"). For Jelinek, as for Adorno, on the other hand, all are rotten and guilty — except the observer/writer.This last point then is crucial. Coetzee, like Bernhard, implicates the observer in his investigations. It takes imagination to do that; perfection and messiness are beside the point.
In mitigation, Smith also mentions the Austrian who should have won the Nobel instead of Jelinek but now never will. She approves of the "sophisticated, beautiful and aphoristic side roads" that include Peter Handke's journals collected as The Weight of the World. On page 16 of this book, Handke sums up the anxiety, the pressure and the wonder of writing in the world:
Tense, unnerved, and close to madness before writing – and when I read what I've written it looks so calm.In this one moment, in one apparently offhand diary entry, Handke opens a vertiginous space in which the process of stating how one feels and then reading it reverses everything. The sentence is already perfect. He doesn't add to it. This isn't a side road, this is the real thing. Perhaps with Zadie Smith on its side, writing like this will no longer be consigned to the wilderness.
UPDATE: My review of Reality Hunger has now been posted.