A New Path for Literary Fiction
We need a revolution, not just in politics, but in literature. It’s long been apparent that most fiction writers are stumbling blind down one of two dead-end streets—either trying to rewrite the nineteenth century novel, or else writing so-called ‘experimental’ fiction, usually based on postmodernist principles, often cleverly enough, but for me most of them are unreadable, because they’re little more than cerebral and linguistic games. Obviously I’m generalizing, and naturally there are exceptions. Still, I stand by my thesis: most current fiction, especially in America, and especially if we consider the literary stars, is neither engaging nor significant, and I want to consider why that is and what can be done about it. I think there is a way out of the impasse that fiction in English has got itself into.
First, though, what’s gone wrong? Or perhaps I should rephrase the question: how have we gone wrong? In his seminal work on brain lateralization and its effect on human culture, The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist posits that western civilization has increasingly prioritized the left hemisphere over the right, which has led to a focus on detail, on rationality, and on materialism in the philosophical sense, i.e. that the external world exists independently of our perceptions of it, and it is our task to apprehend this objective reality. This isn’t all bad: it’s given us philosophy, science, and technology, and the novels of social realism that make up most of the western canon. (Although paradoxically, in my view, these novels appeal principally to the emotions, since they are so epistemologically ingenuous that they can hardly hope to provoke deep reflection.)
On the other hand, those currents that have rebelled against social realism, such as fantasy and postmodern fiction, haven’t fared much better. Why not? Postmodern fiction’s premise appears to be precisely the opposite of realism’s: that the mind creates the universe, and therefore that there are only subjective realities. This has certainly led to valuable alternative perspectives to those of the traditional canon: not only those of women, but also of ethnicities other than Caucasians, those of the poor as well as the rich and well-educated, and so on. There are glorious examples, for instance novels by Jean Rhys, John Fowles, or Edward P. Jones. Unfortunately many of the chief exponents have been over-cerebral, intent on exploring the philosophical implications to the detriment of character and story, which makes their work, again paradoxically, appealing mainly to the intellect, and for me at least, sterile. (I’m thinking of writers like Donald Barthelme, William Gass, John Barth, and Paul Auster.) Fantasy, without question the most popular genre among the young, and some of which isn’t execrably written, goes too far in the other direction. Like postmodern fiction, its premise is that the universe is the creation of our minds, and that therefore a world with dragons and elves may be just as real and certainly as vivid as our own. The better work in the genre is deeply steeped in myth and Jungian archetypal psychology—I’m thinking here of Tolkien and Gaiman, for example—and yet, because the left hemisphere is so neglected in this kind of writing, because it’s all gestalt and escapism, like social realism, it ends up appealing mainly to the emotions, and is often downright sentimental.
McGilchrist shows that there are ample evolutionary reasons for brain lateralization, and indeed for the limited communication between the hemispheres, and yet he argues that a better picture of the world would be neither materialist (i.e. that the world exists independently of us) nor idealist (i.e. that our perceptions create the world) but both: that is, if we could better integrate the halves of the brain, and encourage them to communicate better, we could see the world as existing outside ourselves, while also recognizing that we are co-creators of that world. And that leads me to wonder whether this suggests a way forward for literature, and indeed whether it is a way that has already been trodden.
I think it has. Let’s consider Latin American fiction, particularly the fiction of the “Boom”, which has been labelled magical-realist. Most people would agree that the French and Russians led the charge in the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century the leaders seem to be the German language writers, as well as the English language ones. But surely few can deny, whether you personally enjoy them or not, that the centre of world literature in the late twentieth century shifted to Latin America, and while there was a plethora of reasons for this, I want to suggest that one reason for the Latin Americans’ superiority (an unfashionable term, in this age of cultural relativism, but I stand by it) is that they were in a much better position to use both halves of their brains harmoniously. Let me explain. On the one hand, they remained better-educated than the Anglo-Saxons, at least at the elite levels: they still studied philosophy, and usually knew several languages. Anyone who has travelled in Latin America, or for that matter Latin Europe, knows that the intellectual class is extraordinarily erudite, often putting ours to shame. So they are in full command of the typically rational, western way of thinking. On the other hand, they also embraced their indigenous roots, a much more right-hemisphere viewpoint, which saw myth, magic, and the inexplicable as an integral part of ordinary life (not, as in fantasy, an escape from it.) The interpenetration of these two worlds, indeed the blurring and blending of them, is what gives Latin American fiction of the period its incredible richness and makes it so satisfying for the reader: for it engages the intellect and the emotions equally, and by integrating all possible ways of contemplating life, gives us a spiritual experience too.
I wonder whether we English-language writers couldn’t take our cue from the Latin Americans? I’m not suggesting that we all become magical realists; that rarely seems to work, unless one has been steeped since earliest childhood in non-western traditions. (It’s no accident, I think, that the most successful exponents of this kind of writing in English, like Salman Rushdie or Ben Okri, have come from such traditions.) But maybe there is a way for us to pull ourselves out of the mire and pursue the path that leads over the high mountains.
One way to do this might be to immerse ourselves in myth. Kazuo Ishiguro seems to have done this in The Buried Giant, which marries a ‘real’ post-Roman Celtic Britain with Arthurian legend. Another way for those of us who were not brought up listening to fantastic tales at our grandmother’s knees as García Márquez was, might be to explore different ways of viewing reality from a philosophical perspective. For instance, if western fiction has mostly taken as its unspoken premise that human beings possess free will, as it has, what about challenging that view? The Latin Americans do—whether because of an ‘innate’ fatalism, or because they have read their Spinoza, their Schopenhauer and their Nietzsche, it’s hard to say. Perhaps both. Characters in the stories of Borges, Fuentes and García Márquez rarely seem to have much control over their destinies—like Kafka’s, they believe that they have, and strive to change them, but often up helplessly following what seems, at least in hindsight, inevitable. Chronicle of a Death Foretold is an excellent example. This may appear ‘depressing’ to many Anglo-Saxons, because it appears to make us helpless—and yet the often tragic characters of Latin American fiction seem to me to have more dignity than the ‘free’ but hapless protagonists of Anglo novels, like Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom.
This is not the time or the place to rehearse the arguments in favour of determinism, but quite aside from the philosophical arguments, which to me seem compelling, the scientific evidence—from physics, from neuroscience and psychology—has become all but overwhelming, and as writers we must take it into account. As my brother-in-law and friend Fernando Galindo says, a fiction writer has to know science, history and philosophy as well as literature. And one reason we can no longer write fiction like Jane Austen’s, however good that was, is that we know much more now about how our minds work, not to mention about how the universe works.
So what would a new fiction, I mean a new English-language fiction, that took into account both the probable determined nature of our lives and also the integration of the materialist-idealist perspectives, look like?
One possible path is that taken by Kafka, or the heroes of Greek tragedy: the protagonist strives mightily to avoid a fate which seems more and more inevitable and is eventually fulfilled, in spite of his or her best efforts. Usually the protagonist is naïve and doesn’t reflect on his or her own powerlessness, at least until the end, when acceptance of fate typically induces serenity and redemption. (I’m aware that Kafka is no Greek tragedian: the latter saw our fates as being written by the gods, whereas in Kafka’s universe we are simply subject to inscrutable and impersonal machinations.)
Another might be that taken by Dostoyevsky in Notes from Underground. His protagonist, in rebellion against the theory of determinism (he has clearly read his Schopenhauer), decides to commit random irrational, nasty acts, as the only way of demonstrating his independence and agency. (Ironically, of course, while remaining unaware that his very ‘random’ acts are themselves determined.) Camus follows a similar, if diametrically opposed, course in The Stranger: Meursault lives by instinct, as unconsciously as an animal, until he finds himself in prison for murder and finally begins to think and realize that by taking responsibility for what he has done, he becomes free, whatever happens to him. In other words, both these protagonists are consciously wrestling with the problem.
The truth is, I am not sure what the new fiction will be like, and probably no one is. I am sure that it will be both more intellectual—it will not shy away from philosophical questions, and will be infused with reflection—but also more holistic and oneiric, more poetical, more transcendent. A place to start might be Sebastian Faulks’ recent novel Engleby, a masterful story of an intelligent, educated man who clearly cannot be held responsible for the shocking things he does—not just a psychological thriller but a philosophical one. Or for that matter, his Birdsong, in which the main character’s life seems determined by events outside his control too. And I hope my own next novel will be part of the coming revolution…