Sunday 12 June 2016

Zadie Smith on the novel

In 2008 Zadie Smith wrote a much-discussed piece for the New York Review of Books, claiming that  the Anglophone novel would in the future take one of two routes exemplified by the two books she was reviewing: Tom McCarthy's Remainder and Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. She saw these two novels as 'antipodal' (i.e. diametrically opposed) and symptomatic of 'our ailing literary culture'. 

What she found dispiriting in O'Neill's novel was what she described as 'a breed of lyrical Realism' - she disparaged Netherland as efficient, bland and unremarkable. She admired Remainder because it seemed to her to stand in lonely opposition to the heavyweight middlebrow fictions that to this day dominate publishers' lists. 

Now as arguments go this is fair enough, but over familiar - about as compelling as those people who complain there isn't enough good news on the telly. There has never been a time in literary history during which a mainstream readership will show allegiance to the kind of writing she prefers. It's always been a minority and always will. And I feel her binary view excludes many novels that (for good or ill) combine the best features of Netherland and Remainder - a recent example being Mike McCormack's remarkable Solar Bones.

Reading Smith's piece again I was struck by some of the other things she had to say:

All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. 

All novels? Really? I'd say that most novels neither set out to do this nor, if they do, ever achieve that aim. Most novels - the kind of 'page-turners' that you'll find in W. H. Smith bookstores - do not lay claim to being the future of the form. They tend to be more-or-less efficient genre stuff from the likes of Jo Nesbo and James Patterson. A tiny fraction of novels do cut neural routes through to the brain (whatever that means) - most people never read them.

For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. 

I think she means her receptive pathways. Although she seems to suggest that there was a point then the type of novels she disparages were capable of cutting fresh neural pathways, now so solidly established. Is that the case? Was there a time when, say, Sebastian Faulkes was a trailblazer? I don't think so. The heavyweight middlebrow novel has plenty to offer the sort of reader who likes that sort of thing and Smith (and I hasten to add I'm on her side) is simply jaded. 

She is well-read, and discriminating (as are readers of the NYRB). Readers of Netherland may well be too, of course, but perhaps not. I certainly experience 'a dispiriting sense of recognition' (or deja lu) when faced with many works of fiction (and they tend to be written in the modish present tense,, which is a giveaway), and my response is to stop reading. I no longer review novels I don't admire, or love, because what's the point? My Damascene moment occurred when I sat down to write a review of Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See for the TLS. This novel went on to win the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. I loathed it, and all it stood for. I was polite enough about it and my scepticism made no difference to the book's enormous success. 

Things have changed since 2008 and Zadie Smith's glum prognostications are now looking rather unfounded. A watershed moment came with the publication in 2013 of Eimear McBride's debut novel A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. Since then there seems to me to be a revival of small presses and uncommercial fiction (see blogs passim), as well as greater coverage in the press and online. I certainly haven't cornered the market when it comes to reviewing new and 'difficult' novels, although I was amused to be invited by no fewer than three different literary organs to write about Jack Cox's Dodge Rose. (What Zadie Smith would make of this I can't imagine - it makes Remainder look like Netherlands.) Over the past twelve months I've read more good novels than at any time in the past two decades - most of them from small independent publishers. I've been knocked for six by books from Claire-Louise Bennett, Will Eaves, Sara Baume, Mathias Enard, the aforementioned Mike McCormack and a dozen others. All of them confirm the truth of Cyril Connolly's dictum: “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self."    

Our literary culture is not ailing - or no more than usual. I've just read Eimear McBride's second novel, The Lesser Bohemianswhich will be published in Britian by Faber on 1st September. I'll have more to say about this later in the year (and will be writing about it for the September Literary Review). Things are looking up.

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