Just a small protest about a couple of posts, one on the future of the novel at Moby Lives and a riff on psychological realism I came across at The Reading Experience. Also a quiet wail about the silly things some people have said about films and novels.
Stop 1: Dan Green’s post on psychological realism. Dan got a bit stuck as he tried to peg a discussion on what proved to be a fairly insubstantial piece of populist fluff from the New York Times, by Lee Siegel.
I found the discussion at The Reading Experience fuzzy and disappointing, as Green sought to define psychological realism in the novel as beginning somewhere close to Flaubert, and reaching its apogee with Woolf and Joyce:
I think Siegel is wrong in claiming that 19th century writers "plumbed the depths of the human mind with something on the order of clairvoyance." Before James (or Flaubert, or Chekhov), the reigning narrative model was the picaresque, which surely emphasizes event over reflection, and which generally produces characters that are flat indeed--although not necessarily without color or vibrancy. One could say that writers such as George Eliot or Hawthorne or Melville plumbed the depths of the human soul, but they did not do so using the techniques of pyschological realism as we have come to know them. It was as an addition to the strategies used by 19th century writers that stream of consciousness and what might be called psychological exposition--in which the writer describes what's going on inside a character's mind in the same way he/she might describe landscape or event--came to be identified as "modern" in the first place.
Firstly, let’s hope Stendhal gets a look-in there, Dan?
I'm not comfortable with this neat little line being drawn at all, it reeks of the old undergrad assumption that writers woke up one day in April,1660 in England and said, "Today is the Restoration. The Renaissance is so last century."
This post and its comments came dangerously close to treating film somewhat dismissively as not even comparable with the novel in approaching a serious treatment of character. Come again? What films have y’all been watching? Not much Ingmar Bergman or Eric Rohmer, I’ll be bound.
Admittedly the Siegel article was far worse, putting film in the dummies basket fair and square, even though it was mainly an opinionated rant, masked as a book review, about the damage Freud has supposedly done to society, which took swipes at the novel and film along the way.
Finally, I'm also a little dissatisfied with Dan's closing argument where he tries to fight for a novel as a creation of good faith in itself, I know I should know why this argument is simplistic in technical terms, but I really only feel it:
Privileging "psychological realism" over all the other effects a work of fiction might convey, all the other methods of creating an aesthetically convincing work of literary art, ultimately only diminishes fiction as literary art. It perpetuates the idea that fiction is a "window"--whether on external reality or the human psyche--rather than an aesthetic creation made of words...
There are plenty of great novels that reveal human motive and the operations of the human mind. But their authors didn't necessarily set out to make such revelations. They set out to write good novels.
I don't think such hair-splitting is worth the trouble. Dan is simply choosing brownie points for the novel here, without giving it anywhere to go or any credit for where it has been along the way. As well as making some sweeping statements about authorial intentions simply because he can, which is not really a good enough reason, and certainly not a sin in the blogosphere, but maybe one of its weak points.
Stop 2: This post at Moby Lives by a guest called David Barringer started by chewing on an interesting conceit – a novel plotted around one decision - and finally yielded up this surprising if reductionist riposte to Siegel and his uncritical, maundering opponents at The Reading Experience:
“…They don't call the mind the novelist's next frontier for nothing.
Don't forget the language barrier. Once you delve deeply into the conscious mind, you find a world of phenomenon beyond or beneath capture in words. Elusive. Ineffable. A swarm of fragments, clipped phrases, half–thoughts, dreams, hallucinations. Whole arguments go nowhere, trains of thought you've tugged along since you were a child, adding car after car headed for destination unknown and unknowable. Fears, desires, associations, lusts. It's a madhouse.
And yet, it isn't. We can control it. We can assert authority over our own rambling disorder. The novelist must investigate the rambling disorder as well as this authority, recognizing that this authority may coincide with the identity of the novelist doing the investigation (around and around we go). Somehow, we impose a linear order upon our multilayered nonlinear battleground of consciousness, and, if the novelist wishes to remain a novelist and not a screenwriter or some other artist, the novelist, working in a linear medium, must do the same.”
So, this fortnight there were at least two woolly sets of ideas about psychological realism in the blogosphere, and one rumination on the future of such 'realism', and no one has responded to my comments on Adam Phillips' more liberal ideas about Freud and literature.
Why? Perhaps because he is not taken very seriously by writers (except for Will Self and Hanif Kureishi). And probably because his gently aggressive circumlocution in ‘Poetry and Psychoanalysis’ ( see his collection of essays, Promises Promises) musses away at the line Dan is trying to draw in the sand here, between Woolf and the nineteenth century novel.
True to form, Phillips doesn't finesse his points here, but does make a strong case for letting literature ( and psychoanalysis, his own profession) be as open-ended as it can possibly be with regard to this question of what it can become, and what it has been. I suppose really his essay is at an oblique angle to these concerns, however Siegel did start the ball rolling, and his whole article says some silly things about Freud ( AND film). Really.
(But this post is too long already, go look at Phillips if you are interested enough.)
It didn't stop Maud and Annie posting some interesting segues from the matter, which I enjoyed as they refrained from theorising and embellished their pronouncements with much meat from the writing schools they teach in. For this I was grateful, and especially for this, characterising the 'show, don't tell' school of writing thus:
They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce.
Yep, they call it the ‘tea-towel’ school of literature.
I'd like to think their posts show blogging about literature doing what it perhaps does best. Which is what this post should really have been about. Maybe there will be another instalment one day.