Stephen Marche at Salon sees the backlash from Robbe-Grillet-style avant-garde writing towards realism and traditional novelistic structure as a source of stagnation in English writing (why he doesn't consider consider French writing more thoroughly, though, is puzzling). While Marche admits that Robbe-Grillet was "a great champion for the innovative novel," he believes the inaccessibility of Robbe-Grillet's work led to a literary backlash. "After him," Marche write, "literary innovation, experiment with form or anything mildly unconventional came to be seen as pretentious and dry, the proper domain of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys and nobody else."
English fiction in the wake of Robbe-Grillet has become a deliberately
old-fashioned activity, like archery or churning your own butter. He
represented, through his status as cultural icon of the avant-garde, an entire
generation that turned literary experimentation into self-involved blandness. In
the '50s, writers like Nabokov could produce "Pale Fire" or "Lolita" and feel
themselves part of the mainstream of literary culture. After the '60s, after
Robbe-Grillet, anyone who experimented in fiction was being consciously
marginal, or at least countercultural. Thomas Pynchon(Nabokov's student) removed
himself in the most dramatic way; Nicholson Baker is another, quieter example.
Robbe-Grillet not only convinced a generation of talented novelists
that there was something vulgar about attracting a popular readership but also
lost the war he undertook to fight; the reaction against him was so much
stronger than the revolution. It is entirely appropriate that six months before
Robbe-Grillet died, James Wood became the principal literary critic at the New
Yorker. He is the master and commander of the forces of archaism. Whenever I
read a James Wood essay, I feel like I'm entering an oak-paneled club where I'm
forced to put on a tie and turn off my cellphone.
At the core of Wood's appeal as a critic is not an idea or a program
but a prejudice, a leaning, that the novel is essentially a nineteenth century
form. This prejudice came out most clearly in his review of Monica Ali's "Brick
Lane," where he argued -- and I don't think he's wrong -- that the book's
strength and appeal derive from inhabiting a pre-modern perspective. We live in
a world where divorce does not necessarily result in ultimate personal disaster.
Ali's characters do live in such a world and therefore they, and not we, make
better characters: "Adultery has withered as a fictional theme because it drags
such little consequence behind it nowadays." "Nowadays" is the quintessential
Wood word. There is more than a faint tinge of moralism in his nostalgia: You
should not want to recognize yourself in novels because characters like you are
not fit for them. Wood has made himself the opposite of Robbe-Grillet. He
instructs us in the maxim "make it old."
Now it seems that Marche's argument has slid, quietly, from Robbe-Grillet to Wood. Marche is as discontent with what he terms the "ultraradical" (embodied in Robbe-Grillet) as he is with the "willfully archaic." What he wants, of course, is good writing that is not trend-driven. Good writing, ideally, is driven by both stylistic beauty and the quality of ideas. If one of the two is lacking, the work is rarely memorable.