Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Story of the Return of Story

If Grossman's "literary revolution" is not really against modernism, is it still nonetheless a return to "the good old days of good old-fashioned story-telling, disdained by the modernists"? Do we just need to substitute "contemporary realists" for the last word in that sentence?

No. That's geekspeak bullshit, "story" a rhetorical pretense that it's the substructure of narrative somehow being neglected if the disruption of equilibrium is subtle rather than blunt, if the stakes and strategies are everyday rather than extraordinary, if the complications are abstract rather than concrete, if the conflict worked through to resolution is internal rather than external. If we want to talk modernists, Joyce's Ulysses is every bit the told story that Homer's is, perhaps more so. I went to see a play adaptation of it the other night and it struck to me, not for the first time, how the text is so very much meant to be heard. Structured by the episode and suffused with the oral, it is absolutely a story. It's simply that the tensions resolved in the closing soliloquy are less boldly manifest, the register of action more low-key.

When enthusiasts of category fiction speak of "story-telling" in this way then, it's a stand-in for the more stirring register of action inherited from the pulps. It's not about the fiction being more story-ish in some sense -- more dramatic, one might say. Taxonomically speaking, all well-made dramas are equally dramatic. If better made, the low-key will be moreso than a series of high-octane set pieces strung together in a formulaic grammar of action/adventure by authorial fiat. The latter may be called "more dramatic" for its brasher impact, but this is dissimulation around the fact that it's simply more spectacular.

A peripeteia is not even more of a peripeteia if it involves the actor physically whirling around 180º on the stage.

Still, when we have a more spectacular narrative made from more immediately visible elements -- blunt force disruptions, extraordinary stakes, concrete complications, external conflicts -- is it not fair to say that the more obvious plot is more important in driving us onward through the story? That we can therefore segregate out such narratives as more "plot-driven"? No, again this is dissimulation. Similarly, plot is no less the motive draw in the "character-driven" story than in the "plot-driven." It's simply that in the former, the characters' structures of self are made the theatres of war, events are internal rather than external, and when plot is taking place in that substrate rather than the physical world it goes by the name of character development. Every revelation of character, however understated, is an action in the plot.

No, the geekspeak bullshit of "plot-driven" and "story-telling" is just a way NOT to say that the subtle disruptions and everyday goals bore us, that the abstract complications and internal plots are less spectacular than we want. Why the rhetorical pretence? An admission would be a confession -- of enjoying the sensational, or worse, the sensationalist. And even those who are ultimately defending such pleasures do so in a discourse so loaded with contempt for the sensationalist that dissimulation may be automatic, unconscious. It may be the discourse itself that is dissimulating. These inchoate notions of "story-telling" and "plot-driven" do serve to defend a particular approach in narrative, but they do so by diverting attention from the sensational, rerouting into a pre-existent -- a downright tired -- and self-sustaining argument of purpose, entertainment versus edification, both sides of which do narrative a gross disservice by casting it as means to an end.

It's time we cut the crap, discard the hollow effigy of Story as a fancied principle grand enough to warrant respect, and defend what it is that needs defended. Say what it is that category fiction does in its bones and muscle and sinew. Because this is the reason for the revolution.

The change signified by "the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, and Jennifer Egan" is only the restoration of quirks and associated plot dynamics deemed improperly sensational in that self-privileging imperialist aesthetic of literature which belongs back in 1880s, the aesthetic which reasserted itself in the recuperation of post-WWII realism. From Gothic Romance, through dime novels and penny dreadfuls, to the pulps and hence to modern category fiction -- I take the sensation novel as a linchpin wherein the disdain named its enemy; it's as good a point as any to situate the consolidation of that tedious philistinism masquerading as good taste.

The visceral drive in such sensational(ist) dynamics is the "sturdy narrative roots" that remain blatant as Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, and Neil Gaiman cross the barricades from the other direction -- partly just by using these quintessential markers of pulp literature in sophisticated rather than formulaic ways. As has always been done. Why? Because the narrative devices characteristic of category fiction -- these quirks -- are not just crude buttons a writer may push; they're the meat of narrative itself. A writer who wants to "understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know" may absolutely employ the monstrum of the horror story and/or the cryptica of the police procedural; these quirks are custom-made to address exactly that sort of unknown. The only wonder is that it's taken so long for someone like McCarthy to do so.

Or perhaps that's not a great wonder. The rhetorical pretense that this is about the structural rather than the sensational, as I say, has not done the defenders of category fiction any favours.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Trip said...

To complement your perspective, I woud venture to say that from a diachronic point of view the talk of good old days is massively obfuscating.

There isn't a noble-savage prehistory of story-telling before effete Modernism came "to power" - the texts that gave rise to the contemporary notion of good old storytelling and Modernism were historically coextensive and the latter actually existed much longer, albeit under the radar.

The very fact that Krystal (and Grossman) construct a narrative including lawmakers and law-givers speaks to their position within the "High/Low" axis. They don't want a finer-grained distintion within that axis, they're just cheerleading the "rise to power" of the perceived Low to the position of the perceived High.

It's bullshit.

Brilliant writers worked within the perceived Low using modernist techniques to their fullest potential, being brainy and architectural and subtle and observant and somehow also they had literal, not only literary explosions and brains splattered on the wall, not only on the page.

By simplistically narrating the rise of that new sheriff in town, all these people's work becomes invisible and even unwanted. In their books stuff explodes, but sometimes against expectations and brains splatter for no apparent reason or emotional and story "payoff".

Yeah, they're there but this Delany dude doesn't use them *right*. And also what's with the 3-page philosophical disquisition on the nature of history, can't shit just hit the fan already?! Why are these people talking and not fighting?! Etcetera.

And how does the Cormac McCarthy example even *work* in the context of their narrative, since he's one of the authors where you need to reread almost every sentence because of its verbal recomplications? Yeah, so people kill each other there in gouts of blood and savagery, so what? The act of reading and parse-ing him isn't any different from the act of reading and parse-ing a High Modernist. And that's what needs to be pointed out, not the fact that there's juicy action stuff there. It's immaterial.

4:11 pm  
Blogger Trip said...

"... were historically coextensive and the latter actually existed much longer, albeit under the radar."

I meant the good-old storytelling texts of course :)

4:12 pm  
Blogger Trip said...

By the way, the story of Good Old Story vanquishing Bad Old Modernism lacks to point out that, in the end, it just a numbers' game, not a battle to be sung about.

People like Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf and so on studied the Bible and the Classics from an early age. It was their curriculum. They absorbed it even before they developed any sort of critical thought. So they wrote from what they had come to be passionate about (for/against/etc.), basically through no fault of their own.

Ishiguro, Chabon, Junot Diaz and so on may have attended big-ass universities and maybe even schools, but they were weaned on comic books and popular culture, possibly even the smart popular literature of Delany, Russ, Zelazny, Disch, etc. So they write from what they feel passionate about.

So from that rising number of smart and articulate writers weaned on popular culture, some will come to fill the vacuum of the "High", simply because there's noone else.

Or at least, that's a story I like more than the good guy/bad guy one.

4:26 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Brilliant writers worked within the perceived Low...

Even the ones that were (ultimately) perceived as High -- c.f. Lorca's touring puppet shows. Though visual art is sometimes a better example than literary art, from Caravaggio's dead prostitute and street scum models through the Salon des Refusées, I'd say the impropriety of many modernists meant many were at first roundly reviled as debasing the High with the Low. Oh, that Joyce with his arse-kissing and whatnot!

But yeah, I daresay both existed longer than the myopic narrative credits. Cervantes, Swift and Sterne are pretty modern to my mind, in a broad sense, and even if we're narrowing modernity down to a product of the Enlightenment -- a synthetic response to the dialectic of Rationalism and Romanticism would be my encapsulation -- I've argued elsewhere that the roots of contemporary "genre fiction," the Doyles and Poes and Haggards and Vernes and Wells and so on, are at very least proto-modernist. And all about "story." Taking Victorian literary variety magazines like the Strand as a key reference point, I mean, I see "effete" High Modernism as a sibling branch to disregarded "pulp modernism," both coming off the same stock and far more at odds with the bourgeois mediocrities than with each other.

5:01 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

So they wrote from what they had come to be passionate about (for/against/etc.), basically through no fault of their own.

Selection bias is also worth pointing to here, in terms of the obliviousness to, say, popular songs being as important to Joyce as comics to Lethem. I saw no small debt to the bawdy music hall ditty in Ulysses, as I recall -- albeit from a 20-year-ago reading.

5:15 pm  
Blogger Trip said...

Selection bias is a very good way of putting it, yeah. Basically, all of Krystal's arguments are founded on that.

But the thing about Joyce is he was a little bit of an anomaly among the Modernists, his leanings towards the popular in particular (something as early as Araby begins with the narrator telling us how a friend of his introduced them to Western pulp), though I do agree it's a major element in Ulysses. Not only the Sirens part but also the part (can't remember where exactly) that starts with a pastiche of poor romance novels and the part where he recapitulates English literary style starting with Old English and ending with contemporary slang.

But I'm not sure it was the rule for his contemporaries; though my knowledge of Modernism may well be sketchy.

If I had to paraphrase myself in short, I'd say that it's somewhat stupid masking a historical process beyond conscious human control as a battle heroically won, as a Revolution.

6:19 pm  

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