Let Me Be Frank

Marco Roth is an idiot.

At the very least, he’s severely mistaken.

It’s impossible (for me) to read things like:

“Is the interest in neurological anomaly not symptomatic of an anxiety about the role of novelists in this new medical-materialist world, which happens also to be a world of giant publishing conglomerates and falling reading rates? […] To put all this more simply, the neuronovel tends to become a variety of meta-novel, allegorizing the novelist’s fear of his isolation and meaninglessness, and the alleged capacity of science to explain him better than he can explain himself.” (4)

and not laugh. What truly bizarre things to say. Of course, I knew Roth was an idiot even earlier on, when he wrote, “Faulkner’s Benjy spoke in a strange and addled voice—but then so did Faulkner’s other characters, along with those of Joyce, without their needing to be mentally damaged” (3, emphasis added). It truly sounds like Roth is whining because suddenly characters that aren’t neurotypical are appearing in books, and he has to read these books. The horror! Just replace “mentally damaged” with “gay” or “black” to understand my point of view. I won’t even touch the word “damaged.”

Describing a passage in McEwan, he writes, “The reader is presented simultaneously with an effect and a diagnosis of its cause; the writer indulges in some fancy language or rare perceptions, and then hastens to explain why, on medical grounds, this is allowed” (3). Did he never learn that the character is not the author? Just because the character feels a need to explain his perceptions in scientific terms does not mean the author thinks he must justify the character’s perceptions in scientific terms in order for them to be understood or accepted by the reader. Of course, if Roth actually acknowledged that, he wouldn’t have been able to write this ridiculous essay in the first place.

He claims “neuronovels have in them very little of society, of different classes, of individuals interacting, of development either alongside or against historical forces and expectations,” but if you have finished The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, you already know this is untrue (4). Christopher interacts with many people, he goes out into the world on his own, and he comes to understand that he is more capable than he believed he was at the beginning of the novel. I haven’t read any of the other books that Roth mentions, so I can’t say whether or not he is being unfair, but I suspect that he is.

Roth would do well to listen to the advice Jurecic offers in “Neurodiversity:” “uncomfortable as the idea of innate cognitive difference may make us, it is time to open ourselves to learning as much as we can…” (439). That is what writers do when they write: work through problems or issues or even just ideas so as to learn and show others what they have learned. Neuronovels are not a portent of doom, a sign of the end of the novel as Roth claims when he writes: “So the new genre of the neuronovel, which looks on the face of it to expand the writ of literature, appears as another sign of the novel’s diminishing purview” (5). They’re an acknowledgment of the fact that not everyone is neurotypical, and that atypical minds deserve representation, too. Frankly, I love that these novels exist. If authors did not explore everything that is open to exploration, if they stuck to only what they know and understand, perhaps then we could talk about the death of the novel as a thing that is coming to pass. Because in that event, the novel might actually die off. After all, there would be little to write about.

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2 Responses to Let Me Be Frank

  1. also, pure conjecture on my part, but perhaps Roth is of the general opinion that materialism is a reductive ethos that robs us what it means to be human: the unpredictability of human behavior. The idea that our behavior is purely the result of cellular interactions seems to be anathema to Roth. The rise of the neuronovel and the need for neuroscientific research in order to accurately depict the behavior of a character is probably symptomatic of this larger problem to Roth.

    Again, I’m sympathetic to Roth’s sensibilities. I’m all about the numinous nature of life and the poetry in motion of interpersonal dynamics and human relationships. But instead of attacking the neuronovel as a concept, instead of being wholly negative and critical, why not examine the genre’s potential for exploring what it means to be human in a novel and unique way? Why act like non-neurotypical people are the ultimate party poopers of literary expression?

  2. I felt a similar twinge of discomfort while reading this, unsure if Roth found non-neurotypical characters to be undeserving of any significant role, much less protagonist, in fiction. In his discussion of them, he dances around any notion that there is value in those people’s perceptions and experiences. He has a callous manner of referring to them, as though their inclusion is a nuisance.

    However, I wasn’t willing to believe that his problem was simply the inclusion of these types of characters. The crux of his issue seems to be the dilution and sterilization of the human experience. Roth has a spiritual reverence for the power of words — he sees them as an expression of the transcendental experiences in life, when we are at the height of subjective experience. The stuff poetry’s made of.

    His main lament is that authors of neuronovels use their character’s mental issue as scientific reasoning for lyrical and evocative expression:

    An addict of facts, Joe provides an alibi for McEwan’s moments of lyricism—“The silence appeared so rich as to have a visual quality, a sparkle or hard gloss, and a
    thickness too, like fresh paint”—and can also comment, in the next sentence, “This synesthesia must have been due to my disorientation.”

    He also takes issue with these novels serving as metaphors for human condition, since their predication on neuroscience and boiling behavior down to purely material explanation creates a paradox.

    Even as it relies on something like a readerly meaning impulse—we want to be able to generalize or approximate or metaphorize the rare neurological condition into some kind of experience compatible with our own—it also baffles and frustrates the same impulse. Any possibility of the necessary interpretive leap is disavowed by the pathological premise of the novel itself. By turning so aggressively inward, to an almost cellular level, this kind of novel bypasses the self, let alone society, or history, to arrive at neurology: privacy without individuality. And the deep logic of the story is likewise not one of irony or fate or comeuppance, but simple contingency; the etiology of a neurological condition is biological, not moral. And mere biological contingency has a way of repelling meaning.

    According to Roth, the depiction of a non-neurotypical character’s subjective experience that is informed by the latest research in neuroscience is necessarily devoid of humanity, a dry tale of biological determinism in which the character’s every move is governed by a primordial survival impulse.

    I looked up more of what Roth had to say on the matter, and found this rebuttal from Jonah Lehrer, which includes a counter from Roth himself. http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2009/10/29/the-neuronovel/#comment-2042260

    At the end of Roth’s comment, he quotes a passage by D.H. Lawrence that describes a woman caught in a whirlwind of love/lust. It’s a lush and poetic passage that has lines like: “Then again, when he raised his head and found her mouth, his lips filled her with a hot flush like wine, a sweet, flaming flush of her whole body, most exquisite, as if she were nothing but a soft rosy flame of fire against him for a moment or two.”

    To Roth, the neuronovel would explain that language with a clinical term like “synesthesia.” According to Roth, that robs us of what “used to be the property of all of us, e.g. that transcendental feeling that Lawrence’s woman in love experiences, and fashion it into something that must be given a medically certifiable excuse for showing up in a novel.” (That quote is from the link, not the reading.)

    I appreciate Roth’s point of view and his artistic sensibilities. But while there are many bits and pieces of what he says that resonate with me, I find his thesis, on the whole, problematic.

    Roth thinks there is an epidemic of neuronovels that reduce the enigmatic sublimity of the human experience to a neurological determinism. These novels have lost the “self” — they render the individual and impersonal puppet of science. Roth’s evidence for this is the novelists’ need to justify lyrical expression with clinical explanation, as well as the necessarily scientific explanation for any aspect of the character’s experience.

    To Roth, the fact that the Capgras sufferer only mistakes his wife for an imposter due to a neurological condition renders any larger metaphor null and void. Why? Because “mere biological contingency has a way of repelling meaning.”

    The experience of reading a novel where the character’s neurological condition is an explicit and fundamental element of the story puts character’s distinctness at the forefront of Roth’s mind, and for some reason completely renders them a flesh machine governed only by scientific facts. The narrative is, due to what I expect is careful research on the part of the author, constructed in a way that emphasizes its difference from neurotypical consciousness. Perhaps authors haven’t quite figured out a way to write from someone like this without making it feel wooden or robotic, but Roth does not seem to even acknowledge this possibility. He writes as though writing from the perspective of anyone that’s not neurotypical is a grave affront to the collective artistic soul of humanity. The man is a little dramatic.

    In his comment on Jonah Lehreh’s rebuttal, he says: “The contemporary fiction writer cannot write lyrically except in the character of a person with a disorder. You don’t find this a problem?”

    Is this a thing? If it is, if it is actually true that current fiction writers adhere to dry, strictly materialist renderings of the world, and must resort to writing from the perspective of autistic schizophrenics just to spice up their prose, then I’m more inclined to agree with him. And I’m sure it’s a real thing with certain authors. But he doesn’t acknowledge that the lyricism of the disordered person is not necessarily antithetical to the wonder of human experience just because we know its correlative brain functions. In doing so, he’s guilty of the same reductivism that he is criticizing these authors for.

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