Monday, March 23, 2009

I never post anything about writing fiction here, even though it’s what I spend most of my writing-time doing. There are two reasons for this. Firstly because I would have to reference my own work a lot in order to outline my position/practice and this seems a) rather pompous and b) useless as only a handful of people have ever read/will ever read any of it anyway. Secondly because most people who look at/link to this blog aren’t primarily interested in fiction. But having just finished a novel of sorts (though of course the finishing is just the beginning: now there’s the editing) and with the prospect of it going out into the wider world one way or another, I feel it’s probably time I said something about my ideas, as my approach to fiction writing is fairly theoretical.

This will be the first of several posts.

I’ll start anecdotally.

Eleven years ago, when I was doing my creative writing MA and finding my peers really surprisingly incurious about what seemed to me the boundless and underexplored/under-discussed possibilities of the novel, displaying generally no interest whatsoever in the formal advances of the Nouveau Roman, American postmodernism, or even British experimentalists like B.S Johnson or Christine Brooke Rose (they seemed much more interested in how to write "something-that-would-get-published") someone leant me a copy of Ian McEwen’s “ First Love Last Rites”, I appeared to write “dark” fiction and would probably like it, McEwen was considered “cutting edge”, something a bit different.

There were at that point NO English writers I was interested in reading (a situation which has remained largely unchanged through the intervening decade, with the exception of James Lasdun) though I had respect for Scottish Kellman and a love of Irish Banville. I had in fact been surviving on weird combination of French fin de siècle and American post-war for the past few years, reading things like William Gass and Lautreamont, Barthelme and Baudelaire. This must have been more or less round the time of Brit-Lit, something parlayed up into a non-movement by some media types under the rubric of the New Puritans a little later, I believe. Certainly the big sellers around the time seemed to be Irvine Welsh, James Hawes and Alex Garland, a thoroughly dismaying triumvirate of Blairite literary titans.

Actually, someone tried to persuade me of the importance of these three, and their ilk on the grounds that “they had got young people reading again.” As though the mere act of dragging your eyes over lines of print were itself virtuous/nutritive irrespective of the content of the work, but here at least is one of the early pseudo-egalitarian inversions taking place, the writer doesn’t challenge the reader to come up to his level of linguistic, formal or thematic invention, quite the reverse, the sulky reader challenges the writer to produce some pablum that he can get down easily, with a passive-aggressive minimum of fuss. There was a doubly-conciliatory aspect to this writing, it wouldn’t stretch you as a reader, its fundamental duty being to entertain (it was and has remained, vitally, “a good read”) and it would largely perform a reconciliatory role within the culture. The bad would be punished, the good would be rewarded: what it wouldn’t be was demanding and ambivalent, certainly it wouldn’t be arguing for anything. It was friendly, good-time, cool-Brittania literature, the literary equivalent of sticking to drugs to see you through the long, possibly endless night of late Capitalism. Should you have anything to say as writer, any political perspective or critique (though that wasn’t the way things worked anymore, yeah? New historical phase, yeah?) you would smuggle a few nips of it in with the pablum and console yourself that that was how things were, you played to generic expectations and tried to sneak a little bit of “yourself” in on the way.

I believed, callow fool that I was/am that the fundamental purpose of art was that it was oppositional, but now, with a Neo-Liberal Labour party in power a weird cleaving together of art and politics was taking place, a kind of mass artistic denial/abnegation of responsibility. We can’t be against the Labour Party! Capitalism is the new rock and roll! Even those oppositional currents that had been kept alive by Thatcherism slowly disappeared through the early-to-mid-Nineties, cultural Blairism predating Blair by a few years, kicking off in grand style with “Four Weddings” in the Major years. From my perspective it all looked like a miserable capitulation/ sneakily grateful dereliction of the artists duty to be a radical of some kind, affiliated to the progressive currents of modernism and emancipatory politics. Is this IT then? I would ask myself, wandering around Waterstones in York trying to find anything even half exciting to read. This is what my generation has produced in response to the End of History and the triumph of Liberal Capitalism, is it? A White Merc with Fins. The Beach. Toby Litt. The ultimate accolade seemed to be that you were a British Tarantino.

But back to McEwen. My immediate response, picking it up and flicking through it was, “ Ahh… but these are just stories.” Stories, no matter how well crafted, were absolutely not what I wanted. What I wanted was something that was innovating in terms of the form, that appeared to be thinking about what fiction was, “metafiction” of sorts, but a kind of grim, challenging, aggressive metafiction ( just in case you think I’m glossing here’s a “story” I wrote on a return from the above-mentioned Waterstone’s in 1998.) Not that I didn’t love and respect Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s night” nor feel deep admiration for Barth’s “Lost in the funhouse”, indeed all his work, but I wanted to rescue it from it’s close association, at least in these two writers with fabulation/ magical-realism. I found the impulse to post-modern “re-enchantment” with the world in both of them sensually gratifying but politically alienating. The question was how could these writers among others be built on, not a repudiation of postmodernism but a correction of it in some ways, an enlargement of it in others.

I eventually found a kind of aggressive, Brechtian redeployment of metafictional technique a few years ago in Christopher Priests’ audaciously great “The Glamour” (unsurprisingly, recommended to me by Mark K-Punk) a novel which like B.S Johnson’s “Albert Angelo” basically commits diegetic suicide in its last three pages.**

I applaud this wholeheartedly, though I’m personally aggrieved enough to be more interested in committing diegetic murder.***

*In passing I saw an article a few years ago by Nick Hornby entitled, more or less “Why you should never, ever struggle with a book.” And I spent six months sweating over “The Recognitions” when I could have been reading “Fever Pitch”, enjoying all the great stuff nineties Britain had to offer and not taking things so seriously!

** My first thought on finishing it was: “ Fuck me, no-one would publish this now.”

***Leading us nicely on to the next part: The Reader.

No comments: