Conversation/Kōrero: Julian Novitz and Jasmin B. Frelih
ANZL member Julian Novitz was born in Christchurch in 1980 and lives in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of three novels: Little Sister (2012), Holocaust Tours (2006) and My Life and Other Stories (2004), which won best first work of fiction at the 2005 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. Julian’s short stories have been widely anthologised in Australia and New Zealand.
Jasmin B. Frelih was born in Kranj, Slovenia, in 1986. His first novel Na/pol (In/Half) was published in 2013: it won the best literary debut award at the annual Slovenian Book Fair, was shortlisted for the novel of the year and book of the year awards, and was showcased as the Slovenian entry for the 2014 European First Novel Festival in Budapest, Hungary. His short story collection Ideoluzije (Tiny Ideologies) was published in 2015. He spent five years as a prose fiction editor for the literary review I.D.I.O.T., and his own short fiction, essays and translations appear in Sodobnost, Literatura, and Dialogi. His translations of Slovenian poetry into English have been published in Banipal, Versopolis, and international anthologies of I.D.I.O.T. In 2016 he was one of the winners of the European Union Prize for Literature.
This conversation took place via email in June 2016.
I’ve just had about 70 odd student short stories to mark, and I’d had this great idea that I’d be able to power through them all in two days or so, but it wound up taking me more than a week. I thought I might use all this marking as a hopefully not-too-dull starting point for our discussion. I don’t know if you’re one of the growing legion of writers who teach as a full or part-time day-job, but I found my students’ responses to dealing with the form of the short story quite interesting this semester. I’d been away from undergraduate teaching for a while, and by-and-large returning to it was enjoyable and refreshing; the students were smart, engaged, imaginative and a good number demonstrated genuine writing talent.
Many of them struggled with the short story, to some degree, however, in that it took them more time to arrive at the precision and focus demanded by the form than I remember from classes that I taught in earlier years. It certainly wasn’t that they were less talented or capable than my former students, just that they took to the short story less naturally, coming up with initial concepts that were often too broad in scope to do justice in a piece between 2000-3000 words, or compositions that felt like segments from longer narratives.
Most of them produced good work in the end, but it felt like finding the right style and subject matter was a more cautious and tentative process than I remember from a few years back. Most students didn’t leap into the writing with confidence but had to take some time to figure out what a short story was, what it could be used for.
Of course there’s a lot that can be gained from working within the constraints of an unfamiliar form, and I think (or hope) that many students got a lot out of doing so, but this made me think a bit about the short story and how it is currently situated. Many of the students who came to my classes with fiction-writing experience had been writing principally for online mediums: blogs and forms of personal websites, online writing communities and fan fiction groups. The particular demands of short stories, as I see them, the need to focus on smaller moments or movements and imbue them with larger meaning, are perhaps more closely associated with print culture than those of longer forms of fiction, which may translate more easily into a digital environment.
Possibly the focus on the kind of short story that fits into the 2000-6000 word category that can easily be published in print journals and magazines is declining along with those types of periodicals (at least in Australasian context), and when writing for an online platform the exact length of the piece is no longer such a driving concern – the work can be as long or short as the writer deems necessary.
I suppose a lot of fiction writing education (at an undergraduate level) still focuses very much on the short story – as a kind of complete work that a student can realistically complete in a semester or so, and can be easily assessed – but perhaps working with it is (or will be) less of the practical route to publication that I’ve always thought of it as being, and more of a way of the writer testing themselves through their engagement with a slightly archaic form.
I suppose I’ve gotten a little hung up on questions of length lately and its shaping purpose or effect on fiction as I’m currently working on an essay that deals with the novella as a somewhat neglected form in Australia and New Zealand, asking whether the rise of digital publishing might change that. It was also something that I found when I was writing a review for a print publication recently and had to work within a restrictive word count after becoming used to the relative freedom of reviewing for an online publication: there was the sense of not just having to mount an argument but the enjoyable puzzle of finding a way to express it in just 400 words.
Anyway, as I understand it you’ve been publishing short fiction for a good while now and your first collection came out last year, and of course you’ve also been working as the fiction editor for a magazine, so it would be interesting to hear about your understanding of the place and purpose of the short story as a form and perhaps also your experiences of working with it. Some Croatian and Serbian friends of mine have remarked on the relative thinness of print culture that they found in New Zealand and Australia, the dearth of magazines and journals and the lack of a sense of genuine conversation around them, and though I know embarrassingly little about Slovenian literary periodicals and culture, I imagine that they might be similarly strong. So perhaps short fiction holds a more central place?
Also, congratulations on the European Union Prize for In/Half. Something I would like to talk about at some point in our conversation is your sense of the readership that you’ve found personally (and perhaps also for Slovenian literature more generally) in Europe. Finding international publication is often a challenge for NZ writers, and I suppose that often reinforces a sense of smallness and distance, that our literary culture is in some ways floating adrift, cut off. Would be good to get a sense of how that compares with your experience as a writer from a small country within Europe.
There is graffiti on a wall near the national library in our capital city, Ljubljana, which says: ‘Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.’ Supposedly a quote by Albert Einstein, but more likely an evolved variant of Theophile Gauthier’s: Chance is perhaps the pseudonym of God when he does not want to sign.
While I am not particularly religious, I remember exclaiming to myself ‘Oh my god!’ (whether with the upper- or lowercase G I cannot be certain) when a few weeks ago I saw Paula Morris walking down a busy Brussels street. I had the good fortune of spending a week with Paula in the writer’s residency in Ventspils, Latvia last November, and our chance reunion in Brussels has, by way of two large cups of coffee, led me to this conversation with you. Is it superstition now to wonder why would He prefer not to leave His signature under this arrangement?
I speak in jest, of course – I am very happy for the opportunity to discuss literature with a distinguished writer and professor halfway across the globe, even though it does seem that physical distance does not carry much weight in our global republic of letters, since your thoughts regarding short stories are easy for me to follow.
Over here I think that we are grappling with very much the same issues, and within this debate I occupy a strange place where I, mostly thanks to my studies in literary theory, freely admit that ‘the need to focus on smaller moments or movements and imbue them with larger meaning’, as you so eloquently put it, is what a short story is supposed to be doing, whereas in practice I more often than not go off the deep end and try to cram a novel’s worth of ideas and emotions into a few thousand words. I could not exactly guess why, but I’m truly not yet one for literary subtlety.
Even as a reader I sincerely love it when a writer pulls off a low-key motive which reverberates with unspoken meanings (Carver, O’Connor, Joyce …) but I still consider it a sort of a selfish pleasure, something I keep for myself that gives me the ability to smile knowingly at our humanity when things get rough (which is absolutely a priceless thing), but on the other hand a round of Borges keeps my head spinning and my mouth running for days, and this is also something that I don’t want the short story as a form to be without. Then again, one of my favourite short stories is Coover’s ‘The Babysitter’ – mostly because it is simply insanely fun. Or consider David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (thinking in particular of #6 – Wallace is as unsubtle and elaborate as they get (not a single thought escapes unspoken) but it still works, there are still depths and layers of meaning that stay with you when the story ends.
With that said I truly feel for anyone trying to mark 70 novella-length short stories written by a class full of Borgesian post-post-modern new-sincere-new-authentic hyper-politically-minded smartass know-it-alls. There must be some method to this madness and I am quite sure that guiding students into a precise and focused narrative (with length as a perfectly valid creative constraint) is the only way for a short story to be taught. With the knowledge gained in this way any literary endeavour will be strengthened, even if the students then go on to flex their muscle in more outlandish and sprawling narrative modes.
To take a look at Slovenia – my editor for In/Half, Andrej Blatnik, teaches the short story and he takes the same approach. His book, You do understand?, is a collection of really tight miniatures, and they work splendidly. But he draws on a lifetime of exploring the form, of understanding what makes it tick, and I think it’s only with this kind of confidence that you can set out to do something like it. Whereas for now I try to make up in force what I lack in experience – when I find myself taken up by an idea, or an emotion, or a problem I need to explore, I gather up all my strength, let it simmer for a while, and then try to pack as much violence (in the broadest possible meaning of the word) as I possibly can onto the page in a controlled outburst.
I am still very much in the business of trying to get into the reader’s head and just raising all kinds of hell, mostly because that is the business of all the authors that I have been most drawn too throughout my reading life. Wallace was in this regard fond of quoting Cesar A. Cruz: ‘Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.’
But I see now that I am perhaps trying to frame the conversation in a way you did not intend. I do agree with you in your assessment that the digital/print divide absolutely leaves an impact on the way we think about, read and write the form. I do not know much about the print review situation in New Zealand, but Slovenia is infamous for its love of magazines; I believe we have the highest number of print publications per capita in the world and literary journals are thankfully no exception. In 2009 one of my first op-eds for our literary journal Literatura had the title ‘This paper is infinite’, where I fired some salvos about the changing situation in publishing with regards to the internet and what it could mean for the future of all participants in the literary circle.
Back then most magazines did not even have a webpage worth mentioning, while today Facebook and its ways of engaging with the audiences already reign supreme. But short stories still do have many venues for publication here, even if on the whole they are rather neglected compared to the novel (of course) and to poetry, which are both more naturally allied with the internet due to their shared protean nature.
It could quite possibly be true that a 2000-word short story is by itself the least well equipped to handle the environment or the competition of an average internet surfing session. Too long to be gulped down in between clicks and still too short to create a lasting impression apart from all the surrounding noise. Which is perhaps also why it is so important that it is taught in a university setting – it is still a unique form that is positively sublime when mastered and it would be a damn shame if we simply allowed the indulgent brute to pluck it out of existence. (This reminds me of a fascinating painting by Mark Tansey – Triumph over Mastery II.
Well, hopefully by now I already wrote something that you would find interesting to respond to and I am looking forward to your reply. Just one more question before I sign off – what do your students read? I am imagining every literature class must have at least one Nietzsche-Celine-Artaud glorious weirdo, a couple of Russian fanatics constantly bickering over which Karamazov is the most humane, an aloof paranoiac who lies about having read Gravity’s Rainbow while secretly devouring everything written by Stephen King, a group of girls trying to come to terms with The Second Sex without becoming huge downers in the process, and at least one person who came there to study with the sole intent to prove that a hugely popular work of fiction of which he or she is a number-one fan is actually a true literary masterpiece also in academic terms. Joking aside, I am really interested in what constitutes the unofficial ‘cool’ canon of students in New Zealand.
I was delighted you mention ‘The Babysitter’ as one of your favourite stories, as I’m a big fan of this one as well, though I only discovered it a few of years ago. I taught the story in a course on emergent approaches to story-telling and knowledge in new media and networked culture, and I tried to use it as an example of a text that in some way worked to resist the linearity imposed by print (alongside extracts from Tristram Shandy and Ulysses, Vanevaar Bush’s speculative 1945 article about the memex and another short story, ‘The Brain of Katherine Mansfield’ by Bill Manhire), serving as an antecedent for our contemporary use of hypertext to navigate and structure information and narratives.
I’m not sure if I entirely convinced the students (or myself), but we had a good time with the material, and I think their final assessment was to create a website using Xavier de Maistre’s Journey Around my Room as a template for open-ended personal exploration and reflection, which is probably about as far from the discrete, contained idea of a short story as you can get.
But, anyway, looking at ‘The Babysitter’ once again I do agree that it can be a little too easy – particularly in writing education – to think about the short story only in terms of precision, craft and economy (all the Hemingway iceberg stuff) and ignore its potential for wildness, experimentation and play. In an essay by Michael Chabon, that I read many years ago (‘Trickster in a Suit of Lights’), he suggested that writers and publishers were focusing too exclusively on what he termed the plotless, moment-of-truth short story, and overlooking other approaches, which could include the genre fiction short story (as Chabon was arguing for, I think), Borgesian games, or even the exhaustive (sometimes gruelling) detail and clarity found in the longer stories of a writer like Richard Yates.
Minimalism, sparseness, and the clever, deflective kind of subtlety can all be as problematic as heavy-handedness and bombast in short fiction. I remember the discovery of that clean and lean approach in my teens and twenties and perhaps becoming a little too fond of the elliptical jump, the hint of significance, neat and tidy structures over real narrative. I remember a comment in a workshop at some point, ‘another of these not-a-word-out-of-place stories’, which I took as a compliment at the time, but probably wasn’t. The danger, as Robertson Davies put it, is for the writers ‘.. who leap from their chairs crying, “By Gum, that’s it! I’ve been a minimalist all these years and didn’t know it!” — and henceforth are increasingly minimal (if you will pardon the contradiction in that phrase) until finally they achieve total nullity. ‘
Anyway, in recent years there’s been, perhaps, a gratifying lack of students trying to write like Hemingway and Carver, who used to make up a solid percentage of the classes when I first started teaching, and while my current students initially seemed less confident working within the restrictions of a short story (specifically the restrictions of how much their tutor could realistically read and mark at the end of semester), the stories they produced were often a little more daring in terms of the subject matters and styles that they tried to stretch the form to fit. As the character of Garth Marenghi says in the excellent parody show Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace: ‘Subtext is for cowards.’
To come back to the subject of print culture for a moment: the wealth of publications in Slovenia sounds wonderful and utterly alien. I remember my response to a friend telling me about the range of magazines produced in Croatia – ‘You mean you have magazines that don’t just cover theatre, but are devoted to theatre? The visual arts even? Good God!’.
While I haven’t lived in New Zealand for a while, and so I can’t speak authoritatively about the current state of affairs, when I was growing up the pickings were slim and I doubt things have improved all that much. Where other countries of similar or even smaller populations seem to support a host of periodicals, the New Zealand attitude seemed to be more or less, ‘yeah, one magazine’ll do it’, and that was the Listener, which everyone seemed to read (grudgingly or happily) and which contained a bit of everything: political/social commentary, investigative journalism, reviews, TV and radio listings, even the occasional short story (though not anymore, sadly).
Of course, I’m exaggerating slightly. There were also a few glossier magazines that no one I knew ever seemed to bother with, some special-interest publications, an assortment of small literary journals – some long-running, some short-lived, all invariably struggling. There’s more going on in Australia, of course, (and recent years have seen the emergence of some interesting new publications), but still not all that much considering the population. Print has a difficult time taking root down here, and generally the publications that I turn to for literary commentary – the Spin Off (in New Zealand), Sydney Review of Books (in Australia) – are all purely online.
As I’ve been living mostly in Melbourne, Australia for the last eleven (God, eleven!) years, I can’t properly answer your question about the ‘cool canon’ for young New Zealand writers, but it is probably not too different from that of young Australian writers. (There is, of course, a collective game that we play where we pretend there are vast differences in terms of culture and personality between the two countries, but no, not really).
At the start of every semester I always ask my students what they like to read generally and what they’ve read most recently and take notes as it helps me to remember names and faces and get a sense of what they might want to write, and perhaps who they are (I’m one of those arseholes who gravitates to the host’s bookshelf at parties, thinking I can divine their character by scanning the titles).
I’ll dig out the notes when I’m back in the office and try to see if there have been any general trends that I can discuss in my next email, but it’s usually a pretty eclectic mix: a solid whack of science fiction, fantasy and horror fans, perhaps a handful on their 19th-century Russian literature kick, obsessive Jane Austen readers, passionate Salinger lovers, equally passionate Salinger haters, some who haven’t read anything apart from the texts assigned in high school, and always, without fail, at least one (though seldom more than one) David Foster Wallace devotee, and they are usually trouble (though often of the best possible kind).
Oh my, now I am sorely tempted to beg you to let me edit out this oversight on my part, or else the reader might think I do not distinguish between Australia and New Zealand (especially damning for me, since we share our northern border with the former. Or was that Austria? Eh, geography is for the unimaginative anyway). I did not do my proper research, but rather than employing the almighty Google to get to ‘know’ you better (by the way, have you read Franzen’s Purity?) I counted on our conversation to do that for me. Sorry for the faux-pas.
It is really interesting that you would link linearity in narrative and a print culture, because here in Slovenia literature has been implicated (in many theoretical texts by our scholar-politicians) as the prime carrier of our national political project through the ages when we did not have our own state. The claim is somehow too dubious to be taken completely seriously, but it does have the consequence that writing in Slovene language is valued beyond pure market considerations (there is always some systemic support), and could also be linked to our love for magazines, if you think of them as physical artefacts and containers of language that mark, like a thousand little daily, weekly and monthly ‘flags’, the space of our particular culture.
It is likely that I am reading too much into it (also drawing on Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities), but it is one of the possible, if far-fetched, explanations of why print culture is just not seen as such a necessity on an island, where there is no need to mark your dominion over and over again, whereas the historical flux of peoples and cultures on mainland is always a source of some anxiety for any community trying to stake a claim in space and time.
Sorry for this pivot into sociology, but I just cannot escape it this week. Thank you for the links – ‘The Brain of Katherine Mansfield’ has murdered my parents and my dog because I, in keeping with the grand May ‘68 tradition of not trusting anyone over 30, chose not to accompany a weird old man; I have nicked Darkplace from the internet; I now know where Georges Perec got the inspiration for his absolutely wonderful Life: a User’s Manual, and I will definitely be reading the Davies lecture when I find the time – the opening pages are fantastic.
But I am writing this to you on the 25th Slovenian Independence Day. It was so weird watching the yesterday’s celebrations of this historical moment for our nation, all the grandstanding of our politicians, the unanimous praise of the ‘courage, conviction and pride’ of a nation determined to take the reins of history for the first time solely into its own hands – after spending the whole day confused, somewhat angry, but mostly hurt about the stunt your Majesty’s most loyal subjects just pulled on our community of nations. Everyone is now focused on the British – understandably some are now filled with hope, some with despair – but nobody seems to care how us ordinary folk on the continent feel about the whole thing. We just lost seventy million people from our larger community, together with all the opportunities that United Kingdom could offer to some of us, and surely we are allowed to not be simply completely casual about the whole affair.
Which then strangely mirrors into my understanding on how the people of Yugoslavia must have felt when we chose to leave the federal republic (I was four-years-old at the time). Of course there are huge differences in the context, historical situation and hopefully, the end result – I am, for instance, quite positive that if the vote on our referendum for independence was 52% for and 48% against (as opposed to 88% for, 4% against, the rest undecided or not valid), there wouldn’t be much left for us to celebrate today, 25 years later.
But I just got the European Union Prize for Literature and I am pretty happy about that. Should I think less of it now? Gast Groeber, my fellow winner from Luxembourg, reached out to me yesterday, saying that this was quite a punch, but that a writer’s work always by design advocates for peace and dialogue between cultures and that in this regard nothing has changed. He is right, of course, but the peculiar thing is that my novel In/Half is set 25 years in the future, in a setting some have called dystopian.
I have always considered dystopian to mean an environment where the measure of human control is such that it hinders the human spirit to an unacceptable degree, whereas the larger world of In/Half is built on the opposite of such an environment. Its world reflects the ontological uncertainty and existential isolation of an individual, and is actually just as crappy a place to live in as the average totalitarian state. Umberto Eco has nicely shown how the paranoid mind-set is a perfectly natural response to a world without God, but what if in our desired escape from the world imagined as a grand conspiracy we are necessarily severing our bonds with humanity, leaving all of us even lonelier in the end?
Overly dramatic, I know. But In/Half was written with this concern in mind – that our environments will become simply too confusing for our societies to handle and we will respond by withdrawing from the world. And I also tried to show that this will not in any way lessen our confusion, only make us less capable of dealing with it.
And this maybe also somehow, in some way, points to my problems with minimalism. It can always speak to me as a human being and offer a sense of very satisfying closure to a myriad of my emotions, but it just cannot address me as a creature of history and give larger form to, for example, the impossibly particular experience of celebrating and lamenting an independence on the very same day.
All my best to the Commonwealth!
There is a long and proud history of failing to make a meaningful distinction between Australia and New Zealand, so no worries on that front! I’ll admit to having long ago lost much appetite for that particular battle: we both exist as awkward postcolonial islands in the Southern hemisphere, we both speak with broadly similar and easily mocked accents, Her Majesty the Queen still graces both of our currencies … and anyway this doesn’t feel like the right time for any more obsession over national/cultural boundaries.
Thank you for your last message, though I’m sorry to hear that you and your family met with such an unfortunate end in ‘The Brain of Katherine Mansfield’. If it’s any consolation, I recall that an early decision to fly to Christchurch (my home town) results in an equally abrupt, fiery demise. Can’t help but feel there’s some commentary going on there …
So, as you discussed, some pretty tumultuous history has played out in the space between our last emails and it was good to hear about your own response to it, coming in the wake of the anniversary of Slovenian independence and your own recent success in winning the European Union Prize for Literature. A lot of the commentary that I’ve been getting down this end of the world (via the usual mix of news sites, blogs, and social media feeds) has certainly focused very heavily on the UK experience in the wake of the referendum: the outrage, the short-sighted celebrations, the dumb-founded surprise, emboldened racism, political chaos and morning-after regret. It does appear that the reaction from the rest of Europe is being largely neglected at the moment, at least in Anglo media, particularly in terms of how this will potentially effect the future of the EU and the continued mobility and support that its institutions offer to its citizens.
The focus remains resolutely on the UK and the terrible damage that it has almost certainly done to itself, its continuing decline, the hardships that will be faced by its citizens, rather than considering or acknowledging the damage that it will cause in other spheres, and as Alice Te Punga Somerville points out in an excellent blog post on the subject, this neglect is part of a long historical trend.
So, like almost everyone else it seems, I woke up (I am using ‘woke up’ for rhetorical effect here: due to time differences I think I found out about the result in the afternoon, but I was busy and distracted and it certainly didn’t sink in until the next day) after the referendum puzzled and frightened and not really sure how to respond (or whether renewing my UK passport would now be worthwhile). My first instinct was to make a joke, because I am annoying that way, and I had a number of decent ‘Brexit’ puns lined up to deliver on social media, but then my whole awareness of the referendum had begun with jokes, and now I couldn’t see how another one would help. I had probably read a few articles on the subject in the past few months, but it was mostly the memes and videos circulating on social media that really solidified the sense that this was a real-thing-that-my-god-could-actually-happen, first the ‘what have the Romans ever done for us’ scene from Life of Brian cleverly rearranged with subtitles referring to the EU and later fully re-enacted by Patrick Stewart when there was talk of withdrawing from the ECHR within the conservative party, a type of escalation in humour that should have made me take everything more seriously. I noticed that not too many other people had anything funny to say either on the morning after either.
Maybe that’s because the whole situation feels like a joke of a certain kind (I hope you don’t take that in anyway trivialising the likely trauma that has and will result from what has occurred), and one that wouldn’t work so effectively if its subjects were all busy winking, rolling their eyes, or making wisecracks of their own as the chaos ensues. With its abruptness and complete lack of sense, the UK’s decision to exit feels like a pratfall on a vast political, historical and economic scale, something that belongs to that particularly cruel and very British form of humour, where everyone seems to lack an appropriate sense of perspective and large-scale disaster results from petty rivalries, vanities, misunderstandings, and misdirected blame and always results (as you note) only by the very slimmest of margins, with defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
It’s the kind of rolling, escalating, nasty humour that inevitably drags everyone’s worst nature out into the light: the joke that no one is clever enough to be in on, or to control, even if they think they are. This is the comedy that the British perform so well, made all the crueller by never completely extinguishing sympathy for the parties involved, in that you can always follow and understand the logic that has brought them to painful absurdity. The people who had generally been forgotten by both the governments of the centre-left and right, who had borne the brunt of Cameron’s austerity, were suddenly given the opportunity to voice their discontent with a spectacular, self-destructive own-goal.
It’s the stuff of classic farce: the forgotten plot thread returning with a vengeance at the finale, the unexpected back-swing of the door into the faces of power (though, of course, if I find myself becoming slightly too clever and self-congratulatory in drawing all these ironic parallels, I just have to hop online to read some more about the likely economic fallout and the horrifying racism that this exit result appears to have legitimised in the UK and further afield in Europe, and how it has also blown plenty of wind into the sails of racist nationalists down this end of the world, so as to be reminded that there is no wry, detached perspective to be taken here, that I am the butt of this punchline along with everyone else).
Anyway, you asked if I’d read Franzen’s Purity. I have kind of a love/hate relationship with Franzen as a novelist. He is often compelling and perceptive, but just as often seems kind of clumsy and simplistic to me. I haven’t got to Purity yet (but I will, and from the sounds of things I’ll love and hate it in equal measure) because I haven’t quite forgiven him for the denouement of Freedom, where the minor character Lalitha is clearly sacrificed to reunite the annoying conservationist and his slightly more interesting ex-wife, ground up between the heavy gears of Franzen’s narrative. I’ve been re-reading Blake Bailey’s biography of Richard Yates recently, and one thing he describes the writer (often drunkenly) railing against is a ‘condescending’ attitude towards characters in writing, where they are presented too simplistically and with a lack of clear sympathy, worked like puppets to make a point or to move the story along.
It is hard to see how any writer can escape the charge of condescension (Yates certainly can’t, in at least some of his novels and stories), but it seems particularly important to consider with a novelist like Franzen, who determinedly committed to character-driven social realism. He’s a fantastic novelist in many respects and I’ll probably continue to read everything he writes, but in Freedom especially it felt like it was a little too easy to see exactly where his sympathies lay and how deeply they ran, to distinguish between the characters that were allowed some genuine life and consideration on the page and those that were simply disposable. Would love to get your thoughts on Franzen, if you are inclined.
Since I’ve already been ill-mannered enough to shoehorn my novel into the broader socio-political narrative (I have a mean associative streak with regards to literature and its context; you’ll see when we get to Franzen), I am just going to add that ‘the unexpected back-swing of the door into the faces of power’ is the main theme of a bunch of my short stories. I just cannot get over the fact that modern societies deliberately leave so many people on the side-lines and then act completely shocked when those people grab power wherever they can get it (instead of facing utter powerlessness like adults and becoming writers).
I wrote about a scheming student who foments a revolt to get into politics, about a man so distraught his country joined the attack on Iraq that he instigates a refugee crisis (five years ago; it most definitely did not feel good seeing it actually happen), about a kid who will deliberately sabotage his own family just because he doesn’t have a job, and I even did a true crime terrorist tale – but a scenario where a right wing government first cuts access to mental healthcare, then runs a political campaign that exploits a vicious nationalist fantasy which prods a lunatic into murdering one of the nicest politicians imaginable, and where at the end of the day both the lunatic and (a part of) the government still get what they wanted, is somehow too much even for my taste. The crumbling bridge from the very poignant text you’ve linked is a nice metaphor – but while a base part of me would enjoy every manner of calamity now befalling England (oh, how I’ve cheered for the Iceland side in the Euros), I nonetheless cannot bring myself to actually wish for the bridge to be burned. For every Nigel, there is still a Jo there.
Which brings me to Jonathan. Namely, is he a Nigel or a Jo? I’m referring to his excellent essay on William Gaddis (Mr. Difficult – adding here the equally great response by Ben Marcus) where he divides writers based on whether they write for the audience – the Contract writers – or for ‘art’ – the Status writers.
Franzen wrote the essay after The Corrections was published, after dealing with the whole Oprah fiasco, and the essay marks the turning point in his movement from a writer trying to please his literary idols to a writer coming to terms with his actual qualities. He embraces the Contract model, but not before having a very ‘sour grapes’ kind of moment and firing one last missile towards the thing he is turning away from and never managed to quite reach.
But you do not have to engage in some special sort of mental gymnastics to see that the Contract model is very akin to populism. I could very well imagine a sort of literary Michael Gove reading the latest experimental tome and venting his frustration with it on Twitter: ‘You know what, I think that the people in this country are getting very tired of experts.’ Franzen claims that literature needs populism, since it is in direct competition with other forms of entertainment, but Marcus dismantles this claim pretty thoroughly. Nothing competes with literature when it is at its finest. Nothing even comes close.
But Franzen has every right to do what he does best – write social realism in tune with the zeitgeist. The main problem is, as always with populism, that in negotiating with the zeitgeist the latter always wins. There is always another concession to be made, another group of people to draw into your argument, another descent into inanity to be greeted with the screams: ‘Hear, hear!’ There is a place for synthesis of the multitude of voices of our society in the novel – but the strongest voice in the compendium must be the author’s own, otherwise what’s the point. There is a great quote by Ken Kesey in Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: ‘I am tired of being a seismograph, I want to be a lightning rod.’
And I am not just saying this to disparage Franzen based on some elitist conception of literature. There are actual problems with the way his novels have been developing. The weird sacrifice of Lalitha is not jarring only in literary terms, it could also be read (strenuous, I know, but I am still going to say it) as Franzen saying that Walter (a conservationist who is actually campaigning for a world without kids, which is possibly the only politically correct way to argue for the reduction of the world’s inhabitants) has to end his infatuation with a minority (and isn’t an accident just a welcome coincidence) before he and Patty can finally have the freedom to enjoy the world as it is supposed to be.
Surely a needlessly vicious assumption, you might say, but then Franzen actually goes on to write a novel with the title – Purity. I blame his work on Viennese modernists – having studied the development of both the Austrian bourgeoisie class and the Nazi party in-depth (the German nationalists first began developing their abhorrent policies in the conflict with the politically emboldened Slovenian nationals in the Kärnten region of today’s Austria in 1890s, before unleashing them with full force on the Jewish aristocracy of Vienna), I think that Franzen is unconsciously channelling some very, very weird vibes from the places he self-professedly loves. So whether he wants to be a populist lightning rod or is merely an accurate seismograph (or, in the end, just another writer-misanthrope) is beside the point – with Trump’s America on the horizon, and Brexit well underway, things do not look well.
Admittedly this is a recent reading of mine, which possibly speaks more about me as I currently am, than it does about Franzen and his work. The first time I read Freedom I had a very distinct feeling, which Purity has deepened, that Franzen’s principal trauma with regards to his writing is centred on the work and person of David Foster Wallace (a big fan of Gaddis!). Franzen’s essay Farther Away is illuminating – and an excellent read – but after I read that Franzen had problems with Freedom, but then wrote it in one fell swoop after Wallace committed suicide, I was for a time completely convinced that the love triangle of Patty, Walter and Richard was actually about literature – Patty has to decide between the loyal, realist, somewhat boring but ultimately safe Walter and the irresponsible, tobacco-chewing, sexed-up, angry and self-destructive Richard. She can have her doubts and her flings, but for a fulfilling future she has to end up exactly where Franzen wants her to. Right in his lap. (I won’t spoil Purity for you, but just keep in mind this tension between the two writers when reading it.)
There is still much more to be said about the whole thing, but I am sure I have already drawn up enough dubious connections for one conversation.
It is great to hear more about your stories and I really regret not being able to read them. I will have to hope for an English translation, sad monolingual that I am. I did really want to talk more about your novel as well, which sounds fascinating, both from your own description and the short translated extract that I’ve been able access online, but I got carried away with the Brexit. I did wonder if the advice given by Zoja to the guitarist in the opening of the extract (‘Don’t sing to the people. Sing to that empty space. There’s nothing there, just your sound.’) offered an exploration or encapsulation of the theme of isolation in your work, in that artists of all kinds, are just as often exhorted to create for themselves as they are to think about their audiences, and there’s something both desirable and dangerous in the space where we individually frame our own rules for engagement, for success or failure, irrespective of how the work is received or whether there is an audience there at all.
The links that you posted to Franzen’s article and Marcus’s response made me think (though admittedly in a fairly vague, half-arsed, Friday-afternoon kind of way) about how rigidly his idea of ‘Contract’ writing draws up these lines, implying ultimately the success of literature rests in how well large-circulation social realist zeitgiesty novels jostle with other forms of media for their due market share. If the novel, or prose fiction more generally, no longer occupies the position of cultural and commercial dominance that it has enjoyed for the past couple of centuries then that doesn’t necessary extinguish its value.
I have a sense that Franzen sees himself as fighting for the novel’s traditional sphere of influence and relevance as it existed in some ideal of mid-20th century print culture, and that might now be a very small hill to die upon, in that it involves both a rejection of the innovations of the past and the demands of the present, holding onto an essentially static view of what literature can and should be doing and where it should be placed. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that there is something limiting in the idea that all forms of entertainment are necessarily competing for the same mass audience; there are smaller spaces where literature will survive and flourish, because, as you say, nothing can compete with it, at least in certain ways, for the delivery of particular pleasures and observations. I’d hoped to bring this conversation to a close with some more definitive observations, but now I am running out of time and steam, so will have to settle for some half-connected spluttering of thought.
'Novels stand outside time, with their narrative structure of beginning, middle and end. They outlast politics, which are by nature ephemeral, swift and changeable and can quickly become invisible, detectable only to the skilled eye. ' - Fiona Farrell