Wednesday 17 February 2010

Oh yes it is

Well, is it or isn’t it? You decide. I only publish the book, I don’t write the dictionary and so don’t have to define ‘novel’. Here’s Rick Moody, from something I read yesterday: ‘The larger issue . . . is whether genre exists at all. I tend to think that genre exists so that bookstores will have a shelf on which to put things. Otherwise, it’s not terribly useful, especially if you recognize that both “fiction” and “non-fiction” are true and untrue in, relative speaking, equal measure.’

(I’m not being very helpful here to booksellers, I know. Where will they stock this book? While they're scratching their heads they might consider abolishing the categories altogether and shelving fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoirs, etc in a seamless flow of well-chosen titles.)

Rick Moody was commenting below a discussion of David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which Coetzee calls ‘an all-out assault on tired generic conventions, particularly those that define the well-made novel’. Published in the UK this month, Reality Hunger, which has already cued a Zadie Smith essay reprinted in the Guardian, will probably occupy a few acres of review space. So it’s good timing (of the lucky rather than premeditated kind) that CBe’s edition of This Is Not a Novel is also published this month, because Shields gives a firm thumbs-up to David Markson: ‘I think that, at the very least, essays and poems more directly and more urgently [than the novel] attempt to figure something out about the world. Which is why I can’t read novels anymore, with very few exceptions, the exceptions being those novels so meditative they’re barely disguised essays. David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel . . .’

In case you’re not too keen on barely disguised essays, and in case you find the label ‘experimental’ off-putting (I sympathise; though I’m even more put off when someone’s prose is described as ‘poetic’), I should add here that the book is compulsively readable and enjoyable, and in its structural echoes and correspondences it takes at least as much from fiction as any other genre, and if you start browsing it in a bookshop you’ll likely end up buying it. (Or, of course, you could simply order it online from the website.)

Porosity between the genres I’m in favour of. (In some other fields, athletics being one of them, they’re having problems about how to define gender.) Uncertainty, instability even, in reading as in life, is a fine thing. Days and Nights in W12, one of the first CBe books, was a mix of fact and fiction and maybe a few other things too; though it had a handful of keen readers, its existence has been largely invisible, with not a single print review, and maybe the time’s now right for a new and expanded edition.

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