Thursday, 18 April 2013
Death of the Novel
The novel has been under threat for some time, or at least its defining qualities under constant revision. More recently, however, it seems as if its death is imminent. In this country, reports about the irrelevancy of the novel have been coming out more frequently than novels. There is almost a rush to discredit a work before it has even been written. The prized political novel has been deemed by many to be obsolete, or at least overshadowed by a flood of crime fiction, a new burgeoning genre here which it is thought is a better vehicle to address socio-political issues.
It's easy to declare that something is flourishing when it's so marketable.
Non-fiction works have been hailed as providing the new political and moral compass in the literary sphere, charting our realities more faithfully or immediately - Oscar Pistorius's murder trial is not even under way and Random Struik House has already announced that a book, No More Heroes, is in the offing.
Those singing the praises of non-fiction tend to be non-fiction writers who often haven't read local fiction for some time, a situation that publishers in South Africa say is so widespread there seems little reason to publish novels at all.
Can we really know, then, what state novel writing in this country is in if few make it on to the shelves?
Facts have had little to do with people making proclamations about the novel, which is what makes its status such an excellent subject for, well, fiction.
This may have been why Howard Jacobson, the British author and journalist, set out to write an irreverent novel about its irrelevancy. Zoo Time (Bloomsbury) is a first-person account by a fictional author called Guy Ableman, who is consumed by his struggle to write and sell another novel.
He enjoyed some success with his previous novel, wryly titled Who Gives a Monkey's? which set him up for a suitable run on the literary festival circuit.
But these gatherings are small, attracting mostly authors peddling their work, a smattering of|middle-aged women who sustain the egos of the male fraternity and old-age pensioners with little else to do - "literary festivals filled a gap in the calendar of the retired".
Ableman is all too aware that no one actually reads his work, or reads at all.
He's haunted by the fact that reading has gone out of fashion, or at least that those works that are read - "a new tie-in cookery book by Dahlia Blade, a bulimic Kabbalist from an all-vegan girl band, and Blinder, the memoirs of Billy Funhouser, a teenager from Atlanta who'd lost his sight when his adoptive mother's breasts exploded in his face" - are not of the kind he is interested in producing, or can.
He's not famous or female, and does not have an off-beat real-life story to share with the world.
The only real-life drama-in-the-making that is simmering in the background is his unsavoury and persistent crush on his mother-in-law.
He's partly drawn to her because it's the most transgressive act he can imagine within his seemingly well-adjusted middle-class London existence.
Reared on the Henry Miller school of literature, he believes sexually impermissible acts are fuel for writing.
In his mind, therefore, his new book hinges on turning a fantasy affair with his mother-in-law into reality, furnishing him with sufficient material to capture the attention of a publisher - then the "post-literate" public who seem to feed on salacious content.
In this way his main challenge is not that he can't write, but that he has nothing to write about.
It's an interesting predicament that may be indicative of the comfortable lifestyles and the resolved political conditions in First World countries.
Certainly, it is not one that authors face in this country, though when apartheid was dismantled there was a sudden panic that cultural producers would have no reason, or material, to inspire their work. This recent drive for South African authors to secure their relevancy through producing "transnational" literature that isn't self-consciously South African and will hold wide appeal for audiences elsewhere, seems ironic in light of Jacobson's book and the ideas about novel writing that he advances.
For it seems that relevance is what authors rooted in the heart of the international literary market are also fighting to secure, though for them it is not a case of suppressing their identity but embracing it, because it is their only selling point.
Navel-gazing is Ableman's default position, though it is one that Jacobson implies may be to his detriment; his incorrigible wife, who refuses to indulge his ego, says it accounts for the reason his novels keep going "out of print" - the death knell of a novel.
Nevertheless, it seems he cannot escape himself, nor can he divorce himself from being a writer, despite the painful awareness that he is part of a "dying profession".
His only way forward is thus to immerse himself in the final death throes of the novel, which appeals to his pessimistic outlook and allows him to revel in the bitter-sweet poetics of obsolescence - "things dying can have a voluptuous beauty". At times he resorts to self-pity, though he redeems himself with his dark sense of humour that keeps his spirit afloat.
His caustic wit may be part of the problem. His apparent inability to be a marketable prospect for a publisher is linked to the fact that he is a satirist and his role has somewhat been usurped by stand-up comedians. It is futile for the likes of Ableman to try and compete with that fraternity for the simple reason that if he resorted to becoming an entertainer he would have to assert his presence beyond the page - "the page would no longer be turned".
Ableman's satirical approach isn't just a manifestation of his proclivity for detecting the comic turn in the world's affairs; it lightens the load of his bleak future, which looms in the spectral figure of a homeless man he frequently encounters who is always feverishly filling the pages of a notebook.
That he appears like a latter-day Ernest Hemingway further substantiates the status of the novelist as a societal outcast.
Not surprisingly, this tramp is a source of fascination and anxiety for Ableman, mocking his ambitions but also his inability to write - he's resorted to "mouth-writing", verbose whisperings that echo his crippling state of paralysis.
Despite his drive and ambitions, nothing quite reaches fruition; this is mirrored in the unconsummated affair with his mother-in-law.
There is nothing else for it but to write about writing, another lesson he has gleaned from his writerly hero, Miller, who famously asserted that writers needn't have a topic to address other than the difficulty of writing.
Ableman takes this idea to an extreme, and perhaps gets lost in chronicling the death of writing and reading - the two are interconnected - rather than the nature of writing itself, though perhaps this isn't worth pursuing in this "post-literate" world.
Ironically, this meditation on writing is alienating for those who are not writers.
Everywhere Ableman casts his gaze he is confronted with this "post-literate" world that has rendered his profession irrelevant. It's an unnatural inversion that has caused publishers to be disappointed when writers in their stable produce a new novel.
Jacobson's assessment of the publishing industry - particularly in Britain - is perhaps a little exaggerated, distorted. His achievements are proof; he is not a homeless man scribbling on scraps on a park bench.
In fact he won the Man Booker prize for his previous novel, The Finkler Question, though in a recent interview with The Guardian he confessed that he struggled to secure a publisher for it. Zoo Time has perhaps become a vehicle for resentment caused by the offence to his vanity.
He avenges the literary community by exposing its contradictions and, more importantly, its superficiality - it is not concerned with producing good literary works.
Ableman carries in equal amounts doubt and vanity. It is what sets him off on a see-saw journey that most writers must negotiate; in equal measures doubt and vanity sustains writing.
His preoccupation with the "post-literate" world feeds both; his work has been rejected because the world has been turned upside down.
Eventually he does produce a novel, though his wife, who has a crude understanding of writing beats him to the punch with a novel of her own, which is lauded and quickly turned into a film.
In this "post-literate" world, the latter is advanced as the goal of novel-writing. Fuelled by curiosity and jealousy, Ableman finally gets a chance to glance at the pages of the tramp's work; there are no words, just zeros. - published April 7, 2013.