The End of the Make-Believe

By Cowley, Jason | New Statesman (1996), February 5, 1999 | Go to article overview
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The End of the Make-Believe

Cowley, Jason, New Statesman (1996)

Jason Cowley on V S Naipaul's death knell for the novel

VS Naipaul, writing in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, has again questioned whether the novel has a future. He does not mean the novel qua novel, but as it is practised by most professional writers of fiction as a preformed mould of plot, character and event, not an organic form, into which the author empties his cheap slurry of chapters and words. In his essay, Naipaul approvingly quotes Conrad's observation, on receiving the manuscript of a friend's novel, that "all the charm, all the truth are thrown away by the . . . mechanism (so to speak) of the story which makes it appear false". So the engine of the fiction was plot, too much of it.

Naipaul has long believed that the most important works of fiction were written in the 19th century, between 1850 and 1895; he continues to dislike the word "novel", and is baffled as to the importance of reading invented stories. "I don't see reading as an act of drugging oneself with a narrative. I don't need that," he has said. "There was a time when fiction provided discoveries about the nature of society, about states, which gave those works of fiction a validity over and above the narrative element." He believes that all forms have to be rethought. "Before the novel in Europe there was the essay, the narrative poem, theatre, the epic poem - all considered the principal forms at various times. There is no longer any need to consider the novel the principal form."

Anyone attempting to write a novel, as I have over recent months, almost to the exclusion of anything else, ought to know well the feeling of enervation that comes from working in borrowed forms, from the failure to liberate yourself from pre-existing structures; at times you can almost hear the mechanical clunk and grind of your imagination as you move the action forward, ponderously laying clues and directing your characters from one scene to the next, like an over-excited theatre producer shouting orders through a loudhailer.

Kingsley Amis used to complain that his son Martin's novels contained too few sentences such as "He finished his drink and left"; he waggishly suggested, too, that he lost interest in a novel unless it began, "A shot rang out." There is nothing wrong in Kingsley Amis's comic demand for familiarity; he sought in fiction what many of us fail to find in life: order, form, artificial shape, resolution, omniscience. For him fiction was not, as it has been for Naipaul, an act of moral inquiry, a mechanism by which to discover the honest truths about individual lives and societies; but an entertainment, a diversion, a jolly game.

Martin Amis (mentioned because of his primacy in our literary culture), ever the rebellious son, positioned himself against the soft realism of his father, enrolling himself from an early stage into the "high style" school of fiction, where, to borrow the Conradian dictum, any work aspiring to the condition of art must carry its justification in every line.

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