Innovation and its Limits

One of my favorite novels is John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  There was a time that what turned me on in this book was the metafictional flourishes: the 20th century narrator’s intrusions into a 19th century novel, the author writing himself into the book, the fireworks at the end.  But metafiction today is a bit played out: everything is meta.  Metafiction is mainstreamed in sitcoms, practically its own sitcom convention.  The metafiction of The French Lieutenant’s Woman is still spectacular, original and sharp.  But metafiction itself isn’t quite enough reason to get up in the morning.  I’m a bit tired of having to notice it.

So have I shifted away from my love of Fowles’ novel, treating that love as an artifact of my earlier self?  Heavens no!  The last two times I read the novel, it was other things that captivated me: the perfect pitch of the narrative voice, the humor, the perspicacity of Victorian England, the full command of the novel’s conventions, the beauty of the prose, the challenge of the philosophical explorations.  The metafiction, while quite bold when it appears, is actually a smallish part of the novel: whole long parts go on where a reader can become enraptured with the characters, plot, and setting, forgetting that Fowles is giving the game away.

Furthermore, the metafiction isn’t really for its own sake.  In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles uses metafiction to actually explore the literary form itself.  He is explicitly playing with the role of omnipotent narrator.  He confronts the reader and demands the reader confront his/her own assumptions, habits, and beliefs about reading and writing. The metafiction also works thematically into the existentialism of the novel.  It functions.

I’m not high on smashing conventions for the smashing’s sake.  I rather prefer to see a writer take command of conventions, then twist and shift and alter and innovate them in creative and interesting ways.  I find more pleasure in seeing literary forms pushed and pulled and stretched and squeezed and creatively altered than in seeing them smashed.  But whatever a work does against the conventions, there has to be something greater for a reader or critic to say about it than “It breaks conventions.”  If that’s it–if the primary praise for a work is the breaking–the work probably doesn’t have lasting power.  Come back to it, and it may feel as empty as a work that does little but follow conventions.  If the innovation is influential, it may even seem rather familiar: Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is really, really good, but read it after reading some Pinter or Stoppard, and it’s two more boobs on stage confusedly doing silly things while silliness happens around them.  The quality of Beckett’s work stands out, but for more than just smashing dramatic convention.

I’m not opposed to experimentation, of course, but the very nature of an experiment is that sometimes (quite often, actually), it fails.  Sometimes experimentalism reads as gimmick.  I noted previously that (though I liked his collection as a whole) I didn’t care for Matt Bell’s “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed,” a story told through the alphabetical form of an index.  The story is a gimmick story, and however artfully done, struggles to escape feeling gimmicky.  An experimental work needs to move me in some deeper way than to say “Hey, look at this experiment!”  But of course the failure rate of experimental literature is no argument against experimenting: things need to be tried.  Evolution works as a bunch of random mutations, many of which are worthless or worse, yet some of those mutations end up serving a species very, very well.  It is on the whole good that writers are willing to take risks–I just don’t want to be expected to admire the risk for its own sake.


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