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The hysteric moment

Novelists have increasingly faced the challenge of trying to compete with a culture that is a step ahead of them.

Just before Christmas five years ago, I spent an afternoon in the company of the novelist Zadie Smith and the literary critic James Wood (then of the New Republic, now of the New Yorker). I'd been asked by another magazine to oversee a conversation between Smith and Wood on "the future of the novel and the function of criticism". The idea was that they would continue a public colloquy that had begun in 2002, after Wood wrote a withering and pitiless review of Smith's second novel, The Autograph Man.

Wood had found the novel to be little more than a tissue of "smirking epigraphs" fatally in thrall to the example of American writers such as Dave Eggers and the late David Foster Wallace, of whom he mostly disapproved. Eggers and Wallace were practitioners of something he called "hysterical realism" and their novels burned brightly with an unnourishing sub-Dickensian dazzle. These were smart guys writing big, ambitious books that tried to do nothing less than pin down and analyse an entire culture. And while they were busy practising cultural theory by fictional means, the novel's traditional quarries of character and consciousness got left behind. (In fact, Wallace's case was much more complicated than Wood tended to make it seem, and he actually shared many of the critic's misgivings about the moral and aesthetic legacy of postmodernism, of which hysterical realism could be said to be a variant or tributary.)

By Wood's account, the "hysterical realist" novel - the novel of "information" which can't decide if its job is simply to reflect the cognitive superabundance of life under late capitalism or, as they say in seminar rooms from Berkeley to Bloomsbury, to critique it - had, by the early 2000s, become one of, if not the, dominant mode in British and American fiction. And The Autograph Man, whose protagonist is a half-Chinese, half-Jewish dealer in the signatures of dead celebrities, faithfully mimics its most distinctive narrative tics - Smith is always pointing out, for instance, "that her characters, on the brink of a momentous access of feeling, are undermined by their sense that they are not ­being original, that TV has preceded them". An observation, Wood suggested, that it "may be time to retire".

That same afternoon, Smith told me that she had taken Wood's review "to heart" - and, indeed, you could see signs of this in several of the critical essays she wrote during this period for the Guardian and the New York Review of Books. These were much more likely to cite E M Forster than David Foster Wallace. There were further indications of this shift in her third novel, On Beauty, published in 2005, which was altogether more decorous than either The Autograph Man or her debut, White Teeth, and which she described as a "homage" to Forster (the book borrows its structure explicitly from Howards End). Now she and Wood were in agreement: "the culture [was] doing strange things to novels". Smith confessed that she found the "idea that you can't write a book without it being put through the processing machine of culture really quite frightening".

So, this was the sound of a generation dis­covering for itself a predicament described by Philip Roth in a celebrated essay published more than 40 years earlier, where he'd written that "the actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist". For both Smith and Wood, none of their contemporaries had come closer to properly articulating these anxieties for the early 21st century than the American writer Jonathan Franzen. His sprawling third novel, The Corrections, published in 2001, was in part the product of several years' worth of agonised reflections on the place of fiction in a culture that was increasingly and aggressively indifferent to it.

In 1996, Franzen had written an essay for Harper's magazine, "Perchance to Dream", the arguments of which continued to reverberate in a certain stratum of the literary intelligentsia on both sides of the Atlantic in the early years of the new century. The "Harper's essay", as it became known, was both a 20-page howl of despair at the decline of the big, ambitious "social novel" that connects the personal with the societal and a kind of renunciation, in which Franzen declared that in fact the very idea of writing fiction which sought to "engage" with the culture should be given up, now that there are technologies - film and television, principally - that "do a much better job of social instruction".

That culture is so grossly productive of novelties that to engage with it, Franzen concluded, was to "risk writing fiction that [made] the same point over and over: technological consumerism is an infernal machine, technological consumerism is an infernal machine . . ." If the improving ­mission of the novel of social instruction was at an end, what was left was the solace of "sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them".

The Harper's essay wasn't merely programmatic, however. Much of its considerable interest lay in its account of the genesis of The Corrections (indeed, few reviewers were able to resist using the piece as a lens through which to view the novel). Franzen recalled being "para­lysed" with what would become The Corrections. "I was torturing the story, stretching it to accommodate ever more of those things-in-the-world that impinge on the enterprise of fiction writing." He found that he couldn't help bulking up his "story" until it became "bloated with issues". Liberation, he implied, arrived once he realised he wasn't obliged to dramatise the "important issues of the day".

But The Corrections is not wholly successful in extricating itself from the horns of this di­lemma. Franzen found that it was much harder to give up the impulse to anatomise the culture than the Harper's essay had implied. And his failure to do so was symptomatic. "There are certain places in that novel," Smith said, "and I know I've written them myself in my novels, where the engagement is not with the novel as an organic form, with the characters, with the story, but is a matter of coming straight up to face the writer. It's not the novel I want to write and it's maybe not the novel a lot of people want to read any more. If the novel is going to stake its claim to being a separate part of the culture, then it needs not to be direct commentary."

It is tempting, in retrospect, to read those remarks of Smith's as setting out a programme - one that comes to fruition in "Two Directions for the Novel", an essay included in her most recent book, Changing My Mind. Here she describes Tom McCarthy's intricate, allegorical novel Remainder as an attempt to answer the question of how fiction might stake its claim to being a "separate part of the culture". But it is not clear from this how far she, and we, have travelled, because the dichotomy Smith presents - between the realist novel and the self-enclosed allegory - is pretty much the same one that Franzen was trying to think his way out of at the start of the decade.

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain