Theory is not fiction, but…

Explaining its ommission from the 2007 Booker shortlist, Giles Foden notoriously dimissed J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year as not quite fiction:

My personal view of Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year is that it’s a piece of radical literary theory offered as a (no doubt well-deserved) subversion of the whole commercial and promotional mechanism whereby books are distributed. But theory is not fiction. (The Guardian, 15 Sept. 2007)

Foden was taken to task for this. John Morton, among others, wrote a piece, ‘Ideas don’t stop a novel from being fiction‘, on the Guardian bookblog and a commentator there referred to Foden as a ‘middle brow, competent writer’.

But Foden has just published an interesting piece on Joseph Conrad, ‘The moral agent’, at The Guardian, and which belies the crude mind critics of his Diary dismissal ascribe to him. The Foden piece is in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Conrad’s birth and naturally rehearses some commonly known bits of Conrad’s biography. I was reminded of Conrad’s massive struggle with anxiety and paralysis when faced with writing:

Writer’s block was the biggest factor in Conrad’s professional life. Commonly, in his letters and articles as well as his fiction, incertitude of will is pitched against the physical immediacy of action. Action, that is, in the sense of both the boys’ adventure book style that his own novels ironise and the act of writing itself. The moving pen is set, retrospectively and somewhat nostalgically, alongside the roaming life of the sailor. For pure activity, the pen will always lose the battle with the belaying pin, but the task of writing must be faced up to, just as maritime tasks were. Often, however, very often, Conrad was not up to it. “My dear Pinker,” he wrote to his agent in 1907, “I feel that this is almost too much for me.” At the time he was writing a longish tale called “The Duel” and working on his bestseller, Chance (1913), as well as The Secret Agent

Greater experience and increased renown did not help much. The delivery of books and journalistic copy became, as the narrator of The Shadow-Line (1917) has it, an “ordeal … [for] maturing and tempering my character”. Oscillating between mental torpor and highly productive bursts, Conrad turned achievement anxiety into a personal moral sounding board.

Overall, Foden’s piece shows how Conrad turned his own sceptical and existentialist theories about the human condition – not to mention the tension between “mental torpor and highly productive bursts” – into both a shadow theme and a stylistic device in most of his work.

Read the full article here.

More on Joseph Conrad here. Project Gutenberg has a swathe of Joseph Conrad texts, including audio. If you have 285MB to spare, Librivox has an audio recording of The Secret Agent, etc., etc.


3 Responses to Theory is not fiction, but…

  1. Interesting stuff.

    Speaking as a sociologist and sometime activist, one of the advantages of reading a lot of literature is coming into contact with new raw theories and observations on the social world, that can inform and stimulate political and academic thinking. One recent example that springs to mind is Ewan Morrison’s ‘Swung’, a novel about the Scottish swinging scene. It’s so full of observations and insights that you practically have a research programme there, albeit written down in literary form.

  2. Rustum says:

    True Sociologist. Was it Marx, I think, who said that one can learn a more vital truth from reading a Dickens novel than from studying a scientific report? Maybe not. But something along those lines picked up in undergraduate literary study many years ago; maybe it was Terry Eagleton.

    I’ll keep a look out for ‘Swung’.

  3. hugh says:

    and for the record, secret agent was the first ever librivox recording! (accompanied by much uncertainty and anxiety!)…and we have some more conrad:

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