Genre trouble: By any means necessary, or novels on the edge

The novel is the shape-shifter of the literary world, which is one of the reasons I love it so much. It can look like a diary, a bundle of letters, a collection of theatrical monologues, a cycle of tersely told folk-tales, oral history, or clinical case-studies. Whatever people do with words, the novel can pretend to do.

When I think about my favorite novels, a good many of them sit on the boundary between forms, with voices entering and leaving the stage, sometimes in unpredictable ways.

As many times as the novel has changed shape in the hands of its practitioners, the literary gate-keepers have stepped forward to nail the box shut and say “This is a proper novel, and this is not.”

My favorite novels are the ones that live on the edge.

Jeanette Winterson’s Art & Lies taught me worlds about the uses of person and tense as camera-work. Winterson is the master of the time-slip as narrative device (or, I’d say, as more truthful representation of how we actually live inside time and history.) The critics hated it, I gather, but I love it. There are stories, songs, theatrical monologues, dropped hints, notebooks, and in the closing, an operatic aria. The matter is controversial: art and sex, historical memory and official versions, familial and political; the setting: a near-future dystopian London that looks more and more like straight documentary. The poet Sappho is doubled with her modern namesake, a punk poet living in a boarded-up house. The most rational speaker in the chorus, the conservative Catholic doctor Handel, turns out to be the most unreliable of all. What sounds rational can merely be rationalizing.

Then there’s Alexander Herzen’s novel Who is to Blame? It’s told in perfectly ordinary mid-nineteenth-century fashion; dramatic scenes alternate with narrative interludes, in third person. The camera work in this one is brilliant, from domestic scenes so closely observed that you feel more than a little claustrophobic, followed by the zoom out to the long view. In the opening scene, we meet all of the principal players but one, and then the author zooms out to track the back-story of each one of them. It’s the furthest thing from data-dump that I’ve ever read, and it takes only a handful of pages, in a light ironic voice, to anatomize these players and by implication the society to which they belong. Then there’s another zoom in to follow the rest of the story. There are journal entries in the persona of a teenaged girl, who is sharp-sighted and observant, so that adolescent doubt co-exists in brilliant tension with clinical ruthlessness. Every means is brought to bear on a domestic drama that’s at the same time a political indictment.

We’re told these days that authorial voice is off-limits, and that we are not to question political assumptions. And woe betide the author who does, whether in the voice of the poet, the prophet, the clinician or the revolutionary …

… Even those, like Herzen, who are safely dead.

Winterson’s novel is unapologetically twenty-first-century and postmodern (though written in the 1990s); Herzen’s novel is nineteenth-century (dating from the early 1840s), though far less prolix than many of its kin. Both writers play with language in a manner more usually reserved to poets. Herzen’s text was one of the first I read in Russian, after departing the nursery of graded readers, and his twists on the expected, not to mention his original coinages—of which I lost count—led me a merry chase. Winterson’s changes of person and tense had me re-reading to puzzle out how grammar shapes tone. Both novels are nominally domestic in scope, while taking on the accepted social arrangements, particularly the restricted role of women and the lies told about what sort of society we live in.

The critics, for the most part, hate them for it.

If you’re going to write a radical, thinking person’s novel, then you do it by any means necessary. Seduce them into a family comedy (and Herzen’s version anticipates Chekhov in its sharks-under-the-surface humor, while Winterson’s leads on by hint and indirection). Then watch the characters struggle in the chains of the usual arrangements, and anatomize the struggle from inside or outside or both; bring poetry and song and journal and case-report into it.

All’s fair in love and war.

All’s fair in revolution and novel-writing.

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3 Responses to Genre trouble: By any means necessary, or novels on the edge

  1. Becca says:

    Interesting analysis. There is something to be said for the underhanded way that novels (and novelists by extension) can poke at the politics of the time and society they are written in without bringing up the barriers so many of put up when those topics are brought up outside of fiction.

    I’ve learned from my time in the theatre that the easiest way to get people to understand your point of view is to distract them first. Comedy’s like “Jeffery” do this by making the audience laugh just before making a point. One friend of my put it this way: “You have to get people to open their mouths by laughing so you can shove your message down their throats. In the end they remember the laughter and think about the message.” In a way, novels can be like that too. Distract the readers with a good story and characters they don’t want to leave and they’ll pick up the message along with them. Critics don’t always like this technique. Too bad for them.

  2. Sue says:

    I looked up Winterson (because of course I had never heard of her) – she’s won many awards and has been awarded the OBE. Not everyone hated her….. Thanks, as always I learn so much

    And in response to the above comment – so true – Chris Rock is a prime example

  3. epbeaumont says:

    While many of Winterson’s novels have been well-received by the critics, Art & Lies was one of the exceptions, because it’s openly polemical (particularly on so-called women’s issues such as family violence and equal pay) as well as formally experimental. (They shouldn’t have been so shocked; Virginia Woolf did a similar number over five decades earlier with The Waves.)

    Winterson is an encouraging example to me because she’s so persistent, she does (and loves) her research, and she hails from what I understand is the English correspondent to New Jersey. I love her cocky, combative attitude to the literary establishment.

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