Dear Writer Revisited (Carmel Bird) and How Fiction Works (James Wood)

It’s not often that I read two books simultaneously, but I sort of fell into this during a week-long holiday on Kangaroo Island, and it worked. These books were speaking of the same thing in vastly divergent ways and it felt like I was traveling along some kind of curly middle road between them, and that was an OK thing to do.

Carmel Bird’s Dear Writer Revisited is an updated version of the book she first wrote and published in 1988. Bird has updated the text in recognition of the new ways we write and read in a digital age, but what is remarkable about this is the smallness of her changes. There is not that much that has changed, really. Stories still pretty much work in the same ways now that they did in the 1980s.

James Wood, in How Fiction Works, takes a sledgehammer to this idea, in a sense, by examining how fiction has changed. He identifies key moments in the story of fiction where a writer dropped a bomb and changed the world forever. Gustave Flaubert, for example, created what we now see as the modern narrative.

Some things change and some things stay the same.

But as I was reading Dear Writer Revisited, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Bird was teaching me how to become just like everyone else. How to tap into certain fictive frameworks that by now, for me, feel tired and worn out. Of course I am being unfair to Bird. This is not what she was doing at all. It’s me, it’s not you, Ms Bird. I feel almost ready to give up on realism in fiction. In the way that western films are worn out, or in the way that silent films are worn out, realism in fiction doesn’t shake me up anymore. The conventions are too strong and there are too many excellent writers who have mastered them, so when I read realist fiction these days it almost feels like I’m reading a map. I follow the lines and the links and am rarely surprised by my destination.

Between Wood and Bird, though, I am starting to believe there might be life in that old codger yet. Fiction, and more to the point, realist fiction, can still breathe and it doesn’t have to sound asthmatic. There is hope.

And of course there is Winton.

Tim Winton’s new novel, Eyrie (which, charmingly, even he doesn’t know how to pronounce) is top of my ‘must-read’ books. I know I will love it, it is preordained. It will be realist and it won’t matter, because he is a giant among us. His mastery casts a shadow over most of us mere mortals. But he is not reinventing the wheel – just making it turn more beautifully than anyone else on the planet. So what is wrong with realism when it’s done like Winton does it?

Nothing, not a damn thing.

Wood is a firm believer in realism in fiction. For him, nothing speaks more truth about our world. He says,

‘Now, to charge fiction with conventionality is one thing; to move from this charge to the very sceptical conclusion that fictive convention can therefore never convey anything real, that narrative represents ‘literally nothing’, is incoherent. First, all fiction is conventional in one way or another, and if you reject a certain kind of realism for being conventional, you will also have to reject for the same reason surrealism, science fiction, self-reflective postmodernism, novels with four different endings, and so on. Convention is everywhere, and triumphs like old age: once you have reached a certain seniority, you either die of it or with it…The point to make about convention is not that it is untruthful per se, but that it has a way of becoming, by repetition, steadily more and more conventional. Love becomes routine (and indeed Barthes once claimed that ‘I love you’ is the most clichéd thing anyone can say), but falling in love is not nullified by this fact. Metaphors become dead through overuse, but it would be insane to charge metaphor itself with deadness…So let us replace the always problematic word ‘realism’ with the much more problematic word ‘truth’…Once we throw the term ‘realism’ overboard, we can account for the ways in which, say, Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Hamsun’s Hunger and Beckett’s Endgame are not representations of likely or typical human activity, but are nevertheless harrowingly truthful texts…the writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so has to try and outwit that inevitable ageing. The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.” (pp176-187, my emphasis.)

I like it, Mr Wood. I do.

Bird speaks of truth in fiction, too. She explores the notion that Hemingway spoke of that fiction must be truer than truth itself, and that old chestnut of an idea that a writer must write what they know. (On the surface this sounds like a terribly limiting and problematic idea, but fortunately Bird very sensibly says, ‘You must look at your own experience for your material. The outside world will give you inspiration and ideas, but your writing will not succeed until you begin to understand that your own life is central to your work…The memory and imagination must both be at work.’).

(Truth; the cornerstone of realism in fiction. We are sounding dangerously post-postmodern. But that is a subject for another time.)

Perhaps realism in fiction is not dead. Perhaps the Wintons among us are keeping it alive with the sheer force of their brilliance, like bellows on a fire. And many of the rest of us are just riding the convention train, going around in circles, never quite getting off at Flaubert Station, where real innovation (perhaps encouraged by new technologies, or perhaps not) waits patiently for us to arrive. I for one would buy a ticket to Station Flaubert in any one of my asthmatic breaths, just for the chance to see what it looks like to be truly innovative and to try something newer than new and truer than true.

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