Friday, 1 March 2019

Divergism: the era of the post-Postmodern novel

It’s true that sometimes it feels like a writer who creates a story for a reader to enjoy is like a man who throws a stick for a dog. You set up a scenario, you give the reader a puzzle to solve, then you release clues over the length of the novel until you reach the denouement, at which time all the problems are tied up in a neat bundle. Fini. Applause. Buy the next one.

But writers at a certain point began to feel that this kind of pattern was inauthentic and they started looking for new ways to engage the reader that would be “more meaningful”. In a sense, what Modernism was about was writers saying “No” to traditional methods of characterisation and habitual stylistic forms. They began to try to find ways to represent reality using texts that did the job more faithfully and more accurately. New forms and approaches were investigated for a period spanning about a century, right up to the emergence, in the middle of the 20th century, of the postmodern mode. You might be forgiven for saying that the Modernist project takes in everything from Melville (1819 to 1891) to Proust (1871 to 1922) to Faulkner (1897 to 1962).

Things began to change with the appearance of writers like Nabokov (1899 to 1977) and Cortazar (1914 to 1984), who interrogated the very stuff of the fictive process itself, and whose books are therefore called “self-referential”. For these writers it wasn’t just about style and character, it was also about plot. I think the ultimate exponent of this type of novel is Kazuo Ishiguro's 'The Unconsoled' of 1995 in which there is no denouement and every new beginning just leads to another new beginning. It is an unrecognised masterpiece of the novelistic form in the postmodern mode. Much better, in my mind, than Italo Calvino's more famous 'If on A Winter's Night A Traveller' (published in Italian in 1979 and translated into English in 1981).

But what next, then? What you have now I think is a return to the traditional plot structure, as in the novels of Haruki Murakami. In the new post-Postmodern novel you return to the roots of the medium but what you often get also is a deliberate cleaving to a popular form, such as crime or science fiction. In this new era, it is not so easy to classify novels because their authors are like magpies picking different bits from many different traditions. What you usually find however is that the author has come to terms with being a man (or, as often as not, a woman) throwing a stick for a dog to chase. In the new era, the novels of which could be called Divergist, enjoyment is of prime importance but serious issues (especially, for women novelists, violence against women) abound. It is an age of writers for whom Orwell (1903 to 1950) as much as Austen (1775 to 1815) are the models.

The thing that is especially worthy of note is that the adoption by some novelists of a Divergist approach will not invalidate the choice by others to stick to the Modernist or the Postmodernist. Diversity is at the core of the new mode of understanding the relationship between the reader and the writer. You already have a small group of writers these days writing Gothic fiction, notably women (women were the big producers and consumers of Gothic novels when they first appeared in the 18th century). It’s a free-for-all, a cultural grab-bag where you can draw out any sort of work to read if you fossick around for long enough. And books are easier to find then ever before. You don’t have to rely solely on reviews from established media outlets or the ads that publishers used to place in periodicals. Blogs and social media now supply an endless feed of new titles in a dizzying range of different styles, one of which, you would think, must match your tastes.

No comments: