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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Why I Don't Work on Fiction

I believe narrative prose fiction has become a default mode for the academic study of literature, especially study focussed on the contemporary period. When I first started, I was interested in contemporary literature. It seemed dumb to me not to be interested in one's own time. It would be like thinking of a contemporary of Cervantes who was indifferent to Cervantes and only wanted to read Berceo. That still seems dumb to me, and I do have inquietudes contemporáneas too. Yet I also feel the need for a historical dimension to my thought. To specialize only in the last 10 years seems to be a mistake. I remember a few jobs candidates from a few years ago whose historical consciousness of Latin American lit did not extend as far back as Puig. The 70s were ancient history. Or maybe I'm just too old now.

Anyway, there is nothing wrong with studying fiction, but I don't like seeing it as the default, because from the historical point of view it only becomes that in the 19th century. It is a recent form, and would not have been seen as dominant until the realist movement at the earliest. After that, the novel bifurcated into modernist novels, which are really more poetic in character (Woolf, Joyce, or Faulkner), and the persistence of a realist mode. Most contemporary novels that people read today are 19th century realist novels, whether written in the 19th, 20th, or 21st centuries.

Since more people study fiction than anything else, I don't believe that I have to do so also. I wouldn't be necessarily better at it than other capable scholars and critics, and I am not particularly interested in narrative realism or "representations" of things. I only really like texts that are modernist or avant-garde in some way. The fact that fewer people are interested in poetry means that poetry is probably more interesting. Poetry is a genre where, if you are interested in it at all, you will become friends with the poets. I know people like David Shapiro, Ken Irby, and Kasey Mohammad personally. Or Olvido García Valdés and Eduardo Milán. In narrative I would just be one more above average scholar. In poetry I can be distinctively myself.

With the Boom in Latin American literature it seemed that narrative had become more interesting than poetry. The creative energy of modernist poetry had poured into prose fiction. In contrast, a lot of Latin American poetry was stuck in a conversational "anti-poetic" mode. Nicanor Parra's anti-poetry is parasitic on poetry poetry. In other words, it came as a refreshing deflation of the grandiloquence of Neruda, but once it became a norm it fell flat (I am borrowing this argument from Milán). So I think I could have been a Boom specialist, although then most Latin Americanists I know think that is kind of passé now. I think I could be happy reading novels from Rulfo to Puig, who are more interesting to me that Oscar Hahn or many other Latin American poets.

Peninsular narrative is not that great after Clarín. Benet and Goytisolo cannot match up to their Spanish American counterparts, and a lot of novels written in flat prose telling very ordinary stories just bore the bejeezus out of me. I must don't think all the novelists whose names begin with M are very interesting. (Merino, Millás, Marías, etc...). There isn't a great Spanish modernist novelist. Miró should be interesting to me, but I can't imagine devoting my time to him.

Poets (or at least the ones I happen to study) do not see fictionality as a major component of their writing. They are not creating alternative realities, but are interested in this reality, reality itself. You don't have to go through the wardrobe because Narnia is in the here and now. That is why my religion is the here-and-now, not some magical alternative that comes later and is supposed to make everything better.

Great poetry is hardly even metaphorical. The lemons are real ones, as Spicer says in After Lorca. Just like Tapies's mud is real mud, not a painting of mud. Now I realize I have written this post and come up with a new idea about Lorca, without even meaning to go there.

So that is why I don't do fiction so much. I have no desire to convince other people not to write on fiction. If you don't get why poetry is where it's really at, I cannot convince you. Nothing is worse than someone writing about poetry who doesn't really get it.


Vance Maverick said...

Even if it's not your chosen field, can you recommend some critics who have written interestingly on it? I have more time for certain belated 19C writers than you (or other poetry people I know) do, and there's a level of language/rhetoric/composition wizardry going on there that I'd like to see unpacked a bit.

Jonathan said...

That's a vast kind of question. I think Auerbach's Mimesis is still worth reading, and maybe Peter Brooks' Reading for the Plot. There is Mikhail Bakchtin: The Creation of a Prosaics by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson. I would read the prefaces of Henry James and The Poetics of Prose by Todorov. But it really depends on what you are looking for.

When I do return to prose fiction it is a curious experience of estrangement, of being sucked into a mode of thinking that feels foreign to me. That discomfort is the only thing that makes it valuable for me.

Vance Maverick said...

Thanks - sorry for the unfocused question. I think I'm looking for the William Empson of prose, however that might work. SF State has the Morson/Emerson, so I'm on my way.

Leslie B. said...

Poetry rules! It's the real thing! Prose narrative is for the most part dull and it is more interesting to read history!

Vance Maverick said...

I have no head for history. It's important and I care about it (that is, I use what little I've learned), but I lose the thread of any given book. Poetry is great (better than the movies!) but I return to prose anyway.

Leslie B. said...

Actually, I will revise that: after poetry, the essay.

Andrew Shields said...

"Great poetry is hardly even metaphorical":

a) perhaps one of the problems with how all those scholars of narrative approach poetry is that they think they're supposed to look for metaphors. [Typed "there" instead of "they're": how the fingers do the walking ...]

b) Have you read Lakoff and Turner's "More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor"? I'm slowly working through it on the side. One of their main points is that it is not metaphor that makes poetry special, since metaphor pervades everyday language. http://www.amazon.com/More-than-Cool-Reason-Metaphor/dp/0226468127

Jonathan said...

Yes, I've used that book to teach in my proverb and idiom class. I use it more there than when teaching poetry itself.

Andrew Shields said...

From what I've read so far of Lakoff and Turner, I'm not sure that their ideas (no matter how excellent they are) really help in thinking about poetry. They use poetry to articulate a theory of metaphor, rather than the other way around.