This viewing experience finally undid for me what I have long suspected to be a meaningless platitude: the idea that art promotes empathy. This idea is particularly prevalent when it comes to those works of art described as “narrative”: stories, novels, TV shows, movies, comics. We assume that works that depict characters in action over time must make us empathize with them, or as the saying goes, “walk a mile in their shoes.” And we assume that this is a good thing. Why?
The empathy model of art can bleed too easily into the relishing of suffering by those who are safe from it. It’s a gateway drug to white saviorism, with its familiar blend of propaganda, pornography, and paternalism. It’s an emotional palliative that distracts us from real inequities, on the page and on screen, to say nothing of our actual lives. And it has imposed upon readers and viewers the idea that they can and ought to use art to inhabit others, especially the marginalized.
Perhaps worse, it has imposed on makers of art, especially the marginalized, the idea that they can and ought to construct creative vehicles for empathy. This grotesque dynamic often makes for dull, pandering artworks. And it in fact perpetuates an assumed imbalance in the world: there are those who suffer, and those who do not and thus have the leisure to be convinced – via novels and films that produce empathy – that the sufferers matter.
For a writer who once lamented that no one would ever read his books, James’s timing is auspicious: among the sort of people who pay attention to the Booker Prize, snobbery about wizards and dragons and aliens is increasingly passé. The kind of realism that tends to predominate in literary fiction is “as fantastical as sword and sorcery,” James told me. “The world of a lot of these novels is super white, super middle-class, women only appear in a certain way. That isn’t real life! There are black people on Nantucket! We’ve given social realism this pride of place as the thing with the most verisimilitude, but there’s more verisimilitude in Aesop’s fables. Literary writers don’t get to talk down to sci-fi about invented worlds.”
The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (winner of the Man Booker International Prize for fiction in 2016), is made up of three interconnected short stories centred around a South Korean woman, Young-hye, told from the point of view of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister In-hye, about their reactions to her turning vegetarian, and her later desire to turn herself into a plant.
Tim Parks, in his review (which concentrates on the first story), points out the impossibility of judging the quality of a work in translation, and gives numerous examples of the odd and uneven language in the English translation. At the end of his review, Parks concludes:
“Looked at closely, the prose is far from an epitome of elegance, the drama itself neither understated nor beguiling, the translation frequently in trouble with register and idiom. Studying the thirty-four endorsements again, and the praise after the book won the prize, it occurs to me there is a shared vision of what critics would like a work of “global fiction” to be and that The Vegetarian has managed to present itself as a candidate that can be praised in those terms. […] Once it has been decided that the book fits the bill, all evidence of its unevenness and opportunism is set aside and thirty-four authoritative quotations are placed as guardians front and back, defying the reader to disagree. And of course if the novel is the real thing then the translation must also be excellent, instead of just perhaps okay. Curiously, this barrage of praise and prizes begins to feel, for the independent reader, rather like the strait-jacket of conformity that Han Kang’s unhappy heroine is determined to throw off.”
I found The Vegetarian to be a very disappointing, frustrating read. The prose is dead on the page; there is no cliché in the English language that goes unutilised, and in all honesty, it reads like it’s been passed through Google Translate. There are some good sentences, but each one comes with the cost of at least four paragraphs of dead-weight. The terribleness of the prose was so distracting I couldn’t even concentrate on the story for most of the book.
As Parks point out, the style is perhaps understandable in the first section, which is written in the third person limited point of view of a man, the husband, who is dull and lacking in imagination; but it is possible to write dull characters with a layer of irony to make them interesting. In November, BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime was Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years; Sue Townsend writes Adrian, in the first person, in a way that reveals more about the character than the character is aware of about himself, there is nothing as clever going on in The Vegetarian.
The brother-in-law, the focus of the middle story, is supposed to be an artist, but he sounds as dull as the husband; take this sentence describing his video art:
“The work was based around images related to things he loathed and thought of as lies, edited together into an impressionistic montage with music and graphic subtitles: adverts, clips from the news and television dramas, politicians’ faces, ruined bridges and department stores, vagrants, and the tears of children who suffered from incurable diseases.”
The description of the art and the art itself is painfully earnest and dull, and the details entirely superfluous (does knowing that the videos have “music and graphic subtitles” add anything for the reader?). It is impossible to know how much of this comes from the author, and how much the translation (it may flow completely differently in the original Korean, or Korean readers may have entirely different expectations to anglophone ones), but only the author herself can be blamed for this:
“He opened his bag and got out the programme, his sketch-book and master tape. On that tape, which was labelled with his name, address and phone number, were the originals of every video work he’d made over the past ten years or so.”
The fact that the tape is labelled with his personal details has no later bearing on the plot whatsoever, it’s irrelevant; and even if it was relevant, we wouldn’t need to know that detail until the tape went missing, or the brother-in-law’s bag got stolen, or whatever.
There is also this line, from the third story:
“Today we’ll try feeding her some gruel intravenously,”
‘Intravenously’ means ‘into the vein’, no one, anywhere in the world, is being fed gruel by intravenous drip (the term ‘nasal drip’ is used a few pages later); there is absolutely no excuse for this, someone, somewhere, at some stage (author, translator, editors), should have spotted it and done something about it.
This line made me laugh so much I had to stop reading: “She slipped off her old jeans and revealed her two white buttocks.” How many buttocks is she likely to have? and surely both buttocks being exposed is implicit in the plural of ‘buttocks’ anyway?
As I said, there is some good writing here. The following, both from the third story (the second paragraph is about In-hye’s young son), stood out for me:
“She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”
“The more she laughs, the more he ups the anti with his clowning. By the time he finishes he will have run through all the secret mysteries of laughter that human beings have ever understood, mobilizing everything at his disposal.”
There was other writing that could have been good; take these four consecutive sentences:
“Her voice had no weight to it, like feathers. It was neither gloomy nor absent-minded, as might be expected of someone who was ill. But it wasn’t bright or light-hearted either. It was the quiet tone of a person who didn’t belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being.”
The whole would be improved immensely by taking out the two middle sentences, which add nothing; take out ‘like feathers’ and add in a semicolon, and you have a vastly improved single sentence:
“Her voice had no weight to it; it was the quiet tone of a person who didn’t belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being.”
There are other oddities: the use of ‘veranda’ where surely they mean ‘balcony’; the repeated description of Yeong-hye’s birth-mark as being in the centre of her buttocks, when elsewhere it is described as being on her upper left buttock (without wishing to get graphic, those are very different anatomical locations!).
The story itself also raises practical questions: does body paint really last for days, even under normal clothes (a brief internet search suggests probably not)? In South Korea, when a patient absconds from a secure psychiatric hospital, would it really be the hospital staff putting up road blocks and searching the surrounding forest, rather than the police (I have no idea how to research this)?
What of the story itself? The collection as a whole is disjointed, Yeong-hye’s refusal to eat meat, which is the focus of the first story, is superseded by the third with her desire to turn into a plant. There is no necessary, causal, connection between those two desires (unless you really do believe that morally-motivated vegetarianism is some bizarre aberration); Yeong-hye’s horror at the bloody reality of meat-eating is not the same as her desire to abandon humanness altogether. There is very little explanation for Yeong-hye’s motivation in the first story, even less later on when the narrative focus shifts to her brother-in-law, then her sister. There are obvious metaphors, for exploitation, control, escape; maybe the story resonates more in South Korea, maybe the ideas are more urgent there, but there was nothing in it that captured me.
Moderan, by David R Bunch, was (re)published this year in a new, definitive, edition by New York Review Books. Jeff Vandermeer’s introduction is available here, and I can’t see much point in repeating what he has written, except to say that he misses how funny the whole thing is, even though the author himself says:
“I’m not in this business primarily to describe or explain or entertain. I’m here to make the reader think, even if I have to bash his teeth out, break his legs, grind him up, beat him down, and totally chastise him for the terrible and tinsel and almost wholly bad world we allow.”
Even if the future world depicted is a terrible one (and it is), that doesn’t stop it being hilarious. Vandermeer cites ‘toxic masculinity’, but it would be equally true to say it show-cases ‘fragile masculinity’. How can I not laugh at all-powerful cyborgs, who are still terrified, even behind the eleven (not ten, eleven) defensive walls of their Stronghold forts? Really, it’s something I absolutely should laugh at.
Some accidental humour comes from the anachronisms, robot dogs controlled by punch-card programs, cyborgs who wear wrist-watches and need printed maps and instructions; all entirely forgivable given that most of the stories were written in the 50’s and 60’s. One needs, I think, to envision the whole thing animated in the style of Yellow Submarine (a film I found totally terrifying at a child).
The prose is brilliant, here’s my favourite example:
“He could not make a move, he could not try for any prize but that the fear dogs howled and the stand-back jackals moved in to say, STAND BACK! NOT FOR YOU!”
And yes, it is written like that ALL THE WAY THROUGH!
The introductory chapter (set far into the future past the main story), reminded me, ironically, with its talk of ‘essences’ and ‘beams’, of H(A)PPY, proving again that it is very difficult to do anything genuinely new in science fiction.
In the summer I read Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (winner of the Man Booker Prize 2016), which really is award-worthy literature. I recently finished reading Less, by Andrew Sean Greer (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2018), which is all jolly good fun, and cleverly written, with enough irony and self-awareness to stop the protagonist being insufferable, but the narrative twist (which I won’t spoil), raises some vexing questions about the veracity of the whole thing. I decided, ultimately, that it doesn’t matter how ‘real’ any of it is; but if that doesn’t matter, then the book itself doesn’t matter.
I also read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets this summer, which was so dull it made me angry reading it. I have read Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty, which is more academic, and very good; Bluets is a collection of snippets, of other people’s writings, of Nelson’s own memoir. The selection of extracts is boring, and most of Nelson’s writings on the colour blue are boring as well; it’s too sparse to work as a primer on ‘colour theory’ (if such a discipline exists), and anyone who doesn’t already know about Joni Mitchell’s cigarette-altered voice, or Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat, is not, to be completely honest, going to be picking up a book like this anyway.
Nelson’s sexual masochism (one of the main themes of the autobiographical sections) is banal (there is nothing ‘subversive’ about female masochism, we are indoctrinated into it practically from birth, think Beauty and the Beast, or The Princess and the Pea). The only interesting original writing is about Nelson’s friend, left quadriplegic after an accident, and that writing probably only fills one page in total (I found Bluets for £2 in a charity shop, and it went straight back as soon as I’d finished reading it, so I can’t double-check now).
The best line of original writing is this: “she is too busy asking, in this changed form, what makes a liveable life, and how she can live it” (apparently Nelson wrote more about this in her earlier poetry collection Something Bright, Then Holes). The most interesting reference to someone else’s writing is The Oblivion Seekers, by Isabelle Eberhardt, so now I’ve saved you the bother.
Bluets’ blurb claims: “Much like Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse , Bluets has passed between lovers in the ecstasy of new love, and been pressed into the hands of the heartbroken.” To which I say tosh.
Blurbs are a sales pitch. Author quotes for a blurb are a circular protection racket, especially for young, up-and-coming writers; how could anyone dare give a bad review when the recipient or their friend could go on to give them a bad review in turn?
A work of ‘literature’ is considered a ‘best seller’ if it sells in the tens of thousands, a few a year sell over a hundred thousand, fewer still over a million (million sellers usually being the reserve of genre fiction and repurposed fanfic).
The best-selling book of 2018 in the UK was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman, which sold over 800,000 copies. Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere is in there at number 44 with sales of 137,642, which, looking at the other adult fiction books on the list, kind of confirms my ‘pot boiler’ conclusion (since writing my review I saw a pile of them in my local discount/remainder book store, in the ‘modern romance section’ – but in all fairness, the shop didn’t actually have a ‘modern literature’ section). A book needs to sell over 90,000 copies to get into the top 100, and there is very little in the way of ‘literary’ fiction in there at all.
There are over eight million people living in London, over 66 million in the UK, over seven billion on the planet; even if a book sells a million copies, that still means hardly anyone has read it. The idea of any book being ‘important’ or ‘influential’ is difficult to defend.
Maybe I am simply expecting too much of ‘literary’ fiction?
I think of myself as a genre reader, but in reality, my reading these days is probably split evenly between science fiction and ‘literature’. Even as a teenager, when I was mostly reading Ann McCaffrey and Star Trek spin-offs, I was also reading Jeanette Winterson, Louise Erdrich, Michelle Roberts, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, William Burroughs, John Irving, and Yann Martel.
Maybe my teenaged reading was too selective, maybe I have ‘spoilt’ myself for the mostly second-rate stuff that passes for ‘literature’ now? Or maybe this is nostalgia? Apart from Louise Erdrich, I don’t think I’ve read any of those authors since my twenties. As a child I would only read (outside school, where I had the choice), ‘talking animal’ books; this meant I read a lot of books that were not ‘suitable’ for children, because my parents assumed any book with an animal on the cover was like Watership Down and therefore ok for me to read. I tried re-reading William Horwood’s Duncton Wood a few years ago (for the first time since my early teens), I found it so awful I was skipping pages just to get it over with (something I almost never do), and decided not to try the rest of the series, that I would rather stick with the childhood memories of them (although, of course, William Horwood is not a writer in the same league as Toni Morrison).
What point am I trying to make here? I don’t think there is one. I think I’ve had enough of current ‘literature’ for a while. I want to re-read Borges and Le Guin. I want to read more non-fiction.
Mentioning Watership Down, I suppose I should offer my opinion on the new BBC/Netflix adaptation, although I have only watched the first two episodes and won’t be going back unless I am desperate for something to watch. I thought the quality of the animation was horrible, like something out of World of Warcraft, and none of the alterations or additions (can a crow really lift a rabbit?) were an improvement on either the book, or the 1978 film adaptation. The worst thing about it is that it didn’t trust the viewer to understand what was going on, so had to hammer every point in by making everything obvious; the rabbits in the snared warren worshiped a giant purple quartz, in case you missed otherwise that there is something off about them, and Efrafa was turned into a sadistic concentration camp, full of Frank Miller-esque grotesques, to make sure you understood how evil they all are. The BFI has pledged to no longer fund films that link physical disfigurement to negative character traits, the BBC and Netflix should follow their lead.
All this is not to say that some difficult novels are not truly ghastly. If hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, you could say that pretentiousness is the tribute that mediocrity pays to genius. I remember a colleague on a judging panel surveying the gathered novels and saying, with a certain roll of the eyes: “There’s a lot of … fine writing in here.” By this he meant overwrought bad writing. The idea of literary fiction – in particular the idea that it is intrinsically high-status or, worse, “important” – is the rock on which many ambitious second-rate writers bark their shins. It’s what gives us plotless novels choked with portentous metaphors and pseudo-profound ruminations, novels that mistake difficulty for accomplishment or, worse, solemnity for seriousness.
Only a fool says writing isn’t political. People are subjects in history, and so are fictional characters. But the novel is in the category of art, and art is something special, irreducible. It is not a vehicle for a message. Still, a good novel might prompt people to ask themselves questions that don’t have easy answers, and to take a break from themselves and consider the lives of other people and the mechanics of the world, and meet new streams of comedy and grief. There is always some surplus that isn’t exactly political, but it cannot be separated cleanly from the society one lives in.
There are certain novels – and I’m sure it’s like this for every science fiction reader – from which you only need revisit a couple of pages to be reminded of why it is that you’re crazy about science fiction. Novels that churn up memories so powerful they bring tears to your eyes. You know there are no novels quite like this in mimetic literature, that in some incalculable yet inarguable way they articulate what being a reader and being a writer is about.