An Exemplary Intensity

You might be surprised to hear Daniel Green’s Beyond the Blurb described as an intense little book. Surprised because it’s a book of meta-criticism, of literary criticism about literary criticism, which isn’t usually the sort of thing that lends itself to intensity, and because most of its contents has been plucked directly from Green’s litblog, The Reading Experience, which has been running since 2004. But its intensity comes precisely from its brevity, its scant hundred pages plus change, and from how this brevity has emerged from a body of work of awesome magnitude. Green has resisted the temptation to simply throw together a “best of” anthology from the vast amount of book reviews, occasional musings, and discursive interventions that have appeared on his blog and elsewhere online. Instead, he has selected seventeen previously published essays, each of which directly addresses the subject of literary criticism, and supplemented them with some new writing that allows this book – in his own phrase – “to distil” the various things he has said about his own particular critical preoccupations. To distil, yes, as one would distil whiskey or brandy or some other powerful spirit. To filter out any impurities in order to produce something singular, concentrated, and uniquely potent. A quick Google search will turn up an impressive number of the essays in which Green has offered his assessments of various works of literature, usually the sort of complex and challenging works labelled as “experimental.” As he writes in his introduction to Beyond the Blurb, however, he has looked back at more than a decade’s worth of writing on The Reading Experience and recognised that what has most pleased him has been the freedom

to critically examine not just works of literature past and present but also the critics and critical methods whose influence helps to determine how ‘literature’ is perceived and how literary works are made meaningful for diverse and at times disparate readers. All of the essays [in Beyond the Blurb] are animated by this impulse to explicate the assumptions behind a practice referred to by a common name – ‘criticism’ – but carried out in numerous and often quite conflicting ways.

Among Green’s greatest strengths as a critic is the care with which he navigates the various conflicts of the critical enterprise. In particular, I admire the unflagging generosity with which he hears out the arguments and analyses of other critics, especially those with whom he has significant disagreements. He is never dismissive of critics who hold views that depart from his own, or who operate on a different set of critical principles, and he is never derisive or flippant or cursory in pointing out the flaws of their work. He is never anything less than fully attentive to the nuances of their analysis and respectful, if not accepting, of their intellectual positions. In Beyond the Blurb, a long chapter on two books by James Wood provides ample evidence of Green’s generosity, as does a rigorous deconstruction of the work of Morris Dickstein which is all the more impressive for having been written “regretfully.” Green confesses that “Dickstein’s 1979 book, Gates of Eden, was probably more responsible for setting me on a path of study of contemporary fiction than any other critical book I read or any course I took,” and he adds that “much of Dickstein’s analysis of the fiction of the 1960s still holds up, as I discovered when I recently re-read the book.” On the whole, he finds it “undeniable” that Dickstein deserves credit as “an acute analyst of [American literature] within the framework of a consistently applied historical criticism.” All that, however, that doesn’t stop him from picking apart Dickstein’s 2009 book Dancing in the Dark, although his dismantling of it is as respectful as it is methodical, taking care to honour the appeal that the book might hold for some readers while also questioning the validity of the grounds on which one might find it valuable.

Whether Green sets out to address the work of Dickstein or Wood, or Christopher Hitchens or Hershel Parker, he never performs the easy trick of allowing his targets enough rope to hang themselves; he never jumps out at the end of a long quotation to yank open the trap in the floor of the scaffold as soon as someone has taken things a step too far. He routinely gives a variety of critical views a full and faithful airing, but then he backtracks in order to attend more closely to the principles that underpin them and to demonstrate how those principles – those first things, those fundamentals – have skewed or distorted or misinformed a critic’s investigations from the outset. Or, more specifically, he demonstrates how certain principles often have the effect of unnecessarily and arbitrarily limiting the scope and the depths of a critic’s investigations. It’s probably better to say that Green’s great object isn’t literary criticism so much as literature itself, the world of words, and that he therefore doesn’t take issue with other critics simply for reasons of engaging in critical discourses. He seems, instead, to see these critics as having imposed interpretive restrictions on a field of artistic endeavour – a force – whose aesthetic potential he feels is almost unbounded, and whose extraordinary liberties might be more widely recognised if only more critics would broaden rather than seeking to narrow their readers’ understanding of what literature is and what it can be.

Well, okay, so what is literature and what exactly can it be? The introduction to Beyond the Blurb and the first of its three sections, in which Green elucidates his own critical principles, are as clear and stark an explication of the nature and potential of literature as I have ever read. Some of these sections date back many years, perhaps a decade or thereabouts, and I recognised, with pleasure, parts of them that first came to me when I was still taking baby steps towards proficiency in literary criticism. I remember my initial encounter with them; I remember, vividly, the way they struck me not as bloodless rehearsals of pedantic arguments with which a fledgling scholar ought to familiarise himself, but as startling articulations of my inchoate instincts as a reader and a lover of literature. I remember having the sense that another person was reciting to me, in miraculously comprehensible language, my own gut feelings about how literature might be best approached. It’s no exaggeration to say that these parts of Green’s writings became, for me, essential findings in my formation as a serious and attentive reader, much more so than almost all the academic articles and monographs I devoured, and I read them again in Beyond the Blurb more assured than ever of their veracity and vitality. Especially true, and precisely worded, are Green’s reminders for readers of prose fiction to always devote intense concentration to the particularities of its language, over and above all other elements of any given work. It’s certainly the case that most novels contain conventional things like a narrative, characters, a setting, grand themes, and so on. But in spite of all that, Green insists, “fiction as a genre of literature is at its core the creation of illusions of such things… through skilful manipulation of language,” and, as a result,

a critic needs ultimately to be able to focus on the writer’s invocation of language, on the text as an artificial arrangement of words. Attempting to explicate a work of fiction by leaping first of all to plot or character or any other imposed device rather than considering the way such devices are conditioned by and embedded in language ignores the very medium through which literature exists, as if a work of fiction was really just like a movie aside from those pesky words. … Ultimately language is everything in a work of literature, and a critic needs to account for the way a writer marshals the resources of language to create all of the effects in that work.

To be hasty in giving Green’s position some coordinates on the existing landscape of literary criticism, remarks like these basically make him a formalist. One among far too few, I think. Green’s dogged attachment to the sensuality of specifically literary aesthetics – to the effects on the reader of the aesthetic capabilities and resources that are exclusive to literature and are not shared by alternative forms of art – is, for me, another of his greatest strengths, and maybe even his single greatest. For that reason, the introduction to Beyond the Blurb is a goldmine of formalist precepts, clearly and aptly put. “A literary work, whether in verse of prose, is worth taking seriously for its own sake,” Green begins. “The meaning of a literary work,” he adds, “consists of the experience of reading it, not in abstracted ‘themes’ that signify what the work is ‘about.’” He pleads for an “approach to criticism” that “takes literature seriously by granting it a fundamental integrity as a form of art, doesn’t attempt to overshadow the literary work by subsuming it into another agenda… [and] assume[s] that criticism acquires authority through being rigorously attentive and articulating persuasive standards of analysis.” He spells out the half-dozen most important pieces of his critical credo and elaborates on the assumptions and implications of each one, and this credo, in its totality, amounts to a necessary and impassioned advocacy for a view of literature as, first and foremost, an artistic stimulus to human experience rather than a static container for representations of the world.

Having articulated a view of this sort, it’s no surprise that Green goes on to find much to say about the New Critics and their legacy in the form of “close reading,” and he even devotes the third and final section of Beyond the Blurb to praising fellow aesthetes like Susan Sontag, Harold Bloom, Richard Poirier, and William H. Gass. He singles out Poirier’s A World Elsewhere for particular appreciation, even reverence – it is, says Green, “one of the most important academic studies in American literature,” “offer[ing] a radical analysis of American literature and literary history” – and so his essay on Poirier emerges as the most sympathetic and insightful of all those republished in Beyond the Blurb. That said, I couldn’t help but be disappointed to see that none of Green’s extensive and equally immersive remarks on John Dewey’s Art as Experience have made the cut for republication. Their inclusion may have drowned out his responses to the “critical failures” of Dickstein, Wood, and others, bloating the book’s third section and throwing the whole structure of the volume off-balance, but in their sentiment they would have been in the company of kinfolk.

What direction, then, might Green take from here on out? If there’s a blind spot in Beyond the Blurb, or a gap in need of filling, it is arguably the choice of subject in a work of literature. Subject, content, the “message,” the thing that a work is “about” – this is, of course, Green’s bête noire, anathema to the essays in Beyond the Blurb, a distraction from the real stuff of literary art. But while I wouldn’t disagree that critical analyses and discussions of literature are too often dominated or overshadowed by the subject of a work as a site of interest in itself, a writer’s choice of subject is surely just as much a focal point for an aesthete as long as the emphasis falls on the word choice. More specifically, I think, critics like Green have an aesthetic obligation to consider the extent to which and the ways in which a choice of subject coheres, resonates, with the whole complex of other aesthetic choices that characterise a work of literature.

What becomes clear in reading Green’s essays is that an aesthetic appreciation of a work of literature involves, at bottom, two rare and complex things related to authorial choice. The first is an awareness of the effects a work achieves by virtue of the way it is stylised and structured, which is to say by virtue of the stylistic and structural choices a writer has made in the process of creating it. The second is the heightening of a reader’s awareness of those effects, and therefore the intensification of his or her appreciation of the work as a whole, through the development of a broad understanding of the aesthetic capabilities and resources of literature – which is to say an understanding of all the possible choices the writer of the work could have made, but didn’t, as well as all the potential alternative effects the work might have achieved, but doesn’t.

In other words, for Green as for myself, the sum total of all the choices a writer has made in a work of literature, when viewed alongside all the other choices the writer has determined not to make, is the key to a thoroughgoing appreciation of the aesthetics of the work. But a writer can choose a subject that serves the work’s stylistic and structural program, that speaks to its terms and becomes an integral part of the overall aesthetic schema, or else the writer can choose a subject that is more or less appended to that program, if not entirely arbitrarily then at least as a discrete piece of the whole. Whichever way it may go in any particular work of literature, then, this choice is fundamentally aesthetic in nature, with consequences that can strengthen or weaken the aesthetic foundations of the entire result.

An example? If Herman Melville, for instance, had written Moby-Dick using the same vast array of aesthetic resources he actually deploys in that novel but applied them instead to the hunt for something other than a whale, the result wouldn’t be anything like Moby-Dick. His novel, as it stands, is stylistically and structurally oriented around concepts of magnitude and the individual effort to exert control over that which possesses magnitude. These concepts feed into the arcane and technical diction of his narrator, as well as his sophisticated and deliberately convoluted syntax. They also feed into his structuring of parts of the novel as itemisations of the innumerable qualities of whales, and the human uses associated with each one, as well as itemisations of variations on those qualities and further itemisations of the uses associated with each variation. Concepts of magnitude are written into the architecture of the aesthetics of Moby-Dick, playing out at all levels of the novel upwards from each individual word, and very possibly the only subject capable of embodying those same concepts – and thereby reinforcing the aesthetic architecture – is “the whale” as both a species of animal and a specific incarnation of that species. Anything less, anything smaller, anything of comparably unimpressive magnitude, wouldn’t work nearly as well as the whale because it would be a subject lacking exactly what Melville’s aesthetics embody.

I don’t think Green would disagree with this. In his analysis of David Winters’ Infinite Fictions, he approvingly quotes Winters’ observation that the stories in Gary Lutz’s Divorcer deal with the subject of divorce while also adopting aesthetic strategies that correspond with the subject. “[I]t’s as if divorce has seeped into the structure of these ‘stories,’” Winters writes, “buried deep in their syntax, motivating the phrasing that estranges the opening of any errant sentence from its end” so that “words are put to work on pulling something apart.” In his response to Richard Poirier, too, Green writes that as a graduate student he wrote his dissertation on “the self-reflexivity of metafiction,” the ways in which metafiction “direct[s] the reader’s attention to the artifice of language” and “ask[s] the reader not to regard language as the transparent medium for the invocation of a created ‘world’ at all but as fiction’s primary source of interest.” Since an appreciation of literary self-reflexivity involves an awareness of the extent to which a work is about itself and its own devices, a detailed examination of metafiction must involve looking at what a work is “about” as much as looking at “how it is about it.” This is, then, a variation on the critical consideration of the choice of subject in literature, and I wish there was more of it to be found in Beyond the Blurb. It’s not missing from the book, but it deserves closer inspection – particularly since it affords Green an opportunity to chip away at the binary opposition between “subject” and “form,” and to tease out the threads by which “subject” is not so much bound to “form” itself as it is bound to the other constituent elements of “form” that receive the critic’s scrutiny.

Yet if this downplaying of choice of subject is, as I said, a blind spot in Beyond the Blurb, then for that reason it’s also a proof of the intensity that is the book’s signature virtue. What is a blind spot, after all, but the space that opens on the margins of vision when one devotes attention to some other object of concentration? Beyond the Blurb is an intense little book. It’s unique for its kind in the sense that it uses a series of discrete examples of literary criticism in order to articulate a singular vision of the value of the practice. It’s a focal point for critical energies expended over many years, fusing intermittent sparks of writing into a brief but powerful surge. I’ll concede that it was never going to persuade me of its worth because I didn’t need persuasion. I’ve long been onboard with most of Green’s positions on the issues that matter to him. Nevertheless, I anticipated something much more diffuse than what appears in Beyond the Blurb – I anticipated a harvest of blog posts bound between two covers – so it’s a thrill to see that the result is a sharp, serious, and sustained appraisal of the appreciation and evaluation of literature in today’s world.

Knausgaard’s Reinvigorated Realism

Once again the publication of a new volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle has been met with a flurry of extremely well-considered responses, but none so incisive as Anthony Macris’ long essay in the Sydney Review of Books. Although it’s ostensibly a review of Some Rain Must Fall, it’s actually goes much further in order to extrapolate from commonplace remarks on Knausgaard’s style in order to articulate precisely the governing aesthetic of the entire My Struggle series:

Much has already been written about Knausgaard’s literary style: the plainness of his language, the massing of detail, the ostensible tendency to over-narration. Critics seems divided as to whether his writing is long-winded and sloppy, his talent failing his ambition, or whether it’s fit for purpose, admirably serving the drama without overly drawing attention to itself. At any rate, there’s more than enough praise to counter the negative view, with writers like Zadie Smith and Jeffrey Eugenides lining up to support his work enthusiastically. Whatever your view I would argue that, no matter what camp you fall into, it’s hard to deny that with My Struggle Knausgaard has pulled off something extraordinary, that he has to some degree, if not reinvented realism, then refreshed it for a contemporary literary readership that is perhaps growing tired of tightly scripted novels that resemble movie scripts, or maximalist fictions that rely on outlandish hyperbole. In turning his back on the trappings of standard conceptions of literariness — for example, the kind of high-blown lyricism and overweening self-romanticism that sank Harold Brodkey’s much vaunted autobiographical novel, The Runaway Soul — Knausgaard has effectively employed a cruder mimesis, one that refuses to engage with the kind of trompe l’oeil effects that can in their own way achieve verisimilitude.

Instead, his style is based in part on what I word term a naïve epistemology, one that harkens back to the Cratylic tradition of the word, a belief that there’s a natural correspondence between words and things, and that by naming things we can create worlds. Metaphor, simile and other poetic devices are virtually non-existent in the My Struggle novels. While comparisons to Proust abound in discussions of Knausgaard (a comparison he invites), his style couldn’t be more different to Proust’s filigree, hypotactical sentences whose sinuous lines, in the great tradition of modernist subjectivity, mimic the train of thought. Knausgaard, like Proust, may draw upon the great internal sweep of remembrance to generate his novel, but his conveyance of choice is made up largely of concrete images, dialogue and simple declarative sentences. Often, in paratactical mode, these sentences are strung together with commas, breaking every rule of ‘good’ grammar. It’s tempting to think this style is a new kind of rendering of consciousness, but I would argue differently. Consciousness in Knausgaard is a kind of extreme ossification of realism, a near empirical entity, gleaned principally from observation of the external world and thoughts narrated as statements of fact, which is easy enough to claim in first person, where the narration of thoughts and emotional states correlate with the authenticity of the narrating subject. Consciousness as a mediating factor, a substance that distorts reality and that must be shown to do so, isn’t evoked. Language is at the service of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sensibility, and it’s a sensibility that isn’t afraid to dwell on lived experience at length, a Stendahlian mirror that reflects not in a series of tableaux, but that is as vast as the universe it captures, and is somehow co-extensive with it.

This is a somewhat technical way of saying that Knausgaard’s realism is not the kind of realism we are accustomed to. In fact, while working in a realist paradigm, Knausgaard, in his desire to write rapidly and in volume (the near 700 pages of Some Rain Must Fall took, he claims, a mere eight weeks to write), has challenged the limits of contemporary realism. All the standard tropes of realism are there: concrete events plotted in chronological time (there is some achrony, but within the acceptable limits of realism); a hero narrator whose consciousness is the spoke of the wheel; carefully selected conflicts that drive the story forward; internal struggles with self, external battles with people and institutions. But the edicts of contemporary realism that Knausgaard chooses to flout are those of tightness and brevity, and of relegating description and ‘undramatic’ events to the background in order to foreground the ‘real meat’ of the narrative: heightened events, turning points, moments of conflict. There is instead a merging of foreground and background in order to create more vivid textures of lived experience.

Proof positive, as if any more were needed, of the extraordinary value of the Sydney Review, and a real enrichment of the experience of reading Knausgaard.

The Next Word, and the Next

Continued from the previous post.

Perhaps the strangest element of John Mullan’s essay on the pleasures of plot is the way in which Mullan identifies as ‘plot’ all those aspects of literature from which he derives pleasure, even when the pleasure demonstrably does not come from the sophistication of the plotting. He finds, for example, a “pleasing moment in the very first instalment of Bleak House when Dickens uses a parenthesis to hint at his buried design.” Dickens introduces “Lady Dedlock (who is childless), looking out in the early twilight from her boudoir,” and, as Mullan writes, the words in parentheses “turn out to be untrue” so that “[w]hat is treated as though it hardly matters is in fact a clue.” That’s a fair enough assessment of the significance of Dickens’ aside, but while Dickens’ sleight-of-hand with regard to Lady Dedlock’s parental status might well be an issue of plot, the effects of his use of parenthetical remarks are arguably an issue of style. And since these sorts of remarks don’t fall within the aesthetic capabilities of artforms other than literature, the real source of Mullan’s pleasure here lies in Dickens’ use of an aesthetic resource that is particular to the artform in which he is working.

All of this is to say that the pleasures of literature owe much more, I think, to things like style and structure than to secrets concealed, motives revealed, sudden betrayals, uneasy alliances, moral epiphanies, and other twists and turns of plotting. Funnily enough, Mullan would seem to agree with that, even though he still credits plot for the resultant pleasures. “Plot is not just a sequence of connected events,” he writes, echoing E.M. Forster’s distinction between a story as a sequence of events and a plot as a sequence of events that obtain meaning by way of their causal connections. “Plot,” he insists,

is… the unfolding of a hidden design. Plot involves the laying of clues, the implicit promise to the reader or viewer that the true significance of what we read or see is not self-evident, but will eventually be revealed. A good plot exploits not just suspense, but also a kind of retrospective curiosity. When we know that a story has a plot we find ourselves asking not so much, ‘What will happen next?’ as, ‘What has already happened?’ The hidden design has, we trust, been contrived by an author, so when we enjoy a plot we are enjoying being manipulated by him or her.

No disagreement from me. How could that not be the case? A work of literature is essentially a bundle of information. In places, the information it contains is quite simple. It might be, for example, information about a particular event: where it took place, who was involved in it, what caused it to happen, and what its consequences were. In other places, the information can become much more complex. It might involve exploring how somebody responded to something that happened to them, how the emotional aspects of their response conflicted with its psychological aspects, and how their response as a whole evolved and changed over time. It might involve information about things of a scale far larger than that of an individual life or a single moment in time, or it might involve information about a multitude of things that interact and intersect in countless ways that are significant but not necessarily causal in nature. Whatever the case, the totality of the information is there inside the work of literature, contained within its pages, and the work serves to transmit the information to the reader one piece at a time, one word at a time.

But I could say pretty much the same thing of my MacBook Pro setup guide, couldn’t I? What exactly is it, then, that might distinguish a work of literature from the corporate publications of Apple? What is it that makes one of them capable of giving pleasure and the other one virtually incapable of it? Does it really just boil down to a difference in the interest level and the emotional depths of the information that is disclosed in words? Or is it a difference in the means by which, the ends towards which, and the effects with which each written work approaches the task of disclosure in words? If, say, Bleak House were to be rewritten from top to tail, to have every sentence reworded, without altering a single plot point or changing any of its narrative information, would John Mullan derive precisely as much pleasure from it as he does at present? Or is it rather the case that Dickens has chosen to transmit the information to his readers through a selection of stylistic and structural devices that work in concert with the information itself in order to produce the unique pleasures of Bleak House?

Words possess properties beyond those of direct and literal reference for the purpose of disclosing information. They possess prosodic qualities, tonal qualities, connotative meanings, and multiple meanings any one of which may be suppressed or called forth by the surrounding words and by the place of a particular word within a broader context. Stylisation involves, among other things, the purposeful exploitation of these and similar properties of words. Since these properties are precisely the sorts of things that the writers of MacBook Pro setup guides don’t exploit — not least because they’ll leave the readers of those guides confused and irritated — it’s fair to say that the particularities of style are part of what make a written work identifiably literary.

Information, too, is unstable. A work of literature may be essentially a bundle of information, but as readers we can’t and don’t receive the information in a bundle. As above, the work transmits information to its readers one piece at a time, although to phrase the situation in that way is to combine and simplify three important points that warrant a little elaboration. First: that, without exception, every work of literature has been structured so as to keep some information concealed while allowing some to be disclosed. That’s just the nature of the beast. Second: that every work of literature adds to the totality of its disclosures and subtracts from its concealments as the pages turn. Obviously, though, there’s no guarantee that cumulative disclosures entail a clearer or more coherent understanding of the information as a whole. Third: that the process of writing a work of literature involves deciding, on a word-by-word basis, which information to keep concealed, and why, and which information to disclose, and how. In other words, it involves decisions about the perspective from which to make disclosures and the order in which to make them, as well as assessing the effects of every possible variation in the sequence of the disclosures. Structure is a reflection of the sum of those decisions. If you’re writing a MacBook Pro setup guide, you probably want to structure your disclosures in the way that most clearly spells out, in order, the key steps in setting up a MacBook Pro. If you’re writing literature, however, you have an effectively unlimited range of possible effects to produce in your readers, and an unlimited range of possible ways in which to structure your disclosures, and each possible structure will of course produce its own unique effects. Structural particularities therefore make a written work identifiably literary just as much as do particularities of style.

“When we know that a story has a plot,” writes John Mullan, “we find ourselves asking not so much, ‘What will happen next?’ as, ‘What has already happened?’.” I think that’s fundamentally right, but it’s also much too restrictive. Actually, I think it’s more that we ask some version of those two questions in combination: “What has already happened, in the sense that the information is predetermined? And which piece of it will I receive next, and in what words, and how will all of that resonate or clash with what I have received so far?” And when readers begin receiving answers to those questions from a work of literature, whether or not the answers relate to a plot is entirely incidental to their potential for producing pleasure. They might produce pleasure as successfully, and they often produce it better, if they exercise a range of literature’s other, less cinematic aesthetic resources. That way, the disclosure of ‘what happens next’ involves not just using words to record events involving characters, but using the purposeful selection of words as an ongoing event that involves the reader in a particularly literary experience.

Plotted Pleasures

This weekend’s Guardian Review features an essay by John Mullan on the pleasures of a good plot. “How we love plots,” he begins, “and how we look down our noses at them. … [P]lot lovers who are also novel readers might think that [the excitements of a plot] are guilty pleasures.” Mullan encourages his readers not to feel guilty about enjoying novels that place a premium on plotting, and instead to see the orchestration of “a good plot” as “one of the highest arts.”

On one level, at least, this reader needed little persuading. I’m one of the umpteen million people who binge-watched The Wire and Breaking Bad, and like so many others I remain addicted to House of Cards and Game of Thrones. With religious fervour I also bow down at the altar of Marvel Studios, heading to the cinema on opening day to pay the extortionate price of admission to every new superhero brawl, and I don’t feel the slightest pang of guilt about admitting any of this. On another level, though, I found it hard to follow Mullan very far into his argument. Halfway down the first column, he swerves off in an absurd direction. In pursuit of a tussle with critics who fail to see the brilliance of contemporary novels that invest heavily in plot — novels by the likes of John le Carre, Michael Frayn, Sarah Waters, and Ian McEwan — Mullan points out that those novels share a kinship with other, more celebrated works that are neither contemporary nor novels at all. Let’s slow down right there. The particularities of both historical context and use of artform are not incidental to the ways in which we might appreciate the contemporary novel, with or without a plot. It’s worth taking a little time to think about the way they shape what we think we want from a novel, and how we respond to what we actually get.

Here’s exactly what Mullan writes in that opening column:

No longer satisfied with the mere whodunnit, the prime-time [television] audience can satisfy its plot hunger with the elaborate conspiracy narrative of the BBC’s Line of Duty or the psychological indeterminacy of ITV’s Marcella. … TV drama, especially the one-off mini-series, is where we can go for the special pleasures of plot. …

In the Victorian age, novelists such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins treated the compulsive powers of plotting as fiction’s strongest resource. The most literary novelists respected the engrossing powers of plot: even George Eliot’s Middlemarch has at its heart a secret tale of seduction, larceny and hidden identity waiting to be discovered.

How to diplomatically recap the logic underpinning all this? Novelists working in the nineteenth century ago expended great energies on the intricacies of their plots. Popular television series continue to do so today. Contemporary novelists who neglect plot are therefore betraying both the innate desires of their readers and, worse, their artistic heritage. If I managed to get the gist of it right, colour me unconvinced.

Here’s a question to be answered in all seriousness. Why would someone who cherishes reading novels not read a novel for the plot? Far from being ignorant about how the typical novel was read in the nineteenth century, I do it precisely because of what happened to the novel and its capacity for plot in the two hundred years between then and now. Circa the 1850s, literature began to encounter rival artforms. Photography came first, then cinema, broadcast radio, comic books, and television. Each of these artforms brought with it a set of aesthetic capabilities that overlapped with those of the nineteenth century novel. Among the most notable of these capabilities were the representation of the real world and the narrative sequencing of events. Yet each of these artforms also brought with it new aesthetic resources which allowed it, in its own particular way, to realise those same representational and narratorial capabilities much more fully than literature could.

What aesthetic resources were those? I’m thinking especially things like photorealistic mimesis, by which photography was the first to diminish the success of literary attempts at verisimilitude, as well as scene cuts and shot-to-shot cuts, by which cinema and television have diminished literary efforts at managing narrative causality, tempo, and overall pace. I’m also thinking of the simultaneous transmission of verbal and visual narrative information. That’s an aesthetic resource by which cinema, comic books, and television have created complex new narrative structures that aren’t possible in works of literature with their commitment the singular focus of the written word. It’s also one of the aesthetic resources that Mullan praises for its effect on plot, without pointing out that literature can’t replicate it. Writing of Bryan Singer’s film The Usual Suspects, Mullan points out that its “surprising success stemmed from its devotion to plot and its willingness to deceive the audience quite as comprehensively as its villain was deceiving the detectives. Certainly the means by which it did this was postmodern: the film broke with old cinematic conventions by showing on the screen events that had not happened. What the trickster narrated (though untrue) was turned into images on our screen.” I wouldn’t dream of denying the validity of the observation, but Mullan argues in bad faith when he calls for contemporary novelists to play these sorts of game with plot. As well demand that airplanes be built to sail the seas and paraplegics take the stairs.

To put all this another way, new and emergent artforms have, over the last two hundred years, encroached upon and constrained the supremacy of literature as a vehicle for an immersive plot. You’d be crazy to say that literature can’t do plot at all, but literature in this day and age simply isn’t the best available artform for making plot convincing and compelling. That’s why I find I’m not able to read a novel for its plot without wondering, every step of the way, why the author didn’t decide to let the plot unfold someplace other than on the page. I can’t read a novel for its plot when I know I could see the same plot executed more realistically and at a better pace on television or in the cinema. To use literature as a vehicle for plot is to not make use of the aesthetic resources that are particular to the artform, and a novel that results from this use therefore fails to answer the fundamental question of why it might be something worth reading.

Continued in the following post.

The Effects of The End of the Tour

I haven’t yet had a chance to see The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt’s film adaptation of David Lipsky’s book-length interview with David Foster Wallace, but I’ve found a lot to like about the responses it has drawn from critics so far — or, rather, the breadth and variety of those responses. At one end of the spectrum, you’ve got Tom LeClair lamenting that even though The End of the Tour “offers itself as a respectful homage to and elegy for David Foster Wallace,” “exploitation mars the film from its origin through its casting to the final product.” The result, writes LeClair, is “a movie that Wallace’s widow and his editors said Wallace would have hated” and, worse, “the kind of commercial entertainment that Wallace’s best work critiqued.” But then you’ve got Christopher Schaberg taking a more generous view of things — “the movie is perfectly okay!” — and pointing out that, far from downplaying or bypassing its treatment of Wallace’s major critical concerns, The End of the Tour gives consideration to most of them. “Nothing in the movie breaks from the overt themes of Wallace’s actual writings,” Schaberg insists, “unless you want to go meta and insist that the movie itself is everything Wallace would have hated — but then, the joke is on us, too.”

But by far the best assessment of the film comes from James Ley in the Sydney Review of Books. Paying careful attention to the technicalities of how The End of the Tour portrays Wallace scene by scene, rather than simply in sum or on the whole, Ley finds that “the film both relies on and participates in the construction of Wallace as a cultural symbol. It is very much about him as an object of fascination rather than as an artist” and, more than that, it works hard to make its viewers aware that they, too, “are no less complicit in [its] process of objectification.” “The End of the Tour is a film that is aware of the delicacy of its task,” Ley writes:

It does not presume to know its subject beyond his outward manifestations. Wallace lives alone in a small house on the edge of a large snowy field and speaks to Lipsky of loneliness, but we never see him alone. The film preserves the basic interviewer-interviewee structure of [Lipsky’s] book, such that our sense of Wallace is always framed by Lipsky’s observation of him. …

This interest in the tension between the man and his public persona — the way that the film implies Wallace’s success has made his isolation more acute — is the most obvious way in which its themes resonate with his writing. The tendency for a media-saturated, visual culture to engender a self-consciousness that sharpens the conflict between the part of us that is seen and the infinitely more complicated part of us that remains hidden is one of Wallace’s defining themes. The difference is that The End of the Tour is itself a part of that visual culture.

“This is an irony of which the film is aware,” Ley contends, “and which it negotiates with understated intelligence” by appropriating and reconceiving Wallace’s own techniques for “satiris[ing] the terminal involutions of self-referential postmodern art,” “turning [them] around in order to reinforce our sense of Wallace’s objectification.” What I find particularly striking about these words — aside from how respectfully they treat a film that a good number of Wallace devotees have shown no hesitation in trashing — is how in tune they seem with Wallace’s own writings on films and filmmaking. They do him the sort of posthumous honour that the filmmakers were likely aiming for, capturing very acutely the analytical spirit in which Wallace himself approached the artifice of the cinema and picked apart its effects on its audience.

All Over the Place

Gary Saul Morson has an essay in Commentary entitled ‘Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature.’ It’s a real piece of work. He begins by taking a few pot-shots at Martha Nussbaum’s familiar concerns about declining enrolment in literature courses at colleges and universities, then he identifies himself as the teacher of “the largest class at Northwestern University, with an enrollment of about 500 students. The course is about Russian literature.” He continues:

I speak with students by the dozens, and none has ever told me that he or she does not take more literature courses because every moment at school must be devoted to maximizing future income. On the contrary, students respond by describing some literature course they took that left them thinking they had nothing to gain from repeating the experience. … What can students learn from literature that they cannot learn elsewhere? Why should they bother with it? … For understandable reasons, literature professors assume the importance of their subject matter. But students are right to ask these questions. … To teach anything well, you have to place yourself in the position of the learner who does not already know the basics and has to be persuaded that the subject is worth studying. You have to subtract knowledge and assumptions you have long since forgotten having learned. And one of those assumptions is that literature is worth the effort of reading it.

That sort of stuff is music to my ears. I teach literature partly because I love exactly that aspect of the job: challenging myself to approach the familiar from an outsider’s perspective, dismantling my own assumptions about literature at the beginning of the academic year, and finding new and creative ways of introducing students to the discipline without ever taking for granted their interest in it. But then Morson drops this paragraph:

More sophisticated students usually have in mind some version of what might be called the Wikipedia test. If a book has a point, and the point can be briefly summarized, why not just read the summary? If a teacher cannot give a coherent reason why such a shortcut simply won’t do, then why should the student assume anything important is left out?

Good questions, no doubt, to which I’d answer that the “point” of a book is the word-by-word experience of the particular effects it generates in the act of reading it, not some post hoc claim or statement to be extracted from having read it. This means, for teachers of literature, the focus of a literature class has to be the aesthetic capabilities and resources of literature as an artform, with any analysis of things like narrative momentum and character development and thematic concerns taking place in an aesthetic context. But then, a few paragraphs later, Morson rails against taking an aesthetic approach to the study of literature:

Time and again, students tell me of three common ways in which most high school and college classes kill their interest in novels.

The most common approach might be called technical. The teacher dedicates himself to the book as a piece of craft. Who is the protagonist, and who is the antagonist? Is there foreshadowing? Above all, this approach directs students to look for symbols. … At a more granular level, this approach involves teaching a dense thicket of theory focused on “the text.” But literary works are not texts; that is, they are not just words on a page linked by abstruse techniques. Does anybody really believe that Dickens set out to create a sort of puzzle one needed an advanced humanities degree to make sense of? And that he wanted the experience of reading his works to resemble solving a crossword puzzle?

As someone who actively discourages his students from leaning on the rickety old crutch of symbolism when undertaking literary analysis, it’s mystifying to me to see that my preferred approach to the study of literature involves hunting out symbolism “[a]bove all.” Putting that aside, however, I have to say that I really don’t understand what a teacher of literature is actually teaching if he or she isn’t teaching students how to pay attention to the words on the page. I don’t believe that Dickens set out to create some sort of unsolvable puzzle, or that he wanted the experience of reading his works to resemble solving one. But an appreciation and understanding of that experience is quite distinct from the experience itself, involving as it does a reflective intellectualisation of an affective encounter with a text, and one cannot thoroughly appreciate or understand how the experience has come into being without paying close attention to the words from which it arises. At the end of the day, the words on the page are all we really have.

Morson’s general point is that “the real literary work” has less to do with authorial technique than with “the reader’s experience,” and this means that “the first thing a teacher needs to do is help students have the experience the author is trying to create. There is no point in analyzing the techniques for creating an experience the students have not had.” He ends his essay, bizarrely, by basically adopting Martha Nussbaum’s view of the importance of literature as a cultural force that expands one’s capacity for empathy, and his conclusion is just flat-out embarrassing:

[G]reat literature allows one to think and feel from within how other cultures think and feel. The greater the premium on understanding other cultures in their own terms, the more the study of literature matters.

Because literature is about diverse points of view, I teach by impersonation. I never tell students what I think about the issues the book raises, but what the author thinks. If I comment on some recent event or issue, students will be hearing what Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, not I, would say about it. One can also impersonate the novel’s characters. What would Ivan Karamazov say about our moral arguments? How could we profit from the wisdom Dorothea Brooke acquires? Can one translate their wisdom into a real dialogue about moral questions that concern us — or about moral questions that we were unaware are important but in light of what we have learned turn out to be so? Authors and characters offer a diversity of voices and points of view on the world from which we can benefit.

Such impersonation demands absorbing the author’s perspective so thoroughly that one can think from within it, and then “draw dotted lines” from her concerns to ours. Students hear the author’s voice and sense the rhythms of her thought, and then, when they go back to the book, read it from that perspective. Instead of just seeing words, they hear a voice.

I don’t think you have to be a teacher of literature, or even an experienced reader of literature, to see that this is crazy talk. I’d defy Morson to put Dostoevsky and Tolstoy aside for a term and try using those techniques to teach something like Gravity’s Rainbow or Lolita. Those are just two novels, among many, that are clearly artistically ambitious and yet make a problem of the very possibility of empathy. I doubt that Morson’s students would get anything of much value out of their attempts to use empathy alone to fully experience those sorts of novels, but experience tells me that students who receive guidance in approaching them aesthetically develop a real love for the extraordinary capabilities of the written word that is, after all, their lifeblood.

On Backwardness

When Matthew Olshan’s Marshlands was published last year, it met with a bewildering and dismaying response from reviewers. Set in an unnamed but vaguely Middle Eastern country, the novel follows a foreign doctor’s attempts to live with the pseudo-tribal inhabitants of the desert marshes — a people modelled on, but not faithfully representing, the marsh Arabs of Iraq. The lands of these “marshmen” have been occupied by a foreign power within the region and, in response to the occupation, a more distant foreign power offers military and logistical support to the insurgency of the marshmen. The marshmen are thus proxy soldiers in a war between two much larger nation states, and when that war results in the defeat of the original occupying forces, the marshmen launch an insurgency against the second-run occupiers who were once their allies.

In summary form, it’s true, Marshlands might appear to be the sort of novel that seeks to engage with current affairs or, more broadly, with the political upheavals that have plagued the Middle East over the last few decades. In fact, though, Marshlands possesses a number of unconventional qualities which altogether bend the novel towards fabulism at the expense of realism. Among these are the total absence of a specific and recognisable narrative setting, a determination to abstract rather than particularise the conflict and its participants, a detailed but necessarily speculative anthropological commentary on a fictional people, and a light dose of self-referentiality. The novel’s clearest antecedent is arguably J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which employs the aesthetic strategies mentioned above, but it also seems to owe something to Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, whose narrator reads significance into the everyday actions of the foreigners he calls “plainsmen” in much the same way that Olshan’s protagonist can watch a marshman simply shrug his shoulders and remark that a shrug by a marshman is “a gesture with infinite subtle inflections.” In any event, although it offers implicit commentary on the follies of imperialism in a general sense, Marshlands is not a novel determined to say something perceptive or insightful about the conditions of the contemporary world.

What’s interesting about the response to Marshlands is the attention given to one of its least interesting features. After the novel sets up its story, according to the blurb on the back, “Marshlands reveals one of its many surprises: it is written in reverse. The novel leaps backward once, twice… unraveling time to reveal the doctor’s ambiguous relationship to the austerely beautiful land and its people.” But don’t think it’s something along the lines of Time’s Arrow, in which time proceeds backwards action by action, sentence by sentence. The story is simply broken into three sections, each of which depicts events that take place after the section that follows. That’s not exactly radical experimentalism, and yet that’s the feature of Marshlands to have attracted the most attention from its reviewers. “[F]or all its shocking revelations,” according to the New York Times, “the story lacks propulsion, its backward narration and withholding of information distracting us from the action and motivation.” “Mr. Olshan’s control over his story-in-reverse is impressive,” the Wall Street Journal protested, but perhaps at the cost of “adept[ness] in his uses of the past.” And even when the novel’s reverse chronology escaped criticism for its supposed shortcomings, there was a tendency to downplay its effects and undersell its success. “Fiction that moves backwards in time,” wrote Benjamin Rybeck at Three Guys One Book, “often milks the structure for irony [and] Marshlands is no exception. The reader moves into the protagonist’s past, holding knowledge of what will become of him, while he blunders onward, oblivious to the future.” That’s true, but is that all there is to it?

Irony is, without doubt, one effect of the reverse chronology of Marshlands. The doctor visiting the marshlands is a citizen of the foreign power that at first supported the insurgency of the marshmen, and he lives among the marshmen with pretensions of being apolitical but without realising that he cannot be. Whereas he sees himself as an agent of strictly humanitarian interests, over time he fails to see that his interests conflict with those of both his native country and the people of the marshlands. Although he wants nothing more than to practise his profession, to offer medical aid to the marshmen, the marshmen come to resent the ways in which his techniques and his disposition do not accommodate their cultural customs and the government of his native country comes to see him as guilty of treason. Finally, for the assistance he provides to enemies of the state, he is apprehended by representatives of his government and imprisoned for some twenty-one years. His release, however, is the event with which Marshlands opens before it takes the double plunge into the doctor’s past. Thus, as Matthew Olshan himself has written, “the reader’s sense of [the doctor] as a victim… slowly give[s] way to an awareness of his complicity in the crimes against his beloved marshmen.” That’s irony at work. Yet there’s no reason to think that this is the sole effect of the reverse chronology, nor even that it obstructs the “propulsion” of the narrative. While Olshan admits that the chronology drains Marshlands of dramatic suspense, the novel doesn’t entirely lack suspense so much as it finds suspense in exposition rather than drama. The question that draws the reader into Marshlands is not “what happens next?” but “why is what is happening, happening?” and what follows the inciting incident — the doctor’s release from prison — is simply a search for causes instead of a series of consequences.

The same could easily be said of any number of other works of literature. Half of the Sherlock Holmes stories operate on the same grounds, albeit without so starkly foregrounding the regression of narrative causality. For reviewers of Marshlands, though, it proved to be a little too much to take, too great a departure from narrative convention — which is a shame when the novel’s greater virtues lie in a series of other unconventional moves that remain overlooked.