Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Future of the Novel (Auckland Readers and Writers Festival 2012)

This was another session featuring Emily Perkins, in which she was joined by Jeffrey Eugenides to talk about how the novel is faring. Jolisa Gracewood was chair and kicked things off by describing The Marriage Plot as an "ultimately compassionate" novel, but recursive in that it is a novel about love for those who love novels. There is, of course, also a character (Madelaine) reading books about love ans writing a thesis about it: Eugenides said he had tried to put extracts in the novel but found it hard to write anything "that bad but smart" so gave up. Later in the session, he said that James Woods had described him as "hysterically realistic": apparently not intended as a slight, but not clear as to its meaning. I think it is just a reference to the heightened sense of reality you get in his novels: I still remember his descriptions of Detroit in Middlesex. As for Perkins, Jolisa said she is a sharp and experimental writer, "Katherine Mansfield on Ecstasy".

As is to be expected, there was a fair amount of talk about the place of marriage: Eugenides said that when Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina, if a marriage came to an end, that would have enormous significance, and thus marriage could form the basis of a novel. Today, Anna would just move to Santa Barbara and become a therapist. That takes a lot of the sting out of marriage, but desire remains a central moving impulse, which sets up the sort of dramatic tension that gives life to a novel. He spoke of a student who had tried to write a piece involving an asexual person, but had to give up the project because it is impossible to create dramatic situations without desire (I have reason to think otherwise). Emily's take was that sadness and regret are important, as they turn into desires which will drive the novel along. Both spoke of how comedy will often come out of any great tragedy, there's a kind of seamless transition between the two in life, and a good novel will do the same. I was thinking of this in a later session, where Rhys Darby seemed to suggest that comedians had some sort of monopoly on funny writing.

In her earlier session, Emily had said that she like to be experimental but in this one, talking about how novels function, she said you can't take this too far, as you still need to hold out a hand to the reader, provide us with narrative: the experience will be best if readers enter into the life of the novel and find it better than real life. This resonated with something Charlotte Wood had said about her first novel, that it had lots of landscape and images and no plot, which made it unsellable. Emily teaches writing: she used a couple of phrases I can imagine her using in the classroom, saying that a novel involves "hot noticing", so that it conveys sensation and creates an environment for the reader.Eugenides chimed in to talk about the need for characters to have passions, so readers can identify them, which can make it tricky for the author as he or she might have quite a lot of learning to do to portray that passion (in his case, he had to bone up on cell biology).

Both revealed an interest in theory: despite his satire of the dominance of theory in the 1980's, Eugenides would love more academic readings of his work: he prefers investigation to "journalistic simplicity". He did take a crack at the theorists' views as to the death of the novel, saying that novels keep coming out, current students are not pre-occupied with its death, although the future of the novel does appear to be unpunctuated.

There was a fair amount of talk about technology, both their individual use of technology and how technology might be affecting the form of the novel.Eugenides said his dad was keen to help his career as a writer get started, so bought him a very early form of a word-processor, a Kaypro II:
He only used it to humour his dad, but it did mean he was an early adopter. He mentioned how he now works in an office with no internet: Emily said "they can see you working, sitting on the other side of the internet". Well, I thought it was funny. She had an odd tale to tell, she wasn't even sure if it had happened, but apparently her mum had been a secretary, and when she got married her first act was too throw her typewriter away, off a bridge. Emily herself actually still uses a typewriter - when she went to London, she was off to Camden market to get one. Now, she uses one to get started. She finds a sense of authenticity in using analogue writing tools, typewriters, sharp pencils, paper.

With computers, description is more dense, as they make rewriting so much less laborious. Asked what the future shape of the novel might be, they were a bit stumped, but jokingly suggested a sort of crowd-sourced wikinovel which would never be finished (and thus the novel would never die). An audience member wanted to know what the novel would be like for the Twitter generation: Eugenides "I'm getting depressed". Ultimately they both said that people are still engaging with the written word, although Eugenides mused over whether we now have the opportunity to get so bored that we get absorbed in a novel.

The session finished with a laugh. Eugenides said something about the hort story being the ultimate post-colonial form, allowing everyone to write as if prime minister of their domain. Perkins chipped in: "I am sure we are all looking forward to John Key's stories".


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