Alain Robbe Grillet Ruined Your Fiction

I don’t quite agree with this post-mortem on Alain Robbe-Grillet.

The "new novel" or "nouveau roman," as Robbe-Grillet defined and explained it in his famous 1963 essay, was high art at its unpalatably highest. It applied rules and regulations, opposed subjectivity and tried to dissolve plot and character into description. The approach was perceived, he admitted, as "difficult to read, addressed only to specialists." The "art novel" became the preserve of high priests. Many novelists you’ve probably never heard of were deeply influenced by Robbe-Grillet. Even more damaging, though, was the effect his radicalization and elitism had on readers in the English-speaking world: They took a look at the future of the novel according to Robbe-Grillet and walked in the opposite direction.

First of all, creation under constraint has given rise to some wonderful art of all types (in fact, much of poetry follows "rules and regulations" as to form), so I’m not sure that method made novels worse.

Also, I don’t think novelists are as herd-like as Stephen Marche seems to think. Sure, lots of writers were influenced by Robbe-Grillet, but artists tend to be a pretty individualistic lot, so I think it’s rather simplistic to claim that the Frenchman gave the marching orders and it was either his way or the highway so far as avant-garde fiction goes. (Similarly, it’s kinda strange to opine that now that he’s dead a new generation of writers will feel free to experiment again.)

Marche goes on to claim the whole "resurgence" of realist fiction as due to Robbe-Grillet scaring the bejesus out of anyone who would write experimental fiction. The resurgence of realist fiction is a bit overstated. First off, you can argue that realist has never really been dethroned: Even in the wild and wooly ’60s and ’70s you didn’t have to look hard to find people critical of the "new" fiction.

But moreover, it wasn’t too long ago that we were touting the great commercial successes of such non-realist writers as DeLillo, Foster Wallace, and the whole flock of crazy folks McSweeney’s brought out of the woodwork. If non-realist fiction was really that whipped, would these guys be such literary forces? Sure, they’re not as experimental as you can get, but you’re fooling yourself if you think there was ever some experimental golden age when truly avant-garde lambs nestled with the lions of mainstream culture and everyone could attain market success, regardless of how they wrote.

I think Marche is on somewhat firmer ground when he claims that the prejudices of a critic like James Wood have to do with Robbe-Grillet’s exclusionary rhetoric, although I don’t think Wood is the literature’s greatest populist either. Yes, he’s championing a form that tends to have a broad appeal, but he’s also championing in-depth, challenging looks at fiction, which tends to exclude people.

I don’t think, as Marche seems to imply, that The New Yorker took on Wood as some sort of collusion with the Great Reaslist Forces conspiring against the avant-garde. I think it probably had more to do with The New Yorker needing to fill a hole and taking on a prominent, established critic, and with Wood wanting a change of venue from TNR. But besides, is it that surprising that The New Yorker, a magazine that purposely uses archaic British grammar, would take on a critic like Wood? Look to comparatively progressive publications, like Harper’s (and even the NYRB), and you’ll see critics giving non-realist fiction its due.

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