On Difficulty

Now that this year’s Booker Prize has gone to Anna Burns’ Milkman, we’re back into a discussion of the value of “difficulty” in literature, as distinct from “accessibility.” The novelist and critic Sam Byers has a typically astute take on the situation, on Twitter:

I think this year’s booker has demonstrated that in fact we do have the means to reward daring, challenging writers. The problem is that we no longer have a mainstream media that’s capable of responding to that intelligently.

I’m not saying anything new by pointing out that there’s something of a crisis in British literary critical culture, at least as represented by the major newspapers, but I think this year’s booker has helped me understand that the way the prize is *covered* is most of the problem

The press is increasingly reluctant to do anything that comes too close to old fashioned textual analysis. All their braying about the booker has in many ways just been a slightly desperate shout of “give us something we can turn into a story”. There has been very little idea of how to cover the books in question. Instead there has been an increasingly blundering effort to talk about “sales”, “readers”, brits, booksellers, “difficulty” etc.

So I wonder now if this year should be the year we come to understand a rather thorny problem. Not only are we over-reliant on book prizes to make books “successes”… [but] book prizes themselves are over-reliant on a media ecosystem no longer adequately equipped to consider in any meaningful detail what they do and decide. Meanwhile, an increasingly anti-intellectual, populist atmosphere has encouraged a way of thinking about literature that is generalist, insubstantial, frequently patronising, and based on limited textual reference.

This sort of “criticism” relies on profoundly woolly concepts: “readers” (always characterised as a homogenous mass), and a fairly useless “difficulty vs readability” metric that apparently no-one has noticed is entirely subjective.

I think that’s exactly right, and worth elaborating on. My suspicion is that there are two really basic, often unarticulated assumptions underpinning 99% of literary criticism and reviews in the press. Continue reading

The Songlines and the Songlines

It’s been thirty years since Bruce Chatwin published The Songlines. That’s the kind of anniversary that usually elicits either a renewed celebration and revival of a work or a fresh attempt to boot the author up the arse, a la Nicolas Rothwell upon the publication of Chatwin’s letters. Intriguingly, with consummate skill and nuance, Richard Cooke has taken a shot at doing both of those things simultaneously in a long reappraisal of The Songlines for the Australian magazine The Monthly. His essay is a model of what literary criticism can do when combined with cultural and biographical research, a deep sympathy for the writer’s intentions and accomplishments, an awareness for the writer’s shortcomings, and a keen eye for fine-grained textual details. What Cooke has essentially written is a paean to The Songlines as a remarkable, visionary book that was compromised from the outset by the limitations of its author’s vision, and that ended up offering a crippled representation of the very thing it aimed to praise. Continue reading

A Rarity

Jon McGregor, "Reservoir 13"You’ve gotta call it when you see it, so here it is: Tessa Hadley’s review of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 is a model of what broadsheet criticism can accomplish. In only 1,300 words we’re treated to a thoughtful consideration of the narrative setup, the invocation of genre tropes and the expectations associated with them, the imagery, the prose style, the affect it generates, the tone of the whole when you apply that affect to the narrative action, and much more besides. Here’s a sample:

[E]verything [in Reservoir 13] is charged by our expectation as readers: everything ordinary has its undertow of significance. … And then as our expectations are strained to the limit, we begin to realise that the writer is deflecting them into something else, taking us into another kind of novel altogether. What actually fills up the pages, fills up narrative time while we wait to find the girl, is an omniscient narration moving easily around and inside a whole collective of protagonists in the village and following them through their daily lives, none of them dominating the story space. … The characters we watch are all warm enough, sentient human beings, prone to needing and wanting and mostly failing one another. But the eye of the story keeps its remote omniscient distance; it’s a cold camera-eye, or the eye of a hawk circling above the village, assembling everything impartially, not taking sides.

Read the rest and savour it. This quality of criticism is far too rare in the broadsheet press these days.

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. Continue reading

Knausgaard’s Reinvigorated Realism

Karl Ove Knausgaard, "Some Rain Must Fall"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 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 seem 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.

Why Tenth of December?

Of all of George Saunders’ story collections, why was this the one that received the most media coverage, the most rave reviews, the most prestigious awards, the most commendations in end-of-year retrospectives, and arguably the most readers? Saunders’ theme, as usual, is the degradation of lives lived under the boot heel of neoliberal economics. His characters are typically embroiled in the bitter yet petty disputes of local commerce and neighbourhood politics, or in the minor scandals and absurd shenanigans of workplaces designed to humiliate their employees, and in story after story these characters are compelled to ‘chin up’ — with a smile — or else incur some even more humiliating punishment. Impoverished parents lavish unaffordable luxuries upon ungrateful, arrogant children. The most vulnerable members of a society are subjected to human experimentation or turned into ornaments or fashion accessories for their social superiors. Minimum wage workers dress up in extravagant costumes and embarrass themselves in front of spectators at outlandish theme parks that seem geared towards systemic dehumanisation. Tenth of December makes room for all those sorts of stories and more, but the problem is that the same is true of Saunders’ previous story collections. Except perhaps for ‘Puppy’ and ‘Home,’ his two brief forays into something like conventional realism, there’s nothing in Tenth of December that Saunders hasn’t done better elsewhere. In his very best work — in the theme park stories ‘Pastoralia’ and ‘CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,’ and particularly in ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ and ‘In Persuasion Nation’ — he not only depicts the degrading effects of neoliberal economics but eviscerates its logic, painstakingly and hilariously, by exposing its internal contradictions and satirising its pretensions to fairness and lampooning the preposterous claims of its Panglossian defenders. Here, however, the satire is in disastrously short supply, and the focus drifts amongst various snapshots of the sufferings of neoliberal economics without pulling back to explore the line of thought that would rationalise them. In other words, by Saunders’ own standards, Tenth of December plays it very safe — it is by far his most conservative book — and yet it has received more attention than any of his other titles and is repeatedly declared to be deserving of still more. Why?

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. Continue reading