Two days ago I asked for an example of who championed the supposedly airless literary novel, and now Stephen Marche writes in Salon with an answer for me:*
[Alain Robbe-Grillet] was a great champion for the innovative novel, so in a way I owe him: I’m a novelist, and while I would be loath to call myself avant-garde, my first book did have marginalia all the way through and my second was a literary anthology of an invented country. But the truth is, Robbe-Grillet was a disaster for innovative novels. After him, literary innovation, experiment with form or anything mildly unconventional came to be seen as pretentious and dry, the proper domain of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys and nobody else.
English fiction in the wake of Robbe-Grillet has become a deliberately old-fashioned activity, like archery or churning your own butter. He represented, through his status as cultural icon of the avant-garde, an entire generation that turned literary experimentation into self-involved blandness.
I’ve heard of Robbe-Grillet but never read him and appear not to be alone in this. Yet I’m skeptical of a single novelist’s ability to have so great an effect on culture**, especially because literary culture still produces all kinds of novels, and, even if it didn’t, old novels are still available. In financial terms, this is one problem with being a current novelist: you still have to compete with The Great Gatsby and All the King’s Men, but Honda is not too worried about people choosing cars made in the first half of the twentieth century usurping current sales. Obviously there can be currents and trends within a literary culture, but it seems to me that literary culture and literature are so big as to give us whatever we want.
Fortunately, I wrote all this before Marche came to his conclusion:
The two strands of postwar literary fiction, the ultraradical and the willfully archaic, are both antithetical to the spirit of the novel itself, which is polyglot and unpredictable. Novels are supposed to be messy. They are written to express ideals and to make money; they steal from everything and everyone, high, middle and low, belonging to everyone and no one in the same moment. They don’t fit anyone’s conception. That’s why we love them.
Though I hate to descend into high school argot, I have to say: duh. So why does the bulk of this essay deal with questionable generalizations that Marche then throws down?
* I see no reason not to assume a causal connection.
** Except Joyce, as virtually everything written in English after him has felt his touch, whether the writer wants to feel it or not. But even Joyce had a little-known forerunner named Edouard Dujardin, who wrote Les Lauriers sont coupés. In Modernism, Peter Gay writes that “Dujardin […] later reported that his experiment sold just a few hundred copies […] But among its few readers was James Joyce, [who later] signed a copy of Ulysses to Dujardin, calling himself ‘an impenitent thief.’ “