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The Weak Novel

An inappropriate, indispensable form

The writer had a pragmatic side despite the wildness of his writing. He never claimed to write the truth—or even to write well, for that matter—and did not, as he later said, expect his fiction to be profitable, although it was. Most of all he wanted to be a celebrity, and he therefore composed a big, messy book that upset some people, even as it fascinated others. You could call his efforts performance art: he’d go down to the city and drum up sales by giving unhinged readings. His novel was published serially, and as he composed, he threw in catty references to reviews of previous installments. He had written a book about nothing, yet it was full of characters and events. Nothing much took place—the reader learned only about the first moments of somebody’s life over the course of many hundreds of pages—but there is perhaps no work of English prose more thundering with human activity, desires, and hairbrained schemes than Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

Over a century later, it was termed “the most typical novel” of all world literature by Viktor Shklovsky, seminal Russian theorist, while Ian Watt, British-Californian booster of psychological realism, judged it “not so much a novel as a parody of a novel.” Either Tristram Shandy was a masterpiece against which all novels might be measured, or it was a weak attempt by an overly ambitious pretender with a clever idea but no control and even less taste, a torrent of “lexical diarrhea”—to repurpose Dave Eggers’s summation of Infinite Jest’s failings in a 1996 review published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The “weak novel” has been with us for a long time. The weak novel is ubiquitous. Indeed, it is possible that no novel exists without its allegedly weak(er) cousins and that no novel is without its own moments of weakness. In this reading, weakness is not a bad thing. Rather, weakness, specifically literary weakness, is enlivening, challenging, and generally has the effect of compelling the reader to move, as we say, outside their comfort zone. Weak novels cause us to attend to fiction as strategy rather than as entertainment. Tristram Shandy is a weak novel. It is a novel that only weakly consents to participate in the conventions of genre, that is always about to—and sometimes does—fail to be a novel at all. This is, I want to show, an important quality for a literary work to have—the quality of weak identification, or even total disidentification, with its own type or genre. This effort, rather than being destined for failure, is in fact fundamental for the flourishing of the novel form.

I won’t expend further time teasing this idea. I’ll show my hand.

  1. The weak novel indicates, toys with, mocks, anxiously dissects, or otherwise explores language itself and the problems of literary form. It reflects on its own status as a novel. It is not merely “meta”; rather, if the weak novel is self-referential, it is so in order to capture and contemplate the tropes of the contemporary novel and the novel’s function in the present. The weak novel shows its work. It makes no secret of its status as a piece of artifice.

  2. The weak novel is frequently non-narrative and/or seemingly incomplete. It does not avoid digression and possibly exhibits eccentric scrapbooking, grab-bag tendencies that call upon the reader to help the writer out in a struggle to marshal the book’s very material (i.e., to finish writing it). The weak novel may be entirely unbound, a series of pages in a box (see B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates of 1969), or simply incoherent. Of course, its incoherence is never truly simple: where gaps are present, there the real work of reading begins.

  3. At the same time, the physical book gets in the weak novel’s way. The weak novel doesn’t mind this obstacle; it plays with text, image, and layout to emphasize the object that is the codex, sometimes in a manner that interrupts the flow of story as such. The black page of Tristram Shandy is perhaps the most notorious example, but we might also consider the more subtle typographic experiments of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy (1930–1936), with its “newsreels,” or the veering textual architectures of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000).

  4. The weak novel is unoriginal. It may contain the unattributed work of other writers, writing copied from non-literary sources, lifted and/or recycled plots and characters, or have the same title as another, often better-known book (as in Kathy Acker’s Great Expectations of 1982). The weak novel does not hide its unoriginality. Rather, it flaunts it. The weak novel would like to be influenced and in fact celebrates influence rather than anxiously rejecting it.

  5. The weak novel is a performance. It is no “mere” book, a conventional mass-produced object that the reader views as sprung, unmediated, from the imagination of a distant genius-author. The weak novel is confusingly present in the so-called real world. The weak novel may be an account of actual events, some of which the writer has staged and participated in, if only for the purpose of describing them in the novel. The text of the weak novel may be a script for a series of live readings or interventions, the publication in novel-form of which lands as an afterthought. It might be the unvarnished record of acts that really took place that the writer of the weak novel dares to present nominally disguised as fiction (see 1997’s I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus) and therefore not fiction at all.

  6. The weak novel inverts and reorders related novelistic hierarchies: figure and ground, diegesis and description (often containing too much description to be “normal,” the weak novel is a trove of “inappropriate” detail; see Herman Melville’s Pierre; or, The Ambiguities of 1852), past and present, cause and effect. The weak novel enjoys decadence, along with frustrating forms of minimalism. It puts bodies before minds, prefers hints to strict delineations.

Having listed these qualities, I should acknowledge a possible elephant in the (contemporary) room. Autofiction—in which the author is a character or, what perhaps amounts to the same thing, a character that possesses the same name as the author—is at once a symptom of the novel’s contemporary weakening and an indication of ways in which the novel is, in fact, less weak than it might be. In one reading, autofiction is simultaneously a symptom and mode of critique of contemporary media and bureaucracy, for it proposes protagonists who are fundamentally composed of writing; selves given over to scriptural technologies and algorithmic sorting, who exist in order to “end up in a book,” as Stéphane Mallarmé wrote. In another reading, current autofiction often clings to the conventions of nineteenth-century literary publishing and celebrity culture (i.e., the figure of the author) and could stand to be a tad weaker and weirder.

The weak novel declines, elegantly and bizarrely, to serve as bland entertainment.

Autofictions of the 2010s tend to retrofit earlier, more radical meditations on the technical and commercial qualities of fiction to standard plots and are, therefore, generally although not uniformly less weak than their near ancestors. Earlier autofictions, meanwhile, interrogate the very possibility of literary writing, even forbidding themselves from being “smooth” and, therefore, “well written.” Robert Glück’s masterpiece Margery Kempe (1994) interweaves apparently documentary scenes from the sex life of “Bob” with the struggles of the titular medieval seer in her very carnal affair with the only son of God. Its deep weakness is, for example, breathtaking. Its vivid-to-the-point-of-weird descriptions of fucking and deliberately confusing temporal structure compel the reader to toggle between the late twentieth and early fifteenth centuries, as well as to negotiate Margery’s visions of assignations with Jesus on what seems to be an atemporal higher plane, thus drawing the reader into a trance-like state in which contemplation of corporeal sensation itself is paramount. The body exists in time, but we don’t know if it is fundamentally narrative; certainly, bodies are mortal, but it is not clear that the experience of existing in one is germane to the plot conventions of the realist novel. In fact, as Margery Kempe points out, to write a linear realist narrative may be to forego the body altogether—perhaps the self, too—in favor of well-worn tropes. The passionately weak autofictive novel is a special kind of info leak; it is a meter and exploration of what is admissible, limning the limits of what can be shared in prose. See also: Megan Boyle’s Liveblog (2018), whose title, while in a sense inaccurate—given that the author does not blog every single thing that happens to her while she is living (only quite a lot of it)—indicates a radical will to risk and vulnerability.

The weak novel’s active disregard for metrics of so-called good taste and desire to bring into full view the workings of the novel-as-cultural-machine require that it not only do more itself but also ask more of its reader. Here, of course, is what constitutes its counterintuitive weakness: it is a type of writing that does not allow one to simply “sit back and enjoy.” The ergodic nature of the weak novel—which is to say, its requirement of “nontrivial effort” for legibility as described by the critic Espen J. Aarseth in his study Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997)—demands the reader’s participation, sometimes as a coauthor of the work. We could think of this co-creative requirement in terms of the multiple-choice test (see recent work by Alejandro Zambra) or the choose-your-own-adventure tale (see Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch of 1963). Yet, novels are not ergodic merely through the introduction of narrative options; intertexts also contribute narrative uncertainty to novels because they require significant interpretive contributions and acts of intelligent suspicion on the part of the reader. Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), a tale of two fictional authors told through their juxtaposed writings, is perhaps the most famous American novel of this sort. More recently, there is Percival Everett’s Erasure (2001), with its unstable central fictional fiction, My Pafology, aka Fuck, a novella written pseudonymously by the novel’s erudite protagonist satirizing the appetite for exploitative fiction about the lives of Black Americans. And ergodicity does not end here: within the weakest of novels, time and space are fundamentally flexible, interpretive and interpretable modes. The reader may be tasked with adjudicating what is to be counted as an event at all. Nor is place a given. Writers like Renee Gladman in her Ravicka series (2010–2017) and Eugene Lim in Dear Cyborgs (2017) play with geographies and temporalities in order to compel the reader to notice the linguistic, rhetorical, and genre-related conditions necessary for our belief in recognizable timeframes and locales. A strong novel is set against the unironically dramatic backdrop of some moment of crucial historical transformation, while a weak novel debates the possibility (and worth) of depicting believable locations and events. A weak novel might, finally, engage with passivity, offering itself up as a story about “nothing,” as in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s plotless descriptions of interiors. The weak novel declines, elegantly and bizarrely, to serve as bland entertainment, preferring disorienting or diffractive views of its materials as opposed to reflexive, representational ones.

Talking about the weak novel is also a way to avoid linear descriptions of the novel’s various transformations. For the weak novel waxes and wanes; the novel’s exploration of its potential for weakness is a rickety, ad-hoc tradition, if it is one at all. We often hear of the novel’s “rise” (to bring in Ian Watt’s optimistic metaphor), its progress. But what if we think of the novel as engaging in nonlinear forms of growth, as well as decay? Anyone who has paid even a nominal amount of attention to academia will have noticed the lengths that scholars of the contemporary novel go to prove that innovation continues apace and that, therefore, the most important things to attend to are newness (often via hybridity or thrifty repurposing of the innovations of the past), avant-gardes, and the general forward march of heroic authors (this tendency may be even worse in the academic criticism of contemporary poetry—but that is a topic for another day). Given that the archaic sentences of Thucydides (460–400 BC) can never be rivaled for their mind-crushing syntax, even the most stringent historicist would have to agree that innovation does not move solely in the direction of the future, and what was written in the past is frequently innovative with respect to contemporary writing. Disorienting yet at ease with its own enormity, the weak novel suggests that what was written in the past may serve as an interpretation of what is written in the present.

In my nonlinear, spiraling lineage of the weak novel, much weakness in the contemporary novel emerges, paradoxically, from a medieval text, Sei Shōnagon’s eleventh-century Pillow Book, an ur-weak book that is perhaps more memoir or advice manual, and that has only been translated into English with some uncertainty, given that it exists in four distinct manuscript versions. This digressive text—a text composed wholly of digressions, it should be noted—contains lists and poems as well as narrative sections. Meanwhile, its influence on contemporary novelists is almost certainly greater than anything written by Victor Hugo or John Updike, to select two “strong” novelists somewhat at random. Lady Sei’s meditations have the additional power of addressing questions of media and materiality in minute detail: she lingers over matters of ink and paper, of costume and decor, along with the manner in which various signals might circulate within institutional space (here, a palace). To call her writings postmodern or “influenced” by the invention of hypertext or social media is a ludicrous anachronism and yet such statements do not, by the same token, seem entirely false.

We need visionary temporalities, and we need books that raise physical sensation to the level of event. 

Thus, the historical trajectory of the weak novel might be circular, even as weak novels engage with complex temporal forms. Nesting and hosting are common formal gestures to see in the weak novel because the weak novel does not revile digression or recursion. Think of Don Quixote (1605 and 1615), for example, in which the titular character learns, in the second book and to his great chagrin, of the existence of the first book of the novel. Given that the Don’s ridiculous actions and attitudes are themselves motivated by readings in chivalric literature, here we have a situation in which the delusions of a character are presented to the character through his participation in the very sort of artwork that caused these delusions in the first place. This novel additionally proposes that the time of fiction is—like the time described by quantum physics—by nature a time of loops, running in multiple locations and directions at once, such that a character could well read the very book that has brought said character into existence. If we hope to escape the messianic, apocalyptic, and artificial time of Christianity (a linear time that undergirds present-day visions of efficiency), we should be looking to fictions such as this, fictions that help us confront our notions of time and how we mete out description along temporal axes and media formats. We need visionary temporalities, and we need books that raise physical sensation to the level of event. One of the primary affordances of novelistic weakness is to make narrative structure more porous, mystical, inefficient, and vulnerable to confusion with plain “reality,” as such. In an age of news cycles and boom and bust, of the instrumentalization of every sphere of human life, we urgently need to escape from the false opposition of repetition and innovation, the mess of unthinking valorizations of progress. Similarly, the weak novel’s complex rendition of the line between the fictive and the real should be of interest to anyone concerned about disinformation and the ways in which realities are discursively constructed.

To come full circle here myself, my theory of the weak novel is influenced by a mixture of writing, both within and beyond the realm of literary criticism. I borrow the adjective weak from the title of scholar Wai Chee Dimock’s 2020 book, Weak Planet: Literature and Assisted Survival. Although Dimock is primarily concerned with scenes of influence and exchange, I was drawn to the notion that a work of writing might only weakly identify with typologies of genre and/or with literature—that a work might have more “resilience,” to employ a term of Dimock’s, be longer-lasting, more nourishing and moving precisely by refusing expectations, withdrawing from obvious manifestations of skill, or otherwise declining to “go hard,” save in opposition to expectations and convention. Such an adamantly weak work might accomplish the alchemical feat philosopher and novelist Maurice Blanchot indicates in his 1962 essay on “Everyday Speech,” in which he describes the everyday as that which, paradoxically, is most difficult to grasp because of its tendency to “escape” us.

The weak novel allows us to reenter the fugitive and supposedly insignificant aspects of everyday life that capitalism has had difficulty assimilating (psychedelia/plain old “weird thoughts,” spacing out, daydream, the experience of the sacred, surprise, appreciation, satisfaction, fascination, ambivalence, tenderness, aimlessness, curiosity, among other mental paths of lesser resistance). This is, in some sense, to reword Timothy Morton’s recommendation of “tuning” in their influential book Hyperobjects (2013)—a broad term they use to describe what we should do with ourselves emotionally and psychologically, in light of approaching climate collapse. While I don’t pretend to entirely understand what Morton means, I have the sense that they would like us to extend ourselves to sense and experience what scholar Anne-Lise François has termed “uncounted experience,” a form of non-instrumental agency she identifies in her book Open Secrets that may be read as a rejection of commonplace validations of productivity where the self and the sensorium are concerned.

I think that the weak novel is the paradigmatic site for such past-hope-but-nonetheless-crucial, possibly-pointless-yet-indispensable contemplative and experiential exercises. And the weak novel can offer us even more than this—as if this were not enough—because it is a mode of literature that can make us less credulous and more playful readers, readers at home with the notion that undecidability is a fundamental feature of linguistic articulation, if not life itself. As the literary theorist Barbara Johnson once observed, “There is politics precisely because there is undecidability.” Thus the weak novel is, at its core, a political art form, a mode of writing that continually reaffirms that the relationship between language and what exists remains eternally open to debate and revision. It is a spot too weak to be conclusively instrumentalized.