Sunday, December 27, 2015

Distant Visions: Putdownable Prose and the State of the Art-Novel by Mark de Silva

As a blogger and undergraduate English major that exposed me to many novels and genres of writing at an early age, I found this piece by Mark de Silva from 3:AM Magazine very interesting.  He reflects on the state of the art-novel and whether it should bear the burden as fiction to be visionary—unlike so many other forms of writing to which we are regularly exposed—especially the ever-expanding appeal of the first-person, "testimonial voice."  

In what he terms the "leisure-contract," de Silva acknowledges the impact of the "blog-memoir culture" and its capacity to both entertain and provide the reader with immediate rewards. Since novels require a different form of commitment, so many are simply "putdownable," that is, not quite as gripping as what one may describe as more "pedestrian" or everyday forms of writing that are consumed ad nauseum by most readers.

For novelists, de Silva offers the "art contract" as an alternative, albeit in a form that is visionary and transformative to the reader.  Here is his helpful definition of vision:
“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.
All is not lost however, as his concluding paragraphs outline:
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.
In short, this piece investigates that very important space between writer, audience, and expectations held by both (or not).  My read of this is that a fitting trade off to the leisure contract is an art contract where we, as readers, can expect to have a profound experience with art—at least to the degree that writers indeed push themselves "to visionary heights."

Angela Valenzuela

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

By Mark de Silva

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.

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