Thursday, January 22, 2015

Let's Justify Solipsistic Literature

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article on Flavorwire by Jonathon Sturgeon, "2014: The Death of the Postmodern Novel and the Rise of Autofiction," and it's been bothering me ever since. I was put off immediately by its first two sentences, which assert that postmodernism is over and no writers are interested in creating in the genre. It goes on to discuss a new, or at least newly named, genre called autofiction, in which writers turn to themselves as subjects, writing novels that aren't exactly novels about the topography of their lives. Not memoir, not exactly roman à clef, these books, like My Struggle, see the world as the writer sees them and they call it fiction.

At least that's what I gather from reading Sturgeon's article. Autofiction is news to me. What it sounds like, honestly, is just narcissism, the aggrandized importance of the self. It is not a trend I welcome.

I like it when I see me

It's pretty cute for me to criticize what I see as a narcissistic turn in contemporary literature here on my blog, subject: me. But I've been bothered for a while by novelists who put on airs (or have airs put on for them) about their genre-bending fictional tendencies when writing about their own barely disguised lives. I am definitely interested in the triangular tension between reality, truth, and fiction (in fact, it's one of my primary concerns as a writer), but from what I've read, these novels aren't standing at the same intersection I am. Really what they seem to be doing is an exercise in very accomplished navel-gazing. Is that so revolutionary? Is that so worthy of all this study and praise?

Sturgeon says that it's not just a conversation between fiction and reality, and that these novels "redistribut[e] the relation between the self and fiction." Mmkay. The central idea is that the self is made up of fictions, stories, that we tell ourselves about ourselves and others from birth to death. Well...yes. That's the nature of the brain, that it is not an indifferent camera. And it's also the twisted magic of the human experience, all the in-betweening and mitigation of reality. It's not magic that needs a mirror of self-importance to be witnessed.

It's possible I'm just stung by this assertion of the death of postmodernism. I think postmodernism is still worthy, and still has new directions in which to develop. Wallace's work is not finished; his endeavor - which I'd argue was welding a humanist approach to the random, teetering sculptures of Pynchonian postmodernism, trying to show that it is possible to live with heart and authenticity in a culture that is fractured and demanding and wholly simulacrafied - not fully laid to rest. So...fuck it? We just throw all that out and read thousands of pages about some Norwegian guy's completely ordinary life instead of trying to say something of worth about the internet?

No, no. I, lover of Proust, should not be so rude to My Struggle when I haven't read it. But I did not need a Flavorwire article to tell me that this culture is veering away from mutual connection and toward the mirror. I guess I just hoped that literature would not take the same path. I had hoped that post-postmodernism, or whatever you call DFW's work, could bleed sincerity through absurdity, could communicate a human core to our merry, tragic, impossibly splintered experience of postmillenial life. Yet, apparently, literature's solution is just to turn a camera on the author, and thence will come all wisdom.


Somewhat related is this review from The New Yorker, which doesn't quite argue but does present the idea that the possibilities of fiction are exhausted. Or at least that getting tired of putting together fictional plots and characters is something that happens to writers. I'm thirty-three, not fifty-three, and I've been writing seriously for only about seven years, not twenty. But I feel, as a knee-jerk reaction, that if you find it too tiresome to put something into fiction which you can sum up in a single conceptual word, something may be wrong with you, not with fiction itself.

Maybe I'm too bourgeois, or haven't spent enough time wearing black berets and smoking, but fiction seems limitless to me. The blandest realism can spawn worthy intellectual pursuit; look at Bovary. As you add elements beyond realism - fantasy, like García Márquez, or odd narrative strategies, like Faulkner, or odd textual strategies, like Joyce, or or or or - you get more moving parts, more to work with. How can all those various add-ons not be enough, in a career so infinitesimal as a human lifespan grants? If an intelligent, thoughtful novelist can find no way to create interesting work other than looking in the mirror, then I think our culture is in a lot more trouble than anyone suspects.

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