Art & Argument:
Issues and Ideas in American Fiction
5. To Understand Him Closely We Must Consider Him From Afar
by Jess Row
This is the fifth of five pieces discussing the role of issues and ideas in American fiction and how it can become more socially engaged. These sections are adapted from remarks at the 2013 conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) in Boston, entitled “Troubling Ideas: The Renewal of Argumentative Fiction.”
Chekhov once wrote his friend and sometime publisher Aleksei Suvorin that
You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist.
What did Chekhov mean? What we think he meant and what passes for doctrine, consciously and unconsciously, among so many writers today, is that ideas just don’t belong in fiction. “No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams wrote in Paterson. “Go in fear of abstractions,” Pound said, in the first Imagist manifesto. Or, as Janet Burroway writes in her textbook Writing Fiction, as close to a catechism as the American fiction workshop has today:
A writer of fiction approaches concepts, generalizations, abstractions and truths through their particular embodiments, showing, not telling. “Literature,” says John Ciardi, “is never only about ideas, but about the experience of ideas.” The kind of “truth” that can be shown through thematic resonance is many-faceted and can acknowledge the competing of many truths, exploring paradox and contradiction.
I recently heard the great short story writer Deborah Eisenberg say, during a public dialogue with another writer, “I have never had an idea in my life.” When I heard that I remembered what Wallace Shawn wrote about falling in love with her in 1972: “shocked by her views—discussion of China led to tears.” To be fair, she also said, in the next breath, that to her discussions of politics were just a part of the fabric of ordinary life, and that she couldn’t not work them into her fiction. But why did she have to reject any relationship to ideas? Would it have been different if she were a man? I’m haunted by this disclaimer, because I think, in our literary world, spoken or unspoken, it’s everywhere.
We have to remember that the European and American writers who argued for artistic autonomy in fiction in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—Chekhov, Flaubert, Forster, Henry James, Woolf, Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, to name the most obvious examples—were working against the tide of public and critical opinion, which still expected the novel to embody a consensus version of public morality. Nothing we do today would be possible without their courage and tenacity (and, it has to be said, their excessive self-regard, arrogance, and monomania).
But it’s possible to say this and still realize that these writers also created a kind of master narrative for fiction, which essentially is as follows: fiction was once vulgar, sentimental, shapeless, moralistic, plot-driven, sensationalistic, and middlebrow, but at that point—in, say, 1922—it had become refined, psychologically astute, character-driven, plot-averse, carefully shaped and revised into unified form, detached from morality, and indifferent or unaware of the reader. This is the narrative articulated in Woolf’s “Modern Fiction” and James’s “The Art of Fiction” and perpetuated in the present by writers as different as James Wood, Zadie Smith, David Shields, and Ben Marcus.
Yet we all know that fiction doesn’t just travel in one direction or according to one trajectory. There was a great deal of metafiction and what we would call “postmodern” fiction written in the eighteenth century (Swift and Sterne being two of the most obvious examples). Much of what’s called “literary” fiction in the US today is written as if Joyce and Beckett never existed. And there have always been, as if in some parallel dimension, writers we all know of who simply don’t fit at all into this concept of the novel’s development.
One case in point: Milan Kundera. Kundera’s books, most famously The Unbearable Lightness of Being, were enormously popular when they began appearing in English in the 1980s. All of Kundera’s work is saturated with references to European philosophy and cultural history; open any page at random and you’re as likely to find an account of Nietzsche’s madness as two lovers lying in a bed. Yet as popular as he was, Kundera left no trace—at least none that I can see—on American fiction in the late ’80s and ’90s. No young American writer I know of—including me—set out to try to replicate what he was doing. You’d be hard-pressed to find a book review in the New York Times over the last thirty years that includes the phrase, “…like Milan Kundera.” Why? Let me start from my own perspective. Partly, of course, I was intimidated; I thought I would actually have to read all those books just to find a place to begin. I hadn’t realized that fiction writers can and do fake everything. But mostly I knew that if I took Kundera-ish fiction to a workshop my fellow students would just tear it to shreds. They would call it “pretentious.” They would call it, even worse, “cerebral.” They would say, having not read the works in question, that it was “inaccessible.” And I would have said those same things, at that time, faced with the same work.
In some ways, I think, the American literary landscape has shifted over the last decade or last decade and a half. David Ulin, in the Los Angeles Times, recently said that 2012 for him marked a return of “the novel of ideas,” novels that “both portray and reflect upon the spirit of their moment, telling not just a story but using it to illustrate something about the world in which we live. What is the value, in such a landscape, of consideration, of the way a great work of fiction has of taking the pulse of its time? Do we even have space anymore for the vertical plunge required by the novel, the deep dive into a writer’s inner world? The answer is a resounding yes.” (The novels he mentioned, by the way, were by Zadie Smith, Steve Erickson, Hari Kunzru, and Chris Ware).
But I’m not sure that the climate of the writing workshop has changed along with it. Which is not to say that idea-driven fiction never shows up in workshops—quite the opposite. It’s just that I know about myself that I don’t feel nearly as comfortable making suggestions about how to turn bad idea-driven fiction into good idea-fiction as I do teaching students how to create more tension in a conversation or how to add more resonant details to a passage of description. As much as I would like it to be otherwise, discussions of the mimetic elements of fiction still dominate my classroom. How do we change that?
In John Berger’s novel G., published in 1971, there is a wonderful passage which indicates his own attitude toward ideas and argument in fiction—an attitude which was then (and now) sharply against the grain of his era. This is the introduction, early in the novel, of a relatively minor character, one of the guardians of the protagonist:
To understand him closely we must consider him from afar. Towards the end of the last century the English upper class faced an unusual crisis. Their power was in no way threatened; but their own chosen image of themselves was threatened. They had long since accommodated themselves to industrial capitalism and trade, but they had chosen to continue the way of life of an hereditary landed elite. This way of life, with its underlying assumptions, was becoming more and more incompatible with the modern world. On one hand the scale of modern finance, industry, and imperialist investment required a new image of leadership; and on the other the masses were demanding democracy. The solution which the upper class found was true to their own character: it was both spirited and frivolous. If their way of life had to disappear, they would first apotheosize it by openly and shamelessly transforming it into a spectacle; if it was no longer viable, they would turn it into theater. From the 1880s onwards this was the underlying meaning of Social Life—the Hunts, the Shoots, the Race Meetings, the Court Balls, the Regattas, the Great House Parties…
Jocelyn is an impoverished and peripheral member of this class. The Hunts and Races he goes to are comparatively undistinguished ones. But this increases his need to believe that the play is life and that the rest of life is a suspended empty interval.
Although Berger is an avowed socialist who has lived in voluntary exile from England since the ’70s, and the paradigm here is a Marxist one, broadly speaking, it’s not a piece of doctrine or dialectical analysis. It’s actually an almost neutral assessment that surely many members of the class he’s talking about would have agreed with. What about the audience? Is Berger asking for our permission to enter into a separate realm, a realm of political analysis or factual argument? I don’t think so.
I would call it, instead, a kind of artistic honesty, a way of laying the workings and process of fiction bare for the reader. What Berger is saying, I think, is that any narrative about a given historical era has to adopt, consciously or unconsciously, a certain ideological position toward that era. We might like to think that as freethinking artists we’re capable of depicting what Janet Burroway calls “the competing of many truths.” But when we write about, say, the ancient Egyptians, or Abraham Lincoln, or whatever, we’re articulating in sub rosa form the values of ourselves personally and our era as well. Making that explicit, as Berger is doing here, doesn’t turn G. into a polemical novel or a work of social realism. What it is, more than anything, is a way of producing what Bertolt Brecht called the Verfremdungseffekt, the effect of “estrangement” or “distancing” that unsettles the reader’s experience while not interrupting the drama. Another way of saying the same thing—using a term more familiar to fiction writers—is to call it “defamiliarization,” one of the cardinal values of modernism. Vladimir Shklovsky, who coined the term, defined it as a description which enables the reader to see what is described as if for the first time. My own feeling about the use of ideas—explicit abstractions—in fiction is that they open up a closed realm of descriptive and dramatic possibilities for an art form that is in dire need of new life.