Against Crime Fiction

Can crime fiction be considered literature? Absolutely not, says Jon Fosse:

Death, perhaps literature’s basic concern, … is in crime fiction made into a kind of puzzle which can be solved. Death is made safe by being looked at as something which might well not exist, if it wasn’t for a murder, and then is reduced further by making this murder, death, into a puzzle to be solved. And which will be solved. … Literature is writing so strong that one sees life as something else after meeting it. It has to do with the uniqueness in every human being, and with this truth: the most unique is the most universal. Crime fiction is the opposite, to see life as the same all the time and feel safe in one’s lie. It’s pornography of death, and much less honest than the pornography which has to do with the beginning of life.

It’s a subtle, intriguing argument, but open to easy objections: Jonathan Buckley’s So He Takes the Dog, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, and Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country all spring to mind as obvious exceptions to Fosse’s rule. Following his full remarks at the ReadySteadyBook blog, commenters have already listed some other exceptions.

A Splendid Chance to Be a Messiah

Once in camp I put a log on top of the fire and it was full of ants. As it commenced to burn, the ants swarmed out and went first towards the centre where the fire was, then turned back and ran towards the end. When there were enough on the end they fell off into the fire. Some got out, their bodies burnt and flattened, and went off not knowing where they were going. But most of them went toward the fire and then back toward the end and swarmed on the cool end and finally fell off into the fire. I remember thinking at the time that it was the end of the world and a splendid chance to be a messiah and lift the log off the fire and throw it out where the ants could get off onto the ground. But I did not do anything but throw a tin cup of water on the log, so that I would have the cup empty to put whisky in before I added water to it. I think the cup of water on the burning log only steamed the ants.

Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms

Fiction Starvation

In his literary manifesto, Reality Hunger, David Shields writes of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections:

I couldn’t read that book if my life depended on it. It might be a “good” novel or it might be a “bad” novel, but something has happened to my imagination, which can no longer yield to the earnest embrace of novelistic form.

In response, Steve Mitchelmore writes:

So he (rather than we) has lost something; something has happened to him. …

Entry 69, attributed to Saul Steinberg, is the dynamic beating the wrongheaded heart of [Shields’] manifesto:

There are two sorts of artist, one not being in the least superior to the other. One responds to the history of his art so far; the other responds to life itself.

[W]e know which [one] we’re meant to favour. Yet both respond only to distance. To ask what life is in itself is already to open an abyss. It’s not a question that troubles this book because it knows that life is what is “actually occurring in the world” independent of the viewer. To achieve all Shields’ favoured elements then one must discharge agency, which is strictly impossible for the artist; discharging is agency by stealth. So what Shields wants instead is for the artist to efface agency, risk nothing but being found out.

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Reports of the Death of Fiction Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Fiction isn’t dead or dying, and neither is the literary magazine. Maybe the academic model for supporting it is, but that’s a wholly different thing. Instead of pining for the glory days, maybe we should instead turn our attention to the great independent literary magazines, whose futures are dependent on readers, not university decisions: Try Unsaid or Hobart or Barrelhouse or New York Tyrant or Keyhole or Annalemma or any of the other great online and print magazines out there. The people editing these magazines and publishing them without drawing a salary or having institutional funding have already shown the importance they personally put on the publishing of new fiction, and their contribution to the literary community is consistently ignored by academics writing articles like this one.

So says Matt Bell in response to the debate recently opened by Ted Genoways of the Virginia Quarterly Review, which has been unfolding online for a couple of weeks now.  Continue reading

The Other Seven-Eighths of the Iceberg

At the height of his celebrity in the 1950s, Ernest Hemingway gave a now‐famous interview in which he credited the emotional power of his fiction to what he called “the principle of the iceberg.” An iceberg, he noted, floats in the Arctic with only one‐eighth of its mass above water while the greater, more potentially devastating portion hides beneath the surface and attracts our concern precisely because it is hidden. In the same way, he reasoned, the drama of a story can attract our concern if  we  are  allowed to glimpse  only  a fragment  of  visible  action that implies  an earlier, unseen experience of far greater magnitude and emotional significance. In other words, Hemingway would rarely detail a  sequence of narrative events  so that we may witness a drama, but would more often depict only the consequences of such events in a single representative scene from which we then infer the drama. In story after story, he effectively positions his readers as voyeurs eavesdropping on the aftermath of a dispute between two lovers, or as snoops lingering alongside some lonesome individual whose company we have entered by illicit means. He draws our attention to a dramatic scenario by carefully denying us a clear view of its  causes. He  concentrates our  concern on the dramatic tensions that he keeps outside the story by meticulously foregrounding their deliberate absence.

I have a short article on Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg theory and the resurgence of interest in his notorious six-word story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”) in the latest issue of Philament.

A Statement of Something Other Than Intention

First there were litblogs like Bookslut and ReadySteadyBook, largely dedicated to literary news and gossip. Then came “critblogs” like The Reading Experience and The Existence Machine, more interested in generating a substantive and sustained conversation about particular literary matters. In these pages, I too want to engage in literary discussion, but I want to engage in a different sort of discussion to what appears on both litblogs and critblogs.

I wouldn’t go so far as to make a statement of intention for this blog, but I will venture a statement of interest: I’m interested in exploring not only the literary experience as a subject of critical discourse, but also as precisely what it is: an experience. I’m interested in the quotidian aspects of reading and writing, the haphazard progression from text to text, the scattershot and fragmentary nature of the daily encounter with literature. Continue reading