John Banville, the 20 Minute Guitar Solo and Truth in Fiction

It would be a shame if the predictable backlash against David Shields’ exciting critique of contemporary literarature Reality Hunger (or against Ben Yagoda’s related study Memoir: A History) actually discouraged any potential readers from checking out either book. The David Shields book has been stirring up a lot of strong words lately, and I’m finding the intensity of anger strange. Granted, as Laura Miller suggests in the Salon article above, some of Shields’ bold statements are designed to be “controversial” (it sells books) — however, they may still be worth something. It’s galling that Jessa Crispin reacts to Shields book with defensive scorn, as if bloggers and critics who discuss the book were trying to tell her what to do. She says, “I don’t know why people feel the need to make declarations about what literature should be all of a sudden.”

Well, this is called literary criticism, and whether it’s written in the gentler tones of James Wood or Daniel Mendelsohn or in a more rambunctious and confrontational style, no work of literary commentary should have to explain that it isn’t trying to tear any favorite books from the hands of Jessa Crispin. Obviously, David Shields’ strong words are rhetorical, and nobody really thinks that “fiction is dead”.

This rough statement, which has been attributed to both David Shields and Ben Yagoda, should obviously be understood as an exaggeration, an appeal to a transcendent idea. We all know the novel and the short story will live. Still, the statement “fiction is dead” seems to hold some power, and there are many readers like myself who want to examine the statement and mine it for meaning. That’s why we talk about the Yagoda and Shields books, and we’d like to be able to do so without being harassed by others who apparently think we’re harassing them.

Here’s a different angle on the whole “fiction is dead” line. In the form’s earliest days, novels were often published under masked identities, because this liberated the authors in various ways. Miguel de Cervantes pretended that the manuscript containing the story of Don Quixote had been found by an Arab trader, while George Eliot’s pen name allowed her to write with candor, and Daniel Defoe’s mysterious identity permitted readers to believe Robinson Crusoe was non-fiction (which didn’t hurt sales of the book). In all of these cases, their novels were not essentially works of fiction but rather works that hinted or aimed at truth through fiction. Novels were valued by readers not because they told of imaginary things but because they promised to tell some version of some truth.

I’ve been reading a novel called A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff, a rich and very enjoyable tale of affectionate, wealthy college friends growing into adulthood through the late 1990s and early 2000s. When I began this book it almost felt like a guilty pleasure, because I knew there would be parties and divorces and babies and dot-com crashes and September 11, and it felt familiar to my world. As I read this book, I often feel that the author (who I do not know) must be telling the truth about her own life, or about the lives of others. I know it’s a novel, but the novel feels “truthy” to me. This is a reading experience, I think, that David Shields’ Reality Hunger would consider truth-based, even though the book is a novel.

Then there’s The Infinities by John Banville, a high-falutin’ philosophical kind of book that I really wanted to read, because it’s got modern families, Greek gods and a crazy alternate history scenario in which England has remained Catholic since the age of Mary Queen of Scots. This is my kind of book, so I gave it a try, but was stopped cold dead by the opening page:

Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works. When darkness sifts from the air like fine soft soot and light spreads slowly out of the east then all but the most wretched of humankind rally. It is a spectable we immortals enjoy, this minor daily resurrection, often we will gather at the ramparts of the clouds and gaze down upon them, our little ones, as they bestir themselves to welcome the new day. What a silence falls upon us then, the sad silence of our envy. Many of them sleep on, of course, careless of our cousin Aurora’s charming matutinal trick, but there are always the insomniacs, the restless ill, the lovelorn tossing on their solitary beds, or just the early-risers, the busy ones, with their knee-bends and their cold showers and their fussy little cups of black ambrosia. Yes, all who witness it greet the dawn with joy, more or less, except of course the condemned man, for whom first light will be the last, on earth.

I feel like the condemned man when I read a paragraph like this. What this lacks (along with plot and interest) is truthiness. These are empty pretty words. It’s a show of style. It’s a 20 minute guitar solo.

I am enjoying the public debate that has followed the publication of Shields’ book (and Yagoda’s, last year). Perhaps this is partly because I’m working on my own memoir project that I find this line of thought so attractive. Or maybe it’s because I’ve always felt this way — I always want my literature short, punchy and stripped to its “truthy” bones — that I’ve been spending my time writing a memoir instead of slaving over a novel like so many of my friends. In any case, I plan to keep following the dialogue on the fascinating topic of truth in fiction, and I will definitely be writing about this again.

16 Responses

  1. I love it when Levi goes
    I love it when Levi goes Epic. And this, my friends, is Epic with a capital E!

    As I said before on Twitter, REALITY HUNGER dares and wants you to argue with it, kind of like how the Talmud takes one itty-bitty portion of the Torah and all of a sudden pages upon pages of arguments spew forth from passionate rabbis, all of whom are convinced are right. And they often are! Because “rightness” and “wrongness” isn’t the point; more important, at least what I took away, is that Shields just wants the reader to come to his or her own conclusions.

    In fact, I think I dug REALITY HUNGER for much the same reason I adored HUMAN SMOKE. Both books are human Rohrshach tests. And I think a lot of the freaked-out critics and bloggers, unwittingly, proved they failed that test in a major way (hey people, it’s totally okay to have your assumptions challenged! Or even better, to arrive at those conclusions after careful and considered thought, not just knee-jerk squirmy discomfort….)

  2. In the spirit of friendly
    In the spirit of friendly discussion:

    So when Shields and Yagoda imply that “fiction is dead” (and yes, I understand this isn’t an exact quotation), it’s “an appeal to a transcendent idea,” but when Jessa Crispin criticizes THEM, it’s “harassment”? One kind of criticism is almost holy in its purity, and the other is a tort?

    Nobody’s trying to tear any favorite books away from Jessa, it’s true; it’s also true that nobody’s trying to tear these books out of yours.

  3. Everything is dead! Punk,
    Everything is dead! Punk, Fiction, the author, you name it, it’s dead!

  4. Hey Michael — okay, I guess
    Hey Michael — okay, I guess what I’m objecting to is the superior tone, the “too good for this nonsense” attitude that Jessa and so many others who have written about Shields’ book seem to be taking. Yes, you’re right, “harassment” is probably unfair. There are no torts here, it’s definitely all friendly …you know I love Bookslut!

  5. Michael: Where in the hell
    Michael: Where in the hell did Levi claim that Jessa was harassing Shields? Levi wrote no such thing. The “harassment,” as I understand it, was centered around Jessa’s foolish statement, “I don’t know why people feel the need to make declarations about what literature should be all of a sudden,” directed at anyone who would have the temerity to challenge contemporary fiction. I don’t believe her statement constitutes harassment, but it does certainly display a myopic inflexibility towards understanding contrarian viewpoints. And that is a dismissive attitude that is just as “contemptible” as the argument that Jessa is protesting. On the contrary, while I disagree with a large chunk of the book, I’m rather stunned by the ineptitude of critics to address the book’s specific points. That’s what the book is. It’s a statement of an aesthetic. You don’t have to agree with it. You just have to ponder whether the lyrical essay offers a reliable substitute for the novel, or whether fiction is best served by mimetic representations of reality. All this is good material to munch on. And anyone who reads or writes SHOULD be considering these positions, if they care even remotely about the written word.

    Unfortunately, many of these foolish critics (Laura Miller perhaps representing the chief humorless rejoinder; far worse than anything Jessa said is her baseless psychoanalysis and her willful misreading of the book) would rather blow a gasket than actually engage with the material. If it takes a statement like “fiction is dead” to get people shaken out of their complacency, then I’m all for it. Of course, if Jessa wants to use her head and write her own manifesto — something that would be less of a knee-jerk response — then this would be better for everyone. Even if people vociferously disagreed with it.

  6. Levi, my real problem here is
    Levi, my real problem here is that you used that picture of me playing the guitar as a graphic in this post. WITHOUT PERMISSION. Yes, I am an awesome shredder, but your co-opting of my image is tortious. Expect to hear from my lawyer when I can afford one (projected date: 2030).

    Seriously, though, this is a good discussion; I appreciate you engaging (and I love you right back, my man). I didn’t detect a superior tone in Jessa’s post, but everyone reads differently. For what it’s worth, Bookslut ran a positive review of “Reality Hunger,” and an interview with its author — I’m looking forward to checking the book out.

    Ed, sorry if I was unclear — I didn’t mean to suggest Levi claimed Jessa was harassing Shields. I’m just relieved Levi didn’t claim I was harassing him, after that encounter I had with him last year when I might have complimented his ass. It was all in fun, Levi! Like Eric Massa! But seriously: I was referring to Levi’s statement that “we’d like to be able to [discuss Yagoda and Shields] without being harassed by others who apparently think we’re harassing them,” which I interpreted as a claim that Jessa was harassing people who discussed Yagoda and Shields, and which I thought was maybe a little unfair.

    But like I said: all just a friendly discussion. Unless Levi gets the lawyers involved. Do your worst, Asher.

  7. Michael, another real irony
    Michael, another real irony here is that, for all the bad press 20 minute guitar solos used to get, I’d trade in a whole carton of David Shields’ books to sit in Madison Square Garden and listen to Jimmy Page make that double-neck cry again.

    Thanks for reminding me (I knew, but forgot) that Bookslut was one of the first to call attention to “Reality Hunger” in the first place — that’s probably where I first heard about it. The real lesson here, I think, is that literary criticism is *always* personal. Even if it isn’t meant to be, it somehow is.

  8. I actually liked that
    I actually liked that Banville passage, it sounds a little like Rick Moody, who I also like a lot. I can see how it might be seen as a little purple. I thought it conjured up a nice little combination of the ancient and modern, what with the old style gods and language and the modern references to knee bends and showers and commuting.

  9. It’s very simple, the source
    It’s very simple, the source of the rage and fear.

    Saying “fiction is dead” is the equivalent of saying “imagination is dead.”

    Try as you might to argue otherwise, it takes very little imagination to recount historical incidents; it’s linguistic flair and writing style that make up the difference between “dry recitation” and “well-written history.” The same goes for all non-fiction writing.

    Fiction, on the other hand, not only soars with the heights of language, but flies even higher through the fantastic imagination.

    And that is something that non-fiction lacks (and probably explains the gradual march toward more fantasy (i.e. lies and inaccuracies) in non-fiction. The infamous Frey in fact admits almost as much: he felt the need to color his story in more vibrant hues, as it was after all not that interesting.

    I’m not sure if fiction can ever die, just as I’m not sure that human imagination will ever perish. But I do wonder about the apparent effects of some mass media and communications on imagination, especially when I wake up one day and thousands of ordinarily intelligent and perceptive readers and critics are screaming, “Imagination is dead! Imagination is dead!” And the paranoid part of me wonders, as ever: how is our massive entertainment media served by the citizens, even a portion of them (but note: among the reading classes) believing that imagination is dead, in peril, or just not as interesting as the “reality” being offer by… well, those very same media outlets? Hmmm…

  10. Levi: Dude, what am I?
    Levi: Dude, what am I? Chopped liver? I was urging you IN PERSON to read the damn thing! I really wish that you would stop harassing me on this point. And I also wish that you would stop using Photoshop, merging two photos (one of Michael, one of me; in the hairy days that NEITHER of us talk about!) to prove a point about mashup culture. Jimmy Page doesn’t have anything on Schaub’s scrawny chest from ten years ago. And as for my hair, yes, there once was a time in which I possessed some. Your clear harassment in relation to my male pattern baldness, taken with the fact that there’s A LOT of dick wagging in this thread, leads me to believe that the discussion is over and that one of Shields’s baroque points has been upheld. Either that or this manifesto produced a goofy lovefest. In which case, Shields has failed. Wake me up when people are unclicking switchblades and making big boasts over the most pedantic of reasons.

  11. I don’t know what just
    I don’t know what just happened, but I LOVE IT. And Ed, stop harassing my pecs, which you know very well are “ripped” and “fucking sick.” That’s a thing, right?

    Now I have to read these fucking books. Thanks, guys. I WAS PLANNING TO JUST WATCH TV FOR THE NEXT YEAR. Looking forward to discussing them with you guys, and leaking those photos of Ed unless he comes through with the bribe we discussed.

  12. “I guess what I’m objecting
    “I guess what I’m objecting to is the superior tone, the ‘too good for this nonsense’ attitude Jessa and so many others who have written about Shields’ book seem to be taking.”

    What of Shields’ own superior tone and “too good for this nonsense” attitude? Has it occurred to anyone that some critics respond negatively to Shields’ book not because he challenges all that they hold sacred, but because he’s an asshole? More than that: an asshole whose assertions happen also to be wrong?

    Besides, Shields’ occasional contributions to his own book read like the work of an earnest undergraduate. “Reality Hunger,” if it proves nothing else, proves that it’s one thing to be well read but another thing entirely to understand what you read.

  13. “You just have to ponder
    “You just have to ponder whether the lyrical essay offers a reliable substitute for the novel, or whether fiction is best served by mimetic representations of reality.”

    No and no. I have no use for this book.

    However, I agree with Levi about Banville’s language. A commenter above compared it to Rick Moody, another writer I think all style and no substance. Which I probably why I retreated into popular (“genre”) fiction a few years ago. Clear language, plots that go somewhere and characters who aren’t navel-gazing mimetic representations reality really speak to me at this point.

    Incidentally, it’s funny that Jessa should use Every Man Dies Alone as her counter-example to Reality Hunger since that book is so clearly (and openly) autobiographical. Irony!

  14. Just realized that last post
    Just realized that last post was written so quickly it’s full of typos! Sorry. I write gud.

    Incidentally, I also want to point out that you can write poetic language without being obfuscated. M.T. Anderson is a good example–his Octavian Nothing series is masterful.

  15. I stumbled upon your blog
    I stumbled upon your blog only today and I’ve been reading through the archives and this isn’t the first article where you’ve stated that you balked at the first paragraph of a novel and decided that it wasn’t good. Come on, man. You have to make it a little farther than that. Also, that’s not a twenty minute guitar solo. You see, a twenty minute guitar solo goes on for, well… twenty minutes. How long did it take you to read that paragraph? Twenty seconds? I don’t think it’s fair to judge a work before you finished it in its entirety. You have to set aside your preconceptions and just get through it. The sum is often greater than its parts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!