Monday, July 28, 2008

Playing For the Real

Nigel Beale, asks in a COMMENT to my post "Narrative Game Theory" --am I ...."criticizing realism because it doesn't get the "intra" part right?"

Nigel believes that:
a novel replicates 'real' human building up and describing a connecting the reader to the character...the more involved the reader becomes, the more profound and affecting the reading experience.
The only rule is to move the reader...make them laugh or cry or see the world differently...

I have to ask: "seeing the world differently than what?"

I see very little "reality" in what is commonly designated as such. Rather, a felt need to reinforce received illusions, and the pleasure of not being thrown out of one's comfort zone.

What do you really mean by "seeing" the world differently? Is that a general, and largely unvetted metaphor, or can you break it down? Does it include thinking?

The "realism" problem is important because our very socialization--the highly complex civil, political, legal and social structures, cannot function without a wide range of "necessary delusions," like the legal understanding of the relationship between knowledge of right and wrong, and free agency (interestingly, one of the recurrent themes in The Man With No Qualities... the Moosebrugger thread): only one element of the modernist agenda Josipovici complains we have left unfinished.

I am not on the side of an aesthetic in opposition to representation. My complaint with conventional realism is that it isn't, that it is too narrowly real, too dependent on unexamined conventions, too rigidly dependent on those tropes that reinforce received notions. I should not have to suspend the better part of my critical faculties to find pleasure in a work of fiction. That to me is where aesthetics comes in. There is no possibility of pretending the action on stage in The Tempest is "realistic," or in Kafka's fiction. The pleasure is found in enjoying them first on a freely imaginative plane, for their aesthetic daring, and at the same time, feeling the wonderful tension between that fantasy and how it challenges--demands of us, that we relocate our notions of "reality" within these dramatic and fictive worlds.

I think that's a very good definition of play--of what happens when a child plays, of where play comes from. Play is at the furthest remove from "entertainment," which only exhausts our capacity to question (or to play--the real thing) that we may return to selling ourselves without protest to what or whoever seeks to use and exploit us.

In play, we do not turn away from reality, but freely enter the fantasy to find the reality we have lost, or have yet to discover. I relate the pleasure I find in reading--and my motive to write--not primarily from the joy of reading and being read to as a child (though certainly that), but hours spent digging channels in the outlet of Bass Lake on the beech in Michigan--building a tree fort in my back yard in Chicago--the kind of play that left my muscles sore, my body exhausted and my mind reeling with the pleasure of yet uncataloged discoveries. That's what I want when I read, and without which, I know as soon as the words are on the page that my writing will be dead dead dead.

A final thought: Work, not entertainment, is the true extension of play. Work versus labor, as Hannah Arendt would understand it. A pretty good counter to those who complain about "difficult" art, literature that makes you work!


  1. If we can free ourselves for a moment from how we've been told to see and read novels we'll immediately see that "realism" is about as far from reality as it is possible to be. Most lives are made up of lots and lots of nothing peppered with the occassional "event" (a birth, a death, a marriage, an affair). Novels aren't mimetic of life (focussing, like all drama must, on the events not the boring bulk of existence); they are a set of conventions. Nigel B's comments, however, indicate an urge that many readers feel (and offer a defence of the novel that is often given): the novel, he says, is good for us. I doubt that it is, but the urge to learn from stories is certainly real. That is why those writers who throw off the strictures of the realist novel -- Kafka, Beckett -- actually have more to teach us about "reality" than any realist (whose first job has been to pretend that their work is in any way "realistic" in the first place).

  2. "The pleasure is found in enjoying them first on a freely imaginative plane, for their aesthetic daring, and at the same time, feeling the wonderful tension between that fantasy and how it challenges--demands of us, that we relocate our notions of "reality" within these dramatic and fictive worlds."

    This is beautifully put Jacob...and in line with what I am trying to say: that tension you speak of makes us see the world differently...differently than sleepwalking through 'life' without realizing or thinking about those delusions you speak of. Often this seeing manifests itself as feeling, anger or joy, or sadness, and it is the provocation of these 'real' experiences which I think defines great fiction.

    Among other things, Kafka articulated the random, unjust use of force by police and the state. In so describing, he provoked an anger in me that already existed, but at the same time, provided some solace: expanding my existing thoughts, putting them into an exaggerated scenario (relative to my experience)...connecting...

  3. Prescriptions of what play or pleasre is are tricky. This kind of analysis is great, but is it an effective operational, aesthetic principle on which to create or judge art?

    Perhaps this can be a part of our critical analysis of works but not the standard by which work is judged?

  4. "Perhaps this can be a part of our critical analysis of works but not the standard by which work is judged?"

    An excellent point. I would make a distinction between judgement involved in making, and that used in discerning the value of the finished work. The thoughts I've posted here have been a kind of thinking- alongside, thinking about what is happening as I work. I find this helps give me necessary distance: subjective, psychological and emotional distance--to empower the words, make room for their communal meaning, free them their solipsistic prison. That way there is a dialogical process--not merely flushing my psyche--like cleaning a septic tank, but responding to what is external--all this is what I mean by Play.

    How is that like and unlike the "play" engaged in by the reader? And where then does critical judgement fall into play, as it were?

    Maybe it's in this: I don't like the idea of judging by standards, that is, a set of rules, as it were, that exist apart from the work and to which it is measured and compared. The play in critical thinking is another kind of "finding:" one discovers, uncovers, the value in the reading itself, in dialog with it--not by objectification. Bring out measure weight & number in a year of dearth!

  5. I guess this comment is mostly directed at Mark Thwaite's comment:

    I have never met a realist writer who thinks s/he is achieving mimesis of reality. Conventional writers perhaps more than experimental ones freely admit that they are constructing conceits. They engineer a reaction from readers (projecting the self into the fictional situation so as to feel expanded or validated, usually emotionally) that we might object to on grounds of ubiquity. It is true, too, that their engineering projects call upon very old tools (in use, for the most part, since Homer), but Kafka and Beckett used plenty of time-worn tools themselves. There are no new tools, only varying arrangements of the effects that the old ones allow us.

    It's silly to think that realist writers themselves await some eye-opening experience of Beckett or Kafka, after which the "modernist project"--which Beckett and Kafka probably cared nothing whatsoever about--might be continued. By your logic, as well, run-of-the-mill science fiction is an extension of the modernist project, whereas, say, much of what has come out of the Oulipo group is not.

    My guess is that Alice Munro has read Kafka but feels a stronger kinship with Chekhov. Classifying one set of conventions as correct and another as incorrect is certainly the province of a critic, but an assumption of intellectual superiority on the "experimental" side is the surest way to discredit your argument, in my opinion.

  6. Daniel,

    I see that you're in publishing, so why not ask?

    Know anyone who would be interested in looking at a MS of a finished novel? Links here to synopsis and sample chapters: The Magic Slate

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Jones,

    I'd be interested to read what Mark might have to say on this. I agree with you about how writers think of their work. It's not so much the writers, as some reviewers, critics, readers and the market that valorizes certain tropes of "realism, " which in turn, reinforce and confirm socially and politically potent notions of what is or isn't "real."

    ... I should add the obvious: yes, "realist" writers are probably not particularly interested in reality--or more to the point, getting beyond conventional notions of the "real." Precisely why I'm not satisfied with establishment realism--because, while "mimesis" would be the wrong word--I am interested in reflecting on reality--aspects neglected or ignored or denied in market realism--including the reality of language, of the text itself.

  10. Jacob:

    Yes, official "realism" hardly has a stranglehold on reality. Kafka indeed tells me more about my own life than does Richard Ford. I like Edward Albee's notion that, if you set Endgame in a suburban living room, no one would ever assume it was anything but naturalistic. Your comments make more sense to me than Mark's do.

    I do sense an overlap between you and Mark, though, in this notion of the need to "free ourselves" from our aesthetic oppressors, which seems, forgive me, comically self-important, casting yourself as Socrates while the rest of us happily wait in the cave to be buggered by the capitalists. It strikes me as self-evident that people don't need to be "taught" to like a conventional novel. Quite the opposite: people who never leave behind a desire for conventional novels are most likely persisting in a taste for uncomplicated, "transporting" storytelling that was awakened by the first stories ever told to them. This desire has been, as far as I can tell, fairly constant throughout history. A desire for self-conscious deployment of storytelling techniques arose, by comparison, yesterday, and already seems to have made its point without canceling out the basic human desires in which it is rooted. And those who remain (lucky them, in my opinion) able to indulge the basic desire? They know it's fake. They don't need Socrates to tell them so.

    The least literary imaginable adult viewer of the new Batman movie has mastered the idea that "what I just saw was fake, but man I had fun pretending it was real while it lasted." We should do consumers of literary fiction the honor of assuming that they are at least as savvy as this. Maybe they aren't as savvy as we'd like them to be, and maybe the publishing industry too often looks for success by aiming for the least savvy among them, but calling readers of literary fiction victims of some mass delusion regarding reality is a bit much.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Those who prefer to be "entertained" will be entertained.

    I prefer work that I don't have to pretend to "believe" in.

    If I have to believe in the story, howsoever temporary the suspension, it's not worth my time. The value of a work isn't how effectively it captures your belief, but what remains after you accept it as artifice.

    That's where the gods came from, believing in stories. Some damn good stories, too--when you free them, and yourself, from the need to believe.

    My short stories were, most of them, fairly conventional. I don't want to do that anymore. I want to tell stories no one will believe. Gets much closer to the 'truth'...whatever that is.