The Subjective Mood

January 13, 2020 | 5 books mentioned 6 7 min read

coverIn my 2019 “A Year in Reading” entry, I wrote about the way Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie engages with itself on a moral level. In short: Spark’s controlling headmistress Jean Brodie metaphorizes Spark’s controlling narration, and the whole book serves to—among many other things—interrogate the value of this kind of domineering control in fiction. The novel does not settle for merely telling a story and telling it well; it also on some level considers that story and frames it, in doing so giving the narrative a greater dimensionality, what we might describe as moral depth.

I wrote about the feeling I have had, for some time, that this kind of novel is being written less and less frequently. I don’t mean a novel of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’s quality—novels of that quality have always been written infrequently. And on a related note, I’ll allow for the likelihood of some selection bias here—in other words, that I’m comparing great novels of the past to decent novels of the present. That said, over and over, I find myself reading well-reviewed contemporary novels that seem unwilling or unable to engage with themselves on a moral level. They tell a story, perhaps tell it well. But I finish the book and close it with no sense of what the book thinks about the story it told.

After writing the “A Year in Reading” piece, I found myself unsatisfied with merely diagnosing a (possible) condition. I wanted to consider whether it was a disease or symptom, or both, or neither. And I wanted to think about why—if this is a real change in the way people are writing—it might be happening.

As so often seems the case with questions like this, the most obvious, likely correct, and exceedingly boring answer is: the internet. Two decades of internet usage has rewired (and in some cases, broken) our brains. Since the advent of the internet, more people are writing than ever in human history, and the dominant mode of all this writing is first-person, in the form of tweets, Facebook and Instagram updates, Tumblr posts, Amazon and Goodreads reviews, and so on. I wrote here, about the move from third to first-person as our primary storytelling point of view, a shift borne out by opening any Best American Short Story collection from the last few years, and one from, say, 1995.

But authors have always employed first and third person to varying degrees, and literary tastes and trends are constantly changing. What seems more important here is less the current hegemony of first person, and more what feels like an accompanying change in the expectations of what a piece of fictional narrative can—or should—do. What I’m talking about is a cultural change that has accompanied the internet’s rise: the primacy of the subjective.

This primacy is expressed in a number of ways, large and small, obvious and less so. There is the bespoke, à la carte, curated nature of almost all entertainment, for example. Mostly gone are the days when a vast number of people tuned in, at a certain time, to watch a show they all agreed on. We are now delivered not only the content we want, but content we might want suggested on the basis of previous listens or views, and in this manner our consumption of music and film can be insidiously siloed. I’m not bemoaning the death of network television, and I find streaming services as convenient as the next person, but someone younger than I am (44) might not be fully aware of the paradigm shift this represents, in the way the world has been miniaturized and streamlined to service individual taste.

coverOur politics have, as well, become almost exclusively subjective. In some ways, for the good—#MeToo, for example, prioritized women’s individual claims of abuse out of necessity, in response to a rape culture that so often denies justice and even a voice to victims of assault. Cancel culture, more trickily—though still understandably—seeks to erase from the public record works of art by artists accused of bad behavior. Whatever one thinks of this, it signifies a stunning change in expectations from most of the 20th century, when, as articulated by the New Critics and their Intentional Fallacy and later by Roland Barthes’s The Death of the Author, the inviolable, objective separation between artist and art seemed more or less a settled matter. Finally, and to the unquestionable bad, the internet has allowed the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories that, like Netflix and Spotify, are curated at the level of individual taste depending on one’s personal cosmology of fear and desire. Trump’s election represented, in many ways, the victory of subjective paranoia and ignorance regarding immigrants, racial politics, and climate change over objective facts that were somewhat more difficult to ignore in a pre-internet era. Fifteen years ago, it felt stunningly cynical, not to mention stupid, for a Bush apparatchik to accuse a reporter of living in the “reality-based community,” but it now feels horribly prescient.

All of which is to say that one feels a consistent, accompanying shift toward the subjective in the fiction of our moment, in what it does and does not do. What it does do: relate intensely personal lived experience, depict trauma, and—maybe especially—project personality. What it does not do: usually attempt any sort of objectivity or try to situate a narrative in a moral framework.

The problem with this is, from my point of view, situating narrative in a moral framework is what novels do better than really any other type of art. No other narrative form can so dexterously tell a story while critiquing it, a sleight-of-hand enabled by the engaged moral interplay of an author/narrator with his or her narrative. The reluctance to engage on this level may become an inability, and this is a loss. Not just artistically, but socially, as well. During times of moral crisis like the one we’re living in, we need books of moral power and daring that challenge us. Books that are willing to take a stand, and in doing so, dare us to do the same.

On a less grand, but possibly more important level, the problem is also that so many of these books are boring. The reluctance to engage on a moral level is closely related to a reluctance to engage on a plot level. This is because the basic mechanics of plot—a character encounters trouble, makes a choice, and endures the consequences (which usually occasion further choices and consequences)—almost unavoidably raise moral questions. Is it good that she chose this thing and not the other? Are the consequences just or warranted? And what does the book think about all this? I suppose it’s conceivable to write plot without placing any moral weight on the character, and by extension the text, but it’s difficult to imagine in practice. Action and choice occasions a moral dimension—even dumb superhero movies usually manage a bit of this kind of depth, however microscopically thin.

coverConsider, as a refreshing recent counterexample, Adelle Waldman’s excellent The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, a novel published only seven years ago, but one that feels stylistically of an entirely different era. Love Affairs begins as its protagonist, Nate, encounters a former girlfriend on the subway, who calls him an asshole. The entire novel is premised on asking this question—is Nate an asshole?—and the questions that this question raise, among them: What constitutes being an asshole, and is it even possible to not be an asshole in the sexual marketplace? The book offers Nate a real choice, between a more complicated woman and less complicated woman, and he chooses the less complicated with all the consequences that choice brings, good and bad. By forcing Nate to take a stand (several of them), the messy drama of Nate Piven’s romantic life is acted out in a larger moral theater, though Waldman resists easy formulations. In the end, the novel finally seems to ask how fit we—the reader or the narrator—are to judge anyone else’s romantic happiness.   

But in recently published novel after recently published novel, a reader encounters something closer to this: a BIG EVENT happens proximate to the narrator, which makes them FEEL things and might remind them of other BIG EVENTS to which they’ve been proximate in their life, all of which occasions a lot of aimless, if lyrical prose. Various feints may be made in the direction of actual choices and consequences, but in the end, the novel’s imagined space is as safe and padded as a childproofed house. It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice. Again, to do so would risk saying something that might feel like an objective moral position, if only in the context of the novel.

To return to Muriel Spark: in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Miss Brodie acts in a manner that damages her students, and Sandy Stranger, in return, betrays her teacher and brings about Miss Brodie’s downfall. These choices and consequences are important in themselves, in the creation of a dynamic piece of narrative, but also, again, they are important in the way they dramatize a larger point about the dire consequences of authoritarian control, in real life and in the novel—a question Spark is clearly wrestling with regarding her own artistic tendencies. In a broad sense, it’s clear what the novel’s intentions are, what the moral implications are for the characters, for the reader, and even perhaps for the author.

Published today, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie would seem to run counter to the larger cultural mood, the sense many smart people may have that we are past—regrettably or not—creating work that presumes, however obliquely, to tell other people how to live. At first glance, it seems odd to think this might be the case, given the sheer volume and stridency of opinion to be found online. But this is mostly simple moralizing, mostly about creating in-group dynamics within one’s curated political space—an intensely subjective and affirming performance of one’s felt beliefs. It is not about the kind of serious inquiry and deep self-reflection at which novels as an art form excel—a moral dimensionality that complicates, rather than simplifies, our sense of other people and the world. The subjectivity that has characterized our consumption of art and our participation in politics has also begun to characterize our sense of morality, and it therefore may seem quaint to write with the objectivity required to hoist up and secure a fictional narrative in a larger, moral architecture.  

And so it is not difficult to imagine a first-person version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 2020, from the lone perspective of Sandy Stranger. In this book, we would also get marvelous descriptions of Edinburgh and the rolling fields by the river. We would also get tender moments between the girls. We would get, perhaps, an ominous sense of Miss Brodie’s despotic personality, and we might, at some point, get the news that Mary had died on a misadventure to Spain. But we would likely not get Miss Brodie’s manipulation of Rose, we would likely not get Sandy’s affair with Mr. Lloyd, and we would almost certainly not get Sandy’s betrayal of Miss Brodie. In the end, Sandy would graduate from the school, having grown apart from the crème de la crème, feeling a bit wistful and disabused, but not much worse for the wear.

A concluding question here might be, even if one accepts that what I’ve described is true, is there anything to be done about it? That depends, I suppose, on if one sees cultural movements as something inevitable, or something that can be affected on an individual level. In truth, it’s probably both: No, there’s no putting the Me genie back in the internet bottle; yes, we can try to write, and reasonably expect to read, fiction that thinks more deeply about life than the average Tumblr post. What we want, really, is a well-read modern fiction that represents the historical moment we’re in, with all of its solipsism, its confessional honesty and sometimes wonderful theatricality, while remembering the encompassing moral intelligence great fiction is capable of when, now and then, it gazes away from its own navel.

Image credit: Priscilla Du Preez

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of two novels: The Grand Tour (Doubleday 2016) and The Hotel Neversink (2019 Tin House Books). His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, VICE, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His podcast, Fan’s Notes, is an ongoing discussion about books and basketball. Find him online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.

6 comments:

  1. I don’t know if this is right. Unless I’m misunderstanding your point, it seems that there any number of books that fit your criterion–they may not be as brilliant or successful at it as Sparks’s, but they do engage with their circumstances, and they do situate themselves in a moral sense. Trust Exercise, for instance, comes to mind; whatever you might think of it, it does interrogate the terms of its composition, particularly in relation to the characters’ choices and behavior. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation is another. Anna Burns’s Milkman. Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. Even Ben Lerner’s self-reflecting fiction is taking its own measure in a way that, I think, is far more interesting and complex than navel-gazing. And to go further afield, though closer to the white-hot center of publishing, there’s Sally Rooney, whose fiction, with its characters afloat in a world bereft of judgment, would seem to be closer to what you’re describing (again, if I’m reading you correctly); but I’d suggest that very suspension of judgment in which her characters seem to operate is itself a form of judgment, and a complex placement of her fiction vis-a-vis the world that it and her characters inhabit. Those are just the first few novels that come to mind. It almost seems that you might be missing something that is much rarer now than it used to be, not just because it’s harder to do and do well, but because of a reluctance to render moral judgments more generally and publicly–which has never been easy, but of course what we have now are the great examples that have stood out over time, books by, say, George Eliot or Edith Wharton or D. H. Lawrence or Henry Roth or Fitzgerald (a different sort of first-person) or even such outliers as Hemingway or Kafka. And it may be that we can see such feats of perspective only from a distance.

  2. Hi Ellen,

    Sure, I agree there are many exceptions in the last few years. I liked Trust Exercise, and Lerner’s fiction, I think, blends new or newish autofictional style with a kind of older taking of its own measure—as you say—that I love (esp Leaving the Atocha Station). And as I mentioned in the essay, I think there’s definitely the problem of comparing books that have stood the test of time with newer books, which is not entirely fair.

    That said, all I can speak to is the sense I have of a kind of book that I seem to encounter quite often, and that in some ways feels like representative of the era in its reluctance and sometimes maddening outright refusal to engage with its own potential dramatic material and say something. One of the problems, of course, in writing about this kind of thing is that it’s politic to name the pleasant exceptions to my hypothetical rule, and verboten to name the many, many, many, many highly lauded novels that I feel fit this general bill and would perhaps lend further credence to a claim that can only be made in generalities. So, I suppose, take it or leave it—all I can do here is outline a sense I have about the direction fiction is taking; if it’s not your experience, good for you, sincerely. In any case, thanks for reading and for your thoughtful reply.

  3. “recently published novel after recently published novel”

    Which are these novels? I guess there’s an unwritten law about never naming the titles and authors one dislikes, but I would hate to think I’ve been reading boring, morally unserious novels without knowing it. I was under the impression, from the numerous Best-of-the-Year lists of the last month, that 2019 was the best year for fiction in the history of the world, producing such masterpieces as will never be forgotten in fifty, or even one hundred thousand years. Until, of course, next December when it will be revealed that 2020 saw the release of even better books.

  4. “it’s politic to name the pleasant exceptions to my hypothetical rule, and verboten to name the many, many, many, many highly lauded novels that I feel fit this general bill”

    I didn’t read the comments before writing my own, and so hadn’t had the chance to read this one, showing that Mr Price has already analyzed to some extent the issue I raised in my previous comment. But has he analyzed it enough? Why it is verboten? Amazon is full of negative reviews, so clearly most people don’t feel bound by this prohibition. Is it that when appearing in the august pages of The Millions one is held to a different standard? But surely the different standard to which professionals are held is to be even more stringent with books that fall short–an author’s mother may be forgiven if she tells her son his mediocre book is wonderful, but a professional critic has an obligation to his readers to be honest, even at the cost of hurt feelings. Is it that Mr Price feels that in the future he may work with or for people associated with those unnamed books, their authors or editors or other critics who praised them, or at least meet them at parties, and so to openly criticize them would create an embarrassing moment or kill a potential business opportunity? Obviously the average Amazon reviewer is free of this fear. But one wonders, if Mr Price can’t say what he really thinks because it would be impolitic, why should we trust his analysis or that of other professionals who write about literary matters? Maybe they’re all just being politic all the time.

  5. Hi Ezra,

    To some extent what you describe is the truth, and a problem with our present literary moment—it’s a small world, and literature is nothing if not a niche enterprise at this point, and there’s something of a sense that we all need to be on Team Literature. No one wants to be the person raining on the parade of a small novel doing reasonably well, even if it deserves to be rained on.

    That said, I’m honest about novels on the rare occasions I review them—this, however, is not a book review, and there’s no point or purpose, and a fair amount of cruelty, to naming current novels as examples of morally unserious writing. All the examples in the world would not convince someone disinclined to agree that what I’m describing is a trend or problem.

  6. As someone who has become increasingly disinclined to read fiction (or watch fictional films) of any kind, I very much appreciate your argument, which seems intuitively sensible. But I’m not inclined to debate whether your argument is accurate or not, or about what is “to be done about it” if it is. I’m more interested in what such a trend means, and where it might take us (as writers and readers). TS Eliot wrote about poetry that if it fails to both provoke both some new understanding or insight, and evoke emotional pleasure in the reader, then it “simply isn’t poetry”. Perhaps I’m overly demanding, but I expect the same of fiction, and I’m increasingly disappointed at so rarely finding it. My sense is that the reason so much modern fiction is dissatisfying is that our modern world doesn’t provide the time and space for careful thought, for paying attention, and for objective sense-making needed, I think, to produce a work of fiction sufficiently grounded and attentive to be worth the effort of reading it. I have also been told by some very good writers that they are astonished at how little young aspiring writers have actually read (due perhaps to a combination of too much discouraging dross in the best-seller lists, and lack of the necessary experience, attention and thinking skills for appreciating great works of fiction). So how can we expect them to become good writers? My concern is that the trajectory for fiction may be the same that it is seemingly becoming in much music and art — towards a place where works that are both finely-crafted and accessible to large audiences get lost in the vast morass of manipulative, mediocre, throw-away “pop” content, and joyless, unfathomable esoterica rarely discussed outside universities and museums. We may find some clues to understanding all this from the fact that “third-world” writers seem to be starting to outpace anglophone and European writers in the ranks of those winning writing awards, and in the possible resurgence of the short story vis-à-vis the novel. I guess we’ll see.

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