on 14 October 2013
Professor Eaglestone is interested in the postmodern, but he chooses in this review to define contemporary fiction as `the last ten years' - essentially what has been happening since postmodernism. The less recent is simply an introduction to that.
He is a typical English lecturer in that he is more concerned with form than with content or the author
He starts with realism as the dominant form of the novel - "Realism is a form that pretends to offer a window into a world through which one sees events as if they were really happening, regardless of whether they are ordinary (falling in love) or extraordinary (flying on a broomstick."
Then the baton passes to postmodernism - `the dominant mode in which realism was challenged in the novel in the 1980s and 1990s'. He refuses to define postmodernism, but we get the following points:
* `Incredulity about metanarratives' - we no longer believed in the forward movement of human progress towards a better world
* Developed from the techniques of modernism and experimental fiction, drawing easily on magical realism and on the newer global reach of fiction
* Retells in different ways what has been told before - Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus (1984) pastiches Victorian gothic and academic discussions about prisons; intertextuality - retelling King Lear for instance
* Delights in stressing the fact that it is fiction, playing games with the text and with reality
* Self-referential - Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981) 'describes its own telling and its own rhetorical tricks and strategies as it's going along.'
* Brings together high and low culture - referencing Greek myths, popular cinema, cartoons...
* Refusing a simplistic closure or ending and asking more of the reader who has to decide what the novel means
* Belief in the power of narrative - to change the stories we write about ourselves is to change the world.
If that was then, what is now? He identifies three trends:
* A gentler, more accessible version of playing with plot and text - for instance the chronology may be played with but there is closure, of a kind - there is a stronger sense of narrative
* A return to a kind of modernism - stream of consciousness, multiple character perspectives and multi strand plots, the `one day' novel like Ulysses - borrowing techniques
* Breaking larger and larger chunks of reality into the work - borrowing from historical or individual stories, from the immediacy of reported experience, a kind of authenticity - demolition of the barriers between fiction and non-fiction writing
He points to Ali Smith's The Accidental, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, David Eggers A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Ian McEwan's Saturday, among others.
Although the author claims to reject the value-laden Leavisite canon of serious literature, actually he does the same himself in not discussing contemporary trends in genre fiction - in thrillers, detective stories, or historical novels, except when they perform a crossover into literary fiction. He comments that there are writers who `creatively mix genres' but that `the separation of fiction into genres seems increasingly powerful.' He sees that as restricting, and likes books like Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go that can be shortlisted both for the Man Booker and for the Arthur C. Clarke award. Literary fiction must play with realism rather than accept it. It is what he calls `Booker fiction' but he sees it as free and `open' unlike `genre' which is `closed' or at least a `minimum security prison'.
The idea of the texture and granularity of experience - the particular sense many earlier novels had that they were enabling you to step into the shoes of others, and live and breathe how life felt for them - seems ignored by this review. He is concerned with innovation in form, rather than in the innovation of perspective. He refers to a global reach of novels - and draws on examples which cross cultures.But he nevertheless is more interested in plot devices and in playing with language than he is with different human experiences. He makes no mention of novels like White Teeth (Zadie Smith, 2000) and their discussion of identity, complex friendships, family conflicts and how we live now.
So this very short introduction is as notable for what it misses out as for what it includes. But, nevertheless, it does attempt to look at recent trends in serious fiction and say what they are - and it is always a challenge to look at what is happening right under your nose.
Robert Eaglestone's very short introduction to Contemporary Fiction is a literary-critical examination of what is being written at the moment. He places this in the context of modernism and post-modernism (assuming, somewhat tendentiously, that post-modernism is over, though there isn't a word for what replaces it), and considers the differences between genre fiction and literary fiction, positing the terms 'closed' and 'open' fiction as preferred alternatives. In the final section he considers three key features of contemporary fiction, being our view of the past, our view of the present, and our view of the technological.
This is a lovingly written book. "Hard boiled thrillers have short sentences. A clipped vocabulary," he writes, immediately followed by: "Sentences in academic texts, on the other hand, are long and drawn out, characterised by subclauses, usually but not always full of qualifications, and display a detailed complexity, certainly in their lexical and syntactic choices (their words and grammar)." The rest of the book isn't quite as formally playful as that, but it's clear that Eaglestone's love for literature imbues his own writing with a knowingness which one seldom sees.
General surveys of literature are always difficult. They are most especially difficult when the field in question is united by a time rather than a movement, and almost irredeemably difficult when that time is now, and the critic does not have the benefit of hindsight. In this golden age of self-publishing, where even published authors are beginning to follow well-known musicians down the self-publishing route, 'literature', as Eaglestone tacitly admits, is being defined not so much by what agents will pitch to publishers, but by what the big prizes are prepared to shortlist. Indeed, he suggests that 'Booker fiction' is an acceptable alternative to 'literary fiction', and perhaps expresses it better.
Eaglestone is at pains not to side with the Leavis's and write off genre fiction for not being serious enough. However, his solution, which is to suggest that literary fiction can be about anything, whereas (to take his example) science-fiction cannot does not actually reflect the way the terms grew up. Literary fiction during the 20th century was, as he describes, very much subject to the Leavis description of being serious about life, but, in practice, anything which was genre fiction was excluded. He points out that science fiction can now be shortlisted for the Booker prize, but non-science fiction can't be shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke prize, but I'm not sure that that really tells us anything. His notion of 'open' and 'closed' literature is interesting, but my sense is that what is termed literary fiction implies a value judgement -- he tries very hard to avoid this -- and calling genre fiction 'closed' is essentially the same judgement.
Dividing the themes of contemporary fiction into the past, the present and the future has a formal interest. However, I don't believe that he actually makes the case that this is any more than a division. The future, in particular, as he discusses it, is about technology, not about the future as such.
This is a book with a rich range of references, and Eaglestone works hard to explain the plots and themes for us in books we are unlikely to have encountered. On the way he makes some very astute and insightful points. However, by the end, I do not feel that I have grasped what Contemporary Literature really is. I blame this fault on the title, not the author. In fifty years people will look back and tell us what the dominant characteristics of second decade 21st century literature were, but, at the moment, we are among the trees, and cannot describe the forest.
The Oxford University Press "Very Short Introduction" series, now well over 350 in number, continues with this approach to contemporary fiction by a University of London professor. It is not, as you might think, a survey of modern novelists. Instead it concentrates on different styles of writing, with particular emphasis on the experimental. As for "contemporary", the author states in the introduction that he means "the last ten years or so", in other words the 21st century.
The most interesting chapters are, perhaps, those on "the past", "the present", and "the future". This relates not, of course, to when the novels were written, but to the period in which they are set. The past is represented by the historical novel and the future, typically, by science fiction. The author goes into the different ways in which each can be written; for example dialogue in the historical novel can be either in old or, as with Mantel's Wolf Hall, modern English. He writes at some length about the use of technology in "future" novels.
The author's emphasis on the experimental means that several examples he gives are far from being household names, while many popular "middlebrow" writers do not get a look in. I was pleased that one of my favourite modern novels, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, has over two pages devoted to it in the chapter on "the present" (even though it is set 50 years before it was written).
This is a thoughtful and quite personal "short introduction" which can be recommended to interested readers. Foreign works of fiction are also covered.
Eaglestone's new book is a very welcome addition. It's not a particularly straightforward read in itself, but don't let this put you off, especially after the early couple of chapters. He has lots to say, says it quite concisely and eruditely (he is a leading academic), but he does use a style that is warm and clarity. Reasonably enough, he seems swayed towards certain favourite modern writers, but overall, you finish the book feeling his is a fair summary and you feel that know an awful lot more than you did when you began it - as well as feeling you need to spend a lot more time reading modern literature, which is surely A Very Good Thing.
A slight weakness, but in a book this length with a remit to be "A Very Short Introduction", a wholly acceptable or at least understandable one, is that the writer makes several unsupported claims of the kind he would surely mark his own students down if they found their way into their term essays. The idea that today our lives are vastly more complex than in the past leaves me wondering. It's almost received wisdom that such a statement is true, but I do wonder if it's not mere arrogance. When Eliot was writing "The Wasteland" or Arnold "Dover Beach", was life really simpler?
Eaglestone is one of our leading English academics and is, as I've suggested above, capable of being very erudite. He clearly "knows his stuff" and is certainly not a lazy academic, being fully up-to-date with current LitCrit and theory. Nicely, unlike for example in Terry Eagleton's latest book "How to Read Literature", Eaglestone keeps his political views at bay. For that I applaud him and it leads to a feeling of a level of trust that I can't say I always feel when reading Eagleton (although Eagleton is funnier).
Overall, I found Eaglestone's new book to be an entertaining and very useful read. It will have you ordering a few books you might otherwise never have heard of from Amazon's bookshelves!
Contemporary fiction is quite a slippery subject, endlessly pushing the boundaries of structure and narrative as it attempts to find new ways of reflecting and examining themes, large and small, that shape the human condition. Good though it is on this tricky matter I suspect Professor Eaglestone's book will need rewriting in a couple of years, simply because authors will come up with new ways of telling stories or because new themes will emerge (such as the recent emergence of globalisation for example, or the internet) which completely alter the world in which we live. But then its endlessly evolving nature is one of the strands that makes contemporary fiction so interesting.
The two chapters that appealed to me especially were those on genre and the past. Genre is a tricky subject, the way we categorise works of fiction in part shapes how we interpret them when we read. Macbeth, for example, comes across very differently if we read it as a crime story (in which case our expectations would tell us that Macbeth himself could not have murdered Duncan because that's surely far too obvious) rather than as a great drama and exploration into the dark worlds of ambition and fate. Also consider Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go - mainstream intellectual novel or science fiction? Of course it is both, but attempting to bracket it as one or the other can narrow our expectations of what the novel is trying to do.
The past is also tricky. To what extent should a historical novel attempt to recreate the past in a realistic fashion? Would clunky ye olde Englishe detract from the reading experience? Similarly is it ever possible to write a 21st-century novel about Tudor England, for example, without examining the past through the lens of the present? How authentic can historical fiction ever be and, if it were to be 100% authentic would we then just have an impressive costume drama with no relevance to the modern world in which we live?
It's all thought provoking stuff, and Eaglestone chooses his examples with care (the analysis of Nicola Barker's Darkmans was especially informative) so, all in all, this is a fine introduction to a very elusive subject.
At first I didn't like this book. It's certainly a short introduction, but it didn't seem very simplified. I've got a degree in English (albeit not modern English literature), so I was surprised to find it as difficult as I did. Eaglestone seems to be in awe of Sarah Waters; the attention he gives her in the early chapters seems disproportionate, but thankfully he gives other authors equal attention later on and the book recovers its balance.
Eaglestone makes some bold assertions without feeling the need to back them up. The most glaring of these is that modern people have far more complex and difficult lives than their ancestors. This is arguable, to say the least.
But it's worth persevering. Eaglestone does know his stuff, and the occasions when his political bias intrudes are rare enough to be forgiven. A good critique enables a reader to form an opposite opinion to the reviewer, and his praise for Nicola Barker's Darkmans is enough to convince me that this is a terrible example of up-its-own-backside literature to be avoided at all costs. Elsewhere, his takedown of Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for its use of a child narrator - simplifying and thus avoiding the issues - seems spot-on.
I wasn't convinced till I read the final chapter on criticism, which added something new (to me) and put the rest of the book into proper context.
The Oxford Very Short Introduction series is aptly named. These small, brief volumes offer a snapshot of a particular field of knowledge, presented by an expert, and delivered with authority. This is no exception. Eaglestone has written extensively about modern and contemporary literature, and is well-known as a leading academic in the field of Holocaust studies. He offers here a wide-ranging view of contemporary (that is, written in the last decade) fiction, particularly of an experimental nature. he does not confine himself to Anglophone fiction, touching on some works that are certainly not that well-known in Britain. It's a forgivable idiosyncrasy in a well-ordered and authoritative survey.
This compact book packs a lot in as it takes you thought the basics of contemporary fiction. It's a great pocket sized book if you're trying to get up to speed: you'll find it inspires you to look further at a range of books.
Robert Eaglestone's "Very Short Introduction to Contemporary Fiction" is a clear, concise and highly enjoyable guide, and offers a wide-ranging and balanced account of its subject. In his Conclusion, the author states, "This book has tried to find patterns in some fiction: innovations in form, new ways of engaging with the past, a 'new humility' in fiction, a concern with technological thinking". He has succeeded in those aims and, significantly, introduced me to novels of which I was unaware, written in languages other than English, as well as those in English, and to which I look forward to reading. In a few years the book will need updating or, more probably, replacing. Inevitably, given its subject, this account is provisional, but for the time being it is to be given a very warm welcome.
on 22 January 2016