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Posted on Feb 25, 2011
By Shaun Randol
A quote from Walter Benjamin sets the first foundation: “All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. Let Us All Now Praise Famous Men. Nadja. Cane. Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! ‘The Moon in Its Flight.’ Wisconsin Death Trip. Letters to Wendy’s.”
Examples of other genre inventions include Beethoven’s “Eroica,” or more contemporarily, the advent of hip-hop, MTV’s “The Real World,” the urban art of Shepard Fairey and Banksy, and the abstraction of Kandinsky. These contributions to entertainment are unique and elemental because they not only turned convention on its head, but have also become mainstays in cultures worldwide. They represent genres now unto themselves (and, so, must also be exploded if we are to move beyond them).
Genre fiction, writes Shields, is “novels based on novels based on novels, in which every convention of character and plot has been trotted out a thousand times before.” And so we also need not only inventors, but also genre dissolvers like Roberto Bolaño, whose writing attempts to unchain Latin American writers from the boundaries of magical realism, or David Foster Wallace, whose fiction pleads for the sustained navel-gazing monologue to break the bland forms of postmodern character development, or lack thereof.
As far as literature is concerned, the realization of Shields’ call for genre-breakers and -dissolvers can be achieved in two ways: through collage, and by careful, meticulous, purposeful construction of a false narrative passed off as truth, or the opposite—an actuality so absurd it can only be deemed a work of fiction (the manifestation of “truth is stranger than fiction”). This latter method comes about through the successful translation of the often-disturbing honesty that lies at the core of each and every one of us, the private mind that is inwardly consulted minute after minute (the 99 percent of our mindful existence), but very rarely shared. See David Foster Wallace as a guide for this path.
The successful combination of these two “breaking through” methods—collage and false narrative—may prove to be as seminal as “The Iliad” was to Western literature, as abstraction was to modern art, as the electric guitar was to music.
The second foundational element of Shields’ manifesto is a sentiment summed up in Franz Kafka’s famous dictum, “a book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.” Great writing (and great art, for that matter) reveals a kernel of insight as to how the creator handles being. Ultimately, we are all alone, living within our own minds and doing our very best to cope with the material conditions that surround us and constitute this thing called “life.” Any medium, therefore, that helps traverse the abyss of alone-ness (loneliness?) between individuals is a work worth pursuing and engaging. Shields cites Amy Fusselman’s “The Pharmacist’s Mate,” a story that puts the struggle of the self at the center of the novel, as an achievement in this category, one that accomplishes this high level of “in-scaping”—that is, an escape into the deep hollows of the inner self and the successful translation and connection of the inner self to others outside that mind. “So: no more masters, no more masterpieces. What I want (instead of God the novelist) is self-portrait in a convex mirror.”
What in-scaping demands, if it is to span an emotional or existential crevasse in order to link to separate souls and minds, is naked honesty.
The third and most essential foundational element for Shields’ manifesto comes from Graham Greene, as previously noted: “When we are not sure, we are alive.” In other words, to be lulled into a complacent, predictable, unexciting existence is to be numb. You might as well be dead. To experience vertiginous doubt, where the dream world is mixed with the real world, where fact and fiction are as gray as London skies, where genres are melted and remolded into new entities, is to truly be alive. When your head spins and your heart skips beats and your stomach drops, you can feel it. You are alive.
Is it possible to foster and sustain this unsurety in literature? “Early novelists felt the need to foreground their work with a false realistic front,” Shields recalls. “Defoe tried to pass off Journal of a Plague Year as an actual journal. Fielding presented Jonathan Wild as a ‘real’ account. As the novel evolved, it left these techniques behind.” And it worked. The audience was often duped. Even outlandish fantasies like Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” with miniature people and giants pulled the same trick. It may not be a widespread conceit these days, but despite Shields’ contention otherwise the concept has not been entirely left behind. The intentional perpetration of fraud has recently been revived by, yes, Dan Brown. The opening page of “The Da Vinci Code,” a global phenomenon and controversial blockbuster, boldly states, “FACT” before claiming that the organization at the crux of the thriller—the Priory of Sion—is a real organization founded in 1099. Never mind that the group is an amalgam of the real and imagined and was created in 1956. Millions of readers around the world fell for it. “The Da Vinci Code” may not be high art, but it certainly spun some heads.
Provocatively, Shields’ call to blur the lines between what is real and what is not extends into autobiography as well, for “the line between fact and fiction is fuzzier than most people find it convenient to admit.” Everyone fudges memories, whether purposefully or not. Hillary Clinton did land in Bosnia, but not under a rain of gunfire, as she casually admitted. Relationships end, but easier than admitting fault is convincing ourselves that something else was the cause of the rupture.
And so, in the autobiographical realm, Shields says:
Let us not limit the blurry experience to autobiography, however. Charlie Kaufman’s film “Adaptation” presents an excellent meld of fantasy and personal history. So are rapper Eminem’s albums “Slim Shady” and “Marshall Mathers.”
Here is where Shields and I disagree. The stakes are high. If we accept that biographers and autobiographers are allowed to purposefully fictionalize historical engagements, how are we—as a global civilization—to accurately record, and thus learn from and improve upon, our human experiences? Historical misinformation deliberately delivered for the sake of polishing one’s image or just for the heck of it disservices future generations that seek to continue the progress of humanity. If they cannot trust supposedly historical accounts, how can they build on the foundation thousands of generations before them have lain? Exploding fictional genres is one thing; blurring the “non/fiction” lines of biography and autobiography sets a disturbing precedent.
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