In 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.
Our 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.
Consider, 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
In class the other day, a student compared novel writing to climbing a very large tree. You’re on one branch, she said, and it’s wobbly. You don’t like it, it makes you uncomfortable—if not totally freaked out. Your hands are probably chapped by now, and the ground below grows more and more distant. Above you, there are sturdier spots, breathtaking vistas, but you have to climb carefully. You don’t want to fall out of the tree, do you?
A couple of weeks ago, I figured something out about the structure of my very-new novel that left me feeling exhilarated and ready to move forward. I’d been working and working on a certain section until—exhale—something changed. It felt like when I get a Thai massage, and the masseuse, upon discovering a particularly tough archipelago of knots, goes to town, grinding her fist (or—wait—is that an elbow…or…her teeth?) as I try to hold back tears. This time, though, I was the masseuse, and I was massaging the hell out of my novel. I couldn’t see its knots, I could only feel them, sliding and resisting beneath my fingertips. I didn’t stop, though—I would smooth them out, I would get to the bottom of this. When I was done, my novel did feel better. Also, it needed an aspirin.
I’ve always sought out writing metaphors and similes because they articulate the strangeness, joy, and frustrations of such an abstract activity, one that requires you to dream and to focus at the same time. It’s the not-exactly quality of figurative language, the pairing of two alien contexts to create a new familiar, that seems appropriate for a process that is at times so maddening. What is writing? It seems to exist in a liminal universe, where words slowly turn into worlds.
I have some favorites. There are many gems in The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard, which begins, “When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe.” Lorrie Moore has said that a short story is “like a mad, lovely visitor with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend.” (Not sure I agree—but, lord, do I wish I did.) In an interview, Ron Carlson said, “Today, my writing day felt like pushing a big rock that was flat on every side, and heavy. Oosh. All I can say is: here’s my shoulder once again.” And was it Ann Beattie who compared writing a novel to walking into the ocean to die? (Now, that’s one I can relate to.) Of course, no essay on this topic can exclude Franz Kafka’s “A book should be the ax that breaks the frozen sea within,” but I prefer Joy Williams’s take, included in the contributors’ notes of Best American Short Stories 1995:
This was an extremely difficult story for me to write, and I could not get out, I could not get out of the story. Writing it did not break up the frozen sea within, this is no ax, the sea remains as heavy and unyielding as ever. Everything here seems to me to be cold and helpless and unresolved. There is such a difference between the living and the dead, it cannot be traveled really. So I perpetrate a lie here. I pretend to traverse some of the distance the living share. All art is about nothingness: our apprehension of it, our fear of it, its approach. We’re on the same trail here, we hurry along, soon we’ll meet. There are details along the way, of course. Even here there are tattoos and hairdressers and ice cream and dogs with slippers. But these are just details, which protect us as long they can from nothingness, the dear things.
Isn’t that just exactly how it feels? Upon reading these descriptions, and others, I feel less alone.
I decided to ask some contemporary writers for their own writing metaphors. In his reply to my email query, Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, asked me, “Is the metaphor supposed to relate to the act of writing, as in, it’s like pulling your hair out one strand at a time? Chewing chalk?” Yes, I wrote back, that’s precisely what I mean. Peter Bognanni, author of the debut novel The House of Tomorrow, was more practical: “Writing fiction is writing life,” he said. “Except characters don’t go to the bathroom as often.” (Amen to that. I always think, if I made myself into a fictional character, she would have to pee every 35 minutes… talk about squandering the drama.)
I received a few outdoorsy metaphors—maybe being chained to a desk sends our minds there immediately. Kate Christensen, most recently the author of Trouble, has been working on a new novel, which she compares to climbing a mountain.
I started in September at base camp with a full, heavy pack and lots of equipment. It was a long uphill slog through an avalanche, a blizzard, crevasses, and a couple of wrong turns. Last week I finally made it to the summit, oxygen-depleted and cautiously euphoric. I’m heading down the other side now, and I can see the ending at the bottom, but they always say the descent is the most dangerous part of the whole undertaking.
Antoine Wilson, author of The Interloper, is also working on a new novel. He compared writing to “fishing with a bent nail and cut hot dogs for bait. All nibbles, a constant feeling that things are getting away from you, a long slow day. And then someone hands you a spear gun. You realize you weren’t really fishing before, just preparing.” A surfer boy from way back, Antoine says he also relies on the adage, “Ride the wave you’re on.”
Hyatt Bass, who, aside from being the author of The Embers, may just be my doppelganger, compared writing to canoeing through a swamp: “It looks gorgeous from a distance, and you can’t wait to delve in. You start off fast and strong. Soon you’re totally lost, scared, worn out, covered in mosquitoes, and you can’t stand the smell of yourself. If you’re lucky, you find your way out and the swamp still looks good enough to lure you back several more times.”
Jennifer Egan, whose new novel A Visit From the Goon Squad comes out this week, told me she often compares writing to physical exercise: “If you do it regularly,” she said, “you can’t imagine not doing it. But if you fall out of the habit, you’re no more inclined to write than you would be to run when no one is chasing you.”
Matthew Specktor, author of That Summertime Sound, gave me an architectural metaphor. Regarding the revision of his new novel, he said, “I feel I’m picking up a very large house, with all its support beams intact, and moving it fifteen feet to the left. The structure’s the same, only all its views are shifted.” Emily St. John Mandel, fellow Millions contributor and author of The Singer’s Gun, also had a revision-specific metaphor:
I saw a television segment when I was a kid about a man who carved very realistic ducks out of blocks of wood. There were a few before-and-after shots (block of wood, then duck), and the interviewer asked the man how he did it. The man said, “Well, I start with the block of wood, and then I just cut away everything that isn’t the duck.”
For some reason that’s always stayed with me, and since cutting away extraneous parts is such a large part of the revision process for me, I think of that television segment all the time when I’m polishing my work—I think of the process of revising a novel as getting rid of everything that isn’t the duck.
Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine, is usually quite the jokester, but when I asked for a metaphor, he got serious on me. “Writing is a self-inflicted wound,” he said. Ouch, I thought. And also: Man, that’s true.
Now that I have visualized writing as tree-climbing, mountaineering, running from a murderer, and self-mutilation, among other things, I am feeling pumped to get to work. How about you?
Image credit: Flickr/JonRiivera.