possibility and estrangement

The Man Booker prize of 2011 has come, and the Man Booker prize of 2011 has gone. It’s been a Booker season of few surprises. In fact, according The Guardian he bookies at William Hill reported glumly that bets were 6/4 on favourite Julian Barnes, who won.

And it brought all the usual delights of the season, including a fevered debate on whether the Booker does, in fact, Matter. The debate, in case you missed it, centred around this year’s stated bias for “readability,” or what one columnist cleverly called “zipalongability,” rather than the usual bias for experimental audacity. A nice, crisp plot well-told, the judges suggested, was to be favoured over inchoate masses of gorgeous, delicately wrought prose.

The divide is of course spurious. A book is by simple definition “readable,” assuming it contains a grammatical order of mostly known words on the page. Books, after all, are made to be read. Even Chomsky’s famous dictum of non sola grammatia—“Colourless green ideas sleep furiously”—is readable (it just means nothing, we can read it fine). But the decrepitude—even, as I see it, sheer silliness—of this debate didn’t stop the pundits from screaming. But then, not even sudden total disappearance of the Earth would could stop the pundits from screaming. Although in space, thankfully, no one can hear them scream.

Columnists and literary figures harrumphed and grumped about the alleged paucity of the shortlist, and rehashed tired old arguments about some theoretical “lit-fic vs. SF” smackdown. Internet pundits and forum users have pontificated and fumed about supposed judicial incompetence, with widespread agreement that anyone could have done better, and that umpires en masse should be killed. It’s felt, for all the world, like some experimental hybrid of a neighbourhood Oscar Party and watching the World Series with your extended family. Just without the nachos and cheap booze.

Credit must be given where it’s due, so hats off to Guardian columnist Sarah Crown, who had the perspicuity to put the Booker question to the Rising Star of SF, China Miéville, author of the appropriately titled Un Lun Dun. Just about anything Miéville says is going to be tangential to most other things, and is worth hearing. Ms Crown’s delight is evident when she writes that “Miéville made a point that I found so interesting I wanted to disseminate it further.”

Miéville, Crown disseminated, suggested that the real divide lies not between lit-fic and spec-fic, nor even between prize judges and internet pundits. The different is between “the literature of recognition versus that of estrangement.”

If this turn phrase strikes you as somehow rising simultaneously from the artistic geniuses of Martin Buber and Miles Davis, hang on. Miéville’s observation is nearly as interesting as Ms Crown reports, and to help in the process of dissemination I’m going to reproduce the entire quotation here. Miéville said that the Booker

and the tradition of, if you like, ‘mainstream literary fiction’ of which it’s the most celebrated local jamboree, has tended strongly to celebrate the former over the latter. There’s an obvious relation with realist versus non-realist work (thinking on these lines might help map links between the pulpiest SF and more celebrated Surrealist and avant-garde work), though the distinction maps only imperfectly across the generic divide. All fiction contains elements of both drives (to different degrees, and variably skilfully). That very fact might be one way of getting at the drab disappointment of, on the one hand, the cliches of some fantasy and the twee and clunking allegories of middlebrow ‘literary’ magic realism (faux estrangement, none-more-mollycoddling recognition), and on the other at those utterly fascinating texts which contain not a single impossible element, and yet which read as if they were, somehow, fantastic (Jane Eyre, Moby-Dick, etc). Great stuff can doubtless be written from both perspectives. But I won’t duck the fact that at its best, I think there is something more powerful, ambitious, intriguing and radical about the road recently less feted. I’d rather be estranged than recognise.

Only Miéville, it must be said, can use the words “Surrealist” and “mollycoddling” in more or less the same breath and still sound intelligent. And there’s a lot worth pondering in his observations. Closer examination, however, leaves me wondering if perhaps the invoked genii aren’t Buber and Davis, but Deepak Chopra and Kenny G. “Recognition” and “estrangement” seem here to be special ways of saying “realism” and “non-realism,” and that distinction just leaves us in the mire.

Ginger Stelle, a rising force in Victorian literature studies and an authority on George MacDonald*, has recently challenged the traditional divide between realism and non-realism. The distinction, she argues, is inherently false, and potentially misleading. She writes:

Who is to say one author‘s perception of reality is any more or less valid than another writer‘s? Reality is, in many ways, subjective, and a great deal depends on an individual author‘s perspective. […] Fiction is fiction, whether it be fantasy, realism, or anything in between. All fiction, even so-called realism, takes place in a world constructed and controlled by the author, and the history of literature is full of works which frequently mix elements of fantasy with elements of realism. (59)

In addition, Stelle offers this fascinating quotation from Cecil Jenkins:

Suppose I enter a train at Victoria Station and open a novel in which a man enters a train at Victoria Station. I shall not be surprised if the writer gets him “realistically” to Brighton or Belgrade before I myself get to East Croydon. I know that this realist novelist is not offering me “reality”—how many hundreds of pages of description would be required to render the complex reality of Victoria station?—but that he is selecting, concentrating, and re-ordering in relation to a game of make-believe conducted through the signs on these processed sheets of vegetable matter. (qtd. in Stelle 58-59)

Thus, Stelle concludes, “At its highest point, true realism is impossible” (59). Fiction is inherently fantastic; realism is just another form of fantasy. Writing and reading is a wonderful “game of make-believe.”

As if in clandestine agreement, Miéville makes an astonishing comparison, referring to “those utterly fascinating texts which contain not a single impossible element, and yet which read as if they were, somehow, fantastic (Jane Eyre, Moby-Dick, etc).” Here I must wonder—in fact I’m nearly convinced—that Miéville is inviting us all to join him in a little private joke.

When once we have allowed the  possibility of a wealthy man keeping his mad wife locked in the attic and trying to marry his daughter’s governess, we can perhaps justifiably allow for that lightning could strike a tree at the precise moment said governess agrees to marry him. Lightning is quite probably striking trees all the time, and some of them are surely near governesses unwittingly accepting offers of bigamy. And there must be some explanation for how two people can possibly hear each other calling to each other over the length of England. Rev. Rivers must have left the phone off the hook. And had a phone before it was invented. Of course, this writer of all people will not deny the possibility of psychic of spiritual phenomena. So perhaps—this being the 19th century—the neighbours were Spiritualists and a séance went rather astray.

So yes, it could happen.

Once we’ve agreed that, of course, it’s a small matter concede the possibility—in fact one is tempted to say, by comparison, probability—that a monomaniacal sea captain would pursue a strangely albino whale around the world, in a ship crewed by infidels and foreigners and outcasts, and a disenchanted writer. It is also just as possible that the white whale would malevolently allow the mad captain to pursue him, malevolently luring the ship to an untimely and tragic end. Whilst somehow being the monomaniacal sea captain, and/or God and/or the devil. Or Dr Freud. And it’s possible, too, that the disenchanted writer would be the only survivor. As marine biologists constantly remind us, we don’t know nearly enough about whales.

It’s possible.

But when we’ve allowed for all these possibilities and come to Miéville’s “etc.”, I cannot help but feel we must also allow for the possibility of goblins, and gods, and elves.

Which brings us back to where we began, of course. If all things are possible then either all literature is possibly realism, or reality is itself fantastic. Neither option, I confess, helps me understand the machinations of the Booker prizewinning ceremony.

The beauty of literature, I think, is that it at once engages both in recognition and estrangement. It estranges us from ourselves and grants us recognition of the other. To use Buber’s terms, literature is a liminal space where I speaks to Thou; we are estranged from our I-hood in recognition of ourselves in Thou. Space, the setting of the liminal dialectic of I-Thou, does not in and of itself matter.

As C. S. Lewis suggests in An Experiment in Criticism, if we cannot see transcendence, or literary beauty, in a work where someone else does, the fault is likely not with the work but with us. We might not, he says, have the capacity to receive beauty in that way, or from that messenger. Readability can have as much to do with readers as with writers.

#Fielding, for instance, was immensely readable and thus popular in the 18th century, but he’s not exactly topping the bestseller charts today. The New Yorker seems to be readable for the sort of people who enjoy reading The New Yorker, and I have a good friend who faithfully reads The Silmarillion once a year.

The point is not that in Fielding we recognise comfortable things of life—his everyday details are antiquated by about 200 years, and even George Eliot’s painstaking inclusion of precise detail has now become historical set-piece. Nor is it that The Silmarillion seems estranged from the everyday world; my friend, I must say, is more at ease with the finer details of Tolkien’s mythology than either Eliot’s England or Occupy Wall Street. The point is that both Fielding and Tolkien at once engender estrangement and recognition through their art. They just chose to do it in striking different ways.

At the end of the day, the Booker—like the Nebula or the Caldecott or any other award—is concerned with honouring what Miéville aptly calls “Great Stuff.” It should be some encouragement, at any rate, that there’s so much Great Stuff about that people have the luxury of getting grumpy when their favourite Great Stuff isn’t chosen.

And it might, in the end, simply not matter. The final ultimate test—the true measure of Readability—is whether a book is read, and re-read, and read by people it was not written for. In other words, people who do not share the author’s place, or time, or generation.

A book can be called truly readable when it brings a flash of wonder and joy, the strange estrangement of recognition, a sudden start of tears to a first-time reader, after fifty, a hundred, five hundred years. The truest and best award a book can have may be one no author lives to see.


*And, as fairness demands I mention, a colleague and close friend of the present writer.


4 thoughts on “possibility and estrangement

  1. I have little time at the moment and so cannot say all that I wish, Mr. Pond, but I would like to say how mega-awesome this blog post is! Your last paragraph is lovely:

    “A book can be called truly readable when it brings a flash of wonder and joy, the strange estrangement of recognition, a sudden start of tears to a first-time reader, after fifty, a hundred, five hundred years. The truest and best award a book can have may be one no author lives to see.”

    And I think that the best literature creates that “strange estrangement of recognition” precisely when one recognizes oneself in something that catches one off guard, as though you only properly see a glimpse of yourself for the first breathtaking time….

  2. Consider Carrie-Ann’s comment fully seconded.

    I love Miéville’s incongruous word choices. He’s always fun to read. But I had the same set of thoughts as you did when it came to his mention of Jane Eyre. “Jane! Jane! Jane!” “I am coming–where are you?” And the latter echoes in Ferndean. Right. Accept that, and we’ve most definitely made room for elves or gods or God. Or all three.

    Which makes me think, randomly and without reference to Miéville or Stelle, of Chesterton’s pity for Mr. what’s-his-name, who by the strictness of his materialism wasn’t allowed to believe in fairies. “Poor Mr. ____ is not allowed the tiniest imp, though it be hiding under a pimpernel.” I don’t care much whether the Bookers consider speculative fiction, but I will forever come down on the side of its worth for opening a certain sort of reader to a truer knowledge of the world we know and our fellow inhabitants.

    It’s hard to imagine a book more beautifully liminal and mind-shaping than Jane Eyre, which is one of the reasons it’s one of my all-time favorite novels. Sometimes I think it is my favorite, trumping even Harry Potter, if you can imagine that.

    Whether the work ultimately deserve the name realist or fantastic, the art of the writer involves pulling in enough of reality for recognition, and enough of fantasy to estrange the reader from himself long enough to catch his breath in wonder. And the Man Booker prize is only relevant insofar as it recognizes such achievements.

  3. Thanks, Carrie-Ann and Jenna; I had a lot of fun writing this as well. I think that Mieville may have been having a bit of a joke–it would be the sort of thing he would do–or else was just talking at random and mentioning the first non-SF novels that came into his head? There may be something in the “recognition” and “estrangement” idea, but I don’t think it has much to do with genre, and it probably has everything to do with Buber’s I and Thou, and perhaps with Jean Vanier.

    But that’s all very nascent in my mind just now. The much more solid fact is, as I’ve said before, the sheer irrelevance of the realist/fantasy distinction, except as (confusing) classification markers for two kinds of the same art. Tolkien called it sub-creation, albeit for reasons of his own.

    Although I’m not entirely sure, Carrie-Ann, that great literature necessarily reveals oneself; it may be revealing things quite alien to the self at time. But perhaps I misread your comment?

    At the same time, I do think we need literary awards, and I think the Booker is a wonderful award to get, and since we have Hugos and Nebulas and Caldecotts and Newberrys, I don’t think we need to complain about it too loudly. It all depends on what genre you work in. Personally, I don’t think I’ll ever get the Oke Doke Award for Historical Romance, and that’s completely fine by me.

  4. I think that I was unclear in my previous comment, Mr. Pond, so I can see why you read it that way. I agree that great literature does not necessarily reveal oneself–at least not in terms of recognizing yourself in the tale somehow (though that might occur when least expected in a strange form, making you see yourself from a distance).

    The way in which I think it’s revealing is in how great literature provokes. Provocation often requires one to run up against the strange in a way that makes you “feel out your own mind” in ways that might be alien. In that respect, it helps one to reveal oneself to oneself by means of engaging with the strange. Hope this is clearer than the previous time…. I’m glad you pressed me on this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s