Saturday, April 05, 2008

In Defense of Reliant Novels, or: Questioning Some Dubious Estimations About Historical Fiction

Over at the Critical Mass literary blog, one of the current PEN/Faulkner Award judges, Molly Giles, offers a glimpse of her experience sorting through the boxes and boxes of books by prospective awardees. Her observations are interesting, and strike me as much more well-considered and humane than the run-of-the-mill cynicism of other lit-judge reflections regularly showcased in the realm of literary gossip (which often feature comments such as: "I got so sick of reading I started looking for reasons to quit a book; if a novel used first-person present-tense I immediately threw it aside and reached for the next.")

Literary judging is, fundamentally, an elite privilege. It therefore carries with it a kind of moral responsibility. Ostensibly, a judge is commissioned to prize great literature, wherever it is found, and seek its furtherance. Thus the judge ought to take pains to ensure that his or her range of consideration is as broad and inclusive as possible. In other words, merely reviewing the latest Roth, Delillo or Updike — or lavishing the better part of one's attention upon titles already widely embraced or copiously reviewed while merely skimming work by an unknown — does nothing for the cause of furthering this country's contemporary literature. Then again, perhaps an award can never suffice for that.

But Giles certainly deserves applause for breaking the mold with her affirmative and uplifting perspective, as revealed in statements like: "Few of the titles I loved were publicly visible."

And while it’s often impossible to know, as a novelist, just how fully ignored or engaged one's work may be by readers, let alone by award judges, I found it heartening to note, near the close of her comments, that my new book Lost Son did receive consideration (see her embedded reference to a novel she read -- or at least looked at -- about Rilke).

“Month after month I did nothing but read,” Giles reports,

“I hunkered down, hooded over. Finally, the last box was emptied. A bare space glimmered on my dining room table... I had twenty-six pages of single spaced notes, a new trifocal prescription, a deep respect for my two fellow judges, who had been sweet tempered and supportive, and I’d been in the company of some of the most wonderful writers in America.

What did I learn?

That most of what gets published deserves to get published.

That most of what deserves to get published also deserves to be showcased in bookstores, airports, and book clubs—and is not. Few of the titles I loved were publicly visible.

That best-selling authors write as well as writers no one has ever heard of.

That many writers no one has ever heard of should be best-selling authors.

...That American writers write about war, but not about this war.

...That American writers prefer the past to the present: the bulk of the novels I read were historical fictions, many of them based on real people. While I enjoyed reading about Woody Guthrie, Florence Nightengale, Errol Flynn, Rilke, Hitler, Byron, Pocahontas, Stephen Crane, Edward Curtis and William Blake, among others, I wondered why…why rely on the known instead of the invented? Some novels even recycled fictional characters: Huck Finn’s father, Gregor Samsa. My conclusion: it’s easier for novelists because this way they know the end.

“Huck Finn’s father” refers to Jon Clinch’s impressive novel, Finn. And the Gregor Samsa reference, I believe, is to the wonderful Anxious Pleasures by Lance Olsen (which I wrote a brief review of last year). “Errol Flynn” denotes Margaret Cezair Thompson’s The Pirate’s Daughter (with which my book shares a colophon). “Pocahontas” signifies Matthew Sharpe’s surreal Jamestown.

While Ms. Giles’ reflections as an erstwhile judge deserve praise for thoughtfulness, I’m chilled by the dismissiveness of her final remarks, the nonchalant disrespect they exhibit.

If we want to ponder why novelists write novels based on real people or preexisting fictional characters (a subject well worth discussing), we shouldn’t allow an essential question to elude us in favor of one that is implicitly ungenerous. Most certainly the question should not be, as Giles puts it: “Why rely on the known instead of the invented?” Phrased this way, the prompt itself already contains a preemptively qualitative judgment, implying not so subtly that the writers of these works look for ("rely on") shortcuts, and find them in the existent narratives of another person’s biography or another writer’s plotline instead of writing ("inventing") something of their own. Given a question so erroneous, it’s no wonder Giles offers so crass an answer: “It’s easier for novelists because this way they know the end.”

It’s easier. Now, there’s a sentiment unbefitting the largesse Giles has already demonstrated. Why insinuate authorial laziness, rather than grant that some more honorable artistic impulse may motivate such novelists?

To be fair, Giles is not writing a critical essay here. Her tone is offhand. Maybe she thought her cursory estimation would best serve her closing — and coming from a novelist would supply a dash of wryness. But she ought to remember that she’s writing as a judge, and her observations will be read as those of an arbiter of literary quality.

Were Giles to examine at length the matter she briefly raises, I should hope she would reach a more worthy conclusion — and that her colleagues in award committees and critical circles would do likewise.

First, of course, they would need to revise the question. And a more responsible question would be: “Why return to these known stories?”

I pose that question to myself now, wanting to grant it the thought it deserves. As one who has novelized the life of Rilke, I could give my own extensive answer — but I’ve already done so elsewhere.

Rather than repeat myself, I want to quote E.L. Doctorow, a gifted novelist with a long career of “relying on the known” in such novels as Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, and most recently The March, the 2006 winner of … well, the PEN/Faulkner Award.

In his marvelous essay “Notes on the History of Fiction,” Doctorow makes numerous cogent observations on the very subject which, when briefly raised by Ms. Giles, evokes only her condescension.

Doctorow’s piece is worth quoting at length, but I’ll start with three sentences:
“Common to all the great nineteenth-century practitioners of narrative art is a belief in the staying power of fiction as a legitimate system of knowledge. While the writer of fiction, of whatever form, may be seen as an arrogant transgressor, a genre-blurring immoralist given to border raids and territorial occupations, he is no more than a conservator of the ancient system of organizing and storing knowledge we call the story. A Bronze-Ager at heart, he lives by the total discourse that antedates the special vocabularies of modern intelligence.”

Ms. Giles, I fear, would disagree. Her disparaging remarks suggest a critical inclination to divorce modern fiction entirely from what Doctorow calls “the total discourse.”

In fact, whether Giles is being tongue-in-cheek or not, I feel she evinces an apparent fallacy in contemporary literary perception. It’s precisely because this fallacy finds voice in such an obviously thoughtful person that I can’t help but wonder just how insidious, how little observed, the shallow idea might be even in those disseminating it. Giles’ casualness in letting it slip leads me to suspect that it’s a notion of some currency — one getting passed around like a pathogen. Its hosts may hardly notice it, though they’re transmitting it wherever they go.

The fallacy, of course, is this: The novelist who employs the age-old device of retelling, who looks to “the known,” who dares to rummage in history, biography, or indeed literature itself, is inevitably a kind of cheat, a lesser talent, one too lily-livered to make up his own damn story. The only truly worthy novels of today are those that rely exclusively on authorial invention, those in which the author does not already “know the ending.” Historical, biographical, or lit-spinoff novels, on the other hand, reflect little more than the novelist’s cheap “reliance” upon events or imaginations not his own.

The sophism is clear enough if we follow the embedded logic, which insists that history, biography, and literature are at once inflexible and exhausted — that they cannot possibly accommodate imagination or invention. Indeed, Giles absurdly indicates that the ending of any “reliant” novel can only mimic the “known” ending of the story that forms its basis — never mind whether the reliant novel prefers intimate characterization over historical explanation, like Karen Fisher’s magnificent PEN/Faulkner finalist A Sudden Country, whether it delights in the inventively askew as does Olsen’s Anxious Pleasures, or proves merely obliquely referential to its historical basis, like Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

My Rilke novel, I must protest, does not end with the poet’s death. Though the novel begins from the “known” record of Rilke’s life — and his death will indeed remain the conclusion of that ever-expanding record — my narrative of Rilke operates by methods of inquiry distinct unto itself, therein becoming its own uniquely inflected record, and thus naturally culminating in a unique conclusion.

Every fictional narrative, whether or not emergent from an actual history or preexisting story, will lay down its own laws. In order to be sustained by the author and absorbed by the reader as literature, it will demand invention at every turn. The reliant novelist’s work therefore, if not harder than the “inventor” novelist’s, is most certainly no “easier.”

I’ve described Lost Son as a letter sent to a ghost, which is my way of highlighting the very personal nature of the novel, for the book does not purport to be — and is not interested in being — an authoritative portrait of Rilke, a known story retold. The creation of fiction based on the life of a poet as legendary as Rilke can only be a personal process, and that personal process — the important process of seeking to understand, assimilate, and perhaps digest and transcend one’s influences — is as much the theme of my narrative as are the events of Rilke’s life.

Thus, Lost Son opens with an epigraph by author and critic Lee Siegel:

“We must understand one another or die. And we will never understand one another if we cannot understand the famous dead, those fragments of the past who sit half buried and gesturing to us on memory’s contested shores.”
Lost Son, being personal and subjective, being the record of one individual search for understanding, is a new story.

Ms. Giles, apparently, is an academic. Is her fallacy university-born? (Surely it doesn’t come of her role as an author.) I admit that I share Thoreau’s innate mistrust of institutions (“Wherever there is a lull in truth,” said old Henry, “an institution springs up”), so I suffer an involuntary wariness toward academe where it professes to nourish and sustain literary art through drills in technique, the doctrinal enshrinement of certain great texts, or consensus opinions in workshops — pedagogical approaches that risk breeding what Frank Lloyd Wright called the incubus of habit that besets the mind. Wallace Stegner (a creative writing teacher himself) was referring to this very incubus when he spoke of where critics go wrong:
“They tend to run in pack … For ten years at a time a single critical attitude rules, and a limited range of books is praised, a special vocabulary springs up, bright graduate students catch the tone and lingo and write (and here is a case of writing with an eye very definitely on an audience) to please the reigning critics rather than to discuss a new book in its own proper terms … Being so pluralist a nation, we ought to have pluralist literature and pluralist literary criticism. The fact is that nothing in so much as our literary criticism do the forces of fashion and stereotype take over.” *
Elsewhere, Stegner was equally perceptive and outspoken regarding the kind of learning universities ought to foster:
“What we most need is neither generalists nor specialists, but specialists who can generalize and generalists with a specialty... Try self-consciously to produce specialists and leaders in [a] pre-professional college, and you will, I am convinced, produce half-men, limited men, men with imperfect vision and low horizons.” **
I can’t help feeling that Giles’ bizarre notion ought to elicit a bold question. We know our universities are fast becoming the last bastions of learned literary appreciation in this country, as good review publications dwindle to ever smaller numbers and independent bookstores fold in the shadows of corporations. In the absence of any substantial system of literary patronage, universities are among the last incubators, even, of new literature; while BookScan figures bar the development of healthy young novelistic careers, witness how many of our nation’s wonderful literary journals are produced under the auspices of institutions. And given this state of affairs, this cocooning-away of literature, further separating the art of fiction from “the total discourse” and moving it toward classification as a discreet (even arcane) discipline, we must ask ourselves how many unexamined critical biases are incidentally produced? Do MFA programs, given their dynamic of a collective criticism, unwittingly (I emphasize unwittingly) propagate such biases? Could an idea like the one at hand — that historical novels are not real novels — ever emerge spontaneously and isolatedly? Or mustn’t some vector, perhaps many vectors, such as those in the social-literary culture of an institution, be responsible?

Who can say? Not I, certainly. I won’t pretend to draw conclusions here. I just wonder.

In the end, of course, such questions are diversions from the more material concerns: 1) That we recognize this particular bias to be an emperor lacking clothes, and 2) that we examine an emphatically current artistic impulse as it deserves to be examined, in a conscientious, responsible, and respectful manner. If American writers today “prefer the past to the present” we ought to allow for the possibility, at least, that a certain artistic merit, and maybe even artistic significance, underlies this tendency. Better that than to leap to the disheartening conclusion that novelists today shun invention and scramble after the easy and well-known.

I only bring up universities because Doctorow’s eloquent apologia continues with an insightful observation about them — or about their essential irrelevance to the novelist (Doctorow has taught at NYU):
“[The] gift of the [novelist’s] practice seems to come of its inherently solitary nature. A writer has no credential except as it is self-awarded. Despite our university graduate programs in writing there is nothing that licenses a writer to write, no equivalent of a medical degree, or a law degree or a Ph.D. in molecular biology or divinity. Writers are on their own. They are specialists in nothing. They are liberated. They can use the discoveries of science, the poetics of theology. They can ventriloquize as anthropologists, report as journalists; they can confess, philosophize, they can leer as pornographers, or become as wide-eyed as children. They are free to use legends, myths, dreams, hallucinations, and the mutterings of poor mad people in the street. All of it counts, every vocabulary, every kind of data is grist for the mill. Nothing is excluded, certainly not history…

“The writer has a responsibility, whether as solemn interpreter or satirist, to make a composition that serves a revealed truth…the novelist hopes to lie his way to a greater truth than is possible with factual reportage. The novel is an aesthetic rendering that would portray a public figure interpretively no less than the portrait on an easel…That the public figure of historical consequence makes a fiction of himself long before the novelist gets to him is almost beside the point. Once the novel is written, the rendering made, the historical presence is doubled. There is the person and there is the portrait. They are not the same, nor can they be.”
And here we find supported with glorious authority a truth I noted earlier about the novel as an art form.

The novelist’s portrait, if it is a serious work, is an entity in itself, raising concerns wholly unique to the sensibility from which it emerges, and plumbing depths not yet plumbed in any such manner by the historical or biographical records that precede it.

Put another way, the narrative of a historical, biographical, or lit-spinoff novel moves along an arc no less autonomous or artistically absolute than that of any other good novel. That this arc is rooted under a larger factual arc does not alone make it a mere narrative excrescence — nor a simple plagiarism of the past. If it is truly a novel, it throws its own parabola, whether it involves so-called known figures and events or not. If it is truly a novel, its locus lies wholly within itself.

What’s more, we might further consider the nature of the “known” upon which the novelist in question “relies.” Surely history, biography, and enduring literature are far more personal, and therefore perpetually subject to interpretation, than Ms. Giles allows by her concluding slur (“easy endings”).

Where is the authoritative account of the American Civil War to assure us we know that story once and for all? — and I mean no disrespect to the massive achievements of Shelby Foote. Where is the conclusive life of Thomas Jefferson or John Brown, Marie Antoinette or Albrecht Dürer? Where the inarguable commentary on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis? A billion radii can be drawn to these everlasting centers of human thought, event, and persona — which is the very reason we revisit them our whole lives long. In fact, we tend to find them, after the passing of years, accentuated with meaning entirely new to us. Surely Ms. Giles, being an author herself, cannot believe these enduring narratives to be as static as she inadvertently propounds.

And she must agree that the novel, that most prismatic of art forms, by its excursive and complicating points of view, by its use of the endlessly lithe and subjective medium of language, by its prodigal narrative descants, its soul-scouring close-ups and chronological curlicues and go-anywhere frames of vision — surely the novel is uniquely suited to present us with two (or two-hundred) fresh explorations of an event or a person we thought we “knew.”

The successful historical, biographical, or lit-spinoff novel can function as something far richer than a faithful reiteration. It can remind us powerfully of the ambiguity reigning over our impersonal history just as it reigns over our ostensibly personalized present. It can remind us that the realms of the human, being inexhaustibly various, are ultimately unknowable, and therefore a source of never-ending mystery and discovery, vast spheres for never-ending excursions.

A reliant novel might well reawaken us to the hollowness of dogma, the flatness of much inherited understanding, and the human responsibility to gaze long at our own predecessors, our own defining events — to judge them if we must, but to do so by virtue of a humanizing complexity and a non-trivializing empathy.

In my case I find my novel’s main character, Rilke, subjected to a speciously “defining” force exerted upon him by the generations who try to understand his work. He must weather the curse of all legendary figures: turned into a spokesman for a certain way of life or a certain artistic manner. Coerced into this posthumous mouthpiece role, he gets a violently polarized reputation. He’s either adored as a saint of modern poetry, or reviled as a profligate husband and father.

But conducting my own novelistic inquiry into Rilke’s story, I know that neither of these two extremes can truthfully reflect this bygone figure. And meanwhile, I seek to create a work that illumines and affects. I wish to stir in readers a resonant equivalent of what Rilke’s story stirs in me. That task can only be undertaken in a manner deeply personal, humane, and probably more self-revealing than Rilke-revealing. And so the resulting novel, I believe, is something much more storied, much more necessarily inventive than a known tale retold.

Doctorow continues with a further salient point:

“The scholarly historian and the undocumented novelist make common cause as operatives of the Enlightenment. They are confronted with faux history as it is construed by power, as it is perverted for political purposes, as it is hammered into serviceable myth by those who take advantage of its plasticity.”
One might amend this comment to note that the biographical novelist, too, is often confronted with faux biography as it is construed by hagiographers, iconoclasts, cynics, or old associates or cousins nursing a grudge. But, says Doctorow,

“The novelist is alone in understanding that reality is amenable to any construction placed upon it.

“The historian and novelist both work to deconstruct the aggregate fictions of their societies. The scholarship of the historian does this incrementally, the novelist more abruptly, from his unforgivable (but exciting) transgressions, as he writes his way in and around and under the historian’s work, animating it with the words that turn into the flesh and blood of living, feeling people.”
The reliant novel, by taking us back to those old imaginative centers in its expeditions of invention, inquiry, and enrichment, is nothing less than a reconnaissance mission of the human spirit back into itself.

So, why create a novel that revisits a “known” story? Sven Birkerts, in his brief essay, “Biography and the Dissolving Self” (1994), may provide one answer with regard at least to biographical fiction. His is a cultural interpretation which insightfully considers our zeitgeist of “fragmentation,” “abstraction,” and endless bureaucracy:

“More and more we find ourselves living at a remove, with the feeling that life has gone blurry, has lost its singular intensity; we feel our coherence dissipating among needs, obligations, and great troves of competing stimuli… [but] burrowing into a life, the reader experiences clarity and purpose by proxy. It is an exalting baptism. For one thing, the circumstances of earlier times were, if not simpler, then more resonant, and felt more authentic… Things seemed to have density, weight—to matter… Biographical narration itself is premised on coherence and meaning. The biographer almost occupationally views his subject as living under the aspect of a singular destiny, with everything around him contributing to press his experience into its intended shape. Which of us feel some comparable sense of destination about our premillennial lives?” ***

Why start a novel from a “known” story?

I have my own intuitions, which tell me authors do so — and will continue to do so — because such work may serve to bind human beings to one another across time, battle lines, and social divides. Because such work may help us by its arresting humanity to become more expansive, imaginative spirits, to traverse and restore even those realms that were formerly but great black spaces where inspiration had stagnated or empathy withered.

Each of the following reliant novels offers the reader far more than a known story retold or an all too familiar ending recycled. Each will reward your attention abundantly:

-Wintering by Kate Moses (about Sylvia Plath)
-I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company by Brian Hall (about Lewis & Clark)
-Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje (about jazz legend Buddy Bolden)
-The Master by Colm Toibin (about Henry James)
-Insect Dreams by Marc Estrin (another remarkable work about Kafka’s Gregor Samsa)
-Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman (about Mary Cassatt and her sister)
-The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen
-A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher (about the Oregon Trail)
-The March by E.L. Doctorow (about General W.T. Sherman’s infamous march)

Quotations used in this post:
* On Teaching and Writing Fiction by Wallace Stegner, Penguin Books 2002
** The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner edited by Page Stegner, Shoemaker & Hoard 2007 (letter to David Packard, May 1959)
*** Readings by Sven Birkerts, Graywolf Press 1999


  1. A wonderful retort. I would add that by basing a text on the past or an historical figure is to base a text in common knowledge and ease the burden of the reader. There are those who enjoy the work of finding where a novel exists; readers of science fiction, fantasy, what have you --and that's well and good. But certainly there are those who do not enjoy this work, and there is certainly something organic to a novel in the past, something easily absorbed and attainable. Relevant in a broad sense.

    It's also easy to say that such novelists are providing one more way of seeing the past so as to not repeat it, or at least to learn from it. A simple restatement of part of your argument. Well done.

  2. Thanks for the remarks, Eric.

    A worthy point, that the good reliant novel can invite the reader into the vivid center of an experience or a character -- without the need to first saturate this reader with information -- because the reader feels a certain resonant familiarity almost instantly (even if that familiarity might be subverted at some point in the book). His or her "burden is eased" indeed, and this, somehow, more immeditely makes him/her a co-creator in the story, rather than a receptacle for explication, or a "visitor" in someone else's world.

    Thanks for reading.

  3. I love the thoughtfulness and seriousness of this piece in defense of the lush, wild, creative field of "historical" fiction. I have discovered, as you have with Rilke, that knowledge of one's subject gleaned from writings, pictures, letters, etc., -- the largest knowledge possible -- is only the beginning of the process of finding a story and creating this story.

    When I wrote about Mary Cassatt, I was profoundly aware of the thousands of stories I could have written, all of them based on some aspect of her life. I think of this often, -- daily, in fact -- as I think of my own life and the lives of those around me ---- simply to "know" someone, even to know oneself, can't mean that you can "easily" WRITE about this someone. Writing well is a creation of a world, a whole geography, that has to appear simple, ultimately (in the sense of William James claiming that no matter how complicated something seems, it has to simplify . . . ); and yet this appearance of cohesion, unity, significance, is something so hard won.

    Of course there's a certain irony in this. Your Rilke novel, for instance, insofar as it appears to hold close to Rilke, to embrace his vision, his life, may allow some readers to be lulled into a sense of the ease in this embrace. The situation is utterly the opposite, naturally, and I salute you as a writer of such extraordinary creativity and integrity that you make your lucky readers believe that they are simply reading fact!! Your artistry is all the more magnificent for being so subtle and suffusing.

  4. Here, here, Mark. Couldn't have said it better myself--and have, on occasions too numberless to ennumerate.

    That there remains a "stigma" attached--much like a barnacle to a ship's hull--to so-called historical/reliant fiction, may go without saying, save that it can, in my opinion, never be said often enough.

    It is a stigma that I would prefer to believe has more latterly waned, or at least been leavened, owing to the work of many of the authors you cite, but that it is still out there, circulating, circling, as do hammerhead sharks, that it remains a part of current discourse, is indisputable.

    And, much of the explanation for that, although you do not touch on it in your good piece, can be traced, I believe, to the historical baggage the "approach" drags in its wake like a damn neon banner.

    Sir Walter Scott and Fenimore Cooper, perhaps--much less their lesser progeny--are not, all equal, necessarily the godfathers and midwives one would wish to mention when discussing the "birth" of the approach (or form, or genre, or whatever.)

    Yes, there are those--and they are not unlegion, I fear--who simply do not get it. Who mindlessly assume that to write "reliantly," as you put it, is, by definition, to write less inventively or originally or seriously. But that assumption arises, I'll suggest, not ONLY owing to wrongheaded aesthetics, but also to the literary tradition associated--rightly or wrongly--with such writing.

    You may be able, as you have here, as I have elsewhere, to effectively argue the aesthetics of the matter. It is perhaps more difficult to argue the popular, quite persistent perception of its lineage.

    Anyway, keep writing. And always, against the grain.

    Cheers. Bruce Olds.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Bruce,

    What a delight to hear from you. Your own work sits high in my pantheon, so it's a great privilege to have your word on this subject.

    I think you're right that it's a whole other matter to effectively disentangle the worthy 'reliant' works of today from the biases and presumptions about literary lineage that besiege them.

    Writer Jill Lepore laid a bit of groundwork in this respect in The New Yorker last year. Her essay, "Just the Facts, Ma'am" (see link below) shows how History, in its earliest days as discipline, was overtly tangled up in fiction ("Historical books and novels alike aimed at seducing readers through plot and even suspense."), and how, by the swing of the cultural pendulum, History's fictional aspects subsequently came to be regarded as dubious -- and actually parasitic to all intellectual integrity.

    Over time, 'real' History grew to stand as the reliable, edifying alternative to novel-reading, an activity associated with "female depravity."

    Our cultural mistrust of what we now call 'historical fiction' is perhaps a hangover from this old dichotomizing attitude -- though such a hangover fails to account for those exceptional books (like yours) which by their nature expose such attitudes as dogmatic hand-me-downs.

    Many thanks for your inspiration and encouragement, which meant a lot to me at a critical moment.