By CONOR ROBIN MADIGAN.
Purely intellectualized, consciously derived art is congenial to the age, because it is easy, and therefore democratic. It can be made to happen on a whim, without the long experience of apprenticeship leading to skill, and without the necessity for intuition, both of which are in part gifts, and therefore unpredictable and undemocratic.
—Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary
WHEN I GAUGE the quality of a novel, when I test the prose by reading closely — using minutiae to peel away edges and find joy or pathos within — I find I have come to know the work best I can; this is a trusted phenomena of criticism: that we ‘know’ many others before we learn a new work within their likenesses. Knowing many other works would show that ‘new’ literature, or ‘good’, or ‘great’ literature shares form or, previously known, language or sense. How bashful I am to criticize, to strip down and qualify poor work new and old. But once I do, heartily, I am better. Until I see large, critical inquiries of poorly written work front and center, until I see genuine disagreement and outright verbal sparring, I know I have not encouraged a marketplace inclusive of literature, and more importantly, of the literary novel.
The major charge against recent novelists should be their works’ quickness and ease of reading. This notion that we’re all supposed to lose ourselves in the drama and course of character’s lives without so much as a pause to admire the construction of prose, the shades and subtleties of human nature, an idiosyncratic metaphor, or simply a courageous outburst from the novelist at our elbow ready to tug at our shirt to alert us to these wonders of prose’s delights, comes from one particular group of the business side of writing and reading: the agents. It is clear, from criticisms within their submissions policies, that they are the number and power majeure disinclining young novelists their right to young, disorganized, hapless novels more often the death knell of the old-easy-sell to an audience as fickle as it is dull, vapid and tiresome until it is uproarious, praising and buying. Agencies wish to democratize skill, to impose rules upon and show their authors the way to write prose. The prose, the workhorse, mule, and local fox whose brush (Hardy) flits within the hedgerows awaiting its bloody five-course meal in the henhouse, has declined to simple, erudite, schematic, fact-based, legalistic, and often childish, renderings of the English language once taut, grasping, elusive, possible, changing, and intuitive. Now transparency; now fixity; now predictable outcomes in the literary marketplace. No wonder the United States was seen as the place where the artist withers and dies. Extend that generalized sentiment to the novelist, the wage earner, the sick, the high-school educated, the born-poor, the non-white, and the Outsider.
And in that sense, that we’re masticating the best of our young novelists into pulp by telling them to get out of their own way (go to more school, find an agent, sign a contract), the novel declines, along with society’s expectations, into a mechanistic drive toward repetition and output. No more will we flip a page wondering, or well in wonderment, within language, but simply flip pages to flip them to get to the point where we know a work well enough to say something about it to prove we’ve digested its high-fructose prose and on to the next, the list growing longer proving we’re somehow the best readers ever and anywhere because look how many, how much, how tall, how rich, how thin; how preposterous.
The evidence of meaningful, short, first novels changing us (society) has been with us for a good long time. No one wants to accept that William Golding, after working his pants off to write a good novel in his lifetime, had written the best on his first try at 224 pages. It’s a painful truth. The Inheritors wasn’t so bad, but that the message seemed pounded throughout with a hammer: humans are carnivorous, cannibalistic destroyers. I’ll not list the first-rejected-then-accepted-then-nobel-prize-winning-authors, because that list is very likely in its many versions online. And who cares? And even if it’s three, that’s a lot. What exactly do we take away from first novels and their authors’ subsequent, mostly dull rubbish-heap work? Is it the author? Has the author made the mistake of hearing, trusting, and thinking they know that the resounding chorus of do-this, do-that, makes their work better? The imaginative freshness of the author’s “first prose” has been commoditized, dulled, killed. Soon will follow 590-pages of droll images, thriller plots, and ochre bodies hungering or hungover, and characters hiding, wanting and finding in paced perfection, fast prose; so say the critics.
Suspend, for a moment, your qualifications as a reader, author, or professor, and listen to the voice inside most present when we listen to Bach, especially The Goldberg Variations. If you listen to them all, most of you will experience a kind of brief and wondrous daze wherein the lyrical treats of harmony and drops into minor and out into quiet major will make your mind wander. You yourself may still be listening to music, and you will be thinking about pasta, or grapes, Jane or Tom; but, you will not be very distracted by the notes, shifts, and phrases in their movements or beauty, which carry you along, affecting your thought and its pace. Unlike music, the novel intends to whole-hog transverse consciousness and retrain your internal speaking voice to listen to yourself sing the narrator’s prose. It’s a commendable trick (about which John Carey has written, and I will leave it to his essays on reading in Pure Pleasure), one young and old writers come to produce, but in very different ways.
and without the necessity for intuition
We know through brain imaging that young writers, early writers, first-time novelists, short story writers, prose writers, activate that part of the mind implying they are seeing, hearing, in an imagined place other than their actual own place, space, time. Older writers, those barnacled humans with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in more contemporary times, of words under their fingers, scan differently; their brains are, more than imagining and being in a world, typing out prose, as if taking dictation from someone somewhere inside. There are varying degrees of this, explicitly, and, through no fault of imaging, the mind is doing a lot more than we want the imaging to tell us it’s doing (actively not participating to allow other parts of the mind to do so).1
What would it mean that older authors are taking dictation? One could hypothesize that their brains have turned writing into a task of passive listening, where the occupation of the entire brain has shifted from imagining, or wandering, or intuiting narrative, to a more concrete knowing of narrative, of the world they’ve already created, and thus they merely interpret, scan, and type out known prose.
without the long experience of apprenticeship leading to skill
Young authors, then, with their minds in active, intuitive states of creation, make hundreds of errors per chapter, and divine the way forward in a seeming trance-like concentration, without the skill and typing abilities, but more to the point with the central role of the narrative and its connection to the narrative as the lead for “their” prose—the voice within spilling the content without. Their hemisphere lateralization isn’t yet strong. I heard a writer once call what the young author does free-writing, but this to me is a cop-out of terminology, philology, and conscience (detrimentally sacrificed in order to appear and sound officious, the nadir of security). “That’s just free-writing” was the sentence describing a fourteen-year-old, waking every day at eight to write a novel and writing one; now lost. The fat toe of naming intuitive prose as free-writing is pejorative judgment flat-footed in the presumption of genius or efficacy through practice, over time, and due, in part, to the seasoned author’s personal trials. Here enhanced lateralization through practice over time is championed as non-free writing, or writing that has been conquered, known, grasped, employed—and to me the concept is deeply flawed and leads to the subjugation of the intuitive and implicit within language rather than providing clarity through explicitness. The young author, having not lived long enough to experience tribulation, rejection, harsh criticism, bad book sales, failed contracts, etc. cannot possibly produce the work of the novel that can change our understanding of heart, humanity, or our pinpoint, teetering existence—much less explain or know how he did it (which to some flat-footers is more important than the doing it in the first instance). The implication is misdirected and obscured by nonsensical rationalizations about the nature of creative novelty in the young, and the mechanistic approach the last hundred years has developed to “teach” writing. The first-prose produced, flawed, horrendously long, malapropism studded, incorrect, spurious, heavily narrated, poorly narrated, shifted within view, odd tics, behaviors of word usage, dated language, cannot be judged until is it edited, drafted at least four times, and produced. Nonsensical to think otherwise. Misdirected, because what the seasoned pro writes is, technically, more free-writing than anything a novice does. (Accessible prose, in the most jarring way, is a free-reading and thus a free-writing; whereas you participate in a good read and the more participation, the more engagement, the more time spent within the epiphany of hearing the song of sense; the better the work: all of Henry James’s earliest works).
Editing books was once done daily, thousands of times, in many small rooms in New York, on the telephone, at lunch, in stairwells, and often in tears, but done, with brand new, young, persnickety and fun authors. The education of the first novel was something of a badge of honor for editors. A diamond in their pockets. They had found diamonds in the rough, and had helped a soul bring the work to its lustrous debut. No more. School and spellcheck have destroyed this honest first go at the novel, and the education that can come from working with an editor who has read and edited more work than any writer, reader, or critic: Avid Reader, Robert Gottlieb. The MFA in English departments (I strongly defend MFAs connected to art schools, full disclosure: because I did that and got to meet a generation of artists to boot) drains the lifeblood of the first novel, coaxing from authors the shortest form, the easier to educate on-paged-ness. Let’s dissect that for a moment.
and therefore unpredictable and undemocratic
You take a mind who wants to sit down and spill on the page for 50-80k-words, and make them write 360-1000 words, critique her attempt, draw conclusions from her having-had-a-go at your prompt, and length. Then, after seventeen- or thirty-or-so of these, in differing classes, with some lengths approaching short-story lengths accepted at University Press Lit Mags, tier 4 (mostly unpaid), 10k-words, you’re endowed with an MFA. Maybe you taught a few classes to undergraduates. Maybe you helped start a micro-press. Maybe you helped edit two magazines, who subsequently published your work. After all that, then, you’re a person supposed to be ready to write a novel? The novel was there the moment she sat down to write 50-80k-words! the skill and intuition were his inner-voice and his vigilant attention to that voice. How these authors get trapped into thinking they needed guidance before an editor isn’t his fault, and though we’d like to think it’s the University’s fault for having MFA degrees at all, it’s not. It’s publishing. It’s agencies. It’s the lack of editorial pay. It’s also the lack of editors who have the time, willpower, and money to do their jobs (which is to help/correct/enable the author to bring their manuscripts to its true might, even if it’s a quiet, shaking, shadowy, dreary novel (full of homonyms) about a teenager from upstate/downstate/backcountry).
Again, we’re mismatched with what the commoditization of prose has done to our world. Our editors are rarely stationed in a job for more than a few years. Our authors are driven to produce accessible prose, obviated by Donna Tartt and others who had drastically more artful first novels than their ongoing slew of mediocre plot-heavy, munster-cheese variety sandwich-stacked chapter-books. And the marketplace sops it all up and in the very beginning, even with a brilliant new first book, makes a hardback filled with newsprint. No more golden-edged hardbacks with acid-free paper; no more thick pages worth their weight. And what happened to our mid-list authors? Their mediocre pages have been out-democratized somehow. They have stepped down to minor- and micro-league publishers who, yes are supportive, wonderful, and magical, acid-free hardback, soft-back, French leaf, and all that, but you don’t see the kind of placement, push, or constancy there—you see a lot of last books from authors prevalent in the 80’s and 90’s, who started out in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Get out of the way! Good luck finding Thomas Hardy or Marquez, Muriel Spark or Achebe among their tenured, ice-cream-and-sprinkle world of good fortune, good times, and spankingly good editors from yesteryear. They were the beginning of this problem: the over-hyped, over-educated, typists of yore.
So, where to?
Here’s the thing: readership climbs, new writers take up the rope. After the children got their fix of Harry Potter, they and their parents found written word again. It’s not well-written, it’s not very affecting, and it doesn’t have the philosophical staying power of Hunger or the eloquent high-detail of Middlemarch, but it caused people to read and engage, much as Bulwer and Ainsworth. Where we look ahead we must in fact look behind a little (not to Bulwer and Ainsworth, but close). It’s only fitting we should find our future works solidly placed in the Romantic era, the Victorian era, stories of beware, be scared, that activated within our reading public the worry, fear, and empathy that brought us together. Frankenstein still sits atop the pile. And quiet followers of those tombs, William Trevor, Penelope Fitzgerald, Bernard Malamud, Sandor Marai, Faulkner, Austen, the Brontes, and yes Melville (most contemporary readers cannot read him or the author of The Scarlet Letter), Flaubert and Maupassant, Zyranna Zateli, Robert Walser, many more I cannot even begin to demand young people read—but then I’m reminded this whole concept of read-to-better-write plays only the tune that uninformed, ill-read, unshaped, backyard pounding minds cannot produce finest of fine novels. And that’s really where we need to go. Novels, unlike the visual arts, cannot be happened upon and immediately successful. A urinal cannot take the show. The mind that produces them will be wily and kind, empathetic and dreamy, anxious and depressed, woeful and hopeful, young, young, young; those stories we need anew are likely the re-beaten hides of old—and we shouldn’t ignore them for seeming familiar, but praise them for reiteration of ancient odes, or novelty of reiteration through diabolical prose. And at that, the way forward isn’t democratic, but difficult, unpredictable, singular and messy, but ultimately dominating, cyclical and changing, far-reaching and timeless. Our family must expand from the Cannon and its Anti-Cannon to the islands, the deserts, and the third world, and non-West, where narrative and story have different values, maybe even to a backyard in South Dakota, to where they can be valued not for their commodity but their grace, and their having found their first-prose.
CONOR ROBIN MADIGAN is the author of Cut Up, and several short stories. His fiction has been in The Saturday Evening Post‘s Great Fiction Anthology, and elsewhere. He is at work on a novel cycle.
- Professional training in creative writing is associated with enhanced fronto-striatal activity in a literary text continuation task, Erhard K, Kessler F, Neumann N, Ortheil HJ, Lotze M, Neuroimage. 2014 Oct 15; 100:15-23.