Of Form and Content

A Practical Policy has an extremely bloated and yet rather dull-witted response to Zadie Smith’s recent, excellent NYRB article Two Paths for the Novel. It can be enjoyed alongside a similarly uncomprehending attempt at a rejoinder, Zadie Smith’s annoying Critique of ‘Realism’, (sic!) from Nigel Beale.” – Mark Thwaite

One might say that Mark Thwaite has an astonishingly shrunken and yet rather pinheaded response to some “uncomprehending” comments from my previous post that may be “enjoyed” at form-is-not-story-but-its-shape mainly, though the faulty parallelism would make for flawed sense, would be ironic in a post on the importance of form, would advance little of substance, and, well…one might do well not to go there.

I don’t argue that lyrical realism is not overrepresented in lit production. I’ve not expressed much opinion on the question, because it seems to me beside the point, and diversionary from the crucial issues, at least as typically discussed by the establishment. I think forms of fiction should be diverse, as my own fiction happens to be, and so too should content be greatly diverse, across the fields of fiction.

Near the end of my comments on Smith’s article, I point to what Scientific American notes as the basic story founts or “prototypes,” which can be developed with any variety of technique or form, as part of pointing out that “what” is written about in story or as story is more fundamental than “how” story is approached formally. New content accounts for much of the deserved success of the multicultural expansion of storytellers and stories in fiction in recent decades, which is not primarily due to any especially new form brought to the table. One of the great needs has been for diversity of content – diversity of reality and possibility and access – as has been partly supplied in the expansion. New forms have arrived too but more valuable by far has been the content, artfully presented in various ways. Now after these decades, the freshness of that expansion may begin to seem more conventional, and in any event does not come centrally into play with some writers or stories. So what to do to regenerate or revitalize story, as story must always be regenerated? More expansion of many sorts is still badly needed. Additionally, the Scientific American article provides some pointers: look to the enduring well of story types. Further, I’ve long suggested the importance of focusing on various progressive and ever more liberatory stories of wide variety. These are essentially normative issues, not technical or formal concerns basically. We are speaking of art, so formal concerns are also going to be important, even central in some ways, though not most basic. In my view, Smith mistakenly (or at least baselessly) points primarily to problems with form rather than with novel content and norms, in the productions of the too oft stagnant establishment. I agree that more diversity of form would be refreshing and valuable but there are far more fundamental problems sapping fiction of its vitality than technical concerns – and no key shift in form alone can address those problems.

For example, there are no overt establishment novels about the supreme crime of the US conquest of Iraq. In fact, the idea of explicit antiwar novels has been smeared by the literature establishment these years. This represents far more an impoverishment of literature and life than the fact that there are quite a number of lyrical realism establishment novels that explore some aspects or effects of the US invasion and occupation. The worth of altering the form of the latter novels pales in comparison to creating virtually any type of the former, as lyrical realism or not. And the “supreme crime” of the US conquest is one of many central and vital stories that gets filtered out of the fiction publishing industry (as I’ve discussed at length) and out of the dominant media essentially, as many progressive media analysts point out. Smith looks for what “ail[s] literary culture” elsewhere, and draws conclusions that seem to me to be a central part of the ailment, views that are generally (not necessarily in specific) representative of the form obsession of literature establishment thought, far from novel or crucial.

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