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  • David Savill

Novel Thoughts: The Island of Missing Trees (and a problem for contemporary novels).

Updated: Jan 11

In this week's blog, an extended essay in response to James Marriott's take on the contemporary novel.




Times columnist James Marriot is not enjoying contemporary novels. In a recent column, Marriot employs David Shields’ Reality Hunger to support his lament for the impotence of novels in a world of ‘couldn’t make it up’ politics and information overload.


It goes something like this: the world today is so ‘crazy’, fiction ‘can’t compete’; contemporary media so saturates consciousness with fiction, we hunger for ‘real stories’; social media has made a fiction of all our lives, and so the fictional medium of the novel is redundant.


Shields’ book has been a conversation starter on creative writing courses ever since it was published twenty-three years ago; anxieties over the fiction/reality balance in literary consumption and its role in human consciousness, a perennial topic since philosopher’s first debated the nature of imagination and reality.


Marriot’s argument, like Shields’, is a tautology lacking evidence. You cannot point out that we are devouring more fiction in more diverse mediums than at any point in history while arguing our hunger is for reality. Why then, are we so drowned in fiction?


You cannot argue that social media is both an expression of our hunger for reality, and a medium through which we fictionalise our lives, then proceed to privilege the reality dimension of social media over the fictional dimension, just because it suits your argument.


It is stange to suggest the popularity of reality television as a form indicates our lack of interest in fiction, at the same time as recognising that reality television is constructed with the very devices of fiction.


The imprecision of basic terms bedevils Marriot, but philosophers were here centuries before us with a nuanced appreciation of how to conceive of ‘reality’, ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’ on complex levels. The first, most useful, of these nuances, is that any form of ‘representation’ is not reality. Reality hunger cannot be constituted as a desire to read a book representing itself as ‘non-fiction’. The only true object of reality hunger should be the desire to roll around naked in fields and mud copulating and defecating. A hunger for the physical and embodied, perhaps, but not ‘reality’.


The second helpful nuance is the idea that humans can only process reality as representation. Our imagination, and everything it does, is part of reality.


It is this metaphysical bind (or richness) that the novel as a medium of human communication, expression and story-telling, proceeded from over three hundred years ago. Novels, which posed first as journals, or ‘true history’, before turning an ironic eye on their ‘fictional’ status, were always aware of the game they were playing with representation and reality, often questioning their own ontology. ‘Genre’ novels may have developed without such anxiety, comfortable in their fictional status. But the anxiety never truly went away.


The second problem with Marriot’s argument is one of taxonomy. Why is it always the novel against which the ’reality hunger’ argument takes aim? Why not fiction in film, or video games? To think clearly about Marriot’s argument, we need to separate the general experience of ‘fiction’ from the specific experiences of ‘novels’, and, ‘the novel’, true to its name, does not like categorisation.


The publishing industry, with its capitalist need to market to reliable niches, has led us astray here. Too many readers conceive of ‘the novel’ only as the kind of novel they repeatedly read.


Marriot lifts his foot on this but doesn’t take the first step. He offers only vague evidence about the sales of ‘literary’ fiction (a marketing category), against memoir and non-fiction. The soaring sales of children’s novels, young adult fiction, crime, and various genres least interested in questioning the conceits of representation or exploring consciousness, need to be ignored to sustain his argument, which is thus reduced to a moan about ‘literary fiction’ — a contentious and fragile concept in itself.


I find the most useful definition of literary fiction is one I’ve formulated in my capacity as a teacher, and only because it is productive for the purposes of teaching writers and understanding craft: "literary fiction is fictional narrative more interested in using language to reveal the nature of consciousness than driving plot or entertaining with dramatic tension." This definition suggests the ‘literary’ nature of the fiction is only a matter of degrees, the foregrounding of certain techniques and intention behind process, not a radical transformation of medium. It also suggests a novel may be more, or less, ‘literary’ in its achievements.


Given this definition, literary fiction would seem uniquely equipped to speak of a transformation in consciousness wrought by changes in the way we communicate, and the mediums we communicate with. This is something Marriot singularly fails to get into, perhaps because he is limited by his own form as a columnist, but also, (I humbly suggest), because he probably knows the novel, in its towering capaciousness as a form, presents too many arguments against him.


It is, however, worth getting into. I think there is something genuine at the root of Marriot’s malaise with contemporary novels that provides insight into the consciousness of our time. But like the appearance of reality and fiction, it isn’t what he thinks it is.

 

*

 

Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees is an example of a contemporary novel tackling recent history alongside life in 2022. Shafak’s multi-layered, multi-protagonist story, weaves together a teenager’s experience of social media, a fig tree’s experience of being transported across Europe, and the experience of two young lovers divided by war on Cyprus. It is an attempt to capture our consciousness of environmental crisis, political conflict, immigrant displacement, and identity crisis in the digital age.


Novels can be created from any technique in the history of prose narrative and combine them in any way the novelist chooses. Shafak delves into the technique of fairy-tale and oral story-telling when she opens with the words of an omniscient narrator: “Once Upon a Memory at the far end of the Mediterranean Sea,” but as the narrative represents a very ‘real’ North London, and includes factual events of Cypriot history, she also makes use of the dramatic, 19th century realism of scenes, third person, and ‘free and indirect’ narration.


To keep things on the magical side of magical-realism, she introduces the first-person narration of a tree, and borrows from the world-building of fantasy to show how the world of trees has co-existed with the human world, ever since the dawn of human civilisation. This provides us with our own understanding of how a tree might speak exactly as a human does. The trees have learned.


Like many novels, The Island of Missing Trees also transgresses the imaginary/fiction/history border. In the afterword, Shafak is at pains to delineate which of the stories about Cyprus are true, based upon historical fact, or changed.


I am not sure what other medium of human self-expression could be so ambitious in its attempt to capture the experience of an age, and provide such an understanding of how the consciousness of an age is shaped. Where The Island of Missing Trees struggles, it is not because of the potential of the novel form – a long narrative that can avail itself of any technique and combine ‘real’ history, or memoir, or journalism, with fictional characters and stories.


The fault is in the context in which the novel is likely to be read; in the culture, in the reader, and what we are doing to the novel by misunderstanding its form, or by not giving it time. Marriot is right when he says the world is ‘too crazy’ for the novel, but not in the way he thinks it is.


*


Marriot’s feeling that the world is too crazy for the literary novel only makes sense if we interrogate what the ‘crazy’ consists of. Like many commentators on this subject, he points us down the wrong road with anxieties about politics and the climate crisis: two subjects Shafak, and many others, treat in their novels.


When Dickens wrote Great Expectations, a novel safe in its status as a classic of the medium, religion was losing its place in the world, America and Italy were in civil war, trains were transforming our concept of time and engineers were carving great gashes through continents to make the world a smaller place. Crazy.


In the next one hundred years, the novel would see not just a communications revolution, the effects of the Industrial Revolution, and the death of religious belief in many countries, but two world wars that felt like the end of the world itself, and the exponential growth of literacy in developed countries, changing the kind of readership novels could expect.


In the brief, sweet-spot, circled by the growth of literacy, affordability of print, and rise of film, novels may have even been the most popular form of fictional story consumption for a limited number of the population, but novels have long depended on film to extend the cultural influence of the stories they contain.


In this context, the survival of the novel is remarkable, and attributable to its chameleon ways with form – from the proverbial pot-boiler to the experiments of BS Johnson.


The unique pressures on the novel today are not a weakness of form, or any fundamental change to the relationship between reality and fiction wrought by the nature of digital media.  The twin pressures on the novel today, are the pressures of global capitalism, where big publishers no longer support what is truly novel about the novel, and changes in our cognitive abilities wrought by digital media. The dreadful problem of acclimatising attention deficit minds to periods of solitude, silence and extended thought are known to any teacher of literature.


The Island of Missing Trees testifies to these pressures in different ways, and in a few different places, even as it succeeds in enchanting many readers.


The now ubiquitous ‘Reading Group Questions’ inserted at the novel’s end are a reminder of how desperate publishers are to connect quality books to channels of profit, as well as a sign of how the ‘literary novel’ is now treated not as a pleasure, but as a tool for edification and inquiry.


Elsewhere, the novel wants to claim as historical research. On page 305, a footnote tells the reader that one paragraph is “from an original letter published in the Observer, London 15th September, 1974”. It is the only footnote in the entire book. The chapter in which it appears ‘belongs’ to the Fig Tree narrator. If you want to see a form busting at its seems because of the pressure to honour reality, this is it.


Not only is the reader asked to believe in the narration of the Fig Tree (and Shafak writes so beautifully, we do), we are asked to believe the Fig Tree is now a meticulous researcher providing us with footnotes. It is, of course, the author who is the researcher, a fact we are also made aware of when Shafak details her research sources in ‘Notes to the Reader’. The contemporary novelist often wants to have their cake (the suspended disbelief of the reader), and to eat it (the authority of an historian).


This meta-textual apparatus belies an anxiety I had reading the novel: the pressure exerted on the creative process by living in a world of instant information. Digital immediacy suggests genuinely new, cognitive changes, in both writer and reader. Not so much a challenge to the very form of the novel, but to how we read and write.


Shafak’s narrator encourages us to read the novel with the fantastical absorption of a fairy tale. At the same time, the author is visible, not just in moments like the footnote, but in the sheer weight of historical knowledge she brings to the page. We can almost see Shafak behind the page, researching her subject, tearing through Wikipedia and bookmarking tabs.


In part, this transparency of the novel’s construction is not the author’s fault; today's readers will perceive the research architecture of the novel because they too are curators of digitally delivered knowledge. The deceitful tricks of the historical novelist, used to immerse readers in fiction, is a task that is getting harder.


Of course, certain novelists have always reveled in research. The first extremes of novel-as-sociological-research appeared with Zola’s naturalism at the turn of the twentieth century. But the kind of research practiced by naturalists tended to depth – Zola travelled, lived with, and worked like the miners he wrote about  –   whereas the temptation of the internet is breadth. On the one hand, this tendency in Shafak’s work reflects the shallow, broad consciousness of readers who live in the same, digital world, as her; on the other, it turns this particular novel into an experience that has one foot in the ironic, intellectual world of meta-textuality, and another in the emotional intensity of fictional lives we want to believe in.


Shafak’s creative dilemma, whilst heightened by the availability of information, is not so different to that faced by Tolstoy in writing War & Peace, and her solution is no less elegant. But Tolstoy’s readers were so very different. The news he brought them was from another world, about people and places most would never have experienced, read about, or seen. Tolstoy himself would have represented nothing but a name on the cover of a book, or a whispered legend. Elif Shafak; her image, her pictures, her work, her persona, her ‘self’, revealed in interviews and notes on the writing of The Island of Missing Trees, are a click away.


The dilemma for the reader and writer is how to approach the experience of reading the fiction of a novel in a world of digital co-creation. A world where the novelist is not bringing news from ‘another place’ but writing as an extension of the one, real, digital world, we increasingly share in.


Novelists have always had to work hard to find readers, but readers should work hard too. Turning off social media, unplugging the internet and making the time in our lives for the extended, thoughtful, complex time of the novel, would be a start. The novel's readers need to be as skilled as the novelist.



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