I’ve been so wrapped up in his writing lately that I seem to be seeing everything through James-Wood coloured glasses. Reading this:
" But this idea – that the novelist’s task is to go on to the street and figure out social reality – may well have been altered by the events of September 11, merely through the reminder that whatever the novel gets up to, the "culture" can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands. If topicality, relevance, reportage, social comment, preachy presentism, and sidewalk-smarts – in short, the contemporary American novel in its current, triumphalist form – are novelists’ chosen sport, then they will sooner or later be outrun by their own streaking material" James Wood in the Guardian, October 6, 2001
…fogged my view when reading this:
" Imaginative writing is understood to be slightly mysterious. In fact it is very mysterious. A great deal of the work gets done beneath the threshold of consciousness, without the intercession of reason. When the novelists went into newsprint about September 11, there was a murmur to the effect that they were now being obliged to snap out of their solipsistic daydreams: to attend, as best they could, to the facts of life. For politics – once defined as "what’s going on" -suddenly filled the sky. True, novelists don’t normally write about what’s going on; they write about what’s not going on. Yet the worlds so created aspire to pattern and shape and moral point. A novel is a rational undertaking; it is reason at play, perhaps, but it is still reason." Martin Amis in the Guardian, June 1, 2002.
Tell me that these two quotes don’t riff off each other in a fascinating, strangely contradictory way.
Wood famously attacks American novelists for their lack of human connection, and suggests that 9/11 should make it harder for them "to bounce around in the false zaniness of hysterical realism or to trudge along in the easy fidelity of social realism. Both genres look a little busted. That may allow a space for the aesthetic, for the contemplative, for novels that tell us not "how the world works" but "how somebody felt about something""
Amis on the other hand writes that 9/11 turned novelists’ works in progress into ‘blue streak[s] of autistic babble, because now we have to live with war. I assume he means that everything written up until the twin towers now seems irrelevant, picayune given the gravity of reality. Here he seems to agree with Wood. But then he says that novelists, far from being shaken out of ‘solipsistic daydream’ by 9/11, habitually write rationally about what’s going on. In the face of religions, they show us, (this is me borrowing Wood’s words), how the world works...how to ‘attend…to the facts of life.’
Wood is saying that they fail to do this precisely because they exhaust and overwork the conventions of realism. Their inhuman stories, and unconvincingly intertwined characters defy the laws of persuasion, and as such, undermine their claim to rationality. But he is also saying paradoxically that perhaps, because reality outruns their attempts at topical social commentary, these novelists may well return to an approach that genuinely helps readers to deal with the real world.