July 16, 2009



Great stuff - certainly worth the wait!


Mark, I'm not sure how I feel about your comment about young writers not being inclined towards the beautiful sentence. Simply because the uber-ironic you speak of is selling well does not mean there aren't young writers slaving over scraps of notebook paper trying to write and then rewrite the most lyrical and brilliant sentences ever written.


Thanks again -- great interview!

If you write an interesting sentence people will want to read it if not then not, that is the truth.

Grayson Ellis

A man whose socks match and loves cricket. It's moments like this that make me realise that there is hope in the world.

A beautiful interview.


I'm puzzled by the belief that our younger writers are ironic. I see very little irony in their work. It's more like "irony" than true irony. Saturday Night Live style irony, as opposed to the real thing. I don't thing younger writers have had the experience of life necessary to trade in real irony. For them, it's more of a pose, an attitude than something substantive.

So I'm not sure the dichotomy between the "ueber-ironic" and the "lyrical" makes much sense in the American context, since we produce so little of either.

Niall Anderson

A really nice interview, Mark. It comes across like a genuine exchange of ideas, and not as a question and answer session.

But I do think you're getting hung up on Zadie Smith and her essay comparing Remainder and Netherland. First of all, I don't see, as you seem to, that she's demanding that we (as readers) should make a choice between the two: the tone of the piece is much more questioning than that.

Second of all, James Wood is prone to making the specious argument you would have Smith make: "Imagine a world in which the only possible novel available was, say, Pynchon's Vineland and books like it. It would be a hysterical and falsifying monotony. By contrast, a world in which the only available novel was, say, A House for Mr. Biswas would be a fearfully honest, comic, tragic, compassionate, and above all deeply human place."

Whatever about Smith, Wood would definitely have us choose.


Niall -

First let me get over the surprise at responding to someone with my name. I hope this won't cause confusion, or lead people to believe I am arguing with myself...

In re Zadie Smith's essay: She's not "demanding" anything. She's making a series of observations, using two novels as touchstones and examples of opposite tendencies. We have to separate out her opinion of the worthiness of both novels, and her opinion of the relative worthiness of the literary philosophies each represents.

Smith sees Netherland as an example of lyrical realism trying to overcome its fundamental inauthenticity by making that inauthenticity one of the subtexts of the novel. She accuses O'Neill of doing this only in order to reaffirm the authenticity of lyrical realism, but on an equally meaningless basis.

She uses Remainder as an example of how to confront the inauthenticity of realism in a more honest and aesthetically satisfying manner.

So she's not demanding we like one book over another. She's just saying that Netherland represents the end game of lyrical realism, it's descent into wink-wink, nudge-nudge self doubt, without fundamentally addressing any of the problems it is so "anxious" (Smith's term) about. She definitely sees the literary strategy of Remainder as superior and more integrated.

I don't think her essay is really targeted at readers at all. She probably couldn't care less which books get read or not. Her essay is, I think, really targeted at writers, and is attempting to convince them of how to write. I don't think she's offering Netherland as the preferred exemplar.

This is just my take on her essay. I'm not necessarily taking her side in any of this.


Nigel Beale


Although close, I'm kind of wishing my name was Niall right about now...

What I find odd is that Smith says Netherland is about anxiety, and crisis in the modern middle class, while at the same time saying it provides a perfect image of what realism is supposed to look like… if it raises anxieties about form, isn’t it doing what many po-mo novels do? How can it be both at the same time?

If Smith condemns O’Neill’s ‘realism’ as the bedside story that comforts us the most, and if she eschews the importance of form, the truth of language and the continuity of self, what on earth is she suggesting gets us closer to our condition? That everyone write like Beckett? And how, if she has an idea, does she plan to hold reader interest without use of plot, metaphor and style?

- Nigel


Well, Nigel, I'm not Zadie Smith, so I can't answer any of those questions. But it does seem to me that condemning lyrical realism for being a comforting bedtime story designed to make us feel good is something quite different, and logically unconnected from denying "the truth of language and the continuity of self".

I think, rather Smith could easily say that the problem with lyrical realism is that it abuses those qualities in the service of propaganda, whereas the aesthetic of Remainder deploys those same resources to achieve a more honest image of how we think and live.

It's also important to remind ourselves that Smith in her essay doesn't see lyrical realism as a genre that is dead. Only that it is so out of synch with the world we live in that even lyrical realists like O'Neill feel the need to try to evolve it. This means, in turn, that Smith would probably be quite happy with a more fully evolved form of lyrical realism.

But that's just me.

Neil Appleton

Two Nialls and a Nigel responding to an O'Neill interview! It's the kind of unlikely sleight of hand that Wood would call hysterically realist.

Niall (not Anderson), I agree with you that irony is rare in new fiction. It's a subtle state of mind, and something about this culture doesn't permit it to flourish. Much, much easier to find it in 18th c. French literature, for instance, though much of the humor in Amis and Barnes is also ironic.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


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