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An up to date if partial review,
This review is from: Contemporary Fiction: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (Paperback)
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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.