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Distant Visions: Putdownable Prose and the State of the Art-Novel

By Mark de Silva.


As novels change their form and melt into memoir, so these forms also merge with what we are still calling the personal essay, so that novel, memoir, essay, and even news reports begin to sound like each other, most often governed by the “I.”

The New York Review of Books gave us this sentence back in April, and even now I’m turning it over. It’s followed by this one: “What explains this selfie-enhanced urge to testimony, and for privileging subjectivity over authority?” The question comes near the end of Diane Johnson’s review of Outline, a recent and much-praised autobiographical novel by Rachel Cusk. Johnson never attempts an answer, and I won’t either. I’d rather try coming at things from the opposite direction: What explains the ever-broadening reader appeal of this testimonial voice? And what does this tell us about the state of contemporary fiction?

The prose convergence Johnson describes is itself remarkable. Thumbing through the major magazines and newspapers, I often find myself adverting to the rubrics to tell the fiction from the features, the commentary from the news. Not long ago, I had the experience of reading a New Yorker piece called “The Children of Strangers” and thinking, fully a quarter of the way through, that it was the issue’s short story. I peeked at the byline—Larissa MacFarquhar—and only then realized it was actually a profile.

That’s a testament to the nimbleness of this voice. It has no trouble sounding sensible, antic, arch, or moody, among many other things.  What holds constant across these variations, though, is the prose’s immediacy. It reveres the easiness of speech, especially vernacular speech—the kind we are endlessly treated to on television, film, radio—and takes it as its guide if not its master. Even when it’s transposed into the third-person, as it is in MacFarquhar’s profile, it tends toward the plainspoken and personal, and shows a marked preference for bare facts and subjective impressions to ambitious analysis—which of course only makes it more approachable:

They liked being surrounded by teen-agers, but the group home was depressing. In the two years they were there, twenty-three boys passed through—boys who had spent an average of eleven years in foster care. Some had been placed with more than twenty-five families by the time they were fifteen. Most of them, Sue and Hector knew, would never have a real family, and probably some would end up homeless. The more they thought about it, the more it seemed to them that foster care was a dreadful thing. A child who was kicked out of one home after another for his whole childhood—well, there wasn’t much hope for a child like that.

This is an immediacy of style. But in much contemporary writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, this voice is coupled to topical subject matter, which yields an immediacy of its own. News value is one route to it. The casual prose voice documents or comments upon current affairs and the issues of the day, which readers are naturally likely to have antecedent or easily stimulated interest in. Treating subject matter of this sort is the very point of journalism, so there’s nothing remarkable about it. But plenty of fiction too has been molded by its authors into a kind of colorful news supplement, a process the novelist Jeff Jackson has aptly described as NPR-ification. So we get John Lanchester covering the 2008 financial crisis (Capital), David Eggers chronicling the dominance of Google (The Circle), Phil Clay reporting on the aftermath of the war on terrorism for U.S. veterans (Redeployment), and so on.

Topicality also can take a more socio-cultural form. The personas and lifestyles detailed are ones audiences can be counted on to identify with or aspire to (Adelle Waldman’s Brooklyn literati), or the locales recreated are ones they relish recognizing (Zadie Smith’s London). As nothing captivates us quite like our own reflections, swift reader interest is assured.

At their most effective, these immediacies of style and substance can yield writing so absorbing it seems almost to read itself, like a book on tape or a piece a film inexorably unspooling before us. The reading experience comes to seem effortless, so that it is not the force or curiosity of our minds that absorbs the work, but the writing that does the absorbing, pulling us in as essentially passive subjects. We are gripped. We feel compelled to turn the pages, and the work becomes, as it’s sometimes said, unputdownable.


Having just spent a few years on the editorial staff of a major American newspaper, and having done shorter stints at a pair of distinguished magazines, I can say with some confidence that most journalists, the good ones included, think of the creation of just this state of absorption and compulsion as an—even the—essential quality of “great writing.” I can also confirm how modest editors’ expectations of readers can be: they tend to tailor the prose and subject matter of their pieces for an imagined reader who’s looking for reasons to flip or click away. And though the long-form magazine reader might be willing to stick around a few extra paragraphs, dive a little deeper than the typical newspaper reader, ultimately the feeling is that if the piece doesn’t grab him by the lapels early and carry him away, he’s not going to make it through the article. And that, as the New Yorker’s Louis Menand recently declared, is the ultimate failure, since “the job of the magazine writer is never to give readers a reason to stop before they reach the end.”

My introduction to this portrait of the general-interest reader was probably especially jarring, as I’d joined the paper not long after finishing a doctorate in philosophy, where entirely different expectations held sway. My instincts had to be retrained. What the paper’s readers wanted, I was told by veteran editors, was the “cocktail-party version” of any story: simple, direct, intimate, lively. Never trying, never confounding. Readers should know, straight off, why they should care, and why they should care right now. No slow-burn intros, then. Get to the point before they tune out, and keep the pleasure coming if you expect them to see the story through. Nothing can be allowed to threaten the reader’s state of absorption, so passages that cannot be rapidly digested should either be radically simplified or, if they prove irreducibly knotty, eliminated.

Given the general braininess of the staff on our desk, the many advanced degrees in impractical subjects, this approach could really only strike me as cynical, a mean underestimation of our readers’ capacities and desires, especially in light of the intellectual standing of this particular newspaper. Six months of editorial meetings convinced me, though, that their portrait of a reader was actually done with a mirror. Mostly they decided which stories to pursue, and in what sort of prose, on the basis of their own sensibilities, not some hypothetical reader’s. This was self-portraiture.

Still, for some time after, I continued to find the picture unacceptably crude. What was once an indictment of their surmises about our audience simply transformed for me into an indictment of them. Perhaps, I thought, they had spent so much time around ephemeral writing that it had come to seem substantial. Indeed, perhaps their capacity to do their jobs well, with conviction, might have depended on the cultivation of just this delusion.

Inevitably, I suppose, all these misgivings about reader expectations threw light—a not altogether welcome light at first, I should say—on my own reading habits. Given that my interest in current affairs is uncommonly limited, it’s a safe bet I read less journalism than most of my former colleagues. This had made it easier for me to ignore exactly how I read it when I did.

Once I was paying attention, though, it didn’t take long for me to see that, at least when it comes to journalism, I really am quite a desultory reader. Frequently I abandon pieces that don’t captivate me within a few paragraphs; and I have surprisingly little patience for the very complexities I’m happy to wrangle with when reading philosophy or literature. The idea of rereading a piece of journalism, which I had never before seriously entertained, turns out to seem borderline absurd to me, as I’ve come to expect, unconsciously at least, that any thorniness inhering in the subject at hand—and every subject is thorny when its nuances are given their due—will have been shorn away by the author, even if I’ve also been dimly aware that this can only create a false sense of coherence. In any event, it was all quite clear now. The cocktail-party standard I’d been deriding didn’t just belong to an imagined audience, or to my colleagues. It was mine too.

Now, in my defense—our defense—if journalists can expect little from me as a reader, I expect modest things from them in return: some compelling details and insight about topical matters, framed in a vivid, engrossing way. It’s precisely what “The Children of Strangers,” a fine piece of magazine work, achieves.  There is something unreasonable about expecting more. It seems silly, for instance, to be disappointed because a piece of journalism isn’t also profound or, better, visionary.

“Vision” calls to mind such a range of things: thought, sense experience, first principles, imagination, discernment, invention, prescience, revelation. It’s this cluster of valences that explains the alchemical effects visionary works, fully appreciated, can have on us. Put simply—and I mean this as a retrieval of a critical ideal, not a novel proposition—such works are capable of reshaping our basic ways of experiencing and conceptualizing the world, ourselves, and the relation between the two. They don’t merely present us with new objects of experience or new information, offering fresh fodder for the mind, but extend and refine our experiential capacities themselves, whatever objects we train them upon.

This is the barest sketch of the visionary—I’ll fill it in as we go—but already it should be obvious that an expectation of this kind of transformative power isn’t part of any tacit arrangement between readers and writers of general-interest journalism. It’s asking too much.

What of fiction, though? Clearly there are forms of fiction where an expectation of immediacy and absorption is entirely appropriate and one of transformative vision risible. Who would read an airport romance that wasn’t eager to absorb you? And who would expect their sensibilities to be deepened by it?

But what of fiction that aspires to the status of art, that imagines itself to be in dialogue with, and hence in the same business as, works of world literature that are visionary in just the sense I’ve gestured at: the fiction of Murasaki Shikibu and François Rabelais, Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett, Gabriel García Márquez and Can Xue? Here, I think, the arrangement between reader and writer is altogether different from the one underwriting journalism.


To fix ideas, it’s worth revisiting two ways of understanding the aims of fiction that Jonathan Franzen sketched over a decade ago in his New Yorker essay-manifesto “Mr. Difficult”: the contract and status models. Contract writers, he says, write books at least partly to satisfy “the audience’s legitimate desire to be entertained,” that is, to have “a pleasurable experience.” Such writers thinks that a novel “deserves a reader’s attention only as long as the author sustains the reader’s trust” in respecting this agreement. Though Franzen allows that this contract “sometimes calls for work,” that “the pleasures of a book aren’t always easy,” he describes the contract model in a way that doesn’t exclude airport paperbacks. It’s a wide category.

Status writers—here Franzen lumps “difficult” writers like William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and William Gass—think that “the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of how many people are able to appreciate it.” They reject the idea of any tacit arrangement with readers, and write books with no thought of satisfying anyone’s desires but their own. They simply create art objects they believe to be of inherent aesthetic merit. You read at you own risk, then, with no promises from the author. This, Franzen supposes, is the territory of art fiction.

The distinction, of course, is tendentious. As Franzen admits, he’s a contract person at heart, so we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s drawn the distinction in a way that sells the status model short. Why should art-fiction writers have to be preoccupied, as Franzen supposes, with “genius and art-historical importance,” that is, with status? Can’t they be just as concerned with communicating with a readership as contract writers are?

If we strip away the tendentiousness, what remains, I think, is not one contract but two. The first one—call it the leisure contract—corresponds to Franzen’s contract model. Readers of leisure-contract fiction expect swift absorption and, if possible, page-turning compulsion. Naturally, they all but insist upon easily digested prose styles, like the ascendant testimonial one Johnson identifies, or Franzen’s own third-personal version in much of his post-Strong Motion work.

The category of leisure fiction, being capacious, further divides. Readers of books by James Patterson and Danielle Steel presumably aren’t looking for much else besides simple entertainment or diversion from their novels. But clearly many readers—readers like Franzen—are. Beyond being entertained, they expect the fiction they read to carry emotional and intellectual weight. Frequently that comes in the form of the kinds of cultural news and insight I described earlier, though so long as the style is accessible, readers will happily venture into more remote territory (Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell-era England, say). What they do not insist on—though they needn’t oppose it, if it comes with the rest of the package—is sensibility-shaping vision.

Interestingly, reader expectations of leisure fiction of this second, substantive sort bear more than a passing resemblance to those underlying quality journalism. Which is to say, a New Yorker profile and a New Yorker short story fulfill curiously similar desiderata: an absorbing style, usually hitched to subject matter of topical import—with the natural addition, in the case of nonfiction, of an expectation of sentence-level, literal truth.

Franzen’s status model is better described, I think, as the art contract. If anything, fiction written under this arrangement—art fiction—trades on reader trust even more greatly than the leisure variety, as the history of fiction qua literary art suggests there is no guarantee of immediacy or swift absorption made to readers. Rather, we are asked to trust in the writer’s ultimate designs, without requiring him to deliver recognizable pleasure from page to page. Consider how many novels of agreed artistic merit—Tristram Shandy, Moby Dick, The Man without Qualities, To the Lighthouse, or, to take Franzen’s chosen status-model exemplar, The Recognitions—make no attempt to hold us in a continuous state of absorption. Their authors could not have failed to understand, in writing them, that it would have to be the ravenousness of the reader’s mind that drove him through these books, if anything did.


There’s no need to look to the past, though. In fleshing out our understanding of the visionary, contemporary works serve just as well. Consider Your Face Tomorrow, Javier Marías’s twenty-first century trilogy, which is widely held to be as trying to read as it is visionary in its achievement.

Nominally it is a work of noir, but the book’s subject matter can really only be called recondite. Marías’s protagonist, Jacques Deza, is as an interpreter not of languages but of human behavior, discovering through observation alone the “probabilities in our veins,” for use in heading off or inciting events of strategic significance to his inscrutable MI6 bosses. Not uncharacteristically, much of the first volume, Fever and Spear, is given over to an arcane meditation by Deza’s mentor on secrecy and propaganda during the Spanish Civil War. This is hardly material readers might identify with or recognize as part of their lived world.

The obstacles to immediacy are doubled by Marías’s mandarin prose. The work is essentially written, in that it refuses to take its cues from “natural,” vernacular speech. Marías’s sentences tend to wind their way, clause to clause, through what can feel like an endless series of semantic refinements, their sense honed down to a cutting edge by the time they reach a full stop. In a way, there is much testimony in the book: like nearly all of Marías’s novels, it’s written in the first person. Yet Deza, our narrator, makes no attempt to ingratiate himself with us. He does not seek our sympathy, and he isn’t especially modest about his erudition or his capacities of discernment. He’s imperious, and he asks only that we try to keep up with him if we can. Rather than fishing for an empathic response from us, he positively invites our sternest judgment, knowing that most readers will come off worse for it. This is testimony of a different order, then, one that stares us down instead of shrinking into confession or other safely subjective postures we are meant to empathize with or take pity on, with an eye to disarming us.

Suffice it to say, these pages refuse to turn themselves. Marías counts on our tenacity as readers, our powers of concentration. It makes the book eminently putdownable. I’ve yet to hear of anyone feverishly reading the trilogy through the night because they just had to see how it ends. Indeed, I can remember putting down each volume myself many times, within any given stretch of reading, whether to find my bearings or simply seek relief for a moment from the sheer intensity of the mind on display, the twisting maze of thought Marías continually has us run.

There is simply no possibility of disappearing in these pages for long, of forgetting that you are having an encounter, and a somewhat intimidating one, with the written word. But though all of this does tell strongly against the work’s leisure value, critics seem to agree that none of these challenges speaks against Marías’s magisterial achievement.

This is, it seems, because Marías’s thorny language, and his subject matter so far from the news, is just what his peculiar way of sense-making demands for its full expression. There is, as I said, the exhilarating and exasperating phenomenological richness of reading his prose, the continual sifting of the finest shades of meaning, not for its own sake, but because events of the greatest consequence, for Marías, can turn on apparently harmless misapprehensions.

There is also the contrarian challenge posed by what is perhaps the central theme of the book, which runs exactly counter to the tendency in postwar literature to be skeptical of our epistemic powers, to narrow the range of what we can know to what we can personally testify to, if that. There is freedom to be found in ignorance, Marías shows us. “No one knows anything, really” is a thought that can excuse a lot. Too much, in fact. He suggests not that knowledge is easy—certainly not—but that there is far more of it for the taking than we would like to admit, if only we were willing to attend to what it is that, in some sense, we already see:

How can someone not see, in the long term, that the person who will and does end up ruining us will indeed ruin us? How can you not sense or guess at their plotting, their machinations, their circular dance, not smell their hostility or breathe their despair, not notice their slow skulking, their leisurely, languishing waiting, and the inevitable impatience that they would have had to contain for who knows how many years? How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing.

It’s a credit to Marías’s artistry, to the richness of Your Face Tomorrow’s “literary thinking,” as he calls it, that there is really no satisfying paraphrase of it worth the candle. Its effects are concrete and must be felt directly. But it’s not risking much to say the book, as an intellectual experience rather than an argument, is a tonic against the gauzy post-modern skepticisms about truth and knowledge still prevailing, perhaps especially among those trained in the humanities. And as the passage above demonstrates, the effect is not achieved, as one might assume, by suggesting certainties (Marías does not traffic in those) where only ambivalent belief now exists, but by the unexpected means of unraveling our uncertainties, doubting our doubts. For these aesthetic effects—and there is much else one could say about the book in this regard—it’s hard not to see Your Face Tomorrow as having visionary import, even if the work we must do as readers to experience it is not insignificant.

Something similar goes for the novels of the Australian writer Gerald Murnane, though his prose and his vision are utterly distinct from Marías’s. Perhaps his style is best described as a kind of minimalism—musical minimalism. So, not Raymond Carver or Tobias Wolff but Steve Reich and Philip Glass, especially their “additive” compositional technique, in which a simple musical motif is extended in length with each repetition, slowly unfurling the often staggering complexity inhering in the original figure.

In Inland, perhaps Murnane’s most well-known novel, the narrator, in the course of presenting us with scattered vignettes from his childhood, voices a similar thought, while using the very technique to do it:

I learned that no thing in the world is one thing; that each thing in the world is two things at least, and probably many more than two things. I learned to find a queer pleasure in staring at a thing and dreaming of how many things it might be.

He subjects moments from his present and past to this process, time and again turning one simple thing into many extraordinary ones. To represent this effect, I must quote at length:

The true part of you is far too far-reaching and much too many-layered for you or me, reader, to read about or write about. A map of the true part of you, reader, would show every place where you have been from your birthplace to the place where you sit now reading this page. And, reader, even if you tell me you have lived all your life in a place of books and color-plates and handwritten texts deep in the Calvin O. Dahlberg Institute—as well you may have lived it—even then, reader, you know and I know that every morning when you first turned your eyes on that place it was a different place. And when every place where you have ever been on every day of your life has been marked on the map of the true part of you, why then, reader, the map has been barely marked. There are still to mark all those places you have dreamed about and all those places you have dreamed of yourself seeing or remembering or dreaming about. Then, reader, you know as well as I know that when you have not been dreaming you have been looking at pages of books or standing in front of bookshelves and dreaming of yourself looking at pages of books. Whatever places you saw at such times, along with all the places you dreamed of yourself seeing, must all appear on the map of the true part of you. And by now, you suppose, the map must be almost filled with places.

Do not merely suppose, reader. Look with your eyes at what is in front of you. All the places you have so far marked have only sprinkled the wide spaces of the map with a few dots of towns and hairlines of streams. The map shows many hundreds of places for every hour of your life; but look, reader, at all the bare spaces on the map, and see how few the marked places still seem. You have looked at places and dreamed of places and dreamed of yourself looking at places or remembering places or dreaming of places during every hour of your life, reader, but still your map is mostly empty spaces. And my map, reader, is hardly different from yours.

Murnane’s prose is puzzling, then exhilarating, then draining. Throughout it is revelatory, offering a depiction of how some forms of analysis can manage to expand rather than narrow, how the decomposition of a single event or idea can ultimately pull together an entire life and lifeworld. I rarely read more than twenty pages of it at a stretch, often just ten. Any more seems not just painful but wasteful.

At first one feels the attention sharpening as the distinctions, often applied to something simple—a view from a room, a walk to the forest, a killing of a farm pest—begin to accrete and a kind of expanding web of repetitions takes shape. After ten or so pages, a state of hyperawareness arrives, and one begins to experience the facts of Murnane’s world in a manner that seems at once analytic and synthetic, whether it’s the narrator’s identity, his relation to place, his bonds to the past or his family, or his very capacity to write. This state, in my case, anyway, is always fleeting. Perhaps it lasts another ten pages, after which the resolution begins to fall and everything begins to blur, and one is overcome by the disappointing feeling of no longer keeping pace with Murnane’s narrator.

As with Marías, Murnane seems mostly indifferent to this. He refuses to pander or seek out an empathic response from us, and he offers no easy way for us to recognize ourselves or our world in his stories. That’s not to because he thinks there is little linking us; the final sentence of the last passage tells us so. But any feeling of recognition in us, far from being mobilized as a means of keeping us absorbed, is something we are asked to discover: “Do not merely suppose, reader. Look with your eyes at what is in front of you.” Identification with Murnane’s narrators is a hard-won achievement, not the seduction it is in so much leisure fiction.

Finally, take the case of William T. Vollmann, the great American cartographer of violence. Quoting passages, I think, would do little to show what is most distinctive and challenging about his books. One sees it best in the larger patterns of his oeuvre. Violence was central for Vollmann from the start, though then only surreally: his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, recounts a war between insect and man. Violence remains the main attraction today, this year’s The Dying Grass amounting to a 1300 page chronicle of a not exactly famous six-month battle between a Native American tribe and the United States government.

It’s part of his Seven Dreams project, a seven-book cycle, five-sevenths completed, documenting various stages of the birth of the New World and the death of Native American civilization. Heavily researched, and with the volumes published so far averaging 750 pages, the cycle will easily count as the most exhaustive novelistic investigation of the settlement of North America. Add to this Rising Up and Rising Down, his seven-volume, 3350 page nonfiction account of the causes and justifications of violence, which mixes essays and reportage from war-ravaged parts of the globe like Iraq and Afghanistan, all conducted before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

However, his most vexing and provocative work, spanning three novels and a short-story collection, is his semi-fictional investigation into prostitution and street crime, also based, to some critics’ chagrin, on extensive field research. The brutality and oppression (and élan) Vollmann discovers, and in his way, abets, in the red-light districts of San Francisco and Vietnam are no less unnerving, and usually more intimate, than that which he finds in the ethnic conflicts in North American history or today’s Middle East that he chronicles elsewhere.

“Undisciplined” may be the word Vollmann’s detractors most frequently summon, and they mean it, one feels, in both a linguistic and moral way. Linguistic because the prose can be overwhelming in its sheer bulk, the promiscuity of its details, within and across the many books. Vollmann has never written short—he has refused most editing in that direction—and in reading him, one is forced to relinquish the usual satisfactions of closure and all thought of completism. One can only wade into his work rather than definitively read or consume it. There is always more of him to read, it seems, and one learns to content oneself with a partial view of this infinite font of verbiage.

There is also the violent way he binds passages of matter-of-fact prose of an almost forensic character with flights into something like the baroque, hallucinatory style of Thomas Browne. Either mode poses challenges to reader engagement, the one for its pedantry, the other for its sticky metaphors. Together, though, one feels under even greater stress in staying involved with the work, trying as one does to deduce the meaning of linking these two modes of linguistic experience.

The case for Vollmann’s lack of moral discipline comes down to his inscrutable way of being an artist and thinker in the world. As with Marías and Murnane, otherness is what strikes us first in Vollmann’s work—he is not like us, not obviously, anyway—alongside a distinct lack of interest in fabricating intimacy. Empathy, recognition, identification: none of this occurs easily, if it occurs at all, and perhaps, he seems to suggest, it might just be beside the point.

There are the deeply alienating moments in Vollmann’s work when he seems to fetishize real-life atrocities, past and present, or bring to them an aesthetic valence they shouldn’t bear but do. William Burroughs, of course, also did this: think of all the mangled souls he knew that he lovingly documented in his first book, Junky. What makes Vollmann more beguiling is that he is very far from thinking that “nothing is true and everything is permitted.” His moral seriousness, his staunch opposition to nihilism, cannot be gainsaid, as his mammoth, meticulous investigation Rising Up and Rising Down is dedicated precisely to delimiting when violence is permitted—and it turns out, on Vollmann’s view, that the answer is, “Rarely.”

How, then, do we understand moral seriousness when it is interpenetrated by a frank acknowledgement, indeed almost a celebration, of the sublimity of conflict, which is, after all, the engine of drama and the font of pathos? The tension between these two aspects of Vollmann’s writing, and the unstable harmonies occasionally realized therein (for instance, in The Royal Family, his 800 page benediction of whoredom), is the crucial aspect of his work. There is much waywardness in Vollmann, both linguistic and moral, but it is an obsessively disciplined one. His paradoxical way of apprehending violence exists at the boundary of our (and his) comprehension, and it is this that makes him both problematic and vital to read.


If a lack of immediacy needn’t diminish a novel’s artistic merit, as Your Face Tomorrow and the other works suggest, a lack of visionary power seems always to count against a novel qua art. “It’s an excellent work of art, it just lacks real vision” isn’t just an odd thing to say, it’s incoherent. Substitute “immediacy” or “immersiveness” for “vision,” though, and you get a perfectly intelligible assertion. It suggests that the idea of visionary power is baked directly into our concept of art, at least as we understand it today: a successful work of art simply cannot afford not to have a visionary dimension, in just the way a quality magazine or newspaper piece cannot afford not to be absorbing. (It’s also worth remembering that if certain novels of the first order don’t seem visionary to us now, it’s usually because we have absorbed their visions so fully. The liberal use of free indirect discourse in Jane Austen’s work comes to mind in this regard.)

This gives us the materials to formulate the essential, visionary clause of the art-fiction compact: if the reader will commit the energy necessary to carefully work through the book, the writer will deliver to him a sensibility-shaping experience.

Clearly more is asked of the reader by this agreement, as there’s no guarantee of entertainment or immediate reward (just as there is none in the other fine arts—think about how much contemporary visual art is thought, even by its advocates, to be aggressively ugly). But then, something more is promised to him too, something that extends his apprehensive capacities rather than simply absorbs or informs him.

Plenty of “difficult” fiction, of course, doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain, in that it fails to deliver anything transformative in this sense. (We can all think of novels that strike us this way.) The reader’s trust that his pains will be compensated is thereby betrayed. But then, much leisure fiction betrays us too, when it fails to absorb and entertain us.

It’s also true that immediacy and vision needn’t be in conflict. There are transformative page-turners. Consider the uncanny complexion put on human relationships, and especially the singular coolness of desire—desire that for all that remains inexhaustible—animating Murakami’s questing protagonists in novels like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore. Modern life is given to us as a not-quite-futile, not-quite-successful hunt for the extraordinary (often some form of love) within the ordinary, a bleak evocation of Paul Éluard’s words: “There is another world, but it is in this one.” Murakami articulates both worlds in casual, slightly wry prose, all the better, he seems to say, to reveal the banality of even our most profound desires. What Murakami presents us with, and it is striking, is enchantment as continually receding just out of reach—falling ever further down the many wells appearing in his books. This essentially tragic fact is somehow depicted, at the same time, as lacking any ultimate drama. It’s as if, for Murakami, the modern world isn’t quite built from materials that make room for the kind of drama we seek. Yet the seeking persists, in all its mundanity.

Because of his accessible, immediate style, many people read Murakami’s novels simply for their immersive pleasures, not for any alchemical properties that might inhere in them. But it’s arguable—and many critics have argued as much—that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and certain other of his books have a significant visionary dimension, one defining an entire cast of mind that is bequeathed to the sensitive reader.

The same could be said of some other recent novels, for instance, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which is as chatty as it is destabilizing, its world built out of willed replications of the ordinary—the frying of bacon, the parking of a car—all, it turns out, failures, near misses. The modern world may be ever so dull, but nothing can occur twice in it. McCarthy’s protagonist’s futile and curiously poignant quest, in a thoroughly disenchanted world, to recapture a past that was just present, is as uncanny, as revelatory, as those of Murakami’s.


The growing dominance of the testimonial prose voice I described at the start bears, in a worrying way, on the distinction between the art and leisure contracts. If good journalism, as I suggested, answers to a version of the leisure contract, and if more and more fiction, including our would-be art fiction, has become formally indistinguishable from journalism, we can, without our noticing it, drift as readers toward bringing a similar set of expectations to both, as if the same arrangement underwrote them.

Leave aside precisely what effect this conflation of expectations is having on journalism (I take it some loss of authority and trustworthiness). In fiction, it seems we’ve grown increasingly accustomed to expecting, even from those we consider our most ambitious literary artists— a previous generation’s list would have included challenging writers like Nabokov, Robbe-Grillet, Pynchon, and Gass—to deliver many of the rewards of contemporary narrative journalism: immediacy, a conversational tone, swift absorption, topicality. At the same time, our expectation of, and even our appetite for, profoundly transformative vision in fiction seems to have waned. The less-than-immediate authors just mentioned, and many other “difficult” writers besides, were often celebrated in their own time: Gaddis himself won National Books Awards for his second and fourth novels. It is hard to name nearly so many such writers today who are as widely read or discussed.

It suggests, I think, that the art contract has been quietly displaced by a kind of all-purpose leisure contract spanning fiction and nonfiction. Our language, though, has not yet caught up to this shift toward the leisure contract and away from a more demanding conception of literary art. Many of the novels now held up as among the boldest contemporary expressions of artistry in fiction—as on a par, for instance, with Marías’s or Murnane’s, which, at least in Anglophone literary circles, are more admired than loved, and rarely discussed with broad fervor—seem to fall so far short of fulfilling anything resembling the art contract that one presumes fulfilling it was never among their authors’ aims. They squarely occupy an expanded leisure-contract space, delivering many of the same pleasures as good journalism. Yet almost out of habit, or else a desire to preserve our sense of ourselves as lovers of serious art, we continue to describe them as forward-looking, deeply inventive literary works.

Take the recent fashion in putative art fiction that most plainly instantiates Johnson’s observation about the novel melding into essay, memoir, and reportage: the autobiographical novels of Sheila Heti, Tao Lin, Ben Lerner, Geoff Dyer, and perhaps most notably, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Much of the critical establishment has concluded that these are among our most imaginative literary artists, Knausgaard most of all, it seems.

Knausgaard’s memoir-novel, My Struggle, offers up all the pleasures of the leisure contract—immediacy in both style and subject matter—in great heaps. No one can doubt how absorbing, and how “unputdownable,” it can be. In this respect, at least, Knausgaard must be the anti-Marías. There are, in fact, other curious relationships between their multi-volume projects. Both My Struggle and Your Face Tomorrow are written in the first person, draw freely on autobiography (Knausgaard almost exclusively), and are not at any pains to demarcate the fictive from the real. Both books have been called Proustian (though that might only suggest the bankruptcy of the term). Yet the results couldn’t be more different.

Even Marías’s advocates agree that Your Face Tomorrow and its intimidating narrator put near-continuous pressure on the reader’s attentive capacities. My Struggle, by contrast, with its hapless neurotic writer for a narrator, engrosses most readers who dip into it, even casually. It is difficult for readers to find correspondences between Jacques Deza and their own lives and minds—they are there, I think, but there is work involved in unearthing them. But any middle-class first-worlder will struggle very hard not to see such correspondences in Knausgaard’s book, chockfull as it is with documentary evidence of our moment, and with a bumbling confessor to bourgeois anomie at its center. What, after all, could be easier to relate to?

Now, Your Face Tomorrow is a visionary work if any contemporary novel is. It satisfies the art contract. My Struggle . . . well, where does it figure on the score of vision, that distinctive condition of the art contract?

For anyone with a good university education and an introspective bent, it’s hard to argue there is much that is deeply revelatory in My Struggle’s ruminations on childhood, marriage, death, and so on. Though there is an irreducible pleasure in working one’s way through the narrator’s timeworn thoughts, and in recognizing these beliefs as ones one either holds or once held, it is difficult to disagree with the Slate critic Katy Waldman when she describes Knausgaard’s chronicle as being wrought from “insight-resistant material.” William Deresiewicz puts it even more sharply: “Knausgaard’s ideas, like his language, tend to run toward cliché: the expulsion of the numinous has drained the world of meaning; modern art is emptily self-referential; we are surrounded by death but everywhere conceal it—the familiar educated talking points.” Even if one could conjure a more charitable take on Knausgaardian thought, it seems unlikely to draw it especially close, for ruminative profundity, to Your Face Tomorrow, as that must be the book’s signal (indeed, monumental) strength.

Suppose, though, that Knausgaard’s essayistic reflections are meant to be banal, as some critics have claimed. Where then are we to locate what is genuinely visionary or profound about the book, assuming such is to be found here?

One candidate safely set aside is the blending of fact and fiction, or of the writing of fiction about writing fiction. After the 1970s fashion for  “autofiction” in France, the development of the Japanese “I-novel,” a century-old tradition now, and Truman Capote’s “faction” and the American metafictionalists of the postwar period, there’s nothing especially clever or fresh, never mind transformative, in blurring fact and fiction or fictionalizing one’s autobiography. Even if we can find some new twist on these well-worn themes in Knausgaard or the rest of the current crop of autobiographical novelists, it seems unlikely that this alone could thrust their books into genuinely visionary territory.

Suppose, though, it’s neither the explicit ruminations nor the metafictional antics that is supposed to carry the load. Perhaps its profundity is to be found directly in the experience of reading My Struggle. Is that phenomenology itself transformative? I’ve already granted that Knausgaard’s book, as well as those of some of the other writers, can be preternaturally absorbing, and that this state of immersion is deeply pleasurable. But pleasures vary in their other properties. What must be asked is this: What exactly is the pleasure of autofictional absorption worth, artistically? In a brilliant review of Boyhood, the third volume of My Struggle, the critic Nicholas Dames concludes with just this question: “The novel form usually aims at more than hypnosis,” he says, and it’s an open question whether My Struggle’s “hypnotic immersion . . . is as genuinely nourishing as it sometimes can feel.” I won’t try to settle the question here. But it’s worth pointing out that Knausgaard’s hyper-real chronicle of the everyday seems able to create such intense reader identification precisely by closing down the space for transformation; extreme verisimilitude removes the experiential friction by which the senses might be sharpen or shaped.

Ultimately, it is the burden of the critic who believes the reading experience of My Struggle is in fact visionary, rather than merely verisimilar, to show us how this is so. I have yet to read a persuasive account. No doubt we marvel at the immersion Knausgaard and others produce. But to marvel as such is not to find something nourishing or altering. As Dames suggests, deep immersion cannot guarantee nourishment. That requires something more: vision.

There are also the book’s mimetic qualities to consider. It should be granted, Knausgaard and his autofictional cohort do accurately document many of the experiences and sentiments of relatively affluent thirty- and forty-something first-worlders. The dorm-room level rumination on authenticity in the modern world these writers frequently engage in—a topic mostly exhausted in serious intellectual circles at least forty years ago—is also probably quite true to life, as many people’s intellectual peak is reached in university, only to be followed by stagnation or decline as worldly concerns overtake them. Representations of these phenomena have a place in any time capsule of the moment; from a journalistic standpoint, this kind of mimesis has real documentary value. But from the standpoint of art?

What, then, is mimesis worth artistically, beyond the pleasure to be found in witnessing the accurate recreation of some phenomenon? It’s the same kind of pleasure we take in more mundane affairs: for instance, the pitch-perfect impression of a world leader, or an old friend. Such feats, like deep immersion, can give us much to marvel at: that’s exactly what he sounds like! But if the impressionist manages only to replicate and not reveal some vital and previously hidden aspect of the subject, this does not rise much above the status of a party trick. (In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner rightly levels a cousin of this criticism against Eudora Welty’s comic novel Losing Battles: mimesis is insufficient for art.)

Considering all of this, one can’t help but wonder whether reader interest in these autobiographical novels, or in the much broader class of literary fiction written in some version of that universal testimonial voice Johnson isolates, is sustained not by the books’ visionary power but by the essentially journalistic pleasures of stylistic and substantive immediacy they deliver. It may be, that is, that these books have not transcended the clauses of the leisure contract.

In a largely positive review of Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Giles Harvey seems to suggest as much when he notes that though the narrator’s “perceptions of contemporary New York, in all its frantic hedonism and scared hyperactivity, are one of the book’s principal pleasures,” the political sentiments dotting the book are “conceptually woolly,” the analysis “rather flimsy.” Colorful topical riffs and depictions of contemporary middle-class city life, delivered once again by a hapless neurotic suffering from bourgeois anomie and authenticity issues, are supposed to carry the book—and some of these riffs, it should be said, are terrifically sharp—while any visionary aspect to the book, one that might throw open a door for the careful reader and lead him away from the world as he knows it to the world as he might know it, turns out to be rather hard to find: a perfectly acceptable result in journalism, but vexing for fiction intended as art.


It’s worth asking why visionary power, so central to earlier generations of leading literary artists, has lost its footing in literary culture, only to be replaced by something closer to good first-person reportage. Perhaps it’s because we’ve lost belief in the critical importance of transformation through art, and have relegated it to just one of many equally worthy rewards a book can offer. Just because effective art-contract writing has sensibility-shaping power, the thought goes, that doesn’t make it truer or worthier than journalistic leisure-contract fiction. There’s a populist worry about elitism and high-low distinctions hanging in the background, about deeming some cultural artifacts the deep, meaningful ones, and the others pedestrian and shallow.

But questions of ultimate value seem beside the point. The importance of transformative reward in art fiction needn’t be understood in terms of its giving us a more accurate picture of reality than leisure fiction, but rather in its capacity to give us more reality, so to speak, by equipping us with more ways of coming to grips with what is. It this expanded experiential terrain that is the central reward of visionary work.

Some may argue that good leisure fiction like The Corrections, or to take perhaps a more favorable case, My Struggle, does as much as works like Your Face Tomorrow or Remainder in expanding that terrain, extending one’s experiential capacities. Myself, I can’t quite see how these works could carry the same visionary voltage, given how much Franzen and Knausgaard are concerned to describe the everyday world in the usual left-leaning, bourgeois terms familiar to any university student. Here again, the burden of constructing that case must fall on the shoulders of advocates of these writers and books.

Perhaps, though, we have simply lost the taste for art fiction and the costs associated with it—have forgotten, in the words of the narrator of Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, how to have “a profound experience of art.”

Gaddis, after all, really is Mr. Difficult. By now we are only too familiar with the broader cultural reasons nudging us in this direction: the problem of distractibility in the digital era; reality television and its glorification of the banal and demotic; the populist leveling of aesthetic and critical standards encouraged by the ease of publishing online; the seeking out of micro-communities that reinforce our points of view and taste rather than alter them; the rise of the notion that everyone, by virtue of having a pulse, must have a story worth telling and the correlative explosion of blog-memoir culture.

Perhaps these shifts are making us lose not just our taste for visionary fiction, but our belief in its very possibility: that novels, or anything, might have the sorts of transformative powers I’ve ascribed to them. In that case, though, preserving our intellectual integrity would mean that we stop paying lip service to a notion of artistry in literature that no longer carries conviction. This would still leave us free to give ourselves over to the pleasures of leisure fiction (and journalism too), but without the bad faith.

There is another choice, of course. Rather than annul the art contract, we could try recommitting to it. That would mean expecting our best writers to push themselves to visionary heights, and expecting ourselves, as readers, to make the climb, not always easy, to meet them there. In the offing, perhaps, that profound experience of art, for writer and reader both.

Mark de Silva is the author of the debut novel Square Wave, forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio in February 2016. An excerpt from the book will be published in Guernica Magazine in January. He holds degrees in philosophy from Brown (AB) and Cambridge (PhD) and has written for the New York Times, the New Inquiry, and the Paris Review Daily.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 4th, 2015.