Tuesday, 29 September 2009

A Diverting But Intellectually Hollow Blog Post

We live in an age of overwhelming paranoia and self-awareness. Well, I do, at least.

This morning, I was musing (over some muesli) on the role of self-awareness in contemporary fiction. Ever since
Dave Eggers legitimised the role of the twitchily self-conscious narrator in his Promethean doorstopper A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, millions of would-be staggering geniuses have dabbled in the realm of ‘self-aware’ fiction, or ‘metafiction’ as some label it – I don’t. Then again, I am a bespectacled bumfinger.

Now, you might be wondering why I put myself down like that. Well, I’ll tell you, dopey-doo. This self-deprecating character trait is infiltrating our books! In life, we are surrounded by hundreds of people who are unsure of themselves: charming folks who are constantly aware of being found out to be hopeless, incompetent and ludicrously idiotic. This is understandable. We are. I am.

In the olden days, we bit our tongue and carried on regardless, hoping no one would out us as useless. Nowadays, we express our fears through giddiness and excessive dithering – “Oh, what do I do? Oh, what if I mess it up? Oh, I’m such a clumsy idiot!” – as though we’re living in a Jennifer Aniston vehicle. Well, I do.

So how does this impede upon fiction? Well, I recently wrote a book addressing this question: what if fiction meta-stasises itself so much, we reach a state of pretentious deadlock? A neverending cycle of continuous self-referential hogwash – a self-regurgitating series of books referencing themselves, the other books being written during the writing of these books, and the books about books that attempt to be books in their own right. Still with me? No? I don’t blame you.

My book was an (attempted) satire on Eggers’ hatched phenomenon. Although it’s amusing to have books poking fun at themselves and other books – there becomes a point when this grows tiresome. Like the person constantly questioning their every move and requiring reassurance about the quality of their actions (how we love a pat on the head from time to time), after two weeks in their company, you want to stab their nipples off.

I believe we live in an age permeated by so much self-awareness, and literary awareness (esp. the nothing-is-new-only-reworked syndrome), that the future of fiction will fork out twofold: self-consciously throwback novels. i.e. novels that acknowledge their tradition and attempt new things, and self-consciously ‘original’ novels. i.e. novels that acknowledge their form and arrogantly attempt to prove there is still such a concept as literary innovation.

The latter is the most reassuring to me. True innovators can whiff out a passé trend at fifty paces and pioneer their own cutthroat ideas that go on to spawn the next passé trend. So, although literature might stumble from one passé trend to the other, while this trend is new, dazzling and original, we should appreciate it as a temporal but outstanding piece of genius, and lap it up. The greatest crime of the novelist is mining the same concept ad nauseam. Diversification is good, silly-cheeks.

Then again, I am so enamoured with the self-referential quirks of modern fiction, I doubt these will escape my writing for quite some time. For, as you might have been able to detect by my overwhelming use of the word ‘self’ – there is no one more interesting to write about than me.

May fiction crawl inside itself and snuggle up tight for many years to come.


  1. Not much of a fan of Eggers, really. Read his monster book and found well... monsterous. But then, we're all entitled our petty opinions. (I know mine are.) The good news is that fads change, but good writing has a way of cropping up... not often, but it does happen ... inspite of the god awful "literary" trends.

    Enjoyed your blog post.

  2. I read this whole thing. Not one word about me - not one. And it's a cheap shot to get luscious Lydia to front for you. Here I’m hoping for another shot of her legs and all I get is you and your IDEAS. A credible substitution, I’ll admit, but you need to go a bit longer to get that pedantic quality all intellectual musings possess. Keep thinking, Grasshopper, the door will open.

  3. Mick: Yes, Eggers certainly divided people but united the critics. I hate when that happens.

    Derek: Why should I mention you? What have you done for me lately? Plus, pedantry would involve me sticking to an opinion and preaching, when I need the freedom to hop hop hop around like a good grasshopper.

    Thanks for the patronising.

  4. I like the fact that you didn't mention me: it gives me the chance for me to mention me, or my self, actually. Self-reference is by definition about oneself, right? If the post had been about Derek, it would have been derekrential.

    Oops, I forgot to mention me...Me.

    Keep up the musing, Mark. I love reading this stuff.

  5. Let me apologise in advance. As those who've seen my forum persona know, I often tend to 'take things seriously' and begin a lecture. Unless I'm feeling frivolous.
    So, first,
    I loved "Post Modern..." when I last read it.
    OK, time to become boring.

    You've provided so many meaty things to get stuck into! Let's start at the top:
    1. Self-awareness, and that's how you've used the term here, can be an euphanism for the attempt to disapear up your own arse. I remember a comedy sketch where Elenor Bron stared into a mirror to begin the process of "I'm here to find myself". For others, and I include myself, it's just a matter of coming to terms with who you are and what's important to you.

    I'll skip down a bit.

    2. "Bite our tongue and carry on regardless"
    Why do you assign that to 'in the olden days'? The majority still do.
    I'm always impressed at the way so many remain obstinately determined to remain an amateur at everything they do, including their own lives.
    How about this; Introspect a bit, put the results into practice for a bit, do a reality check and, if necessary, refine it until it works or proves a failure. Repeat frequently.

    Skip again, get to what really raises my IRE!

    3. The twin myths, 'There's nothing New" and "We must be new and exciting". Both are bullshit.
    Look at the development of an individual. We start with some potentials but are relatively blank pages. We see, experience and absorb. Along the way, we make selections. Given a planet of 6.78 billion people, there is neither a unique physical characteristic nor (probably) a single unique concept. Does that mean no-one is original?
    Far from it, it is the collection/combination that makes up the individual that is distinctly original.
    The same goes for any work of literature. From the bottom end of the scale, formulaic clones, to the top end 'original fiction'.

    I posted on both a forum and a Facebook entry, this seeking for something that 'shocks/stuns/knocks my socks off' is the cry of a cynical/jaded fart.

    For (can I swear here OK?) f*cks sake, isn't the criteria "Did I enjoy it, maybe learn something from it?"

    We've allowed the Art Gallery mentality to invade literature. The fake "takes/must be a Genius", the "can I make a fortune selling it on" and the "I've forced my eyes shut, see if you can rip them open" crap.
    And to justify ourselves, (well, actually, I exclude myself here), we (you/they) say we are responding to public demand - and it's a f*cking lie.

    Lecture over.

  6. Mike, you have got to get off that island from time to time.

    Mark, life is a bowl full of neon raspberries. Sometimes a little milk and sugar helps.

    Chris, just mentioning you so your feelings aren’t hurt.

  7. Derek: You're right.

    This morning water cut, then broadband cut, followed by phone cut, rapidly followed by power cut. Cellphone service denied.
    Early this this afternoon, water back, but all waste water outlets back-up and flood the place. Then power and phone back, but no Internet.
    Finally, late evening, broadband and cell phone back.
    Meanwhile, I've had to postpone all swimming lessons because the pool is dark green, having not been maintained for two weeks.

    I hate everyone and want to have a go at everyone.

    It'll pass.

  8. Hey Mike. Welcome to Blogger. You broke your cherry with a flamingly good rant.

    You're right that we don't have to be "new and exciting" buuuuttt... isn't this a far greater aim to strive for than being idiosyncratically ourselves?

    I do appreciate what each writer brings to the table when I read them, and these nuances certainly make them dyanmic and engaging. Most of them, however, are innovators, as well as being distinctly themselves.

    Crap news about the blackout. I have a spare light bulb you can borrow, and Derek has an old house free.

    DEREK DEREK DEREK IS WONDERFUL! (Just to keep him happy).

  9. I fully accept that the British comedian, and writer, Spike Milligan was an innovator, trail blazer, and an all round amazing guy. He was also, at times, an incredibly over-indulgent bore. Especially in the later days, some of his comedy sketches were often all about his team having fun at the cost of failing to entertain. Like the Emperors's New Clothes, many were afraid of his reputation, remembered his genius and refused to acknowledge this - still labelling the most boring and hack sketches 'a work of a mad genius'. Bullshit! His fame just allowed him to dispense with all self-control

    Earlier I used the word - 'entertainment'.
    It has it's heritage in Wandering Minstrels, vaudeville, camp fire storytellers, and the best writers (of fact and fiction).

    No matter what the genre, irrespective of particular writing style, that should be our goal surely?

    Entertaining isn't, necessarily, getting a belly laugh or perfecting hitting the lowest common denominator.
    It doesn't exclude making us cry, think, puzzle.
    It shouldn't be faked, like dramatic music in a poorly written/enacted film scene - though the odd, loud, "Boo" in a campfire ghost story can work wonders..

    Milan Kundera once perfectly captured an "I'm a personality, individual" scenario.
    An 'outlandishly' dressed latecomer at a ball sweeps into the room, shouting her "Darlings, I'm here" at the perfect pitch and volume to destroy all conversations. She sweeps everyone out of her way as she locates the best 'centre stage' position to hold audience.
    And the spell-bound, easily impressed laud her as 'a true eccentric, a genius, a wonderful individual'.

    Truthfully though, any idiot can blow raspberries, fart and yell 'fuck' in polite company.

    It is sometimes great to have such a 'personality' as a character in our fiction, but not to act it out in real life.

    To me, such behaviour only has merit if done to deliberately prick the balloon of some hidebound tight arse - and that is best achieved by never losing that self-control, and by inwardly laughing at your own act.

    Sadly, so many of those attempting to either be or seek out 'innovators' forget those elements of control and sense of reality.
    Hence we still hear the written form of verbal diarrhea being hailed as innovative or genius.

    It probably will result in my rarely having anything published, but I refuse to even vaugely consider how to become 'innovative'.

  10. I see what you're saying, but I would argue the best innovators are in control of their talents enough to walk the line between entertainment, creating characters with addictive personalities and pushing the "innovation" too far.

    I certainly agree that many so-called "genius" novelists can be a bloated bag of wind, but I think we need to judge each novel on its merits, rather than snarling at those attempting something different.

    You certainly don't need to be innovative in today's literary climate. In fact, it's better to write accessible fiction for niche markets that attempt to become the new James Joyce. There have been thousands of new James Joyces already.

    All that matters (to me) is quality.

  11. I'm neither knocking innovation nor snarling at those attempting 'something different'.
    I'm just suggesting that the deliberate attempt for it's own sake is often foolhardy.

    I believe that how you handle something should just come naturally from the nature of what you are tackling.

    Saying something boring in a new and innovative way does not change the fact it is a boring idea.

    Tackling something important in a simple and easy to understand way does not devalue the concept, it just aids communication.

    The exception is when we are undertaking an intellectual excercise.
    Wow, he used 'dog', 'fart', 'eclipse of the sun' and 'pregnancy' in a single concise sentence while utilising five different languages - and it works. Wow.
    That could genuinely be an admirable achievement - seriously.

    There are quite a few books I love that really are intellectual excercises. If you have the time, read Herman Hesse's "Glass Bead Game". It certainly breaks my rule of 'be entertaining', but for a very valid reason.

    Truism time: Horses for courses!

  12. More or less agreed there, sir. Let's draw this debate to a healthy close.

    Herman Hesse is humorless to me, but that novel is somewhere on my "to read" list.