Boring novels


Modernists and postmodernists often criticise conventional novels because they fail to represent life accurately. And they are half right. Most novels do fail in this regard because, for example, they tell unrealistically coherent stories and do away with periods of dullness. But is accuracy the proper measure? Why should the experience of reading a novel correspond as closely as possible to the experience of living life? You don’t build a sandcastle to make it look like the beach.

I think people get confused on this point because art made out of words has no natural equivalent. Consider how music would strive to represent life accurately. Just set up a microphone and collect recordings of the world. Modernist cooking would be even easier. No plate of linguine with clams and garlic “truly” tastes of Italy. For that experience, dig up a shovelful of sovereign territory and put it on a plate.

Do you not like the idea of eating gravel or listening to an hour of traffic noise? How very unsophisticated of you. Do you get bored reading 1,000 plotless and unpunctuated pages? Ditto. It’s easy to see why this kind of work so often comes with a side order of haughty verbiage. It must frighten readers into the belief that they are missing something in order to be read.

Innovation is important because it sometimes yields art that is meaningful to people. Traffic noise may well be beautiful, when skilfully edited. Hay, gold and charcoal all have their place as ingredients. Some modernist and postmodernist novels - I’ll mention The Trial and The Mezzanine - are wonderful to read. Some that are not reveal wonderful techniques and possibilities. But more often, far more often, being boring is being boring, even when it is also being art.