A Pragmatic Policy has an extremely bloated and yet rather dull-witted response to Zadie Smith's recent, excellent NYRB article Two Paths for the Novel. It can be enjoyed alongside a similarly uncomprehending attempt at a rejoinder, Zadie Smith’s annoying Critique of ‘Realism’ (sic!), from Nigel Beale.

There are countless non-sequitors and much out-of-place hubris in both responses, which I'll leave y'all to chew on yourselves, but I would like to respond to both parties failure to understand Smith's central point that the "perfection" of what Smith calls lyrical Realism (ELF to me) is not a good thing.

Talking about Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, Smith says, "It seems perfectly done -- in a sense that’s the problem." Neither Beale nor APP gets why this is so spot-on. Perhaps a visual analogy would help them? Artists could keep painting wonderful, detailed landscapes -- different landscapes, in competing realist styles -- but art wouldn't move forward until a dude put a bog in an art gallery and called it art or, 20-odd years later, another dude put a canvas on the floor and started dribbling paint all over it!

The Victorian novel with a few Jamesian knobs on (lyrical Realism, ELF, call it what you will) is not the only path the novel can take. Its dominance means that each year a flood of Booker-ready novels in the sclerotic genre of literary fiction are declared masterpieces. Some of them are near-perfect embodiments of the genre which their near word-perfect amanuenses have bodied forth, but that perfection pushes them far away from literature itself.

Readers Comments

  1. Mark

    I was reading Hemingway's Art of Fiction XXI interview and thought this quote might be a valuable contribution:

    "Almost no new classics resemble other previous classics."

    One of the problems I find in ELF is they're all trying to look alike.


  2. I'm so happy to see that Zadie Smith has shaken off that bout of Stockholm Syndrome that had her thanking James Wood for taking her to the Woodshed a few years back . . .

  3. I'm hoping to have more to say about Smith's excellent essay in a bit at my own blog. My main quibble with it is her use of the word "path". I don't think there is a path, except the well-worn one. The other
    so-called "path" is rather an anti-path. Though certainly writing as career, as entertainment, congeals even this into merely another path.

  4. Shelley Ettinger Thursday 13 November 2008

    I'm no doubt opening myself to attack here, but what the hell: about 10 days ago I posted my own thoughts about O'Neill's Netherland at my litblog. It's not about form but about the novel's essence, which I liken to a neocolonial travelogue. Here's the link:

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