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Against therapist-novelists

January 16, 2012

An article on the New York Times’ website a few days ago called “Why Write Novels at All?” describes the aesthetic practice of those writers it suggests we should see as the latest and greatest English-language novelists, and offers a somewhat compelling critique of that practice. Of what he calls the “Conversazioni group”, I’ve heard of Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, and the late David Foster Wallace, though I haven’t read anything by any of them, apart from a few essays, most of which I found interesting but ultimately insignificant. Anyway, the article goes on to give a rather interesting history of the novel in the last 30 years as an attempt to get past postmodernism and the sense of the uselessness of art.

Then the last section talks about the group as a whole:

The idea that “the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness” crops up all over the writing of the Conversazioni group […]. It also helps to explain these writers’ broad turn away from various postmodern formalisms and toward the problems of the human heart. Indeed […] “Here is a sign that you’re not alone” starts to look like the ascendant trope of and about literature today.

Its problem, as a mission statement, is not that it’s symptomatic of our self-help culture; Aristotle saw narrative as therapeutic, too. It’s that it’s not specific enough. Does “the sign that we’re not alone” ultimately refer back to the solitary reader […] Or does it refer to the author […] Or does truly great literature point to some third thing altogether?

Well, yes, this is part of the problem. But the problem is Aristotle didn’t see narrative as only therapeutic. And that what he meant by therapy (or, more precisely, catharsis) is not as all what people today mean by it. The problem isn’t that the formulation isn’t specific enough; it’s that it’s not complex enough. Literature can’t be reduced to therapy, no matter how precisely we define “therapy.”

The article goes on to talk about how the group’s novels are insufficient:

This is where “The Marriage Plot”’s titular enjambment of literature and love — those two beleaguered institutions — is so clarifying. Think about it: I can love you because I want to feel less alone, or I can love you because I want you to feel less alone. But only the latter requires me to imagine a consciousness independent of my own, and equally real.

So far, our new leading novelists have cleared this second hurdle only intermittently […] we encounter characters too neatly or thinly drawn, too recognizably literary, to confront us with the fact that there are other people besides ourselves in the world, whole mysterious inner universes.

I basically agree with this. I would say it reflects a failure of mimesis–any literature that doesn’t offer a picture of reality that we can recognize as, well, real, cannot succeed as literature. This doesn’t mean mimesis is the goal of literature; only that it’s a necessary precondition for good literature. Though this is a large and dangerous topic.

In any case, the next sentence, and final paragraph, are saying something worthwhile, but do a rather terrible job of saying it:

These works may delight us, but they do not instruct.

I’m cribbing these words — “delight,” “instruct” — from a 2,000-year-old theory about the purpose of art because they seem today more apposite than ever. Even as you read this, engineers in Silicon Valley are hard at work on new ways to delight you — gathering the entire field of aesthetic experience onto a single screen you’ll be able to roll up like a paperback and stick in your back pocket. It’s safe to say that delight won’t be in short supply, and as long as there’s juice in the battery, we won’t have to feel alone. But will we be alone? Literature, to a degree unique among the arts, has the ability both to frame the question and to affect the answer. This isn’t to say that, measured in terms of cultural capital or sheer entertainment, the delights to which most contemporary “literary fiction” aims to treat us aren’t an awful lot. It’s just that, if the art is to endure, they won’t be quite enough.

While I agree with much of the sentiment here, this is a terrible way to phrase it. “Delight” does not mean “entertain,” “instruct” does not mean “frame the question”. And literature can’t be just about making us not feel alone. Because not feeling alone just isn’t enough.

But I don’t want to bring in the need for transcendence, so I’ll just end with saying that Cormac McCarthy, to my mind, offers a much better critique of postmodernism and alternative to it than does this “Conversazioni group”. (I’ll also note, though the article doesn’t talk about it, that I’ve come across the word “metamodernism” to refer to their anti-postmodernist position, and it strikes me as a fairly useful term, better than postpostmodernism, though also somewhat ugly.)

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 19, 2012 6:54 pm

    I’m sorry but I get impatient with all these authors, who somehow seem to get less done for me than a good dose of Andrea Camilleri or Peter Beagle. There’s just too much STUFF otherwise, like being asked to eat a rump steak with trimmings when all you wanted was a good burger. :)

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