Saturday, March 17, 2007

Modernist vs genre fiction: another distinction

Over-subscription to Gabriel Josipovici's talk "What ever happened to modernism?" last Wednesday evening meant the small room in which it took place soon became crowded. People stood in the aisles, sat on the floor or peered in through the entrance. The bustling atmosphere contradicted any impression that this was to be a dry academic paper presented to a sleepy coterie. And when a large window was opened to allow everyone to breathe, the invasion of police sirens and the grunting of delivery vehicles added to the sense of significance, even if they also threatened to drown out the speaker.

Rather than outline Josipovici's argument, which Ellis Sharp has done already with impressive speed and accuracy, I want to pick up on what interested me in particular. Ellis mentions it:
Josipovici then went on to talk about genre. A genre is like a family – you take it for granted. You feel comfortable there. Things are familiar and comforting. But confidence in a genre can wane in the same way that a family can come to seem deadening. He cited an example from Dr Johnson, who criticised Milton for responding to the death of a friend by writing a pastoral elegy. The generic form was false, not natural.
He compared the popular genres of Johnson's time with the emerging novel which pretended to be something else: a true story. For this reason it became hugely popular, taking over as the dominant literary form. And no wonder. Here was an infinitely flexible vessel in which one could pour experience of the world. To become a famous writer, one no longer had to chew through the brittle paper of the literary law of genre. This was also the time of the French Revolution in which political and social emancipation spread throughout Europe, so it seems the practise of art travelled in parallel.

Freedom in the form of expression, however, has its problems. Josipovici provided the relevant anecdote via Thomas Mann's Dr Faustus: Haydn produced 100 symphonies while Beethoven wrote only nine. According to Mann's novel, this was due to the latter's "demonic subjectivity" taking over what had only a few years earlier been a tried and tested template. Haydn had simply filled in the form. But after Beethoven, composers were left to explore their subjectivity only, usually one not as demonic as Beethoven's. Writers were in the same position with the novel.

From this, the question that jumps out is: so what has changed since then? Well it's clear the novel in general has settled into a genre itself. Daily readers are assailed by injunctions not to dismiss - out of snobbery or pretension - the pleasures of genre fiction. Every time the Man Booker Prize comes around the opinion that literary fiction is itself a genre like any other is given an airing. It deserves no higher regard we're told. Yet, in the light of the novel's history, such assertions are evidently products of bad faith, usually shared even by those who feel inexplicably compelled to resist the peacemakers at the gates. The reason why they are made is due to the faith those who make these pronouncements have in the emancipatory qualities promised by the novel (and art in general). We're meant to respect and even celebrate the new confinement in the name of freedom!

For many, the familiar comforts of genre give more pleasure than the truth at whatever cost, and they object to being labelled philistine or as lacking judgement. This occurred in Josipovici's lecture when he expressed astonishment at the ecstatic reception given to Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française. At least three attendees thought it unfair to scorn a novel recovered from a literal holocaust. But Josipovici never said she was a lesser writer than the modernists to which she was compared, only that Némirovsky, like 99% of contemporary authors, were and are simply unaware of the inappropriateness of what they were and are doing. The air of authority they adopt - that given to them by the form - betrays the freedom given by the breakdown of genre.

Josipovici concluded the lecture with customary evenhandness (which made the criticism of a sacred cow like Némirovsky all the more surprising and, in my opinion, necessary) by wondering aloud whether attachment to such freedom is pathological - part of the rootlessness propagated by the political changes over the last 220 years - or advantageous in allowing us to see something that would otherwise remain hidden. While no answer was supplied, he did end by saying this was a very modernist question. It's a question I'd like to highlight by summarising Maurice Blanchot's great short essay "The Gaze of Orpheus".


  1. Anonymous9:42 pm

    But what does freedom from restriction really mean? Freedom from language, for example, and its restrictions on my pure natural being, so I instead babble gibberish, or even worse, free jazz? As far as feedom in writing, any imagined restrictions are pretty simply overcome by writing whatever you like. I'm personally not especially bothered by a novel being perhaps lopsided in the way of being part-essay, provided of course that the essayistic side is interesting. In other words I suppose, I'm nore interested in the experience of a good book rather than wondering if its novelistic nature has been sullied or subverted.

  2. Anonymous11:26 pm

    Anyway without any familiarity with Josipovici I'm just fumbling around in the dark, so any recommendations regarding his fiction and criticism?

  3. Take your pick; some of it might be available where you are:

  4. Anonymous11:31 pm

    Thanks, Steve, but he better not be shit. I've a thing against shit writing.

  5. Anonymous11:43 pm

    I'm disturbed by your refusal to deny the possibility that he is indeed shit.

  6. I don't think "genre" is a word that works outside of the specifics - scifi genre, romantic genre etc. - simply because that's what I would mean by a genre novel. However, what it true - going back to Haydn/Beethoven thing - is that modernism's legacy is that the leaps in the dark that were taken have now been assimilated. A good example would be how David Mitchell uses many techniques that he's found in the avant garde, but without anyone finding any difficulty in their assimilation; or how "Shadow of the Wind" is so indebted to Calvino/Borges. I think certain types of so-called avantgarde/experimental writing can themselves become generic (e.g. it is not the poetry of JH Prynne that I have issue with, rather that it appears to have no dialogue with the wider poetic culture, which is exactly the same failing you might find in, say, Andrew Motion). I've always felt that "Middlemarch" is more of a source book for ideas, techniques and methodology, for instance, than "Ulysses."

  7. Thanks Adrian. I still think genre vs the ruined work holds because the latter is still to come. It has no genre.

    No doubt there are writers who appear avant-garde/literary because of that assimilation, but my second post (the one about Orpheus) suggests that the kind of writing I 'm championing - the kind of writing I need - has to face that ruination. I don't need it to triumphantly sweep up formal debts or engage with wider culture etc. I leave that to the chatterers on Guardian blogs.

  8. sounds like the underground v. mainstream argument has gone hyperanalytical. Failure is romantic. Starving artists as well, their cliche still endearing.

    Is a novel ahead of its time any less great than a novel that finds widespread success within the gen pop?



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