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Friday, January 18, 2013

Mendelsohn on the novel

Daniel Mendelsohn has a wonderful interview at Lamba Literary. As one expects of a critic, he examines the terms of the questions, looking at underlying assumptions as he answers. I don't agree with everything he says--how could I, not being a critic and translator of Cavafy but novelist and poet, poet and novelist?--but I find much that he says in accordance with my own thoughts or else fascinating to consider. Read the whole thing!

A particularly spiky bit:
I don’t know how people can still buy into this ridiculous, antiquated notion that the only really “literary” activity is writing fiction. I think the novel is over. It’s so clear to me that the novel is a genre that has reached its final stages, there’s nothing else to do, it’s all been done, the experiments, the this, the that. Naturally people will keep writing novels because it’s fun, and it’s a form you’re sentimental about. But you could certainly make an argument that the novel has now been eclipsed by the memoir as the pre-eminent form of literary self-expression just now—or certainly as eminent as the novel.

Here are my questions, pondering the idea that storytelling is not going away. I'm not all that well read in contemporary memoir and nonfiction, since I tend to write in three genres and try to read in each of those--I do, however, like to read essays. Feel free to answer while I go have a nice lie-down. Day 9 of the flu is proving a bit tiring.

  • Why is the memoir so "eminent" at the moment? Is it anything to do with the presence of characters and strong story? Is it anything to do with being presented with a character about whom we know much and for whom we come to care?
  • Is it anything to do with lack of alluring characters or story in some contemporary fiction?
  • Stock in Austen and Dickens is high; does that suggest anything about what people miss and seek, or is it simply a compliment to those authors?
  • Likewise, we have had many novels quarrying elements from older novels and retelling another side of an established story. As the Caterpillar inquired, "What do you mean by that? Explain yourself!" (One might answer with Alice's reply, "I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, sir, because I'm not myself....)
  • An awful lot of memoirs have been exposed after publication as lacking in truth in some way--then what's the difference between novel and memoir?
  • When memoir veers into fiction, are we just going straight back to one of the founders of the novel--toDeFoe and the blurry line he established in works like A Journal of the Plague Year and Moll Flanders (written "from her own memorandums")? 
  • Can memoirs avoid being fictional?
  • In other words, are a lot of memoirs really novels?
  • If we are going back to DeFoe in some sense, maybe it's time for the novel to go back to the beginning. Is faux memoir and the return to origins in some way helpful for the rebirth of the novel? Or its transformation?
  • Is some non-fiction partaking so deeply of the novel that "creative nonfiction" becomes just a name for a novel where you didn't make up events?

    1. I'm not sure that the popularity of memoir and "narrative nonfiction" (whatever that really is) plus the lack of interest in fiction among some critics (especially those who write memoir and narrative nonfiction) equals the decline of the novel. It's like how David Shields' failure as a novelist caused him to write Reality Hunger and declare fiction useless.

      Fiction, however, doesn't seem to have read Mr Shields' manifesto. I'm awfully sure that more novels are being published and read today than ever in history. The novel is pretty animate for a corpse.

      I'm not really addressing your questions/comments about memoir; I tend to think that any writing about ourselves is going to be fictionalized, even if only accidentally.

    2. Yes, agreed. Eh, what is commonly called "realism" is fairly fantastic.

      Just had another comment else where that "the death of the novel" has been "done to death." Ack!

      Also, I don't have those nonfiction terms straight. Is the choice of the moment "narrative nonfiction" or "creative nonfiction" or what?

    3. There's also "literary journalism." I don't know if all of these terms refer to the same thing, but each--I think!--tries to differentiate itself from the mere journalism of news reportage. I think maybe it means what we used to call "personal essay," though I don't know where the "creativity" bit is aimed. I write novels. You've just published an epic poem. We must both be dead, then.

    4. Hah. I write novels also. Doubly dead!

      If only we could have some "mere" journalism again--the sort of thing I recall from childhood, when the parties weren't at war with each other. Yes, I guess all those are the same. Maybe.

      Shall have to visit and see what you're up to... (Also, I want to know what the "g" and the "f" stand for.)

    5. Gregory Francis. Keep it under your hat.

    6. It is very dark under a hat. Will keep it there.


    Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.