Linguistic Locations in Orbit

Maxwell Donnewald’s ‘The Indescribably Real’ has been on my mind for a few days now, ever since it went online at Full Stop. Essentially a lengthy review of Atticus Lish’s debut novel, Preparations for the Next Life, it pits Lish against Karl Ove Knausgaard and mounts a defense of Lish’s more conventionally realist aesthetics against certain admirers of Knausgaard who have celebrated My Struggle as an antidote to Lish’s brand of “fiction fiction, organized around characters who don’t actually exist.” What’s interesting about Donnewald’s essay, however, has less to do with the conclusions he reaches than with the path he follows in order to reach them. Donnewald basically takes William H. Gass’ stridently anti-realist, anti-humanist definition of “character” and then reads it into Preparations for the Next Life in a way that allows him to use Lish’s characters as ciphers for a narrative structure that he finds aesthetically rewarding. “A character for me,” Gass once said in conversation with John Gardner,

is any linguistic location in a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier. Just as the subject of a sentence, say, is modified by the predicate, so frequently some character, Emma Bovary for instance, is regarded as a central character in the book because a lot of the language basically and ultimately goes back to modify, be about, Emma Bovary. Now the ideal book would have only one character; it would be like an absolute, idealist system. What we do have are subordinate locales of linguistic energy — other characters — which the words in a book flow toward and come out of.

Donnewald’s praise for Preparations hinges on Lish’s use of these “subordinate locales of linguistic energy” as modifiers for the “linguistic location[s]” otherwise known as his main characters. In order to describe and define Lish’s approach, Donnewald turns to the language of astronomy to appropriate the notion of the “barycenter”:

Representations of the solar system often depict a planet’s moons as though they twirl around their host like a ball around the center of a roulette wheel, conquered by the larger’s mass. The planet itself appears fixed in its steady arc, and all the smaller stuff just buzzes around. But this is a fiction. Hubble observations of Pluto in 2006, which led to its reclassification as a dwarf-planet, showed it wobbling with its moons around an empty space, the center of mass of a system of celestial objects in which it simply happens to be the largest. Despite its relative size, the gravitational center of Pluto’s trajectory is dislodged by its satellites outside its body. In truth, any object hosting the orbit of another is engaged in a dance like this, even in cases where the difference in mass is quite large. The earth too, entangled with the gravity of its moon, rotates around a barycenter, as it’s called in astronomy, a few thousand miles off-center. It’s just that, from here on land, it doesn’t look that way. In contrast to the epic formula of Knausgaard, where motives are exhaustively laid bare, such that characters surrounding the author are either entirely present or altogether absent in their influence, there is an oppositional manner of composing realities, in which even if a character is missing from a certain scene, as Auerbach notes, “the influence of his will and his feelings continues to operate.” In such a world, the trajectory of any one character, however prominent, never escapes being warped by the gravity of another. Even if, as in Preparation for the Next Life, these background figures are no longer alive. Just as marginalization cannot reduce them to zeroes, neither do destruction and disappearance — [Brandon] Skinner’s friend Sconyers, mortally injured in the same blast which leaves Skinner permanently disfigured, and Zou Lei’s father, whose life is mysteriously sacrificed in “a war to modernize” for the Chinese military, haunt the story constantly. And likewise, with this remainder of narrative mass looming in the background, no one ever quite manages to take charge of events. The weightless occasionally flicker into form, and so too are the main actors subject to sudden disappearance. Nothing can be traced independently, disentangled from its distorting factors. A continuous self, around which all events are organized, is impossible in this reality.

I’m not sure that this alone invests Preparations for the Next Life with as much aesthetic value as extraordinary as its admirers say it possesses, but it at least allows Donnewald to read the novel in a way that departs provocatively from those who have hailed Lish’s mastery of realism as sufficient grounds on which to celebrate his work.

How Works Works

Like many readers of Édouard Levé, I first came to his books when Dalkey Archive published English translations of Autoportrait (2002) and Suicide (2008) several years ago. But while Suicide was arguably the title that received the most attention from critics — in no small part because Levé actually committed suicide ten days after delivering the manuscript to his publisher — I was more taken with Autoportrait for reasons best articulated by Mark O’Connell at Slate:

To describe that book in basic terms is to risk making it sound outright unreadable. It’s a single paragraph, 112 pages long, consisting of a continuous sequence of short declarative sentences, each of which states some or other fact about its author, a relentlessly present “I”. … It’s grueling and madly propulsive at the same time; you kind of want him to stop just saying things about himself, but you also can’t stop reading these things that he just keeps saying. “My uncle’s friend taught me to laugh at things I saw on TV that were not, on the face of it, funny, for example Bobby Ewing’s hairstyle on Dallas,” he writes. “I have not signed a manifesto. If I turn around while looking in the mirror, there comes a moment when I no longer see myself. Raymond Poulidor is one of the least sexy names I know. I like salad mainly for the crunch and the vinaigrette.” It goes on like this, in this arbitrarily funny and boring and horrifying way. The more it goes on, the more facts he asserts about himself, the more the referent — the autobiographical subject, Levé himself — is displaced, defined into obscurity.

“I was as transfixed by the book’s self-possessed commitment to its formal conceit as I was by its blank and pitiless gaze on the reality of pain… [its] strange combination of formal distance and emotional immediacy,” O’Connell writes of Autoportrait — although he writes those words in his review of Levé’s latest posthumous publication, Works, in order to identify the governing aesthetic of Levé’s entire oeuvre. “[T]his is the signature of Levé’s pulverized non-narratives,” he says, “this unflappable insistence on going on like this. He’s never afraid, in other words, of being boring in the service of some larger way of being interesting.”

I agree with that, and I also broadly agree with O’Connell’s assessment of Works. “Works is one of the most nakedly formalistic pieces of writing I’ve ever come across,” he writes:

The book as a whole is usefully encapsulated in its opening sentence, which is the first of 533 descriptions of ideas for artistic projects: “1. A book describes works that the author has conceived but not brought into being.” This is precisely what the book is, except for the obvious distinction that this particular oddball project has been brought into being, as evidenced by the fact that you are now reading it, or are at any rate about to try to read it. For the most part, it’s a catalogue of unrealized creativity, which in the very extensiveness of its cataloging becomes a monstrous paradox of realized creativity. … For a work of such rigorous formal experimentalism, Works can be surprisingly funny. I found myself laughing out loud, here and there, at Levé’s poker-faced batshittery. … It is, let me reiterate, a book consisting solely of descriptions of imaginary works of conceptual art. As with all of Levé’s work, his insistence on continuing doing the one specific thing he’s doing is an ongoing source of weird perplexity for the reader, a weird perplexity that is a key aspect of the experience of reading him.

What I find most captivating about Works, however, are those moments when Levé ruptures his own relentless accumulation of descriptions of conceptual works in alternative artforms and instead casts his readers directly into the abyss of literature. Every so often, Levé punctuates his catalogue of descriptions with a description of an artwork that possesses certain qualities which could not possibly be perceptible to anyone who might actually behold it, so that the work in question is ultimately and irreducibly literary in nature as the qualities by which it is defined and constituted are inextricably bound to the page. Consider, for example, artwork number eighty-six, which is described in its entirety as follows: “A painting is painted with the artist whispering, ‘Bye-bye, bye-bye, bye-bye…'” The painting is the artwork, but the quality that defines and constitutes it as this painting and no other is a quality that cannot ever be observed by anyone other than Levé’s narratorial consciousness. The same is true of later artworks, such as number one hundred and twenty-four:

A pamphlet displays twenty-four photographs taken by an artist on a walk through the city, starting from his home. He chooses a metro stop at random. He takes the first exit. Once outside, he takes the second street on the left, the third on the right, again the second on the left, again the third on the right, and so on. If there are fewer than two or three streets, he takes the first possible turn. Every five minutes, he takes a photograph of what’s right in front of him. The walk lasts for two hours.

Since so much of the artistry of this artwork — so much of the artist’s exploitation of the particularities of his or her chosen artform — is invested in Levé’s description of the process of composition, and since so little of it is invested in the outcome of that process, the real value of the artwork resides not in the work itself but in Levé’s literary rendition of its coming into being. It is true that most of the artworks described in Works are not artworks of this sort. Most of them are works that could conceivably be brought forth in a way that does not compromise their artistic integrity. But every so often throughout Works, Levé describes something that is either imbued with aesthetic particularities or else productive of affective states that can exist only in a descriptive form, that are almost entirely constructions of language alone, and that therefore cannot escape or transcend the written word —

138. A wild animal is painted on a red background, in the middle of a round tableau, the radius of which is proportional to the distance at which the animal will choose to fight or take flight when approached by something dangerous.

264. An artist sells his works at the average price paid over the last year for works in the same medium by living artists of the same nationality.

297. A golden drill engraves a sausage.

312. The track of a giant slug — a fat and transparent viscous line — runs through an exhibition, thickening at those works before which the creature tarries.

341. Advertising photographs are reconstructed using expressionless models. The absence of slogans makes the message incomprehensible.

348. A political lobbying group aims to have zoo animals paid a monthly salary.

438. A surgeon creates invisible tattoos on the walls of internal organs.

— and it is with these sorts of descriptions that Levé invests the value of Works itself in its own literariness, in its exploitation of the aesthetic particularities of the artform of literature above any and all alternative forms.

Meaning Against the Meaningless

At this late stage, two years after the English translation of the first volume of My Struggle, there’s very little to add to discussions of Karl Ove Knausgaard. A Death in the Family, A Man in Love, and now Boyhood Island have spurred so much writing of such a high calibre – by novelists like Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner and by reviewers like James Wood, Rose McLaren, and especially James Ley, whose essay in the Sydney Review remains easily the best I have read – so that it is now virtually impossible to say anything new about the man and his work. There’s one observation, though, that has made frequent appearances in responses to My Struggle and that strikes me as a bit of a sideshow to the main attraction. It’s the observation that My Struggle is compulsively readable even though its often mundane subject matter should make the reading experience somewhat like wading through treacle, and that the source of the compulsion to read on and read on is therefore shrouded in mystery. I don’t think there’s anything mysterious about this. I think that the source of the compulsion to read is right there in Knausgaard’s first ten pages.

Recalling a boyhood encounter with his father in the mid-1970s, reflecting on it now as a man who has reached the age his father was then, Knausgaard meditates on “how great the difference was between our days.” His own days at that time, he writes,

were jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when every opportunity filled me to the brim, in a way which now is actually incomprehensible, [whereas] the meaning of [my father’s] days was not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms. ‘Family’ was one such term; ‘career’ another. Few or no unforeseen opportunities at all can have presented themselves in the course of his days.

Knausgaard’s conclusion is that his father’s life had become largely meaningless simply by virtue of his having lived so long. “Meaning requires content,” he writes, “content requires time, time requires resistance.” Knowledge, on the other hand, involves “bring[ing the world] within the scope of our senses” and “stabilis[ing] it with fixer,” and so this retreat from and stabilisation of worldly phenomena means that “knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning.” As an adult looking back on that day in his boyhood, then, Knausgaard comes to see his father not only as an adult authority but also as “a peer through whose life time is blowing and unremittingly sweeping large chunks of meaning along with it.”

“Knausgaard’s world,” as James Wood points out,

is one in which the adventure of the ordinary… is steadily retreating; in which things and objects and sensations are pacing toward meaninglessness. In such a world, the writer’s task is to rescue the adventure from this slow retreat: to bring meaning, color, and life back to the soccer boots and to the grass, and to cranes and trees and airports, and even to Gibson guitars and Roland amplifiers and Ajax.

And Knausgaard’s way of accomplishing this task entails, on one level, revisiting and reconstructing past events in extraordinary, exacting, and often excessive detail. Page after page of My Struggle accumulates detail in what Wood calls an “uncut abundance” and in the absence of “any clear hierarchy of interest.” Knausgaard “seems barely to adjudicate significance,” Ben Lerner agrees, and “appears to just write down everything he can recall (and he appears to recall everything).” For Wood, this amounts to an “artistic commitment to inexhaustibility… which manifests itself as a kind of tiring tirelessness. … He notices everything — too much, no doubt — but often lingers beautifully.”

Too much? Is there really too much detail in My Struggle? Or, rather, can there be too much? Wood contends that “[t]he plenitude of detail… clogs the first half of the book,” and Lerner similarly finds the book burdened by “too much lengthy digression and extremely – at times almost absurdly – detailed description,” but surely this outcome is what Knausgaard’s early remarks on the increasing meaninglessness of adult existence require of anything he might write beyond that point. As Danny Byrne recently wrote, “many critics have noted… with approval, condemnation, or bemusement… [that] My Struggle is characterized by its excessive attention to the banal details of Knausgaard’s phenomenal environment,” but “few have said much about why [this] is so central to Knausgaard’s project.” Wood and Lerner are among the many rather than the few, passing judgment on the effects of the details alone without contextualising them as the effects of Knausgaard’s disposition towards the living of his life, but Byrne explains their significance:

In his emphasis on everyday objects, Knausgaard is like a man in the dark fumbling around for physical reference points as he tries to find his way to the light switch. The flatness of his style is paradoxically infused with the very “uncontrollable longing” for the past that compels the undertaking, present in its very absence. Given the impossibility of reliable recollection, the listing of physical coordinates — kitchen utensils and clothing, the innumerable family meals whose constituent parts are so pedantically itemized — is a way of anchoring his writing in the real, minimizing the inevitable distortions and transfigurations of literary style.

If Knausgaard opens My Struggle by defining a meaningful life as one in which an habituation to the varieties of human experience has not yet occurred, then the recovery of meaning, from the perspective of one who has become habituated, invites a thorough revisitation and a maximally expansive and inclusive reconstruction of the conditions in which meaning once flourished. To some extent, then, it is impossible for My Struggle to ever be overburdened by detail, and in fact the totality of the detail it contains cannot be anything other than insufficient for Knausgaard’s purposes. He begins My Struggle by writing himself both a warrant and a demand to pack his pages full of as much detail as possible, so that even the most obscure, trivial, mundane, or boring detail obtains an epic dimension in order to service something much larger than itself — and much larger, too, than the verisimilitude that conventional literary realism achieves via the inclusion of idiosyncratic but highly selective details.

What makes My Struggle so compulsively readable, I think, is Knausgaard’s exploitation of the inherent tension between this sort of literary project and the nature of literature itself. They are entirely at odds. Every last detail in the book is a minor protest, and a futile one, against the impossibility of the very thing that Knausgaard suggests might be achieved by way of a surfeit of detail. No matter how expansive and inclusive may be the detailing of a meaningful past, the past simply cannot be retrieved and recreated and lost meaning cannot ever be restored – and least of all with building blocks as radically abstract, as divorced from concrete reality, as pages upon pages of written words. Moreover, as the details accumulate around nodes of narrativised experience – Knausgaard’s grappling with death, falling in love, and coping with the demands of parenthood – the narrative nodes break down the life as lived into manageable chunks, countervailing the very rebellion against abstraction that led to the obsessive attention to detail in the first place. Meaning thus becomes for Knausgaard exactly what it was for his father: “not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms.”

And then, of course, even as his struggle against meaninglessness leads him into concrete detail at the sentence level but abstraction at the narrative level, the work he produces is inevitably swept up in his steady drift towards meaninglessness in its most extreme form. “The moment life departs the body,” he writes, “it belongs to death,” and, in death, a human being becomes “[a]t one with lamps, suitcases, carpets, door handles, windows. Fields, marshes, streams, clouds, the sky.” The world he inhabits, as he sees it, has so little respect for human subjectivity that it makes the expression of subjective experience worth little more than mockery. Yet Knausgaard expresses, and expresses, and expresses – recalls, recreates, and revivifies his past – with words each one of which takes him a small step towards an ideal that remains unrealisable even though, because it is an ideal, he cannot do otherwise than attempt to realise it. My Struggle is one very long, very complex contradiction, a book in which not a single word is wasted even though the whole amounts to a waste of words, and it is this quality — this relentless, defiant, desperate onwardness into impossibility — that sets the pages turning almost by themselves.

End-of-Year Pleasures and One Disappointment

The recent flurry of ‘best of’ lists that appear without fail at this time of year has reminded me of many of the wonderful books I read in 2013 and alerted me to others I hope to turn to in 2014. Equally, though, it has made me aware of just how many of the best things I read this year appeared not in book form but in a handful of recent literary publications, most of them online, which have helped to prepare fertile ground for the flourishing of longform criticism with a focus on literary aesthetics.

Music and Literature is far and away the most valuable new publication to appear this year. It caught my attention with its third print issue, one half of which focused on Gerald Murnane and included a long letter by Murnane, an excerpt from his forthcoming novel A Thousand Windows, and a critical roundtable on his body of work. At present, the preparation of the journal’s fourth issue coincides with the creation of a space for online content which includes, most recently, provocative interviews with László Krasznahorkai and Steven Moore as well as a peek inside the Murnane archives. Given each issue’s tight focus on the aesthetics of the work of one writer and one composer, and the length and variety of the critical considerations of those aesthetics, Music and Literature is a must-read for anyone whose curiosity about the life and times of an artist is subordinate to an interest in the subtleties of their art.

Aside from Music and Literature, Douglas Glover’s Número Cinq, online since 2010, was a wonderful new discovery for me this year, and I also found pleasure watching the Sydney Review of Books establish itself as a venue for the meticulous consideration of prose fiction following its launch in June. Most impressive about Número Cinq is the material being collected in its Book of Literary Craft, especially Jason Lucarelli’s two long pieces on the aesthetic legacy of Gordon Lish (one, two) which led to an equally impressive discussion on that subject between Lucarelli, David Winters, and Greg Gerke, available at The Literarian. It’s harder to pinpoint a single shining star in the Sydney Review. The best piece published there so far is easily Julian Novitz’s review of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries: a review that not only contextualizes the novel and elaborates on its merits but also reviews the reviews it has received and approaches all of the above in light of John Barth’s speculations on “the literature of exhaustion.” The best writer on that site, however, is surely Brian Castro, an Australian novelist whose work I dearly hope will someday attract the international appreciation currently being lavished upon the work of a Gerald Murnane. His review of W.G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country is beautiful, as are his ruminations on the writtenness of literary theory and the mysterious inner forces that spark the act of writing.

My one big disappointment this year was Hannah Kent’s début novel Burial Rites, hyped for having received a seven figure advance from Little, Brown. Ben Etherington at the Sydney Review published a fantastically detailed examination of Kent’s use of language and its aesthetic effects in Burial Rites, putting a finger on some of what I found disappointing about the novel, although what made my sense of disappointment even more pronounced was what Kent herself wrote for The Guardian as an introduction to the reprint of a short extract. When she muses on the reasons why her imagination was so captured by reports of an Icelandic woman put to death in 1830, she tells a very short story — a story of herself, a story of obsession, a story of her compulsion to tell the story of someone else — which is far more captivating than the bland verisimilitude and strained lyricism of the novel she went on to publish. Why the belief that a work of historical fiction should be so seemingly free-floating, severed from the motivations that resulted in its writing and cleansed of all traces of the inner urge that forced its author to attempt to reconstruct the past via words on a page? By  effacing herself from her work, a work born from the powerful connection she felt towards her subject, Kent drained all the vitality from a novel whose genesis was bursting with it.

Speed Reading

Midsummer was an interesting time for online discussions of literature and the reasons for which readers of literature actually read. Kevin Hartnett and the team at The Millions were the first to kick the hornets’ nest when they “asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest.” Mission accomplished, especially when Tom Ferraro, Associate Professor of English at Duke University, nominated Mario Puzo’s The Godfather as the Great American Novel:

The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who “The Godfather” is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it?

When the comments section at The Millions exploded with dissents and disagreements, the discussion spilled over onto The Daily Dish, the blog of Andrew Sullivan, where one of Sullivan’s readers was given prime position to offer backup to Ferraro and take down the naysayers:

No surprise there’s backlash against the inclusion of The Godfather. Academics and those who think of themselves as literary types can’t give credit to any novel that isn’t either “beautifully” written or previously endorsed by the academic/literary community. It’s easier to harp on sentences and metaphors than to talk about mythic story, plot, character, and theme.

Meanwhile, in a separate but related discussion, Ted Gioia attracted an audience with his paean to the rise of what he calls a new breed of fragmented novels:

Instead of relying on fragmentation as a means of disjunction and dissolution, as many experimental novelists ha[ve] done in the past… the new fragmented novel is holistic and coalescent. … The comparison with musical polyphony is fitting because, as with the counterpoint, the voices in these recent novels are made to fit together with a virtuosity akin to that demonstrated by the great contrapuntal composers.

“Instead of ‘messy cacophony,'” Gioia continues, “these novels delight with their complicated coherence.” He then names fifty-seven individual titles that fit the bill and claims that each one in some way “resists disunity, even as it appears to embody it,” giving extraordinary care to narrative sophistication but burying both the care and the sophistication beneath what is, for Gioia, an ultimately superficial facade of stylistic and structural complexity:

These novels do not simply delight us with their contrasting voices. They also send us through an enjoyable labyrinth… filled with sharp turns and apparent dead ends, yet we always reach our final destination. Their authors are… showing off their ingenuity in building coherent narratives out of starkly juxtaposed bits and pieces.

But, striking a kinship with Sullivan’s reader, Gioia bemoans the waywardness of those who dare to see the style and structure of those novels as somehow more stimulating than their stories:

When I was a student of literature, my professors — who were academic literary critics, not fiction writers — almost never mentioned these [narrative-oriented] elements of craft. I remember one professor even going on a rant in class about students who paid too much attention to the plot of the novel. He had more important matters in mind when he read a book than the actual story.

Thankfully, another of Sullivan’s readers was given space on The Daily Dish to respond to the previous reader by noting the obvious flaw in that reader’s line of thinking, and in Gioia’s as well:

[T]he reader doesn’t defend Puzo’s writing. S/he just tries to pretend it doesn’t matter by diverting attention from it to what the previous posts had already readily acknowledged: that The Godfather is a great story. For my money, though, if something is going to be labeled the Great American Novel, it had better damn well be a great story and be fantastically written. No amount of story greatness can make up for shit writing, and vice versa.

The sentiments of that statement echoed those of the question that had been occupying my mind while I watched these discussions unfold. If someone reads a piece of writing solely for the story it contains, not for the quality of the writing itself, why waste time on reading it at all? Film adaptations and summarisations offer far more expedient means of ingesting the same narrative information that one would glean from reading anything lengthier for story alone. Surprisingly, the issue of expediency cropped up in the comments at The Millions when “Mr. C” chimed in:

Nice to see The Godfather on the list. Someone gave the book to me years ago, I don’t even think I knew the movie was based on a book. I was hooked in minutes and finished it over the weekend. As a heavy reader friends will ask me for a good book to read and many times I will say “The Godfather,” they will look at me with skepticism and I’ll just say give it a try. Every one of them has returned the book a week later and said that was a great read.

But why is it considered a virtue of The Godfather that one can have it all over and done with, read and appraised and appropriately admired, in only seven days? And why would Stuart Burrows, Associate Professor at Brown University and one of the nine English scholars commenting at The Millions, concede that the list of novels he and the other respondents produced was “unusual” because someone else nominated Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, a novel that “very few people have the patience to make it through”? By what logic can it be possible that, on the one hand, the value of a novel lies partly in its capacity to be read at speed, and that, on the other hand, the novel should be read for story alone even though the artform of the novel is the least speedy means by which a reader can access the story? Even when readers purport to read novels for nothing more than the pleasures of story, there must be some other quality to those novels — some quality of style or structure — that induces the reader to prefer to access the story through them rather than through an adaptation or a summarisation or something else altogether. My sense is that this other quality is the sophistication of those elements of the novel that tend to be glossed over in celebrations of Puzo’s The Godfather and that Gioia acknowledges in his essay only in order to downplay their affective impact.

Literature is, by definition, abstract, and therefore complex, and therefore intensely demanding of those who choose to engage with it. Story is everywhere — in literature, yes, but also in film, on television, on stage, in opera, in pop music, in comic books, on blogs, in tweets, in reportage, everywhere — and it is therefore readily available in countless venues that are far less demanding, complex, and abstract than literature. On some level, then, to turn to literature is to choose abstraction over immediacy, complexity over simplification, and demands over simple accommodations — and, moreover, to engage with literature beyond the point of turning to it is to seek stimulation from each of those choices. Those who genuinely seek out story alone probably don’t turn to literature at all, and this remains the case, I think, even if one believes that one turns to literature solely in search of story. Once we acknowledge as much, once we concede that story alone may spark an engagement with literature but cannot fuel its continuation, the primacy of the story, its value above and beyond all other elements of the literary work, disintegrates in the steady flow of the words across the pages and gradually descends like debris overawed by a flood as the pages turn. What remains afloat on the surface of our literary experience are those elements of the work that arrest our attention in the moments after the story attracts it, and these, in my experience, offer stimulation and reward enough to last much longer than a week.

Decline and Fall

Like the best examples of the genre [of the ‘decline of literary criticism’ polemic], [Gideon] Haigh’s glints with aphorisms, but it is also typically brief when it comes to articulating what is at stake. His piece informed a debate on Australian literary reviewing late in 2010, hosted by the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. The participants were Haigh, Peter Craven, Kill Your Darlings editor Rebecca Starford, and Hilary McPhee. The conversation spilled into print and came to focus on the relative merits of traditional print and new online forums for criticism. Craven had spoken against literary blogs and Geordie Williamson, writing just before the Wheeler event, was also dismissive. Rebecca Starford and Daniel Wood pointed to new possibilities. The divide, however, did not correspond to each commentator’s sense of the health of reviewing. Craven and Wood were firmly in the ‘decline’ camp (Wood quipped that ‘Australian literary criticism has indeed declined in quality — but it has declined from a zenith of mediocrity into the depths of abject uselessness’); Stafford and Williamson looked, in different ways, to the positive.

Reviving my comments on the low standards of literary criticism in Australia, Ben Etherington weaves them into a fascinating consideration of the critical reception of Anna Funder’s All That I Am.

A Reorientation

Links to Jacob Silverman’s notes “against enthusiasm” have been popping up in my RSS and Twitter feeds for a few of weeks now, first when they appeared as brief remarks on Silverman’s blog and again when Silverman turned them into an article published last week on Slate. In most instances the links have been accompanied by either praise for Silverman’s argument or an absence of commentary which I take as tantamount to an acknowledgement that, at the very least, he’s on to something. In his notes, Silverman diagnoses the preeminent problem with today’s online culture of literary criticism and proposes a solution for it. I think his diagnosis is spot-on, so I’m glad to see a sustained interest in his notes — and particularly since so many of the venues that have linked to them are the very sorts of venues he faults.

“[I]f you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres,” writes Silverman,

you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan. It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page. … Critics gush in anticipation for books they haven’t yet read; they❤ so-and-so writer, tagging the author’s Twitter handle so that he or she knows it, too; they exhaust themselves with outbursts of all-caps praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary web.

One problem with this situation is that, for Silverman, “it’s a critical dead-end, a conversation nonstarter. It’s opinion without evidence — or, really, posture without opinion. For every ‘+1,’ ‘THIS,’ or ‘<3’ we offer next to someone’s fawning tweet, a feeling is expressed without saying much at all.” And because such “cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm are the dominant sentiments” of online literary criticism, their very dominance gives rise to a second problem: “biting criticism has become synonymous with offense; everything is personal — one’s affection for a book is interchangeable with one’s feelings about its author as a person.” The result is a literary culture “dependent on personal esteem and mutual reinforcement,” in which criticism has ceased to function as such. Because every member of this culture wants their own writing to be read, they seek to receive praise for their writing by praising the writings of others and, as a result, the culture overflows with writings of which none are ever not worth reading.


Glancing at the archives of this blog over the last few months, and looking through the computer documents and notebooks in which I also write, I see that I have brought nothing to completion: no new posts, reviews, or articles. There are two reasons for this recent silence, each of which, in its own way, dovetails with Silverman’s criticisms and proposed solution.

The first reason is that I have spent three months struggling with enormous practical impediments to writing. On August 1, I took up a new teaching position in Switzerland. I began preparing for the overseas move in May and tying up loose ends in Australia in June, and I finished all that and moved here towards the end of July. Co-ordinating the overseas move was a drawn-out, demanding process that left me with almost no time to sit down, uninterrupted, long enough to find words to set on a page and twist them into intelligible form.

How does the move to Switzerland dovetail with Silverman’s notes? It dovetails inasmuch as it entails a retreat from the literary culture of Melbourne. “To the uninitiated, this might seem immaterial,” Silverman writes of his opposition to the culture of enthusiasm, “or [it might seem] like the kind of navel-gazing tabulation of credentials that can make the New York literary world insufferable.” What’s true of New York is probably true of any city with a thriving literary culture, Melbourne included. With few exceptions, Melbourne’s literary culture — on which the city prides itself, and which can seem so vibrant from afar — strikes me as insular, shallow, and self-congratulatory, the physical manifestation of the literary Twitterverse. It functions more on the logic of a professional support network for writers than on the logic of an impassioned engagement in literary evaluation. One book launch after another is attended by the same aspiring authors, each of whom proceeds to wax enthusiastic about the book in question before soliciting enthusiasm for his or her own book when the time comes for it to be launched. Week after week, month after month, enthusiasm coalesces around one mediocre title after another before it dissipates and moves on to the next title in the line of succession. Perhaps this is inevitable in any literary culture where, in terms of labour hours, the process of becoming a writer demands less time spent putting words on a page and more time spent marketing and publicising whatever you can manage to actually write in your spare hours, and networking to ensure that other writers will contribute to your later marketing and publicity efforts.

Whatever the cause of it, I realised not long after moving to Melbourne that this sort of culture wasn’t for me. That was at the beginning of 2009. By the end of 2011, I saw that any pursuit of literary professionalisation in Melbourne would require participation in this culture. Knowing then that I couldn’t bring myself to participate, I began looking outside Melbourne for ways to professionalise my love of literature while at the same time preserving it. What drew me to Switzerland is another story. What matters here is that my departure from Melbourne — one source of my recent silence — was partly a reaction to a literary culture whose atmosphere matches that of the online culture that drew a reaction from Silverman.


The second reason for my recent silence is that I have in some sense been driven to it by a renewed appreciation for literature. Part of this renewed appreciation arises from the collapse of the demand to approach literature through an exclusively academic lens, a demand I no longer face in my new position in Switzerland. Part of it, too, arises from having spent the first half of this year reading a number of works of literature which made such forceful impressions on me that my words no longer seem adequate to the task of conveying those impressions. None of these works are obscure — all of them have been written about in several major publications both online and in print — but my final reaction to each of them was inertia, an inertia based on an inescapable sense that to attempt to dilute their effects on me into some synoptic and analytic form would be to risk diminishing those very effects.

How does this appreciative silence dovetail with Silverman’s notes? It dovetails inasmuch as it casts me into a grey area in Silverman’s proposed remedy for the cloying enthusiasm of online literary criticism. In attempting to countervail that enthusiasm, Silverman contends that a better culture of criticism “would not treat offense or disagreement as toxic. [Its participants] wouldn’t want so badly to be liked above all. We’d tolerate barbed reviews, some quarrels, and blistering critiques, because they make our culture more interesting and because they are often more sincere reflections of our passions.” What Silverman wants to see, then, is greater openness to frank evaluations of mediocre literature. Frank disapproval is one way of responding to mediocrity, of course, but my preferred response is dismissive silence — the very sort of silence that Silverman rejects. “[S]ome publications don’t publish negative reviews,” he complains,

[because they treat] even considered pans as hatchet jobs. Time‘s Lev Grossman has said that he won’t review books he doesn’t like. He recently published an essay titled “I Hate This Book So Much: A Meditation,” which he drained of any details that might be used to identify the book or the writer. For quite some time,’s main books feature was called “Books We Like,” and negative reviews were discouraged…

Silence is obviously a problem for Time and NPR. As venues with a defining interest in current affairs, their literary coverage is necessarily chained to the current publishing market and is thus rendered inadequate by a failure or even a calculated refusal to issue a verdict on works that achieve transitory cultural prominence solely by way of marketing processes. For literary blogs, however, the absence of a necessary interest in current affairs means that silence is an affordable response to underwhelming books and, for me, a silent response is one that holds an increasing appeal. If a venue for literary criticism is unconstrained by fealty to the vicissitudes of the market, then it suffers no need to warn readers away from a particular title. If literary criticism does not suffer that need, then those who write it are therefore free to assume that the only titles worth writing about are those that are first worth reading, and those who read it are induced to assume that any title worth reading about is by definition worth reading in full.

Rather than following Silverman’s cues and engaging in the wholesale demolition of books that leave me unsatisfied, I want to disengage from a literary culture utterly beholden to marketing and instead work in a form of literary criticism that operates on the assumptions above. Silverman wants a literary culture in which “we all think more and enthuse less,” as if thoughtful and enthusiastic responses to literature were somehow mutually exclusive. I’d prefer a response in which the articulation of thought is predicated on the experience of enthusiasm, a response in which enthusiasm for a book does not need to be expressed in words because its mode of expression is the very act of using words to articulate one’s thoughts of a book.


Where I find myself now is a position in which, professionally, I can concentrate my critical efforts exclusively on this blog even though, personally, I am not sure that my efforts would do justice to the very works of literature to which I most want to devote them. I’m able now to spend much more time on these pages than I have done over the last year or so, but what will appear on them is likely to be less occasional and less responsive to discourses of the moment than what has appeared here so far. My hope is that, far from advancing a situation in which enthusiasm for literature is cloying and shallow, the medium of the blog can allow for a mode of literary criticism that emerges from enthusiasm, that treats close attention to textual details as a symptom of literary appreciation rather than a path towards it, and that thereby positions the intellectualism of critical analysis as the appreciative extension of the sensuality of reading.