Spring Term 2013: Session 1

'Enduring Consolations'

Dr David James
(Queen Mary, University of London)

6-8pm, Wednesday 23rd January
Senate House, Room G35 (Ground Floor)

In a now often-quoted NYRB essay contrasting Joseph O’Neill with Tom McCarthy, Zadie Smith raised a number of concerns about the prevalence of what she termed ‘lyrical realism’ in the novel today, a mode that she herself had previously adopted (in On Beauty) but which nowadays she regards with some suspicion for its susceptibility to nostalgia and for its propensity to comfort readers. This tendency for lyrical realism to offer forms of solace is doubly damaging when the writer in question is dealing with matters of terrorism, war and trauma – as O’Neill does in Netherland. And Smith therefore concluded that while she ‘has written in this tradition and cautiously hope[s] for its survival’, she maintained that ‘if it’s to survive, lyrical realists will have to push a little harder on their subject’. But what does pushing harder entail? Smith seems to suggest that it means refusing what Iris Murdoch famously saw as the false consolations of form – the smoothing away of difficult issues by means of a highly wrought, consciously artistic language. 

This paper returns to Murdoch’s contention, originally set out in ‘Against Dryness’ (1961) in order to call into question those reservations about consolation that appear to unite Murdoch and Smith across time. In re-evaluating both the pertinence and pitfalls of Murdoch’s notoriously schematic distinction between ‘journalistic’ and ‘crystalline’ registers of modern fiction, the talk traces the re-emergence – or what could be described as a ‘renaissance’ – of the latter mode, bringing together writers as different as Paul Harding, Colum McCann, Ian McEwan, and O’Neill himself. Charting their respective renovations of crystalline narration, the paper delineates a shared impulse to synchronize the consolatory force of form with a more interrogative, reflexive, and dynamic sense of fiction’s capacity to stage ethical scenarios and invite politically responsive readings. 

Suggested preparatory reading

Iris Murdoch,  ‘Against Dryness: A Polemical Sketch’ (1961), repr. in The Novel Today, ed. Bradbury (London: Fontana, 1977), 23–31. (Available online here.)

Zadie Smith, ‘Two Directions for the Novel’, in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2009), 71–96. (Available online here.)

David James teaches modern and contemporary literature in the Department of English at Queen Mary, University of London. He is author of Contemporary British Fiction and the Artistry of Space (2008), and, most recently, of Modernist Futures (Cambridge University Press, 2012). He has edited a volume of essays The Legacies of Modernism (Cambridge University Press, 2011), and guest-edited a special issue of Contemporary Literature on ‘Post-Millennial Commitments’ (due out in February). With Matthew Hart and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, he edits the book series Literature Now for Columbia University Press. He is currently editing The Cambridge Companion to British Fiction since 1945

All are welcome to attend.

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