Thursday, February 14, 2013

Shvlovsky, Ugresic, and the Damned MFA Novel

More than ever, the real world needs committed enemies. The half-joking observation by Croatian essayist Dubravka Ugresic—that socialist realism lives on in what she called “contemporary market literature”—has only grown more apt and less funny since she made it a few years ago. The swelling MFA industrial complex and the now almost entirely monopolized corporate publishing market enforce their edicts with no more flexibility than the bureaucratic state: novels must be peopled with “motivated” and “dimensional” characters, “believable” plotlines, something called “resolution,” and other such sparkly ghosts. Ignoring centuries of literary whimsy, 91 percent of American MFA students—I base that figure on my own informal polling—and a similar proportion of mainstream book reviewers regard the novel as a type of window tasked with representing the real.

But literature, the young Shklovsky insists, is its own planet, bound by the rules that it creates. “Art,” he wrote in Zoo, “if it can be compared to a window at all, is only a sketched window.” Its point is not to accurately reflect this same old cruddy, shrink-wrapped world, but to steal us new sets of eyes, to forge new and unimagined senses. This is art’s one virtue, its promise and delight. And the novel, call it dead or alive, is not a thing among things of a certain weight and size, obliged to obey established formulae. It is a weird box of almost bottomless openness, a compact revolution in a cloth and cardboard binding. Or, if you prefer, in pixels. 

From an essay on Victor Shklovsky.  Read the whole thing here.