21 January 2004

Who Needs Narrative?

Reading around on Ron Silliman's blog (because I tend to agree with half of what Silliman says and find the other half excellent food for thought, and because contemporary poetry fascinates me, being perhaps the most flexible of all current modes of writing), I happened upon a post which uses the new film The House of Sand and Fog for a contemplation of narrative and its usefulness, uses, uselessness. Silliman maintains, as many writers have in some form or another, that film has usurped the novel's hold on narrative the way that novels usurped narrative poetry. If we consider a desire for narrative to be a popular desire (and it certainly seems so to me), then the cinema has proved itself to be the best medium for telling stories which appeal most immediately to that desire. I don't think this means the novel should or will follow the path of oblivion which narrative poetry eventually took, however, because reading a poem and reading a novel are still acts of reading, while watching a movie is a different experience from reading text, a less intimate and generally less interpretive experience -- most films, and narrative films in particular, don't require the engagement of the viewer's imagination the way even a Harlequin Romance requires a reader to create a world in their mind.

However, Silliman says some interesting things (he's an astute man), and while I encourage you to read the entire post, and to read anything you encounter from him, I want to look here at the end of his post:
One reason that genre fiction has survived more effectively than, say, novels that seek to explore literary values is that such genres have other social reasons for being, sci-fi especially, where the minute that narrative & literary value are uncoupled in fiction, fiction struggles for a good reason to survive. Indeed, much of what has been published over the years by the likes of the Fiction Collection or the Dalkey Archive is fiction that is nostalgic for the novel, and which stretches out different aspects -- some better, some worse -- as it seeks in vain to find out its way out of the checkmate that cinema has become for narrative-as-plot.

I like a good story as much as the next bloke, but it seems to me no accident that my favorite novels over the past 50 years -- Gravity’s Rainbow, V, Satanic Verses, Visions of Cody, Naked Lunch, Underworld, Dhalgren, Islands in the Net -- are almost all narratives that "go nowhere," & which would be unrepresentable in film (as, I would argue, David Cronenberg, proved when he "made" Naked Lunch). And the problems with films like House of Sand & Fog is that, the minute they take short cuts because, narratively, they have "somewhere" to get, the social contract with this viewer has been broken.
I may be misinterpreting Silliman here, but the first few sentences I've quoted make me think about some of the reasons I like SF as much, and often more than, mainstream "literary" fiction. It's exactly that you can remove many traditional "literary values", at least as they are conceived of within your average Intro to Lit anthology, and still have something worth your time and thought. SF -- more than any other paraliterature (to steal Delany's term), I'd say -- uses the tool of narrative to construct various sorts of fictions, from pure-narrative adventure stories to the thought experiments of Ursula LeGuin, which mix the structures of anthropological narratives and scientific case studies with those of fables, myths, tall tales, and oral history. Sometimes such stories rely on the success of the narrative, on everything working and being convincing enough to fulfill the social contract with the reader. On the other hand, plenty of SF stories are so full of narrative holes that the narrative is simply there for the moments when the reader isn't paying attention to the stuff that really matters -- usually the ideas which are central to the story. Think of Philip K. Dick's work if you want some examples. These are not writings which are nostalgic for what the novel was in the 19th century, but are, rather, tales which use certain conventions of fiction to explore ideas or create effects in the reader's mind (or both).

I was impressed with Silliman's list of novels which have stuck with him through the years -- my own would be quite different, but look at that last title: I'd never thought of Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net as "going nowhere", and it's been too long since I read it for me to offer any accurate analysis, but if memory serves me right, that's exactly what it does, and well. And yet I know some die-hard fans of traditional SF who think it's a masterpiece and would never consider it with the nominally more experimental works on the rest of Silliman's list. Why? Perhaps because it uses enough of the tropes of traditional SF to pull most experienced SF readers into its (pardon the unavoidable pun) net. Once you're in, once you've surrendered yourself to the book on its own terms, you are likely to have an open enough mind to let it teach you how best to read it, or else you will impose enough of your own experience of reading ostensibly similar books to fill in what you might otherwise consider gaps.

I think narrative has too much of a pull on readers for there to be many successful (in terms of sales) SF novels which avoid or subsume it completely, but I do believe many SF writers over the years have developed strategies to build their novels and stories around elements other than the traditional narrative arc, and enough SF readers read for reasons other than to find out "what happens next" for such writings to find an audience larger than the one which exists for explicitly experimental fiction.

The question this raises for me, then, is what can "literary fiction" learn from SF? Some people maintain that what it should learn is to remember that people like stories, but I think this is a superficial analysis, one which gives entirely too much weight to the engines of narrative. One of the more important things non-SF literatures can learn from SF, it seems to me, is that many elements of fiction can be compelling, none should be privileged, and as many as possible should be put to use. Give a reader a philosophically and imaginatively rich work, full of precise observation, written carefully and with purpose, and narrative becomes irrelevant, though it's probably good to throw some in just in case...

Perhaps what we can all learn, and should remind ourselves, is: If it can be done better in another medium, it should be done in another medium. Let's not write books which would make good movies, but rather books which would be impossible to adapt faithfully into the language of cinema. If that were the single credo writers stuck to, they'd produce wildly wonderful books and stories. In fact, as Silliman points out, they already have.

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