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241

The Invisible Vocation

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Batuman, E. (2014). The Invisible Vocation. In ? (ed) MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp. 241-262

248

[...] What was missing from the older literary forms, in other words, wasn’t social justice, but the passage of time—a dimension the novel was specifically engineered to capture. The novelistic hero is by definition someone whose life experience hasn’t yet been fully described, possibly because of his race or class, but more broadly because he didn’t exist before, and neither did the technology for describing him. The durability and magic of the novel form lies in the fact that, having gained a certain level of currency, the latest novel is immediately absorbed into the field of preexisting literature, and becomes the thing the next novel has to be written against. In this dialectic, the categories of outsider and insider are in constant flux. For an outsider to become an insider isn’t ironic or paradoxical: it’s just the way things work.

—p.248 by Elif Batuman 2 years, 3 months ago

[...] What was missing from the older literary forms, in other words, wasn’t social justice, but the passage of time—a dimension the novel was specifically engineered to capture. The novelistic hero is by definition someone whose life experience hasn’t yet been fully described, possibly because of his race or class, but more broadly because he didn’t exist before, and neither did the technology for describing him. The durability and magic of the novel form lies in the fact that, having gained a certain level of currency, the latest novel is immediately absorbed into the field of preexisting literature, and becomes the thing the next novel has to be written against. In this dialectic, the categories of outsider and insider are in constant flux. For an outsider to become an insider isn’t ironic or paradoxical: it’s just the way things work.

—p.248 by Elif Batuman 2 years, 3 months ago
251

Ironically, a preoccupation with historic catastrophe actually ends up depriving the novel of the kind of historical consciousness it was best suited to capture. The effect is particularly clear in the “maximalist” school of recent fiction, which strives, as McGurl puts it, to link “the individual experience of authors and characters to the kinds of things one finds in history textbooks”: “war, slavery, the social displacements of immigration, or any other large-scale trauma”; historical traumas, McGurl explains, confer on the novel “an aura of ‘seriousness’ even when, as in Pynchon or Vonnegut, the work is comic. Personal experience so framed is not merely personal experience,” a fact that “no amount of postmodern skepticism … is allowed to undermine.” The implication is that “personal experience” is insufficient grounds for a novel, unless it is entangled in a “large-scale trauma”—or, worse yet, that an uncompelling (or absent) story line can be redeemed by a setting full of disasters.

This is the kind of literary practice James Wood so persuasively condemned under the rubric of “hysterical realism” (“Toby’s mad left-wing aunt was curiously struck dumb when Mrs. Thatcher was elected prime minister”). Diachronicity is cheaply telegraphed by synchronic cues, and history is replaced by big-name historical events, often glimpsed from some “eccentric” perspective: a slideshow-like process, as mechanical as inserting Forrest Gump beside Kennedy at the White House. As Wood points out, the maximalist fetishization of history is actually antihistoric: the maximalist novel “carries within itself, in its calm profusion of characters and plots, its flawless carpet of fine prose on page after page, a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added.”

—p.251 by Elif Batuman 2 years, 3 months ago

Ironically, a preoccupation with historic catastrophe actually ends up depriving the novel of the kind of historical consciousness it was best suited to capture. The effect is particularly clear in the “maximalist” school of recent fiction, which strives, as McGurl puts it, to link “the individual experience of authors and characters to the kinds of things one finds in history textbooks”: “war, slavery, the social displacements of immigration, or any other large-scale trauma”; historical traumas, McGurl explains, confer on the novel “an aura of ‘seriousness’ even when, as in Pynchon or Vonnegut, the work is comic. Personal experience so framed is not merely personal experience,” a fact that “no amount of postmodern skepticism … is allowed to undermine.” The implication is that “personal experience” is insufficient grounds for a novel, unless it is entangled in a “large-scale trauma”—or, worse yet, that an uncompelling (or absent) story line can be redeemed by a setting full of disasters.

This is the kind of literary practice James Wood so persuasively condemned under the rubric of “hysterical realism” (“Toby’s mad left-wing aunt was curiously struck dumb when Mrs. Thatcher was elected prime minister”). Diachronicity is cheaply telegraphed by synchronic cues, and history is replaced by big-name historical events, often glimpsed from some “eccentric” perspective: a slideshow-like process, as mechanical as inserting Forrest Gump beside Kennedy at the White House. As Wood points out, the maximalist fetishization of history is actually antihistoric: the maximalist novel “carries within itself, in its calm profusion of characters and plots, its flawless carpet of fine prose on page after page, a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added.”

—p.251 by Elif Batuman 2 years, 3 months ago