Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Novelty of the Novel

Does the contemporary novel require a facelift ? Major surgery?  Kenneth Goldsmith, who teaches Uncreative Writing at the University of Pennsylvania and is the Museum of Modern Art’s first Poet Laureate, asserts that the novel is no longer original enough:

Creativity is about the most worn-out, abused concept that used to mean something remarkable, something that differentiated someone, something that made them special...What was once creative is now uncreative.

Rather than coming up with his own analysis of why the Man Booker Prize is unoriginal, Kenneth Goldsmith quotes Craig Dworkin:

we don’t think of the Booker Prize Finalists as unoriginal, or uncreative, or plagiarized, despite the fact that they have close precedents and that we can imagine confusing them with another work.  Take ‘a story of innocence and experience, hope and harsh reality’: a quick Google search (conducted last fall prior to the announcement of the winner) reveals that these are the exact words used to describe Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”; Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”; William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”; Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club”; James Joyce’s “Araby” (and that’s just the first page of results).
     Nor do we think of these works as unoriginal, or uncreative, or plagiarized, despite the fact that just from the one paragraph synopses on the Man Booker Website we learn that 4 of the 6 shortlisted novels advertise themselves as featuring immigrants negotiating the difficulties of a strange land; 5 of the 6 hinge on the dramatic turn of a murder; 4 of the 6 reveal secrets from the past that come unexpectedly to light (half of them through the surprise arrival of a letter)…

…and so on. If the point is that all prizes are unsurprisingly and unappetizingly unoriginal, well, this isn’t news. What might be news is Goldsmith’s remedy:

Calling a practice uncreative is to reenergize it, opening creativity up to a whole slew of strategies that are in no way acceptable to creativity as it’s now known. These strategies include theft, plagiarism, mechanical processes, repetition. By employing these methods, uncreativity can actually breathe life into the moribund notion of creativity as we know it.

Hmm. Fortunately we have writers like Tracy Chevalier, Chad Harbach, Alice Hoffman, Ian McEwan, and Barbara Kingsolver—to name a handful—unconcerned about their “uncreativity.”

Like a rose or a football or the aurora borealis, a novel has certain characteristics that—happily!—make it a novel. How much can you change while retaining something with fragrance (rose), star power (football), and plot (novel)? If you add pictures, then you’ve changed what words contribute. Is that good? If you keep typing yesterday’s Times (as Goldsmith has proudly done) instead of engineering a solid storyline, is that good? If you shrug off the essence of creativity because we live in internet age, is that best of all?

You can’t tell a brand-new story. Too late. But you can craft the characters, interweave the symbols, shape the arcs, foreshadow the ending, build the backdrop—choose the words—so that ever could or will do it this way. Original. Creative. Meaningful. Yours.

The novel thrives. People read them; people write them. Many, many people. Today’s best novels are as good as any novels ever, maybe better. Yes, today’s stories recapitulate Henry Fielding, Charles Dickens, Emily Brontë, and Kate Chopin. Of course they do. After all, how many human stories are there? That there’s a finite number doesn’t mean it’s time for “plagiarism, mechanical processes, repetition.” It means that today’s novelists have the honor—and the obligation—to reinvent the novel more and better without making it a comic book, a tone poem, or a psychological experiment.

Tip: The novel has been good enough since its inception. Still is.

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