Modern Fiction (was Re: DWJ's Faults and Robertson Davies)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at
Fri Apr 12 20:26:14 EDT 2002

On Thu, 04 Apr 2002 22:28:20 -0700, Robyn Starkey wrote:

>Thank you Melissa for raising another fascinating topic for discussion!
>>I suppose this depends on what you mean by "modern fiction," right?  I think
>>there are two classes of what we might also call literary fiction: one is
>>the elaborate, detail-rich kind that Davies writes (also people like Anne
>>Tyler, for example, or Reynolds Price or the other guy Professor Jorgensen
>>used to go on about, and probably Margaret Atwood) and the other is more
>>postmodern--I'm thinking Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff, and I'm drawing a blank
>>on other names (those two are my favorites insomuch as I like that kind of
>>fiction at all).
>Okay, we really have something to sort out here. I have to say I don't 
>think Anne Tyler is in Robertson Davies' league, and I don't know the other 
>authors (or, well I may know the other guy the professor used to go on 
>about, but I don't KNOW I know him), so it is hard for me to see if we are 
>in the ballpark.

I don't know that they're in the same league necessarily.  They definitely
aren't writing the same kind of book and I think Davies is *far* more
metaphysical than the others.  (Whether or not this is good is left to the
reader to decide.  :)  But in terms of the actual fact, I was
reading Margaret Atwood's _The Blind Assassin_ and the *way* in which the
story was told reminded me of passages from _Fifth Business_.

My limited experience with literary fiction means that my classifications
are very general, and might be as inaccurate as saying "all fantasy is
either sword and sorcery or epic."  But I can see a number of ways to
classify those texts.  The one above refers solely to construction; some
books are more easily read than others.  I, without any real experience, was
still able to appreciate the way Davies tells a story, and on that level I
think he's accessible to the average uninformed reader (the same way that
Anne Tyler is).  This is as opposed to "postmodern" in the sense of
fragmentary texts, interstitial texts where you have to read what's not
being said by what is being said.  Like if Ernest Hemingway had a baby with
John Barthes.  That kind.

> To me, Robertson Davies is postmodern in that his work is 
>highly intertextual, and it often is about more than just what the plot 
>appears to be about on the surface. Plus he is really into that 
>archetypical postmodern thing, writing the same story from a number of 
>different viewpoints.

Totally true.  In that sense, the authors I named above aren't postmodern at
all.  But I also realized that my original post, among its other flaws, made
a serious error.  I said "modern fiction" meaning, really, contemporary
literary fiction, not all of which is postmodern.  But that really implies
postmodern more than what *I* meant. 

>>But it *is* sort of two requests.  I see Davies as a person who bridges two
>>separate reading communities.  Readers of literary fiction appreciate his
>>use of language, symbolism, and context, but he also draws in a subset of
>>the fantasy reading community as well.
>Okay, I guess I am both kinds of reader, because one of the things I like 
>best about Davies is his use of language, but I also think he writes 
>excellent plots.

Well, sure you are!  It's not like the borders between those communities are
so immutable that you can only be one at a time.  But there are still
readers of literary fiction who think fantasy is for greasy-haired
hobbit-lovers (ooooh, that reminds me of a local radio guy who was so snide
about "The Fellowship of the Ring" movie and said only people who were
intellectually stunted would like it, the big fat jerk) and fantasy readers
who think literary fiction is boring.  I think Davies is somebody like John
Crowley who can get people solidly in each camp reading.  We read _Little,
Big_ in my reading group last year, and *that* was an experience...anyway.

>The thing is, that the plots often take all three books to 
>unfurl. But in each of his sets of books, there is at least one overarching 
>thematic exploration, which I also think engages me as a literary reader.

See, I didn't know this at all.  I wish the people who'd talked about him to
me had been more specific and less laudatory.  :)  That would have helped
because I might have stuck with the rest of the trilogy.  (Though I think
the Deptford trilogy would not have been my favorite anyway.)  This is a
good example of not always allowing your expectations to dominate your
reading of a book.  Sometimes I think it matters, but (like my friend from
another post who thought there should not have been guns in Dalemark)
sometimes it does the book a disservice.

>>Here's what I'm thinking--and I feel very brave to admit this, because this
>>is honestly a hole in my reading skills.  I read the first book of the
>>Deptford trilogy and thought it was beautiful and poignant and clever.  I
>>was interested in the characters.  And I got to the end and thought, "What
>>exactly am I supposed to think about this?  Is it just an extended
>>meditation on character, or is something else going on?"  This is generally
>>the sense I get from modern fiction--that there is some aspect of the text
>>that is opaque to me, that is imbued with more meaning than I myself
>Maybe this is partly the case, but you also probably need to read the three 
>books before making a decision. If you aren't engaged enough to do it, that 
>is another story. In the Deptford Trilogy, the books are very much about a 
>Jungian world view, and I think if you have some idea about what this is 
>before you read the books, you will get more out of them, but on the other 
>hand, Davies spends a lot of time explaining what he thinks Jung's ideas 
>are in the books.

I think if I'd realized this, it would have made a small difference (since I
only know a small bit about Jungian theory).  But enough that it would have

>On one level, the books are often quite intricate 
>biographies of supposedly ordinary people. So that isn't an unfair reading. 
>But I think the exposition of the life is also meant to show you something 
>larger about life in general through the examination of the characters in 
>the books.

That was my feeling, but I couldn't really see what.  Though it sounds like
that was a function of not reading the whole "book," if you consider the
trilogies to be better understood as a unit.  Like stopping after the first
fifteen chapters and complaining that the book doesn't make sense.  :)

>>My assumption was--based on talking to other fans of his books--that they
>>were all very similar.  But it sounds like that's not so much the case.  In
>>your opinion, which is the best of his thematic groups (and how would you
>>define "the best"?)?  That's for anyone who likes Davies's books, by the
>I like the Cornish Trilogy best because it is the most intricately written, 
>for me. It's thematic arc is about things I am familiar with and interested 
>in, so that may be part of it. It's about books and the creation of 
>knowledge, and what is real and what constitutes a fake, and about what the 
>Myth of Arthur means to people in the twentieth century. Also it is about 
>music and creativity and how they may be related to the more earthy aspects 
>of humanity.

This sounds much more interesting to me.  I think I will give it a try
someday.  For the record, I really did like parts of _Fifth Business_.  I
loved the first scenes--very vivid--and I liked the idea of a narrator who
stood outside the action, but was part of it at the same time.  I also like
magician characters, for some reason, so that was a plus.  The book reminded
me of something else...probably _A Separate Peace_, though I couldn't tell
you why.

>>Anyway, the original point still stands.  If I don't understand the point of
>>a book, especially if I'm unfamiliar with the genre, the fault probably lies
>>with me and not with the author.  And in case this was unclear, I am not
>>being flippant when I say I don't understand modern fiction.  That's not my
>>backhanded way of suggesting the genre is stupid and unworthy.  I dislike
>>not being able to fully appreciate certain books just because I don't know
>>how to read them.
>There's a lot to be said for this as point of view. It is pretty hard to 
>enjoy medieval poetry if you don't know how to read it, so why should 
>modern fiction be different - I mean the stuff that is intended to be 
>literary. There is also a fairly valid point of view which says a lot of it 
>is just not meant to be readable, or is plain bad.

Yes--and didn't I just whine about how we should still be able to say
something is terrible no matter how literary it sounds?--but you need the
basic understanding of the form to tell the difference, I think.  (Which is
probably why most universities still teach traditional literary criticism
before they teach postmodernism.)  It's one thing to say a book doesn't work
for you personally, and another to claim that because you didn't like it,
it's just bad, period.  My opinion is that you owe it to the author, to
yourself, to judge a book based on its own premises.  Not to say that you
can't create excellent readings by reading against the grain, because so
much wonderful criticism does just this.  I mean that it's unfair to
condemn, say, a high fantasy epic because it's not a Dick Francis novel.
That just doesn't make sense.

Melissa Proffitt
and I promised I'd stop catching up with email here, so I will
(our cheese-based food product for tonight will be nachos)
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