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.Read More »

Confusions

People also create their own personal definitions of what literary fiction is. Nathan Bransford clarifies on his blog that “In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.” Another blog author gives one of the most confusing definitions of literary fiction I’ve ever read. Daniel Davis Wood states that “literary fiction is exactly what the adjective ‘literary’ suggests: not a work of fiction that possesses a certain set of “literary” freedoms, but a work of fiction that makes an issue of its own nature as literature, its very literariness. It is irreducibly literary, and therefore utterly unable to be translated into any alternative artform.”

My words cited in a discussion of literary fiction on Cara Reads.

Responsiveness

Daniel Davis Wood has argued recently that 9/11 demands a break with conventional realism, conventional verisimilitude. Our new reality, Wood claims, demands a new way of acknowledging ‘the irreclaimability of actuality’, and of ‘writ[ing] that irreclaimability into its own aesthetics’. We can understand this in terms of literary responsibility, literary responsiveness: as a continual renegotiation of the contract between fiction and the world. But what happens when literary forms fail? The responsive books of our time are, for me, broken books: books with a kind of auto-immune condition whereby they attack their own literariness.

In a discussion about the future of American writing, Lars Iyer responds once again to my remarks on the rebirth of the nouveau roman from last year.

Obscurantism

So much for establishment literary fiction, you’re thinking. But the underground is producing nothing new. In his essay on post-9/11 fiction, critic Daniel Davis Wood rejected the boring old realism of the American novel in favour of the cult of Beckett. He cites the obscurantist writers Tom McCarthy and Gabriel Josipovici as the future of fiction and criticism, and even praises the creepy, moronic and serial self-promoter Lee Rourke. Here is Wood on McCarthy’s Remainder: “a novel that revels in plotlessness, that undermines characterisation, that fetishises stasis, and that does not reflect on social, political and cultural actuality so much as it self-reflects on the limitations of its own ability to reflect on such things.” Wood grants the authority to speak only to people with nothing to say.

Sentiments like this are impossible to understand without the context of the backlash against Victorian conventions in literature (“why should a ‘novel’ have ‘characters’ anyway?”) which in turn was triggered by a leftwing backlash against Enlightenment reason.

Yikes. Max Dunbar grants me far more authority than I can actually claim to grant certain people the authority to speak.

Responses

Daniel Davis Wood’s argument is very interesting. He claims that, among American readers in the wake of 9/11, there has been growing dissatisfaction with realism as a credible mode of fiction. This, says Wood, has led to increased interest in novels situated within a European literary tradition which is at best ambivalent to realism. He quotes Michael Rothberg: ‘While American novelists have […] announced the dawn of a new era following the attacks on New York and Washington D.C., the form of their works does not bear witness to fundamental change’. Flatteringly, Wood selects Spurious, alongside Lee Rourke’s The Canaland Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, as exemplifying a form that does respond to fundamental change. Wood argues that the three of us, British men all, are nouveaux romanciers for our time, and that our work has found a warm transatlantic welcome for that reason.

I am certainly inspired by Robbe-Grillet’s and Sarraute’s famous essays calling for a new novel: for a novel to reject anthropomorphism in its presentation of the world; for a novel to deny the primacy of character; for a novel to present things that Robbe-Grillet describes as ‘hard’, as ‘unalterably, eternally present’, as ‘mocking the “meaning” assigned to them’; for a novel to ‘break away from all that is prescribed, conventional and dead’, as Sarraute would have it; a novel to register what she calls the ‘vast, empty stupefaction’ at the world that is appropriate in the wake of the concentration camps. How do W. and Lars spend most of their time but in a state of ‘vast, empty stupefaction’? What else are the damp in Spurious and the rats in Dogma but unalterable and eternally present, mocking any meaning that might be assigned to them? The narrative technique of Spurious and Dogma is intended as a rejection of older forms of character-novel. I want nothing else than Sarraute did: to ‘break away from all that is prescribed, conventional and dead’ in the novel and to ‘turn towards what is free, sincere and alive’.

In this sense, one might certainly recognize features of the nouveau roman in Spurious, as well as in the work of Rourke and McCarthy. And, if Wood is right, our novels resonate with American readers because of these features. But, for me, Robbe-Grillet’s and Sarraute’s polemics are remarkable not only for their particular prescriptions for the novel, which remain exhilarating, but also for the very fact that they felt able to prescribe a future for the novel at all. For me, their prescriptions for a new novel can only, in the end, be so many more exhibits in the museum of literature. Their essays belong to an almost-unimaginable past in which such ideas mattered, a past which had a real stake in the future of the novel.

In an interview with David Winters at 3:AM Magazine, Lars Iyer responds generously to my recent remarks on the rebirth of the nouveau roman.

Kind Words

One fascinating work is Daniel Davis Wood’s Under the Sway of the Cinematic Imagination… in which he looks at the “critical oversimplifications” of a piece by John Freeman, editor of Granta, who “attempted both to commemorate the tenth anniversary of “9/11″ and to assess the impact of 9/11 on American literature.” Wood concisely points out Freeman’s misreadings of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955), Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow (1966 and 1973), Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996).

A recent blog post of mine draws kind words from Greg Gerke at Big Other.