Martin Amis, the essay, the novel, and how to have fun in fiction
There’s an unusually interesting interview with Martin Amis in New York Magazine, where he says:
I think what has happened in fiction is that fiction has responded to the fact that the rate of history has accelerated in this last generation, and will continue to accelerate, with more sort of light-speed kind of communications. Those huge, leisurely, digressive, essayistic, meditative novels of the postwar era—some of which were on the best-seller lists for months—don’t have an audience anymore. [. . .]
No one is writing that kind of novel now. Well [. . . ] David Foster Wallace—that posthumous one looks sort of Joycean and huge and very left-field. But most novelists I think are much more aware than they used to be of the need for forward motion, for propulsion in a novel. Novelists are people too, and they’re responding to this just as the reader is.
I think people aren’t reading the “essayistic, meditative novels” because “essayistic, meditative novels” reads like code-words for boring. In addition, we’re living in “The Age of the Essay.” We don’t need novelists to write essays disguised as novels when we can get the real thing in damn near infinite supply.
The discovery mechanisms for essays are getting steadily better. Think of Marginal Revolution, Paul Graham’s essays, Hacker News, The Feature, and others I’m not aware. Every Saturday, Slate releases a link collection of 5 – 10 essays in its Longform series. Recent collections include the Olympics, startups, madness in Mexico, and disease. The pieces selected tend to be deep, simultaneously intro- and extrospective, substantive, and engaging. They also feel like narrative, and nonfiction writers routinely deploy the narrative tricks and voice that fiction pioneered. The best essay writers have the writing skill of all but perhaps the very best novelists.
As a result, both professional (in the sense of getting paid) and non-professional (in the sense of being good but not earning money directly from the job) writers have an easy means of publishing what they produce. Aggregators help disseminate that writing. A lot of academics who are experts in a particular subject have fairly readable blogs (many have no blogs, or unreadable blogs, but we’ll focus on the readable ones), and the academics who once would have been consigned to journals now have an outlet—assuming they can write well (many can’t).
We don’t need to wait two to five years for a novelist to decide to write a Big Novel on a topic. We often have the raw materials at hand, and the raw material is shaped and written by someone with more respect for the reader and the reader’s time than many “essayistic” novelists. I’ve read many of those, chiefly because they’ve been assigned at various levels of my academic career. They’re not incredibly engaging.
This is not a swansong about how the novel is dead; you can find those all over the Internet, and, before the Internet, in innumerable essays and books (an awful lot of novels are read and sold, which at the very least gives the form the appearance of life). But it is a description of how the novel is, or should be, changing. Too many novels are self-involved and boring. Too many pay too little to narrative pacing—in other words, to their readers. Too many novels aren’t about stuff. Too many are obsessed with themselves.
Novels might have gotten away with these problems before the Internet. For the most part, they can’t any more, except perhaps among people who read or pretend to read novels in order to derive status from their status as readers. But being holier-than-thou via literary achievement, if it ever worked all that well, seems pretty silly today. I suppose you could write novels about how hard it is to write novels in this condition—the Zuckerman books have this quality at times, but who is the modern Zuckerman?—but I don’t think anyone beyond other writers will be much interested.
If they’re not going to be essayistic and meditative, what are novels to be? “Fun” is an obvious answer. The “forward motion” and “propulsion” that Amis mentions are good places to start. That’s how novels differ, ideally, from nonfiction.
Novels also used to have a near-monopoly on erotic material and commentary. No more. If you want to read something weird, perverse, and compelling, Reddit does a fine job of providing it (threads like “What’s your secret that could literally ruin your life if it came out?” provides what novels used to).
Stylistically, there’s still the question of how weird and attenuated a writer can make individual sentences before the work as a whole becomes unreadable or boring or both. For at least a century and change, writers could go further and further in breaking grammar, syntax, and point of view rules while still being comprehensible. By the time you get to late Joyce or Samuel Beckett’s novels, however, you start to see the limits of incomprehensibility and rule breaking regarding sentence structure, grammar, or both.
Break enough rules and you have word salad instead of language.
Most of us don’t want to read word salad, though, so Finnegans Wake and Malone Dies remain the province of specialists writing papers to impress other specialists. We want “forward motion” and “propulsion.” A novel must delight in terms of the plot and the language used. Many, many novels don’t. Amis is aware of this—he says, “I’m not interested in making a diagnostic novel. I’m 100 percent committed in fiction to the pleasure principle—that’s what fiction is, and should be.” But I’m not sure his fiction shows this (as House of Meetings and Koba the Dread show). Nonetheless, I’m with him in principle, and, I hope, practice.