All the world’s a stage

If fiction can be reduced to the attempt to represent the world, the main dilemmas facing a fiction writer can be simplified to the following: 1) what is the world like? 2) how best to represent the world through the medium of language? There is a fine line between constructing and depicting; in fact, the current consensus seems to be that it is necessarily construction–even history–the real question is what types of lenses are these construction mediated by (Marxist, Colonial, Diasporic, Oedipal etc.)? Perhaps it is the positing of these lenses that partly motivates the self-consciousness and self-reflexivity of postmodern fiction. James Wood, the literary critic, has criticized Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, and David Foster Wallace for their brand of fiction that he labels “hysterical realism.” (His views and the following quotes are obtained from a review of Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” that can be found here: He describes the “big contemporary novel” as

A perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity…Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs… …Their mode of narration seems to be almost incompatible with tragedy or anguish…what above all makes these stories unconvincing is precisely their very profusion, their relatedness.

Interestingly, Wood’s diagnosis (“An excess of storytelling has become the contemporary way of shrouding, in majesty, a lack”) points to a similar preoccupation that DFW voiced in the McCaffery interview (“That lack is the human”). Wood’s criticism (“Some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist’s quarries any more. Information has become the new character.”) can then be seen as stemming from an inability to come to grips with current reality, for the character today is inextricably linked to a surfeit of information. Hysterical realism is Realism in the modern era. Wood’s distinction between “a picture of life” and a “spectacle” is not as clear-cut as his old school narrow-mindedness might conceive it to be.

I think an interesting comparison might be draw between the works of DFW and the likes, and that of Cormac McCarthy–a living writer perhaps generationally distinct (20 years?) from the contemporary writers Wood criticizes. He is considered an heir to Faulkner, on the surface a very different type of writer compared to DFW, but who was himself no stranger to unconventional narrative techniques (As I Lay Dying). In this essay on McCarthy (, his style is characterized as diametrically opposite to the profuseness Wood finds so misguided: “minimally punctuated, without quotation marks, avoiding apostrophes, colons or semicolons — has a stylized spareness that magnifies the force and precision of his words.” I wonder if this might be a product of a difference in attitude towards the enterprise of writing–a lack of self-consciousness that pervades the work of contemporary writers. Note this excerpt:

McCarthy would rather talk about rattlesnakes, molecular computers, country music, Wittgenstein — anything — than himself or his books. “Of all the subjects I’m interested in, it would be extremely difficult to find one I wasn’t,” he growls. “Writing is way, way down at the bottom of the list.”

This stands in contrast to DFW and Jonathan Franzen, who seem fixated with writing as an enterprise. I think contemporary writers seem to be much more acutely aware of their audience, and hence fiction becomes a kind of product–it has to fulfill certain self-imposed criteria according to what the real world is perceived as needing or desiring. Given the vast amount of fiction already written, the product has to meet demand in the face of competition from the canon. Since good fiction deals with what it is to be human, how to say what has surely already been said a million times before in a new and meaningful way? Perhaps it is this question that motivates DFW’s obsession with the execution of his writing. The impetus behind McCarthy’s writing seems significantly less burdened by such anxieties; he almost never grants interviews and does not feel any need to make himself accessible to his readers via the media. He takes it to be a fact the “the novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written”, rather than a source of struggle one must contrive to overcome. Yet, fundamentally, we see the familiar basic criteria of good writing: “deal(ing) with issues of life and death.” McCarthy doesn’t consider Proust and Henry James good writers: “To me, that’s not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange.” Indeed, it is curious that James often favors circumlocution (i.e. the excess of words) to depict an impoverished reality, marked by the inability to feel and love. Is this strangeness a failure of the reader or writer? If we want to say the latter, are we necessarily guilty of committing the intentional fallacy?

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