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Of “Two Paths for the Novel” by Zadie Smith

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Form Is Not The Base Of Fiction                         [Of Form and Content - followup post]

It may be that the establishment scarcely flounders more than when it claims to see that it is floundering. A recent example is Zadie Smith’s article “Two Paths for the Novel.” Comments interspersed for clarity below after sequential select article excerpts:

From two recent novels, a story emerges about the future for the Anglophone novel. Both are the result of long journeys. Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill, took seven years to write; Remainder, by Tom McCarthy, took seven years to find a mainstream publisher. The two novels are antipodal—indeed one is the strong refusal of the other. The violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland is, in part, a function of our ailing literary culture. All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies.

On the contrary, some great novels are expressions of aesthetic, normative, and conceptual diversity showing that the “future” of the novel may well run down many paths, in various ways.

In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene.

There are no great, say, combinatory novels? Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables has been noted for its wide diversity of qualities and effects: Victorian, modern, postmodern, romantic/ideal, epic, classic, realistic, progressive, and so on. Or see Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s recent Wizard of the Crow.

These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.

I suppose Smith means “entrances” rather than “exits”? In any case, “lyrical Realism” is technique or genre, a technical mode basically. It may be reactionary or revolutionary, liberal or conservative, etc, depending upon the contents and ideologies explored. The central great weaknesses of contemporary fiction stem from much vacuity of content, not technique, due largely to establishment constraints on norms – one may only say so much, go so far, in key directions. Various virtual taboos undercut the quality and life of much contemporary fiction, much as they do that of establishment media in general. One can see plenty of crucial realities and possibilities discussed in the most progressive independent media that are basically blocked from establishment fiction.

For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition.

Yet as Smith notes later, the familiar is often pleasing or comforting, far from dispiriting.

It seems perfectly done—in a sense that’s the problem.

People are not typically dispirited by dances, cars, movies, or novels because they are “perfect” – if they ever could be. The perfect where possible is no problem, in general. On the contrary.

It’s so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.

Apparently, Smith laments that the best establishment fiction amounts to little more than pointless reproductions of what already exists; the “lyrical realism” of the Balzac-Flaubert approach to literature is upstaged by reality – no wait, technique, it must be technique, that one, the B-F mode is the problem! mind numbingly worn out. Technique is all. The world – not so much. This view of Smith’s is actually far more mind numbingly worn out than the technique, much of which shows scant signs of being dead necessarily, though the stories such approaches are permitted to produce through establishment publishing houses are often far from the most crucial stories of our time. (And there should certainly always be plenty of room for wide diversity of technique. The key question is, What does one do with it? whatever the selected technique(s), To what purpose and upon what principles does one wield it? any or all technique.)

Netherland [seems set up to be] the post-September 11 novel we hoped for. (Were there calls, in 1915, for the Lusitania novel? In 1985, was the Bhopal novel keenly anticipated?) It’s as if, by an act of collective prayer, we have willed it into existence.

Public issues, public reform, sociopolitical crises, revolution – the novel has concerned itself with exploring many crucial issues and events among the public since its inception. Smith knows Dickens, one would think. Public interest and concern are great motive factors for exploring public issues in the novel, as has always been the case, moreso than “collective prayer” – whatever that means. Smith’s naïve plaint seems hardly credible.

But Netherland is only superficially about September 11 or immigrants or cricket as a symbol of good citizenship. It certainly is about anxiety, but its worries are formal and revolve obsessively around the question of authenticity. Netherland sits at an anxiety crossroads where a community in recent crisis – the Anglo-American liberal middle class – meets a literary form in long-term crisis, the nineteenth-century lyrical Realism of Balzac and Flaubert.

Again, more credulity required here. The “Anglo-American liberal middle class” is only “in recent crisis”? As Franzen asked of fellow novelists post 9-11: “Where have you been?” The Civil Rights struggle, the Cold War, the nuclear arms race and other weapons of mass destruction, climate change and longstanding environmental hazards, inequality, continuous union busting and economic uncertainty and oppression, militancy and ongoing series of wars of aggression, the list is virtually endless of longstanding intense sociopolitical conflict confronting every class. Establishment fiction, like the dominant media in general, has not remotely kept pace – status quo realism, contra-realism or not. Moreover, much of the world, the US in particular, entered the age of propaganda about 100 years ago with the stupendous rise of the public relations industry, advertising, corporate dominance, which is a central ongoing causal crisis of our times. “Modernism” has not helped fiction catch up to its age, this age. It seems to have had more the opposite effect, at least in the US. And the same can be said of contemporary Victorian type fiction and “postmodernism.” Nevertheless, the technical modes of choice are often by-and-large not where the main problems lie, not where the roots are deepest. Rather, critical and central content, focus, emphasis go wanting. Again – not only in fiction but in dominant media and institutions generally. Pinning the blame or one’s hopes on some technique or another to cure or rescue fiction misses the heart of the problem essentially, mistakes or ignores the sources, and mars much chance for progress, for greater accomplishment in and by way of art.

Critiques of this form by now amount to a long tradition in and of themselves.

Again, fixing on problems of form misses the problem, which lies elsewhere. This is the establishment blind. Willfully so? Conveniently, at least. It’s so easy, so safe to talk about technique, to hopelessly bemoan or tinker with change in technique to little crucial effect. It’s almost a way of removing art from the humanities, the human realm, and inserting it into severely blinkered conceptual netherworlds.

Beginning with what Alain Robbe-Grillet called “the destitution of the old myths of ‘depth,’” they blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism’s metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental, the metaphorical, and go “back to the things themselves!”; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy. They all of them note the (often unexamined) credos upon which Realism is built: the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.

Ah, theory! Virtually all of which is near irrelevant to the main problems of the novel these many decades, again, which are not theoretical or conceptual per above but normative and broadly intellectual.

Yet despite these theoretical assaults, the American metafiction that stood in opposition to Realism has been relegated to a safe corner of literary history, to be studied in postmodernity modules, and dismissed, by our most famous public critics, as a fascinating failure, intellectual brinkmanship that lacked heart. Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, David Foster Wallace-all misguided ideologists, the novelist equivalents of the socialists in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. In this version of our literary history, the last man standing is the Balzac-Flaubert model, on the evidence of its extraordinary persistence. But the critiques persist, too. Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?

Once again all blame on the model, the mode or modes, and not a peep about the normative – the moral and political and social, the ideological and intellectual bankruptcies that persist in fiction often no matter what mode is employed. Both of these trends referred to by Smith are devoid of much vital substance due to reasons often unrelated to their various modes of technique.

Netherland, unlike much lyrical Realism, has some consciousness of these arguments, and so it is an anxious novel, unusually so. It is absolutely a post-catastrophe novel but the catastrophe isn’t terror, it’s Realism. …the founding, consoling myth of lyrical Realism – the self is a bottomless pool. What you can’t find in the heavens (anymore), you’ll find in the soul.

That “the self” may be viewed as “a bottomless pool” by lyrical realism or any other mode is no necessary problem, but when such limited exploration becomes something akin to the end-all be-all of fiction, the malignancy or lack is evident, as Smith sees, but then fixates on technique as culprit, even cause. Bottomless pools of self can be explored in techniques far different from lyrical realism, as can “bottomless pools” of superficial or otherwise limited public exploration, which is the central problem. Shifting technique does not necessarily shift the impoverished norms. Shifting the impoverished norms may take advantage of many traditional techniques, while also using and creating others. Smith’s status quo suggestions amount to tinkering with the lights out. A far more viable alternative: begin art creation with more liberatory norms, purposes, principles, guideposts, and/or liberatory “stuff” of all variety. Doing so can raise the shades, throw open the windows, and unlock the doors of the dim and closeted workshop.

Smith describes a passage of Netherlands and concludes: “this is another rule of lyrical Realism: that the random detail confers the authenticity of the Real. As perfect as it all seems, in a strange way it makes you wish for urinals.” Smith very politely trashes Netherlands and dominant contemporary fiction in her article even as she very politely calls Netherlands “the most masterful recent example” of establishment fiction’s “dominant mode.” She very politely compares much focus of the novel unfavorably to “urinals.” She has good reason to render her critiques with absolute politeness, because her works are accomplished and typical examples of establishment fiction too.

It’s a credit to Netherland that it is so anxious. Most practitioners of lyrical Realism blithely continue on their merry road, with not a metaphysical care in the world, and few of them write as finely as Joseph O’Neill.

It’s not so much any “metaphysical” concerns that novels skip past, again, that so gut fiction, as the badly slighted, distorted, or outright ignored crucial sociopolitical ones.

I have written in this tradition myself, and cautiously hope for its survival, but if it’s to survive, lyrical Realists will have to push a little harder on their subject.

The “subject” being the self? If so, on the contrary, by now the self as subject in status quo fiction has been “pushed” too much into a fine paste, refined out of much nourishment – as even this status quo author observes – though greater exploration of the public can further reveal the self. Emphasis public. After recounting and quoting another passage of Netherlands, Smith notes: “An interesting thought is trying to reach us here, but the ghost of the literary burns it away, leaving only its remainder: a nicely constructed sentence, rich in sound and syntax, signifying (almost) nothing.” More sending of “masterful” establishment fiction to the urinal, a necessary task. Unfortunately Smith’s gaze forward is blank, virtually empty of forward motion, progress. And her fiction?

Netherland doesn’t really want to know about misapprehension. It wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really Realism?

In other words, is there any real motion forward here in our understanding of anything? Apparently not, and maybe more than stasis there is retrograde motion in this “masterful” example of status quo fiction – at least if we are left longing for urinals.

If Netherland is a novel only partially aware of the ideas that underpin it, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is fully conscious of its own. But how to write about it? Immediately an obstacle presents itself. When we write about lyrical Realism our great tool is the quote, so richly patterned. But Remainder is not filled with pretty quotes; it works by accumulation and repetition, closing in on its subject in ever-decreasing revolutions, like a trauma victim circling the blank horror of the traumatic event.

It plays a long, meticulous game, opening with a deadpan paragraph of comic simplicity:

Smith’s description here of Remainder sounds the opposite of promising, apparently against her intentions: the novel functions in a sense “like a trauma victim circling the blank horror of the traumatic event” and “plays a long, meticulous game…” That’s some game. To what purpose this “circling…game” one might reasonably wonder – or is this just another establishment crossword puzzle of a novel for privileged people to while away the hours?

The theater of the absurd that Remainder lays out is articulated with the same careful pedantry of Gregor Samsa himself. In its brutal excision of psychology it is easy to feel that Remainder comes to literature as an assassin, to kill the novel stone dead. I think it means rather to shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward. We could call this constructive deconstruction, a quality that, for me, marks Remainder as one of the great English novels of the past ten years.

Seemingly sick of literary psychology and symbolism working miasmic, to scant fresh point, Smith thus turns to consideration and appreciation of Remainder, acclaiming its formal innovations for creating “newly revealed spaces that” provide “the opportunity for multiple allegories” of wide variety. Not only does this seem a straw-grasping turn from one mode of formalism to another mode of formalism but to formalism once removed, so to speak, as allegory. Lyrical realism having failed or maxed out by Smith’s literary lights, apparently her own work not least, it’s time to lay one’s hopes on other forms of realism and allegory. One might anticipate a few years down the road either some ostensibly re-enlightened return to the former formalism or some other formalist grasp, maybe at epic verse? or a novel in sonnets? Formalist hunching games can do little, except secondarily, to address the novel’s most persistent lacks. It’s not that formalist insights can provide no help for more vital achievement in literature and much else. The problem is that once again formalism is being tasked to provide virtually all the help to cure illness and fix problems (in literature and life) largely beyond its pith and ken.

In this dominant constriction and lack, Smith is representative of the literature establishment, very much in line with what Paul Lauter found decades ago in a review of society and literary criticism. This excerpt below is from the editor of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Vincent B. Leitch, in his book American Literary Criticism from the 30s to the 80s (Chapter Thirteen: “Leftist Criticism from the 1960s to the 1980s”):

“When the MLA put together its centennial issue of PMLA in May 1984, it commissioned Paul Lauter to write about the impact of society on the profession of literary criticism between 1958 and 1983. Lauter was a radical associated with the Movement in the sixties…. According to Lauter, the MLA between the fifties and the eighties had expanded and diversified immensely, yet ‘the hierarchy of the profession remains fundamentally unaltered, so-as yet-does the hierarchy of what we value’…. This conclusion was based on two surveys of hundreds of syllabi collected from around the nation in the eighties. Just as the reigning critical ideology in the late 1950s was ‘formalism,’ so the dominant mode of criticism in the 1980s was ‘formalism,’ however expanded to include hermeneutics, semiotics, and poststructuralism, all of which criticism ‘accepts the formalist stance by analyzing texts, including its own discourse, primarily as autonomous objects isolated from their social origins or functions’…. What most dismayed Lauter about such fashionable criticism were its alignment with linguistics and philosophy rather than history and sociology, its tendency to become obscurant self-referential metacriticism in a debauch of professionalism, its preference for a limited canon of elitist texts, its increasing abnegation of practical exegesis and humanistic values, and its deepening occupation of the core of the profession”…. [Even the rebirth of Marxist criticism in the 1970s deviated from "history and sociology" in that]: “What was odd about the Marxist criticism of this [1970s] Renaissance associated with the post-1950s new left and the Movement was its complete disregard of the old left. Mention was never made of V. F. Calverton, James T. Farrell, Granville Hicks, Bernard Smith, Edmund Wilson, or other Leftist Critics prominent in the thirties. The native tradition of radicalism stemming from the nineteenth century had been forgotten during the heyday of the new left….”

“In H. Bruce Franklin’s view, what was wrong with academic literary professionals was their thorough immersion in the bourgeois ideology of formalism, which itself was rooted in the counterrevolutionary antiproletarianism of the thirties. ‘In the present era, formalism is the use of aestheticism to blind us to social and moral reality’….”

“Rather than an instrument or weapon of ruling-class oppression, literature was potentially liberating [in the view of Louis Kampf], provided it was set within a living context close to daily life and removed from its sacrosanct place in the great tradition. ‘In spite of our academic merchants, literature is not a commodity, but the sign of a creative act which expresses personal, social, and historical needs. As such it constantly undermines the status quo.’ The task of the radical critic was to destroy received dogmas and procedures, letting literature be an instrument of agitation and resistance and a force for freedom and genuine liberation. ‘As members of the educated middle class, we must learn that our words should discredit our own culture. Those of us who are literary intellectuals and teachers ought to illustrate in our work that the arts are not alone available to those who are genteel…’.”

“Two Paths for the Novel”? Make that directions and the basic options become: forward, sideways, or back. Smith seems headed sideways, and in the spare technical light of her workshop can scarcely do more than hope not back. Form is not the base of fiction, except in a sense so broad that it can best be understood as content. In The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn, Scientific American reports:

As many as two thirds of the most respected stories in narrative traditions seem to be variations on three narrative patterns, or prototypes, according to Hogan. The two more common prototypes are romantic and heroic scenarios—the former focuses on the trials and travails of love, whereas the latter deals with power struggles. The third prototype, dubbed “sacrificial” by Hogan, focuses on agrarian plenty versus famine as well as on societal redemption. These themes appear over and over again as humans create narrative records of their most basic needs: food, reproduction and social status.

Interested in revitalizing fiction? One could do worse than start there, with the basic prototypes: love, power, survival – and more. “Two Paths for the Novel” shows how the establishment too often thinks about creating quality lit: as almost sheer exercise in technique, or form.

It seems to me that creative works instead spring fundamentally from an intersection of content, impulse, and principle or purpose. Forms and techniques can be used for progressive or retrograde purposes, so form does not drive key underlying elements or necessarily engender quality – which makes it safe for the establishment to consider in depth within certain parameters, too often ad nauseam and in irrelevant ways. Excessive focus on form abdicates discussion of more vital and pressing normative matters.


See further:

Cover for 'Fiction Gutted: The Establishment and the Novel'

by  Tony Christini


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About tc

Tony Christini is an author and cofounder of Liberation Lit.

3 responses »

  1. Pingback: | Some useful ideas.

  2. Pretty good meta-criticism here, I’m surprised it hasn’t been linked or commented on (found it via a google search for the original review).

    As a student of philosophy, I hardly have the cache or gall to deal in the common verbal currency of theorists of literature; this makes your post somewhat hazy around the edges, but it also illuminates a lot of problems I did not see before in Smith’s review.

    I just finished Remainder (haven’t bothered with Netherland), and the impression I got is that Smith was trying to highlight a problem common to both philosophy and literature, namely subject-object dualism and the 2000-or-so odd years spent on attempting to transcend this problem. She offers both of these books as examples that fall squarely into this tradition, but I think does a pretty good job showing just how unique Remainder is in this regard; I can’t speak to its poetic merit, but I found myself magnetized to McCarthy’s notions of happiness, reality, and subjective ideas of authenticity.

    Of course, the problem (which you have so astutely pointed out), is that this _has_ all been done before. My guess is that the most worthwhile project to take up will be to get people to stop valuing originality and start holding artistic excellence in higher regard.

  3. Actually this post was linked to and commented on by Ready Steady Blog, as I noted in the expansion of my thoughts at “Of Form and Content”

    RSB also contains other appreciations of my much more extensive thoughts on establishment criticism, describing it as: “ill written” – “extended denunciations” – “dispiriting” – “Dear, oh dear” – ”pedantic and tone-deaf” – “deeply illiterate” – “hilarious” – “nonsense” – “ominous” – all in regard to “Fiction Gutted – The Establishment and the Novel”:


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