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Joseph O’Neill

July 20, 2010

After reading Zadie Smith on Netherland, I decided to take a second look at Mark Sarvas’s interview with Joseph O’Neill on The Elegant Variation blog. I was surprised to find that O’Neill responds to Smith’s essay in the interview–I must have completely missed that in my first reading. Here’s what he says about writing the lyrical novel, and Smith specifically:

“[I]f it were the case that everyone could write a so-called lyrical novel if they wanted to but had decided against it, then their resistance to it has authority. But is that really the case? I doubt it very much.

Take Zadie Smith, for example, who is resistant to the lyrical realist novel at the moment. I think she’s allowed to be, because she’s actually written that way in her last book, and has kind of shown that she can do it and has come away from it with reservations. She’s earned her resistance.

That said, there are a lot of critics, or readers, who don’t have a taste for so-called lyrical writing and can’t be expected to write lyrically before they voice a negative opinion about it. And again, you can’t really argue with taste. If people prefer to read something else, that’s fine.”

I find O’Neill’s response to Smith generous and insightful. Smith does not write, in her essay, that it was her own writing, and perhaps reaching a point where she wanted to write something different, push her work to a new place,  that motivated her criticism of the lyrical realist novel. If we see her response as the response of a writer at this place rather than a critic, it makes sense that she would be vehement. She could gain energy for her own future work by drawing such clear lines of battle.

What I had remembered from the four part interview is what O’Neill has to say about the choices he made while writing Netherland and his explanation for why he made them. First, about the voice:

“I wanted to create this very intimate relationship between the reader and the voice of the book. Almost a romance. That’s risky, of course. Not everybody likes to be hit on. But you want to take risks”  (http://marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar/2009/07/interview-with-joseph-oneill-part-1.html).

On choosing a narrative point of view:

“… I’m not very interested in third person narrators (or first person narrators) who are distracted by their authorial existence, since at this point that is usually just too old hat for words and, if you’re not careful, drags the novel down to the level of a Wikipedia-deep philosophical footnote. And then you have the free indirect style, which means that you slide from the third to the first person. Herzog is a superb example. Also, third person narratives lend themselves, in my hands, to plottiness, and the problem with plot is that it becomes – and again, all this is from my point of view – it becomes excessively psychological and ordinary. Whereas if you want a narrative capable of the full, flickering range of empathies, the sort of empathies that everybody has, that approximate the depth and spottiness of human apprehension, you are able to draw that out much more in the first person. At least, that’s the case with me. I suppose it means I’m as limited as a writer” (http://marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar/2009/07/interview-with-joseph-oneill-part-4.html).

I am not sure whether I agree with the logic, especially that a third person narrator leads to plottiness (or that plot is something to avoid) and a lack of empathy, but what I find instructive is that he is so deliberate in his choices, thinking through their ramifications for his work, and that he can articulate the reasons for the choices that he makes. I’d like some of that, as I move forward.

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