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Meaning and condescension

By Tim Howard - posted Wednesday, 14 January 2009

He was thinking of his mother; of the dog; of Osman, in whom death was advancing cell by cell. He felt malevolence gathering force and drawing closer. The children crossed the street, hooded figures from a tale. Life would set them impossible tasks; straw and spinning wheels waited. Tom crossed his fingers and wished them luck: lives reckoned on the blank pages of history. And thought of a night in September when Nelly and he had sat contented in a pub, until people began to gather in front of the TV mounted on the wall at the other end of the bar.

It was their faces that had drawn him: uplifted and calm as churchgoers.

When they parted, Nelly said, “Everything changes when Americans fall from the sky.” The Lost Dog, Michelle de Kretser, pp. 140-41

Maybe I’m just tired of novels in which the mopey, passive protagonist wanders around having epiphanies about The World In Which We Live, but I found this passage, and others like it in The Lost Dog, fairly cringe-inducing.

I’m going to advance the argument - dwelled upon at length, but admittedly not fully thought out - that a lot of contemporary fiction is diminished by the fact that its characters (protagonists in particular) are unrealistically self-aware of their roles as subjects of history. I don’t mean that characters ought to remain blissfully unaware of geopolitics or ideology or local council noise regulations or whatever. I mean that it is contrived to have characters walk around acting, thinking and speaking beyond the ordinary limits of contextual awareness, i.e. as self-conscious agents of or actors in historical events.


This sense of contrivance includes characters responding to cataclysmic events by saying things like “Everything changes when Americans fall from the sky” - unless it’s said in a Don DeLillo novel, in which case the contrivance is itself part of the novel’s aesthetic apparatus. (However successful or unsuccessful that might be.)

I’m grasping here at something that has been bothering me about contemporary fiction for a while now. It’s related to what I see as the reliance of many authors on a kind of forced profundity, an eagerness to explain great matters through necessarily reductive fictions, which tends to be inimical to the creation of fiction qua fiction, and in most cases has the paradoxical effect of weakening the explanation and undermining the profundity.

There is a jigsaw quality to a lot of recent fiction: metaphor, character, setting, etc, all interlock to create an overall meaning or set of meanings that is itself the point of the novel. Of course I don’t wish to suggest that meaning in fiction is a recent invention; it does seem to me, however, that the jigsaw method of composition, and the primacy of meaning, has recently become dominant, at least as far as “literary fiction” goes. Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl, nominated for the 2007 Booker, is an example of just such a “jigsaw” novel. My review of the book read in part:

Inevitably, Davies draws Karsten and Esther together for one of those unlikely collaborations that mutual longing - although not necessarily for one another - sometimes conjures. In fact, despite the incongruity of their union, the German soldier and the Welsh farm girl share a common status. Karsten may be literally inside but he is a natural outsider, while Esther is so far outside her native community she is practically neck-deep in the Irish Sea. The reader recalls Rotheram: isn’t he also, in many ways, an outsider? And isn’t the village riven with various permutations of the outsider/insider dichotomy? And isn’t Wales itself an outsider nation? And isn’t - well, you get the idea.

Reading The Welsh Girl I could almost see the flow chart tacked to Davies’ wall, plotting out the thematic relationships between the elements of his fiction. I find this approach incredibly condescending; the dialogue between reader and writer (or reader and text) becomes an authorial monologue - this is the message of my book, this is what I want you to take away from it. There is no space for ambiguity, no space for the reader at all. Tolstoy at least had the courtesy to sequester his didactic asides away from the main business of the novel.

To a certain extent I blame 9-11. The preference for literary fiction that tells us things about the world in which we live was already long established when the towers collapsed; the impression I have is that post-9-11 some writers felt that this preference now conferred upon them an obligation. Who would make sense of our tragic times if not the poet-seers, the writer-intellectuals?


You might recall how quickly writers like Ian McEwan and Martin Amis recovered from their vocation-denying shock (Amis: “after a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12, 2001, all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation”) and began turning out fiction in which 9-11 and its consequences were the abiding themes. The truth is that far from being a burden 9-11 was a gift to some writers. No longer was one required to turn to the past for grand themes of life and death, war and peace, love and hatred - now you just had to look out of your window at the sun glinting off the fuselage of a passing jet, describe what you saw, implant your feelings of fear and confusion and outrage into an appropriate fictional vessel (while you’re at it why not make him a neurosurgeon with a talent for squash?), and profundity is your reward.

9-11 didn’t explode the consciousness of our major writers, it imploded their egos and gave them a perpetually renewable “subject” and the license to explore it at the expense of whatever aesthetic they had hitherto developed. All of a sudden it was deemed important that literature - more specifically the “great minds” behind literature - be seen to be tackling the big issues of our time.

The irony is that so many of the products of this attitude are a little too polite, a little too safe, a little too pre-9-11 to do justice to (fallacy alert) their authors’ intentions. A novel such as Ian McEwan’s Saturday, while in a limited sense successful as a political hand grenade, is about as safe as fiction gets, a comfortable stroll through the “issues of the day” written in professional prose and with a consolatory structure. The whole business of the impending war is distanced.

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First published in Sarsaparilla on August 14, 2008. This article has been judged as one of the Best Blogs 2008 run in collaboration with Club Troppo.

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About the Author

Tim Howard is a Melbourne writer who blogs at Sarsaparilla.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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