In such a fast-paced world where people have such short attention spans and a bottomless need for relief and distraction it is no surprise that literature, or books, have been tainted by the need for instant gratification, dependent as they are (I have only recently realised just how dependent) on their commercial value and are often full of non-stop action and page-turning plots, something I myself thought necessary to imbed in my first book to land an agent. Yet all the very best books I have read have been steeped in interiority, non-action, and have been sometimes little more than meditations. If I write anything else it won't be a 'novel'. We don't need any more 'novels'. It may be more like an essay or a poem; it will be a still book, which revels in the present moment.
Roquentin, the protagonist of Jean Paul Sartre's fascinating novel Nausea, says (on the first of the 'Undated Pages') of his attempt to write a meaningful diary: 'You continually force the truth because you're always looking for something.' This is a problem with fiction and prose in general, or all but the most experimental types of it: it is fundamentally untruthful to the mostly 'non-doing' nature of life; to the nothingness of it; most of the time NOTHING happens. There is NO transformation. There is NO decisive development, NO realisation. NO growth. Poetry is looser and doesn't have to bow to the demands of plot, character development or making things happen. But as Roquentin says, most of the time, in most lives, there isn't 'anything which could ordinarily be called an event.' He goes on: 'So much for external things. What has happened inside of me has not left any clear traces.' This, I think, is where the novelist can be more truthful - but even though most people's lives are mainly made up of internal dialogue, habit, routine and endless, mostly repetitious thoughts - this does not in itself make for good reading: hence the pretence of 'development', 'suspense', 'drama', 'action'.
The Modernists attempted to convey the inner world through the stream of consciousness (Will Self too, in Umbrella, recently). But apart from that we seem to have regressed, in mainstream, middlebrow fiction (I am excluding the brilliant auto-fictional and experimental movements that going on), to the exterior world. Not that conveying the interior world alone is better, I'm simply saying that all the great novels I can think tend towards somewhere 'other' than this plane of action - even if it is through action: Cormac McCarthy never lets us inside a character's head; there is action galore; but it is elevated, metaphorical, transcendental.
Then there is the problem novelists have, as Roquentin says, in spite of his determination to have 'no secrets or soul-states, nothing ineffable', of dramatizing events that occupies a nebulous territory between the interior of someone and simultaneously hovers over what might be called 'the world'; 'Evidently,' he writes, 'nothing new has happened...this morning at eight-fifteen...I wanted to and could not pick up a paper lying on the ground. This is all and it is not even an event...' The whole of Nausea attempts to dramatise such 'non'-events and more often than not has to resort to simply describing the action: 'There is nothing much to say: I could not pick up the paper, that's all.' Roquentin finds himself increasingly unable to take any action at all: 'I am no longer free,' he admits. 'I can no longer do what I will'. Nausea, if viewed by today's standards of middle-brow fiction, is a 'non'-novel. How on earth, if Sartre was an aspiring novelist in today's climate, would he get published? (Though there is hope: Claire Louise Bennett's Pond was published recently). Roquentin says rather desperately: 'I have had real adventures. I can recapture no detail but I perceive the rigorous succession of circumstances. I have crossed seas, left cities behind me, followed the course of rivers or plunged into forests, always making my way back towards other cities. I have had women, I have fought with men; and never was I able to turn back, any more than a record can be reversed. And all that led me - where? At this very instant, on this bench, in this translucent bubble all humming with music.' And suffering from nausea.
Fiction which prioritises the ineffable, the 'interior' and the 'spiritual' is still the undiscovered country. Though with fiction heading in an increasingly commercial, plot-driven direction, how much of that country will be explored remains uncertain.
The Value of Not Doing