Zadie Smith has a terrific essay in the NY Review of Books on the future of the novel, or why realism – even when perfectly executed – has limitations:
From two recent novels, a story emerges about the future for the Anglophone novel. Both are the result of long journeys. Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill, took seven years to write; Remainder, by Tom McCarthy, took seven years to find a mainstream publisher. The two novels are antipodal–indeed one is the strong refusal of the other. The violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland is, in part, a function of our ailing literary culture. All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene.
These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done–in a sense that’s the problem. It’s so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.
Notice the way she easily uses the language of the brain (“neural routes,” “receptive pathways”) to describe the function of fiction. It’s all very Woolfian, and reminds me of Woolf’s seminal essay “Modern Fiction“:
Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being “like this”. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions–trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old
Woolf doesn’t name drop neurons, but instead uses the language of contemporary science (“impressions,” sensory “atoms”). The connection between this Smith essay and Woolf’s modernist manifesto becomes even more explicit when Smith goes on to consider the flaws of realism (as represented by Netherland). She compares the depiction of reality in “realistic” literature to the flux of self-conscious experience, ridiculing the strict constraints of 21st century realism just as Woolf had mocked “Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Galsworthy” in 1925, for never grappling with the disorder of “human nature”:
Netherland doesn’t really want to know about misapprehension. It wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really Realism?
Read the whole essay.