Fiction as Itself

Context N°11

by Giles Gordon

The difficulty with writing, as with reading, is words. Only the painter uses paint—not the spectator, not even the art critic; he uses words. Only the composer uses notes—not the listener, nor the music critic; he too uses words. The writer uses words, but so does everybody else. Therefore everyone believes he or she is a potential writer.
Most people, in daily currency, use words in what they think of as a fairly literal way. Consequently they are made uneasy if a writer does not use them similarly. They expect a novelist to know more words than they do, and to employ them with greater expertise than they can. Basically though, they expect a “story” to begin at the beginning (wherever that may be). If the first four words aren’t literally “Once upon a time,” the reader should be able to assume they’re taken for granted. The story should continue through exposition, climax, denouement, until on the last page the author can write “The End,” and the reader may be confident there’s no more to come, that nothing that should have been said remains unsaid.

The reader, then, expects to understand a work of fiction in the way he understands a conversation with his butcher, his bank manager, his wife, his colleagues at work, or even—in times of energy crisis—his candlestick maker or vendor. Or, pitching it a degree higher, he expects the fiction he reads to illuminate his own conversations with his hairdresser, his solicitor, his wife, his friends, even his Member of Parliament, because he knows that the author possesses ‘imagination’ while he probably does not.

We are conditioned to read thousands of words every day. There are probably more of them in a single issue of the Times or the Guardian or the Daily Telegraph than there are in the average new novel; and we’re conditioned, because we lead such “busy” lives, to read these words—whether in newspaper or book—as fast as we’re able to assimilate them. In practice, this means a general understanding of the surface meaning, the “factual” content, rather than being persuaded, beguiled, influenced, stimulated and altered by the words. But the craft of even our best journalist is one thing, the art of our better novelists quite another. Or should be.

In his introduction to The Secret Life of Our Times, a collection of fiction first published in the magazine Esquire (edited by Gordon Lish; Doubleday, 1973), Tom Wolfe points out that in the 1960s in America:

Journalists began mastering the same techniques of social realism that American short-story writers had depended on for so long. They began using them in quite sophisticated ways, in fact—and without ducking behind the screen of fiction. This was the movement or, better said, the development known as the New Journalism. These two forces—film and the New Journalism—would have probably been enough by themselves to deflect serious fiction writers onto a new course, much the same way that the rise of photography held painters and sculptors against representationalism after the turn of the century.

Mr. Wolfe goes on to suggest that the contemporary American short story is now evolving a system of poetics, or formal conventions, after the manner of the classical conventions that English poets—and English readers—observed in the eighteenth century: “. . . the characters are not tied to history, geography, nationality, or political subdivisions. . . . They speak, if they speak at all, in a language that tells you nothing about class, regional, or ethnic status.”

The journalist, the “factual” writer, reports a world which his reader not only recognizes but identifies with, even if it is Chile, China or Afghanistan. This he can do uniquely well. The talented writer of fiction is much more subversive. As David Gallagher wrote recently in the Observer, reviewing a novel by the Chilean José Donoso: “The only reality it posits is that of its own pages. There is no ‘real world,’ no specific context to which it refers, and it is subversive precisely because it denies the validity, or stability, of any context.” In other words, it is itself. A novel is a novel is a novel.

Traditionally, the British have been suspicious of theories of fiction, but at a time when many of the most intelligent and imaginative novels are coming from Latin America, North America and France, and when translation is making available to us more new books than ever before, we could do a lot worse than to pay closer attention to what critics are writing about non-British fiction. Though Tom Wolfe and David Gallagher in their remarks quoted here are writing about American fiction, we surely cannot afford to be so insular as to disregard what they are saying. Sooner or later, we must—as a fiction writing and reading nation—accept that unambitious but competent slice-of-life mediocrity (Joe Lampton, Jim Dixon, Lewis Eliot) isn’t all our novelists need be capable of.

In what seems to me a passage of the utmost importance to contemporary fiction criticism, Tom Wolfe in the introduction already quoted from suggests that the perpetrators of what he calls the new poetic in fiction are producing—legends, fables, parables, myths—neo-fables:

. . . realism has been done; it’s finished. But how can I abandon realism and all of its extraordinary power and yet transcend it? Why, by returning to a form that goes back to the very roots of literature itself, a pure and crystalline form, a form that does not depend on the soon outdated details of everyday life for its effects, a form that communicates directly with the consciousness of man, a form that is as timeless as language itself.

In spite of the universality of myth, for the writer of fiction—by authors, reviewers and readers, I’d like the reviewer or reader to say to himself: “Mr. X appears to be doing such and such. He knows his European literature, he’s read his Cervantes and Sterne and Peacock as well as his Joyce and Proust and Beckett, and his Americans, not forgetting Borges. He uses words in his latest artefact in a way that, if not peculiar to him, is not how they are used in this sentence. He’s intrigued and fascinated by them, by sentences, paragraphs, pages as sounds, shapes, rhythms as well as senses. His meanings aren’t necessarily mine, but that’s no reason to dismiss them.”

Let us be grateful to our all too few writers prepared to reveal in fictional terms their visions of the air-conditioned nightmare, and their parallel dreams, even day-dreams.

I am not asking for fiction that isn’t immediately accessible in all its glories either to be praised lavishly or to be patronized with contempt of parody. If in terms of its own originality—whatever uniqueness it possesses—the reader of a book has difficulty immediately in interpreting its territory, why shouldn’t this be regarded as a challenge? Henry Moore said recently: “Cézanne, at one time, was completely unacceptable, and now he’s part of the tradition. It’s time that makes the difference.”

But I would not want to suggest that there is, in itself, any virtue in the writing of fiction in being “experimental,” assuming that were possible, which I don’t believe to be the case if the author is serious about his art. If a novel is labelled experimental or avant-garde by a reader, then it seems to me that the book has failed in its primary function, at least in terms of that one reader: to be a novel.

If content and form in fiction are inseparable, both essential aspects of a single artefact, a novel that with skill portrays its author’s individual contemporary vision cannot be experimental or avant-garde. It can only be itself, a work of fiction.


This passage first appeared as part of the introduction to Beyond the Words, edited by Giles Gordon and published by Hutchinson in 1975.

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