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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Sunday, April 02, 2006

Realism, Convention, and Ian McEwan’s “Atonement”

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 04/02/06 at 10:16 AM

I’ve been sitting on a link to an article on realism in the novel by James Wood for awhile (thanks Shehla A.). Recently it came to mind while I was teaching Ian McEwan’s masterful novel Atonement in my contemporary British fiction seminar. I was also thinking about the definition of realism in painting after visiting the Andrew Wyeth retrospective that just opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Below I’ll comment on all three, and argue that all three (Wood, McEwan, and Wyeth) share a certain approach to realism.

* * * * *

Let’s start with James Wood, who begins his essay with a pair of attacks on realist fiction, from Rick Moody and Patrick Giles, and then moves on to carefully defend a somewhat updated version of realist fiction, uncoupling it from any presumed ideological orientation or strong philosophical grounding. If some people might find realism to be a dead genre, or worse, a quiet ally of ‘phallogocentrism,’ Wood argues that it need not be so. First he gives three sentences from Moody:

“It’s quaint to say so, but the realistic novel still needs a kick in the ass. The genre, with its epiphanies, its rising action, its predictable movement, its conventional humanisms, can still entertain and move us on occasion, but for me it’s politically and philosophically dubious and often dull."

And then the response to them:

Moody’s three sentences efficiently compact the reigning assumptions. Realism is assumed to be a “genre” (rather than, say, a central impulse in fiction); it is taken to be mere dead convention, and to be related to a certain kind of traditional plot, with predictable beginnings and endings; it deals in characters, but softly and piously ("conventional humanisms"); it assumes that the world can be described with a naively stable link between word and referent ("philosophically dubious"); and all this will tend toward a conservative or even oppressive politics ("politically and philosophically dubious"). This might plausibly describe a contemporary novel by Anne Tyler or Kent Haruf, but it is almost an exact inversion of the 19th-century realist novel, which was often politically and philosophically radical. Often, and most notably in Flaubert, it overwhelmed the world with words, with elaborations of style, even as it claimed exactly to match word with referent; and often it dealt savagely and pessimistically with its fictional characters.

Wood’s response to the claim that realism is a dead genre is to say that it isn’t a genre but a set of conventions. It also need not be understood as adhering to predictability in plot or description—especially if one invokes someone like Flaubert (or McEwan, about whom more below). And certainly one shouldn’t assume anything about a writer’s politics either positively or negatively from their style of writing: it’s not true that postmodernists are necessarily politically progressive, while realism was once the province of political radicals and can still be used by them. 

Wood’s essay gains something from the fact that he knows the major figures in American postmodernism quite well. He also knows his Barthes, and spends quite a bit of time responding to some of Barthes’ major arguments about the “reality effect”—the idea that any attempt to represent the world realistically is always bound by a set of narrative conventions that can be decoded or unmasked. But unmasking the conventions doesn’t necessarily undo their hold over the imagination, nor is it clear that readers can do without them:

There is, I would argue, not just a “grammar” of narrative convention, but a grammar of life—those elements without which human activity no longer looks recognisable, and without which fiction no longer seems human. WJ Harvey, following Kant, long ago proposed the notion of a “constitutive category,” something which “though not in itself often the object of experience, is inherent in everything we do actually experience… without it life would be random and chaotic.” The four elements of this category are, he suggests, time, identity, causality and freedom. I would add mind, or consciousness. Any fiction that lacked all five elements would probably have little power to move us. The defence of this idea of mimesis should not harden into a narrow aesthetic, for it ought to be large enough to connect Shakespeare’s dramatic mimesis, say, with, Dickens’s novelistic mimesis, or Dostoevsky’s melodramatic mimesis with Muriel Spark’s satiric mimesis, or Pushkin’s poetic mimesis with Platonov’s lyrical mimesis.

To some extent Wood’s critique of Barthes rhymes with some Valve-ish critiques of constructivism in cultural studies: just knowing that something is culturally constructed doesn’t take us anywhere. And while I can’t speak to Muriel Spark or Platonov, I agree with Wood’s idea that there are a few basic elements that are to be found in all fiction, though I’m a bit concerned that we can’t pin down which four or five elements we think of as absolutely essential.

Critics of Wood might find this to be a suitable starting point: if we don’t agree as to which elements are essential, why do we think that anything at all is essential?

* * * * *

(spoiler alert) This brings me to McEwan’s Atonement, which is as much a manifesto of a kind of contemporary realist fiction-writing as it is a successful example of it. An imaginative, writerly thirteen year old girl named Briony Tallis accuses her older sister’s boyfriend, Robbie Turner, of raping another family member. The young man was the son of a servant, who had been sponsored by the family, and educated at their expense. When he’s accused of rape, however, the family abandons him and he is jailed. He’s released just as the Second World War is beginning, and is drawn into the army.

Having grown up some years later, the accuser attempts to atone for her false accusation, which was in some sense the product of a novelistic imagination that had gotten carried away with itself. Her “atonement” can be read as realism itself: it is too late to clear him legally, so the best she can do is describe with total fidelity what occurred, taking responsibility and setting the record straight. But the frame narrative that appears at the end suggests that even that might not really be the case, as Briony reveals that even in her careful account of her own crime of accusation, her version of her sister and Robbie Turner’s romance has been helped somewhat, happy-ending-ized. But sometimes realism demands too much. She couldn’t bear to describe what actually happened to Robbie Turner at Dunkirk, or her sister Cecilia in the Blitz:

How could that constitute an ending? What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism? I couldn’t do it to them. I’m too old, too frightened, too much in love with the shred of life I have remaining. I face an incoming tide of forgetting, and then oblivion. I no longer possess the courage of my pessimism. . . . No one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel. I know there’s always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened? The answer is simple: the lovers survive and flourish.

This might seem to be a slightly different issue from the one James Wood raises in his essay, the question of narrative fidelity rather than realism vs. postmodernism. But in fact they are versions of the same question. Briony insists on her right to imagine a happy ending to the lovers’ story because it’s the only kind of ending that could, in its imagining, actually enable her to atone for her earlier crime. The only way to correct an errant act of the imagination is more imagination, not a turn to a narrow kind of realism.

Broad realism. While the self-reflexive element frames the central narrative in McEwan’s novel, it doesn’t necessarily displace it or take away from its power. Moreoever, the psychological emphasis—shifting perspectives, and the use of free indirect discourse—are merely an expression of what must be understood as a species of realism, psychological realism.

* * * * *

Finally, a brief note on Andrew Wyeth, whose exhibit I walked into yesterday without any expectations. This American realist painter disregarded virtually all of the ideas of 20th century art in favor of a continued emphasis on traditional realistic painting, and an obsessive and careful attention to nature.

But two things struck me when looking at some of Wyeth’s better paintings (like “Groundhog Day"). First, in the obsessive attention to natural textures and details one sees in some of the landscapes in the 1940s and 50s are shades of what might be thought of as an abstract sensibility after all. The subject isn’t the beauty of nature, it’s a big slab of granite. Secondly, many of Wyeth’s paintings figure absence—clothes hanging on a peg, doors that are forbiddingly shut, window frames on sad little houses. In many of these paintings, there is a level of attention to framing and composition—exactly as one sees in McEwan’s novel—that is of a piece with realism but also goes beyond it in some ways. Especially with the emphasis on framing what isn’t or can’t be contained in the image itself, Wyeth reminds me of Wallace Stevens: full to the brim with nothingness.

Two Wyeth paintings that do what I’m talking about: here, and here.


Wow, great post.  I want to read this again when I have more time but can’t help making a few random remarks in the meantime.  It’s good that you brought in these paintings and used them to talk about framing, and about fidelity to nature and abstraction.  The second one in particular seems (in reproduction anyhow) simultaneously empty and full - empty as in containing few features and the ones present have little narratable character: but full of atmosphere: light passing through air?  The painting’s content then is less anthropomorphic and more scientific or objective? (like what you said about the big slab of granite.)

I think I basically agree with James Wood’s response to Moody, about realism being not a dead genre but a set of (potentially) neutral conventions (or techniques, or effects - maybe it’s Barthes I agree with).  At the same time my gut feeling is that Moody et al are quite right to begin thinking about realism from the position of it being *very* firmly coupled to a particular philosophical and political mood: austere, pessimistic etc.  Perhaps that’s why Wood steps back to talking about mimesis. (I’d not have gone that far - naturalism ought to be neutral enough generically without watering down the important technical features.) But can’t you have a social / psychological realism that’s also highly mannered, fantastical?  Film noir for instance.  By not directly addressing the question of how realism as mode got itself generically intertwined with a certain depressive mood I think Wood risks not answering the kind of criticism Moody seems to be making.  (Not that I’ve read any more of Moody’s argument than what Wood quotes.)

Working the paintings back into the body of your argument I thought also about Michael Snow’s film Wavelength, which is all about framing, viewpoint, being full of emptiness, technologies of representation, recording and narrative.

By on 04/02/06 at 09:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"and often it dealt savagely and pessimistically with its fictional characters.”

Wasn’t that always part of literary realism?  James Branch Cabell wrote something about how romance gave the reader the pleasure of looking up to characters that they imagined to be superior to them, while realism gave the reader the pleasure of looking down on characters that they imagined to be inferior.

By on 04/02/06 at 10:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Notice all the talk of realism in literature in Wood’s article and here, and not talk of realism/reality in life? Realism doesn’t refer to reality on the moon; it refers to reality on earth. When Wood does get around to justifying his position, he quite reasonably—though indirectly—points to the reality of life, of people, of self:

“imagine a world in which the only novel available was, say, Pynchon’s Vineland [an example of non-realism] and books like it. It would be a hysterical and falsifying monotony. By contrast, a world in which the only available novel was, say, Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas [an example of realism] would be a fearfully honest, comic, tragic, compassionate and deeply human place.”

That’s the answer Wood gives to Moody’s view “that realism as mode got itself generically intertwined with a certain depressive mood” as Laura Carroll puts it; that is, Wood’s answer is:

No it didn’t. Or if it has, it’s not the fault of reality, of the people, of humans that really exist. And furthermore, nonrealism is often rendered as “a hysterical and falsifying monotony”—in other words, no little bit “dubious and dull” itself.

Wood’s point is well taken, it seems to me—not that speculative/fantastical fiction can’t illuminate great aspects of reality every bit as well as more mimetic and thus more “realistic” modes. Certainly it can, and it can easily be as exciting and intriguing too, or moreso. Both approaches are valuable; neither are played out.

But this all seems to me to be only so much rearranging of patio chairs at the country club.

Any of Naipaul’s fiction aside, Andre Vltchek’s realistic novel Point of No Return, for one, is the furthest thing from “politically and philosophically dubious and often dull.” Ditto its one perhaps fantastic moment on the streets of Manhattan in which a street figure prophesizes 9-11....

It seems to me that much contemporary literature indeed is “politically and philosophically dubious and often dull”—realistic and nonrealistic both. The vast majority of it seems to me to be so deeply invested in the, call it, liberal/conservative status quo it doesn’t even know what the status quo is, and as such can often get little especially overt or otherwise profound perspective on life, or people, in much of the most crucial arenas and moments of existence, and so needlessly deprives itself of tremendous capacity for insight and experience today. But I’ve addressed this in detail elsewhere.

Realism versus nonrealism is a sort of ludicrous diversion from the serious issues that confront contemporary imaginative literature. Any such “fault line” or debate is really of near zero consequence (which of course makes it a perfect issue for ongoing discussion in a depoliticized (conventially understood) academic and commercial environment). In the meantime, literature and life suffer for it.

By Tony Christini on 04/03/06 at 12:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment


But can’t you have a social / psychological realism that’s also highly mannered, fantastical?  Film noir for instance.

Actually, I think that’s Wood’s point. He makes it with reference to postmodernism, and comes out saying something to the effect that novelists can actually address the concerns of postmodernism (about, for instance, the non-transparency of language) using a realist technique. In earlier essays, he’s gone after magic realists in particular (Toni Morrison, but one would assume he might also include someone like Salman Rushdie) for their “false magic.”

Perhaps he wants writers to avoid thinking of realism as limited, so they don’t artificially inflate their stories with mindbending narrative bells and whistles to get critical love and rise above the hordes of middlebrow scribblers.

His argument has less force when we get into other (more traditional) deviations from realism—like the “romance” that Tony Christini mentions, or the literature of the fantastic. Especially with genres that are already in critical ghettoes, there isn’t a comparable stigma against realism, so there isn’t a problem.

We could argue, following Wood’s essay, that everything that calls itself a novel is “realist,” but that would be an overextension. I’m content to let science fiction, mysteries, and romances be what they are. It would interesting to see Wood review some serious specimens in “genre” literature: authors like Susanna Clarke China Mieville… but I don’t think he does it very often.

By Amardeep Singh on 04/03/06 at 09:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I do think there’s a certain limited and oppressive dying-fall built into post-1930s high-mainstream realism, but I suspect it’s a genre pressure rather than something rigidly determined by the basic ingredients of the recipe. (As a parallel, few comics critics would claim that narrative drawing as a medium inevitably leads to absurd power fantasies about trademarked spandex ensembles.)

Any fiction will be read and understood within some generic context, though. And, rigidly determined or not, it may be very difficult to conceive of (or publish) “serious literary realism” which doesn’t match generic parameters. I’ve seen testimony from both readers and writers that in the 1970s feminist science fiction and fantasy felt far more liberating than feminist realism. On the other hand, writers in other genres who produce psychologically detailed accounts of mostly-miserable middle-class-or-equivalent individuals may become more popular in the high-mainstream, and start to readjust their ingredients list accordingly.

I haven’t read Atonement, but Amardeep—have you read Villette? Even the single McEwan paragraph you quote is prolix in comparison with Bronte’s anti-realist gesture—she makes it rather than explaining it. Of course, her concision increases the chance of real reader confusion, but doesn’t the power of the gesture lie in risk? It’s this sort of “watered down” feeling—the feeling that even Pynchon played it safe where Flaubert did not—that drove me into genre reading in the first place.

(And although I’m no art scholar, it seems worth mentioning that some critics have reacted similarly to Andrew Wyeth.)

By Ray Davis on 04/03/06 at 10:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Romance? When I speak of literature of social change or politically progressive literature, I mean literature across genres that reveals the bankruptcies of various sorts of oppressions and the possibilities and realities of various sorts of liberating arenas, actions, modes of being....

Swift achieves this in “A Modest Proposal” via satire, largely.

Aristophanes achieves this in Lysistrata via comedy, largely, with some large dashes of romance and realism both.

When I dissect the workings of the mind, the self deceiving aspects of a US Senator guilty of crimes against humanity in his public life (in my book of fiction forthcoming this month, Washburn) that’s not romance, that’s what is traditionally meant by realism.

To this point, my own works of fiction, depending on the text, are primarily satiric, or primarily realistic (mimetic), or a mix of realism and romance, or a mix of realism and romance with the fantastic. (And perhaps unrelated—large swaths of this work are overtly didactic, and large swaths are implicitly didactic or not didactic at all.)

Point being—there is nothing predominantly romantic in either what I write, or what I refer to.

By Tony Christini on 04/03/06 at 11:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To what extent is Wood’s schemata rendered absurd if we take Atonement to be a postmodern and radically unrealist novel?

I mean: for there to be any atonement in the novel at all, Briony has to admit that the novel is all a lie, but further that the “lie” is no different from the “truth,” that in some sense truth is constituted in representation itself. (Okay, that’s not entirely true; there could be atonement if what happens at the end of Part III had “really” happened, but it’s not the radical atonement offered by the performative that is Briony’s novel, revealed in the 1999 afterword or, as we’ve called it above, the frame.) This is the point of the quote Amardeep cites, which immediately follows Briony’s suggestion, which really amounts to a confession, that Robbie died of septicemia at Dunkirk (thus, before she could atone).

No one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel. I know there’s always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened? The answer is simple: the lovers survive and flourish.

The “real” lovers have died, and so the only way to atone is to immortalize them through representation, through the performative nature of language. But Briony’s point (and perhaps Atonement’s argument) is that there is no difference. Such is the effect in Part I of showing each event from multiple, situated perspectives, none of which can ever be established as “true,” and all of which always contradict. “Truth” is constituted, in this novel, by the things we say, and Briony had said (to herself in 1935) that Robbie was the rapist, and so,

Her eyes confirmed the sum of all she knew and had recently experienced. The truth was in the symmetry, which was to say, it was founded in common sense. The tuth instructed her eyes. So when she said, over and over again, I saw him, she meant it, and was perfectly honest… (159)

The saying (it) is all (“Suddenly, Briony wanted [Lola] to say his name. To seal the crime, frame it with the victim’s curse, close his fate with the magic of naming” [155]), and indeed the performance of the accusation – and its repetition – is revealed as the key to the truth: Briony “was asked again and again, and as she repeated herself, the burden of consistency was pressed upon her. What she had said she must say again” (159).

Now, the “non-truthfulness” of Briony’s accusation is called into question by her need to “atone,” but is her need to “atone” not equally a need to tarnish the legacy of Paul and Lola Marshall? Does she not know that the power of her atonement, which is a counteraccusation, is to inscribe “the truth” about the Marshalls?

To the extent that the above reading is valid, it’s not clear to me that McEwan has written a realist novel, but rather one that strikes me as quite a different project from Barthes’s “reality effect” because its point is to reveal the “reality effect” as an effect of writing.

By Rodney Herring on 04/03/06 at 11:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s interesting to think about what such “genre pressure” might be and why it might come into play more in realistic modes than fantastic modes.

Realism, though maybe less interesting stylistically, may be more threatening to power (being more direct and overt)—were it to genuinely challenge power—and therefore is discouraged and in various ways disallowed by various ideological pressures and mandates rampant in commerce and academia. Thus what does get produced in that mode must mainly necessarily be weak, watered down, toothless, whereas much great exuberance and socio-political play can be allowed in fantasy because, as I’ve suggested before, it’s easy to dismiss such work by saying, Oh, it’s only fantasy. But when you’re writing realism that really gets to the nuts and bolts of things, it would seem more difficult to dismiss out of hand.

In a largely undemocratic and inegalitarian country like the US that is largely ruled not by force but by propaganda and the (often unacknowledged) ideological strictures of its main institutions, what else would one expect would be tolerated, encouraged, or even acknowledged in its literature, especially in its perhaps most politically, publicly potent genres and forms?

No wonder there’s more life in fantasy. That’s where it’s tolerated, maybe even encouraged, and kept.

By Tony Christini on 04/03/06 at 11:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Thanks for the interesting comment. In fact, Brian Finney at CSU Long Beach has a perfectly intelligible essay reading Atonement as postmodern, which is available here.  It was kind of in the back of my mind as I was writing. I disagree with Finney’s approach to “intertexuality,” but other than that the points made in the essay seem valid. (And the specific sources he names seem right on the money, except perhaps Lolita)

But I have two responses to all the reflexive moments in the text. One is something I already suggested, namely that the afterword at the end recontextualizes but doesn’t wholly displace the realistic narrative that preceded it. And secondly, even if Briony is in some sense defending her deviations from the truth, it seems possible to say that there is a kind of narrative ethos operating in the novel that undermines her disavowal, even if it is represented a bit indirectly. I think it’s there in the letter Briony recieves from the literary editor criticizing her ‘first draft’ of the story:

In other words, rather than dwell for so long on the perceptions of each of the three figures, would it not be possible to set them before us with greater economy, still keeping some of the vivid writing about light and stone and water which you do so well-- but then move on to create some tension, some light and shade within the narrative itself. Your most sophisticated readers might be well up on the latest Bergsonian theories of consciousness, but I’m sure they reatin a childlike desire to be told a story, to be held in suspense, to know what hapens.

This goes back to Ray’s point in a previous comment about whether McEwan might spend too much energy telling us what he’s doing and not enough showing us. It may be true, but if so, it’s interesting that we’re not even remotely all in agreement about the contents of the message about narrative form McEwan seems to be telegraphing through these self-reflexive comments.

By Amardeep Singh on 04/03/06 at 03:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Slightly off-topic, Amardeep, but what is it about Finney’s approach to “intertextuality” you disagree with?

By on 04/03/06 at 06:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My memory of Atonement is pretty vague.  Are you saying, Amardeep, that McEwan wants us to recognize something ethically dubious in Briony’s fabulations and that we’re made aware of that in being reminded of the inadequacy of fiction to reality?  That would be consistent with Woods’ view wouldn’t it?  Sorry if I’m not reading you right. 

(Just as an aside, when Woods describes realism as an “impulse” and a “grammar” isn’t he actually making a stronger claim than saying it’s a set of conventions?)

When I finished Atonement (after staying up all night feverishly turning pages) I wasn’t sure how I was meant to react, but I did have a pretty yucky feeling about Briony’s self-congratulation. Did McEwan have to stack the deck by making his victim and fallen soldier the working-class gardener’s son and his rapist a conservative manufacturer of junk?  Did she have to conclude with the final scene of sentimental recognition? Do you mean we’re supposed to see just how stacked this deck is?  Are we meant to see fictionalizing and the very desire for atonement as hopeless self-flagellation?  I don’t know what McEwan thinks, but to be honest, I’m not sure whether I find a self-reflexive critique of Briony less or more attractive than the thought that we’re actually meant to take Briony’s atonement straight.  Either option seems to me manipulative and kinda pat.

By on 04/04/06 at 02:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"(Just as an aside, when Wood describes realism as an “impulse” and a “grammar” isn’t he actually making a stronger claim than saying it’s a set of conventions?)”

It’s called stacking the deck. One could just as easily make the claim that fabulism, etc, is an “impulse” or “grammar”. The question is: what’s his evidence and explanation for that? He does seem to me to have made some strong arguments in this regard, but this doesn’t preclude strong arguments for fabulism being an impulse or grammar, an intrinsic part of human nature as well.

“Inadequacy of fiction to reality”? For obvious reasons, no?, fiction has traditionally been used to show that common—“real” or actually existing—views of reality...are unreal. In this way, fiction by debunking faulty views of reality is more real than reality, more adequate to reality than “reality,” more adequate than what is taken for granted to be real...but isn’t; fiction shows, or can. That’s not the only thing of course that it can do. It can also elaborate, expand more on reality in certain ways than any other form of knowledge might:

Noam Chomsky: “If you want to learn about people’s personalities and intentions, you would probably do better reading novels than reading psychology books. Maybe that’s the best way to come to an understanding of human beings and the way they act and feel.... Science isn’t the only thing in the world, it is what it is...science is not the only way to come to an understanding of things.” “If I am interested in learning about people, I’ll read novels rather than psychology.” “I think the Victorian novel tells us more about people than science ever will...and we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology.” “We learn from literature as we learn from life; no one knows how, but it surely happens. In fact, most of what we know about things that matter comes from such sources, surely not from considered rational inquiry (science), which sometimes reaches unparalleled depths of profundity, but has a rather narrow scope.” “It is almost certain that literature will forever give far deeper insight into what is sometimes called ‘the full human person’ than any modes of scientific inquiry may hope to do.”

Wood seems to argue—although I don’t know if he absolutely takes a stand on it—that the greatest powers of fiction are achieved via realism.... Maybe so, I don’t know. It could be endlessly fascinating but it doesn’t seem all that urgent to pursue the question, to me personally, because it seems obvious that so many fantastical forms are also extremely powerful, insightful, provocative, and deeply affecting, or can be. There is great richness to be found outside the conventions of “realism”—I assume Wood agrees. That combined with the fact that “realism” can be heavily mixed with the fantastic in any given work makes any such debates about one mode being inherently greater than another mode seem absurd to me, so absurd that they are only interesting as they sometimes are when they get off point and into actual considered analysis of either mode, especially while in relation of the modal conventions to human nature and society. Other times, philosophical speculations salvage such “debates.”

By Tony Christini on 04/04/06 at 06:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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