Featured Post

Pinned Post, A Policy Note:

I have made a decision to keep this blog virus free from this point forward, at least until the smoke clears. This is not a judgement about ...

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Tools of the Trade

Academic Art, as I have noted in the past, is explicitly made to be opaque to outsiders. Students are urged to be dig deeper, to create new ways of expression. The results read, and are intended to read, as inscrutable. These are experiments in expression.

James Joyce wrote a, um, celebrated thing called Finnegan's Wake. It is universally known, and almost universally unread, on account of the difficulty involved in reading it. This thing was an experiment, and kind of an interesting one, I guess. I certainly have not read it. I have read Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury in which every 4th chapter or so is written in a similarly, uh, difficult style. It was No Fun At All.

This category of experiment, the nonsense/stream of consciousness style, popped up every now and then for a while. While individual works are celebrated, it has not been successful in the sense that it has been widely adopted, at least not in toto. Similarly people experiment with lipogrammatic novels, La Disparition for example, in which you write without the use of some particular letter of the alphabet, and again, these ideas may or may not be successful in single cases but are never widely adopted. And on it goes. I dare say one could develop quite a list of similarly failed and semi-failed experiments.

Indeed, people write novels today using more or less the same toolkit that Dickens used, the same tools 7th graders use to write book reports, the same tools middle managers use to write memos. Sentences with structures one can diagram, that follow more or less from one another, and so on. Certainly the memo writer tends to use fewer allegories and a different vocabulary than does the novelist, but they two things are recognizably the same thing in ways that Finnegan's Wake recognizably is something else.

This is not to suggest that we ought not favor experimentation. Not every idea is going to work out. Indeed, most of them will founder. A few will work out. I dare say there was a time when the framing devices we now take as standard in novels would have been frowned upon. Does the flashback fall in and out of fashion? What about unreliable narrators (the most irritating of tics, but common), and inner monologues?

Can we see the bootprints of Joyce or Perec in contemporary novels? Maybe? I suppose there must be at least few writers at least who are both publishable and sufficiently fannish to work a little of their hero's methods in here and there, and I dare say it enriches the literature. I guess, for instance, you can draw a line from Joyce to Kerouac to the present time.

Could you, in 1900 or 1940 or 1960 have guessed which of "stream of consciousness" and "lipogram" would enter the standard toolbox? In hindsight it appears obvious that lipgram was not going to make the cut, but probably at times stream of consciousness looked just as ridiculous as lipograms and nonsense.

I suppose every MFA candidate who's taking pictures of his feet with a pinhole camera for his book Racism is Very Bad hopes to be inventing something akin to the unreliable narrator, with a backup plan of being Joyce in a pinch. In reality, though, most of them are just the long-forgotten author who thought "what if I write the book backwards with every third letter reversed" and who never found a publisher.

Not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, innovation is a good thing. On the other hand, we seem to be sacrificing an awful lot of lambs for not much useful output.

Where is the line between laboratory and scam?

And, perhaps more important, who really needs to care? Most novels, still, are written using Dickens's toolbox, which seems to be adequate to the task. The novel is not, after all, the tools. One does not actually need a new mode of expression to express a new idea.


  1. "One does not actually need a new mode of expression to express a new idea..."

    I'm not about to write an essay here, so I'll restrict myself to, "Hmmm..." That's not what people would say about Shakespeare or Dickens, for example. New ideas (together with new technologies and social change) have a far greater tendency to generate new forms than any self-conscious "experimentation".


    1. On the one hand, it feels like you are registering a note of disagreement here, and yet at the same time I cannot work out what the point of departure is.

      Are you asserting that Dickens and Shakespeare did in fact invent new tools and more of expression?

      God knows I am an ignorant sot, so it's perfectly possible and I'd like to hear more.

    2. Damn, just lost a lengthy comment. Curse you, Blogger. Fail again, fail better:

      I suppose I mean that it's the other way round, that it is new ways of life, of earning a living, new audiences, and new technical innovations that create new modes of expression (e.g. the serially-published novel, the photograph, the cinema, the 12-part streamed "box set" TV programme), not the sort of sterile modernist "experimentation" of a Joyce, which was an elitist and decadent dead end (puns in Sanskrit, FFS?), whereas the cinema was not.

      McLuhan's idea that "the medium is the message" is slick but not wrong. It's hard to imagine a novel which has anything new or useful to say about the multi-threaded reality and pace of change in a world of smartphones and social media: the very form is limiting, and may have exhausted its potential as a creative medium. After all, who's even got time to read the things now?

      Photography, too, may be in its Joycean decadence... Artists will continue to use the medium, as they still use etching and lithography, but its main appeal will become retro, a yearning for the days when "truth" and "representation" were still a good, unquestionable fit.

      Dickens didn't invent the serial novel, but he ran with it. Same with Shakespeare and public theatre for the masses. I expect HBO and Netflix will be spoken of in the same way in the future. Meanwhile, I *must* get back to watching "Money Heist"!