Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 3, 2017

Contemporary Fiction, a Very Short Introduction, by Robert Eaglestone

This Very Short Introduction to Contemporary Fiction is a very interesting little book!

From the first words of the introduction to the last chapter about literary criticism, I found myself constantly nodding in agreement, with only an occasional demurral in between because I wasn’t keen on some of the books he lauds:

Literature thinks.

Literature is where ideas are investigated, lived out, explored in all their messy complexity. Sometimes these ideas look quite simple: What if you fell in love with someone who seems quite unsuitable for you?  What happens if there is a traitor in your spy network?  Sometimes they might appear more complicated: How can I reconstruct my memory of an event I can’t recall?  Perhaps, too, ‘think’ is not the right word: ‘think’ is too limiting a description of the range of what a novel can do with ideas.  In any event, the way literature thinks is bound up with what it’s like to be us, to be human.  Literature is how we make ourselves intelligible to ourselves.  And contemporary fiction matters because it is how we work out who we are now, today.

I believe the novel is the best way of doing this.  Of all the arts, the novel is the most thoughtful, the closest, the most personal.  Unlike the visual arts or music or computer games, the novel uses only language.  Nearly every one of us is an expert user of language and, more importantly, nearly everyone is an expert creator in language.  Every day we use words to express ourselves and to tell stories, to make patterns out of our reality.  We all share and thrive in language: we are much more intimate with the novel’s medium than we are with theatre or film.  Unlike much poetry or painting, fiction has narrative, sometimes in complex ways. We share this with the novel too, because each of us, in the stories we tell every day, is a skilled author and weaver of narrative.  We can all judge a novel by the high and demanding standards of our own use of words and stories and by our own patterns of reality.  Because it takes longer to read a novel than it does to see a film or listen to a piece of music and because novels demand more time and energy, they are more immersive.  This is the origin of phrases like ‘losing yourself in a book’ or ‘the book speaks to me’ as if a novel was more than just ink on a page or words on a screen.  We live in novels more than any other art form, and after reading them, they stay with us (an after-reading).  The novel is still the art form most deeply and directly engaged with us.  (p.1-2)

Eaglestone pays homage to the variety of forms that contemporary fiction can take, and he says that because a novel might go anywhere or do anything it’s not possible for anybody to be an expert in the usual sense of the word.  He also admits that anything he says is going to be out-of-date within a decade.

His chapter headings show the directions he takes:

Chapter 1: Saying everything
Chapter 2: Form, or, what’s contemporary about contemporary fiction?
Chapter 3: Genre
Chapter 4: The past
Chapter 5: The present
Chapter 6: The future
Chapter 7: Conclusion: ‘Hey everyone, look at that beautiful thing’ / ‘Yes, but…’

I enjoyed the chapter on form, where Eaglestone acknowledges that contemporary authors make more demands on readers than authors of previous eras.  B.S. Johnson’s famous The Unfortunates written on cards (which I reviewed here) gets a mention, and the political/ethical aspects of postmodernism get a workout in novels like Toni’s Morrison’s Beloved (see my wholly inadequate review) and JM Coetzee’s Foe (which I’ve read but not reviewed here).  Eaglestone notes patterns such as playfulness and an emphasis on textuality and difficulty.  He says that the heyday of  postmodernism’s challenge to realism was in the 1980s and 1990s, and that the retreat from extreme forms is a gentler, more accessible version of them, citing one of my favourite novels ever, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell as an example. It was inspired by Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (see my review) but it’s more accessible because Mitchell’s interlocking, interrupted stories do end, whereas Calvino’s never do.  Eaglestone calls these more recent novels a ‘domesticated’ form of postmodernism (which might be why they are easier to read).  He has a lot more that’s interesting to say about form in the contemporary novel – it’s one of the best chapters in the book.

Genre, he says, is one of the most important ideas in contemporary fiction but

It is also an idea in complete disarray.  In one area, genres are in total flux: novels mix and blur genres, combining for example, the historical novel with the detective thriller, or blending science fiction into a novel about the concrete present day.  [Yes, #NoddingMyHead I’m thinking about Jane Rawson’s genre-blending latest, From the Wreck, see my review.] In another[area], the boundaries of genre are rigidly enforced by publishers, academics, booksellers and journalists: novels are branded by genre as clearly as cleaning products, so that the book buyer always knows what’s ‘in the tin’.

Guilty as charged, m’lud.  I like what Eaglestone says about genres being a way of recognising the ‘lines of descent’ that an author plays with (as From the Wreck plays with family history, historical fiction, fantasy and folk myth).  But it’s also true that books that are recognisably in a certain genre pattern themselves into books I tend not to like very much.  I’m often told that if I’ll only try it, I’ll like this YA, fantasy, romance, crime novel etc because it’s a literary version of same, and nearly all of these recommendations go back to the library unfinished (and unreviewed too, of course, because it’s not fair to review a book unenthusiastically when it was a foregone conclusion that it wasn’t my kind of book in the first place).  I don’t think this is snobbery about books, or ‘canonising’ them, any more than preferring wine to beer is snobbery.

Anyway, Eaglestone agrees with me that genre fiction has limitations.  It’s restricted by precisely those things that [most] people like about it:

A work of genre has limits and rules.  Thrillers have adventures; detective stories have detectives (usually) and certainly detection; science fiction throws a ‘new thing’ (robots, space travel) into the world and sees what that does; romances have love and its vicissitudes.  These limits are why David Shields writes that genre ‘is a minimum security prison.’

Literary fiction, OTOH has no limits.  It can do or say anything.  It can happily include genre fiction in its mix too, as with Orwell’s 1984 and Kasuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go which are both LitFic and SF.

The chapter titled ‘The past’ investigates historical fiction and the problem of anachronistic features.  Referring to a mammoth reference book called What Historical Novel Do I Read Next? by Daniel S Burt, Eaglestone says that this book neatly sums up the complex issues:

… the fiction is caught between the need to be literary, invoking character, narrative and so on, and the need to be historical, the need to be accurate to the record of the historical past, and even, perhaps, to be didactic.  More than this, its very location in the present raises the inescapable problem of anachronism, the way in which writing in the present unavoidably misrepresents the past.  It can only write about the past using the concerns, preconceptions, ideas, thoughts, and language of the present.  (p.38)

Historians, he says, quite rightly have conventions: they provide sources against which their assertions can be tested. But authors of fiction don’t have to; they can do what they like.  There are conversations on this blog from readers who contest the whole idea of historical fiction.  They don’t usually get excited over trivialities like clocks striking in Ancient Rome.  They are more bothered about what might be called ‘deep’ anachronism: the representation of the behaviour and attitudes of people in the past as if they were from the present.  For me, it depends how it’s done – and how light-hearted I am about the reading.  I don’t care a lot about books I read on long-haul flights but when I’m not brain-dead I tend to feel doubtful about authors who fool around with the documented real life of real historical figures.

Eaglestone specifically mentions Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, suggesting that she sidesteps the issue by using 21st century language naturalistically in the Tudor period, and he also talks about neo-Victorianism in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith in which overt revisionism mimics the sensationalist 19th century novel while ‘queering’ the text.

But moving on from historical fiction, Eaglesmith also writes about how the contemporary novel also deals with other pasts: those of our collective memories.

These collective memories are what bind communities together, or equally, push them apart.  Just as a collective memory might work as a unifying force, so it also possible to ‘activate’ a memory and reshape or divide a wider community.  There is a powerful ‘memory politics’ to the ways in which memory is shaped and used, and it is a significant force in the world today.  Partly this is because ways of ‘living in’ a tradition, these forms of collective memory, have been interrupted by the modern world, by the very experience of modernity. Some of these changes seem very positive to me: the expansion of human rights, the emancipation of women.  Some are almost beyond judgement: rapid social and technological change, mass movement of peoples and ideas.  And some – genocide, war and mass murder – are evil, yet still part of modernity, and leave trauma and suffering in their aftermath.    These more cultural and personal traumas all rework traditions and memories.  Our relationships with the past can be traumatic.

[…]

Writing about the impact of traumatic events brings literature right to the edge of fiction.  (p.45)

One example of this type of fiction about the traumatic past is Javier Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis (see my review).  He also talks in detail about Nicola Barker’s Darkmans which I have on my TBR…

There is much, much more in this elegant little book, but this review is too long already.  These VSIs are cheap as chips so I really do recommend that you get your own copy!

BTW#1 I have already started my next VSI, to coincide with my reading of Educated Youth by Ye Xin (see my review), it’s Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions). These VSIs are perfect handbag size!

BTW#2 I have discovered via Fishpond that some of these VSIs are available as audiobooks.

There are hundreds of these VSIs on everything from Buddhism to Entrepreneurship, but you can find the audio books about literature by typing Very Short Introductions + audio into the search box.

Author: Robert Eaglestone
Title: Contemporary Fiction, a Very Short Introduction
Series: Very Short Introductions
Publisher: OUP (Oxford University Press, 2013
ISBN: 9780199609260
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Available from Fishpond: Contemporary Fiction: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

 


Responses

  1. I like what he says about post modernism, the dates make sense, peaking in the 1980s. Interesting that philosophically pomo dates back to the 1950s and 60s. I’m not so sure about his comments on genre – if litfic can include SF, then something written as SF isn’t restrained from being literary, think JM Ballard or Doris Lessing (in particular) whose SF heritage is denied because literary types want to claim them.

    • I think he would agree with you about SF/LitFic. I don’t think he says that the genesis of the book as one or the other is what matters, nor does it matter what form it takes when it ends up. What he is basically saying is that if the book conforms to its genre’s rules i.e. if it is what the readers expect of that genre, then it is genre fiction. Agatha Christie’s novels would be examples of that. Anybody could write new versions of those detective novels and they do, we see them on TV. But if the novel is doing more than that, as 1984 does, critiquing an entire political system, more about the abuse of technology than the technology itself, then a reader expecting a straightforward SF story might feel disappointed.
      Still, you raise a good point: as always these VSIs are brief, and there are any number of objections that can be made to what he says, only partly because he doesn’t have space to argue his point in detail (and which you then read here in truncated form and possibly misrepresenting him). And I am the first to admit that I don’t have any familiarity with SF. I only know that I like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 and I didn’t like anything by Asimov when I was persuaded to read him 20 years ago or more.

      • Next time I see you I think I will bring a (short) literary SF and see if I can persuade you of it’s virtues. I do admit however that the boys-own qualities of straight SF are an acquired taste.

        • *chuckle* My mother loved straight SF!

  2. […] fire, light and darkness give the writing a mythic quality.  Yes, in the wake of my reading of Contemporary Fiction, A Very Short Introduction, I am mindful that this collection of tales shows that fiction can indeed take any form it […]

  3. Sounds like a worthwhile book. I’d be particularly interested in the chapter on Form too, as it’s something that has always interested me. Does he define “when” contemporary is, i.e. what period he is covering in his discussion?

    And of course, I generally agree re genre, mostly preferring, when I delve into genre, those books that play with genre formulae or which cross genres.

    • Well, he says that whatever he says is contemporary will be out of date in no time, but (from memory) the books he refers to come from the last 20 years or so.
      I think you’d also be interested in what he says about literary criticism in the last chapter:)

      • Oh yes, I probably would, you’re right. I do think if he’s talking contemporary he needs to define the period but I suppose people in future would have to ascertain it from the books he discusses as you say and the publication date of his book.


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