The fiction one is in - Notes on the Late Twentieth Century British Novel

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The fiction one is in - Notes on the Late Twentieth Century British Novel and at the beginning of the third millennium, when even the post-modernist trend seems to have exhausted its possibilities, the question that has haunted writer and reader alike ever since the middle of the 20th century, whether the novel has any future and, if it does, where is it headed, seems as irrelevant and preposterous as Barthes’s overrated theory of the ‘death of the author’.

The fiction one is in - Notes on the Late Twentieth Century British Novel - Not only has this question been asked so frequently that its reiteration today makes any sensible reader or writer shrug and continue to read/write novels, but it has also become quite obvious that the novel is not going anywhere in particular, that it has chosen to dwell in the same old spheres of human interest and to stay faithful to its old allegiances.

The fiction one is in - Notes on the Late Twentieth Century British Novel - The postmodernist poetics of the novel, to the extent that it exists, has had a considerable contribution to the coming back in force of fiction, having countered many of the potentially destructive aesthetic tenets of high modernism, among which its banishment of traditional literary conventions, its elitist stance, its propensity towards high-blown experimentalism.

Linda Hutcheon shows that postmodernism does not oust modernism completely, that “the modern is ineluctably embedded in the postmodern, but the relation is a complex one, of consequence, difference and dependence.” Postmodernism has been tolerant, democratic and ironic and, rather than operate a clean break with tradition – as the spirit of high modernism required –, it has been concerned with salvaging anything that can be re-used from that tradition, and also from the tradition of modernism. Hence a new life even for realist fiction, placed, nonetheless, in a different, more relativised, context and perspective.

A really important issue to tackle here, when discussing the relationship of postmodernism to modernism, is that of the canon, more precisely that of the modifications that occurred inside the canon after the consolidation of postmodernism and of the constitution of the postmodernist canon itself.

The canon, Harold Bloom insists, “once we see it as the relation of an individual reader and writer to what has been preserved out of what has been written” (and not as a list of books for required study) is “the Literary Art of memory”. It is the literay memory’s way to preserve and transmit aesthetic value. In his influential book, Harold Bloom examines the Western canon in three epochs: the Aristocratic Age, the Democratic Age and the Chaotic Age, with some limited reference to the Theocratic Age, which precedes the Aristocratic.

Ours would be the Chaotic Age, which, however, contains not only postmodernism, but also modernism, in fact the entire 20th. century. It results that one can only discuss the canon profitably if one assigns a given canon a precise historical delineation, as differences are considerable from one century to another and sometimes, as in the case of modernism vs. postmodernism, even within the same century.

Postmodernist writers are, par excellence, anti-canonical; postmodernism itself is pluralist and relativist, willing to accept variety and consequently opposed to a unique canon, probably to the very idea of canon, but postmodernist novelists and the critics supporting them cannot fail to project a new light on the existing canon and to modify it through their own works.

Many theoreticians maintain that postmodern literary works are necessarily situated at the periphery of the modernist canon, others think that they constitute a separate canon. The issue is still apt to genrate much heated controversy. The question is whether what Harold Bloom calls the “School of Resentment” (Feminists, Marxists, Lacanians, New Historicists, Deconstructionists, Semioticians etc.) will manage to persuade the readership that the authors who constitute the canon are but “dead white European males” not worth reading any more (because they do not reflect the socio-political temper of the new age).

Another question is whether the postmodernists have published sufficient significant new works to have a canon of their own. In that respect it is significant that, for all postmodern critiques of modernism, no postmodernist writer of comparable stature to Joyce, D. H. Lawrence or T. S. Eliot has yet emerged.

Despite the various ways in which the accomodating form of the novel has been stretched and twisted by ambitious technical innovators, despite the stunning diversity of texts on which the label ‘novel’ has been slapped, despite the great variety of personal visions informing it, the basic function of the novel has remained practically unchanged through the centuries: to tell a meaningful story about man in his social milieu.

Radical fictional experiments that have attempted to ignore this fundamental imperative have, for the most part, ended in dismal failures. Reversely, it has been noticed that when fiction sticks to the function mentioned above and applies itself enthusiastically, with gusto, to its task (whether the vision be tragic, tragi-comic, allegorical, symbolical or what have you), it stands a fair chance to become noteworthy, even to stand out in the context of world literature.

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