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The un-difficult novel
some thoughts about the 1991 Booker Prize
that whole period, from late Yeats through early Pynchon, might be considered, in retrospect, as the Age of Difficulty, the time when readers expected a certain degree of hardship when addressing new literary masterworks.
That’s from an essay Ted Gioia recently re-posted from his archives about Gravity’s Rainbow (not a novel I have read…) in which he talked about the way difficult fiction finds a less receptive audience today. Mostly, it’s a history and analysis of Pynchon’s novel and well worth your time. I want to write about another story, also about a sort of literature that was written in the twentieth century—but another tradition: the un-difficult novel.
Note, this is not an essay against modernism, postmodernism, or any other sort of difficulty. Nor is it an argument against Ted Gioia. Sometimes, the non-Bloomsbury, non-modernist, non-difficult sort of writer puts themselves in opposition to all those things. It is not my aim to take sides.
Ted’s comments about the reception of difficult novels reminded me of the 1991 Booker Prize, when one of the judges walked off the panel, claiming that the others didn’t take The Novel seriously enough. In response, Bryan Appleyard wrote a Sunday Times column, which opened like this:
For a literary form that was invented 250 years ago to provide the bourgeoise with the illusion that they were reading, the novel has had a good run for its money.
Putting aside the fact that Jane Austen made short work of this sort of nonsense in 1817, it shows you the basic opposition: Appleyard thinks that fiction was all about “cheap thrills” until “the intellectuals got hold of it.” He cites the fact that Jeffrey Archer and Jilly Cooper “aren’t allowed” to win the Booker Prize.
Appleyard saw two sorts of “serious” novelist. The dandy and the prophet.
The dandy is a stylist, a lover of the form for its own sake: art for him is its own sufficient consolation. The prophet employs his prose for a purpose: his novels are tools of Truth; his art must change the world.
I think there is a better distinction, devised by Schiller: the naive and sentimental. The naive do not have a rift with the world which they need to heal; the sentimental do. As Isiah Berlin summarised, “Schiller distinguished two types of poets: those who are not conscious of any rift between themselves and their milieu, or within themselves; and those who are so conscious.”
Satire is the work of sentimentals, attacking what they see as a false world. Naives have no such disdain:
The naive artist is happily married to his muse. He takes rules and conventions for granted, uses them freely and harmoniously, and the effect of his art is, in Schiller’s words, “tranquil, pure, joyous.”
Ideas disrupt this harmony.
The overlap between Appleyard and Schiller’s categories is not very stable. Appleyard described Martin Amis as a dandy, a novelist most interested in the art itself. But can you think of a better example of a sentimental? Martin Amis has a rift with the world alright. But both distinctions drive at the idea, though, that there is some opposition between the aesthete and the artist of ideas.
What Appleyard and Schiller have in common is that only one of these groups has ideas. And that was the argument at the heart of the 1991 Booker Prize row. What counts as a novel of ideas?
The judge who walked out of the Booker committee in 1991 was Nicholas Mosley. He wanted Allan Massie’s book The Sins of the Fathers (something else I haven’t read…) on the shortlist, along with some others. The other judges mocked Massie’s final line, “But what about humanity?”, so Mosley huffed out, declaring that there needed to be more place for novels of ideas. (Ted Gioia wasn’t writing only about novels of ideas, but about experimental novels. The distinction gets blurry, but this essay discusses it well.)
My interest in this rather silly little episode is Penelope Fitzgerald, one of the other judges. Fitzgerald said Mosley had a “very high view of the novel.” Appleyard called that “supremely dandyish” and said: “Dandies tend not to like the Big Questions or obvious seriousness.” He clearly hadn’t read Fitzgerald’s novels, or if he had he hadn’t grasped them.
Fitzgerald has a very clear morality encoded into her novels (you’ll be able to read more about it in my late bloomers book). She was well-versed in languages, literature, intellectual history, art history, theology, politics. Her novels realistically depict Tolstoyan Russia, Edwardian Cambridge, eighteenth century Germany. In each, the important ideas of the time are contrasted, juxtaposed, embedded. There is debate, but it is submerged. It’s all show, no tell. When she said “high” she was being ironic, teasing Mosley’s vanity.
At this point, distinctions break down. There’s little use in talking about dandys and prophets, naives and sentimentals. Fitzgerald was both. The head of the Booker committee, Jeremy Treglown, responded to Mosley that he preferred ideas to be expressed obliquely in fiction. That’s a good way to describe Fitzgerald’s work. Ideas are encoded, not expressed. Appleyeard misunderstands this because he thinks “novels are easy: they do not appear to require any special experience or skill of the reader.” He thinks there should be, and can be no, ideas in fiction.
This is absurd. Think of Jane Austen, seen as concerned only with social attitudes, but who in fact encoded ideas from economics and moral philosophy into her novels. Marilyn Butler wrote a splendid book showing that Austen was engaged with a war of ideas and took the conservative side. Cecil E. Bohanon and Michelle Albert Vachris wrote a marvellous book about the way Austen was influenced by Adam Smith’s moral philosophy.
All novels are novels of ideas. That’s what Penelope Fitzgerald said in 1991. A novel always encodes some set of ideas, be that the way Austen encoded economics or the way Franzen encodes a set of liberal common-sense assumptions.
When ideas are oblique, as in Austen and Fitzgerald, the novels are not, as Appleyard had it, easy or light. They are un-difficult. In Shakespeare’s Richard II, Richard uses “un-king” to describe being usurped. You cannot, of course, be un-kinged. It describes that state of both being and not being a king. What is a former king but a king?
So it is with the novel. Novelists like Jane Austen and Penelope Fitzgerald are un-difficult. The ideas are non-explicit, but that does not make them any less a part of the book.
If you want to read Penelope Fitzgerald, all of her novels are excellent, especially Offshore, The Bookshop, The Gate of Angels, The Beginning of Spring, and The Blue Flower.
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The aspects of fiction Appleyard calls dandyish are necessary, but not sufficient. Without artistry, you don’t really have a workable novel. To be good, you need serious ideas too. Sally Rooney explained it better than I can:
Works of art don’t succeed or fail on their technical or logical merits: they succeed or fail according to how they work on their audience. Yes, the language of Ulysses is radically inventive; yes, its symbolic structure is dense with significance; yes, it destablilizes textual conventions; but it seems at least to me that it does these things so that we can meet all the more directly, the more vividly and beautifully, with Molly and Stephen and Leopold Bloom.
Ted Gioia says a lot of modern fiction has “Franzen syndrome” or “the avoidance of almost any sort of ideology”. I think of “Franzen syndrome” more as a sort of bien pensant set of ideas, which you might derisively call liberal metropolitan elite. There are ideas in modern novels, at least the ones I have read, but they are on a par with essays in the London Review of Books. Sally Rooney has these ideas, and treats them rather carefully.