Unity & Fragmentation

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by Elizabeth Baines

In a recent article on the short story Guardian writer Chris Power made this statement:

...novels that seek to contain multitudes, to embody a particular society at a particular time, seem doomed to fall short. The short story, by contrast, acknowledges the vastness and diversity of life by the very act of focusing on one small moment or aspect of it. The story is small precisely because life is so big.

This set me thinking about our current attitudes to both short stories and novels.

It seems to me a particularly acute observation with regard to short stories. To me a short story collection full of variety in subject matter and style – a collection such as Clare Wigfall’s The Loudest Sound and Nothing (Faber) – is immensely satisfying: each story, by being distinct, demands a singular focus from the reader. The reader is led to attend closely in turn to many different facets of experience, and the overall impression is indeed an exciting one of the width of the possibilities of experience.

Recently, however, there has been a strong move towards the themed story collection and collections of linked stories. It’s not hard to see why: it’s easier to come up with a marketing pitch for such collections. It’s also true, though, that there’s a particular pleasure in a collection of linked stories: it’s only human to look for connections and to want unity – and this is the deeper reason, perhaps, that such collections are easier to market.

A similar impulse, it seems to me, affects the current state of the novel. As Chris Power implies, those novels that ‘seek to contain multitudes’, such as those of Jonathon Franzen, are indeed looking to create unity out of multiplicity, and these are the novels our culture designates ‘great’ and significant (and, if they are American, awards the accolade ‘Great American Novel’). Chris Power sees them as doomed to failure as a true depiction of the nature of existence, and while I love Franzen’s Corrections for its attempt, I’m inclined to agree. Novels that don’t even try, that deal with particular aspects of experience or society are in some ways more honest, but, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, are generally considered less great: parochial and minor.

So what about those novels that dare to do a third thing: to embody the essential fragmentation of human life on earth, to illustrate the disconnections as well as the connections, through subject matter and structure? They’re not so popular, apparently, not ‘commercial enough’. They’re harder to market, one supposes, because they’re telling us a harder truth, and often less immediately easy to read because, in order to do so, they often use unfamiliar paradigms to which readers may need to adjust.

But aren’t they dealing with the real truth? Do we not want our literature to tackle the real truth about human experience? Do we not, in other words, want our literature to be a significant force in our culture?

As I say, it’s only human to look for connections, but we ignore at our peril the disconnections in our world.

Picture credit: Rakesh Ashok


Tim Love said...

Just to add that Leonard Orr's "Problems and poetics of the nonaristotelian novel" looks at the various meanings of "form" and "unity". He writes "Aristotle is behind many of these ideas, and also perhaps behind the idea that the quality of a text can be judged by assessing its unity" and he looks at how critics and readers in the past have tried to make fragmentary pieces into linear narratives even when it's in vain (it's possible with "Ulysses" but trickier with Robbe-Grillet). As you say "it’s only human to look for connections and to want unity" which is why audiences might shy away from pieces that have juxtaposition at their heart or (as Glyn Pursglove described old Persian poetry) pieces where the governing principle "is circular rather than linear; rather than a logically sequential progression, a poem is seen as a collection of stanzas interlinked by symbol and image - the links being patterns of likeness and unlikeness, of repetition and variation - which 'hover', as it were, around an unspoken centre"

I don't understand much about Bakhtin, but long ago he suggested that novels (unlike poetry) encouraged multiple voices ("contain multitudes") - see Polyphony in Wikipedia

Dan Holloway said...

Elizabeth, I have a lot to say on this subject but as I discovered it on the way out, I will for now just say the following:

1. This conversation ignores the novella as a form distinct from both novel and short story (which have more in common with each other than it) at its peril

2. The reason these universal novels are destined to fail is that they are based on the fundamental falsehood that life can be categorised and fail to deal with the absolute relativism of life (something I feel so strongly I put a conference paper I gave opn the subject in the appendices to one of my novels)

3. On commerciality - sadly, all of this is true, and it is probably now ersatz to cite the marketing of David Vann's Legend of a Suicide to demonstrate it. I wouldn't dream of trying to sell my own fragmentation novel, The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes - it contains first person plural POV, ties up no loose ends, enters and exits characters with no explanation, places the locus of mosern aesthetics in the BDSM dungeon, and has narrators spring into and out of life at the whim of YouTube hits. All of which makes it, as I see it, a 100% truthful reflection of the world I see around me, but utterly unsalable - and I just dread to think what a publisher who *did* take it on would try to do with it.

Interesting that Nicola Morgan has a post today making the point that publishers don't reject genres, they reject writing. I think you've put your finger on an exception.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Dan, you're right that this conversation needs to take account of the novella, but my thoughts about it aren't yet formulated. I've actually written two myself, but they've been sold as novels for commercial reasons - there are a lot of issues that need untangling!

Thank you both for your thoughts.