Friday, April 3, 2009

Of Fools and Fiction

Meg: You told me once that you’d go on acting until you were eighty, and they’d have to wheel you up to the book flats.
Karen: That was before I discovered I hadn’t as much talent as I thought.
Meg: Talent? Aw, what’s talent? Being able to get away with something, that’s all. You got away with some very effective performances.
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, dir. by José Quintero, novella by Tennessee Williams

It was this past Wednesday: A red, digital heart on the Facebook main page. A relationship status update—engaged—disseminated across the social networking stratosphere. A photo of the happy couple on a personal profile page tagged with comments of surprise, joy, congratulations. Phone calls: “Did you know?” “Had he told you?” “Who is she?” Online messages sent to the mysterious female fiancé and replies received, typed in a polite, matter-of-fact tone. Then messages sent to the male friend expressing gladness yet not quite concealing senders’ underlying shock. His simple reply: “Have you checked your calendar today?”

This April Fool’s prank struck me as ingenious, playing right into our hunger for unfettered access to information and up-to-the-minute updates, our pervasive and obsessive fascination with marriage and desire to pin down what it takes, who it takes, how, exactly, to secure a loving partner. The stunt held up a mirror—intentionally or not—to our culture and, to the degree that a “reader” became invested in the “text,” forced one to come to terms with one’s own values and attitudes in regards to marriage by creating an interactive exchange on a public forum.

This occurrence, story, gag (whatever one might call it) gestures back to the very origin of “public” or published fiction. Some of the earliest novels won critical attention by passing as recorded histories and likewise delving into the engrossing realm of love and relationships. The narrator of Oroonoko, Aphra Behn’s 17th-century novel, describes her intimate friendship with an enslaved African prince in the Americas, hinting at their amorous interactions. And Moll Flanders, of course, well … Daniel Defoe’s narrator could’ve given Rick James’s “Super Freak” a run for her title. In both cases, though, the original narrative professed to be true and was regarded as such by the receiving public—convincing productions, like the prank, whose creations required a great deal of talent.

And talent is a term that, perhaps, gets overused nowadays, especially in creative circles, and has become problematic, I think, semantically in its relation to the longevity and trajectory of the literary field. The word implies one’s ability or at least potential to compose works of critical merit and publish. In the times of Behn and Defoe, by contrast, a mere ability to write well wouldn’t have been enough to grant them acclaim or, in Defoe’s case, publication. The very reason these authors attempted to pass their works off as recorded histories was because the novel form didn’t yet exist or, largely, wasn’t taken seriously in 17th- and 18th-century England; well written or not, a manuscript that wasn’t true didn’t merit the serious attention of an audience.

Talent in this context refers to an ability to “get away with” something, to create a convincing production without its having a firm foundation in truth. Behn and Defoe’s accomplishments weren’t so much literary (in terms of creating great writing) as they were genre-bending and genre-spawning, particularly in Defoe’s case, where the prose in his sprawling narrative often takes on the concise clip of journalism—his paying profession. Perhaps having not pushed far beyond 19th- and 20th-century literary “navel-gazing” in American fiction, we as writers have been removed for too long from and lost sight of the larger conceptual thrust of “talent” in its historical context.

So should we qualify the April Fool’s joke as having literary merit? Not quite, perhaps, but I think it lies in the same methodological vein as the types of works that will need to emerge in order to keep the literary world vibrant and true to its origins: captivating, unexpected, and packaged in a manner that not only bends genres but forces readers to examine their assumptions about cultural issues by presenting them in a novel fashion.


Macon D said...

Great work squeezing meaning out of words here. I wonder if the word chosen for "the novel" really did have that sense of "novelty" at first. At any rate, it sure has lost it. I think the "graphic novel" has brought some of it back, for better and worse.

And yet, the novel has yet to die, both as a pastime and as a reliably tangible object. I don't think Amazon's Kindle, for instance, is going to replace the tactile experience of reading from a book held in one's hands. I suspect that instead of such simulacra replacing the book at some point, the whole concept itself of reading such lengthy word-ensembles will fade away.

Jackson Brown said...

Yeah, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, novel, in the book form, is derived from Classical Latin's novella, which means "new things."

I too enjoy having a physical book when reading, but, yeah, unless the writing's good or the subject matter is particularly interesting, I have hard time not skipping around or even just setting the book down. And having images in graphic novels doesn't necessarily quell this desire to skip around or put comic books aside, for me. Their stories also have to be pretty engaging.

I probably need to create a separate post to elaborate, but the gulf between how we perceive/receive writing and artwork in comics (as discussed in chapter 2 of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics) particularly irks me. Even in a comic as great as Watchmen, the stark separation between extended prose and elaborate artwork between chapters is pretty jarring when reading. Trying to reconcile these two elements is a big part of what I'd like my own body of work to strive for.

[/dork-out] :-)