What ever happened to Victorian realism?

What is literary fiction? This question is more semantic than philosophical – what is the nature of the books to which the term ‘literary fiction’ now refers? Because it seems to me that these two words mean entirely different things to different people. Depending on where you stand, ‘literary fiction’ can either mean ‘stuffy pretentious books by middle class white guys that nobody actually enjoys reading’ or ‘the sort of middlebrow realism that tends to win the Booker prize’. Astonishingly, these statements even seem to refer to the same authors. Are the likes of Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes excessively bookish and cerebral, or is the mere suggestion that anyone might think this symptomatic of a more general dumbing down of literary culture, as recently argued (sort of) by Gabriel Josipovici?

For Josipovici, it isn’t really the likes of Amis and McEwan who are the problem. The problem is that a highly conservative and above all commercialised literary culture upholds their sanitised and derivative novels as great works of art. In a sense, I’m inclined to agree. Every era has its popular novelists and no doubt they have always been overrated in many people’s eyes. But the peculiarity of our current climate is the relentlessness of the commercial machinery that elevates a popular storyteller like McEwan into some sort of bastion for serious literary art. The commercial and the critical motives have never been so incestuously intertwined. In order to be ‘great’ or a ‘masterpiece’ (of which apparently dozens are now written every year) a book no longer has to tell us something new – it has to do so in a manner which is ‘entertaining’ and palatable to the masses.

Part of this surely stems from the market forces of ‘literary fiction’, a sort of rapidly expanding, upwardly mobile literary bourgeoisie. A common – and slightly lazy – caricature of current literary fiction is that it is essentially a rewrite of naïve Dickensian/Balzacian Victorian realist fiction, the sort of fat tome that supposedly – though I sometimes wonder if people who make this accusation have actually read Bleak House or Vanity Fair or Middlemarch – seeks to hold up a mirror to the world around it and doesn’t spend a single second questioning the appropriateness of its linguistic resources for doing so.

But is this really accurate? Does it really describe the sort of novel that Josipovici (albeit briefly – for those who have only read the reviews, his book is not, in fact, an extended polemic against Ian McEwan) rails against in What Ever Happened to Modernism? I think not. There’s something more complicated than this going on in – or at least going on behind – the works of the big ‘literary fiction’ writers whom Tom McCarthy disdains as the ‘copywriters for the concern of middlebrow humanism’. Not necessarily better, but more complicated.

More complicated because people can and do argue the opposite perspective – that these novels represent the integration into popular literary culture of modernist narrative techniques. An example of this is John Mullan (a UCL professor, no less), who wrote a piece in the Guardian not long ago about the prevalence of non-conventional (ie non 19th-century realist) narrative forms in contemporary ‘literary fiction’ practitioners. Novels like Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, which is told backwards; David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a Russian Doll of six elaborately embedded narratives; Ian McEwan’s Atonement, with its clever metafictional sting in the tail; AS Byatt’s Possession, with its postmodern playfulness. I mean, even Wolf Hall was written in the present tense. Is this not, in fact, a golden age in which narrative experimentation is more widely accepted than ever before?

‘Literary fiction’ states Mullan, has its origins in the works of John Fowles, who ‘showed that you can be self-consciously literary and still make money’, and was sparked by the monumental critical and commercial crossover success of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. While I am inclined to come down on the Josipovici/McCarthy side of the fence, I think that by simplifying the debate into some sort of convenient binarism between straight 19th century fiction (bad) and modernism (good) we do ourselves few favours. This is a simplification that Josipovici avoids, but others do not. For example, David Shields’s Reality Hunger seemed to me to relies upon a shallow caricature of ‘the conventional novel’ and a rehashing of the time-honoured foundations of modernism (an anxiety about language and form) that, as Josipovici argues, transcend its temporal manifestations (try reading Don Quixote).

Rather than just being a return to Victorian realism (though it also does this in certain ways) I would argue that literary fiction is, depending on your agenda, either the democratisation or the commercialisation of modernism. On the one hand (democratisation) a work like Martin Amis’ Money is an iconoclastic puncturing of the false idols of modernism, its privileged discourse, its arcane exclusivity, its psychological rigour (is it ultimately any more or less false and constructed than realism’s attentiveness to the ‘real world’?), and, a bit like the Angry Young Men led by his dad, brings it, unpretentiously, to a mass audience.

Or alternatively, Money is a glib, shallow work that uses some modernist party tricks that actually mean something quite serious in the hands of other practitioners, and deploys them in a show-offy manner that impresses a middlebrow audience and provides the sort of commercial fodder that allows Martin Amis to spank thousands of pounds on fancy dental work and bag £500,000 advances (eating his cake), while also being critically lauded by a commercially motivated popular literary press as a serious and significant author (having his cake).

Literary fiction is democratisation in that it has expanded the market, and therefore readership of (relatively) serious fiction. It is commercialisation in that it has squeezed out the genuine avant-garde and replaced it with a more streamlined version that will be more palatable to the masses and therefore sell more copies – it has pushed everything towards the middle. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller becomes Cloud Atlas, Mrs Dalloway becomes Saturday and Howard’s End becomes On Beauty. These aren’t so much novels that ventriloquise straight nineteenth century realism, as Diet Modernism: some of the superficial cleverness of a Woolf or a Forster without the calories.

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  1. I think “the commercialisation of modernism” is right only if you assume Mullan’s position that modernism is guaranteed by “self-consciously literary” prose and features “non-conventional narrative forms”. However, Josipovici’s book (which is “What Ever” not “Whatever” by the way) makes it clear that modernism demands something much deeper, more fundamental. I still wonder why the vast majority of reviews fail to address the central idea of modernism as addressing “the disenchantment of the world”.This is what makes his book important. Of course self-consciousness and unconventionality are part of the kind of writing he wants to encourage because the disenchanted condition creates them, necessarily, but these do not guarantee anything (as Amis’ books attest) and indeed many of the post-war authors he places in the modernist tradition – Perec, Appelfeld, Golding, Spark, more recently Jean Echenoz (i.e. Ravel) – are superficially quite conventional. So yes, the binary opposition is wrong but the reasons are more complex and nothing to do with popularity or cultural muscularity (“iconoclastic puncturing”). And not one of the examples you give (via Mullan) are the real thing, modernist or not. Take a look at authors like Dag Solstad, Vila-Matas and Agota Kristof to see why.

  2. Hi there Steve, thanks for commenting. Just to clarify, I’m aware that modernism isn’t just a type of narrative tomfoolery, and I didn’t intend to suggest that any of the examples I drafted in via Mullin are the ‘real deal’ (I actively dislike all four books, as it happens). I was addressing, in a brief and superficial way, contemporary literary fiction rather than critiquing Josipovici’s stance on modernism, which, as you point out, is a good deal more complex. Of course, the fact that modernism is defined by a ‘disenchantment’ that is more fundamental than its aesthetic form is perhaps why the works of Amis and co feel hollow in comparison – they adapt some of its formal cleverness but manage to leave what really counts behind.

  3. OK, I see your point clearly now re-reading the final paragraph (looks like I missed it the first time). I suppose I’m over keen to see the gold offered by Josipovici’s thesis become currency in Britain and the silence about ‘disenchantment’ in favour of the yah-boo-McEwan side of the story is frustrating.

    Michael Hofmann was once very harsh about the contemporary authors hailed as modernist greats by careless critics: http://this-space.blogspot.com/2009/11/watered-down-modernism-and-watered-down.html Just wish there were more like him.

  4. That’s interesting (the Hoffman), I picked up a copy of A Book Of Memories in a charity shop a couple of months ago (mostly because of the Sontag eulogy on the cover), but something made me not bother after 30 pages. Have you read it? And back on the Josipovici, I think that’s his major gripe with the English attitude towards modernism really, isn’t it? That it’s this superficial thing, a form or stylistic mannerism, ‘nothing that wouldn’t be cured by a brisk walk on the Moors’ (or something), as he says at one point.

  5. *Hofmann (I already corrected the Whatever, What Ever, you’ll notice!)

  6. I had the same reaction to A Book of Memories as you. But yes, that is his gripe, and I think it was directed more at the critical climate rather than the novelists. My favourite example of the situation is when a novelist is being promoted, the same hyperbole is used, word for word. So “has already been compared to Proust and Nabokov” appeared in almost every piece about Andrew Sean Grier a few years back. Even Proust is reduced to consumer-friendly hype and gossip.

    And BTW, it’s the Downs rather than the Moors!

  7. An interesting piece. I bought that Josipovici recently and hope to read it over the next couple of weeks (at which point I’ll likely return here).

    With Amis incidentally I don’t think Money is the best example. The argument regarding Amis surely isn’t his early work, but the continued automatic regard for his later work regardless of quality. His early work did help shake things up. Is that still true?

    The problem with Amis and McEwan isn’t their work; in a sense it’s a problem with the literary pages which lazily follow easily recognised names.

    Mitchell incidentally to me is straightforwardly a good sf writer. I find it bizarre it’s not more widely recognised. When your first novel is a tale of the birth of a rogue AI against a backdrop of experimental physics the core question as always is is it good, but the failure to see it as sf is mystifying. Seen as what he is, an sf writer, his techniques are far less surprising.

    More once I’ve read Josipovici.

  8. Hi Max, you’re right in the sense that the regard for Amis’ later work is a better example of the literary press ‘lazily following easily recognised names’ because it’s, y’know, kind of crap but still receives massive attention. Then again there has been quite a big anti-Amis backlash of late, eg Tibor Fischer’s evisceration of Yellow Dog, though McEwan still seems to be largely revered by the popular press.

    But as well as reiterating the observation, made by Josipovici, McCarthy etc, that Amis, McEwan and co are depressingly overrated, I was also interested in considering the other side of the argument (not one that I agree with, but a relevant one nonetheless). Ie thinking a bit more about where this Diet Modernism comes from – is it just shitty market forces or does it reflect a more peculiarly British approach to what it perceives to be the pretentiousness of modernism, its inaccessibility and excessive regard for its own importance.

    Hence the division I’ve tried to draw between literary fiction as the commercialisation (making palatable for a mass audience) of modernism, and as its democratisation (pseudo-iconoclastic puncturing). Because in this (latter) sense I think Amis in general and Money in particular is quite revealing. On the one hand a text like Money cheapens the narrative trickery it employs, but on the other hand it seems to me to be a novel that aims to knock the literary off its pedestal in a way not dissimilar to the Angry Young Men of his father’s generation.

    And just to reiterate – perhaps I should have nailed my colours to the mast rather more in the piece – I wasn’t trying to argue that in adapting the superficial techniques of modernism and making them accessible to a mass market, Amis and co were doing anything other than ripping out its soul!

    • marco
    • April 14th, 2011

    Yep, it’s an interesting piece. I’ll be back with some considerations on Monday.

  9. Cheers marco, I’ll look forward to reading them

    • marco
    • April 21st, 2011

    What is literary fiction?

    Regarding literary fiction as a genre, M John Harrison says it better than I could: http://ambientehotel.wordpress.com/2011/03/12/on-both-yr-houses/

    Depending on where you stand, ‘literary fiction’ can either mean ‘stuffy pretentious books by middle class white guys that nobody actually enjoys reading’ or ‘the sort of middlebrow realism that tends to win the Booker prize’. Astonishingly, these statements even seem to refer to the same authors.

    That’s because these statements are not mutually exclusive. ‘Literary fiction’ books are pretentious in the literal sense of term: they make unjustified claims to importance and distinction. If you believe the hype – like some commenters on the Guardian who seem to read and enjoy equally everything that gets labelled thusly, from Allende to Tolstoj, literary fiction is “brilliant” “challenging” “holds up a mirror to the human condition” “looks deep into the soul of its characters and makes sophisticated commentaries on social and political issues”
    or “teaches us what it means to be human” (all these horrifying platitudes are actual quotes).
    If you don’t, you’re likely to feel that more often than not ambition vastly outstrips achievement.
    And these books do read and feel middlebrow realist, even when they incorporate metafictional tricks or surreal/magical realist elements, because these elements have been assimilated, in themselves they don’t surprise anyone anymore.
    A couple of years ago, I had an exchange with a researcher who had noticed an increasing presence of post-modernist tropes in mass market commercial fiction (not even “ambitious” genere fiction). He did argue that this was the reflection of a more general tendence towards the mainstreaming of formerly innovative techniques spearheaded by television and cinema. After Blade Runner, the works of Tarantino, Seven or The Matrix unreliable narrators, surprise or metafictional endings, ontological dilemmas have become so commonplace that we have learned to accept them as conventional everywhere.

    For Josipovici, it isn’t really the likes of Amis and McEwan who are the problem. The problem is that a highly conservative and above all commercialised literary culture upholds their sanitised and derivative novels as great works of art.

    I’ve read similar tirades in Italian (my own language), German, Spanish and French.
    The Strega Prize, to name an example, has clearly devolved into a tug-of-war between 3-4 major publishers. I can’t remember the last time the winner came from a medium-small independent press (and there are some, like Sellerio or Adelphi, that consistently publish high-quality fiction). The novels primed for the win are overexposed and hyperpublicized, and you can be sure the papers will find a story or anecdote or manufacture a literary polemic in order to make their authors interesting: tutto il mondo è paese.

    Further, the kind of books that get elevated to widespread public attention seem to fall in few basic categories – for instance the Historical/Epic Novel that really tells us about The Present (Canale Mussolini/Wolf Hall) – the novel delicately crafted around a “nice” conceit (The Solitude of Prime Numbers/Room) – the novel that marries a topical subject with some kind of not-too deep social observation, critique or satire (Acciaio/Solar).
    You feel, perhaps wrongly, that you know in advance everything about these novels, that they couldn’t possibly surprise you; you become jaded, and tend to dismiss them purely as a reaction against the hype, without giving them the benefit of the doubt unless you already appreciate the author or can rely on positive opinions from a trusted source.

    As a reader, I sympathize with some of Josipovici’s positions.
    But when he tries to argue the importance of Golding (which I like) or Muriel Sparks (which I like even more) claiming them for Modernism, when he says that he found “very little joy” in reading 19th Century “great novels” or when he summarily disparages Pynchon and all American Postmodernists in order to sing praises for Perec he comes across as the kind of critic that works his formulations backwards from his tastes and is likely to be very unsympathetic towards everything that doesn’t move him deeply.

    I read many different things, and while some may represent merely lightweight entertainment, of course those that make my personal canon make me feel “Yes, this is it!” and I consider them “the real thing.”
    But I don’t think anyone can completely overcome personal biases. Lists of self-evident “capital L” Literary works (usually grounded with references to unassailable past masters like Proust, Céline, Beckett) strike me as problematic.
    Neither Mantel nor McCarthy may be Musil, but I prefer the former to the latter, regardless of any particular consideration of the “conventional vs avant-garde” kind.

  10. Cheers Marco, that was worth the wait!

    The Strega Prize, to name an example, has clearly devolved into a tug-of-war between 3-4 major publishers. I can’t remember the last time the winner came from a medium-small independent press (and there are some, like Sellerio or Adelphi, that consistently publish high-quality fiction).

    Someone made the quite interesting point on a Guardian thread the other day (can’t remember which one or who) that there are some entry conditions in the Booker prize that effectively prevent books not on fairly big publishing houses even being considered. Publishers of longlisted books apparently have to have a certain (quite high) number of copies available within a week or so of the announcement, plus they have to make a downpayment towards promotion etc (which presumably they’d make back through sales and publicity, but you have to have it in the first place, I guess). I wonder if this is a condition that applies to other prizes such as the Strega, Goncourt etc.

    As to Josipovici’s stance on C19th realism, I have to admit it did feel like a rather breezy summary dismissal, but then I think he does make it clear at the beginning of What Ever Happened to Modernism that it is a personal and subjective account of the art that he likes rather than an objective canon. But yes, much as I love modernism it certainly doesn’t have to be at the exclusion of all books that have different aims or propound a different world-view. I can’t agree with you on Mantel (I tried reading Wolf Hall but just couldn’t get more than half way through) but I do have quite a high regard for some of the authors that Josipovici disses, as well as others that I could well imagine him dissing. Someone like Dickens I can read for the prose despite the obvious limitations of its engagement with the world, and I’ve always quite liked Roth. I wonder what Josipovici thinks of Tom McCarthy…

    • ian darling
    • October 24th, 2011

    If you take a look at Orwell’s essays (Everyman selected) there is at least one piece that looks at the State of the Novel question and it is clear that the weekly trumpeting of masterpieces by literary journalists is no new thing. If anything it seems to have been more shameless than anything we have now.

    To sell novels it is perhaps inevitable that there has to accompany the fiction barrages of hype and resulting deflation as another book fails to meet expectations.Perhaps this accomodation of modernist techniques keeps published fiction imperfectly alive.

  1. June 27th, 2011

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