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What happened to modernism

Will Self, modernist:

In What Ever Happened to Modernism? Josipovici made some intemperate-sounding remarks on the English writers of the half-generation immediately preceding my own. He accused Julian Barnes and Martin Amis – among others – of, inasmuch as they responded to the modernist moment at all, reacting with a degree of puerility that saw them mistaking the graphic depiction of the devilish detail – often gynaecological – for the wholesale abandonment of the possibility of naturalistic verity in the novel that such insights demand. In one of those rare irruptions of high-cultural debate into the British newspapers, Josipovici received his mandated three minutes of fame – after all, the British intelligentsia enjoy shaking the snow globe of their complacency, even if they soon set it to one side again and return to their immemorial ways. But I felt the sting of these remarks – even if they weren’t, so far as I know, intended to include my own fictions.

Like Ballard, on the whole I have been content as a novelist and short-story writer to deploy difficult content in lieu of formal experimentation. Like Martin Amis I have mixed a melange of different voices together, believing that the solution would prove corrosive enough to eat away at the English class system. For myself, I have also believed that the fantastical and antic cast of my tales would propel them away from the surly gravity of the conventional, while my own satirical bent would be enough to warp them in the direction of those fabulists – Borges, Poe, Gogol, Kafka – whose writings defy commonplace realism, while perfectly limning the veridical. I can’t say that it’s been any conscious cravenness that’s led to this failure on my part to properly acknowledge how impossible it is to go on, even as I was compelled to do it. True, I do remember that when I submitted my most obviously modernist story “Scale” to my then agent he called me up and said he didn’t understand it, and was disinclined to submit it to my publisher. (Vindication came in the form of upwards of 100,000 sales in the Penguin 60s edition.) But it wasn’t this that held me back, oh no.

First posted: Friday, August 10th, 2012.

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