Feb 5 2010

Occupied with Occupations

In a Jan. 29, 2010 column of the London Telegraph, “When Fiction Breaks Down,” John Lanchester argues that readers rarely come across a story that focuses on a character’s occupation because modern jobs are too complicated for novel readers and their writers.

Initially this sounds absurd, but as an American, Bookbread often misses implied or understated references to the institutional caste-class-clashes of merry ole England. Perhaps there is sense to be made of Lanchester assuming the majority of modern day workers engage in their productivity via complicated, non-novelistic jobs.

But just because Lanchester reduces readers of novels to crass careerists (unworthy of mention in fictional long form) doesn’t imply that twenty-first century writers should delve into the peasant’s trough to discover and recover the details of homesteading, as younger readers encounter in the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. No, Bookbread must countercheck and ask: Aren’t most of today’s jobs uncomplicated, boring, tedious—all the things a writer tries to avoid in his or her writing—and that one of the principle responsibilities of novelists is to enchant the reader by escaping that boredom?

In “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Nabokov observes:

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer. . . .The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.”

Yes, sometimes such enchanting requires fantasy and absurdity peppered with philosophy, but that doesn’t mean novelists should omit writing about the occupations of characters that readers can then relate to. Otherwise there would be no need to read about the surveyor’s inability to measure in Kafka’s The Castle (1926), nor The Old Man and the Sea (1952) and Hemingway’s focus on Cuban fishermen, nor the duties of butlering described in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989).

Bookbread was not the first to recognize that nobody works for a living in Ulysses (1922), but because Lanchester’s entire exordium waxes nostalgic—how writers don’t have real bosses—readers quickly conclude the rest of the article contains little beyond remembrances of literary things past, things that really have no relevance to current and would-be twenty-first century writers or their readers.

Lanchester, however, does preach a bit of literary gospel when he explains:

The world is full of interesting things that don’t fit inside traditional fictional forms. That is because a novel has to seem true. It doesn’t have to be factually or literally true and the kind of truth it seeks can be fantastical, wild, unearthly, illogical, dreamlike, incoherent, even mad—but it does have to feel true. It has to generate a world of its own and create a satisfying internal order within that world, on that world’s own, mysterious, innate terms.

Alas, Lanchester tries (and fails) to create a formula via Venetian voodoo:

Freud said that the two criteria of mental health were the ability to love and to work. The first of those impulses is amply chronicled in the world of fiction—indeed, exhaustively so, since there are shelves and shelves of books that are essentially all about love. The world of work barely features.

UPDATE:

D.G. Myers’s “Sex and the Novel” on A Commonplace Blog goes completely against Lanchester’s Freudian formulation, claiming that when it comes to sex:

Few novelists have treated it as an idea. At best it represents a getaway from ideas.

Myers then creates his own formula in a follow up:

The twentieth-century novel became an either/or. Either it included plenty of sex scenes, or it ignored human sexuality altogether.

The issue concerns what (if any) ideas have been conjured by the word “sex” in a context of twentieth-century English language fiction.  Perhaps (like work) sex in the twenty-first century is something too inane or complicated for novel readers and writers to expose themselves to.

Being that Bookbread comes from the Miller/Mailer school, the question beckons:  Who are we to blame for “genital friction”?  Freud?  Joyce?  Henry Miller?  Bookbread want a scapegoat for the novelistic proliferation of belly slapping.

In other readings:  An essay “Our Boredom, Ourselves,” Jennifer Schuessler of Sunday New York Times Book Review provides a recent example of a novelist writing about occupations, and becoming bored:

In April 2011, the limits of literary boredom will be tested when Little, Brown & Company publishes “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace’s novel, found unfinished after his suicide in 2008, about the inner lives of number-crunching I.R.S. agents. An excerpt that appeared last year in The New Yorker depicts a universe of microboredom gone macro: “He did another return; again the math squared and there were no itemizations on 32 and the printout’s numbers for W-2 and 1099 and Forms 2440 and 2441 appeared to square, and he filled out his codes for the middle tray’s 402 and signed his name and ID number. . . .”

Whatever to make Wallace, at least Schuessler gets it right in her conclusion:

After all, if it weren’t for all the boring books in the world, why would anyone feel the need to try to write more interesting ones?

NYR: Franz Kafka, The Castle / David Foster Wallace, The Pale King.

Nabokov, Vladimir. “Good Readers and Good Writers.” Lectures on Literature. (1980). Ed. by Fredson Bowers. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NY. (1982). pp. 5–6