13 March 2009

Wolfe, Tom. "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel."” Harper's. Nov 89, 45-56.

Wolfe got a lot of flack, I think, from this article, which he wrote after publishing The Bonfire of the Vanities and while he was working on A Man in Full. It's in one sense a response to the critics of Bonfire who felt the novel was a sprawling messy hybrid of fictionalized reportage—Wolfe doing Wolfe while making characters up. And this article's thesis is, if I can try to sub it up briefly, that since World War II what is both heralded and also simply desired in American literature (well, let's just say the novel in specific) is a smaller kind of novel. It's not so much a novel of ideas as it is an overly performative novel. The novel as game, something geared more and more geared toward the gradually developing intelligentsia and less toward the middle class, where the novel once aimed itself. The "death" of the novel, such as it may be, Wolfe argues, is really just an overly fussy refining of a novel's inherent aims or abilities.

What Wolfe always wanted to write was the novel of New York in what he calls "the American century" (it’s keenly apparent reading this in 2009 that that century is very much over) a la the novels of London and Paris in their nineteenth centuries. That is, he wanted to be the American Balzac or Dickens. And he makes a good case about the value of such writing, in that these writers never really impressed or attracted the intelligentsia of their times, but rather sought popular readerships. Now the idea of seeking a popular readership is sort of just to hold a flag up saying "No thanks I actually don’t want to get good reviews to say nothing of the respect of my peers."

One'll find holes in the argument if one looks closely enough. One thing, for me, is that I'm not quite sure how to sort out the chicken-egg origins of all this. I mean: the novel is, now, without question, terribly irrelevant compared to its pre-television forefather. This is what Franzen's big Harper's essay is all about: why try to write a social novel that describes the world when practically every new medium that's come out in the 20th century does a far faster and more accurate job than the novel can? But Wolfe seems to argue that it's this narrowing of the novel's scope—this distrustful turn away from realism over the last fifty years or so—that has led the novel toward its current irrelevance. Not, as I'd assume to be the case, that the novel's inability to be socially relevant has then led writers to seek out new projects or goals for what the novel can do.

Having read this after Wood's book, I'm now fully on board with the notion that realism isn't just a school of writing but rather the central mechanism that makes narrative work, which is to say, that makes a reader look at words thrown together and see in them something of his own relative experience. Wood says realism isn't a genre but rather the thing that allows all other genres to exist. Here's how Wolfe puts it:
The introduction of realism in literature in the eighteenth century by Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett was like the introduction of electricity into engineering. It was not just another device. The effect on the emotions of an everyday realism such as Richardson's was something that had never been conceived of before. It was realism that created the "absorbing" or "gripping" quality that is peculiar to the novel, the quality that makes the reader feel that he has been pulled not only into the setting of the story but also into the minds and central nervous system of the character. (50)
He follows this with an astoundingly tall claim: "No one was ever moved to tears by reading about the unhappy fates of heroes and heroines in Homer [. . .] or Shakespeare" (50). Really, Tom? No one ever in the hundreds of years since both those guys started writing?

If a move away from realism is the problem, the solution as Wolfe argues, is for more reportage. Novelists need to get out in the world and write about what they see. As a person who came to writing through journalism—and a person who worried for years about what on earth to write when he wrote fiction—the command ment is a sound one. Reportage, Wolfe says, gives a writer "something to say." Without it, all writers have is a facility with words. And I’ve complained enough in this venue about beautiful language with nothing behind it to belabor the point further.

At any rate, I'm rereading Marcus's anti-realist / -Franzen screed next week, as well as Franzen's take on this, and Wallace's "E Unibus Plurum" and probably even Zadie Smith’s recent take on the debate, all in preparation for my scholarly paper for the field list in my comprehensive exams, which is going to take a close look at all these recent writers writing on what's needed in contemporary fiction and figure out okay: what are the problems? What are the demands? What are the novels that have been written in the last 20 years or so that have in some way responded, either directly or in-, to these problems and demands?

Oh and I also have to blog about Ha Jin’s Waiting, which wasn't bad but also not so great, despite winning the 1999 National Book Award.

And upon rereading, one final confession: I yearn (mostly) for realism in the novels I read but am usually bored by its use in short stories. This isn't entirely true, but I think it might have something to do with why George Saunders has not yet written a novel.


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