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Marco Polo

Falsehood is never in words; it is in things.


Can it be possible for a character's "thoughts" to be anything other than an effect achieved by the voice selected by the author? Are Benjy, Quentin, Jason, and Dilsey memorable because of the depth of their thoughts or because of the way that they sound?


Not sure what you think about what Adam Phillips has to say about Freud and literature, Dan? he is provocative enough to suggest that Freud was jealous of writers. (This after editing the complete works for Penguin.)Having just finished The Sportswriter and asked myself, 'who does this remind me of? George Eliot of course!' I'd have to go with Phillips. In fact I think Freud should be fucking jealous of the greatest psychological realists - this should be celebrated, not denigrated by theorists with some misguided need for all writers to be created equal. See ya at the blog if I get around to extending this....

Jimmy Beck

I would argue that the infatuation with the psychological in novels is fueled by MSM book coverage as much as anything. Exhibit A: Janet Maslin and her obsessive need to conflate author and character. There are plenty of other examples in the NYT alone (e.g., Chip McGrath, Laura Miller). Fuck if I know why they do it--to show us how smart they are? because it's titillating?--but I see it everywhere.


"First of all, what gives novelists themselves a superior understanding of the psychological make-up of human beings? Isn't this like expecting them to somehow possess a special wisdom about human life simply because they're novelists?"

I suppose it's a niggling point, but I think this is backwards. It's not that we think becoming a novelist gives you a superior understanding of human psychology; it's that we think that a superior understanding of human psychology is part of what makes a good novelist. The reason that this is a niggling point is that it avoids what I take to be the main thrust of the post, which is whether or not we SHOULD consider a complex and realistic depiction of some part of human psychology to be a necessary part of good fiction. My instinct says yes, but I haven't given it much thought. I can say for certain that I don't see much worth in a character who's believable but dull.


Interesting thoughts, Dan. Since you've characterized my thoughts and comments, I'd like to include a link to a follow-up post I wrote: http://maudnewton.com/blog/index.php?p=5123.

As I said in that post, I find a great deal to admire in many of the traditions Siegel disdains. From Alain Robbe-Grillet's "Jealousy" to Barthelme's short stories to DeLillo's "White Noise" and beyond, I've admired many post-WWII writings that do not directly probe characters' psychology. Moreover, I think Siegel discounts the psychological depth of many post WWII novels, including Iris Murdoch's "The Sea, The Sea" and even last year's "The Plot Against America" (ultimately a flawed novel, but the first 2/3 are oustanding).

Nevertheless, I believe that much of the writing that is touted as "high contemporary U.S. literature" today follows in what, for lack of a better way of making the generalization off-the-cuff, I guess I'll call the Postmodern tradition, but does a poor job of it -- or, worse, makes the mistake of substituting cultural references for actual insight into the characters' psyche. So many books these days are Nick Hornby's High Fidelity run amok. That book was fresh at the time, but unmoored, ultimately meaningless cultural references now make their way with regularity into many literary novels.

While it's true that many novels grouped under "literature" at Barnes & Noble offer or attempt to offer psychological insights, most of them (another recent exception -- Marilynne Robinson's Gilead -- springs to mind) are, quite frankly, terrible.

My concern is that viable psychological literature is in danger of being supplanted by more experimental, or surface, writing. To put it simply, I would like to see more younger American writers plumbing the depths of their characters' internal lives in a meaningful way.


Meanwhile, I need to work on subject-verb agreement. I meant "the first 2/3 is outstanding."


Finally, I'd like to clarify that I wrote that follow-up post (the one to which I've included a link) last Monday, the day after I initially posted about Siegel's piece, and not in response to what you've said here.


Even as a life-long reader of Henry James, Woolf, and Joyce, I think that the primacy of "psychological insight" or "psychological realism" in critical thought is unfortunate. It presumes that such realism is the only reliable (or the only preferable) method of creating characters and telling stories, when that is hardly the case (and I really haven't seen a substantive argument for why psychological realism is "better"). One of the many beauties of fiction is the fact that a writer can use a variety of perspectives, both internal and external, and all, I think, are valid if used properly. You're right: psychological realism is "just another strategy a writer might use to give a work of fiction a sense of unity or purpose".

I, too, don't think that fiction will give us a deeper understanding of human psychology, or that fiction is necessarily an "imaginative surrender to another life." But I do believe (very strongly) that fiction ought to be about people, about humanity, and in my experience, reading has expanded my understanding of people -- if fiction doesn't do this, then I don't know what it's good for (other than aesthetic enjoyment, but that only goes so far). But I think that this purpose is far different than providing real psychological insight, and I think writers can enhance our understanding of humanity without resorting to psychological realism.

In more ways than one, Siegel's piece is careless, and not just in regard to literature. He says that "The depiction of fictional people's inner lives is not the strength of the silver screen" and that "In a novel, character is shaped from the inside out; in a film, it's molded from the outside and stays outside." I don't know how anyone could generalize so widely, and it makes me wonder if Siegel has ever seen the films of Alain Resnais. Resnais captured individual subjectivity, inner lives, memories, and interiority better than just about anyone, including many writers. And he did it all through images, not words. People's inner lives can be the strength of the silver screen; just because most filmmakers aren't good at it or build characters in a different way, doesn't mean that film characters must be molded from the outside. And in terms of Siegel's question: "how many movie characters can you think of -- with the exception, perhaps, of Citizen Kane -- whose names have the archetypal particularity of Isabel Archer or Sister Carrie?" I realize it's rhetorical, but I'd still answer it by saying: "well, many."


Not to beat a killed-by-critical-theory horse, but it seems obvious (I would say "by now", but it seems to me intuitively obvious) that fiction--all fiction--is neither a window nor a wall. Language doesn't reveal the world, but it doesn't completely obscure it either: it collaborates with the world, and, in the best fiction, this collaboration produces something beautiful. Psychological realism should be more than just a "way to get words on the page"; it should be an attempt, not necessarily to reveal human consciousness in all of its complexity (impossible), but to at least draw our attention to some of its mechanisms, and maybe to reveal some of its patterns that can't be revealed by psychology, or neuroscience, or sitting on your couch and thinking about thinking. "Stream of consciousness", as a technique, is really a way to lend beauty, or interest, to our REAL stream of consciousness, don't you think?

A psychologically realistic novel is undeniably "an aesthetic creation made of words"--but what makes an aesthetic creation like "To the Lighthouse" so much more compelling (to me at least) than most pre- or postmodern a-psychological fiction is that it uses its words to tease out the beauty of its characters' minds (OUR minds). The aesthetic value of psychological realism doesn't lie in the words themselves, or in the consciosnesses they refer to, but at some meeting place in between the two.

None of which is to say psychological realism as a method is a priori more legitimate than any other way of writing fiction, but insofar as the novel is, as you say, the art form most capable of producing the "illusion" of psychological depth (and what redeems the novel is that we KNOW--of course we know--that it's an illusion), and insofar as human psychology is an interesting topic for humans to consider, and insofar as writers like James, Joyce and Woolf have revealed the infinite AESTHETIC potential of the mind at work, I'd say there's at least an argument here that psychological realism makes for the best (or most fully realized) novels. At least there's some grounds for prefering PR to other kinds of fiction--fiction about "society" or about fiction itself, for example.

Dan Green

Henry: I just can't agree that "a superior understanding of human psychology is part of what makes a good novelist." Some novelists have been superior psychologists, others have had no interest in psychology per se at all. The most one can ask of a "good novelist" is that he/she have a superior facility with words.

Maud: I agree with you entirely about bad postmodernism (or pseudo-postmodernism). Postmodern knowingness of the kind you describe is very hard to tolerate. This kind of superficiality is not a plausible alternative to psychological realism.

Michael: I think I would probably agree, in general, with Siegel in his characterization of film. It is much harder to get to the "internal life" in film than in fiction. But this is actually part of my objection to the valorization of psychological realism: It implies that film is an inferior art because it doesn't often go internal. Film's strength is in spectacle and other manipulations of visual representation. But this doesn't make film less valuable as an art form. It's just different.


Dan, your follow-up to my comments gives me more food for thought. When you say that "it is much harder to get to the "internal life" in film than in fiction", it makes me think about the distinctions between fiction and film. Perhaps the difference is that, with fiction, we can read the actual thoughts and "see" the consciousness of another person. With film, it's visual, and we therefore see the external world and the externality of the character. But it is possible for film to "see" the thoughts and consciousness of people (again, I'm thinking of some of Resnais' work in which what we see on the screen is actually the images, memories, etc. inside a character's head -- we are getting the inner life, the subjectivity). Nevertheless, even with films that portray inner lives, as viewers we often still think of what we're seeing as externalities. I sometimes wonder if the difficulty in seeing the inner life in film comes from the nature of film, or from our "habits of viewing", if that makes any sense.

At any rate, I wholeheartedly agree with you about how valorizing psychological realism implies that film is somehow inferior. I'd go so far as to say (in response to those who privilege psychological realism and fiction) that film's real strength is precisely its psychological and emotive power.

Kelley Bell

This in-depth analysis has grey matter oozing out my ears.

I feel like an autistic hick sitting in the corner of an Andy Warhol party.

All I ever figured, is that writers are the folks who sow gardens from the shit pile, and pray for good weather.

Ya-all are amazing.


'To this extent, Siegel's essay is just another backhanded slap at literary postmodernism (and some further by now superfluous stomping on the grave of Sigmund Freud), and in my opinion not to be taken seriously as a critique of contemporary fiction.'
I'd have to differ with your reading. I think Siegel wasn't really that interested in pursuing the state of contemporary fiction, and enjoyed stomping on Freud's grave a hell of a lot more. Page 3, he dissolves into a diatribe about there being only two kinds of people in the world now, post-Freudians and the religious. Not much of an article really.


Sorry, that sounds snitchy doesn't it. I mean that he did not put up much of a fight against fiction and dissolved very quickly into dividing the world up into two groups because his arguments were insubstantial. There, I hope that's better.

David Milofsky

Some interesting thoughts here, but some of you are confusing psychological realism with psychology or psychological writing--which it isn't. Before James, most writers, even great ones like Dickens and Eliot stayed mainly outside their characters thoughts and feelings, describing what they did or what they said but not representing their states of mind. James' contribution (one of them, anyway) was to represent brilliantly how ideas and thoughts occurred to his characters, in other words the reality of their psychologies as they related to his story. Of course story-telling wasn't always his strong point, but he was doing some things other writers hadn't done before in the novel. I can't see what post-modernism and psychological realism are mutually exclusive. Why should that be? But Seigel's idea (if I understand it correctly and I read the same article Maud cites) that Freud murdered the psychological novel just seems crazy to me as well as a willful misstatement of Freud's idea and works. He had no reason to be jealous of writers; he was a wonderful writer himself.


David, Adam Phillips is known for fairly outrageous suggestions about the directions psychoanalysis has taken over the years - his lecture "Poetry and Psychoanalysis' in the collection of his writings called Promises, Promises may interest you.


Sorry, I meant to preview that. No italics for my title - too bad, it's teatime. But consider this, (Phillips is quoting Freud from Civilisation and its Discontents),
"...After quoting some lines from Goethe's Faust, Freud writes:'One may well sigh when one realises that it is nevertheless given to a few to draw the most profound insights, without any real effort, from the maelstrom of their own feelings, while we others have to grope our way restlessly to such insights through agonizing insecurity.'"
There's plenty more, if I'm feeling uneducated enough, I'll write a post.

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