100 Years of Modernity:
Language, Point of View, and the Declining Role of the Reader in Contemporary Fiction
And so the smashing and the crashing began.
—Virginia Woolf, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, 1924
But sometimes, more and more often as time goes by, we suspect a momentary doubt, a spasm of rebellion, as the pages fill themselves in the customary way. Is life like this? Must novels be like this?
—Virginia Woolf, Modern Fiction, 1925
ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS
In the early twenties of the new millennium, as we move towards and through the hundred year anniversary of these lines and the revolutionary literary movement they epitomized, it is fair to ask ourselves just how far have we gotten over the past century. Surveying the landscape of literary fiction, there is perhaps something to be desired, a hesitance in the approach to the novel as an art form that emanates, if not from convention, in that antiquated, Edwardian term, then from custom and from that most menacing word of our own age, marketability. It seems that there has been a death of the reader(1) at the base unit level of fiction. The scale of work, the division of labor between the writer and the reader, is a broad spectrum. An author can employ point of view and language in such a way that requires very little effort from her audience, on the one hand, to asking much of her, on the other. In modern publishing, at those fundamental levels, there has been a general decline in how much a reader has to do, how much work is required of her, in order to access and navigate a book and its central concerns. Instead of presenting a fictive world as it may be on the sentence level, messy and chaotic but with verisimilitude and reflective of its subject matter—consciousness, reality and the human experience—the writer is doing ever more of the labor. The scale has slid to the point where the author seems to be enjoined to come to the reader, to present a world that, no matter how complex and imposing it may be, must be rendered so that there is little risk of losing many readers along the way.
(1) From Roland Barthe’s The Death of the Author, 1967. While his ‘scriptor’ may be but a notetaker, for this essay it is the very reality being rendered that must not be given too helping a hand via interpretation.
Where, we might ask, are the books that mount a direct and frontal assault towards its reader, towards that slippery byword readability, or its dark cousin accessibility? Where are those novels that declare themselves as technically complex works of art, requiring patience and practice to interpret and to decipher? To ask these questions is of course not to say that there are no works that demand careful thought and study to analyze on other levels besides those played out at the sentence—there innumerable such books, but the interpretation needed comes at broader realms, ones dealing with message, theme, content, and story, ones that challenge a reader to see new perspectives or voices, to consider underrepresented sides of issues or to hear from marginalized groups. This is, to be sure, an increasing and positive trend in the market. The readerly work that this essay speaks to is on that other stratum, a more minute and line-to-line world, where technical and mechanical difficulties and challenges have perhaps been overlooked. Thus, this article will discuss two elements of the novel in which the reader and her efforts seem to have fallen away—point of view and language. It is there that consciousness is best explored in fiction, the element that is most at risk in the novel today. These are the front lines of the fictive form, where there is less glamor and less discussion, but where the battle is won.(2)
(2) Although this essay will shy away from specific examples, two exceptions may be useful here. Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, from 2019, and Lucy Corin’s The Swank Hotel, from 2021 represent, with vociferous energy and skill, the type of technically challenging novel that is, by and large, not appearing on bookshelves today.
Woolf, writing in the mid-1920s and at the single most defining and drastic revolutionary epoch in the history of the novel, was of course responding to an era and a society which allowed far less flexibility, individuality, inclusivity, diversity, and accessibility than that in which we live. She was responding to a far more ominous and established threat than anything faced today. However, there is wisdom to be gained, insight to be had, that stands as applicable to our own contemporary state of fictive affairs. The modern novel, for as wonderfully varied as it is in perspective and representation, form and structure, content and theme, nevertheless rarely takes risks at the sentence level. This essay will make the case that twenty-first century fiction has room for far more daring and inventiveness in language and point of view than is currently being done. It will do so by offering a few definitions, looking at what is lost, discussing potential solutions, and finally by asking what the essence of the novel as an art form may in fact be.
First, however, an important and necessary caveat.(3) While the connective tissue between the modernist and today are of interest to scholar, practitioner, and enthusiast alike, it is important to not lose sight of the differences. The argument here is not that anything which is being written shouldn’t be; indeed, the plethora of voices and stories that are being told and are doing the telling, the greater accessibility—both literally, in a technological sense, and practically, in diversity in writing and publishing—and an increasing embrace of experimentation and unconventional elements of fiction are major, positive trends in the industry.
(3) A second caveat, rather more obvious but nonetheless worthy of elucidation: this is a discussion of and response to a general trend in current fiction, as perceived by one quite interested observer. Of course there are exceptions, both among books I have encountered—some of which will be explored below—and those I have not, but on the whole this seems to be, to this critic, the state of affairs.
Furthermore, to make a slightly different point, nothing in this essay is to say that the type of fiction that is being written now does not have an important place. On the contrary, it is essential and often wonderfully done. To take one type of narrative that seems to be on the rise recently, the type of discursive first person fiction we are seeing more and more quite often results in funny, insightful, true-to-life voices taking us through engaging plots and engrossing worlds. There is much else being done today and which will not be discussed here other than to say, quite broadly, that it is not that which is being sought. To break the novel into three levels of consideration for a moment, there are the stories told and who tells them, the form and structure of a book, and movement at the sentence level—our focus. This essay, simply put, is to say that something has been neglected, that deep cracks begin to run in the foundation of the novel. To analogize, perhaps torturously, the state of literary fiction to a major-label rock band, if a guitarist is suddenly not pulling his weight, one does not suggest firing the drummer. As in life as in fiction (and, apparently, in rock n’ roll), harmony is needed. Both at the book and the industry level it seems that a key element has lately faded from view.(4) As a result, within the bedrock of that great artistic form that is the novel, the fissures begin to show, the ground begins to grow perilously uneven.
OUTLINES AND DEFINITIONS
Whatever the themes, questions, or central issues of a book may be, they can be handled with a number of technical-mechanical approaches. As noted above, while an ever-increasing amount of books are being written and published that take splendid risks in form, structure, voice, story, and perspective, the gamble seems to stop short when we reach the single line. The technical and mechanical realm—the domain of point of view and language—remains largely a sunny, well-lit upland for the reader to traverse
This essay will differentiate between perspective, taken to mean the character that a narrative revolves around (also, as used above, describing the wider viewpoints or voices of an author or story), and which can be in first, third, or even second person, and point of view, which is a set of technical and mechanical approaches, techniques, and strategies to explore said perspectives, and which is largely done at the sentence level.(5) While the term stream of consciousness is often (mis)used as a catchall for point of view techniques there are in actuality a great many tools a novelist can employ to foreground consciousness. To investigate too thoroughly would be beyond the scope here (6), but the primary method would be free-indirect discourse used idiomatically and at a high frequency.
(4) Why is this? There are, perhaps, two factors largely responsible for this trend (or lack of a trend) in modern fiction, a blend of forces from outside the literary world and from with the community itself: first, a response to the threat posed to the industry in the twenty-first century by other forms of entertainment—it is too much, the argument might go, to asking an already-dwindling readership to work too hard. The second is possibly simple trends in tastes and culture; if one steps back to take a decade-wide view, a turn towards more “accessible” and plot-driven, externally focused fiction with discursive narrators and clean writing makes some sense as a response to the hysterical realism of David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo, and the like. Much in the way the Modernists were reacting to Victorian and Edwardian rigid sensibilities, today’s market can be seen as a natural shifting of the wind, to some degree. Indeed, framing the past thirty years of publishing as an exhausted reply to Infinite Jest does have a certain appeal.
(5) Two books may be written in third person perspectives and have wildly disparate points of view— from Ulysses to Anna Karenina. This essay is mostly concerned with point of view.
(6) The interested reader may look to Dorrit Cohn’s peerless study: Cohn, Dorrit. 1978. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
While this technique is found in virtually every third person novel, an interior-focused book (see below) will use it liberally to blend together the thoughts of the narrative entity and the given character, bleeding the world views into each together across the page.(7) For simplicity if not for clarity, we may call these methods of point of view techniques branches off the stream of consciousness family tree.
(7) The range here is quite large; at the other end from the light use of free-indirect one might find autonomous monologue, in Cohn’s term, where grammar and punctuation takes its leave and we slide from third person into first person present tense—Molly Bloom’s triumphant closing of Ulysses.
The second major fictive element examined here is language, or prose. This is taken to encompass diction, grammar, mechanics, idiosyncratic speech and sentence structure. Point of view is inexorably tied to the mechanical use of language; together they propel a book line-to-line. A novel can deal with an effectively infinite range of themes and stories in all manner of sentence-level rendering. The risk-taking that this essay sees as largely absent from contemporary fiction, then, occurs here amongst the weeds and wilds.
Works that emphasize these two elements—prose and point of view—may be said to be internally focused, or concerned with characters’ inner life, as opposed to those that are externally focused, or interested in outside events and happenings. The former, the subject of this essay, place a greater emphasis on the quotidian, the minute, and the everyday, in an attempt to turn that material—that “stuff of life”, in Virginia Woolf’s phrase—into suitable narrative action; they do so by relying on language and technique. A novel that takes the daily workings of life, with an emphasis on and foregrounding of the consciousness, explicitly does not rely on eventful plots or major external happenings to which the characters then react.
It should be noted that difficulty, challenges, or readerly endeavors at this level do not inherently mean ‘hard to read words’. One does not have to write Finnegans Wake in order to take chances—Woolf is just as fearless as Joyce. But the writing in which the reader is required to mine the text, to participate in the struggle in order to discover meaning—that is fiction that takes risks on the sentence level. It is the extraction of compelling art from ordinary events that distinguishes the interior-focused novel. In the absence or diminishment of rangy plots set across lit-up worlds and peopled by billowing characters, this type of book establishes momentum and progression with greater fluidity in point of view and prose, by building the novel from the sentence up, rather than the fictive world down, starting with individual thought as opposed to collective action. There are certainly challenges in writing and, at times, reading this type of book—challenges that are not “superior” or of a higher order than those involved with creating and consuming more externally-focused fiction, but that are simply of a different nature, and which are sorely lacking in the industry today.
AT WHAT COST?
The key “selling point”, to stumble over a bad pun, for interior-focused fiction is its flexibility and verisimilitude in depicting the events that comprise the mass of human experience. This is the central touchstone to the exploration and foregrounding of consciousness, and to the narrative approaches used to do so. Crucially, these ends are not able to be reached by other means. For all the important improvements made in recent years in unconventional structure and subject matter, an increase in diversity of perspectives and authors, and a greater willingness to blend elements of various genres and thematic concerns, when the literary landscape as a whole lacks risk-taking at the sentence level, it loses the most efficacious and efficient vehicle to depict the quotidian travails of the human experience.
There is a straightforward reason for this—the daily human experience is not simple and easily digestible. (8) A novel may have many other wonderful elements, elements which are just as important, to the community and world as a whole, as those discussed here, but without some portion of the emerging literary generation investigating those inward-facing approaches and techniques, a fundamental and unique ability currently possessed by the novel as a form is greatly diminished.
(8) As noted, I will avoid the discussion of specific works in a “negative” manner—this is not a book review, nor is it an indictment of anything being written today—but this point speaks to a general problem often encountered in reviewing. An unwillingness to take risks at the sentence level, as this essay has termed it, is what creates, from time to time, such a great disconnect between the ideas a novel attempts to explore and the actual effectiveness on the page. There is no substitute for formless language or the “stream of consciousness” family tree of point of view techniques. Oftentimes, one will encounter compelling characters and their intriguing journeys not being explored to their greatest possible depth because limiting the language and the point of view are limited—intentionally or otherwise—only to those styles which the general reader can easily and happily navigate.
It may be asked why other methods can not fill the void, so to speak, why more reader-friendly (or less pretentious, depending, perhaps, on one’s, say, vantage point), styles cannot give us a healthy approximation of that which is offered by challenging language and point of view. The answer, quite simply, is that it does not work. Alas, much of life insists on the difficulties with the rewards.
There is sometimes an attempt to get around this issue of establishing immediacy and interiority (9) via first person present tense, a movement which appears to be growing. While there are exciting and intriguing benefits of that form, it does not “solve the problem” with nearly the same completeness as does a drilled-down third person operating amongst the mind of the characters, for a few reasons. The first is an inability to explore inner life with the same flexibility, verisimilitude, or accuracy in first person as in third. The inherent bias in first person means that the direct line to consciousness—that which signifies modernism and its literary lineage and is the truest account of a moment in a mind—can never happen in first as it does in third. There will always be a filter, or a guardian, between the thoughts themselves and the narrating of them to the reader. While present tense, to be sure, cuts down on this (there is no elderly David Copperfield to pick and choose—and discriminate—which aspects of his life story to relate), it remains an incomplete solution. There is still a middleman, a failsafe, between the mental impressions and the act of the telling—the protagonist herself—that is not able to be circumvented. One cannot speak without making a decision to do so.
(9) That is not to say, necessarily, that books are being written in an explicit attempt to avoid employing techniques from the stream of consciousness tree—indeed that seems unlikely—simply that, as all art forms must and should do, the novel is evolving and writers are conceiving of and trying out fresh methods.
The second main problem this method runs into vis-a-vis the exploration of consciousness is time itself. The passage of time is an essential, perhaps the essential, part of the human story, and central to the way our minds process and recreate key moments in our lives. The present tense undercuts this, and limits the way the character—and author, by necessary extension—can relate their experiences. There is no reflective ability in the present tense, that remembering and self-assessing quality that gives past tense first person so much of its power and depth.
Finally, there is a sacrifice of verisimilitude in present tense, especially first person present, which may limit the effectiveness of any other elements at work. In a problem first identified well over a century ago by Joyce reflecting on Dujardin’s Les Lauriers sont Coupés, there is a strong inverse correlation in first person present between external action and plausibility, limiting how much action can take place in a present tense monologue—no one walks down the street narrating every small happening. While modern writers are far more sophisticated in their approaches than was Dujardin in the 1880s, and the general suspension of disbelief works in the method’s favor, there is still, for many readers, a loud and incessant unreality to extended stretches of traditional narration in first person present tense.
There is no replacing books that take risks with their language and point of view in the name of rendering consciousness. It is a necessary aspect of the larger literary world, one that, happily, is perhaps malnourished but in no way deceased. Here we may break our loose prohibition against the discussion of specific works to speak a moment about a modern writer who stands as both ultimate risk taker and innovator par excellence and, not quite coincidentally, the preeminent novelist of her generation. (10) Rachel Cusk’s career has demonstrated an ability to innovate and gamble at the sentence level while remaining largely accessible in the modern age, and extraordinarily effective at depicting the minute concerns of consciousness that are at the forefront of interior-driven fiction. In Arlington Park and the Outline series, in particular, Cusk has shown what bold risk-taking on the sentence level—she is especially focused on innovations in point of view, although her language can also be daring, especially in her use of idiomatic free-indirect speech—can look like in the contemporary, very much “accessible” novel.
In this reader’s opinion, at any rate. I have written more thoroughly about Cusk and her use of point of view elsewhere: https://www.westtradereview.com/westendcuskcriticalarticle.html
Of course highlighting the work of a single author is not to say the problem is solved, or that interior-focused books are not in dire need of reinforcement, but simply to show that it can be done, at the highest levels, in critically and commercially viable work. And, of course, to underscore once more the fruits of the labor. What separates Cusk is, among other things, the vibrancy, the completeness, with which her characters exist on the page. Their interior lives, so well-drawn and immediate, enable them to carry novels in which the domestic and the ordinary are often foregrounded, and high-strung external action is at a minimum. It is the inner life that makes these characters real, makes them human.
This essay’s focus is not merely aesthetic concern, then; fiction, like all art, should mirror in its renderings that which it purports to represent. And while much of life is indeed storytelling and the experiences we have—and thus externally focused, plot-oriented fiction has that important place in literature—the vast majority of human existence takes place within the mind. That great breakthrough, discovered by modernism and articulated by Woolf, is that life is a messy, incoherent series of moments, often occurring without rhyme or reason, interspersed and infiltrated by the continuous blasting chorus of the past, memory interrupting perception via the onslaught of sensation. The great genius, then, of interior-driven fiction, doing its work with uninhibited, occasionally grammarless prose, intrusive point of view, and manic, discordant freely associative thought, is that it renders, as near as possible, ordinary and brilliant lived experience on the fictive page. Wholly separate from the great writing that is being published, this cannot be replicated in any other way. By asking the reader to engage alongside in the struggle, to come to the work, as opposed to being a peripheral, largely passive bystander given only abridged reports from the front, the author allows for direct views of that vérité de la pensée that can only be found in the crucible of the consciousness. What is given up, then, by asking less and less of the reader is a fundamental aspect of the novel, creating an art form that reduces its own capacity to reflect life.
ON THE NATURE OF THE NOVEL AS AN ART FORM
Why, it might be asked, do the writer and the reader feel and respond to these limitations on the form, be they imposed or perceived? Why has the novel, as a form, shifted away from sentence-level risk-taking in the modern day?
We noted above a few of the reasons for this change; chief perhaps among them is the notion that the novel, in a world of shortened attention spans and an endless stream of distractions, must amuse to be read, must be an easy, light form of diversion. To be sure, there are books that set out to, and do, just that. However, the literary novel of which we speak is not designed for such a thing. It is an exercise in futility to ask the novel to distort itself into competition against the ever-increasing plethora of entertainment options available to the twenty-first century public, as opposed to being allowed to exist as it is, an artistic expression of the human condition.
The market-driven demand for efficiency and utility in fiction misses, indeed grotesquely warps, the mark. It would be possible, should one chose, to condense every novel ever written to a mere line or two, a neat paragraph on a single page—this is the story of a middle-age woman who hosts a party and remembers her youth, the end—but of course no one suggests doing so ridiculous a thing. But it is the logical extension of the provision that fiction never stray from the plot, that any scene, or portion thereof, which does not immodestly and without deviation drive towards the book’s conclusion be excised for the sake of the eternally over-taxed reader. Like a deviant schoolboy, novels are taught to never stray from their route home, to never pause, never wander, never stop a moment to breathe in the world around them and make rough, brilliant, flawed sense of it all. The young writer is enjoined to be ever more efficient, ever more self-denying and self-effacing, that there is no room in contemporary fiction for anything but that which directly, expressly, and accessibly brings us to the conclusion of a neatly ordered plot. This, of course, is nonsense.
While there is something to be said for economy and sparsity in writing, these are decisions best left to the artist, and not an abstract amalgamation of the marketplace. The novel is an art form, and like all art forms there must be, and indeed is, room for artistic flourish, for the demonstration of the artist’s natural gift and acquired skill, for exuberance and boldness and daring and the brash movements of a rhetorical dance. The novel is not a mere utilitarian device used to relate a happening. It is an artistic endeavor which should and must be given room to communicate something about the human experience with that ebullience, that intimacy, that creative and artistic expression, which it alone can possess.
These moments can, of course, be found in all manner of styles and books, not only the interior-focused fiction that has been the subject here. But it seems to be especially true that where the general reader must try a little harder, work a little more, pull herself from the sepulture in which she has been so long lying in repose, there is an especial enormity to the backlash against “artistic” fiction. Where the novel is hard, in other words, the willingness to read diminishes.
Naturally, there are realities of consumerism, along with a great many other factors, which inform publishing trends—in many more ways than one, we have long ago left the age of Woolf, Mrs. Brown, and Modern Fiction. It is not for us here to do battle with western capitalism as it relates to the book-selling industry. Rather this essay is a call to writer and reader alike, to remember the fruits that can be had from interior-focused fiction, to have no fear of risk-taking on the sentence level. There will, of course, always be books that are ineffectual, including a great many that attempt to be indecipherable merely for the sake of being “high brow” or “intellectual” or some other such notion. This essay does not argue that every novel which merely runs its sentences together and eliminates a cogent plot should be adorned with the garlands of fine art. However, we must remain vigilant, not only in carving out space for novels of all sorts—across perspective, form, story, authorial identity, and narrative focus—to be written and published, but in remembering that the nature of art is not to entertain, it is to illuminate. There is work that comes with consuming art, an involvement by the audience in the artistic process that makes their experience all the richer and more significant. The novel is not beyond these artistic protections—indeed, it is the only medium that can explore the human condition in so immediate, so universal, so myriad and so poignant a manner. The reader, then, must remain involved in the labors of the novel, ensuring that the truest expression of the human condition—innovative, fearless, unrestrained fiction—retains its safeguarded place in the artistic pantheon.
A word from the author: 100 Years of Modernity evaluates the landscape of contemporary fiction through the prism of the modernist movement and its literary ancestry a century after its birth