Experimental French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet has been dead for only a few weeks, but it looks as if the touching eulogy phase is already over. Salon has just posted an essay by Canadian author Stephen Marche (Shining at the Bottom of the Sea) on Robbe-Grillet’s influence on the modern novel, and it’s clear that Marche wasn’t too sorry to see him go.
I should have felt grief at the news of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s death last week. Instead I recognized in myself only confusing relief. He was a great champion for the innovative novel, so in a way I owe him: I’m a novelist, and while I would be loath to call myself avant-garde, my first book did have marginalia all the way through and my second was a literary anthology of an invented country. But the truth is, Robbe-Grillet was a disaster for innovative novels. After him, literary innovation, experiment with form or anything mildly unconventional came to be seen as pretentious and dry, the proper domain of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys and nobody else.
English fiction in the wake of Robbe-Grillet has become a deliberately old-fashioned activity, like archery or churning your own butter. He represented, through his status as cultural icon of the avant-garde, an entire generation that turned literary experimentation into self-involved blandness. In the ’50s, writers like Nabokov could produce Pale Fire or Lolita and feel themselves part of the mainstream of literary culture. After the ’60s, after Robbe-Grillet, anyone who experimented in fiction was being consciously marginal, or at least countercultural.
This Quillblogger, for one, tends to agree with Marche’s overall sentiments, but he seems a little misguided in pinning everything on poor Robbe-Grillet, especially when he makes groaner statements like this:
The relief I felt when I heard about Robbe-Grillet’s death was also partly hope. Now we can go on, I was thinking.
The comments section following the piece is worth a read, too, if only for a number of strong counter-arguments.