In Defence of (some) Obfuscatory Prose

I get a little tired of the empty-headed dismissals of so-called ‘literary fiction’.

First, let’s consider this wretched, supposed ‘genre’. It seems to embrace pretty much any and every book written before the 1980s – with a few exceptions – that has survived the test of time, and that alone ought to tell us something.

To my mind, ‘literary fiction’ is nothing more than freestyle writing – writing in which the author has no interest in confining him- or herself within the narrow confines of some genre with its write-by-numbers rules – which is precisely why it embraces so much of the literature prior to the 1980s. The concept of genre only took hold at that point. The thousands of years of literature prior to that was never so confined.

In other words, ‘literary fiction’ is nothing more than… well… fiction. Fiction before these silly genres came into being. People sitting down with an idea and writing a book in the way that suited them. Freestyle fiction. No more.

To my mind, in other words, what fiction ought to be, what it always was until very, very recently in its long and magnificent history. That it should be confined to its own little corner to satisfy the marketing needs of corporate publishers is bad enough.

That it should be condemned by the ignorant is pathetic.

Most of the time in their condemnation, these ‘critics’ are talking about a form of prose quite specifically, one which in no way embraces all freestyle fiction, but which certainly falls into the category and is thus deemed to be of the – ahem – literary fiction genre. That is any writing that tends towards the poetic or experimental; writing, in other words, that can make for a difficult read.

This ‘issue’ raised its head again for me, most recently, in comments on an article in the Guardian written by Will Self, and to some extent I agree with his critics in this instance. The article was certainly poetic, even experimental in tone. Okay, so Self has a voice and he wants to stick with it. It’s a good one to my mind, albeit not to everyone’s taste. However, there does come a point where it becomes pointless, and this was it.

A good writer can adapt. Self could have written this piece in a manner more suited to the medium. At least it’s my guess he could have done so, but chose not to. I don’t think that was wise. Of course, it may just be that his mind is so refined that he cannot step down from those ethereal heights, but I doubt it.

He may defend it as his trademark, but then he has to decide whether he wants to put over an idea, or whether he wants to be himSelf indiscriminately. Given that we all have to adapt to those situations in which we find ourselves and that Self will be no exception – I am sure he uses a different vernacular when talking with his friends, with his bank manager, with his lover in the immediate aftermath of a passionate bout of sexual activity, at least if he doesn’t want to lose friends, lose financial opportunities, and sleep in an otherwise empty bed – given that he can change his vernacular, then, I think it would have been better had he done so in this instance. The lily in such a critique is the idea behind it. Gild it and the idea is lost for many. The idea is paramount and pragmatic in this instance, the medium itself necessarily pragmatic. The poetic enhancements just get in the way.

However, that is not to slam obfuscatory / poetic / experimental prose altogether, and I look forward to reading Self’s work having heard good things about him. When I do, I shall expect to find this style and will be happy to see it.

So much for the arguments against such poetic intrusions into an inappropriate environment, but – as usual – there were those who had to extend it out into a sweeping condemnation of such writing anywhere, anytime. It’s ignorant, folks, and it gets irritating. Sure, you don’t like it, but your dislike doesn’t objectively invalidate it in every instance.

Take two of the most famous examples of such prose – James Joyce with Finnegan’s Wake; TS Eliot with The Wasteland. Both these were written by masters of their craft. Scan their body of work and these are the exceptions, not the rule. Both can write in a clear, accessible but, nonetheless, skilful manner presenting no obfuscation, and a joy to read in their own right. When such a writer pulls a rabbit out of nowhere, it’s worth paying attention to that rabbit.

I had the same feeling with Picasso. What I saw, for many years, was a gimmick. I found it irritating. Then I happened to see some of his earlier work, ink drawings done, I believe, in his teens, perhaps even before. The man was clearly not only a genius, but also a prodigy. Picasso didn’t just talk the talk, he could walk the walk. I turned to his work again with a fresh eye thanks to that, and have liked him ever since. All I needed to do was give him the time and the patience rather than dismiss him out of hand.

That is not to say everyone should invest that time, that patience if they are not so inclined. It is to say, with some irritation, that if they’re not willing to do so, then casual, sweeping dismissals don’t hack it. “Not my kind of thing” will suffice.

I remember a woman at a cocktail party one time talking about how she had gone to an exhibition of abstract art. She didn’t, she proclaimed, get it. She didn’t see the point. Then she paused, and added that a few pieces did cause her to stop and look more closely. When she came to look those pieces up in the catalogue, she found that they just happened to be the high-ticket items in the exhibition. In no way could she differentiate them from their fellows in terms of what gave them added value. Nonetheless, there had to be something going on there for her to have singled them out for special attention.

We have to distinguish between the merchants of gimmickry who churn out the same sort of thing over and over with a clever line in sophistry to back it up, and those who have proved they can indeed walk the walk. If Eliot can delineate so perfectly, so amusingly, and so lucidly the inner turmoil that may be hidden behind the British ‘stiff upper lip’ in so few words in his Hysteria, then The Wasteland must have been written to some purpose. If Joyce in his short stories can present so accessibly the life of the Irish in characters so beautifully drawn, then Finnegan’s Wake was not mere gimmickry given that gimmickry is superfluous when one can write so well.

So yes, I agree, there are gimmick-merchants out there. Just as there are experimental artists who, if asked could not draw you a cat distinguishable from a hedgehog, so too there are writers who, if asked to write in clear and lucid prose, would come up with something exceedingly dull.

But don’t dismiss it all, folks, just because you don’t happen to like it. That’s just prejudice borne out of ignorance.


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