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Zadie Smith’s annoying Critique of ‘Realism’

 Image from Lightlinks

This in the NYRB (via readysteadybook)

"A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland,our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done-in a sense that’s the problem. It’s so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait."

is irritating enough to make me want now to read O’Neill’s book.

I wasn’t ‘taught’ to love the exquisite use of words, or imaginative plots, or funny lines.  I learned, to some degree about ‘how fiction works,’ but it has been through my own reading that I have come to identify that which brings joy; which warrants praise. Is Smith suggesting that Netherland is so textbook perfect, that it does everything exactly as proponents  of ‘realism’ consider right, and yet in doing so, somehow fails to capture our condition? And that this is cause for crisis? Like the camera which undermined the painted portrait’s claim to represent reality? Isn’t this a confusing comparison? Wouldn’t the motion picture gifting a nervous breakdown to the novel, be more in line with what she is suggesting?

Seems to me, the only people who might see crisis here are those like Smith…and before her Robbe-Grillet, who criticize work that uses traditional techniques to approximate reality, as being unrealistic, simply because they are traditional, without providing any superior alternatives.

And then there’s this:

Netherland is only superficially about September 11 or immigrants or cricket as a symbol of good citizenship. It certainly is about anxiety, but its worries are formal and revolve obsessively around the question of authenticity. Netherland sits at an anxiety crossroads where a community in recent crisis-the Anglo-American liberal middle class-meets a literary form in long-term crisis, the nineteenth-century lyrical Realism of Balzac and Flaubert.

Critiques of this form by now amount to a long tradition in and of themselves. Beginning with what Alain Robbe-Grillet called "the destitution of the old myths of ‘depth,’" they blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism’s metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental, the metaphorical, and go "back to the things themselves!"; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy. They all of them note the (often unexamined) credos upon which Realism is built: the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.

…Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?"

which brings up this from a previous post:

All Robbe-Grillet proffers is fatuous, though admittedly articulate and at times beautiful, drivel, condemning art’s search for ‘meaning’ as an ‘illusory simplification,’ suggesting that the novelist has traditionally and mistakenly sought to unearth fragments ‘of a disconcerting secret’ triumphantly describing the mystery ‘he had actually touched with his own hands’, reassuring readers ‘as to their power of domination over the world’ with the word functioning as a ‘trap in which the writer captured the universe in order to hand it over to society.’

A revolution he says, has already occurred against this ‘domesticate-able’ world, against belief in its ‘depth.’ And his glorious solution? Rejection of words of a ‘visceral, analogical, or incantatory character, and replacement of them with ‘the visual or descriptive adjective, the word that contents itself with measuring, locating, limiting, defining, indicates a difficult but most likely direction for a new art of the novel." In other words, with ‘realism.’ What a joke.

If Smith condemns O’Neill’s ‘realism’ as the bedside story that comforts us the most, and if she eschews the importance of form, the truth of language and the continuity of self, what on earth is she suggesting gets us closer to our condition? That everyone write like Beckett? And how, if she has an idea, does she plan to hold reader interest without use of plot, metaphor and style?

Evidently with a book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which "recognizes, with Szymborska’s poem, that we know, in the end, "less than little/And finally as little as nothing," and so tries always to acknowledge the void that is not ours, the messy remainder we can’t understand or control-the ultimate marker of which is Death itself."

If nothing else, Smith has succeeded in motivating me to read two books, which should at least keep the publishers happy.

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6 Responses to “Zadie Smith’s annoying Critique of ‘Realism’”

  1. Jake Says:

    It certainly is about anxiety, but its worries are formal and revolve obsessively around the question of authenticity.

      Maybe: but I’m not sure I buy it. The real concern to me seems not anxiety so much as longing, as I argued in a post about Netherland:  

    Hans is a family man and a more active character than Nick Carraway—while the latter functions chiefly as a reporter and is the conduit through which Gatsby flows, Hans is a stronger character in his own right and imprints more of his personality and views on events. Granted, that personality is most often dour and depressed, but it is unmediated by another character. Rachel, although more independent than, say, Daisy, nonetheless shares Daisy’s flatness, and both reify Leslie Fiedler’s argument regarding the juvenile male character of American literature, made in Love and Death in the American Novel. 

     Perhaps longing is a symptom of anxiety, but I might view it the other way around: with that longing for something, something God-like, as a kind of emptiness. In thinking about it, however, perhaps that’s the issue Smith dances around, and the perspectives are not so far apart.  

  2. Nigel Beale Says:

    What I find odd is that she says the book is about anxiety, and crisis in the modern middle class, and 19th century Realism…while at the same time saying it provides a perfect image of what realism is supposed to look like… if it raises anxieties about form, isn’t it doing what many po-mo novels do? How can it be both at the same time?


  3. Of Form and Content « A Practical Policy Says:

    [...] for the Novel. It can be enjoyed alongside a similarly uncomprehending attempt at a rejoinder, Zadie Smith’s annoying Critique of ‘Realism’, (sic!) from Nigel Beale.” – Mark [...]

  4. Travis Says:

    Hi Nigel, I like your site! I’m following a link from ReadySteadyBlog over here (they disagreed with you), and I do see your point. I’m not sure that Zadie Smith offers the right prescription for what she sees as an ailment. But I actually do think she’s on the mark in questioning the style of Netherland as the dominant literary fiction style (I guess it’s most interesting that this is the very style she’s been criticized for using, and that she is trying to find ways to improve what she reads and writes.) The problem with lyrical realism is that it wants to be "observant" of reality (think of that most sought-after of compliments from a reviewer that the Author is Very Observant) but really what even the best of it achieves is not usually recognizable as "real." It’s a style that lends itself to "perfection" synonymous with preciousness of a Shirley Temple sort, and to valuing everything at the expense of that which is important for the subject at hand.  And most troubling for me is the way in which this style seems to dovetail with the anti-plot sentiment among many current writers and critics (see: How Fiction Works or nearly every teacher in my MFA program.) Netherland’s plot sounds ridiculous, as ridiculously cute as that of another post-911 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I won’t say that Remainder’s sounds less ridiculous or more satisfying, or that it is more real, but I wonder if Smith means that the feelings generated from something as unsettling and uncommon as Remainder might ultimately be a better approximation of what post-911 felt like, despite it being off-topic. At any rate, I don’t look for Reality in the fiction I read, I just look for it to capture my imagination. I am sure that either of these two styles could do this for me, given the right book.

  5. | Some useful ideas. Says:

    [...] critique, however, has depth and complexity, unlike the open traditionalist Nigel Beale’s: If Smith condemns O’Neill’s ‘realism’ as the bedside story that comforts us the [...]

  6. | Some useful ideas. Says:

    [...] critique, however, has depth and complexity, unlike the open traditionalist Nigel Beale's: If Smith condemns O’Neill’s ‘realism’ as the bedside story that comforts us the [...]

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