Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Note on Literary Technique in an Age of Muddle

Postmodernist thought is famously marked by a suspicion of certainty and stress on subjectivity, and a tendency to view cultural production as "play." Those attitudes are quite prominent in the prevailing views of literary technique. That the author (unavoidably an authority figure making authority claims within their work) should be invisible in their work, their voice never obtrusive (the sorts of "indulgences" in which, for instance, Victor Hugo engaged in a book like Les Miserables today unthinkable). That it is far, far better thing for them to write from within a character's point of view than to write from a third-person omnisicient point of view, and even more impressive, several first-person viewpoints. That the use of unreliable narrators is to be especially esteemed. That a writer's "showing" their story is far better than merely telling it, or even showing and telling, and "incluing" far better than "infodumping."

All other things being equal, the use of these techniques - which have come to be regarded as "rules" for writers with any aspiration to genuinely literary endeavor - makes a piece of fiction more rather than less difficult to read, which, ironically, only raises their prestige. Many influential critics in and out of the Academy treat such difficulty as a virtue rather than a failing, because they enjoy approaching books as puzzles, because it is the more difficult works which require the kind of explication and interpretation which results in published papers, because mastery of the obscure carries with it great prestige. Because, for all the postmodernist suspicion of value judgments, and questioning of the old line between high culture and low, a leisure class elitism not only endures, but where literature is concerned, seems to be growing wider. (Thus America's first Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Sinclair Lewis, is virtually unmentioned among highbrows, while these typically regard the High Modernists as kings and queens of twentieth century literature.)

This is not to dismiss techniques of the sort discussed here, or the difficult books in which they result. Certainly all of the devices mentioned above have been used to good effect by various authors in various books. Equally, difficult works can be well worth the demands they make on the reader. Yet, it is undeniable that, in line with the postmodernist emphasis on surface, and sense of cultural and intellectual life as a parlor game, the attitude elevating them presumes that what one says is of far less importance than how one says it - with the premium placed on everything but clarity.1 The result is that while a writer can create a narratively and intellectually coherent story with the techniques discussed here, they make the task much more difficult, and anyway one who elects to use them in the first place has already made a concession to the prevailing fashion - gripping them within a very powerful tendency toward the fragmentation of the work in which they are using them. Naturally, one can make quite the muddle of things without particularly trying - and if they are very, very lucky, get hailed as a genius for doing so.

1. One might plausibly regard this as also a function of the advent of electronic, visual media, and a consequent tendency to emphasize what print fiction can do that, for instance, film and television cannot - leading to a stress on how language is used, and in particular, the word game. One might also see the postmodernist emphasis on surface rather than depth as a factor.

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