Tuesday, 17 September 2019

More on the new literary mode of Divergism

Back on 1 March this year I published a post I had written to outline what I see as a new literary mode. I called it Divergism in order to encapsulate the variety of different styles that are available, now, for writers and readers in the marketplace for books. But when I recently read through the post, I saw that it was quite spare and I felt, on review, that there were other things to say that were germane to the case. Hence the current blogpost. What you are reading now is an attempt to fill out the gaps that I see, on a second look, in that original post. You might want to go back to read that post first, before going on with what’s below. It might help you to orient yourself as I won’t repeat here everything that was in it.

The first thing to say about Divergism is that it builds on the gains that were made in the art of novel (and short story and novella) writing as a result of Modernism and Postmodernism. To illustrate what that means, I’ll insert a case study here.

Recently, I read a novel written by a second-tier novelist who publishes all of his work in French and who is not as well-known in the Anglosphere as he is in France. He is very old now and his most productive era was the 1990s. Reading his book, it struck me how old-fashioned it felt to me. One thing that was missing here were the internal processes of the individual’s mind. The rich tapestry of thoughts and impressions that help us to understand the motivations of the individual characters. There was also a lack of detail in the depictions of the environment in which the characters moved.  I felt that the book was a bit jerky, like a film that is not running at the correct speed on the spool. It was like seeing an uncoordinated animal trying to walk, like a foal just out of its mother’s womb, standing up jerkily on the straw of the barn and moving uncertainly forward.

The book was an historical fantasy and it was very good in the end but I noticed something about it that the author if, when the book was originally published, he had been told what I felt, would probably have been puzzled by. He might have said that he wasn’t writing a literary masterpiece. The kinds of detail that you find, say, in the novels of James Joyce or Marcel Proust, were not relevant for his purpose. But in today’s book market this kind of separation is no longer necessary. Even books that are deliberately aimed at a specific market – crime thrillers, say, or romance – now often have in them elements that derive consciously from the innovations that people like Joyce and Proust introduced into the canon at the beginning of the last century.

But the situation is stranger even than this, even. There is, now, a rich croop of hybrids available for readers to consume. It’s not just that genre novels are more literary in their style now than they had been, say, 20 years ago. It’s also that writers who want to send a message are using both genre elements and literary elements in their books. The market for literary fiction is small (and always has been; people benefit in many ways from what is classed as literary fiction but they won’t take the risk to buy a book by an unknown author who aspires to producing high culture) and so authors are pitching their work at the middle market. To do this they wrap a plot that is heavily influenced by genre norms (for example, by the norms common for crime or science fiction novels) in a package that also contains a poetics that is heavy on literary fictional devices.

These new hybrids both challenge – through the use of secondary colour and through the deployment of detail that relies often on imagery – while also reassuring the reader that he (or, more often, she) will get something that is fun to read. In a hybrid novel these things do different things and they complement each other. The genre plot ensures that the story has strong forward movement. But the stream-of-consciousness and the secondary colour help the author to create drama.

Both give the reader an opportunity to engage with the book. You keep turning the pages because you want to find out who did it, or what happens to the protagonist at the end of the book. But you are also entertained by the feelings that the secondary elements evoke in the spaces between the end of one chapter and the end of the next. Reading this kind of novel is doubly fun: through access to their personalities and interior feelings and thoughts you get insight into the nature of the characters who animate the drama and, as well, you are compelled by the need to know, by the overriding suspense that runs through the novel like an electric current, to find out what happens to the man, woman, boy, or girl (or non-binary individual, or animal, or plant, or rock) sitting at the centre of the web.

Not everyone likes books that actually challenge the reader’s way of seeing the world. Most people want the reassurance of what they are used to, and they will stick to their favourite type of novel loyally: not just the author’s name but the cover design will orient them toward their preferred type of book in the bookstore. But the aspiration to express things in a novel that cannot be expressed in any other way and that go to the core of who we are and what the world is, remains in any number of complex and beautiful (or flawed) novels that can be found in your local independent bookstore. This kind of aspiration is found especially in novels that cleave to our legacy Postmodern mode.

And the stylistic elements that you find in such novels are also often found, today, in genre novels which are, more often than not, an example of the hybrid form of novel I have described above. These novels also express things that can be expressed in no other way than through a novel, but the messages they send, and the ontological superstructure they rely on to create meaning, is rooted in the world rather than in the realm of ideas. Novels of ideas are still being written and they are still being read and they are still being enjoyed – by a few – but the mainstream now has the same goals. Writers of the new hybrids want to change the world in the here-and-now and their readers share their desire for novelty on the political front. Who would have thought, in the 1990s, that the most completely engaged fiction would turn out to be crime thrillers?

I want to add a short note at the end here about the ways that novels are talked about in public. Because of the large number of books I read and because of the necessity of putting books somewhere once they are read, I get most of my books from the Kindle store now. I use a standard non-backlit Kindle that I bought a few years ago. But I still go to bookstores from time to time. I might combine a walk to the bookstore with an outing for lunch, and while at the bookstore I will browse the new-release shelves looking for things that look interesting. I have found some real gems this way and I have also found some real stinkers (often, topical nonfiction).

But most of the recommendations I get nowadays are from social media. I use Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn. With the first of these, especially, every week I see the titles and covers of a large number of new releases. If I see something that I think I might be interested in reading, I will write down the name of the author and the book’s title on a piece of paper I keep next to my PC for this purpose. If I am out and about and see the title of a new book on the Twitter app I will use the Notes function of my phone to capture it for future reference. People tweet book covers frequently to their followers, and they also tweet the titles of books and the names of authors they like. You also see, from time to time, magazine articles with a specialist angle. An article a friend posts on Facebook might contain the titles of 20 new novels from one part of the world and, if this happens, I scribble furiously for a few minutes in order to capture as many new items as I can.

People want to share in order to create community and so book recommendations are a staple of social media; they give people an opportunity to express something about their own personalities and to signal to others where their allegiances lie. My magpie-like behaviour is also a facet of Divergism. There is a plethora of new works out there are and, even if you even only pay occasional attention, they will come to you without your having to do anything more than sit in front of the computer or look at your mobile phone. Just choose good people to follow.

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