Thursday, December 9, 2010

Has Stendhal's Mirror had its day?

Over on the marvellous blog of Sci-Fi writer Paul Macauley, Earth and Other Unlikely Worlds a conversation began about whether neo-realistic literature has had its day. Two authors, Peter Handke and  Haruki Murakami have written articles suggesting that this indeed is so. I would recommend a visit to Unlikely Worlds to enter into the wider discussion of this issue, whilst here at The Concrete Midden, I'm reposting a slightly longer version of my response, as it is somewhat tangential to the main topic under discussion at Unlikely Worlds.

First up, cards on the table. I'm a realist writer.  Dunno if I'm a neo-realist, but I'm a new writer and I write crime fiction which is firmly based in reality and incorporates real events. It involves the creation of a fictional world which contains the realistic political and social atmosphere of the 1990s. I’m also a big admirer of science fiction (as can be seen in my other blog world). 

What took me off on a tangent from the discussion of realism/neo-realism versus magic realism at Unlikely Worlds, was the observation, made by Murakami, that realism was no longer relevant because two events, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attack on the twin towers in September 200,1 had " greatly transformed our mentality . . ."

This “the world changed on 9/11” thesis frankly irritates me beyond belief. And when writers start to embrace this thesis and use it as a reason to argue why certain things cannot – or should not - be written, or to suggest the way things should or shouldn't be written, then I start to vent a bit of steam.

In days following 9/11 “the world has changed” was the most common reaction. It was understable. The events were shocking. They were awful in the true sense of that word - they filled one with awe. And they were captured on film, replayed again and again, and we watched, each time hoping somehow for a different outcome. 

But that "world changed" response was also dangerous as it permeated our psyche and permeated our politics. Its legacy has included such things as waterboarding and rendition, shock and awe.

It also permeated a lot of the literary responses.

High profile critic James Wood used it as a reason to bury the social novel, writing in the Guardian in October 2001 Wood claimed that the "Stendhalian mirror would explode with reflections were it now being walked around Manhattan. For who would dare to be knowledgeable about politics and society now?" 

Martin Amis took to writing essays about terrorism and making up words like horrorism, as if what was available to describe criminal acts of terror were insufficient. Ian McEwan reckoned that

“… even the best minds, the best or darkest dreamers of disaster on a gigantic scale, from Tolstoy and Wells to Don DeLillo, could not have delivered us into the nightmare available on television news channels yesterday afternoon.” 

OK, so I wouldn’t expect McEwan to be familiar with the oeuvre of Tom Clancy and his 1994 novel Debt of Honour, in which a 747 is flown into the US Capitol during the State of Union address, wiping out the President and a fair chunk of Congress (hell, I only know about it because of a ten month stay in a Buddhist monastery in South India where reading material was …. limited) but in both Wood's and McEwan’s reactions I found the retreat from the possibility of creativity and imagination to absorb and reflect what had happened on 9/11 to be overly nihilistic.

Writing in The New Statesman at the end of 2001, literary critic Jason Cowley described the reaction of the literary world to the terrorist attacks as having a: 

“catastrophist - eschatological anxiety and an unconvincing sudden seriousness, as if human nature itself changed the day the towers collapsed. Or perhaps it was merely that we in the relatively benign, affluent west had forgotten that the world has always been a spectacular carnival of suffering.”

It was that “spectacular carnival of suffering” that bothered me about the “world has changed” reaction as well. It contained in it a denial of other places and peoples whose “worlds had changed” but because they hadn’t changed in the heart of a western power and were not captured on TV, well, somehow they didn’t count.

My inchoate misgivings were captured by the phrase – the “parochialism of the present" - and by a rather unlikely source, the foreign policy analyst and editor of The National Interest, Owen Harries. He defined it as:

“[A] condition resulting from a combination of ignorance of history and an egotistical insistence on exaggerating the importance of events that more or less directly involve oneself. Horrifying and atrocious as the acts of terror were, it should be remembered that they have happened at a time when people who experienced the Somme and Verdun, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, are still alive.” 

Well, yes.

Imagine the stories that would never have been written had Erich Maria Remarque decided that the trenches had shattered his Stendhalian mirror, or Primo Levi been silenced by the horror he witnessed, or Bao Ninh or Kurt Vonnegut had allowed their own war experiences to so overwhelm them that they dared not be knowledgeable about politics or society.

Writing about the world we live in can take many forms, magical realism, realism, crime noir, science fiction - in fact some of the strongest writing to take on the post 9/11 world came, I think, from the world of crime writing. Sara Paretsky's Blacklist conveyed not only the fear of being the victims of terror that every American felt after the attacks but the fear of the state as it reacted to that terror with legislation that threatened the Bill of Rights. Ian Rankin, in The Naming of The Dead brought Rebus, George Bush, the G8 and the London Tube bombings into a book that was as much about the fragility of the rule of law as it was about a murder.

So, in summary, I don't believe that realism, the social novel, the social crime novel, are dead and past their use by date. I do believe in science fiction and the exciting imaginative leaps and bounds of alternate worlds and realities that end up telling me something about my own reality.

And, no the world didn't change on 9/11, anymore than it did on April 6, 1994, or August 9, 1945, or July 1, 1916 or 24 August 79AD,  it just added to the layers of pain that make up what it is to be human. And that's what writers, realist, neo-realist, magical, fantastical, speculative, graphic do best, make up stories that help us work out what it means to be human.*  


  1. nice posting, very much agree. as someone who carries childhood trauma of bombing in berlin and outside bremen ineradically in his nightmares let me note that i might easily if urizen books had survived until 9/11, located three blocks north of the forever sun blocking hated wtc at 66 west broadway and my four story loft and roof a rope ladder walk across the way at # 65 have seen the first plane coming in low over the hudson from my roof but because of those childhood experiences perhaps i do not panic and so would have instantly asked my people to take what was most valuable, the manuscripts, and get out of the area, because i happen to know the melting point of steel, but am no ernst juenger who believes in facing its storm. as to the representation - have you ever heard as loud a tank as suddenly appear in handke's film-novel ABSENCE?

  2. A number of comments, beginning, I think, with the most irrelevant...

    1) Bluerose, a close friend of mine, wanted to thank you for your applause at cityoftongues. She's one of those people accustomed to shouting into a fog of silence.

    2) BR mentioned to her husband that you're a crime writer. He suggested you might like the Seattle Stranger's weekly column on crime, "Last Days".

    3) BR and her husband were talking about "Griftopia: bubble machines, vampire squids, and the long con that is breaking America," by Matt Taibbi. In one of those feats of magical connection that are the signature of his soul, her husband said "That's why 9/11 had to happen. At the end of the '90s people were sick of the horseshit the right was pulling, Monicagate, the impeachment." ...A catastrophic event, ignored and allowed, produced many transformations, not least in the financial structure of the U.S.

    3) Realistic fiction is the bread and butter of our lives. We are physical beings; we still fall in love in ways described by Sappho and Catullus - our imaginations are tethered to our nerves and skin, most of our days are still quotidian. I think it will take a complete breakdown of the cultural and social and financial structure we inhabit before other modes take over. (Even magical realism is a fever-dream take on real events.) Of course, my model for saying this is the breaking down and apart of the western Roman Empire.

    Christian evangelicals'/fundamentalists' power depends on their willingness to ally themselves with the culture-war component of the corporate agenda. From where I live it is difficult to see the future as a shiny new world, science- or technology-based.

  3. Two wonderful comments which I totally missed. Hopeless bloghost me.

    SUMMA POLITICO - your experiences and what you have witnessed in your life is beyond my comprehension. As a writer I make things up, I guess I, like many others, like to think we can "imagine" most anything. Imagination is one thing - recollection of such reality as yours is a reminder of our good fortune to be in a position to "make it up" instead of remembering it.

    M. F. McAuliffe - thank you for dropping by and for the tips. I love the description of Magical Realism as a fever-dream of the real.

    Writing this in the wake of the Arizona shooting - which a lot of commentators are referring to as something that "had to happen" given the fevered "toxic" state of political engagement in the US.

    I suspect that you are not alone in having a somewhat dystopian outlook of the future. As a child of the 60s who saw the moon landings in primary school, I'm still waiting for that shiny new-world of science and technology to deliver on the promise of those days. Moon bases and jet packs were going to be the starting point - yet today, science is being pushed to the margins in favour of business as usual. There's a real glut of dystopian YA fiction about at the moment as well. Maybe I should start reading some Steampunk - a dirty Victorian Industrial future might be where we're headed.