Leora Skolkin-Smith: A psychological novel – what is it?

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“A psychological novel,” Wikipedia tells us, “also called psychological realism, is a work of prose fiction which places more than the usual amount of emphasis on interior characterization, and on the motives, circumstances, and internal action which springs from, and develops, external action. The psychological novel can be called a novel of the ‘inner man,’ so to say”

What, to me, has changed in the contemporary psychological novel are the questions. What is psychological? What psychic forces within the character create story and plot? The psychological novel today is more than simple realism, and more than “motives” of characters. In these decades psychological has begun to encompass many elements not readily available to earlier writers, namely, the prevalence of the unknown unconscious in determining a main character’s trajectory of action. Overt sexuality, as drive and determinant, and interior feelings are used to express a “motive” as well a plethora of other advances made since the 1950’s in the fields of psychiatry and psychology. We are more clinically aware of a person’s motives and drives than ever before. Theories of the ego, the id, and superego are earlier Freudian propositions which have mixed with contemporary ideas of what determines feelings, thoughts, and actions as well as the abundance of research on moods, which include the pharmaceutical revolution in psychiatry.

I have been thinking a lot about this because I’ve written two novels about young woman and their despair. Where mourning the loss of a loved one and low self-esteem used to be mostly what defined depression in the recent past, and the solution or movement forward out of the morass was defined by introspection and deep searching of the soul and psyche, some novels have put taking one’s Prozac or other medication for depression as the new motive to get well, considering the possibility that all that sorrow and self-hate sprung from chemical imbalances which can be changed by certain dosages of available anti-depressants. “Have you taken your meds today?” has uprooted the older question, “Are you digging deep enough into your consiousness and unconsciousness to understand your despair and anger?” The biology revolution in psychiatry has so changed the way we view resolutions of conflict, it is almost now archaic to connect “depression” with real-life existential despair. So, too, has gone the philosophical novel. Albert Camus could not have published to acclaim The Myth of Sisyphus, which tackles the feeling of wanting to commit suicide. In The Myth of Sisyphus Camus describes how Sisyphus was fated to roll a boulder up a big hill over and over again because it just rolled back down every time and every time he had do it all again. Camus philosophically proposes to the reader: We must think of Sisyphus happy echoing the belief that life is all about process, and one can actually be happy contemplating the ineffable. Life is a series of boulders that roll down every time we push them upwards, and one should learn the pleasures and wisdom of this never-ending process of rolling that boulder even though one knows it will only roll down and one will have to do it again. A contemporary answer to Sisyphus might be that Prozac will help you not feel a need to pursue such a defeatist task; it’s part of your clinical depression and feeling that life is only a burden.

In recent years I have also observed the structure of novels to be linear and to follow the guidelines of a conflict experienced by the main character and the odds he/she fights to come to a resolution of that conflict. This means the character will, in the end, either get what he/she wants or not get what they want or need. In all the standard plot teachings I have read, the idea is that there is a solution, that one is important enough to have the universe dole out the odds for and against one’s wishes or satisfy one’s needs. How different a lot of contemporary work is than reading Virginia Woolf’s twentieth century beautiful lines or Proust’s complex memory pieces. Their work seemed, in contrast, to propose not resolution but acceptance of the complex mystery of life itself, the inner darkness and coming into light of a self and, importantly, how that depicted self exists in their world. What is happening outside them that isn’t manipulated, such as a war or social evolution. Also, helplessness was allowed; one didn’t need to have all the answers, one needed only to know the important questions. More importantly, despair and rage weren’t pathologized; drugs as fix-it remedies were not even there on the page. Ambiguity, chaos and irresolution in fiction do not prevail at the end of most successful contemporary novels. There is an absolute and a certainty to the final event that, according to contemporary sources on plot, give the character what they want and, if not, give the character what they need. The world impacts on the character not at his/her will or to resolve his or her conflicts, but because the world simply exists apart from any connection to the character.

I once heard a music historian lecture about classical music. He said not to expect music to have gotten better since there isn’t a better world. Art isn’t dependent on progressive time and so-called emotional progress; it is a deeper activity. Just because some music is contemporary does not mean it compares to Bach or Handel. It is not better, by virtue of the mere fact other music came later. Artistic progress isn’t counted by whether or not it is contemporary; what went before could very well have been better music. That stuck with me.

It’s not that I have answer to the many faults of contemporary “psychological” novels that seem to follow the formula of conflict and conflict resolution as outlined and which depict the outside world as either a foe or an ally to the main character. But that I hope I have asked just the right questions about where we are headed as a world literature. How deep do contemporary novels go – those based on the fundamentals of plot taught in most places and encouraged by the consumer’s market – and why are the gamut of human feelings and drives in these novels pathologized? I wonder, out loud now, whether the cyber revolution, which shows us an expanse and certainly a new chaotic landscape for human events not always mastered so neatly, as well as the splintered wars we are engaged in will change how people define plot and character, impacting and perhaps leading us back to what were the modernist novels of the beginning of the twentieth century casting off linear prose and the idea that one can find closure in a chaotic, unpredictable new world. I hope to write more about this in the coming months.


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Leora Skolkin-Smith is the author of Hystera and Edges. Stay up-to-date on her blog posts at her website.

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On February 26, 2015
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