Thursday, 28 January 2010

What Is Fiction For? - Referencing Bolano

In the twenty-first century I pose two questions of literature;

1) In the light of all competing leisure pursuits and activity, is there still much of a place for reading fiction today?

2) If so, what will such literature look like?

Roberto Bolano's "2666" has been hailed as the first genuine novel for the current century. While epic in its sweep, no more so than "Cloud Atlas" and other (Easy-) Jet Set novels in our global village age. And what are his metaphors for the modern age? Death, madness and sex. Desultory and purposeless. Very 21st Century... Sort of like the late 20th Century only with, well without any added value really. (Though he does bury Magical Realism as Latin America's outdated literary trope, beneath a welter of desultory realism - a Cormac McCarthy for South of the border). The largest section of the book reads like a stitching together of every opening segment of every single episode of CSI. Chapter 1 deals with academics pursuing an obscure author. Come on guy, these are not radical metaphors to change the way we view the world, ya get me!

And for a book pronounced as forward looking, it's curiously obsessed with the literary tradition. Not only of Latin America, but of Europe and America too. Bolano writes of vanished writers, writers committed to insane asylums, writers who hide their identities and writers who steal their way to a writing career on the backs of other, lesser pixie dust struck writers. All well and good if the writer of today in the 21st Century had any status worth devoting so much philosophical study to. But this is no longer the era of authors standing in Peruvian Presidential elections, of poets in the Sandinista Cabinet, of Havel in Prague's (but not Kafka's) Castle, of Sartre, Camus & De Beauvoir marching in Paris with petitions that changed government policy, of Malraux also being in the cabinet. No now we have Blair & Clinton guaranteed millions for their memoirs once they step down from office and oh so graciously endowing libraries. We have bored MPs cheated of being close to power writing novels, Rupert Allason (Nigel West), Douglas Hurd, Anne Widdecombe and who could forget Edwina Currie's? We've got the ex-head of MI5 writing novels too. Seems in our culture, you have to have the commodity name first, before you get a book deal to sell on the back of it.

There are two types of fiction. That which seeks to engage with the world, to try and reflect parts of it, to try and come to an understanding of what lies beneath the surface. Then there are those which provide an antidote to the world, a short-lived means of escaping its dreary, oppressive torpor. I have never understood why people who have an unmediated diet of the latter, don't ask themselves why their world needs escaping from in the first place? A question which might be broached by taking on some of the former reading challenges. Okay, so I am not really addressing the escapist literature here. Who is left reading the former type, that which Bolano would inevitably come to be categorized as? Fewer and fewer people it seems to me. There is no public discourse, on any subject matter. So atomised are we by all the consumer and leisure options we have and our insistence on ceding political decisions to politicians who refuse to open out major issues to a public debate.So with the dearth of public forums for ideas, (at present Twitter and the like are not culturally broad mediums), then what can literature contribute? When did a book last capture the public's intellectual imagination and give them pause for thought on an issue in the real world of their daily lives? Apart from the obscenity trials surrounding "Chatterly" or "Brooklyn", you probably have to go back to Charles Dickens for a fiction that fed back and informed the world in which it emerged from. Nowadays, the fiction that captures the public mood seems to be that with TV/ Hollywood tie ins, instant merchandising opportunities and an ability to leach zombies on to cover art of the Classics. Works that add nothing to the cultural pool (sump) of ideation and self-reflection.

Possibly high literature is still being touted in the universities, but they seem to have been cut off from having any sway over public taste decades ago. Literary academics resemble those art historians who ceaselessly regard the works of Rembrandt and Titian, great works undoubtedly, but fixed in time and with no possibility of fresh additions to the canon. It is museum literature and while clearly the Classics will always be read (at least until the schools dumb down to a year zero and teach kids only how to read html), there is still an anorexic rump of us out there in the market, shades of our former literary selves hovering around the 'literary fiction' shelves on the look out for 3 titles that have been graced with a '3 for the price of 2' sticker. But we struggle to cobble together 3 titles worthy of fulfilling the discount. We are starving because the authors do not feed us with books that speak to us of our contemporary time. The writers fail us, but they claim the market precludes them from writing these type of books because agents and publishers insist they cannot sell them. A vicious circle and also the writers too easily settle for such logic and start self-censoring their output to try and meet the perceived market.

Who cares about the literary tradition if we kill it dead by failing to continue it into our own age? Digital preservation will ensure all such books that have been handed down into our current century will survive into perpetuity. And by all means indulge the academics in talking about 19th and 20th Century literary trends that have seemingly died out in terms of still being produced today; such as the whole Modernist canon of Joyce, Faulkner, Woolfe, Eliot and Pound. Bolano's work was not radical and divergent. He did not continue any legacy stretching back to any great experimenters that I can see. He offered a diffuse, ambiguous narrative that just fizzles out in the same way that the tarmac burns up in the final frames of the road movie "Two Lane Blacktop" and that the film reels themselves are also shown to burn as the final statement of unending and ultimately purposeless journeying.

So to restate my opening two questions, in the light of Bolano not having reinvented the novel in "2666" (except in the hallucinatory minds of literary critics parched for fresh intake):

1) In the light of all competing leisure pursuits and activity, is there still much of a place for reading fiction today?

Apart from escapist literature probably not. Flash fiction and other web-based writing are all fine and good, but a little like some toothsome hors d'oeuvres, with nothing more substantial to fill you up afterwards. And I say this as a writer of literary fiction...

2) If so, what will such literature look like?
I don't know exactly (though I'm trying to offer some fresh perspectives, some fresh language and particularly some fresh metaphors in my novels), but I sure as hell know it wont look unchanged from those books of the last century which we are still churning out spasmodically and calling them 'new'. These are old themes, given a modern spin and no more. I would hazard that as printing technology becomes more and more accessible to writers, even if it is only virtual printing, the 21st Century novel will contain far more design elements within its typography and its look on the page. It may no longer follow a linear block print for example. It may of course also involve embedded videos like Nick Cave's novel "Bunny Monroe". Just so long as these are artistic decisions taken by the writer, either singly, or in collaboration with designers and typographers, then we may just be on to something. However, if they have been initiated by the publishers, in a desperate measure to rekindle sales by offering different packaging, presentation and distribution, then it will be the same tired old book.

Writers, start your engines. We live or die by our content.

And I for one am very discontent.


Michael Goodell said...

You ask questions which can't be answered, and by doing so raise still more in your readers. The most basic must be, what is literary fiction? Can a novel written in a linear narrative form be considered literary fiction. It seems unlikely. One factor in the death of literary fiction is its unreadability. This is a departure from what constituted literature in the past.
Which returns us to the question, what is literary fiction?

Mark Kerstetter said...

I don't buy the hype on Bolano either. Give me Celine any day.

Didn't Rudolph Wurlitzer write the screenplay to "Two Lane Blacktop"? He's more interesting to me than Bolano. Pynchon said of Wurlitzer's novel "Nog": "The novel of bullshit is dead!" I don't know what's funnier - the idea that bullshit could die, or that Pynchon said this. But "Nog" is a fun little book.

Sulci Collective said...

Thanks Mark, I shall hunt "Nog" down for a look.

Michael, I offer the post not to answer questions but to demand some reflection that throws up the right questions to be raised in the first place.

All I can suggest is that literary fiction offers a robust and artful emotional intelligence in a way that say "Twilight" or Dan Brown books don't.

Liras said...

Yes, we are struggling to find 3 books, to qualify us for the discount.

There is a place for fiction, because at our basic level, we love stories. They fuel our imaginations and give solace to our souls. We are all sitting around the digital campfire, listening to the storyteller spin a yarn or relate a fable. I think it is genetic to like fiction.

It will look like...the stuff we have been reading. In our archival age, we will always go back in time, to the 'authentic' literature. (Cuz you know, the good ol'days are hip.) Someone will pick up on very basic thene that ties us together as humans and writes beautifully of it.

Now the book might hover, play music and then take itself back to the shelf when the end is reached. But the human need to tell stories and to hear them, remains.

Your discontent will never go away, but it will shrink to manageable bite-sized portions.
(Mine did!)

Sulci Collective said...

I hope so Liras, I hope so. Otherwise I'm in for an ulcerated middle and old age