While Ian McEwan’s recent piece in the Guardian is not expressly termed a treatise on the value of art, it is hard to see it otherwise. What is the use of fiction, what can a novelist tell us of, ‘why the Industrial Revolution began, or how the Higgs boson confers mass on fundamental particles…?’ he asks. At the heart of this modern day ‘defense of poesy’ is McEwan’s devotion to realism: it is realism that falls last to ‘the icy waters of scepticism’ and it is realism that saves him from it. He gives an account of how his thirteen year-old self, so overcome by the description of the 1900 heatwave in The Go-Between, leaves his seat in the library to check the archives of Punch. He discovers the magazine and its treatment of the searing heat exactly as the writer described.
This is a moving account but critically disturbing. Art is about more than ‘how the worlds of fact and fiction can interpenetrate.’ An artistic vision does not gain its potency from the real; art is not a flowerbed made whole and beautiful because it is populated with facts. Fiction, and indeed art, must be about more than realism, more than a photographic reprint, drawn from life.
The writer and critic Gabriel Josopivici challenges what he sees as the modern, English literary consensus of ultra-realism in Whatever happened to Modernism? ‘Reading [Julian] Barnes, like reading so many of the other English writers of his generation, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison…leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made meaner and smaller.’ This, he attests, is down to an obsession with the real: portraying life in all its mundanity and absurdity and dispensing with what is seen as the artifice of the high-minded. Yet it is still a fiction, it is still artifice, it is still a creation.
L. P. Hartley’s novel would not be any less moving or valuable should the Punch of 1900 show torrents of rain and waters reaching East Anglian windowsills. Art is about more than time travel. Rather, art’s power lies in its capacity to move us – the fact that the young McEwan felt compelled to get up and check Punch, not what he found there.
Yet much modern English fiction is of the realist school. It should come as little surprise that its high priests (for there are no priestesses) are also followers of the new atheism. McEwan is and has always been less rigid in this regard than some of his contemporaries. However, while he lauds ‘fiction’s generous knack of annotating the microscopic lattice-work of consciousness, the small print of subjectivity’ he and his generation seem to have little place for nuance, dare one say generosity; little place, ultimately, for doubt.
McEwan’s recent novels deal with the art of creation as one of atonement or revenge; Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending challenges the truth of history and biography by depicting them as shams, created fictions based on the preoccupations of the surviving participants. Meaning is reduced to the subjective interpretations of the self-serving.
Their South African counterpart, JM Coetzee, however takes a different view. The protagonist of his semi-autobiographical trilogy is modern man in search of a meaning, as indeed is Simón, the protagonist of his latest work The Childhood of Jesus. The conflicts and discrepancies in the memories and accounts of his characters are not reduced to conscious fabrication; man is not an agent of mere bad faith. Instead the fractures are the inevitable consequence of minds grappling with uncertainty in pursuit of understanding. The fractures – these gaps between – are what we are left with. Coetzee appears to give his characters the benefit of the doubt and, to some extent, doubt is all that is left for his readers to inhabit.
Amis has little time for such work. He finds Coetzee humourless, artless and worst of all talentless: 'His whole style is predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure. I read one and I thought, he's got no talent. But the denial of the pleasure principle has got a lot of followers.'
But, setting aside the assault on Coetzee’s very many skills with language, this appears to be an attack on a writer who chooses the big, metaphysical questions, and its ensuing uncertainties, over the knowing satire of the everyday. One only need read The Childhood of Jesus, unreal and laden with philosophical questioning, to be left stumbling for a cohesive meaning. It is the antithesis of the ultra-realist novel.
Keats claimed that it was those who could hold two conflicting views, or what he termed negative-capability, who paradoxically came closest to making sense of the world. There is no room for such paradox in the English realist school. They write with a certainty, even a superiority, that Josipovici terms a ‘kind of smartness [that] soon palls.’ They have turned their backs on the Romantics, the Modernists. They are realists in pursuit of the tangible – art like science.
In The Case for God and elsewhere, Karen Armstrong describes Christianity’s wrong turn in abandoning mythos – symbolism that points beyond itself – in favour of logos – a literal reading of scripture resulting in the likes of Newton’s Mechanick. It seems that English fiction is engaged in the same fallacy, making the world meaner and smaller in an attempt to pin it down. William Blake cautioned, ‘May God us keep from single vision and Newton’s sleep’ and it’s a warning artists would do well to hear. You don’t need to believe in God to want art to open and expand our horizons. Writers should pursue multitudes not mere facts.