Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Stephen Marche on Alain Robbe-Grillet's death and the repercussions for Eng Lit

On February 18th, 2008, the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet died. Grillet spearheaded the "nouveau roman" movement in France in the 1950s with his essays on reinventing the novel. Robbe Grillet saw conventional novelistic techniques (read: plot, character, narrative, ideas) as horribly out-dated and focused, instead, on the individuality of objects. The resulting work was highly stylized, "art" literature. The novels rarely interest contemporary readers; Robbe-Grillet is primarily read for his ideas on novel-writing. And his ideas, as such, have become rather unpalatable as writing moves back (if it had ever truly moved away) towards the structural architecture of the 19th Century novel.

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."

Marche continues:

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.

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