Against narrative

In the About section of this blog devoted to narrative, I used to fret that narrative seems to inhibit reflection, or at least is in tension with other ways of exploring meaning: I’d noticed in writing a memoir the pressure of the constant “and then” of the story. But a friend questioned what I meant and I couldn’t defend my tentative insight. So it was exciting to see a writer boldly go there—in fact he mounted a sustained attack on narrative—in an address at last week’s Ohio University Spring Literary Festival sponsored by the English department’s creative writers.

David Shields made clear he was also fretting, and speaking for himself, before confessing to an auditorium of writers that he’s sick of seeing the creaky techniques of narrative coming at him. Deeply read and the author of nine books, an English professor at the University of Washington, Shields gave an erudite talk that made me feel uneducated, timid, and very traditional. His books include an acclaimed novel, Dead Languages, and a bestselling new work of nonfiction, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll be Dead. He based his talk on his book forthcoming in 2010 from Knopf, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.

For Shields, the nontraditional lyric and collage essay forms have David Shieldssupplanted the traditional novel as a means of knowing and investigating the world. “The motor of the novel is story; the motor of the essay is thought,” he said. “I’m not drawn to literature because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. Making up a story or characters feels, to me, like driving a car in a clown suit.”

He came to this epiphany in the mid-1990s while working on his fourth novel, which collapsed—he couldn’t commit himself to working out its plot and character—and in its wreckage emerged his first nonfiction book, Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity. Shields wants to eliminate the “delusion and contrivance” of fictional characterization. “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art,” he said. “I and like-minded writers and artists want the veil of ‘let’s pretend’ out.”

Some of his other assertions:

• “Although great novels—novelly novels—are still being written, a lot of the most interesting things are happening on the fringes of several forms. I write stuff one inch from life, but all the art is in that inch. Tell the Truth but tell it slant. Genre is a minimum-security prison. All great works found a genre or dissolve one.”

• “The world exists. Why recreate it? I want to think about it, try to understand it. What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Nonfiction is a framing device to foreground contemplation. Fiction is ‘Once upon a time.” Essay is ‘I have an idea.’ I don’t seek to narrate time but to investigate existence. Time must die.”

• “Serious plumbing of consciousness, not flashing of narrative legerdemain, helps us understand another human being. I have a strong reality gene. I don’t have a huge pyrotechnic imagination that luxuriates in other worlds. People will say, ‘It was so fascinating to read this novel that took place in Greenland. I just loved living inside another world for two weeks.’ That doesn’t, I must say, interest me that much.”

• “The play Hamlet is, more than anything else, the person Hamlet talking about a multitude of different topics. I find myself wanting to ditch the tired old plot altogether and just harness the voice, which is a processing machine, taking input and spitting out perspective—a lens, a distortion effect. He would keep riffing forever if it weren’t for the fact that the plot needs to kill him.”

• “The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they’re both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems. One could say that fiction, indirectly, is a pursuit of knowledge, but the essay and the poem more urgently attempt to figure something out about the world.”

• “A conversational dynamic is built into the essay form: the writer argues with himself; the writer argues with the reader. The essay enacts doubt; it embodies it as a genre. First person is where you can be more interesting; you don’t have to have to be much but a stumbling fool. The wisdom here is more precious than in the sage overview, which in many writers makes me nearly puke. No more masters, no more masterpieces. What I want (instead of God the novelist) is self-portrait in a convex mirror.”

• “When the mimetic function is replaced by manipulation of the original, we’ve arrived at collage. The very nature of collage demands fragmented materials, or at least materials yanked out of context. Collage is, in a way, only an accentuated act of editing: picking through options and presenting a new arrangement . . . The act of editing may be the key postmodern artistic instrument. Our lives aren’t prepackaged along narrative lines and, therefore, by its very nature, ‘reality’-based art—unprocessed, uncut, underproduced—splinters and explodes.”

• “Collage is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled; it’s an evolution beyond narrative. The novel is dead. Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps. Absence of plot gives the reader the chance to think about something other than turning pages. In collage, we read for penetration of the material rather than elaboration of story. I like work that’s focused page by page, line by line, on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative.”

• “Collage implies brevity. You don’t need a story. The question is how long you don’t need a story. Omission is a form of creation. Cut to the chase. My ambition is to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book—what everyone else does not say in a book.  I remember in grad school telling my girlfriend that I wanted to forge a form that would house only epiphanies—such presumption—but now, twenty-five ears later, I feel as if I’ve stumbled into something approximating that. I want the overt meditation that yields (at least an attempt at) understanding, as opposed to a lengthy narrative that yields—what?—I suppose a sort of extended readerly interest in what happens next.”

It seems to me that a writer wants to tell a story and wonders if he can in the form he envisions. Next he doubts his chosen form, its conventions and constraints. Next he examines the cultural grab-bag from which he borrowed. Finally, to greater or lesser degree, he begins to consciously work out his own aesthetic.

Shields is out on the bleeding edge of artistic desire.

The mass of readers will always want narrative, but a growing minority will respond to innovative forms. To me, narrative does seem necessary for greatest emotional resonance. Truly the delivery system is gooey: narrative is as humble as our flesh. But stories affect us because when a writer shows us things happening we decode them in our very bones. Actions speak, in our own interpretations, as in life: the partial answers narratives contain are your own answers, however inarticulate. 

After graciously emailing me a copy of his talk, Shields and I corresponded briefly and I asked him about my narrative-is-necessary theory. He said he’s interested in stories but believes most narrative doesn’t serve a larger theme or contribute to emotional resonance. Ninety-nine percent of narrative, he told me, is “pure machinery.”

Alas, a postscript: It was clear at the conference that Shields’s sally upset some people—a prominent poet pointedly described his work from the podium as narrative—but later I learned how upset a widely published fiction writer was. And a professor who teaches doctoral writing students said they analyzed Shields’s tract and declared that it formed a . . . narrative of his discontent.

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6 Comments

Filed under aesthetics, craft, technique, creative nonfiction, essay-collage, essay-lyric, evolutionary psychology, fiction, memoir, narrative, poetry, theme

6 responses to “Against narrative

  1. John

    Fascinating!

  2. Thanks for introducing me to an absolutely irresistible person whose concepts have literally and suddenly shifted the way I think about literature—and maybe the world. I wonder what he thinks about why Homer scrambled the narrative of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, something that’s always troubled me, not to mention scores of classical scholars. Both “books” (they were really oral tales) are exemplary examples of storytelling, but why not follow the story’s time line?

  3. Narrative in a traditional, formal sense of actions from A to B to C often has its limitations, as does every other form including the lyric essay, but I do think that a sense of narrative — an underlying story or connection of thoughts — is what gives a poem or lyric essay or article or novel its thrust and its purpose. Rambling words and thoughts can coexist on a page together, but in order for those words and thoughts to form a cohesive whole — even when that whole is written on the fringes of form or brings together unexpected images and ideas — there must be some method of logic behind them that connects them.

    Fascinating viewpoint and commentary. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Joe

    Driving through town in a clown suit might be silly, yes, and even a bit contrived. But fifteen years from now, all the kids who saw that clown driving that car will, as adults, remember the day they saw it. The rest of the cars, those driven by the normal people, will be forgotten; along with all their great ideas.

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