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The most important argument James Shapiro makes in his book Contested Will is not that the author of Shakespeare's plays and poems is William Shakespeare (the "Stratford man")--anyone who honestly examines both the evidence for Shakespeare's authorship and the evidence for all of the rival candidates (most notably the Earl of Oxford) can only conclude there is no reason to doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare--but that the whole controversy over authorship has arisen because of the assumption held by so many people that a writer's work is a reflection, direct or indirect, of that writer's life.
Of course, the work is a reflection of the life, in the trivial sense that writers have only their life experiences (including what they've read or imagined) to lean on in producing the work, but the assumption goes farther than this: Events in the work recapitulate events in the life, social circumstances determine both manner and matter. Writers don't just write from their lives, they write about it, and the work can't escape its biographical influences. Once this logic is generally accepted (as Shapiro demonstrates it did under the dominance of Romanticism), it almost becomes inevitable that the "facts" of Shakespeare's life, so mundane as they generally are, become irreconcilable with the extraordinary occurrences in the plays and with the great verbal facility manifest there and in the sonnets. The poorly educated glover's son from Stratford, whose experiences apparently extended no farther than this provincial town and the London theaters, could never have written the great work attributed to him. As Shapiro puts it,
The extent to which so much that now gets written is autobiographical can easily alter the expectations we bring to all kinds of imaginative writing. We now assume that novels necessarily reveal something about a writer's life. . .At the same time, many literary biographies are supplanting the fictional works they are meant to illuminate, to the point where Ariel and The Bell Jar struggle to find a readership that books about Sylvia Plath's suicide now command. In such a climate, it's hard not to assume that literary works--of the past no less than of the present--are inescapably autobiographical.
This has been a blessing for those who deny Shakespeare's authorship, whose claims stand or fall on the core belief that literature is, and always has been, autobiographical. . . .
Thus, the authorship "controversy" is a fiction dreamed up out of a suspicion of fiction the creation of which would seem to be the writer's first task.
If anything, the distorting effects of the belief that fiction is just autobiography slightly altered are even more widespread than Shapiro suggests. Not only are biographies making claims on readers' time that would more appropriately be spent on the subjects' work, but biography has become about the only writing about literature to be reviewed in print book review sections, and, coupled with the focus in academic criticism on sociology and culture, is really the only kind of literature-centered commentary available to interested readers. New biographies are lauded or dismissed according to their capacity to explain "how he did it"--as if appreciating the process of literary creation is more important than appreciating the creation itself. Even this is just a barely disguised desire for a more elevated form of gossip, which is finally and unavoidably the stock-in-trade of all biography and almost always emerges as the contribution a biography makes to the "understanding" of its subject.
That this fascination with the life lived by the author over the purely literary implications of the work can be traced to the rise of Romanticism surely can't mean that Romanticism itself is responsible for the reduction of literature to an illustration of autobiography, recoverable through the research of the biographer. Although Shapiro convincingly maintains that the notion of reading autobiography into an author's work was alien to the literary culture of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, it's hard to believe that audiences had no interest in the personal details of playwrights' or poets' lives, that the drama-filled life of, say, Christopher Marlowe attracted no attention. Curiosity about other people's lives (real people, not just the "people" depicted in literary works) must surely be a long-standing and universal human characteristic.
But while fiction and drama exploit this curiosity by depicting the lives of imagined people, it is apparently difficult to convince all readers that the integrity of narrative art depends on granting the imagination a free rein. Presumptions that the novelist or dramatist is "really" writing about some real person, including possibly himself, betrays either a distrust in the imagination, a suspicion it promises more than it can deliver, or outright disdain for it as the foundation of literary narrative. This explains the current infatuation with memoir among American readers (and the increase in writers willing to provide it) and the dogged persistence of the Shakespeare deniers. Of course, not all readers who delight in the disguises of the roman a clef or thrill to the juicy memoir are going to be led by their preferences to doubt that Shakespeare among all writers had a vigorous imagination, but the authorship controversy is of a piece with the more general impatience with the transformative role of imagination.
Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly, given his background as a New Historicist), one of the readers who seems skeptical of Shakespeare's imagination is the literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt, whose 2004 book, Will in the World, attempts to fashion a biography of Shakespeare by attending closely to echoes and suggestions in the work. Greenblatt's knowledge of Shakespeare, his times, and his plays, is immense, but he unfortunately deploys that knowledge to reinforce connections between the life and the work. Shapiro writes of Will in the World that it
gave [the autobiographical thesis] the seal of approval of the leading American Shakespearean of the day. Greenblatt admits straightaway that 'the whole impulse to explore Shakespeare's life arises from the powerful conviction that his plays and poems spring not only from other plays and poems but from things he knew firsthand, in his body and soul.' Rather that consider what historical developments gave rise to this conviction, he focuses instead on how firsthand experience can be retrieved from Shakespeare's surviving works, allowing extraordinary access into the poet's desires and anxieties.
I think Shapiro is being rather reticent in criticizing Greenblatt's project. In trying to show that the work actually does confirm Shakespeare's experiences as its source, he only winds up giving support to the assumptions that made the authorship controversy possible. Greenblatt too underestimates the reach of imagination. Why couldn't the primary thing Shakespeare "knew firsthand" be the capabilities of his own imagination? Why couldn't "body and soul" simply be the springs of that imagination? Why isn't this enough?
(Continued from previous post)
If in essays such as "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World" and "The Political Economy of Poetry" (The New Sentence, 1987) Ron Silliman contends that New Criticism (presumably Silliman wants New Criticism to stand in for other varieties of formalism as well) puts too much emphasis on author and text in determining the "potential content" of the work, in my opinion he compensates for this failing by in turn giving over too much of the opportunity to "actualize" content to individual readers. Silliman is right to insist that the reading experience must include the reader as part of the process--the reader must be up to the task of apprehending the aesthetic qualities of the text--but in his determination to make poetry the servant of Marxist social reform, Silliman, at least in these theoretical essays, wants the reader's attention so thoroughly directed at the "meaning" a poem might provide that whatever aesthetic effects might accompany it are at best an afterthought, at worst regressive cultural baggage that must be discarded.
Silliman is not advocating for a crudely propagandistic kind of poetry, reducible to polemic and explicit "statements." Indeed, the meaning he wants readers to get from poetry is conveyed indirectly, through its material formal and syntactic procedures. Silliman believes (or at least this is what the Silliman of these essays, written twenty-five years and more ago, believed) that by frustrating the reader's ability to ready "hypotactically" (via transparent language and explicit connections made between parts of a discourse), the reader could be made aware of the way in which capitalist culture maintains its dominance through hypotactic communication. Thus both Silliman's poetry and that which generally came to be called "Language Poetry" employed instead a "paratactic" strategy, by which language refuses transparency and connections are denied (the former achieved mainly by the latter). The notion that parataxis might work to produce worthwhile poetry is far from outlandish (more on this in a later post on Silliman's The Alphabet), but while the disruption of expectations implied by Silliman's poetics could easily enough lead readers to a reconsideration of the assumptions behind conventional definitions of poetry, that this would in turn necessarily lead to increased skepticism about the machinations of capitalism is not a step in logic I can follow.
Silliman's most important exposition of his call for paratactic poetry, "The New Sentence," is largely free of Marxist rhetoric, and offers an account of what such a poetry might be like that even an apologist for New Criticism could take seriously. It is first of all a relatively straightforward and learned history of ideas about the sentence in both linguistics and literary criticism that demonstrates the potential of the sentence as an autonomous unit of language has not really been appreciated. Silliman also discusses a few precursor poets, such as the French symbolists as well as Gertrude Stein, who point to this potential but don't finally fully realize it.
The "new sentence," for Silliman, is one that "has an interior poetic structure in addition to interior ordinary grammatical structure." The "poetic structure" of the poem derives from the poetic structure of the sentences, arranged into paragraphs, a device that "organizes the sentences" but is "a unit of quantity, not logic or argument." In combination, this approach "keeps the reader's attention at or very close to the level of language, that is, most often at the sentence level or below."
Thus the notion of "language poetry," which in effect forces the reader to attend to the poem's language as it comes, not in relation to the "syllogistic movement" we ordinarily expect between sentences and through the poem as a whole. It is ultimately a kind of prose poetry, and, according to Silliman "the new sentence is the first prose technique to identify the signifier [language itself]. . .as the locus of literary meaning. As such, it reverses the dynamics which have so long been associated with the tyranny of the signified [that to which the language refers], and is the first method capable of incorporating all the levels of language, both below the horizon of the sentence and above. . . ."
Unless by "prose technique" Silliman means specifically techniques used in prose poetry, I really can't accept the assertion that the new sentence is "the first prose technique" to call attention to the signifier as an end in itself. Metafiction, anyone? However, the radical break with the inherited presumptions about what makes for "good poetry" is real enough. Still, as far as I can tell, there is nothing in Silliman's poetics that should alienate the most recalcitrant formalist (even a backsliding New Critic). One could easily conclude after reading "The New Sentence" that poets without the slightest interest in Marxist theory could adopt the new sentence as credo and produce potentially interesting poetry, a challenge to convention and ordinary ways of reading, yes, but not necessarily a challenge to poetry as an ongoing tradition. (Or to Western capitalism, although one could also imagine some readers making the connection between the two kinds of challenges that Silliman would like, pursuing the extra-literary implications of the strategy after engaging with it on a purely aesthetic level--in my opinion an appropriate reversal of Silliman's priorities that more suitably preserves the integrity of the literary text.)
Silliman's animus toward New Criticism is additionally unfortunate in that his own close readings of particular writers and their work are surely New Critical in spirit if not in fact. In The New Sentence, his essay on Jack Spicer, "Spicer's Language," is a very precise and ultimately very evocative analysis of one relatively brief Spicer poem (as well as, along the way, Ezra Pound's 84th Canto and a few additional Spicer passages). Granted, the burden of the essay is to show Spicer as an important influence on the new sentence, but I found it to be the best piece of commentary on Spicer's work I've read, typified by this sort of careful exposition:
Spicer's poem is composed in one stanza, written in what are ostensibly sentences, with a surface conventionality that extends to the capitalization of the letters at the lefthand margin. We have already seen the amount of tension which is set up in the first line ["This ocean, humiliating in its disguises"] by the irreducibility of the subject and its modifying clause to any single, simple envisionment. The leap to the second sentence is made before a verb occurs in the first. In being suppressed, this verb ("is"?) becomes yet another moment of an absent presence. And there are no less than five positions in the sentence which it could have taken, so that its absence (i.e., its presence) is not perceived at a single point, but instead floats freely, a syntactic equivalent of anxiety. Far more jolting to the reader, however, is that the two sentences to a degree that is nowhere possible in the Pound passage, appear to come from entirely different discourses.
The combination of detailed description and critical insight ("a syntactic equivalent of anxiety") is very satisfying, and here, as in similar readings posted on his blog, Silliman seems to me to exemplify a particularly scrupulous (and therefore all too rare) kind of literary criticism. While The New Sentence elucidates a poetics that affirms the active part played by the reader in locating the "potential content" of the poem, his critical readings nevertheless implicitly assert the importance of informed criticism, the existence of some readers who through skill with the "codes" always associated with attentive reading can help other readers overcome the limitations of their inherited codes and approach poetry in a more rewarding way.
It is indeed true there is no "universal" mode of poetry--no "normal poetry" from which anything else is an aberration--and it is also true that much conventional poetry, with its "normative syntax, classical metrics, and a deliberately recessive linebreak" requires "at the level of the reader's experience" only "passivity." (Although I can't accept the further complaint that this passivity means the reader "can only observe, incapable of action": observation is not what happens in our interaction with a text, only reading, which is itself a form of action.) Silliman's challenge to the universalist and passive conception of poetry is entirely well-justified and should not be dismissed. But it is literary criticism embodying universal intelligence that keeps the multifarious practices of poets from devolving into chaos, and Silliman's criticism participates in this stabilizing process. It is, after all, in critical writing such as The New Sentence and on his weblog that Silliman convincingly makes his case against universalist assumptions and passive reading. Yet the cogency of this case depends upon a reader willing to defer to a critic speaking in what can't be denied is a critical "voice" of manifest authority.
Ron Silliman begins The New Sentence (1987) with this unimpeachable claim:
. . .if we look to that part of the world which is the poem, tracing the historical record of each critical attempt to articulate a poetics, a discursive account of what poetry might be, we find instead only metaphors, translations, tropes. That these models have a use should not be doubted--the relationships they bring to light, even when only casting shadows, can help guide our way through this terrain. Yet their value stands in direct relation to their provisionality, to the degree to which each paradigm is aware of itself as a translation of the real, inaccurate and incomplete.
Such a pragmatic perspective on the utility of "poetics" (of literary criticism in general) seems to me the most efficacious way of encouraging open-ended debate about all questions relating to a subject so thoroughly contingent as what properly constitutes the "literary" qualities of literature. (I especially like Silliman's reference to "that part of the world which is the poem," which correctly emphasizes that a poem is a phenomenon in the world, not a reflection on or of the world that somehow transcends or detours around the merely real. A text is an element of reality, not just an opportunity to discourse about it.) It is admirable that Silliman's first words warn against taking his own poetics as the last words on the subject, but as a critic he has firmly-held positions nonetheless and they are positions that, in my view, cast all those who would disagree with them not just as mistaken but as fundamentally bad people.
Silliman next locates his approach as a critic by identifying himself with other poet-critics such as Pound, Olson, and Creeley, who were themselves situated "warily midway between the New Critics" and the "anti-intellectualism" that New Criticism provoked among "other sectors of 'New American' poetry." Although it seems to me that Silliman's criticism, both in this book and on his blog, has much in common with the close reading of the New Criticism, he is very harsh here in his comments about it, characterizing it as a "positivist" approach encompassing "an empiricist claim to transcendent (and trans-historical) truth." But the New Critics did not view poems as "empirical" evidence (the text) that would lead to a claim to "transcendent" truth (the critic's interpretation.) This is, in fact, a wholly mistaken representation of the New Critics' project: New Criticism was "empirical" only in that it insisted readers attend to the perceptible structure and actual language of the text, and the only "transcendent truth" it implied was that reading a poem was not a search for transcendent truth. Indeed, the burden of New Criticism was exactly to convince readers to read rather than interrogate poems for their unitary "meaning."
Silliman makes his disdain for New Criticism (or at least the conception of "literature" he thinks it represents) even more blatant by comparing it to Stalinism:
Necessarily. . .a poetics must be concerned with the process by which writing is organized politically into literature. It is particularly disturbing when, under the New Critics as well as Stalin, this transformation is posed and explained as though it were objective and not related directly to ongoing and fluid social struggles.
Certainly the New Critics were attempting an "objective" form of reading in that they believed a poem could be approached as a work of art with discernible features that could be identified by paying close attention--"dispassionate" is perhaps the term that might justifiably be used to characterize the attitude of the New Critics' ideal reader. And they surely did not have any interest in "ongoing and fluid social struggles" (at least where the analysis of literature is concerned) and would never have accepted that "a poetics must be concerned with the process by which writing is organized politically into literature." Silliman, of course, believes they were a part of such organizing nevertheless (a retrograde part), and in the first several essays in The New Sentence he undertakes to establish that indeed poetics is finally about politics, poetry "a form of action," presumably on behalf of those "social struggles."
These first few essays are aggressively Marxist in their declarations about the place of poetry. In "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World," we are told that the transparency of language we encounter in much ordinary communication is part of "a greater transformation which has occurred over the past several centuries: the subjection of writing (and, through writing, language) to the social dynamics of capitalism."
Words not only find themselves attached to commodities, they become commodities and, as such, take on the "mystical" and "mysterious character" Marx identified as the commodity fetish: torn from any tangible connection to their human makers, they appear instead as independent objects active in a universe of similar entities, a universe prior to, and outside, any agency by a perceiving Subject. A world whose inevitability invites acquiescence. Thus capitalism passes on its preferred reality through language itself to individual speakers. . . .
Because poetry "is not only the point of origin for all the language and narrative arts" but "returns us to the very social function of art as such," it is in the best position to combat this commodification. Indeed, "perhaps only due to its historical standing as the first of the language arts, poetry has yielded less to (and resisted more) this process of capitalist transformation." But it hasn't resisted enough. According to Silliman, "The social role of the poem places it in an important position to carry the class struggle for consciousness to the level of consciousness."
By recognizing itself as the philosophy of practice in language, poetry can work to search out the preconditions of a liberated language within the existing social fact.
Despite the dogmatic tone of these passages, the underlying analysis of public language vs. literary language seems pretty cogent to me. Extending the analysis to fiction, Silliman notes that "the most complete expression" of the "invisibility" of language "is perhaps in the genre of fictional realism, although it is hardly less pervasive in the presumed objectivity of daily journalism or the hypotactic logic of normative expository style." Further, "it is the disappearance of the word that lies at the heart of the invention of the illusion of realism and the breakdown of gestural poetic form." That calls for simplicity of style and an emphasis on narrative--both in fiction and journalism--reflect an impatience with language as medium and the dominance of "message" is undoubtedly true, and the proposition that poetry especially represents an opportunity to "liberate" language from these constraints is one I can easily accept. But I fail to see why it is necessary to lay the blame for the crudity of public language specifically on capitalism, as opposed to the general human reluctance to pay attention to subtlety and nuance and willingness to accept the "preferred reality" of authority. Capitalism will get no propping up from me, but I can't see that it has uniquely invoked these human limitations.
Much of the logic of Silliman's poetics (as well as, ultimately, his own poetry) depends on the assumptions he brings about the "role of the reader in the determination of a poem's ideological content" ("The Political Economy of Poetry"). Silliman contends there is no "genuine" version of a poem, only those versions experienced by a particular audience at a particular time:
What can be communicated through any literary production depends on which codes are shared with its audience. The potential contents of the text are only actualized according to their reception, which depends on the social composition of the receivers.
Again this is a defensible position, but again I fail to see that asserting reception is determined by "social composition" is to say anything very significant. At best it establishes that audiences and readers bring to the reception of poetry their life experiences and circumstances, but to make "social composition" into the kind of essentialized, metaphysical entity Marxists want it to be doesn't convert a mere sociological fact into a revelation. Similarly, to say that "context determines the actual, real-life consumption of the literary product, without which communication of a message (formal, substantive, ideological) cannot occur" seems to me little more than a truism, and belies the question whether "communication of a message" is the goal a poet ought to be setting for him/herself. It is the goal that Silliman is setting, although in his practice as a poet he does concentrate on the "formal" message, through which the substantive and ideological are finally expressed.
. . .To be continued.
Lee Siegel recently opined that "fiction has now become a museum-piece genre most of whose practitioners are more like cripplingly self-conscious curators or theoreticians than writers. For better or for worse, the greatest storytellers of our time are the nonfiction writers":
You want to read a great story about American politics today, overflowing with sharp character portraits, and keen evocations of American places, and a ripping narrative? Read Mr. Remnick's book on Obama, because you won't find it in American fiction. Looking to immerse yourself in a fascinating tale of contemporary finance? Forget fiction. Pick up Michael Lewis' latest book-not to mention his earlier ones. Yearning for a saga of American money and class? Well, Dreiser is dead, and there sure isn't anyone to take his place, so go out and get T.J. Stiles' The First Tycoon, an epic telling of the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
No doubt if you think fiction ought to be "about American politics today," or provide a "fascinating tale of contemporary finance" or a "saga of American money and class," you might agree with Siegel's claim that contemporary fiction doesn't measure up. On the other hand, Siegel doesn't really establish that in the "Golden Age" of American fiction many writers did these things, either. He rattles off a list of names, but among them--"Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Roth, Cheever, Malamud"--I can't identify one who will be remembered for writing novels about "American politics today" or "contemporary finance." I suppose a couple of them might be said to have written loosely about "money and class," but the best ones weren't directly considering money and class but were writing fiction in which "class" was tangentially involved. (Or if they did write directly about "money and class" --Rabbit is Rich comes to mind--this work was minor at best.) Those of us who cringe at the idea of novels about contemporary finance can only be thankful that neither these writers nor most current writers find it a fit subject for fiction regarded as literary art.
Siegel's displeasure doesn't really seem to be with fiction writers, anyway. He's lamenting that there aren't enough literary critics of the old school around, critics like Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin, who focused not on art but on "questions of life and society that a particular novel evoked." Siegel is himself a critic of this sort, and I'm sure if he really put his mind to it he could take almost any work of fiction and, ignoring its aesthetic qualities, belabor these "questions of life and society" to death. I assume that either he no longer wants to do this (diminishing returns) or contemporary fiction really has moved away from the need to "say something" about political and social affairs. I myself come across enough works of fiction that pretty clearly haven't renounced the effort of saying something that I can't really agree there's no longer enough grist for the cultural critic's mill, but if the embrace of nonfiction by people like Lee Siegel means they will henceforth just leave fiction and fiction writers alone, I heartily endorse it.
I am left with a similar feeling about Terry Teachout's recent assertion that "Reading demands a greater investment of time than looking at a complicated painting, and the average reader is not prepared to invest that much time in a book, no matter what critics say about it. I feel the same way. I suppose I could get to the bottom of "Finnegans Wake" if I worked at it—but would it be worth the trouble?" As with Siegel, I think Teachout is both correct and deeply wrong. It is probably true that "the average reader" is not going to devote much time to "difficult" books, but literature-as-art necessarily isn't much interested in the "average reader." Average readers can no longer summon up much patience with Shakespeare, or with Dickens or Melville or Henry James, or most poetry. These writers, as well as Joyce in Finnegans Wake, assumed that most of their readers (or, with Shakespeare, their listeners) would make the effort needed to appreciate their work on its own terms or else leave it alone. I can't see there's anything untoward about this arrangement. That some readers might find the work excessively difficult certainly isn't an argument that writers ought to avoid alienating such readers.
If Terry Teachout thinks Finnegans Wake wouldn't reward his effort, so be it. Many others find its singular kind of difficulty especially rewards the attempt to "get to the bottom of" it (and it would be the attempt that matters, since no one will ever really get to the "bottom"--something that is true of all great literature). Should serious fiction ultimately have to do without Terry Teachout (or Lee Siegel) as audience members, I don't think their absence will be registered that keenly.
In his part history of Bulgarian literature/part survey of the career of contemporary Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov, Dimiter Kenarov remarks that to appreciate Gospopdinov "one does not have to be Bulgarian, or to know the name of the Bulgarian president" and that his novel Natural Novel (Dalkey Archive) "has all the necessary visas to travel comfortably between countries and translations without losing the identity of its vision." In his review of the novel, J. M. Tyree echoes this assertion of Gospodinov's transnational appeal by suggesting that Natural Novel "belongs more to the cosmopolitan postmodern aesthetic of Italo Calvino than its native locale" and that "the novel could have been set almost anywhere."
It was my experience of Natural Novel as well that a distinctively Bulgarian milieu seemed curiously absent, although Bulgarian readers would surely be more readily able to identify those elements of such a milieu that are depicted. And it was also my experience that the novel had something in common with the work of a writer like Calvino, or with the "postmodern aesthetic" in general. It may be the second impression that is partly responsible for the first, but in Natural Novel, postmodernism is applied so lightly that its "cosmopolitan" effect can't really fully account for the fact the novel "could have been set almost anywhere."
Natural Novel shares this characteristic with two other works of Eastern European fiction I have read in the past few years, Magdalena Tulli's Flaw and Dumitru Tsepeneag's Vain Art of the Fugue. Since my acquaintance with contemporary fiction from Eastern European countries is limited, I do not want to make generalizations about it--although Kenarov's essay does seem to suggest that it is precisely Gospodinov's "cosmopolitan" approach that makes him a significant figure among current Bulgarian writers--nor could I offer any especially keen insights that would explain the abstracted, "anywhere" quality of these three books, even if there is some cultural or literary factor that unites them. What immediately comes to mind as a possible explanation is a post-Communist rejection of "realism" as a whole, including but not restricted to the "socialist" variety, which entails a movement away from local details and cultural "texture" and, perhaps, an embrace of the Western decadence of postmodernism.
Although I enjoyed all three of these novels, most recently Natural Novel, their accessibility "between countries and translations" ultimately leaves me feeling ambivalent about them and about the "globalization" of fiction more generally. On the one hand, their metafictional strategies are appealing to me, as a reader sympathetic to this postmodern variant, but on the other hand I also find the thinness of detail and texture vaguely unsastisfying. One of the arguments often made on behalf of translated fiction is precisely that it provides us an avenue of increased acquaintance with "foreign" cultures, but a book like Natural Novel often seems to reflect our own culture back to American readers, both in literal references to American culture ("Remember how in Pulp Fiction Bruce Willis goes back to get his watch and decides to toast Pop Tarts, while Travolta is reading in the john?" one man asks another in a conversation about toilets) and in its fragmented and self-conscious narrative devices, most of which seem to me to derive primarily from American postmodernism--indeed, while writers like Calvino and Borges are among the original inspirations of literary postmodernism, that inspiration was initially and most fully expressed in postmodern American fiction of the 1960s and 1970s. Natural Novel finally reads to me most like a synthesis of the narrative manner and techniques of writers such as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Gilbert Sorrentino.
This familiarity perhaps helps Gospodinov or Tulli more easily find English-language readers, but I wonder if these writers aren't being translated in the first place because their work is more likely to attract such an audience as exists for translations. A work like Natural Novel certainly offers itself to a critic who must read it in translation (namely me) in a more readily accessible way--if nothing else, I have a working knowledge of postmodern devices and the postmodern sensibility--but I can't think that a globalized fiction that makes it less necessary to attend to Bulgarian or Polish or Rumanian as literary languages with their own distinctive features, or that mitigates the effort to understand an "alien" culture, is altogether a good thing.
If it is at all possible to call a novel a "poet's novel," Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (Coffee House Press) would seem literally to be one. Its author, Travis Nichols, is currently an editor at the Poetry Foundation, writes a poetry column for the Huffington Post, and, as far as I can tell, has prior to this book mostly if not exclusively written poetry, including a collection, Iowa, published earlier this year.
Is this, then, a poet's novel only in the narrowest, most reductively descriptive sense (he's a poet who has written a novel) or is it a novel informed by the sensibility and the assumptions about form and language more specific to poetry, and thus one to be judged according to those assumptions rather than those readers and reviewers usually themselves bring to the consideration of fiction? If the latter, should we consider Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder some kind of hybrid of poetry and fiction, a separate category of fiction (or of poetry), or should we simply look for it to bring to our reading of fiction something different, some strategy or emphasis we don't ordinarily allow for in our reading of plot- or character-driven novels?
It is the success of Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder that it poses, and partially answers, these questions; it is its failure that those answers are only partial, and to some extent unsatisfying. The novel seems clearly enough written against the grain of the approach taken by most professional novelists, an approach that encourages immediate engagement with character and event, establishes context through setting and relevant background, above all eases the reader's way into and through the story with an exposition-laden prose. It really doesn't do these things, at least not quickly or directly, and doesn't ever do the last-named. However, it does in my opinion eventually accede to the essence of this approach, even as it arrives at shared ends through somewhat unorthodox means.
Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder ultimately does tell the story of a World War II pilot who, along with his grandson and his girlfriend, visits in his old age the scene of his crash-landing in the Polish countryside. The story is told to us by the grandson, at least indirectly, as the novel takes the form of a series of letters written to "Luddie," the presumed rescuer of the grandfather (the grandson calls him the "Bombardier") who may or may not be still alive (it turns out she isn't). Through the letters, we learn a little bit about the narrator's own past, about the Bombardier's life since the war, about their trip to Poland, but most of the narrative is taken up with the trio's attempts to locate Luddie, the Bombardier's crash site, the presumed target of the bombing raid that resulted in the crash. The search is complicated by the Bombardier's obviously faulty memory, but the novel concludes with the trio's discovery of the ruins of the bombed-out target, presumably validating the Bombardier's remembered experience.
It's precisely this validation of the memory of heroism (even if the Bombardier doesn't necessarily think of it as such) that makes me less than satisfied with this novel, although it does redeem itself as a departure from novel-writing business as usual in other ways. Most readers will note from the beginning the narrator's oblique and repetitive prose style, as almost any chapter of the book will illustrate:
Something has happened to me, but it is not what I thought would happen to me when I told you something was going to happen to me.
Something has happened to me because I left New England and came back to the Midwest, where I was born.
I should have know better than to come back to where I was born because time is not a circle.
Is it a line?
I should have known better because it's always dangerous to come back, especially if you leave from a new home to come back to where you were born. It's always dangerous because if you give where you were born a chance, it will wrap its roots around your insides and pull you down close to the ground. (Chapter 2)
The narrator's letters act neither as "chatty" correspondence nor as a narrative device that substitutes for conventional expository narration but could just as easily be replaced with some other device that gets the story told. The narrator's halting, circuitous language emphasizes its own unfolding as language, working to ensure that we are always as aware of this language as we are the story it is struggling to move along. The narrator is struggling with the story, and the manner of telling reinforces that struggle. Perhaps we could say that this method is "poetic," not so much because more often than not language is laid out on the page in a compressed way that seems "verse-like" but because it does stress so concertedly the effort to find efficacious expression of what one wants to say, to find the right means and medium.
In wondering whether time is, in fact "a line," the narrator is also announcing the novel's preoccupation with the relationship of time and memory, whether the latter always conditions the former, or whether it is possible to get an accurate sense of the former while thinking of it as a "line." The narrator moves in circles recording his own and the Bombardier's experiences, and the trio themselves essentially move in circles while trying to pin down the location of the Bombardier's crash. The novel seems to be suggesting that time--or what really happened--is inevitably lost in the attempt to recall it, or to narrate it, even, or perhaps especially, something as momentous as World War II and the experiences of the "greatest generation" that fought it. But the last-minute discovery of the "real" site, however much stumbling around is involved in the process, left me, for one, feeling disappointed that Nichols didn't fully extend this meditation on our perception of time through to the novel's conclusion. It left me thinking that despite the haze the passing years had enveloped around the events of the war, the narrative was affirming that the haze was ultimately penetrable through determination and a little patience.
Thus it seems to me that Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder winds up to some extent reinforcing the discursive conventions of fiction. Its stylistic and structural departures delay and condition the resolution of the novel into a well-shaped narrative, but they ultimately provide it nonetheless. In doing so, the novel becomes less an effort to explore the borderlands between fiction and poetry as their boundaries have currently been determined, and more an acknowledgment of those boundaries. It's a book worth reading, however, as its modest challenges to novel-writing convention still make it a more satisfying reading experience than most literary fiction.
I think it is fair to say that, although particular books of his might receive a few less-than-effusive endorsements, Richard Russo is a highly regarded novelist among mainstream American book reviewers. Although Empire Falls seems to be the work that received the greatest praise, and remains a critical favorite, reviews of Russo's two most recent novels, Bridge of Sighs and That Old Cape Magic, only confirm Russo's standing. Ron Charles, not ordinarily given to hyperbole, called Bridge of Sighs "a lovely, deep-hearted novel," even though he also identified several seemingly serious flaws (and then wondered if "these complaints sound more damning than I mean them to.") Janet Maslin found it "richly evocative and beautifully wrought, delivered with deceptive ease," further lauding Russo's "wonderfully unfashionable gift for effortless storytelling on a sweeping, multigenerational scale," while Glenn C. Altschuler swoons over That Old Cape Magic, declaring it "suffused with [Russo's] signature comic sensibility, and with insights, by turns tender and tough, about human frailty, forbearance, fortitude, and fervor."
In support of such praise, reviewers most often cite Russo's ability to evoke a sense of place, especially his native upstate New York, his creation of believable characters to whom he seems to have "affection," his "comic sensibility," as Altschuler puts it, although this is sometimes referred to as his "wry" tone, as well as his lively, if uncomplicated, prose style. Most importantly, these virtues are put in the service of an emotionally resonant, "humane" vision that, if it doesn't always make us feel good, nevertheless satisfyingly reveals to us what it means "to be human." ("When you finish a Russo novel," writes Geoff Schumacher in his review of TOCM "you feel you have really learned something about how human beings function.") You may like some of Russo's books more than others, but they are all "deep-hearted."
Presumably many readers agree with these assessments, since, among "literary" writers, Russo is one of the most popular. And it may indeed be the case that to the extent there is a larger audience for "serious" fiction, a writer like Richard Russo is what those readers (and critics) want. However, although I can understand why many readers might enjoy Russo's novels, which provide a kind of expansive realism and a cast of characters with whom to "identify," I can't accept that this sort of fiction qualifies as "serious" or "literary" or that reviewers would so readily and eagerly celebrate Russo's novels as such. Both the qualities that might make his novels "good reads" and that make them critically embarrassing choices as exemplars of aesthetically serious fiction can be seen in Bridge of Sighs and That Old Cape Magic.
Bridge of Sighs is a family saga centering around the life of Lou C. ("Lucy") Lynch, introduced to us as a 60 year-old married man and proprietor of several convenience stores. Told mostly from Lucy's point of view, the novel chronicles Lucy's childhood in Thomaston, an upstate New York equivalent of a decaying mill town, his love/hate relationship with his parents (love for his father, a good deal of hate for his mother), his intense friendship (intense on Lucy's part, at least) for Bobby Marconi, his courtship of Sarah, who eventually becomes his wife. Most of the drama enacted among these characters is pretty soapy. Indeed, as Louis Menand has it, Bridge of Sighs is "high-quality soap opera," distinguishable from a book like Peyton Place mostly in that it is "gentler."
Menand thinks that the characters in Bridge of Sighs are nevertheless "convincingly alive" (as arguably they are not in Peyton Place), but I can't quite agree. Lucy Lynch is a plausible enough creation (although I don't completely believe in his utter passivity and his attachment to the dreary Thomaston), but the other characters are too neatly arranged into palpable dualisms: the saintly Sarah and the whorish Karen, both of whom might be vying for Lucy's affection; the gregarious and optimistic Lou, Sr., who dotes on Lucy, and the impatient, disabused Tessa, who tries to make her son face reality; the shiftless but lovable Gabriel Mock, a black man who befriends Lucy and the industrious if stern Miss Rosa, whom Sarah meets near the end of the novel (that these are the portraits Russo is able to make of African-American characters seems especially unfortunate, although both characters are forced to speak in a thoroughly unconvincing rendition of Black English). These flaws notwithstanding, by far the least convincing character in the book is Bobby Marconi, or at least the version of Bobby that becomes "Robert Noonan," a world-renowned artist who managed to leave Thomaston and then find his calling as an artistic genius--a calling for which there is no hint whatsoever in the depiction of Bobby Marconi.
I do agree with Menand that it is a strength of Russo's writing that he is able to convincingly portray a sense of place, to use a town like Thomaston to illustrate "the postwar metamorphosis of places like Thomaston. . .from self-sufficient centers of minor industry into faceless, interchangeable nodes in the giant exurban sprawl." As Menand suggests, Russo is able to do this by taking towns like Thomaston seriously in all their specificity, focusing on things like "what happens when a new A. & P. comes to town--it puts the milkman out of work and the corner grocery store out of business." If nothing else, one leaves Bridge of Sighs with a strong impression of the reality of Thomaston, and towns like it. This is a not insignificant achievement, and to the extent critics base their esteem for Russo on it they are to some extent justified, although most reviewers focus on setting as simply a sociological given rather than on how Russo engages with setting aesthetically-how he makes it aesthetically credible.
That Old Cape Magic also strongly evokes setting, although in this case it couldn't really be farther removed, metaphorically, at least, from the socially marginalized setting of Bridge of Sighs. This novel is framed by two trips to Cape Cod, and much of the rest is concerned with the protagonist's memories of family trips there. Although the protagonist's family was in a sense rooted in the "Mid-fucking-west," as his parents called it, those roots were not planted voluntarily--his parents were academics who were exiled there by the exigencies of the job market--and place in this novel is simply the scene of family drama rather than, as in Bridge of Sighs, a source of those forces that shape the family drama. The Griffins wanted out of Indiana, son Jack has only professional reasons for living first in Los Angeles (he is a screenwriter) and then in Connecticut (where he goes to teach screenwriting), and Cape Cod was significant to Jack' parents only because it represented the place in the social hierarchy they believed they should occupy. The Griffins couldn't even bring themselves to buy a house in their college town, preferring to rent out the houses of colleagues on sabbatical.
The Griffins eventually divorce, and most of That Old Cape Magic alternates between episodes in which Jack either reminisces about his parents and their eventual fates or attempts to deal with his still-living mother (while carrying around his recently deceased father's ashes in the trunk of his car) and episodes that essentially chronicle the process of his own marriage's failure. Where Bridge of Sighs is a soap opera of the small-town working class, That Old Cape Magic is a soap opera of the cosmopolitan middle class. If you think the psychological "turmoil" of a late-middle-aged screenwriter turned academic is the stuff of great drama, you may appreciate the novel, but if you'd rather that a novel have some aesthetic interest beyond the tedious recounting of curdled affluence, you will likely find it, as I did, quite a snooze (although of mercifully short duration, as Russo novels go).
The portrayal of the parents as academics with monstrous egos is presumably an instance of the "humor" of which so many reviewers of Russo's fiction take note, but it seems to me more vicious than funny, although I guess there's still a little entertainment value in the viciousness. Another example of Russo's humor must be a scene late in the book in which a man in a wheelchair finds himself upside down in a tree. This didn't seem cruel so much as an obvious attempt to inject "comedy" into a novel that otherwise doesn't have much. Some reviewers in emphasizing Russo's "humanity" speak of his "optimism," and I guess in ending more or less happily (the protagonist and his wife are cautiously reunited) That Old Cape Magic is optimistic, or "deep-hearted," but it really only reinforces the soap opera, although in this case not very effectively. Here the happy ending doesn't seem so much earned or unearned as also merely perfunctory. Since I didn't really understand what the problem with the protagonist's marriage was in the first place (something to do with his preoccupation with the past, I think), their reunion at the end seemed equally unaccountable.
In his review of Bridge of Sighs, Stephen Metcalf remarks that Russo is "among the least 'meta” writers going,' but there are, surprisingly enough, some "meta" elements in both of these novels. In Bridge of Sighs, Lucy Lynch reports to us that he is writing a memoir about his younger days, so presumably that memoir is the source of much of his narrative, although not all of it, and at times the narration switches to third-person accounts of both Sarah and Bobby Marconi, describing events at which Lucy cannot be present. In That Old Cape Magic, Jack Griffin writes a long story based on one of his family's summer stays at the Cape, which is presented as a more or less truthful rendition of events, as if it isn't a story at all, even though it is eventually published in a literary magazine as fiction. Later in the novel, his mother tells him on her deathbed a version of her life with his father he has not heard before, a story he calls the "Morphine Narrative" and which he assumes is fiction, but can't be sure. In both novels, then, we are given reasons to doubt the accuracy and reliability of the narratives we are reading--Is Lucy's version of events what really happened, or is it unavoidably colored by his retrospective self-interest? Are the third-person sections devoted to Sarah and Bobby actually being written by Lucy as well, speculating about their actions? If the morphine narrative is correct, does that make the story of Griffin's past as otherwise related through his possibly flawed perspective unreliable even beyond his already uncertain, filtered memories?
Unfortunately, while the novels inherently raise these questions, potentially adding an intriguing complexity to the narrative method, a judicious reading of each suggests that these interpolated narratives and narrative devices are to be taken at face value, as, in Bridge of Sighs, the immediate motivation of Lucy's story, but no more than the occasion of Lucy's retrospection and thus of the beginning of the novel we are reading, and, in That Old Cape Magic, a facet of the protagonist's professional life and a feature of the age of pharmaceuticals. In both novels, "writing" is beside the point beyond the fact it gets the story underway or helps it keep moving along. The "meta" elements are supplements to character and plot, not opportunities to provide aesthetic depth through a beneficial thematic ambiguity--or rather they are such opportunities but this case squandered ones.
In concluding her review of That Old Cape Magic, Elaine Showalter observes that, whatever the novel's virtues, they will manage "to keep most readers entertained until the movie comes out." I suspect that, as with other works of "literary fiction" that could easily enough be transformed into movie scripts, the movie versions of both Bridge of Sighs and That Old Cape Magic would probably be better than the novels. Indeed, I'm not sure why they weren't written as film scripts rather than novels, since there's very little in them that depends on the novel as a form for their appeal. Indeed, one can imagine them as "quirky" indy films or even "quality" Lifetime movies without much if any diminution of effect. Why reviewers so revere Russo as a serious novelist is a mystery to me.
The most problematic chapter of Art as Experience, in my opinion, is the last, Ch. 13, "Art and Civilization." It is an attempt to delineate the role of art and the aesthetic beyond the experience of the individual, its influence on culture and its contribution to "civilization" as that has manifested itself in human history. Central to the whole discussion is Dewey's contention that "every culture has its own collective individuality" that "leaves its own indelible imprint upon the art that is produced" (330).
On the one hand, this seems an innocuous enough reminder that artists emerge from a "culture" the assumptions and character of which are going to color the artist's work in one way or another. On the other hand, I don't really understand what is added to this acknowledgement by calling cultural influences a "collective individuality." It may be true that "the material of esthetic experience in being human. . .is social" (325), but it seems to me that aesthetic experience is social only in the most trivial sense of the term. The "material" of art and the experience of art is certainly human, but how could it be otherwise? The artist draws on his/her experience as a human being among other human beings and human institutions but it seems quite a leap to affirm this undeniable fact by claiming that aesthetic experience "is a manifestation, a record and celebration of the life of a civilization, a means of promoting its development." It is an awful burden to place on the solitary acts of aesthetic creation and perception to require they contribute to the health of both society and civilization.
"For while [art] is produced and enjoyed by individuals," Dewey writes, "those individuals are what they are in the content of their experiences because of the cultures in which they participate." While again I would not want to deny the truthfulness of this assertion, I can't see that it leads to any necessary insights about the relationship between art and culture. Artists can't avoid being, in part, products "of the cultures in which they participate," and to hold culture responsible for the artist's work, or to hold the artist responsible for culture, is a move that I can't myself make. It seems a strange one for Dewey to make, since he has spent the rest of his book making a case for the self-sufficiency of the individual's experience of art, however much he insists on aesthetic experience as continuous with human experience as a whole.
Ultimately I don't think Dewey does want to subordinate art to the social and cultural--indeed, much of the previous chapter of Art as Experience examines the flaws in critical approaches that do this. In a way, it's Dewey's high regard for art and the value of aesthetic experience that prompts him to associate them with "the quality of civilization." He knows that aesthetic experience consists of the intense, and private, encounter with the work of art, but he also thinks that the benefits of such an encounter ought to be as widely shared as possible, that finally the experience of art must have more than a private significance. It is hard not to sympathize with this aspiration.
Unfortunately, in order to elevate art to its rightful place, Dewey must dilute its effects. He thus surveys its role as a carrier of historical information, as supplement to religion, as cultural marker, as medium of universal communication, as a possible complement to science. He also discusses science's extension into technology through industrial practice, arguing that the split between "useful" and fine art has become so thorough as to be the real source of worker alienation, which won't be overcome "until the mass of men and women who do the useful work of the world have the opportunity to be free in conducting the processes of production and are richly endowed in capacity for enjoying the fruits of collective work." For Dewey "enjoying the fruits of collective work" means the appreciation of work for its aesthetic satisfactions, not sharing in the monetary profits, but while this may be Dewey's sincerely held alternative to the Marxist solution of the labor problem, locating an "aesthetic" experience in operating heavy machinery only makes it a more diffuse concept less useful in accounting for actual works of art.
Dewey concludes the final chapter, and the book, by attributing art's greatest good to its exercise of "imaginative vision," leaning heavily on Shelley in evoking the "unacknowledged" influence of art.
The union that is presented in perception [of art] persists in the remaking of impulsion and thought. The first intimations of wide and large redirections of desire and purpose are of necessity imaginative. Art is a mode of prediction not found in charts and statistics, and it insinuates possibilities of human relations not to be found in rule and precept, admonition and administration. (349)
This seems to me a rather tepid and overly familiar justification of art. I much prefer this, from the paragraph preceding the passage just quoted:
Because art is wholly innocent of ideas derived from praise and blame, it is looked upon with the eyes of suspicion by guardians of custom, or only the art that is itself so old and "classic" as to receive conventional praise is grudgingly admitted, provided, as with, say the case of Shakespeare, signs of regard for conventional morality can be ingeniously extracted from his work. Yet this indifference to praise and blame because of preoccupation with imaginative experience constitutes the heart of the moral potency of art. From it proceeds the liberating and uniting power of art.
John Dewey's conception of the role of criticism is quite straightforward and follows naturally from his conception of art:
The function of criticism is the reeducation of perception of works of art; it is an auxiliary in the process, a difficult process, of learning to see and hear. The conception that its business is to appraise, to judge in the legal and moral sense, arrests the perception of those who are influenced by the criticism that assumes this task. The moral office of criticism is performed indirectly. The individual who has an enlarged and quickened experience is one who should make for himself his own appraisal. . .The moral function of art itself is to remove prejudice, do away with the scales that keep the eye from seeing, tear away the veils due to wont and custom, perfect the power to perceive. The critic's office is to further this work, performed by the object of art. (Art as Experience, Ch. 13 (325)
One might prefer to think of the critic's task as simply the education of perception, although Dewey no doubt uses "reeducation" deliberately. So much of modern life inhibits the process of "learning to see and hear," making it all the more difficult than it is already given the influence of "wont and custom." Too often critics themselves work as impediments to clear perception, in particular those who intercede a "judicial" (Dewey's word for the approach to criticism that replaces explanation and analysis with a simplistic rendering of critical decision) and moralistic discourse between the work of art and those who need most to see and hear so they may finally judge for themselves. Both critic and audience need to be reeducated away from these habits.
For Dewey, a more useful form of "judgment" consists in distinguishing "particulars and parts with respect to their weight and function in formation of an integral experience." The critic must develop "a unifying point of view" with which to consider the work of art. However,
That the critic must discover some unifying strand or pattern running through all details does not signify that he must himself produce an integral whole. Sometimes critics of the better type substitute a work of art of their own for that they are professedly dealing with. The result may be art but it is not criticism. The unity the critic traces must be in the work of art as its characteristic. This statement does not signify that there is just one unifying idea or form in a work of art. There are many, in proportion to the richness of the object in question. What is meant is that the critic shall seize upon some strain or strand that is actually there, and bring it forth with such clearness that the reader has a new clue and guide in his own experience. (314)
While a critic of the "better type"--the type that is lauded for his or her own critical writing to the extent that it comes to take precedence over the writing under review--might be tempted to "judge" a work by comparing it to the work the critics thinks should have been produced but wasn't, the critic who sticks to the "object" (in literature, the text) actually in front of him/her is the one who is finally engaged in the act of criticism. The literary critic is obliged to honestly examine the characteristics the text exhibits, although he/she is not obliged to account for every characteristic that might be felt. The "unity" the critic posits is not a global unity that exhausts the work's formal or thematic possibilities but could be simply a "strain or strand" that does give the text coherence when shown to connect it's particulars in a satisfying way. As Dewey says, there are many such strands, "in proportion to the richness of the object in question," and one critic's analysis of "unity" can be supplemented by additional kinds of unity demonstrated by other critics.
In addition, the truly valuable critic avoids what Dewey thinks are the two "fallacies" of criticism. "Reductive" criticism occurs "when some constituent of the work of art is isolated and then the whole is reduced to terms of this single isolated element," or when the work is reduced to its historical, political, or economic circumstances. Dewey finds psychoanalytic and sociological criticism especially reductive. With the former, "If the factors spoken of are real and not speculative, they are relevant to biography, but they are wholly impertinent as to the character of the work itself." As to the latter:
Historical and cultural information may throw light on the causes of [the work's] production. But when all is said and done, each one is just what it is artistically, and its esthetic merits and demerits are within the work. Knowledge of social conditions of production is, when it is really knowledge, of genuine value. But it is no substitute for understanding of the object in its own qualities and relations. (316)
Thus academic criticism of the historicist and cultural studies varieties may result in something that could be called knowledge (although not always), but it is not knowledge of literature.
The second fallacy, "confusion of categories," can be related to the first when the critic fails to acknowledge this autonomy of the aesthetic. It happens when "critics as well as theorists are given to the attempt to translate the distinctively esthetic over into terms of some other kind of experience." The most common manifestation of this fallacy is the assumption
that the artist begins with material that has already a recognized status, moral, philosophic, historical, or whatever, and then renders it more palatable by emotional seasoning and imaginative dressing. The work of art is treated as if it were a reediting of values already current in other fields of experience. (318)
Thus the religious poet is declared to be the spokesman for a set of religious values, the philosophical poet for a particular philosophy, etc. But
medium and effect are the important matters. . .I imagine the majestic art of Paradise Lost will be more, not less admitted, and the poem be more widely read, when rejection of its themes of Protestant theology has passed into indifference and forgetfulness. . .The mise-en-scene of Milton's portrayal of the dramatic action of great forces need not be esthetically troublesome, any more than is that of the Iliad to the modern reader. There is a profound distinction between the vehicle of a work of art, the intellectual carrier through which an artist receives his subject-matter and transmits it to his immediate audience, and both the form and matter of his work. (318)
Protestant theology is Milton's "intellectual carrier." Paradise Lost is what it is, aesthetically. The literary critic who confuses these things, who allows the "carrier" to supersede "the intrinsic signifance of the medium" (319) is not a literary critic.
John Dewey perhaps articulates his notion of "art as experience" most straightforwardly near the beginning of the chapter devoted to art's "challenge to philosophy" (ch. XII):
. . .esthetic experience is experience in its integrity. Had not the term "pure" been so often abused in philosophic literature, had it not been so often employed to suggest that there is something alloyed, impure, in the very nature of experience and to denote something beyond experience, we might say that esthetic experience is pure experience. For it is experience freed from the forces that impede and confuse its development as experience; freed, that is, from factors that subordinate an experience as it is directly had to something beyond itself. To esthetic experience, then, the philosopher must go to understand what experience is.
It should be said that art is "pure experience" if and when the reader/viewer/listener allows the experience its "integrity." This does not always happen, of course. Many predispositions can work to "impede and confuse" aesthetic perception, especially the aesthetic perception of works of literature, as readers subordinate the experience itself to various concerns that are finally extraneous to a concern for the work's aesthetic integriy, from the expectation that a novel should have an "exciting plot" or "characters I can care about" to the assumption that a literary work should be scrutinized for what it "has to say" or what it "reveals about our society." Since it is art's aesthetic integrity--its ability to unify disparate elements into a seamless whole--that for Dewey makes art valuable in the first place, these obstacles subvert the very purpose of literature as an artistic form.
Most literary criticism, especially academic criticism in its current iterations but also much general-interest book reviewing as well, can be characterized as anti-literary in this way. Critics and reviewers seldom assess a work of fiction (the situation of poetry is not so dire in this regard) for its creation of (or lack of) aesthetic unity. The reviewer settles for plot summary and a cursory evaluation, usually based on unstated or unexamined standards, while the academic critic interrogates the text for its value as a cultural symptom. Later in this chapter, Dewey writes that "Since a work of art is the subject-matter of experiences heightened and intensified, the purpose that determines what is esthetically essential is precisley the formation of an experience as an experience." Unless critics attend to the way in which a literary work stimulates "the formation of an experience as an experience," and subsequently evaluate the quality of the experience so induced, they are missing what is "esthetically essential"--and for Dewey, as for me, to miss what is aesthetically essential is to miss what is essential about all art.1
Dewey believed that although philosophers have long been inspired to investigate the nature of art and aesthetic experience, they have in particular failed to appreciate what is "essential" about both. And this follows from a more general failure to appreciate what is essential about experience. Philosophers from Plato to Kant to Croce have gestured at "something beyond experience" itself as the truly real. Experience as the humble, ordinary act of perceiving the tangible details of the world in front of us cannot possibly connect us to absolute reality, which is transcendent and ideal. Art, therefore, is a means of capturing this larger reality. Dewey is among those philosophers who reorient philosophy to the consideration of perceptible reality and in his philosophy of art tries to orient us to the concrete reality of aesthetic experience.
1 There are legitimate forms of literary criticism that appropriately do not focus on aesthetic analysis. Certain kinds of historical or cultural criticism attempt to locate the work contextually, which is a perfectly good thing to do, but I would call this kind of criticism a supplement to aesthetic criticism, not a substitute for it.
A more familiar, if not necessarily more precise, term for the faculty involved in the act of artistic creation John Dewey identifies as "intuition" is "imagination," the latter of which Dewey discusses immediately after introducing the former in Chapter XI of Art as Experience:
In what precedes, I have said nothing about imagination. "Imagination" shares with "beauty" the doubtful honor of being the chief theme in esthetic writings of enthusiastic ignorance. More perhaps than any other phase of the human contribution, it has been treated as a special and self-contained faculty, differing form others in possession of mysterious potencies.
While Dewey himself is not above invoking "mysterious" processes such as "flash of revelation" in describing intuition, he does hesitate to attribute magical properties to imagination.
It is the large and generous blending of interests at the point where the mind comes in contact with the world. When old and familiar things are made new in experience, there is imagination. When the new is created, the far and strange become the most natural inevitable things in the world. There is always some measure of adventure in the meeting of mind and universe, and this adventure is, in its measure, imagination.
The use of passive voice here--"old and familiar things are made new in experience," "the new is created"--is not simply clumsy writing (although Dewey's prose does sometimes have a clumsily hurried quality, as if he is choosing the words that most immediately come to mind), but expresses Dewey's restraint in considering the nature of imagination. He resists the idea that it is a "power" that acts on experience but instead sees it as a function of experience: "[A]n imaginative experience is what happens when varied materials of sense quality, emotion, and meaning come together in a union that marks a new birth in the world."
Unless regarded as this kind of "union," imagination becomes merely the "imaginary," which "gives familiar experience a strange guise by clothing it in unusual garb, as of a supernatural apparition." With the imaginary, "mind and material do not squarely meet and interpenetrate." The artist "toys with material rather than boldly grasping it." A truly imaginative artist does not distort or supersede experience for the sake of fancy. (Dewey cites Coleridge's distinction between imagination and fancy.) However much the "real" may be transformed by imagination (Dewey is not making a case for realism), it is not reduced to mere fantasy. Imagination makes the intangible tangible because "possibilities are embodied in works of art that are not elsewhere actualized." Art makes the real visible.
Dewey more specifically identifies the difference between the imaginative and the imaginary by making a further distinction between what he calls "inner" and "outer" vision.
There is a stage in which the inner vision seems much richer and finer than any outer manifestation. It has a vast and enticing aura of implications that are lacking in the object of external vision. It seems to grasp much more than the latter conveys. Then there comes a reaction; the matter of the inner vision seems wraith-like compared with the solidity and energy of the presented scene. The object is felt to say something succinctly and forcibly that the inner vision reports vaguely, in diffuse feeling rather than organically. The artist is driven to submit himself in humility to the discipline of the objective vision. But the inner vision is not cast out. It remains as the organ by which outer vision is controlled, and it takes on structure as the latter is absorbed within it.
The artist who insists on his "inner vision," who remains satisfied with that inner vision, is likely to only indulge in the imaginary. The artist who is willing to "submit himself in humility to the discipline of the objective vision" (who must accept the demands of the outer vision or there is no art) will, potentially at least, discover the fuller possibilities of the imagination. The imagination isn't confined to the reveries of the fantasist. It requires the "solidity and energy" of the "objective vision," of the art object itself, the making of which is the ultimate exercise of imagination.
The artist who devotes his/her attention to the "objective vision" finds "the object is felt to say something." Dewey is probably using the construction "say something" very loosely, to indicate that the work as shaped turns out to express the sharpest and most far-reaching vision, but it might mislead us into thinking that the vagueness of the inner vision becomes the more clearly enunciated "theme" through outer vision. Something closer to the opposite is true. The disciplined artist allows the work itself to find what it will say; its meaning will develop "organically," not as the figural rendering of the artist's "intention." The artist feels that the object has spoken. If inner vision "takes on structure as the [outer vision] is absorbed within it," the artist ends up "saying" what the work has said.
By and large, John Dewey's pragmatic philosophy did not really have much room for a preoccupation with history. Dewey most emphasized the possibility of "growth," the forward-looking realization of potential, whether in education, politics, or art. History might hold some illustrative value, but only as it is relevant to the present or the future, only as history contributes to the enhancement of the present and future.
One might surmise, therefore, that Dewey would not particularly esteem "tradition" in the arts. And indeed he does in Art as Experience reject tradition as an end-in-itself, dwelling instead on the "adventurous" nature of the best art, art that takes account of the "emergence of new materials of experience demanding expression" by creating "new forms and techniques." But Dewey understands that the "new" in art also relies on "a particular background of experience":
Of this background, traditions form a large part. It is not enough to have direct contacts and observations, indispensable as these are. Even the work of an original temperment may be relatively thin, as well as tending to the bizarre, when it is not informed with a wide and varied experience of the traditions of the art in which the artist operates. (265)
The work of an artist insufficiently grounded in the "forms and techniques" of the past might nevertheless be original, but that originality risks being meaningless (simply "bizarre") because the existing audience fails to recognize it as participating in the broader practices of "the art in which the artist operates," although the artist who does so participate might indeed wish to alter or modify those practices. The alterations keep the tradition itself alive even as the tradition makes the "new" possible. Indeed, much of the critical commentary on modernism and postmodernism has consisted of efforts to show that works immediately received as so singular as to seem completely alien are actually comprehensible within the formal, stylistic, or national traditions from which these works arise.
About literary traditions in particular Dewey suggests that "'Schools' of art are more marked in sculpture, architecture, and painting than in the liteary arts" but "there has been no great literary artist who did not feed upon the works of the masters of drama, poetry, and eloquent prose." Some writers merely imitate these masters, and for such a writer literary traditions "have not entered into his mind; into the structure of his own ways of seeing and making." Past practices "remain upon the surface as tricks of technique or as extraneous suggestions and conventions as to the proper thing to do" (265). One might object to Dewey's narrowing of the source of tradition to the "masters"; it isn't just the influence of the greatest writers that encourages the new contributions of current writers but, or so I would maintain, of literary history as a whole. "Tradition" does not rest in the indisputably "great" writers but in the continuity of fiction or poetry or drama even as manifested in lesser writers. As Dewey himself often insisted, it is best to think about human activities and institutions in terms of process rather than fixed result, so literary tradition is most usefully considered as an ongoing process of mutually reinforced conservation and change.
Artistic transformation occurs, then, when the artist with his/her "experience demanding expression" confronts tradition in an act of what Dewey calls "intuition," a
meeting of the old and new in which the readjustment involved in every form of consciousness is effected suddenly by means of a quick and unexpected harmony which in its bright abruptness is like a flash of revelation; although in fact it is prepared for by long and slow incubation.
Like most accounts of artistic creation, Dewey's suffers from a perhaps unavoidable vagueness, although "intuition" may be as accurate a term for naming the act of discovery that culminates in the work of art as any other. What Dewey adds to nebulous descriptions like "a quick and unexpected harmony" or "flash of revelation" is that the "bright abruptness" of intuition comes only after "long and slow incubation." Artistic intuition occurs against a background of previous creation. It is prompted by that creation.
The reader or audience also has a responsibility to tradition: "The perceiver, as much as the creator, needs a rich and developed background which, whether it be painting in the field of poetry, or music, cannot be achieved except by consistent nurture of interest." Since Dewey's position is that the value of art resides in the experience of it, then that experience would be thin indeed without this "developed background" of tradition. The adventurous work of art could be equally meaningless if the "perceiver" can't recognize the broader practices made visible by tradition, even if the work does encompass them.
To say that both artist and audience need an acquaintance with tradition is not to claim that either must devote lifetimes to the study of literature and literary history (although to do so couldn't hurt). They need "a wide and varied experience of the traditions of the art," but this means that it is the experience of those traditions that count, regarding which quality counts for more than quantity. "Wide and varied" does not mean encyclopedic. At some point, in fact, a pursuit of tradition for its own sake is as likely to impede our ability to experience art deeply as enable it, as the customary practices come to seem "normal" and departures from them unwelcome. In this way, a fixation on "great art," or a certain kind of great art, makes it less likely the tradition it otherwise nourishes will continue to thrive.
Readers familiar with Rebecca Goldstein's previous fiction would no doubt find that 36 Arguments for the Existence of God has much in common with the earlier work. It concerns itself with the intellectual nexus formed by science-mathematics-philosophy, is set in the campus world of academics, and supplements its focus on the life of the mind by introducing questions about Jewish identity and Judaism as a side interest. It is the sort of thing most readily identified as a "novel of ideas," although this novel may be the most insistent on foregrounding the "ideas" themselves as its central interest.
In novels such as The Mind-Body Problem (1989), Mazel (1995), and Properties of Light (2000), Goldstein takes as her subject characters working in the "hard" disciplines who struggle to reconcile their commitment to the intellectual rigor of these disciplines with their physical and emotional impulses that tempt them away from that commitment, in some cases toward the suspension of reason and rigor represented by religion and religious tradition. 36 Arguments continues the preoccupation with this subject but does so in the form of a conventional academic satire, a mode the earlier novels, for all their focus on academics and their eccentricites, did not really approach. These novels (as well as the short story collection, Strange Attractors) seemed to manifest an effort to satisfy both the demands of philosophy and of literary form (perhaps analagous to their protagonists' efforts to reconcile head and heart). Properties of Light, for example, finds a provocative way to use science to create a ghost story of sorts, as one of its characters comes back to quantumly "haunt" the woman responsible for his death.
36 Arguments for the Existence of God, however, doesn't really exhibit the same concern for transforming philosophy and science into literary devices. Granted, the "36 arguments" construct is used as a structural element, incorporated literally in the form of a series of propositions and their refutations as the novel's concluding section and metaphorically by providing the novel's chapter titles, but otherwise this novel presents few surprises either formally or thematically, proceeding as a garden-variety academic satire complete with bursting egos, pretentious-sounding projects, and fierce political in-fighting. It provides Goldstein with the opportunity to portray the current phenomenon of "new atheism," but its appeal is largely restricted to the examination of this phenomenon as a "current issuue." While some marginal interest might be added by dramatizing this phenomenon through attributing positions to fictionally depicted characters, finally not much about the controversy over new atheism is really illuminated by dressing it up as fiction rather than addressing it more straightforwardly through analysis and explication.
The most serious limitation of 36 Arguments, however, is that as satire it isn't very funny. None of the characters rise above facile caricature--the female characters are all in one way or another too much woman for the diffident protagonist--and emphasizing the decidedly Jewish names of campus buildings (at "Frankfurter University") and a college president named "Shimmy" only goes so far. The most egregious failure is the portrayal of Jonas Elijah Klapper, "Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature, and Values" and embodiment of pomposity, clearly enough modeled on Harold Bloom. Once one "gets" that this character is based on Bloom, the endless reiterations of his girth, his affected speech and mannerisms, and his encyclopedic references to Jewish mysticism become almost unbearable. It's never clear whether Klapper is meant to represent the foolishness of literary study in general, or of a particular kind of anti-scientific literary discourse, or whether he just signifies that it's inappropriate to be Harold Bloom. Whatever the case, we can only conclude that, as Gordon Haber puts it in his review of the novel, Klapper "is supposed to be a comic figure because his interest in Judaism leads to messianic delusions, and because he’s fat."
Because so much space is devoted to Jonas Elijah Klapper, and because presumably something is to be made of the contrast between Klapper's approach to "faith and values" and the approach the protagonist, originally a disciple of Klapper, eventually favors, or between Klapper's take on Judaism and that of "true" Hasidic Jews, or something or other, the insipidness of the novel's portrayal of him subverts any purely literary claims it might have to make on us. The flashbacks to this period in the protagonist's life prove almost completely superfluous and little in his interactions with other characters is of much interest. We are left with a subplot concerning the "Valdener Hasidim," a community of Hasidic Jews for whom both Klapper and the protagonist develop an increasing fondness. Interest focuses in particular on the current Valdener Rebbe and his heir apparent son, a mathematical genius in the making who is ultimately forced to choose between the potential of his genius and his responsibility to the community he is apparently destined to lead.
The protagonist, Cass Seltzer, a Frankfurter pyschologist who has written a surprise best seller called The Varieties of Religious Illusion, is himself not a very compelling character. He exists mostly as an opportunity for Goldstein to evoke the mileu he inhabits and to raise the issues of faith and belief with which the novel is principally concerned. He has the consumately "moderate" personality that allows him to empathize with believers even as he is chosen to make the case for nonbelief in a setpiece debate near the novel's conclusion. He is clearly enough regarded as the "winner" of the debate, yet his admiration of the community spirit that maintains the Valdeners in their traditions and of the decision by the son to continue those traditions after his father's death is also palpable. The narrative never deviates from Cass's perspective, and we are inevitably led to appreciate both his intellectual toughness and his soft spot for tradition and solidarity.
The novel's concluding episode, a joyous celebration of a Valdener wedding, veers away from satire and rests ultimate sympathy with the community practices of the Hasidic Jews. This is the sort of thing some readers find "moving" or "transcendent," but I find it muddled and maudlin. It doesn't seem to me to rescue a sense of "mystery" about human life but indicates a willingness to disregard the truth. It doesn't invest Cass Seltzer with additional "humanity" but confirms his ability to equivocate. Cass may not be a believer, but he'd really, really like to be one, the irrationality of belief notwithstanding. The right kind of religious belief--not too intense, but with a lot of dancing-- would be so nice and agreeable.
The Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog recently announced it is abandoning the "discussion model" to provide instead "a daily news feed with links and excerpts from other outlets around the world." This means that the site will no longer feature blog posts from a selected group of poets "discussing" poetry but will become like every other digest blog offering "news."
The PF is making this move because "The blog as a form has begun to be overtaken by social media like Twitter and Facebook. News of the poetry world now travels fastest and furthest through Twitter. . .with the information often picked up from news aggregator sites rather than discursive blogs." Further,
. . .anyone involved in the more dynamic discussions of poetry, poetics, or politics in the past year knows that more and more of the most vibrant interactions have been found on Facebook. We saw this happening last month as our National Poetry Month posts traveled far and wide through various status updates, wall postings, and links.
I always thought the "discussion model" used at Harriet was a little too chatty, too often short on extended analysis, but nevertheless I checked in on the blog several times a week and usually found some posts on the practice and reading of poetry that were well worth my time. I can with some certainty say I will never look at the site again, as it now gives in to the preoccupation with the "fastest and furthest" that characterizes too much of the blogosphere. "News of the poetry world" will replace the consideration of actual poetry.
I don't know whether "the blog as a form has begun to be overtaken by social media like Twitter and Facebook," at least where serious commentary on poetry and fiction is concerned. That it has overtaken the blog as a source of quasi-public instant messaging is probably true, and to the extent this leaves the weblog as a space that might be put to use for more substantive discourse is a good thing. But why the PF would think that Twitter-type shout-outs would be better for poetry than the "discursive blog" is not something I can understand.
Is more "information" what we really need? Does the rapid-fire posting of ephemera amount to "dynamic discussions" or does it just reduce the discussion of poetry to the same relentless focus on trivia that characterizes the coverage of movies, of celebrity culture in general? What seems to me to be motivating the Harriet change of approach--what seems to be motivating the Twitterization of online discourse in general--is precisely the desire to see what is posted disseminated "far and wide through various status updates, wall postings, and links," not a concern for the substance of the post. The mere accumulation of friends, followers, and hits, evidence of "interaction," is the end-in-itself.
The digest form of weblog has existed from the beginnings of the blogosphere, is probably the original, most recognizable form of blog. Plenty of them still exist and provide useful "news." If Twitter now performs this function more efficiently, so be it, but that doesn't seem to be a good reason to transform all blogs into versions of Twitter. Both poetry and fiction need more "discursive blogs" examining the news that stays news, not fewer.
NOTE Andrew Wessels at A Compulsive Reader has some similar thoughts.
David Biespiel is convinced that "America’s poets are uniquely qualified to speak openly in the public square among diverse or divisive communities," despite their current "intractable and often disdainful disinterest in participating in the public political arena outside the realm of poetry." Although he assures us he agrees that "a poet must make his way in the world as best fits his vision for himself as an artist," nevertheless his essay is so filled with apocalyptic urgency about the need for poets to reclaim a role in "civic discourse" it clearly implies that those who settle for "quiet rooms of contemplation" are neglecting their responsibilities both to democracy and to poetry.
Biespiel wants to maintain a distinction between poets writing a deliberately "civic" poetry and using the "gravitas" that comes from being a poet simply to speak out on public affairs, but ultimately he really can't keep his frustration with the "cliquish" and "self-reflexive" nature of contemporary poetry from condemning it outright, not just for its civic derelictions but for its retreat into "art-affirming debates over poetics and styles." In other words, poetry has become satisfied with the "merely literary."
To an extent, Biespiel's essay seems to me an effort to shame poets into entering public debates by comparing their retreat into insular "coteries" to the larger retreat of Americans generally, who are "self-sorting into homogeneous enclaves," becoming "a collection of increasingly specialized interests":
Like Americans everywhere, America’s poets have turned insular and clustered in communities of aesthetic sameness, communicating only among those with similar literary heroes, beliefs, values, and poetics. Enter any regional poetry scene in any American metropolis or college town, and you will find the same cliquey village mentality with the same stylistic breakdowns.
Surely poets don't want to be like those huddled suburbanites in their gated communities, damaging the public weal in their very tendency to huddle. "Aesthtic sameness" must surely be avoided in poetry as in lawn care. What good is poetry if it gives us only "stylistic breakdowns"?
Biespiel's call for poet-sages to emerge is predicated on the belief that "Poets are actually uniquely suited and retain a special cultural gravitas to speak publicly and morally about human aspirations." This seems to be an assumption shared by all those who would have both poets and novelists "engage" with the public sphere, but it's a claim that cannot be sustained if what Biespiel means is that poets have some special ability not just to speak "publicly and morally about human aspirations" but to speak more intelligently or more persuasively about "human aspirations" than anyone else as part of "civic discourse."
Certainly the examples Biespiel provides to support his assertion do little to give it credibility: Allen Ginsburg certainly had plenty to "say" in the public realm, but who doesn't think that a good deal of what he said now seems--probably seemed at the time--rather embarrassing in its simple-mindedness? Adrienne Rich may have spoken up from a feminist perspective, but what kind of public impact did it really make, as opposed to the statements of non-poet feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan? Robert Bly is a crank, Dana Gioia a conservative shil, and I'm not sure what Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, or Charles Simic have ever said that has reached anyone other than their devoted readers who already agree with them.
Biespiel's argument essentially rests on the notion that poets have "the ability. . .to write poems that penetrate differences and discover connection" and partake of poetry's "ancient predisposition for moral persuasion." One could argue that what distinguishes the poet is not primarily his/her ability to "penetrate differences" but to put words together in aesthetically provocative ways and that the connections made are connections between poetry as it has been and poetry as it might be, not between competing "communities," but even if we were to accept Biespiel's amorphous formulation it does not follow that this ability is readily transferable from page to public square. It especially does not follow that whatever "predisposition for moral persuasion" has been attributed to poets over time so naturally manifests itself in modern poets, to most of whom the title "poet" applies in a much more restricted way than it did to Dante or Milton, who did not limit themselves to the lyric mode and who saw fewer differences between poetry and other forms of moral or religious discourse. If most poets now cultivate their own lyrical gardens, it is because that is seen as the appropriate task for the poet, not "moral persuasion."
Even more dubious is Biespiel's accompanying proposition that "when more poets participate in the public sphere of democratic discourse and even politics, then I’ve little doubt that one consequence will be greater public enthusiasm for the private revelations of our sonnets, odes, and elegies." Exactly why the heretofore unenthusiastic public would suddenly find an interest in sonnets after sampling the poet's political discourse is left unexplored, unless those sonnets turn out to be about "issues" after all--a list of those the "citizen-poet" might take up include "cultural fragmentation, national health care, decrepit infrastructure, threats of terrorism, energy consumption, climate change, nuclear proliferation, warfare, poverty, crime, immigration, and civil rights"--and are not really separable from his/her civic pronouncements. It's hard to know otherwise what would lead people indifferent to poetry to seek it out, so wide is the gap between private and public, at least according to Biespiel in the rest of his analysis. If the sonnets, odes, and elegies are primarily concerned with "memory, private reclamation, and linguistic chop-chop," as Biespiel has it, why would a public yearning for "moral persuasion" bother with it?
I don't want to suggest that poets, or any other writer, or any other citizen, should not enter into "civic discourse." As concerned human beings, of course they should take whatever actions, rhetorical or literal, they think they must. I suppose that the residual esteem still attached to the vocation of "poet" does even give their public words some additional weight, and if particular poets exploit the opportunity given to speak wisely or act courageously on matters of public importance they perform a commendable service. Such a public intervention is only tangentially, even accidentally, related to their work as poets, however, and to laud them for doing it (or condemning them for not) while ignoring the work devalues poetry rather than saving it. It suggests that poetry is mostly good for something else, something other than being itself. Why must the value of poetry be judged by its potential to be a good tune-up for speaking out on more important matters?
Among the many unsupportable assertions made by Stephen Marche in his semi-infamous 2008 diatribe against Alain Robbe-Grillet was the following:
The "new novel". . . as Robbe-Grillet defined and explained it in his famous 1963 essay, was high art at its unpalatably highest. It applied rules and regulations, opposed subjectivity and tried to dissolve plot and character into description.
I would challenge Marche to re-read Robbe Grillet's fiction, especially those novels written before the publication of For a New Novel, and try to make a case that any of these points can be sustained. Most of them, in fact, are precisely the opposite of what one finds in novels such as The Erasers, The Voyeur, and Jealousy, but I would like to focus in particular on The Voyeur as a work against which accusations such as Marche's simply aren't credible.
Like its immediate predecessor The Erasers, The Voyeur is essentially a detective story, although the earlier novel (Robbe-Grillet's first) literally includes a detective in its cast of characters while The Voyeur asks the reader to do the detective work its story calls for. It includes a murder of a young girl and a possibly psychopathic killer, both of them elements that would seemingly be attractive to the "popular" readers Marche believes Robbe-Grillet spurned and as far from the assumptions of "high art" as one could get. What is missing from its mystery plot is a firm resolution of the mystery, and while this refusal to accede to the conventions of the genre might be frustrating to some readers, it also manifests a commitment to the depiction of life's complexities, which are not reducible to the neat resolutions of mystery stories. This commitment is not a characteristic of "high art." It is a characteristic of art.
What most readers who find themselves alienated by The Voyeur would cite as their source of disfavor surely would not be its application of "rules and regulations" but precisely the absence of such rules. A proper novel of this kind (a proper novel in general) should establish a stable relationship between reader and protagonist, should lay out its plot as a discernable series of events and should ultimately fill in whatever gaps might be left over, should use description to fill out the narrative not to substitute for it, should leave the reader with the impression its narrative has been appropriately developed and completed.
The Voyeur does none of these things. Its protagonist, a watch salesman named Mathias, initially provokes a mostly impassive response, although eventually we are led to exchange this neutrality for a more decisive attitude: either we are appalled and think Mathias is a monster on the loose or we have some sympathy for a character who is clearly insane and can't even remember whether he committed the act or not. Given that finally we don't know which person he really is, the original more affectless reaction seems the right one, but many readers might find this unregulated drift in our disposition toward the character unsettling.
The Voyeur begins as a relatively straightforward account of a day the watch salesman spends on an island off the French coast, which is initially presented as the place where the salesman himself grew up. However, this item of information is not the first we come to suspect might be questionable. Soon enough the narrative begins to circle around itself--reflecting perhaps the figure-eight pattern that Matthias uses to navigate the island on his quest to sell watches--and to shuffle between past and present. We become uncertain whether Mathias is simply following his route or whether he is engaging in dissociative reveries. We become concretely aware of the murder of the young girl about two-thirds of the way through the novel, but there may be hints that something untoward has happened through these reveries or in the spaces opened up by disruptions of narrative continuity. The murder is the narrative's central event, yet it is the one episode in the novel that remains undescribed.
Description is indeed a dominant strategy in The Voyeur, but only a passive and inattentive reader would conclude that it is used to "dissolve plot and character." Both plot and character are revealed through description, not annulled by it. Although the point of view in the novel is ostensibly third-person, we would be mistaken to take a passage like this, a description of the island's harbor as Mathias's boat approaches it, as originating in an "outside" narrator:
The pier, which seemed longer than in actually was as an effect of perspective, extended from both sides of this base line in a cluster of parallels describing, with a precision accentuated even more sharply by the morning light, a series of elongated planes alternately horizontal and vertical: the crest of the massive parapet that protected the tidal basin from the open sea, the inner wall of the parapet, the jetty along the top of the pier, and the vertical embankment that plunged straight into the water of the harbor. The two vertical structures were in shadow, the other two brilliantly lit by the sun--the whole breadth of the parapet and all of the jetty save for one dark narrow strip: the shadow cast by the parapet. Theoretically, the reversed image of the entire group could be seen reflected in the harbor water, and, on the surface, still within the same play of parallels, the shadow cast by the vertical embankment extending straight toward the quay.
This is what Mathias sees as he stares as the scene from the ship, but, more importantly, it is the way Mathias sees it, complete with the attention to specific detail and obsession with geometric patterning. These qualities are not just those that are brought to passages of description like this--and the novel contains many, many more--but help to constitute Mathias's character, help constitute him as a character. He is precisely the sort of man who keeps careful watch of himself and his surroundings and whose apprehension of the world takes special note of its geometric attributes--its existence as "a series of elongated planes alternately horizontal and vertical," etc. The "plot" in which he figures as the primary character, furthermore, is not "dissolved" into description of this sort but is enabled by it, the "mystery" at its center evoked by it. Does the omission of description of the act itself signal that Mathias didn't do it, or that he did but can't bring himself to confront it? If the "real" is what is able to impress itself on Mathias's awareness, then the fact that the murder has not done so means he had nothing to do with it, or that there's only some reality he can face?
These questions are not answered by one's reading of The Voyeur, and that is because, far from "oppos[ing] subjectivity," Robbe-Grillet builds this novel on it. The descriptions offered are not "objective" renderings of a reality presupposed to exist but indeed the subjective perceptions of an ultimately very flawed and uncertain character. The reality he constructs is a vividly rendered one, and it is the reality we as readers must also inhabit, but ultimately it is a rendered one. There is no reason why an approach emphasizing description must therefore necessarily be an approach seeking objectivity. A novel like The Voyeur leaves us with the conviction that subjectivity is all.
In her book Inventing the Real World: The Art of Alain Robbe-Grillet (1998), Marjorie H. Hellerstein explains that Robbe-Grillet "began by looking into the possibilities of expressing subjectivity while seeming to be objective in descriptions without emotion." That Mathias's perceptions are related "without emotion" is probably what bothers someone like Marche, a characteristic he translates into a rejection of subjectivity. Marche believes that Robbe-Grillet "convinced a generation of talented novelists that there was something vulgar about attracting a popular readership," and presumably the lack of "emotion" in Robbe-Grillet's work acts as an impediment to this "popular readership." It's too "puritanical," too hostile to the "pleasurable" in fiction.
I doubt that Robbe-Grillet would have objected had his books managed to reach a wider audience. This audience would, of course, have had to accept the books on their own terms, as harbgingers of a "new" fiction that renounces the easy pleasures of traditional fiction as distortions and misrepresentations of the very reality it was purported to be portraying. But I don't see why these books can't be taken on those terms, why they can't be enjoyed for their own ingenuities and mischievous challenges to our expectations. There is pleasure to be had in allowing one's assumptions to be challenged and following a work's alternative logic where it will lead, especially if that alternative logic provides new insights into the still possible permutations into which fiction writers might shape their work, which I believe The Voyeur and Robbe-Grillet's work as a whole does. Finally it seems to me that Stephen Marche is being "elitist" when he assumes that "readers in the English-speaking world" are incapable of reading in this way.
In an essay defending historical fiction, Allan Massie concludes that
There are essentially two sorts of novel, the open and the closed, even if many straddle the frontier that divides them. The closed novel is self-sufficient, free of the influence of public events. In the open novel, such events become characters in the action. The open novel is exposed to the winds of the world, its characters actors in history or victims of history. Given the difficulty of understanding the confusion and turbulence of the ever-changing present, it is natural that authors drawn to the open novel should turn to the past.
I am always skeptical of assertions that fiction is "essentially" this or that, and I am particularly skeptical of simple dichotomies such as this one.. Although Massie acknowledges that many novels "straddle" these oppositons, nevertheless the clear implication is that novelists are generally faced with an either/or choice: write novels that are open to the "winds of the world" or novels that are closed off, insular, neglectful of "public events." This particular kind of simple-minded classification is frequently used to dismiss overly aestheticized, formally adventurous fiction as insufficiently engaged with the real world, "merely literary," and it isn't any less obnoxious here because Massie finds the winds of the world blowing predominantly toward the past.
The notion that any fiction is "free of the influence of public events" is, of course, absurd, if by "public events" what is meant is "life," "experience," "reality." What work of fiction isn't influenced by "public events" because, ipso facto, the author is a human being drawing on his/her experience of the world? What text could be truly "self-sufficient" unless it generated itself, free of the writer's unavoidable immersion in "reality"? Perhaps my objection is too literal-minded, taking Massie's talk of self-sufficiency and "winds of the world" at face value as descriptions of our perception of certain kinds of novels rather than metaphorically, approximations of the reading experience--"it's as if this novel wanted to be self-sufficient, turned inward into language" or "it's as if this one is trying to take stock of historical circumstances." It is true, after all, that the closed novel is not really self-sufficient, nor is "history" or "the world" really to be found in the open novel. Both are verbal compositions, constructions of words, and Massie is just commenting on the effect some novels sometimes create.
But Massie certainly doesn't give the impression he's speaking metaphorically about the mission of historical fiction.
Why do novelists turn away from the present day to the past, and sometimes, like Harris, to the now far distant past? There is evidently no single reason. The writer may have become fascinated by some historical figure. . .Obsession with a particular period — the First World War, for instance — may suggest the theme for a novel. The author may wish to explore the past for its own sake, or to use it to point up the present.
The writer turns not to the printed page in an exercise of imagination but "from the present day to the past." Historical figures and periods, not language, is the root of his obsession, and he wants to "explore the past" not the possibilities of fiction. Massie seems to be describing someone whose primary interest indeed is in the "world," at least as this can be known historically, not in literary art. The latter is left to the narrower ministrations of those writers less committed to their creations as "actors in history."
It seems to me that Massie's historical novel is actually more "closed" than those stuck in the present and stuck with their author's commitment to art. "The past is more manageable and easier to grasp than the present," he writes. Further, it is "our present uncertainties" that account for "the attraction of the historical novel and the vogue it once again enjoys." That the present is full of "uncertainties" must surely be true, but then again it must have always been true, and it hardly seems appropriate to suggest that fiction's job should be to avoid those uncertainties. It may be that "the past is more manageable and easier to grasp," but since when has it been deemed that the art of the novel lies in seeking out that which is manageable and easy to grasp? The greatest fiction has always opened itself up to uncertainty and portrayed existence as something difficult to grasp indeed. By this measure historical fiction is a retreat not just into the past but away from what should be the fiction writer's most overriding responsibility. It cuts itself off from fiction's true subject.
Some historical fiction assuredly does open itself to uncertainty and doubt. Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones succeeds precisely because it subverts our confidence that we know what Nazis were, that we have adequate explanations for what motivated them. Thomas Pynchon's recent Inherent Vice was an attempt to "capture" the late 1960s in Los Angeles, but while it does surround the period in an idyllic (and marijuna-produced) haze, at the same it shows the idyll to be inherently unstable, setting the conditions of its own dispersement. It is a period that is far from "manageable" in our assessment of its rise and fall. Some novels are set in the past, but do not take the past itself as subject, do not take the re-creation of historical characters and events as a self-sufficient ambition.
But for me the vast majority of historical novels are just an effort at such re-creation, and, given that I am motivated to read fiction for the aesthetic experience it might provide and not to learn about history, they are therefore mostly irrelevant to the consideration of fiction as a literary art. Whether it is an attempt to "explore the past for its own sake" or to use the past "to point up the present," historical fiction is an effort to use the form for a purpose other than, or secondary to, creating an aesthetically credible work of art--ultimately the only purpose worthy of motivating us to designate writing as "literary" in the first place. It can be defended as such, but the reading experience it provides directs our attention toward extra-literary "content" rather than expanding our attention in the present as art is able to do.
In his review of Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, Hari Kunzru maintains that what separates this novel from the postmodern novels Lethem clearly admires is that "it’s too good-humored to attain real satiric bite and is often content to drop a name instead of wrestling with the slippery ideas that might make Lethem’s heroes worthy of a true fan’s regard." This is probably right, although to say that the novel lacks "satiric bite" doesn't mean it is not still essentially an attempt at satire, just as it's true that while Chronic City doesn''t especially wrestle with "slippery ideas," the claim that so-called "systems novels"--a term coined by Thomas LeClair in his book on Don DeLillo, In the Loop--can be defined by their own grappling with such ideas is altogether questionable.
Lethem's work is often associated with the first generation postmodernists, particularly Pynchon, Barth, and DeLillo, as mediated by the science fiction of Philip K. Dick and superhero comic books. This amalgamation of high postmodernism and popular literature seems to be, in fact, what most readers and critics take to be his signature variation on postmodernism in fiction. However, while it may be the case that Lethem is inspired by the postmodernists to create his brand of literary fantasy fiction, there isn't much that's especially innovative about a book like Chronic City. It seems more like a tired pastiche of postmodernism than an attempt to extend the reach of postmodern experiment into a different era and changed circumstances.
Kunzru maintains that Lethem "knows he’s writing belatedly and wants us to know he knows" and that this gesture perhaps makes the novel "a conscious tribute of some kind, a love letter to the writing that inspired Lethem to become a writer." If John Barth initiated postmodernism by positing a "literature of exhaustion" that exploited the "used-upness" of fictional form to generate new forms, Kunzru's suggestion might indicate that Lethem is in his own way converting postmodernism itself into an "exhausted" source of formal development, at least for his own work, except that, where Barth and company forced a new attention on form, style, and narrative strategy, Lethem settles for vaguely surreal machinations of plot (providing what some want to call an "alternative reality") and loudly "colorful" characters (most of them given obviously Pynchon-derived names). There is otherwise nothing that could be called formal innovation in a novel like Chronic City, nothing that really challenges readers to examine their assumptions about the form.
Lethem's status as an experimental writer, then, seems entirely based on his incorporation of genre fiction narrative conventions into novels that have generally been accepted as "serious" fiction. The plot devices of detective stories and science fiction allow Lethem to ostensibly bypass the requirements of ordinary realism, providing for an approach that blends caricature and pseudo-fantasy to produce what in my view can best be described as whimsy. But whimsy is not exactly a postmodern mode, and in Chronic City it betrays a certain aesthetic timidity. I think I agree with William Deresiewicz, who in his review of the novel comments that Lethem "wants realism, with the credibility it brings--wants us to take the world of the novel as a faithful copy of the world we know--but he also wants to stack the deck by deploying supernatural elements whenever he finds it convenient." Thus the New York City portrayed in the narrative needs to be recognizable enough as New York City that we are able to associate the events and themes with the real place but not so much that the author can't introduce runaway tunnel robots, an illusory space mission doomed by the presence of Chinese space mines, or snow in August.
This sort of contained fantasia can't really be what the postmodernists had in mind as an alternative to conventional realism, nor is it credible as a revision or reorientation of postmodern challenges to inherited practice. It implies that postmodern experiment was simply a strategy designed to undermine the principle of verisimilitude, so that any work not strictly observing the rules of traditional realism could be called "experimental." And while Lethem's work is consistent with much postmodern fiction in that it is essentially comic, the comedy of a novel like Chronic City is indeed much too gentle, too shy of the more corrosive humor of much postmodern comedy. It isn't so much that the novel is short on "satiric bite" as that ultimately it is merely satire, a relatively mild critique of post-9/11 New York under Bloomberg, which has become inhospitable to its misfits and nonconformists. The postmodern comedy in the work of Pynchon or Barth or Barthelme doesn't seek to "correct" behaviors and institutions that threaten individual autonomy or impede social progress; it portrays such threats and obstructions as inherent to human life and thus unfortunately not much subject to amelioration.
Darby Dixon expresses his disappointment with Chronic City as perhaps the consequence of his own inability as a reader to "patiently dissect its meaning and formulate its connections," to "place [its] ideas and themes on pedestals in whose shadows lurk plot and character." This assumes that what is really at work in this novel is an underlying deep structure of "meaning" and "ideas" the reader must uncover. It further implies that what must make it a suitably postmodern work is precisely this deep structure of "connection." But neither does Lethem's novel conceal any deep meaning not made apparent through choice of satirical targets, nor is this undertow of supposedly abstruse "matter" what animates postmodern fiction. The story of the relationship between narrator Chase Insteadman, former child actor, and Perkus Tooth, former bohemian intellectual now pothead, allows Lethem to canvass his "alernative" New York from top (Insteadman is something of a mascot for the city's high-society types) to bottom and to adjust his satirical focus accordingly. That the purport of the novel's "ideas and themes" doesn't go much beyond this surface satire is in its favor, as we aren't subjected to the kind of tedium the exploration of "ideas" in fiction usually entails. In this way Lethem is actually faithful to his postmodern predecessors: to the extent Barth or Pynchon or DeLillo incorporate ideas, they do so as inspiration for formal or narrative devices ("entropy" in Pynchon's story of that name, for example) rather than as abstractions with which to "wrestle."
However, Chronic City nevertheless suffers from its own kind of tedium, exactly of the sort Darby Dixon identifies when he admits he found it simply "boring." Chronic City never attains the structural or stylistic vitality that would be required for us to suspend our disbelief in its plot contrivances. Its narrative drags along and its narrator's language is leaden and unnecessarily prolix to the extent that I mostly had to force myself to finish the book. The narrator is himself an unengaging figure whose status as a blank slate on which his friend Perkus inscribes a more capacious understanding does not make him a character with whom one wants to spend over 450 pages. And Perkus himself is much less interesting than Lethem wants him to be. He's an essentially stock countercultural type--he likes to discourse on "Monte Hellman, Semina Culture, Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces, the Mafia's blackmailing of J. Edgar Hoover over erotic secrets (resulting in the bogus amplification of Cold War fear and therefore the whole of our contemporary landscape), Vladimir Mayakovsky and the futurists, Chet Baker," etc., etc., etc.--and his recurrent cluster headaches and other mental problems make him seem merely pathetic, not heroic.
In his review of Chronic City, Ron Charles acknowledges it is "a tedious reading experience in which redundancy substitutes for development and effect for profundity," but he nonetheless thinks Lethem "proves he's one of the most elegant stylists in the country," offering "perfectly choreographed sentences." I have in the past found Lethem a pleasing enough stylist, but the style exhibited through Chase Insteadman produces sentences that are anything but "perfectly choreographed." Here's Chase in one of his moments of reflection:
I'm outstanding only in my essential politeness. Exhausting, this compulsion to oblige any detected social need. I don't mean only to myself; it's frequently obvious that my charm exhausts and bewilders others, even as they depend upon it to mortar crevices in the social facade--to fill vacant seats, give air to suffocating silences, fudge unease. (I'm like fudge. Or maybe I'm like chewing gum.) But if beneath charm lies exhaustion, beneath exhaustion lies a certain rage. I detect a wrongness everywhere. Within and Without, to quote a lyric. It would be misleading to say I'm screaming inside, for if I was, I'd soon enough find a way to scream aloud. Rather, the politeness infests a layer between me and myself, the name of the wrongness going not only unexpressed but unknown. Intuited only. Forbidden perhaps. Perkus would have called me inchoate. He wouldn't have meant it kindly.
I could have settled for the first sentence. Or perhaps "Perkus would have called me inchoate." These descriptions tell me what I need to know about Insteadman (to the extent I need to have Insteadman telling me about himself in the first place). The rest is just prattle, and by the time I get to "I detect a wrongness" and the politeness infesting a layer "between me and myself" I just want him to shut up.
This sort of inexhaustible self-examination and droning exposition occurs throughout the narrative and more than anything else accounts for the lackluster reading experience Chronic City turned out to be. Perhaps it is a sign of the author trying too hard to create "meaning" and forge "connections," but I don't think so. I think it's just Lethem's failure to execute his "alternative reality" into something more than a labored fantasy.
In a recent Howard Kurtz column in the Washington Post about the disappearance of newspaper critics, Terry Teachout is quoted as maintaining that "there will always be a place for literate, well-informed drama criticism about performances taking place in Chicago or L.A. or St. Louis. You can't outsource that function." And it's not just drama criticism that will continue to need the local perspective: "It's not enough to have a reporter who says the local museum has bought a new Picasso. It's also necessary to have someone on your staff who knows whether it's museum-quality and is worth $5 million."
Terry Teachout has long been a proponent of web-based criticism of all kinds, so I don't take his comments as the defensive posturing of an endangered critical species so common among print-based critics but as an honest assessment of the limitations of the online medium and the niche-oriented role newspaper arts coverage might continue to play. However, I still think he's not likely to prove correct in his contention that only local newspapers will be able to provide reliable commentary on local arts events.
The premise of this argument seems to be that only a reporter-critic hired by a newspaper can afford to devote the time and attention needed to survey all of the theatrical productions and art exhibitions being offered in specific cities. A further assumption is that only a few such critics with insight into Picasso's oeuvre are available and that the local newspaper is the most convenient place to put them. As Teachout puts further puts it in a post at his own blog, "blogging, valuable though it can be, is no substitute for the day-to-day attention of a newspaper whose editors seek out experts, hire them on a full-time basis, and give them enough space to cover their beats adequately."
I can't see that either of these assumptions is warranted. I can well imagine that, absent arts critics in the local papers, any number of motivated arts enthusiasts might attempt to take up the slack through regionally-oriented blogs, or might even start up online review pages focused exclusively on the local scene (see this effort at The Arts Fuse already under way). Furthermore, I see no reason to believe that "literate, well informed," even "expert" critics can't be found among such enthusiasts. Surely in cities of even modest size, especially those that are home to respectable colleges and universities, there are more knowledgeable and discerning proto-critics than the bias toward print "arts journalism" otherwise allows. If the book blogosphere has demonstrated anything, it is that such capable critics do indeed exist, even if the monopoly on book commentary always exercised by newspapers and magazines obscured that fact.
It is also conceivable that book reviewing concentrating on books by writers with a local connection might become more common--indeed, as I canvass the remaining newspaper book review sections this already seems to be happening there. Perhaps these sections will hold on as sources of local literary interest, but it they do, it will likely be through reliance on the resources of local critics, precisely the cohort that could just as easily be hosting blogs. One could say that the newspaper makes these critics more readily accessible, and confers on them an inherent credibility, but eventually the best web-based criticism, both local and national, will find its audience, and the audience will find it, because readers interested enough in criticism of books and the arts to seek it out will recognize "literate, well-informed" voices when they hear them.
Perhaps the most debilitating limitation of the book review, at least as practiced in American newspapers and most magazines, is that too often critical judgment is pronounced in the absence of articulated standards. Underlying assumptions about what makes for a "good novel," and thus assumptions about what makes fiction worthwhile in the first place, are left unstated, even when those assumptions are clearly implicated in the judgment rendered. This is first of all the consequence of the enforced conventions of the form itself, which appear to proscribe explicit discussion of assumed standards, presumably to give reviews a facade of objectivity (as if criteria of judgment are so well known it's only a bother to mention them) and ward off the possibility they might become too "academic." But reviewers also frequently seem all too ready to embrace these conventions and advance conclusions whose premises are allowed to go unexamined.
Two recent reviews illustrate the problem, although one relies on an unstated assumption in order to praise while the other does so to find fault. Ed Champion's Philadelphia Inquirer review of Donald Westlake's Memory wants to commend the novel as "pulp" but as pulp with something else, something identifiably literary. Critics of mystery fiction, Ed mantains, deny that it can deliver "thematic truths and behavioral insight." Westlake's book shows that this objection does not always hold up, since Memory displays "serious thematic concerns."
Of course, the assumption here is that "literary" fiction can properly be defined as that containing "thematic truths and behavioral insight." Granted, Ed is countering what he thinks is a critical dismissal itself bound to this assumption, but the phrasing really seems to be Ed's gloss on the criticisms made of a form of fiction otherwise focused on "plot-oriented puzzles." If it's too heavy on "plot" and "puzzles," it must be too light on "substance," which must mean "theme" or "insight." It's a common enough opposition, but rather than trying to break it down, by, say, making a case that "plot-oriented puzzles" have their own kind of substance, especially in pulp fiction, Ed unfortunately adopts it to his own purposes and in extolling the work of Donald Westlake reinforces the notion that "literature" is equivalent to "theme."
In a review of Jon McGregor's Even the Dogs, Floyd Skloot perpetuates some equally damaging stereotypes, in this case about experimental fiction. According to Skloot, in his dedication to his "experiments with the devices of fiction" McGregor sacrifices "emotional engagement with his characters and story." His devices call attention to themselves, become "showy." His characters lack "sufficient character and depth to distinguish them" and "scenes that should be unbearably emotional. . .fall flat, because we have no visceral connection with the characters." Ultimately the novel fails because the author does not "let us lose ourselves in it."
There is here a virtual taxonomy of the book McGregor should have written but, in the reviewer's opinion, unaccountably did not. This book is pretty clearly a conventional novel full of "emotional engagement" with fully-drawn characters that preserves narrative transparency and allows us to easily suspend our disbelief. These things are what real novels should be doing, and McGregor's novel can't possibly be judged successful simply because it tries to do something else.
The reviewer has every right to prefer his projected shadow-novel, but if he can't be expected to assess the novel he's actually been given to review according to the criteria appropriate to it, either he shouldn't have been assigned the novel to review in the first place or he should be obligated to acknowledge that his standards preclude considering Even the Dog a legitimate novel at all, preclude considering alternative standards for a novel that manifestly demands them, and that the flaws he delineates are really just the markers of his own projection. He might be given the opportunity to defend his standards, and to explain why McGregor's novel should still be subjected to them, but he can't do that if he can't, or won't, declare those standards directly.
Reviews such as these help sustain the illusion that the boundaries of the "literary" are well-known and that the principles of criticism are so well-settled they merely need to be applied consistently. These illusions need to be dispelled, not encouraged, but the protocols of "literary journalism" as it now exists probably aren't going to contribute much to that effort.
Sven Birkerts has been developing a critique of "electronic media" for quite a long time, publishing The Gutenberg Elegies in 1994, well before the rise of blogs, stand-alone news sites, and critical webzines, so his cyber skepticism is not to be dismissed as simply more defensive posturing by an endangered gatekeeper. I have myself taken issue with some of Birkerts's more uninformed outbursts, but his concern for "unhurried" reading is usually expressed in an equally unhurried analysis of the act of reading (specifically reading fiction), not as the high dudgeon of a book critic protesting his imminent loss of status.
This is especially true of a recent essay by Bikerts in The American Scholar, "Reading in a Digital Age." The essay is framed as yet another inquiry into the way the digital information "environment" is making serious reading harder to accomplish, but ultimately it is really a candid inquiry into his own reading habits and an attempt to generalize from his conclusions to a theory of sorts both about reading and about the nature of fiction. Much of this theory seems to me perceptive, and generally correct, but parts of it as well seem an overly roundabout way of describing our experience of fiction that would benefit from a consideration of John Dewey's own "experiential-phenomenological" analysis in Art as Experience. There is overlap between the accounts offered by Dewey and Birkerts, but finally Dewey's comes closer to doing full justice to the role of "imagination" in reading, both writer's and reader's.
Birkerts associates imagination with the mental state of "contemplation," which he in turn contrasts with "analytic thought." Contemplation is "intransitive and experiential in its nature, is for itself"; analytic thought "is transitive, is goal directed. . .a means, its increments mainly building blocks toward some synthesis or explanation." Contemplation is, or should be, the preferred mode of reading fiction, by which "enhancement" and "deepening," end-states in themselves, are achieved. But Birkerts finds this "deepening" moving in just one direction: the purpose of fiction "is less to communicate themes or major recognitions and more to engage the mind, the sensibility, in a process that in its full realization bears upon our living as an ignition to inwardness, which has no larger end, which is the end itself."
Birkerts's insistence that the reading of fiction leads to experience and not "explanation" is wholly appropriate and does seem to coincide with Dewey's contention that art is an "enhancement" of experience. However, while Dewey might accept "sensibility" as the name for the human receptivity to art, he would not characterize our response to art and literature as primarily an opportunity "to enage the mind," especially if this means a retreat into an "inwardness" that is itself the ultimately desired state, cut off from the projected space occupied by the work instigating the experience in the first place. A Deweyan representation of the reading experience (the experience of art in general) would balance the inwardness Birkerts evokes with an outwardness that also seeks satisfaction in the perception of form and style. If "contemplation" involves the heightened awareness both of the palpable qualities of the created work and of our own awareness of those qualities, then the term might accurately capture the nature of aesthetic experience, but I think Birkerts privileges the activity of "mind."
When Birkerts writes that fiction provides "an arena of liberation. . .where mind and imagination can freely combine," he is not describing an interaction between the reader's "sensibility" and the the work as an act of imagination but is positing "mind" and "imagination" as faculties exercised by the reader. When a little later he allows that "I tend to view the author as on a continuum with his characters, their extension," it seems to me he is explicitly discounting the artistic shaping that is finally the role of "author." In merging the author and his characters, Birkerts is putting most value on fiction's ability to induce "empathy," which in his case means the opportunity to connect with another "mind": "It is the proximity to and belief in the other consciousness that matters, more than its source and location." It is presumably this proximity to the "other" as evoked in fiction that constitutes "imagination" for Bikerts, not the unencumbered immersion in aesthetic experience as a whole.
On the other hand, I do identify with Birkerts's account of the "residue" his reading experiences leave:
. . .the details of plot fall away first, and so rapidly that in a few months’ time I will only have the most general précis left. I will find myself getting nervous in party conversations if the book is mentioned, my sensible worry being that if I can’t remember what happened in a novel, how it ended, can I say in good conscience that I have read it? Indeed, if I invoke plot memory as my stricture, then I have to confess that I’ve read almost nothing at all, never mind these decades of turning pages.
What does remain is "A distinct tonal memory, a conviction of having been inside an author’s own language world, and along with that some hard-to-pinpoint understanding of his or her psyche." "Tonal memory" seems to me a good way of characterizing the lingering impression a strong work of fiction leaves, although it is a memory the work has indeed impressed upon the memory rather than the sort of mechanical effort of "recall" the recounting of plot entails. For myself, not only do I usually have trouble retrieving specific episodes from novels I have read more than a few months in the past, I often enough lose all but a general sense of the voice or behavior of the characters, in the case of minor characters sometimes forgetting their existence altogether. Yet I continue to feel a tangible connection to the "language world" I have encountered, which to me is the surest sign my experience of the text was worthwhile.
The storage model of reading thus threatens to reduce the reading experience to the acquisition of "information," which Birkerts rightly resists. But I would take Birkerts's invocation of the "language world" as the ulimate source of value in fiction even farther. Reading a work of literature should always imply the possibility, even the desirability, of re-reading. Suspension in the language-world rather than the collection of facts about the work is much more likely to encourage later re-reading, both because one wants to abide there again and because the work in its particulars hasn't already been thoroughly assimilated and duly packed away. I can read it again and still have a worthwhile literary experience. (Presumably Birkerts might think that re-reading would give him further insight into the author's "psyche" as well; I cannot accept this particular element of his theory of reading, as I cannot see how the created language-world that is the text could possibly reveal anything about the actual author's mental states, except through free-floating speculation irrelevant to the text itself, nor why I should care even if it could.)
Birkerts concludes by encapsulating his claim about "deep reading":
Serious literary work has levels. The engaged reader takes in not only the narrative premise and the craft of its realization, but also the resonance—that which the author creates, deliberately, through her use of language. It is the secondary power of good writing, often the ulterior motive of the writing. The two levels operate on a lag, with the resonance accumulating behind the sense, building a linguistic density that is the verbal equivalent of an aftertaste, or the “finish.” The reader who reads without directed concentration, who skims, or even just steps hurriedly across the surface, is missing much of the real point of the work; he is gobbling his foie gras.
While there are still assumptions here that seem to me unwarranted--why must the core element of fiction be its "narrative premise," which would only re-introduce "plot" as a barrier between the reader and the "language world"--ultimately this is a credible description of what is involved in serious reading. Unfortunatey, Birkerts seems motivated to offer this description mostly in order to bolster his conviction that this kind of reading is endangered by the transition to screen-reading. I am unconvinced, to say the least. If Birkerts were suggesting that deep reading is succumbing to the general human inclination to give in to distraction, to settle for what's easiest, he would perhaps be on firmer ground, although this weakness has always plagued us and can hardly have been induced by the presence of computers. But he clearly enough wants to insist there is something inherent in cyberspace and e-books that make them inimical to "serious literary work" and the reading it requires.
A generation or two from now, serious readers--and they will still be around--will look back at Birkerts's claims and find them deeply puzzling. They will find the notion that literary texts published on pieces of glued-together paper are somehow metaphysically superior to those published electronically difficult to comprehend. I find it hard to comprehend the idea now. I can understand continuing to find the printed book more convenient, or more comforting, but to maintain that serious, sustained reading can take place only when enabled by print-on-paper just isn't plausible. Birkerts is a trustworthy literary critic and a reliable authority on the pleasures of reading, but as a seer into the future of literature he will surely prove inadequate.
Readers of Morris Dickstein's newest book, Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, should find it an agreeable survey of the cultural expressions of the 1930s that reveals how the Depression years were portrayed and understood by those living through them. Readers of Dickstein's previous books will recognize its method, a fastidious interrogation of novels, films, and other works of art for their historical resonances and mutual assumptions, their ability to show how an entire culture at a particular time is "thinking." Readers less interested in Dickstein's signature critical approach or in the context his earlier books provide nevertheless could easily enough from Dancing in the Dark be made aware of "Depression culture" in a coherent and often insightful way. Dickstein's painstaking scrutiny of texts for their clues to cultural developments can occaionally get bogged down in some turgid writing, but that he can be an acute analyst of these texts within the framework of a consistentently applied historical criticism is undeniable.
While I don't find this sort of historical criticism invalid--there is ultimately nothing wrong with situating a work of art or literature in its period and cultural mileu, as long as the limits of this strategy as a way to "understand" the work are acknowledged--I do find Dickstein's relentless pursuit of the strategy frequently tedious and finally not much service to literature, although Dickstein often assures us it is. Since a great deal of his criticism has been focused on post-World War II American fiction, I think that Dickstein has especially done some misservice to contemporary fiction, my own critical bailiwick, distorting its achievement and finally reducing it to a function as barometer of the cultural and political changes that have taken place in the United States between 1945 and the present.
I make this criticism regretfully, as 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. It introduced me to the work of experimental writers such as John Barth and Donald Barthelme, of whom I don't think I'd ever heard at the time, and although I could sense even when reading the book as a undiscriminating undergraduate that Dickstein didn't entirely approve of their fiction, especially the Barthleme of the late '60s and after, just the suggestion that Barthleme was "radical" (Dickstein meant to associate him with the decadent, Weatherman phase of 60s radicalism) was enough to make me want to read his books posthaste.
Actually, much of Dickstein's analysis of the fiction of the 1960s still holds up, as I disovered when I recently re-read the book, even if the tacit impatience with postmodernism seems more apparent to me now. (The term "postmodernism" is never used, however; Dickstein in 1979 preferred to identify writers like Barth and Barthelme as modernists, emphasizing the continuity between the formal experimentation of modernism and that which came to be called postmodernism. Dickstein thinks that late modernism radicalized itself beyond redemption in the work of writers such as Rudolph Wurlitzer, but while I can't agree that the experimental impulse inevitably leads to an aesthetic impasse, his implicit suggestion that the adventurous writing of the 1960s and 1970s was really a second flowering of modernism usefully emphasizes that "postmodernism" was first of all a phenomenon of literary history, not a reorientation of history itself.) Above all, his recognition that the fiction of the 1960s represents a significant achievement still seems audacious:
In a topsy-turvy age that often turned trash into art and art into trash, that gaily pursued topical fascination and ephemeral performances and showed a real genius for self-consuming artifacts--an age that sometimes valued art too little because it loved raw life too much--novels were written that are among the handful of art-works, few enough in any age, that are likely to endure. It's a bizzare prospect, but the sixties are as likely to be remembered through novels as through anything else they left behind.
Dickstein finds much that is praiseworthy in the fiction of Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, and even Barth and Barthleme, despite his judgment that they ultimately take things too far. However ambivalent his reaction to the most adventurous of adventurous fiction, and however much attention he gives to writers whose work will not, in my opinion, "endure," such as Bellow and Mailer, Dickstein's consideration of the experimental fiction of the sixties inspired me at least to take this fiction seriously and to discover for myself whether it produced work "likely to endure."
Unfortunately, the very passage I have quoted, I now see, also signals the real limitations of Dickstein's approach, of the assumptions about fiction's utility as a clue to culture. The last sentence arguably implies that the novels of the era will endure because they are the best way to "remember" the sixties. For those who lived through the era, they will continue to evoke it; for those future readers who did not, they will still enable a cultural "remembering" that will likely allow us to get a glimpse of the kind of "topical" and "ephemeral" attractions Dickstein describes in the rest of the passage. These novels will be "left behind" for scholars and others interested in that "topsy-turvy age" to recreate it, either critically or imaginatively. Fiction is ultimately of value, especially fiction particularly attuned to the social wavelength of its period, as a window onto history. It perhaps enlivens history in a way that straight historical narrative or cultural criticism, cannot, but otherwise it remains an adjunct to the study of culture in its historical manifestations.
My own initial response to Gates of Eden demonstrates that it is possible to read the book as an illuminating appraisal of American fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, but turning to Dickstein's other writing on postwar fiction only confirms that ultimately his purpose seems to be to pin postwar writers down as specimens of their time and place, at best figures in a procession of "tendencies." In the essays "The Face in the Mirror: The Eclipse of Distance in Contemporary Fiction" and "Ordinary People: Carver, Ford and Blue-Collar Realism" (both reprinted in A Mirror in the Roadway, Dickstein's explicit defense of realism), he extends his survey of postwar fiction into the 1970s and 1980s. In the first, he notes a shift in the 1970s toward novels "built around characters who are the very self and voice of the author," exemplified by Philip Roth, William Styron, and John Irving. In the second he discusses the rise of minimalism in the work of Raymond Carver, as well as the subsequent move away from minimalism to "a more expansive, more full-bodied fiction" in the work of Richard Ford and Russell Banks. In the latter he predicts a further shift to "some transformed and heightened version of the social novel." Clearly Dickstein is most interested in contemporary fiction as an opportunity to chart developments in fiction's way of registering social realities. Chronicling the rise and fall of trends in fiction is not necessarily a trivial activity, but in Dickstein's case the single-minded manner in which he pursues the task does threaten to make criticism an intellectual version of fashion journalism.
Leopards in the Temple (2002) is probably Dickstein's summary statement of the historical progression of postwar American fiction. Subtitled "The Transformation of American Fiction 1945-1970," it again focuses on the 1950s and 1960s, this time treating only fiction but otherwise covering much of the same ground scrutinized in Gates of Eden. The biggest change in approach to the fiction of this period is a considerable narrowing of the the terrain on which Dickstein is willing to cast his critical eye, leaving experimental or postmodern fiction out of view almost completely. He instead devotes most of the book to discussions of well-publicized mainstream writers such as Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Mailer, James Jones, Jack Kerouac, James Baldwin, John Updike, Bellow, and Roth, although there are a few welcome considerations of Paul Bowles, Nabokov, Heller, and Vonnegut. Dickstein's implicit dismissal of experimental fiction is perhaps best exemplified in his discussion of John Barth's End of the Road, which Dickstein calls "Barth's best novel" and is included in Leopards in the Temple in the first place mainly because it illustrates the "road" theme Dickstein traces from Kerouac to other writers of the '50s and early '60s. His attitude toward Barth's later metafiction, truly his most important achievement, well beyond End of the Road, is surely encapsulated in his observation that "In Lost in the Funhouse and Chimera Barth's genial narrators soon grow as heartily sick of [their] self-consciousness as we do."
One can legitimately find the work of John Barth and other metafictionists not to one's liking without distorting the fact of its prominence during the period Dickstein is examining. It is hardly credible to suggest that the 1960s are most appropriately represented by Bellow, Malamud, and James Baldwin, which Dickstein does in his final chapter by highlighting their work rather than the postmodern writers, whose work rebelled against the quiescent realism preferred by the gatekeepers of literary culture, much as others rebelled against the constraints of conformity and established practice in other arts and in politics during this time. A survey of the "transformation" of American fiction after World War II that willfully excludes this work is finally hard to take seriously.
Leopards in the Temple posits a postwar literary history that begins with war novelists, proceeds through the early fiction of certain writers who first came to public attention immediately after the war, such as Vidal and Capote, further through sensation-causing writers such as Kerouac and J.D Salinger, and, with some pauses along the way to acknowledge a few other noteworthy authors, winds up affirming the centrality of culturally sanctioned novelists such as Bellow, Baldwin, and Mailer. Another history of postwar fiction is possible, however, one that begins with, say, John Hawkes, emphasizes Nabokov's work beyond Lolita, carefully considers William Gaddis, includes James Purdy and Thomas Berger along with Joseph Heller, and takes as the apogee of the period the work of Pynchon, Barth, Robert Coover, and Donald Barthelme. Dickstein's history is a history of American culture as reflected in his chosen authors and books; the alternative history is more properly a literary history of the years 1945-60, one that focuses on the response of writers to the legacy and the challenges of modernism by extending that legacy through fiction that continued to challenge readers' expectations and that, in my opinion, more accurately encompasses the writers whose work will still likely be read once this period more firmly recedes into literal history.
What now alienates me the most from Dickstein's critical method, however, are the grand generalizations he makes about the practice of fiction, generalizations that interpose great distance between the critic and the texts he/she ostensibly tries to illuminate. He writes, for example, that for novelists of the 1940s and 1950s
They were obsessed more with Oedipal struggle than with class struggle, concerned about the limits of civilization rather than the conflicts within civilization. Their premises were more Freudian than Marxist. . .Auschwitz and Hiroshima had set them thinking about the nature and destiny of man, and relative affluence gave them the leisure to focus on spiritual confusions in their own lives.
How does Dickstein know what "they" were thinking? How can "they," as opposed to individual writers, be thinking anything except insofar as the critic has self-selected a few of "them," invested them with "premises" and speculated about "their" social standing ("relative affluence") and the state of their souls ("spiritual confusions")? Occasionally Dickstein does offer an interesting critical reading of a particular text, as when he observes of Catcher in the Rye that "Holden's adventures in New York are really a series of Jewish jokes, at once sad, funny, and self-accusing," but the overwhelmingly dominant impression left by Leopards in the Temple, and by Morris Dickstein's books as a whole, is that fiction is most worthwhile as a leading indicator not just of just of writers', but an entire culture's temporal obsessions. If I thought this was the foremost reason to read novels, I'd probably never read another one.
ADDENDUM Morris Dickstein has responded to this post in the comment thread below.
Jonathan Mayhew affirms the notion that poetry aspires to the condition of music, arguing specifically that "poetry is closer to music than it is to 'literature' as conventionally defined." Since Walter Pater's original assertion was that all art aspires to that condition, in making this distinction between poetry and "literature"--which encompasses mostly fiction--Jonathan must be insinuating that fiction is not finally "art" at all. Indeed, he explicitly suggests that the novel is "centered on the mimetic portrayal of society on the broad canvas," which itself implies that fiction has primarily a sociological or documentary function. And in further asserting that this association with music would make poetry "one of the arts," he seems to be implying that "literature as conventionally defined" is not.
I think that Jonathan is probably right that fiction as "conventionally defined" by many readers and critics is not first of all regarded as art, and is precisely distinguished from poetry by the latter's more apparent homologies with music. Fiction is considered by too many to be a mode of discourse separable from nonfiction in its insistence on communicating indirectly, but otherwise still a mode of cultural, moral, or political description and reflection, another way of "saying something." For these people, to claim that fiction is, or ought to be, more akin to poetry in its aspiration to music is to trivialize it, deprive it of its mandate to "engage" with the "real world." For others, such a connection would inflate fiction beyond its actual merits, which are limited to its role as a medium for spinning a yarn.
Decoupling poetry and fiction as the Siamese twins of literature thus might have the beneficial effect of either redefining "literature" as that writing which does aspire to the condition of art by invoking a comparison with music or of sending the term into disuse altogether. The former would allow those who favor fiction-as-discourse to continue mining works of fiction for nuggets of "meaning" without being nagged by those favoring fiction-as-art about all that fol-de-rol known as "aesthetics." They might be hesitant to lose the term because by now it does confer an honorific status on the texts they examine--and thus also on their own endeavor as critics--but ultimately their interest is in literature as illustration, not in the integrity of literature itself, so they really would be able to keep doing what they do now even if fiction is finally identified as just another cultural form without the burden of being "literary."
If the latter, the abandonment of the term as an umbrella concept loosely uniting the primary modes of "creative" writing, were to occur, perhaps we might return to the use of "poetry" as a designation for all imaginative writing, a state of affairs that obtained before both "plays" and "novels" broke off from poetry to become separate forms of imaginative expression and before "poetry" became almost exclusively identified as lyric poetry. Speaking for myself, I would find this development heartily welcome, as it would allow some writers of fiction--those who think of themselves as artists rather than commentators, or simply entertainers, to align themselves more with poets and poetry without necessarily writing what is now called "poetry" per se. Fiction might become more "poetic" not by emphasizing conventional figurative language--which is what most reviewers identify as "lyricism" in fiction--but simply by implicitly acknowledging its own status as an artificial construction of language. Such traditionally constitutive elements of fiction as "plot," "character," or "setting" might remain as notional devices, but would recede in importance to the structural patterning of language the author has employed.
Already, of course, the boundaries between "prose" and "poetry" have become blurred, especially among contemporary poets. Moreover, there have always been fiction writers who have conceived their work to be "poetic" in the sense I have just described. (A good case could be made, for example, that the fiction of Gilbert Sorrentino was always more a variation on his work as a poet than an adaptation of the novel "as conventionally defined.") But either a further blurring of the lines or a further reinforcement of the lines so that "the mimetic portrayal of society on the broad canvas" isn't the default definition of "literature" could each bring a refreshing clarity to debates about the nature of literary art and its relationship to the other arts.
D.G. Myers is pretty sure that plot in fiction displays "how the greatest novelists think." I surely can't agree either that plot is always relevant to how the "greatest novelists" think, nor that it necesssarily has anything to do with how novelists "think," although I would concede that it does sometimes indicate a kind of "thinking" in some fiction, including in much bad fiction. I can't say I follow his reasoning, either:
"Although an ingenious plot is not a logical structure, it serves the same purpose in fiction that argument serves in philosophy—and may even rival philosophical argument in brilliance."
If plot is not a logical structure, how can it serve the same purpose as argument? An argument depends on its logical structure. If plot has no logical structure, how can it be an argument at all, much less a brilliant one?
". . .when it is airtight, the plot succeeds in establishing, I would hold, the validity of the novel’s central theme."
Why is it assumed that every novel has a "central theme"? Don't some novelists work without the assumption of a "theme"? And even if readers deduce such a theme from the plot, how could the latter being validating the former if the writer had no notion there was a theme to validate? Further, don't some novels have more than one theme? How do we decide which one the plot is validating? What if the theme is carried explicitly through dialogue or associated with some other element, such as settting, and the plot merely allows the theme to be developed?
"[The Age of Innocence] is written, as I have argued before now, to verify a “tragic view of marital duty.” The verification is accomplished by the plot, which I now proceed to reduce to a sequence of necessary steps."
How do we know that the novel was written to "verify" this theme? Did Wharton ever herself say such a thing? Nowhere in this or the previous post on Wharton does Myers provide any evidence that she did, or that, absent such warrant, we couldn't find any number of other reasons why the novel "was written," at least according to our own particular reading.
"In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton does not build an intellectual case for the tragedy of marriage. She lays it out—by plots and errors moved."
The Age of Innocence may or may not be about the tragedy of marriage. I could just as easily say it's about the vanity of human wishes or the tyranny of social customs. To the extent it is about the tragedy of marriage, it becomes so because Wharton has adapted the tragic plot, made Newland Archer the tragic hero, etc. I can't see how such a move constitutes "thinking," however. If anything, Wharton is following a centuries-old formula, substituting different circumstances and modern characters. That she might see marriage as potentially tragic strikes me as essentially a platitude.
Which is not to deny that The Age of Innocence is a provocative and worthwhile novel. Wharton adapts the conventions of tragedy in much of her fiction, and does it very effectively. The House of Mirth is among other things a compelling variation on the tragic plot, inserting a woman as the tragic hero. I guess one could construe Wharton's strategy as a form of "thinking," but it's more like simply an experiment with the possibilities of tragedy in the modern age, not really an "argument" of the sort Myers finds in The Age of Innocence.
It seems to me that the thinking-through-plot Myers describes is just another way of identifying plots that are more allegorical than others. Sometimes a novel's plot does obviously enough carrry great thematic weight, but just as often it's an excuse for a bad novel to take on the pretense of "saying something." If Myers were to claim that "In some novels the author carefully constructs a plot so as to reveal some unstated truth," it would be hard to argue with him, but to generalize that plot is always the great writer's way of "thinking" seems an overreach, to say the least.
John Dewey's notion of "experience" in Art and Experience cannot be equated with what some aestheticians, following Kant, refer to as "contemplation":
To define the emotional element of the process of perception merely as the pleasure taken in the action of contemplation, independent of what is excited by the matter contemplated, results. . .in a thoroughly anaemic conception of art. Carried to its logical conclusion, it would exclude from esthetic perception most of the subject-matter that is enjoyed in the case of architectural structures, the drama, and the novel, with all their attendent reverberations.
This last sentence would seem to suggest that Dewey believes there is something called "subject-matter" that exists apart from the formal qualities of art and that can properly be the point of the reader's "perception." However, it is the way in which "subject" contributes to aesthetic perception, subject as part of aesthetic perception, that is Dewey's focus, emphasizing a kind of perception that produces "reverberations," not conclusive "meaning."
Indeed, Dewey immediately adds that "Not absence of desire and thought [as would be the case with 'contemplation'] but their thorough incorporation into perceptual experience characterizes esthetic experience, in its distinction from experiences that are especially 'intellectual' and 'practical.'" Those who wish to "contemplate" a work of art want to avoid the projection of desire or the imposition of thought, but for Dewey a fully engaged aesthetic experience finds the subjective response of the "pericipient" satisfyingly integrated in all of its facets with both the matter and manner of the work: "The rhythm of expectancy and satisfaction is so internally complete that the reader is not aware of thought as a separate element, certainly not of it as a labor."
The percipient who settles for contemplation is unable to experience art in quite this active way, but neither is the one driven by the sheer desire for beauty, who is willing to sacrifice the particularity of the work for the abstractly sensual, nor the "investigator," who, in his/her preference for "data" or illustration can only be impatient with the "uniqueness of the object perceived." Both the sensualist and the investigator "want the object for the sake of something else," while anyone open to genuine aesthetic experience will find his/her thoughts and desires "fulfilled in the perception itself."
I myself have some sympathy for the sensualist, who properly seeks out art for its aesthetic value but has a undiscriminating conception of "beauty," but I don't at all comprehend why any "investigator" would show even a passing interest in art or literature--unless it is to deliberately devalue and dismiss the aesthetic as frivolous, not worth the "serious" critic's time. The investigator relegates the formal qualities of literature to the "merely literary," but then approaches works of imagination as if those formal qualities don't exist at all, don't have the effect of bending and conditioning meaning beyond any useful paraphrase. Why concern yourself in the first place with what a poem, story, or novel has to "say," the intellectual or practical "truth" it supposedly reveals, when such works are (at least at their best) so indirect and oblique in their ability to communicate anything?
In my view, Dewey's core notion that art is most valuable as an agent of heightened experience, that it is best appreciated as experience, undercuts all forms of critical investigation--moral criticism, political criticism, cultural criticism, etc.--at least to the extent that such approaches assume that "subject-matter" is easily detached from "perceptual experience." Subject matter exists, but it is the means by which the work of art comes into being, not its end.
Lorrie Moore's first two books, the story collection Self-Help (1985) and the novel Anagrams (1986), introduced a writer possessing an appealing comic touch, lightly applied but not reducible to mere "humor," and a modest if still palpable impulse to formal experiment. Self-Help incoporated as a formal strategy the conventions of direct address found in the genre of nonfiction named in the title. Thus this passage from "How to Be the Other Woman": "Shave your legs in the bathroom sink. Philosophize: you are a mistress, part of a great hysterical you mean historical tradition. Wives are like cockroaches. Also part of a great historical tradition. They will survive you after a nuclear attach--they are tough and hardy and travel in packs--but right now they're not having any fun. And when you look in the bathroom mirror, you spot them scurrying, up out of reach behind you." Or the beginning of the book's fourth story, called simply "How": "Begin by meeting him in a class, in a bar, at a rummage sale. Maybe he teaches sixth grade. Manages a hardware store. Foreman at a carton factory. He will be a good dancer. He will have perfectly cut hair. He will laugh at your jokes." Anagrams presents us with the stories of "Benna" and "Gerard," except that in the novel's five sections these are never quite the same characters (although also not completely different, either), their lives rearranged and recombined as narrative anagrams. It contains the kind of verbal comedy also characteristic of Self-Help and that would come to be a distinctive feature of Moore's fiction: "Eleanor and I around this time founded The Quit-Calling Me Shirley School of Comedy. It entailed the two of us meeting downtown for drinks and making desparate pronouncements about life and love which always began, 'But surely. . .' It entailed what Eleanor called, 'The Great White Whine': whiney white people getting together over white wine and whining."
These two books made me think Lorrie Moore might be counted among a younger generation of adventurous writers neither programmatically postmodern nor retreating to the sparer comforts of minimalism, following up on the radical departures of postmodernism in a perhaps less confrontational, more accessible way. Unfortunately, her subsequent books have evidenced a sad, uninterrrupted decline into bathos and convention, each of them more disappointinly trite than the last. Even the story "People Like That Are the Only People Here" (collected in Birds of America), which is ritually cited as Moore's finest work, seems to me mostly an exercise in sentimentality, its supposed mordancy of tone notwithstanding, invoking that most maudlin of narrative devices, a child in distress, without redeeming it. It relies entirely on the reflexive emotional reaction many readers have to this device, but I, for one, don't really need to be convinced that having a sick baby is a woeful state of affairs or that the American health care system is deplorable. As far as I can tell, this story only exists to "say" these things.
Neither Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? nor any of the stories in Like Life or Birds of America exhibit the interest in alternative narrative forms found in Self-Help and Anagrams. They are all conventionally structured narratives employing the kind of strategies designed to "connect" us to their characters, establish appropriate narrative "arc," and provide "telling" and "vivid" detail reinforced by every creative writing program in the country. And while many of them are leavened by what the dust jacket of Birds of America calls the "wit, brio, and verve" manifested in dialogue and by the occasional first-person narrator, the "wit" becomes non-threatingly humorous and essentially ornamental to the "human interest" most reviewers now find central to Lorrie Moore's approach.
Moore's 2009 novel, A Gate at the Stairs, shows the most precipitous decline into banality and unearned emotion yet. It may be the worst novel by a "name" author I've ever read, which is made all the more dismaying by the fact it comes from a writer I once admired. Once again this is a story that leans heavily on the initial emotional appeal of children, but in this case although an orphaned child is introduced and her plight made a center of interest for a while, utlimately this narrative thread has very little emotional weight and is finally dropped, not to be taken up again. Other potentially emotion-laden episodes are introduced as well, but they all remain surprisingly inert, both in narrative and emotional effect. Thus, while the situations evoked in the novel are potentially mawkish, they are executed with so little imagination and formal integrity they essentially just arise and recede without making much of an impression at all. The death of the protagonist's brother, for example, seems so arbitrary, so clearly the product of narrative convenience that her reaction to it is almost grotesquely overwrought. We've been given so little reason to care about the brother, or so little insight into the relationship between sister and brother, this episode as the novel's climactic event falls disastrously flat even in a narrative that never gets off the ground anyway.
A Gate at the Stairs chronicles one year in the life of Tassie Keltjen, a Midwestern college student, shortly after the events of 9/11/01. Apparently, this context is meant to be significant, the story Tassie tells in some way inflected by or representing allegorically the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but exactly why it is significant or how the story "responds" to the period after the Twin Towers collapsed and before the Iraq war began I am not able to say. In his review of the novel, Ron Charles asserts that it contains "profound reflections on marriage and parenthood, racism and terrorism, and especially the baffling, hilarious, brutal initiation to adult life." I can't find any "profound reflections" on any of these issues, most especially terrorism, although this may be a function of my disinclination to read fiction for "reflections" on anything rather than the failure of the author to make her reflections more tangible. Moreover, if the nature of her reflections were suddenly to become more apparent to me, I'm pretty sure this would only clarify further exactly why I find this novel so unpalatable, providing additional evidence that Lorrie Moore has abandoned aesthetic adventurousness for dreary "engagement."
The novel certainly does depict "marriage and parenthood," as Tassie finds herself working as a nanny for a couple who have adopted a biracial child. This presumably also introduces the issues of race to which Powers alludes, but the closest we get to "reflection" on racism is through a series of inane conversations among a group of adoptive mothers of cross-racial children that Tassie overhears. Tassie's employers probably are meant to be "colorful" characters whose marriage provides a contrast with Tassie's own parents back on the farm. They are, however, so superficially portrayed--the menu at the wife's gourmet restaurant is more interesting than she is--that "reflection" on their obviously foundering marriage is hardly possible. Further, the eventually revealed backstory explaining their situation, including their desire to adopt, is so astonishingly implausible that whatever resonance Tassie's experience with them might have is completely lost. Tassie's parents are actually more interesting, although their son's death at the book's conclusion reduces them to a generic set of grieving parents, emblematic, I suppose, of the many other grieving parents created by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The scenes focusing on Tassie at home and interacting with her parents are the best in the book, but they are overshadowed by the interminable accounts of Tassie at work and at school.
The latter include an interlude in which Tassie takes up with a fellow student named Reynaldo, who presents himself as Brazilian, but turns out to be an American muslim from New Jersey. I think. Apparently he's a proto-terrorist, or terrorist fellow traveller, or something. If we are to take seriously the notion that a Wisconsin farm girl at an upper Midwestern state university finds herself involved with a budding terrorist, then these scenes are unquestionably the most embarrassing in the novel. Otherwise, they're just impossibly muddled.
One quality of Lorrie Moore's fiction that initially made it attractive to me does survive in A Gate at the Stairs. As narrator of her story, Tassie Keltjin frequently enough exhibits a comedian-like sense of humor:
Adoption seemed both a cruel joke and lovely daydream--a nice way of avoiding the blood and pain of giving birth, or, from a child's perspective, a realized fantasy of your parents not really being your parents. Your genes could thrust one arm in the air and pump up and down, Yes! You were not actually related to Them!
"You know," Tassie recalls saying to a date who has just announced to her he's gay, "if you concentrated you could be straight. I'm sure of it. Just relax, close your eyes once in a while, and just do it. Heterosexuality--well, it takes a lot of concentration!. . .It takes a lot for everybody!"
On the other hand, there are passages that struggle for cogency, as when Tassie muses about women's fashion:
What would be cool was something different, more murderous, and not depticable. From what I could see, the best look would involve not just something new, but something with insouciant jewelry and ominous leather goods denouncing something old that lay within yourself and others. Probably I would never accomplish this. Without explicit instructions I had no feel or instinct, at least not for the new part. I felt, however, that if called upon, I could do the other part--denunciation--but privately. Privately part cool, since I partook of denouncing (silently, violently) all the time.
These reflections are clearly enough laboring to "say" something significant, but I don't really know what it is.
The contrast between the sure-footed comedy of the first two passages and the straining for effect of the last seems to me to encapsulate the fatal flaw of A Gate at the Stairs. Moore retains, on a verbal level, her essentially comedic vision and skills but ulimately allows them to be subjugated to a ponderous effort to be "about" something more "serious." A writer who began by writing funny, formally agile fiction has now produced an emotionally overworked, formally dull novel only intermittently relieved by a funny line or facetiously rendered scene. I have said this is one of the worst books I've read, but the experience of reading it is really more depressing than anything else.
While reflecting on the role of "innovation" in poetry, Ron Silliman pauses to offer this comment:
I have written before that any history of poetry is inevitably a history of change in poetry, and that an inevitable consequence is that the well-wrought urn is almost invariably a trivial accomplishment. Indeed, it’s a trivial goal.
The "Well-Wrought Urn" is of course the title of Cleanth Brooks's "Studies in the Structure of Poetry," as the book's subtitle has it. It is probably the most important critical work to emerge from the practice of "New Criticism," and it can still be read as a primer of sorts on that approach to literary criticism. New Criticism was dislodged from its place as a dominant academic critical strategy long ago, but it continues to draw much abuse from those who associate it with an apolitical formalism or an almost religious reverence for the poem as "verbal icon" or, in Silliman's case, view it as a critical adjunct to the "school of quietude" in poetry.
It is true that in invoking the "well-wrought urn" Brooks was trying to call attention to poetry as a verbal equivalent, a poem as an art object sufficient unto itself. But the trope can be dismissed as a "trivial goal"--indeed, as a "goal" at all--only if you assume that the urn is well-wrought because it successfully attains a level of "beauty" that conforms to pre-established formal requirements. Literary history as a series of such skillfully-fashioned verbal objects reinforcing aesthetic norms would indeed be a tedious procession, and the goal of adding yet one more "fine" work would indeed be trivial.
But I don't see why "well-wrought urn" has to be taken in this way. A poem, or any other work of art, could be still be admirably made even if it departs from norms and conventions, although it might take some readers a little longer to recognize the "well-wrought" qualities of such a work. Time might be needed, or a perspicacious critic who can illuminate the aesthetic strategies employed, but surely there are too many "great" works of formal splendor that at one time were perceived as ugly or misshapen for us to accept that the notion of the well-wrought can only apply to conventionally beautiful art. Who now thinks Joyce's Ulysses is not carefully wrought, even though at the time of its publication it was perceived as chaotic? If a work carries out its own aesthetic assumptions in a deliberate and coherent way (and even apparent incoherence often has its own justifying logic), why should we not call this effort "well-wrought," even if the results are at first unfamiliar?
So, yes, the history of both poetry and fiction is a history of change, but that is not inconsistent with a literary history featuring "well-wrought" works that were also, in their time and, in some cases, are still, challenging and unorthodox. I agree with Ron Silliman that what is presented as new and innovative in art is often just "fashionism," although it seems to me that Ron's emphasis on the "evolution" of poetry, on literary history as only change and no urns, threatens to make poetry even more into fashionism. There has to be room for the recognition of aesthetic success that remains successful.
In her recent consideration of Dalkey Archive's anthology, Best European Fiction 2010, Ruth Franklin wonders:
Other than the language in which they write, is there anything that unites [writers such as Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, and Nathan Englander]—all of whom have spent long periods of their lives living in places other than the United States—as definably American?
This immediately seems to me rather insipid. In taking full measure of all writers' work, "the language in which they write" is everything. If the language is English, then whatever is "definably American" about the work can only reach us through the Americanized version of this language. (Luckily the reach of English into many countries and cultures gives us Americans additional direct access to the work of many non-American writers, although I would still maintain that American readers are going to respond most fully to American fiction simply because they "know" the language as inflected by American culture, just as Australians will respond most strongly to Australian fiction. This does not seem to me a matter of "preferring" one's national literature to translated literature. It's simply a matter of fact.) As to what else might mark a writer as "definably American": Who cares? It's an exercise for an American Studies scholar, perhaps, but otherwise not a question relevant to the our encounter with the text.
I have written before that I feel comfortable engaging in literary criticism, at least that form of it I generally favor, close reading, only of English-language fiction or poetry. I am not able to get close enough to do a close reading of translations, since I can't be sure the text in front of me is an adequate realization of the original--indeed, I know it's not, as the only adequate realization would be the original. I cannot immerse myself in the language of the text, only the translator's rendering of the text in another language, and I don't see how a critical reading of this text would be a fair judgment of the writer as a writer. It's literally not his/her writing.
I experience this dilemma not as a reason to elevate literature in English above that produced in other languages but as a reason to focus my critical energies (although not necessarily all of my reading time) on work that I think I can assess accurately. I experience it ultimately as a forfeited opportunity to widen my own reading horizons, a result of my inability to pick up languages easily, or at least to learn one well enough to read an untranslated text with any degree of confidence I am "getting it." There's certainly enough that I can get from a translated text--most of its formal qualities and a general comprehesion of character or setting or theme, etc.--to make reading translations worthwhile, but I would venture into extended critical analysis of a translated work only when I think its most important qualities obviously enough survive the translation--as I did most recently with Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones.
According to Franklin, "There’s something a little bit ridiculous about continuing to use nationality as a primary label for writers now that literary culture has gone truly global." Nationality itself, perhaps so, but there's nothing ridiculous at all about using national language as "a primary label for writers." There may be an increasingly shared "sensibility" among "global" writers, but finally the way in which that sensibility is embodied in the available resources of the writer's medium--the particular language in which he/she writes--can't simply be ignored. To the extent it is being ignored, both in the commentary about Best European Fiction (where language differences among the included writers themselves are also being subsumed to the imperatives of the "global") and in discussions of translation in general, a fundamental fact about literature is simply being elided. I can't see that it does a writer from any country any good to encourage readers to think that language can harmlessly be tossed into a melting pot of flavorless "international influences" and be served up as a stew.
It is not really surprising that crime fiction would be a genre appealing to otherwise "serious" novelists attempting to work with the conventions of a popular form adapted to the purposes of their own ostensibly non-genre work. Crime fiction portrays a world perpetually in extremis, and in the detective novel variant it emphasizes a process of discovery and revelation that in some ways models the very structure of narrative itself. (Although perhaps the detective is more like the literary critic, looking for the clues that will provide meaning, filling in the gaps and making the speculative leaps that will add up to a coherent interpretation of things.) It acts as a kind of palimpsest over which the literary writer might inscribe his/her own variations on "criminal" behavior and its sources in unruly human impulses.
Within the last year, both Denis Johnson and Thomas Pynchon, each certifiably qualified to be regarded as serious novelists, have published novels that imitate or burlesque crime fiction, Johnson's Nobody Move and Pynchon's Inherent Vice. Although Johnson's book seems the most thoroughly to be an "imitation" of the genre, if not an outright attempt to produce a plausible crime novel, the inanity of the title suggests we might want to take it instead as burlesque, while Inherent Vice might ultimately be regarded as an affectionate homage to the detective novel, even though it is marked by Pynchon's signature brand of wacky humor and seems to be having fun with the detective novel's propensity to spiral off into episodic pieces that don't always coherently join back up with the narrative whole. Ultimately Pynchon's idiosyncratic appropriation of the "novel of detection" is much more satisfying than Johnson's straight-faced mimicry of the "noir" crime story.
Frankly, if Nobody Move had been written by someone other than a well-respected author like Denis Johnson, I can't see any reason why it would even be published. At best it's a mediocre crime novel that tells a familiar story of hoodlums fighting over a large sum of money, supplemented by a few "colorful" characters including a token female character subsisting in a state of extreme moral degradation. It seems cast in the mold set by the tales of human depravity written by such virtuosos of the genre as Jim Thompson, but no one can sound the depths of degradation quite like Thompson, and Nobody Move comes off as a feeble echo of his achievement. At no point does it rise above or transform the narrative conventions of the hard-boiled crime novel. Indeed, in its reliance on long stretches of perfunctory dialogue, it fosters the impression it was written mostly to become a movie script.
Judging from his previous work, Johnson actually seems just the sort of writer who might profitably explore the boundary between crime fiction and his own mode of "literary" fiction. Many of his books depict the underside of American life, focusing on marginal characters and self-destructive behavior. His style as well, which is clean and precise and generally without affectation, would seem an appropriate medium for a noir-influenced narrative. Unfortunately, the depiction of the underworld mileu in Nobody Move is rote, the characters too clueless to be interesting, and the style sacrificed to cinematic realism. The novel represents a completely missed opportunity and is altogether dispensable.
That Thomas Pychon would come to draw on the resources of the detective novel seems, if anything, even less surprising than Denis Johnson's foray into the crime fiction genre. As many reviewers of Inherent Vice correctly pointed out, Pynchon's fiction has long incorporated the mystery plot as its essential narrative device, with characters such as Herbert Stencil, Oedipa Maas, and Tyrone Slothrop taking on the role of "detective." What Will Blythe says of Doc Sportello, private eye protagonist of Inherent Vice, is true of these other characters as well: "Doc attempts to solve a mystery that may or may not be solvable, so dense are the thickets of information through which he must hack, so opaque the motives of nearly everyone he comes across."
It might be said that this portrayal of Doc Sportello as a kind of perplexed if intrepid jungle explorer makes Inherent Vice a pastiche of the detective novel, or even a parody, an exercise in genre revisionism that takes the epistemological core of the detective narrative--the search for knowledge--and uses it to mock the the pretensions of such narratives to finally arrive at "truth" and to satirize the very notion that a "search for knowledge" in modern America is even possible. There is some truth to such an interpretation, of course, but I don't finally think that Pynchon's novel is a burlesque of the detective novel and nothing more. The touchstone for Inherent Vice is pretty clearly the fiction of Raymond Chandler in novels such as The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, and it could equally be said that Chandler's own work evinces a good deal of epistemological skepticism itself, and Philip Marlowe is frequently portrayed as attempting to hack his way through "thickets" of misdirection. Marlowe often seems just as confused by the opaque motives of those he encounters as Doc Sportello.
Inherent Vice is at least as much a homage to the radicalism of writers like Chandler and Ross McDonald, a testament to the adaptability of the detective novel to various settings, styles, and concerns, especially in contexts in which the very possibility of uncovering "truth" is or ought to be a lingering question. Doc Sportello may seem a sorry excuse for a private eye--a shambolic, laid-back stoner--but he's also dogged and perceptive, and he feels a sense of duty toward those he is enlisted to help. If he is led through some mazes that remain mazy and if the full import of what he discovers is not altogether assimilated, this is only par for the course in Pynchon's fiction, and having gone through the process of seeking the truth has been more enlightening than not, both for Doc and for the reader. Through Doc's peregrinations around Los Angeles, he and we become more fully aware of the historical and cultural forces at work that will transform the hippie haven of Gordita Beach into just a memory of personal and countercultural resistance to the encroaching power of new technologies and an unleashed capitalism that will shut down the brief emergence of a more humane way of life--the way of life associated with "the sixties"--before it could become more than a fragile utopian moment.
What ultimately makes Inherent Vice compelling is that in accepting the narrative protocols of the detective novel--which includes the obligatory visit of the femme fatale who initiates the action, an encounter with goons that leaves Doc unconscious, episodes of verbal sparring between Doc and a cop, etc.--Pynchon also manages to produce a novel that is recognizably Pynchonian. The detective novel is used to his purposes and is thus in this instance transformed into a comic picaresque in which, as with most picaresque narratives, characters are thinly developed beyond a few essential features, their adventures themselves of more importance than what these adventures might add to our sense of the characters as "rounded" individuals. (Thus the frequent enough criticism that Pynchon's characters are "cartoonish" is completely misconceived.) I think I agree with Thomas Jones that
the Anglophone novelist whom Pynchon most closely resembles – with his delight in silly names, scatological jokes, wild digressions and impromptu outbursts of song lyrics, his disregard for distinctions between fact and fiction, his scientific background, his belief in the randomness of the world and fascination with the patterns that appear in the chaos – is Tobias Smollett.
In such novels as The Adventures of Roderick Random, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, and The Expedition of Humphry Clinker--even the names of the protagonists are appropriately Pynchonesque--Smollett helped establish the picaresque as a narrative strategy in the early English novel, but despite Smollett's influence on, for example, Charles Dickens, both he and the kind of picaresque narrative emphasizing "randomness" and digression was superseded by the post-Flaubert novel of realism and the "well-made story." Writers like Pynchon and John Barth partially revived the picaresque strategy in the 1960s, and surely both V and Gravity's Rainbow can usefully be read as picaresque accounts of randomness and incipient chaos.
What really unites Pynchon and Smollett is an essentially comic vision of the world, a world full of mishaps, bad luck, and evil portents, that presents itself not as an orderly arrangement of plot points but as an entirely contingent series of events--one thing leads to another. And it is a comic vision that at its best is also greatly entertaining. Pynchon's best work is above all funny, and the most unfortunate consequence of the scholarly attention Pynchon's fiction has gathered over the years is that too much emphasis has been put on "paranoia" and "entropy" and other weighty matters, obscuring the fundamental fact that Pynchon is in the line of great American literary comedians. His work is "postmodern" to the extent it is comic in a particularly thoroughgoing way, not because it invokes the second law of thermodynamics or posits the existence of global conspiracies. When his fiction becomes bloated and leaden, as I would argue it does in both Mason & Dixon and Against the Day, it is because he has lost this comic facility, or is intentionally disregarding it.
Thus for me Inherent Vice marks a return to the approach he seemingly abandoned after Vineland. It takes us on a comic/picaresque journey around southern California at the turn of the seventies, playing much of what it records for laughs even as it exposes us to acts of murder, brutal violence, drug trafficking, sadism, and economic rapacity--all the "inherent vice" to which humanity inevitably succumbs. The detective novel conventions give the novel a structural spine that helps to focus the novel's comedic energies while also allowing Pynchon the flexibility of form that characterizes his best work. Some might say the kind of pothead humor that arises from his choice of mileu and protagonist sometimes descends to the level of Cheech and Chong, but this is arguably a necessary side effect of the aesthetic strategy Pynchon employs: the world in which Doc Sportello roams is comic precisely because of the perspective the dope-smoking detective provides.
If finally Inherent Vice is somewhat less satisfying than Pynchon's other two California novels, Vineland and The Crying of Lot 49, not to mention V and Gravity's Rainbow, I would identify its most serious flaw as a kind of sentimentality about the vanished hippie world it evokes. It's a sentimentality only reinforced by the novel's conclusion--Doc driving in the inland fog, clearly enough symbolic of the coming cultural fog of the 1970s--although the novel's strongly sympathetic portrayal of the hippie scene has by then long since itself settled in. Perhaps it has been lurking in Pynchon's work all along, but the wistful tone of innocence lost pervades this novel, and a little too obviously for my taste. The characters in Inherent Vice, including Doc Sportello, are subject to a mild degree of comic mockery, but not enough to deprive them of their status as heroes of naivete.
On February 7, Mark Athitakis published both a review of Don DeLillo's Point Omega and a blog post supplementing that review. The review (printed in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune) is a perfectly good review of its kind--the kind limited by the newspaper's imposed limitations of space and the need to address a perceived "general" audience--but what struck me the most is how superior to the review, and ultimately more useful to readers, is the blog post.
The review does an effective job in its first paragraph of locating the new DeLillo novel in the context of his other recent work, and immediately lets the reader know it is a book worth his/her attention. What follows is three paragraphs (out of six total paragraphs) of plot summary, which succinctly enough encapsulate the "story" of Point Omega (succinct plot summaries not being something I normally anticipate in most newspaper reviews, it must be said) and a concluding paragraph that states the reviewer's judgment that the novel manifests an "elegance" and "an artfulness to the prose" that make it more satisfying than DeLillo's previous book.
In the blog post, Athitakis quotes the conclusion of his review, but then moves well beyond the kind of compressed commentary he is able to provide there. The first thing he does is to refer to other critical reaction to Point Omega, a move that is apparently forbidden in most print book reviews. The assumption seems to be that a review must be free-standing, shorn of the useful context consideration of existing commentary on a book might offer. This is a practice that only reinforces the impression of book reviewing as "lifestyle reporting" rather than actual literary criticism, and it's a shame reviewers like Athitakis are not able to engage in real critical dialogue in the reviews they write. In this case, the quotes from the other reviews he includes in his post allow him to express his dissent from prevailing views and to emphasize what he thinks is a misperception of Point Omega.
Athitakis then goes more deeply into what he considers the "timelessness" of DeLillo's concerns, contrary to the notion he's become preoccupied with "abstracted musings on geopolitics" since the events of 9/11/01. He suggests that "the novel’s central tension isn’t between war and peace or American empire and the rapidly approaching apocalypse (though DeLillo hasn’t neglected those concerns), but between differing notions of what it means to be patient. How soon do you perceive somebody’s disappearance as a loss? How long does it take to come around to somebody else’s way of thinking? How much time is required to shift from being concerned about humanity to being concerned about a single human being?" This analysis reflects a level of critical contemplation for which the editors of newspaper book reviews have little patience, but which this blog post presents very cogently.
It isn't that Athitakis's post is much longer than the review, but that it doesn't have to observe the numbing conventions of literary journalism as imposed on the book review. At first it seems like an afterthought to the main business represented by the review, but to me it finally comes to embody the critic's thoughts much more fully. Increasingly, blog-published reviews and criticism in general are more satisfying in this way than what can be found in print publications, especially newspapers.
It is often enough asserted that aesthetic values are "really" ethical ones, or that the aesthetic is "always already" political, or that aesthetic taste and judgment are necessarily secondary to some other consideration in a move that essentially amounts to claiming that we shouldn't ask works of art, maybe especially literary art, to be too, well, artistic. The latest such assertion I have seen is from Alec Niedenthal in a post at HTMLGIANT:
[I want to ask w]hy we do not, by and large, see aesthetics as ethics, as an ethical act, a metapolitics, for which we, as writers with the power and duty to transform, are deeply and inescapably responsible. And how we get from ethics to moral literature: literature with deep conviction and passion toward the event of truth.
When we talk about style, language, form, we are already talking about ethics, about politics. There is no such thing as a work of art for-itself.
My immediate response to this is to suggest that those of us with an interest in aesthetic values do not see aesthetics as ethics because they can't possibly be the same thing. If they were, we'd need only one of the terms to discuss what's going on in works of art, and the whole debate about how much emphasis should be placed on the aesthetic in the creation and reception of art would be moot. I can understand the belief that in addition to considering aesthetic value one might further reflect on ethical questions one thinks a work might raise, but to in effect make the aesthetic disappear as an element in our experience of art just seems to me a denial of art altogether.
By what metaphysical operation has Niedenthal determined that "There is no such thing as a work of art for-itself"? Perhaps in his own response to art he doesn't apprehend a "for itself," but does he assume that what he takes from the experience of art is perforce true of everyone? If I am able in my initial response to a work of art or literature to brackett off other considerations (historical, political, ethical) and to focus my attention on what I can discern as the aesthetic strategies at work and on the effects of these strategies, does Neidenthal say that what I am doing is invalid? Am I not really doing what I think I'm doing? How would he know? I don't contend that "art for-itself" is the only way to approach works of art, only that it should be the first way to approach them and that subsequent consideration of ethical or historical or political implications that doesn't take into account a work's origin in aesthetic forms will inevitably distort perception of the work. I don't say there is no such thing as ethical implication, while Niedenthal is quite absolute in his rejection of aesthetic autonomy.
Niedenthan quotes a passage from David Foster Wallace's "Good Old Neon" as an example of Wallace's "love" for his readers:
His style is all there: the rhythm, the breathless voice, the perfect syllabic stretches. But it’s not like you could listen to this voice talk about anything. Because, the point is, it wouldn’t talk about anything. The voice inscribes what is said with the urgency of its very saying. One gets the sense that this voice lives at all for the sake of these select sentences, that it has self-sacrificed for them.
The problem with this analysis is that it posits the "voice" as existing prior to its incarnation in this passage, or this story. The reason it could not "talk about anything" is that it was invoked to "talk about" this scene, not as a "gift" bestowed by the author (presumably the source of the voice). That the "voice inscribes what is said with the urgency of its very saying" is a nice way to describe the effect of the passage, but this doesn't seem to me a statement about its ethical urgency but rather an insight into the aesthetic success of "Good Old Neon." The voice does indeed exist "for the sake of these select sentences," but to say "it has self-sacrificed for them" seems unnecessarily mystical, even as a metaphor. No "self" has been sacrificed; words have been arranged on the page such that, in context, they have an impact on the reader. This impact must first of all be due to the arfulness of their arrangement and the cumulative force of the context.
I'm sure that Alec Niedenthal is sincerely expressing his reading response to a writer like Wallace. Perhaps DFW even felt a concern about the "ethical" content of his fiction. But what he has left us with are precisely the various artful arrangements to be found there, and to become preoccupied with the ethics his work purportedly embodies is at best to get ahead of the critical task of assessing that work and at worst to engage in ungrounded speculation.
Although I have read Rabbit, Run at least four times, I have read the other Rabbit books by John Updike only once. While I thought Rabbit is Rich was worth reading, the other two were tepid and lackluster, period pieces at best that existed to show Rabbit Angstrom as a "representative" American of his time and place and to document American culture at the turn of each decade from 1960 to 1990. Rabbit is Rich shared these characteristics as well, although in this book Updike was able to mirror Rabbit's own predicament in Rabbit, Run in the situation in which Rabbit's son, Nelson, finds himself, which gives it a structural and thematic association with the first novel that allows it to be a plausible continuation of that novel rather than just another installment in a loosely-jointed chronicle of the life of a guy in Pennsylvania.
To a limited extent, Rabbit, Run itself is a "documentary" novel that gives us a portrait of small-town life (we sometimes forget that the Rabbit novels are set not in Brewer, the modestly sized city the characters often enough visit, but in Mt. Judge, which really doesn't take on the attributes of suburbia until later in the series) circa 1960. But much of its documentary value is retrospective, illuminated by the additional light cast by the subsequent novels in the series. It has a role in this series due only to the fact that Updike chose to write another novel featuring Rabbit Angstrom ten years later, its social realism partly an artifact of the later creation and our perception of "the Rabbit books" as a unified set. Further, I don't think that documentary realism was really Updike's primary ambition in Rabbit, Run, although it was and is a secondary effect of his anchoring of the story in a fictionalized version of his hometown and of his commitment to specificity and detail.
I recently re-read both Rabbit, Run and Rabbit is Rich, and my perception that Rabbit, Run is a qualitatively different kind of novel was only reinforced. Of the four books, it is by far the slimmest, and its relative brevity and more concentrated focus reflects its different purpose: it is more nearly pure narrative, almost allegorical, a fable about disillusion edging into desperation. Its present-tense narration gives it an immediacy that still seems immediate, while the same strategy in the other, more bloated novels seems increasingly perfunctory (although perhaps this impression is heightened because the present-tense strategy itself eventually came to seem somewhat unexceptional--an outcome made possible by Updike's prominent use of the strategy in Rabbit, Run). Rabbit, Run is a novel centered on its protagonist's existential crisis, the dramatization of which is its dominant concern.
Rabbit is Rich is, like its now forty-something protagonist, much less frenetic, more leisurely paced than Rabbit Run but also somewhat more expansive in the account it provides both of Rabbit's domestic life (now that he's settled into one) and of Brewer and Mt. Judge, the latter of which has now truly become an upwardly mobile suburb that provides Rabbit and his wife the comforts they enjoy due to the circumstances indicated in the novel's title. Rabbit has outgrown his existential crisis, although his son Nelson is depicted as just entering into his. Rabbit is Rich lacks the intensity and the structural economy of Rabbit is Rich, making it a less urgent, more diffuse reading experience, but it also offers a breadth of detail and observation not to be found so much in the first novel.
Both Rabbit Redux and Rabbit is Rich seem clearly enough designed to transform the approach taken in Rabbit, Run into a strategy by which the story of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom becomes not just the story of an isolated American trying to figure out what he wants but a story about the social development of America in the second half of the twentieth century. Rabbit, Run takes on "social" implications if we regard it as the story of a high school athlete confronting the world after stardom and finding ordinary life unsatisfying, but neither the American preoccupation with athletic success nor the effects of fame and glory could really be said to be the focus of the novel's attention. And while very little reference is made to current events or objects of popular culture in Rabbit, Run, Rabbit is Rich is saturated with such references, the chronicle of a few months in the life of the Angstrom family unfolding within the cultural currents of such developments as the ongoing energy crisis and the taking of the hostages in Iran. This "embedding" of narrative in social context does provide some parallel to the circumstances of Rabbit's life--he seems himself to be experiencing an energy crisis of sorts--but for the most part it seems designed to add to the novel some "texture" that Rabbit, Run doesn't need.
I think that this strategy in Rabbit is Rich mostly works--it's still a pretty good book that manages to make Harry Angstrom a more sympathetic figure than he is in either Rabbit, Run or Rabbit Redux but doesn't sentimentalize him in the process. Given that Updike portrays Harry in this novel as someone who has become comfortable with his place in the world--certainly much more comfortable than in the previous two novels--it is probably necessary for him to provide a fuller portrait of that larger world as well. Nelson, who comes off as at least as obnoxious as Rabbit himself was in the first novel, introduces some of the tension that animated Rabbit, Run through his own discomfort with the world in which he has been placed and through his increasingly brittle relationship with his father. (That Rabbit is impatient with his son, to the point it seems he really doesn't like him, perhaps suggests that Rabbit perceives Nelson as a little too close to the immature young man he once was.) But, although I can imagine wanting to read Rabbit, Run a fifth time some years hence, I don't think I'll ever want to pick up Rabbit is Rich again. It has reminded me of the era in which it is set, but in the future if I want to be so reminded, I'll consult history books.
I have posted to Secondary Sources a bibliography of interviews with contemporary writers available online. This list complements the previous list of online critical essays already posted to this "scholarly" sideblog.
I have concentrated on substantial interviews that were conducted to be read, leaving out oral and video interviews on the grounds that the latter are more difficult to use as sources for critical discussion, which these lists are intended to help facilitate. This means that prominent interviews such as those to be found on Ed Champion's Bat Segundo are not included, but since those interviews in particular are readily accessible by going to Ed's own site, such an omission seems only moderately serious.
I myself have found well-conducted interviews helpful if limited for gaining further insight into a writer's work--what the writer has to say needs to be heard, but it is by no means the final word in the critical consideration of that work. Unfortunately, most interviews, especially in the popular press, are not well-conducted and amount to no more than chitchat. The webosphere has made more interviews available than ever before, but many of them are also rather superficial. There are important exceptions: Robert Birnbaum and Dave Weigel (of Powells.com) have especially done admirable work in the interview form, and the interviews available at Bomb Magazine are also valuable. Ultimately I have included interviews that range fairly widely over a writer's career or that provide especially provocative comments. I have not included the many brief interviews conducted on the publication of a new book that are essentially just publicity pieces.
Adam Kirsch means this to be a criticism of J.D. Salinger:
The obsessive inventory of the family's apartment in "Franny and Zooey"—there are page-long lists, one of which includes "three radios (a 1927 Freshman, a 1932 Stromberg-Carlson, and a 1941 R.C.A.)"—is not the kind of detail novelists use to capture social or psychological truth. It is more like the gratuitous, self-delighting detail children use when inventing fantasy worlds.
Kirsch thinks that on the evidence of the later published work, Salinger was moving toward a fiction that was "not a way of exploring reality, but a substitute for it." If it turns out that additional work by Salinger exists and that it further extends this emphasis on "inventing fantasy worlds" and eschews the futile gesturing after "social or psychological truth," I'll actually be much more likely to read it.
In a recent essay in Mother Jones, Ted Genoways blames the decline--both in numbers and in influence--of university-affiliated literary magazines not on the university administrators who are, as Genoways puts it, "off-loading" such magazines, nor or the editorial practices by which these magazines determine what they will publish, but on writers themselves. "For Christ's sake," he exclaims, "write something we might want to read."
The logic by which Genoways reaches this conclusion is quite confusing. As Mark Athitakis characterizes his line of thinking, Genoways argues that "Postmodernism is dead, but it persists, which means nobody wants to write fiction about Iraq, which means university-based literary journals are dying, but to solve that writers need to move away from academia." The essay does seem to be based on the assumption that academic literary magazines have been dominated by "postmodernism," although what this seems to mean to Genoways is that writers have stopped "giving two shits about the world," as if any fiction that doesn't concern itself with "big issues," which Genoways apparently equates with "giving two shits," is by default "postmodern."
I must say that when I look at any randomly chosen issue of any literary magazine, whether university-sponsored or not, I have a hard time finding fiction that could plausibly be called postmodern, if to be postmodern is to challenge the reigning narrative conventions promoted by the academic creative writing programs that often enough administer these very magazines. I actually agree with Genoways that there are too many litmags publishing too much perfunctory work, but that these magazines have proliferated because the demand for postmodernism is so insistent seems to me patently absurd. Furthermore, there is a rather glaring contradiction between the assertion there are too many publications chasing too few readers and the attempt to help them gather a bigger audience by suggesting they change their ways, which Genoways also makes. As he himself notes, most of the excess submissions made to a journal like Virginia Quarterly Review (of which Genoways is the editor), come from writers with the desire to write but not much talent for it, and if the number of literary magazines no longer expands in order to accomodate more such writers (as they inevitably do), the perceived problem that too many litmags go unread takes care of itself.
But this reduction of readership to those with a genuine interest in serious fiction obviously wouldn't satisfy Genoways, since presumably many writers would still avoid the "big issues." Ultimately his argument is not with the proprietors of literary magazines or even with academe and its supposed pernicious influence, but with the present cohort of American writers whom Genoways sees as insufficiently "engaged." He tries to cast this preference for "socially conscious writing" as a plea for writers to "reach out" to readers, but I'm not aware that large numbers of fiction readers have indicated that if only academic literary magazines would publish more such fiction they would start subscribing to them in droves. The connection Genoways sees between issues-focused fiction and larger audiences for literary magazines remains, to say the least, unexplored.
Unless he's suggesting that litmags convert themselves into outlets for journalism rather than fiction: "With so many newspapers and magazines closing, with so many commercial publishers looking to nonprofit models, a few bold university presidents could save American literature, reshape journalism, and maybe even rescue public discourse from the cable shout shows and the blogosphere." This concern for "public discourse" seems more immediate to Genoways than his ostensible concern for fiction or for literary magazines and their loss of audience. Perhaps contributing to "public discourse" is actually closer in spirit to the mission of the modern university than giving publishing space to the "merely literary." But if reshaping journalism is the new goal of "literary" magazines located on campus, I hope they just disappear instead.
A debut work that is explicitly identified as experimental--or in this case "unique and innovative," as the book's back cover has it--seems a useful opportunity to consider what "experimental" appears to signify to young writers aspiring to produce fiction worthy of that designation. Erin Pringle's story collection The Floating Order (Two Ravens Press) offers such an opportunity, and while I have some reservations about classifying it as experimental, I nevertheless found this book an impressive set of stories. It is certainly not an ordinary first work of "literary fiction" and for that reason alone commends itself to readers looking for more than the pallid and derivative exercises in convention most such fiction has to offer.
If an immediately observable characteristic of "experimental fiction" is an implicit questioning of the centrality of "story," with its attendant requirements of "exposition," "narrative arc," "backstory," etc., then The Floating Order initially meets this expectation. A few of the stories do ultimately include moments of action--even rather extreme action--but most of them either proceed in the absence of a chartable narrative line or in effect take place in a discursive zone in which the important events have already happened, the protagonist, frequently the narrator and frequently a child, continuing on while unavoidably returning to these events in a fragmentary and oblique way. The reader is asked to suspend final comprehension of the nature and the consequences of these events, but the gradual realization of their full import has a quietly powerful effect.
The collection's first, and title, story is a good example of this approach. Narrated by a woman who has, we ultimately determine, drowned her own children (a situation no doubt inspired by the Andrea Yates case), the "story" unfolds as a kind of spontaneous emanation of the narrator's disturbed mind, circling around the deed but not quite confronting it, freely shifting from past to present, often speaking of the dead children as if they were still alive. The story doesn't so much plumb the depths of the character's insanity as it spills that insanity onto the page through the narrator's free associations of memory--however dissociated--and detail. Ultimately the jumbled, distorted pieces of the story cohere into an affecting account of the narrator's troubles, and the impact is only heightened by the incremental way in which the horror of her experience is revealed.
"The Floating Order" also exemplifies the prevailng prose style of the stories in this book, a style that reflects a certain ingenuousness in the characters' perspective expressed in unadorned language:
I asked the policeman if he'd like some juice, as we were out of milk. He was polite. I explained that my babies are saved. He held my hand and opened the car door for me. Natalie sat in the passenger seat and played with the radio dials. I told her to stop it. The policeman asked who I was talking to. I wouldn't explain. My husband has such high hopes.
Many of the stories are narrated by a child, for whom this sort of low-affect discourse seems well-suited in its guilelessness, but it also has an almost hypnotic effect when applied to damaged adult characters like this one. The occasional shocks it delivers as revelatory images and bits of information punctuate the narrator's recitation effectively substitute for straightforward plot progression.
The author wisely chose to present what is perhaps the volume's best story first, but the next several stories are also quite good, reinforcing the themes and the narrative strategy introduced in "The Floating Order." "Cats and Dogs" relates the predicament of two abandoned children (the father is in prison), the nature of that predicament revealed in the same piecemeal fashion; in "Looker," a father struggles to convey to his daughter what her now dead mother was like as a young woman, although again we have to infer she is dead through indirect references ("Your mother shouldn't have smoked"); "Losing, I Think" fitfully unfolds a story of a mother raising a child without the assistance of a mostly elusive father; in "Sanctuary," a mover while transporting a piano from a church finds the corpse of a young girl inside it.
These stories establish an atmosphere of menace and foreboding that permeates the book and that the style and structure introduced in the first few stories evoke especially well. Children are portrayed as particularly vulnerable to the hazards of the adult world, and thus most of the stories in The Floating Order feature children, either as narrators or important characters, attempting to cope with the consequences of human weakness, or in some cases with what seems the random drift of existence. The second half of the book is not as effective as the first, featuring some stories that are a little too sensational ("Why Jimmy?"), too melodramatic ("Drift") or tug a little too much at the heartstrings ("And Yet"), but the best stories show a young writer seeking to reveal uncomfortable truths and challenge complacent reading habits.
However, I'm not sure "experimental" would be the appropriate term to use in characterizing Erin Pringle's fiction as represented in The Floating Order. Ultimately the stories work to create an overarching depiction of the lives of children in present-day America, and, the honesty of the depiction notwithstanding, this is a project all too familiar in first books (and sometimes later ones as well) by American writers. To the extent that the book does take risks in style and form, it does so, or so it seems to me, in order to first of all advance this project, the "content" elevated above formal experiment. I don't necessarily say this is a flaw in the book, although I do say that the effort to "capture" childhood in fiction has become rather hackneyed and that while The Floating Order surpasses most other efforts in this sub-genre of literary fiction, it tacks hard enough in the direction of "saying something" about childhood in America in purely sociological terms that I have to regard whatever is "experimental" in the book as secondary to this larger purpose of locating the stories within the sub-genre, however "dark" they may be.
In my opinion truly experimental or innovative or adventurous fiction attempts to expand the possibilities of fiction as a literary form and does so for the sake of the form itself, not to amplify social or cultural criticism or to intervene in philosophical debates (although these things might be an indirect effect, as is often enough the case in all worthwhile fiction). To question whether The Floating Order really signals that Erin Pringle will consistently produce such aesthetically challenging fiction, however, is not at all to diminish its achievement or deny its satisfactions.
As part of Critical Distance, the online journal I started up in May 2009 but which I have since discontinued due to lack of interest, I compiled a bibliography of critical essays on a selected number of contemporary American writers that I intended to make available as a permanent feature of the site. Since CD was going to be devoted to long-ish essays on writers and works after 1980 (works for which a case could be made they might last), the bibliography included writers who had published significant fiction during this period.
I am posting this bibliography (with links) now, here. It's on a new site I'm calling Secondary Sources, which will be devoted to similar such "scholarly" exercises that really would not be appropriate as posts on The Reading Experience. (You can also find here my previous critical essay on Russell Banks, "Contextualized Naturalism: The Artfulness of Russell Banks's Affliction.") These will include essays on contemporary fiction that are indeed a tad too scholarly (some might say "pedantic") or just too long for ordinary blog posts, as well as other surveys or discussions of critical books and articles on post-1980 fiction. A bibliographic listing of online interviews with contemporary writers will be posted to the site fairly soon, although I am going to let the current bibliography remain at the top of the page for a while.
The bibliographies are intended to facilitate critical discussion of contemporary American fiction by identifying serious online criticism and interviews on which further criticism might draw. By no means do I suggest that these lists are sufficient as a basis for such criticism. The voluminous extant criticism in print journals that has not been opened up to web readers is still essential for a thorough survey of critical commentary on individual writers, as are the published books examining many of these writers and their work. Perhaps the day will come when the journals hoarding this material will stop trying to collect exorbitant fees from it, especially that which is locked away in archives, and will make it available free of charge online, actually contributing to what ought to be the mission of scholarly journals in the first place, which is precisely to foster informed discussion of the subjects on which they focus.
In the meantime, I will continue to supplement this first bibliography with essays on writers I haven't yet included or additional essays that come to my attention. I don't consider it an authoritative list of the writers who really matter, the "best," although it is the initial list of those writers I think of when the question of who does matter arises. Perhaps readers will suggest other writers who should be included and/or will forward me other links that could be added.
Raymond Federman was generally associated with those American writers who in the 1960s and 70s began writing what is now called "metafiction," but there was always something about Federman's work that seemed different, its self-reflexivity even more radical and enacted in a more aggressive way. Where Barth and Coover laid bare the devices of fiction allegorically (J. Henry Waugh as "author" of his fictional baseball world) or through the occasional narrative disruption (the "author" making his presence known, as in Barth's "Life-Story"), Federman's fiction was more direct and unremitting in its undermining of narrative illusion. With its prose freed from the constraints of typographical bondage, climbing up, down, across, and around the page, and its "stories" of writers attempting to tell a story without quite succeeding, Federman's fiction as represented in Double or Nothing (1971) and Take It or Leave It (1976), still his most important books, challenged not only reader's preconceptions about fiction but also basic assumptions about reading itself.
Federman rejected both "metafiction" and "experimental fiction" more broadly as labels accurately describing his work, instead coining the term "surfiction" to sum up what he--as well as other innovative writers, such as Ronald Sukenick--was after. In his essay, "Surfiction--Four Propositions in Form of an Introduction," Federman defines the term:
. . .the only fiction that still means something today is that kind of fiction that tries to explore the possibilities of fiction; the kind of fiction that challenges the tradition that governs it: the kind of fiction that constantly renews our faith in man's imagination and not in man's distorted vision of reality--that reveals man's irrationality rather than man's rationality. This I call SURFICTION. However, not because it imitates reality, but becuase it exposes the fictionality of reality. Just as the Surrealists called that level of man's experience that functions in the subconscious SURREALITY, I call that level of man's activity that reveals life as a fiction SURFICTION.
I never really did quite get the last part of this formulation, that surfiction "reveals life as fiction." In the next paragraph, Federman adds: "fiction can no longer be reality or a representation of reality, or an imitation, or even a recreation of reality; it can only be A REALITY--an autonomous reality whose only relation to the real world is to improve that world. To create fiction is, in fact, a way to abolish reality, and especially to abolish the notion that reality is truth." To "abolish the notion that reality is truth" is not, it seems to me, the same thing as revealing "life as a fiction." Denying that reality is the arbiter of "truth" does help to preserve the "autonomous reality" of fiction, but for fiction to be "a" reality, it would seem necessary that "reality" itself exist, to which fiction provides an alternative or a complement. If fiction is reality and life a fiction, then Federman is paradoxically valorizing realism after all, though not for "recreating" reality. Fiction is its own arbiter of truth, the realm where "life" is really to be found. This all seems a rather byzantine way to arrive at the conclusion that fiction is a creation, not a recreation of anything.
Indeed, if fiction is an act that "renews our faith in man's imagination," then it largely undermines the appeal to imagination to burden it with the task of rendering itself reality--unless you simply want to defend imagination as a process that's as real as any other human activity, and perhaps as revelatory of "life" as documentary-style realism. Certainly neither Double or Nothing nor Take It or Leave It themselves do very much to expose life as fiction, or, for that matter, "abolish reality." But they both do display the literarary imagination at its most adventurous through exploring "the possibilities of fiction" and by challenging " the tradition that governs it." It seems to me that these are impressive enough accomplishments that asking them further to disclose "man's irrationality" or to abolish reality only threatens to saddle them with extra philosophical weight they don't really need to bear.
The reader encountering Double or Nothing for the first time surely becomes most immediately aware of its inherent playfulness. Riffling through the book, one finds pages arranged in multiple shapes and irregular spacings, its words cascading here and there, printed in various fonts and shadings. Some pages don't so much contain writing as words arranged into images and pictographs. It is apparent right from the start that this is a work that challenges our assumption that when we pick up a novel we will be reading "prose" that unfolds through the usual, orderly blocks of print that define the reading experience in its most fundamental form. Both Double or Nothing and Take It or Leave It, which is also typographically adventurous, can be read as prose narratives of a sort--albeit narratives preoccupied with their own narration--but they at a minimum require the reader to consider his/her expectations of reading and to forsake dependence on the usual and the ordinary.
If the reader begins with the impression that Double or Nothing will be a mischievous, thoroughoing challenge to the conventions that dominate the writing and reading of fiction, this impression should only be reinforced by the experience of the text itself, although that experience will surely exceed in its realization the pallid generalization of this description. The challenge of the novel is such that attentive readers will find it invigorating, an invitation to revise their notion of the reading experience as an essentially passive activity but also to find the kind of active reading it encourages a rewarding alternative. Above all, Double or Nothing is an entertaining novel, enjoyable to read in its very refusal to play by the rules.
The "plot" of Double or Nothing is announced--and more or less completed--in its opening lines:
Once upon a time two or three weeks ago, a rather stubborn and determined middle-aged man decided to record for posterity, exactly as it happened, word by word and step by step, the story of another man for indeed what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal, a somewhat paranoiac fellow unmarried, unattached, and quite irresponsible, who had decided to lack himself in a room a furnished room with a private bath, cooking facililities, a bed, a table, and at least one chair, in New York city, for a year 365 days to be precise, to write the story of another person--a shy young man of about 19 years old--who, after the war the Second World War, had come to America the land of opportunities, from France under the sponsorship of his uncle--a journalist, fluent in five languages--who had himself come to America from Europe Poland it seems, though this was not clearly established, sometime during the war after a series of gruesome adventures, and who, at the end of the war, wrote to the father his cousin by marriage of the young man whom he considered as a nephew, curious to know if he the father and his family had survived the German occupation, and indeed was deeply saddened to learn, in a letter from the young man--a long and touching letter written in English, not by the young man, however, who did not know a damn word of English, but by a good friend of his who had studied English in school--that his parents both his father and mother and his two sisters one older and the other younger than he had been deported they were Jewish to a German concentration camp Auschwitz probably and never returned. . . .
Immediately we are introduced in this passage to the structure and strategies that will be further elaborated throughout the text that is Double or Nothing. Though initially less radical than the typographical play still to come, the use of boldtype and italics here still seems disruptive, even arbitrary, although, as with all the other graphic devices in this novel, they actually work in part to substitute for more conventional grammatical and syntactical markers. The first boldfacing--"two or three weeks ago"--is clearly employed for humorous effect, but in general these interruptions provide a kind of rhythm and a different sort of visual orientation for a prose that otherwise abandons the traditional mechanics of prose.
The discursive situation set up here--a narrator relating the story of a writer preparing to write a story--is by now a recognizable move in postmodern writing, but in both Double or Nothing and Take It or Leave It Federman uses this trope more thoroughly than almost any other postmodern writer, and in addition integrates it more seamlessly with the theme motivating his narrative maneuvers. Each of these novels takes as its secondary subject--the primary subject being writing itself--episodes in the life of a French immigrant to America whose biography in most ways mirrors Raymond Federman's. In Double or Nothing, this character's story is being told, or being attempted, by a second character, the "rather stubborn and determined middle-aged man" who is also a seeming facsimile of Raymond Federman in his later incarnation as writer. The difficulty of "getting it right" in recounting the experiences of the "shy young man" becomes the novel's central conflict, memory and fiction unavoidably merging as the middle-aged author struggles to get the story told. The story of the story is not just self-reflexive sport (although it is that) but also the most honest opportunity to get at something close to "truth."
This is perhaps the truth that fiction can provide, but ulimately what a work like Double or Nothing dramatizes is that the "truth" of fiction lies not in its fidelity to external events but to its own necessities. Federman uses his own "life experiences" as material on which to perform the imaginative turns fiction always performs, but in Federman's case the performance is made "concrete," conducted on the page without disguise. Double or Nothing is the epitome of that modern/postmodern text that, in Jerzy Kutnik's words, "not so much says something about reality but, by its occurence and presence, does something as a reality in its own right." I would add to this that it is a literary text that is allowed to "be something" as well. In both its emphasis on "performance" and its ultimate status as an object of aesthetic perception, Double or Nothing is less a rendering of experience (at least as a realistic representation of "life") than it is an experience "in its own right." In its very refusal to accept the established practices determining where the "art" of fiction is to be found, Double or Nothing establishes itself as art in the most compelling way possible, by providing the reader with a unique aesthetic experience.
Although Take It or Leave It continues to experiment with the dynamics of the printed page in an approach similar to Double or Nothing, it is both more and less radical than its predecessor. It contains fewer word-pictures and other extreme acrobatic notational flourishes, but it also takes the self-reflexive portrayal of the fiction-writing process even farther. Kutnik begins to get at this feature of Take It or Leave It when he notes of the twentieth century novel in general that often "the question 'What does ficton say (mean)?' was replaced by the question 'How is fiction constituted?' as the focus of the writer's attention" (37). Take It or Leave It moves ahead in the life of the "shy young man" to a period in which he is serving in the U.S. military and focuses on a single episode in which he drives from North Carolina to upstate New York to collect his misdirected pay and from which he intends to drive across the country for further deployment. Although he does finally make it to the first destination, the relation of the second leg of the journey is permanently deferred as the narrative is punctuated by various digressions and a kind of internal drama carried out by multiple versions of the author, in this case split into three roles, as well as the implied reader.
In addition to the fictionalized Federman (for the purposes of this novel named "Frenchy") whose story is the ostensible subject of the novel, we are confronted with two different "tellers" of the story, one presumably an older Federman/Frenchy, who conveys the younger Frenchy's adventures to a second teller, who takes on the job of official narrator and who is the stand-in for Raymond Federman, author of Take It or Leave It. Later, the second teller leaves the narrative for a while, so that Federman/Frenchy must temporarily tell the story himself, and at another point the novels implied readers (residing in the future) intrude on the narrative by sending a proxy to see for himself what the young Frenchy is really up to.
In this way the actual reader of Take It or Leave It is exposed to a representation of "how fiction is constituted," or, as Kutnik puts it, to "the novel's internal space as the place where the text gets written, where it performs its own self" (202). Yet, this evocation of the "inner space" is also wildly funny, making Take It or Leave It in its way one of the most entertaining novels of its time. To me, it stands with Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew as a great "postmodern" novel that is great because, while rejecting the elements of fiction writing most familiar to most readers, it manages to substitute for those elements a strategy that such readers could still enjoy if they gave themselves over to its alternative logic. Like Mulligan Stew, Take It or Leave It provides readers with a "good read" that is "good" both because it makes for a pleasurable reading experience and because in the process it stimulates the reader to reflect on the conventions of reading--conventions that might otherwise exclude novels like these as simply curiousities.
At the same time that Take It or Leave It attempts to undermine the authority of conventional approaches to the writing and reading of fiction, it also evokes one of the first great novels in the tradition, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Both are narratives about the impossiblity of producing a narrative that doesn't leave out everything that's important. Both illustrate this dilemma by hilariously interrupting the narrative in progress through seemingly endless diversions and divagations. Sterne's novel at the very beginning of the modern history of fiction questioned the adequacy of "telling a story" as the justification of the form, and Take It Or Leave It renews that effort as provocatively as any work of fiction since.
There has been much debate about whether the aesthetic qualities of a work of art--in some formulations, its "beauty"--can be considered intrinsic to the work or whether these are qualities imputed to the work according to our own individual, subjective experience of it.
John Dewey, in Chapter XI of Art as Experience, offers his own resolution of this dilemma. He quotes the literary critic I. A. Richards, who contended that "We are accustomed to say that the picture is beautiful instead of saying that it causes an experience in us which is valuable in certain ways." What we should say, asserts Richards, is that "they (certain objects) cause effects in us of one kind or another," rather than "projecting the effect and making it a part of the cause." Dewey responds:
What is overlooked is that it is not the painting as a picture (that is, the object in esthetic experience) that causes certain effects "in us." The painting as a picture is itself a total effect brought about by the interaction of external and organic causes. The external factor is vibrations of light from pigments on canvas variously reflected and refracted. It is ultimately that which physical science discovers--atoms, electrons, protons. The picture is the integral outcome of their interaction with what the mind through the organism contributes. Its "beauty," which, I agree with Mr. Richards, is simply a short form for certain valued qualities, belongs to the picture just as much as do the rest of its properties.
The picture is an intentional object, created to convery those "certain valued qualities" that are fully realized in the viewer's encounter with them in the perceived object. It is not simply the "vibrations of light" that in Richards's scheme would account for our experience of beauty. It is an "object in esthetic experience," not just the provocation to such experience.
Dewey continues: "The reference to "in us" is as much an abstraction from the total experience, as on the other side it would be to resolve the picture into mere aggregations of molecules and atoms." The "total experience" includes both the viewer's subjective apprehension of the object and the "qualities" of the object itself. It is not merely a subjective response. Although even Richards doesn't suggest that aesthetic response is essentially subjective: "certain objects cause effects in us of one kind or another." This account actually strips the subject of its agency, casting its role in aesthetic experience as passive and mechanical. Indeed, aesthetic experience itself is described by Richards entirely in mechanical terms, as the incidental phenomenon produced by the laws of cause and effect. For Dewey it is an "integral outcome" of a mutually dynamic interaction, something subjectively felt but not simply a matter of "projecting the effect and making it part of the cause," in Richards's words.
It is thus possible through Dewey's conception of aesthetic experience to affirm that "appreciation" of a work of art arises in subjective experience but is also directed toward an object of which it can be said that such qualities as "form" and "style" and even "meaning" objectively exist, although no particular aesthetic experience is likely to fully encompass all of the relevant elements of each. Still, one could point to these qualities as a way of judging the soundness of a description or intepretation of the work. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but our eyes must register the assertion of beauty in the first place.
A little before Christmas, the film critic and scholar Robin Wood died.
When I was a graduate student, I pursued film study as a secondary field of interest--I do have a few scholarly essays on film to my credit--and Robin Wood became something of an ideal for me as a film critic. He seemed to me to combine an appropriate degree of scholarly seriousness with a sufficiently lively writing style that his books and essays could engage both professional students of film and non-scholarly readers with a simple curiosity about film and filmmaking.
Numerous film blogs have paid homage to Wood, most of them focusing on his books about Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. I would like to especially commend Wood's essays on the horror film, many of them collected in Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan (1986). In particular, Wood's notion of the "return of the repressed" provides an invaluable conceptual scheme by which to understand horror films. According to Wood:
One might say that the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses, its reemergence dramatized, as in our nightmares, as an object of horror, a matter for terror, and the happy ending (when it exists) typically signifying the restoration of repression.
No other explanation of the appeal of horror provides such a useful tool for what Wood calls a "comprehensive survey of horror film monsters from German Expressionism on."
Wood belonged to that initial cohort of film critics, starting in the 1960s, who elevated film to a respectable position among the other arts , as well as film criticism itself to a level equal (at least potentially) to literary criticism. Current film critics owe their status and influence to critics like Robin Wood, and they could do worse than attempt to emulate his approach.
It seems to me that almost all of the reviewers who found fault with Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones--some of them quite harshly--failed to take sufficiently into account the effects and implications of its origin in the first-person narration of its protagonist. They made the mistake of imputing to the author, or to the author's "intentions," ideas that are properly confined to the discourse of the narrator.
The first step in a critically generous assessment of a work of fiction has to be to engage with the work on its own embodied terms, as far as those terms can be apprehended by the discerning critic. When a novel or story is presented as a first-person narrative--related either by the protagonist or some other subsidiary or observing character--this ought to be a sign that the account we are given is rooted in the perceptions, the language, and the assumptions of the narrator. All first-person narrators are to this degree "unreliable," although some third-person narrators might be unreliable as well (if such a narrator hews especially close to the perspective of the characters on whose behalf the narrator essentially speaks) and sometimes reliability is mostly irrelevant. Especially when a character is as self-involved, not to mention self-deceived, as Maximilien Aue, the true-believing Nazi SS officer who narrates his war experiences in The Kindly Ones, any critical commentary must acknowledge that "meaning" or "theme" (and even at times "style") are conditioned by the limits of the narrator's perspective.
One has to assume that in creating a narrator with such extreme limitations as Dr. Aue, Littell is fully aware of building in a space for ambiguity and uncertainty, of presenting us with a character whose every utterance has to be considered potentially compromised by context. One might assume further that Littell is posing to readers an explicit challenge precisely to scrutinize the text in this way, not to take it as the author's own account of Nazism or to judge it by standards inappropriate to the kind of work it is. Thus when Laila Lalami complains that the reader of The Kindly Ones is not "drawn into the narrative by the beauty of the language, a masterful use of point of view, or an intriguing personal life against which the monstrosity of the main character could be highlighted," she implies the novel would be less objectionable as a portrait of a "monster" if instead of its "plodding style" it employed beautiful language, unified the point of view so that the narrator seemed less dissociated, or made Aue's personal life more "intriguing" and less repellent. She is asking it to be something other than itself, something less troublesome.
For a text authored by an SS bureaucrat to exhibit "beautiful" language would defy belief even more considerably than does Aue's ability to show up at every important stage of the Final Solution, which Lalami describes as "unrealistic." If ever a novel justifies a "plodding style," The Kindly Ones is it, since it so accurately reflects Aue's bureaucratic soul. I confess I do not find this novel lacking "a single narrative consciousness" as Lalami sums up her problem with Littell's handling of point of view, although I agree that Aue's narration does modulate in tone. This seems to me, however, a consequence of the fact that Aue's "narrative consciousness" inherently veers from "confessional" to "argumentative," etc., not that this fragmentation is a flaw in the use of point of view. Narrative consciousness is finally unified by Aue's particular kind of fragmented consciousness, although even if we found only disunity in the expression of point of view, I'm not sure why that in itself should be regarded as an aesthetic failure. It could be argued that "unity" of consciousness in fiction is actually a false representation of actual human consciousness, which is likely much more disunifed than we want to think.
That Maximilien Aue's "personal life" is so distasteful as to make his story doubly monstrous was a common reaction among reviewers of The Kindly Ones. David Gates asserts in his New York Times Book Review assessment that "Aue is simply too much of a freak, and his supposed childhood trauma too specialized and contrived, for us to take him seriously," while Michiko Kakutani adds that "Aue is clearly a deranged creature, and his madness turns his story into a voyeuristic spectacle." Ruth Franklin scoffs that the novel's "utterly persuasive evocation of depravity" could be taken "as a sign of achievement." Franklin's review in particular evoked the critical queasiness stirred up by Littell's novel, with its widely quoted remark that "This is one of the most repugnant books I have ever read." She further contends that "there is something awry in this book's unremitting immersion in Aue's worldview, without any effort--direct or indirect, latent or manifest, philosophical or artistic--to balance or counteract it in any way." Melvin Jules Bukiet claims similarly that it is "not that a reader necessarily seeks a lesson, but fiction and nonfiction ought to approach the subject as more than an opportunity to wallow in the worst humankind has to offer," and these two comments most explicity reveal the incomprehension with which so many American reviewers of The Kindly Ones reacted to the narrative constructed by its protagonist.
Both Franklin and Bukiet implicitly testify here to the success with which Littell has given over the novel to his protagonist's Weltenschauung, a word Aue himself uses frequently, even if they also find that aesthetic act objectionable. In my opinion, a novel could do worse than engage in an "unremitting immersion" in its character's worldview, or, for that matter, "wallow in the worst humankind has to offer." That the critic found himself wallowing seems an indication that Littell has indeed created a compelling "narrative consciousness" that brings us uncomfortably close to an unsavory character with a repulsive worldview, not to mention overwhelming psychological problems.
Does an author have a responsibility to "balance" a character's unpleasant views or behavior with normative gestures, either "latent or manifest," indicating the author disapproves of the character's opinions and actions? Surely no reader believes that Littell does approve of his character's actions, so the perceived problem here must be that exposure to a character like Maximilien Aue will unduly soil the sensibilities of the reader. But surely no one expects readers to be converted to Nazism or sadomasochism through Aue's account of himself, either, so one must conclude that Franklin's and Bukiet's dislike of an "unremitting immersion in Aue's worldview" has been converted into a general critical requirement that bad people as depicted in fiction must be "counteracted" by a "philosophical or artistic " effort to meliorate their evil. One suspects that, despite his protestation that we don't necessarily need a "lesson" from such a novel as The Kindly Ones, Bukiet would prefer that its unmediated access to the point of view of a morally compromised protagonist be placed in a more didactically clear context as a corrective to "wallowing."
What is going to focus our attention on "the worst humankind has to offer" if not, at least occasionally, fiction? Is this a subject that ought to be ignored or forbidden? Why not write (or read) a novel that allows a Nazi SS man to speak of his experiences as witness to and participant in the attempted extermination of Jews and any other undesirable people? For such a novel to be successful it will almost necessarily offend and disturb some readers, but that is the consequence of attempting the work in the first place. Taking offense--or finding the novel "repugnant"--is not a credible aesthetic judgment, and in my opinion most of the negative reviews of The Kindly Ones lack credibility because they were either explicit expressions of distaste of this kind or thinly disguised versions of such distaste masquerading as critique of character and plot logic.
The major accomplishment of The Kindly Ones is the author's thoroughly successful ventriloquism of Dr. Aue, a performance that requires we abide this character in all of his true-believing, sadomasochistic, murderous horror or else the effort is subsumed into the usual safe moralizing provided by "balance." Balance would only produce a cop show-like view of evil, which is comfortably softened by the presence of reassuring outrage at human perfidy. It could be argued that this sort of easy portrayal of the conflict between decency and depravity is false to the actual content of evil, a sentimentalized response. It seems to me that, precisely to the extent Littell has avoided "balance," he has given us a more persuasive representation of evil, something that we must experience for ourselves in its half banality, half degeneracy through Aue's recitation. Only this "unremitting immersion" gets us anywhere near the reality of evil.
Some reviewers focused their criticism of The Kindly Ones more on its deficiencies of plot than on a moral repugnance toward its narrator. Lalami observes that "like Forrest Gump, [Aue] conveniently manages to be wherever the most significant events of the war take place, at the time in which they take place, and to interact with all the relevant figures of Nazism," a plot progression which Zak M. Salih describes as "a collection of the Nazi regime's greatest hits." Peter Kemp further complains of the "pitiless prolixity" with which Aue tells his story and doubts "Aue's prodigious capacity to recall in profuse, minute detail all that was done and said. . . ." That a fussy bureaucrat like Maximilien Aue would remember his actions in great detail--that he might even have records of them--doesn't seem that far-fetched to me, but the question of whether Aue knows too much brings us back to Aue's status as narrator. Perhaps he does too conveniently recall the details of his wartime experiences. As far as I know, no one has questioned the accuracy of the historical details in which Aue's fictionalized story is embedded, but of course there is no way to "verify" the details of the fictional story. Ultimately, it really makes no difference: these are the things that were "done and said" that Aue wants us to know, and the impression they leave about him is presumably the impression he wants to leave.
The same is true of the plot developments that place Aue at so many of the crucial events of the war's waning years. Perhaps Aue is manipulating the historical record in order to give himself a role in all of these events, but again it doesn't really matter. The self-portrayal that emerges is the one Aue must intend. That this portrayal is a damning one suggests either that Aue is (consciously or subconsciously) submitting himself for judgment or that his particular involvement in the Final Solution is to be taken at face value. The former is not impossible, especially given his willingness to reveal all of his psychosexual problems as well. However, accepting that Aue happened to be in a position to witness so much of Nazi Germany's dissolution, at least for the purposes of the novel his fictional existence makes possible, doesn't seem to me such a difficult concession. His presence at the decisive stages of this process could just be, in fact, the reason he decided to write his memoir, following up on the less comprehensive accounts of other ex-Nazi colleagues.
Whatever degree of artifice Littell has brought to the plot of The Kindly Ones--at least that part of the plot devoted to chronicling the extermination program as it leads Aue from the Ukraine to Hitler's bunker--I found it riveting. Unlike some commentators who concluded that through the recounting of these events with their frequent expressions of dismay with the program and its methods, Littell was attempting to "humanize" Dr. Aue, I found the portrait of SS officers manifesting a degree of struggle with the task they'd been assigned a compelling alternative to the usual image of Nazis as unambiguously malevolent. To this extent, a character like Aue is humanized, but this only makes his and his fellow officer's actions more appalling, since they arise from recognizable human beings rather than caricatures. Some of these actions, such as the Babi Yar massacre, are hard to take, but their depiction commands attention.
One element of the novel's narrative structure does threaten to become overly artificial. Overlain on the story of Aue's war journey is a parallel association with Aeschylus's Oresteia, featuring Aue as Orestes (a device similar to the "mythic method" of Joyce's Ulysses). Ultimately these parallels might be a little too neat. Daniel Mendelsohn does a good job of teasing out the implications of this strategy in his review of The Kindly Ones (the title being a direct reference to the "furies" of Aeschylus's play, who are transformed at the end of the play into "kindly ones"), and while I agree with Mendelsohn that Littell employs the strategy skillfully, I can't agree that the problem it causes is that, in portraying Aue as "a sex-crazed, incestuous, homosexual, matricidal coprophage," it works against the historical portrayal of Aue as a "human brother." I just don't perceive any effort on Littell's effort to affirm Aue as a "human brother," as opposed to simply a "human being," and it does not make him into something other than a human being to imply, metaphorically, that Aue is a man pursued by his own sort of "furies."
What makes me less enamored of the mythic method as employed in The Kindly Ones is precisely that it threatens to disrupt our "immersion" in Aue's fictional memoir, that it intrudes on the performance of Aue's narration a different kind of performance, one that makes us too conscious of the author--Jonathan Littell--as the puppeteer pulling Aue's strings. For an exercise in point of view like The Kindly Ones to work most efficaciously, it ought to commit itself fully to the discourse of the narrator, and in my opinion the narrative doubling introduced by the Orestes story detracts from that commitment.
Unless. In his review of the novel, Paul La Farge comments that "If it were only Aue making himself out to be Orestes, you’d dismiss the gesture as an unjustified but understandable bid for sympathy, but it’s Littell who puts Aue through Orestes’s paces, as if to give credence to Aue’s assertion that 'in this [life] I never had a choice,' that his free will was curtailed by 'the weight of fate.''' Of course it is finally Littell "who puts Aue through Orestes's paces" in that Aue is the narrator of the novel Littell has written. In this sense, Littell puts Aue through all of his "paces." But there's nothing really to prevent us from attributing most, if not all, of the allusions to the Oresteia to Aue himself, either through the many direct references he makes or through both the additions and omissions (such as the episode in which he kills his mother and her husband, which he subsequently can't remember) he brings to bear on the story he wants to tell. If Aue attempts a play on our sympathy through these allusions--"I never had a choice"--we can accept it as such without believing his resort to this grandiosity actually absolves him of blame.
I'm not really sure I fully embrace this interpretation. The heavy-handed allusiveness may just be an aesthetic mistake, a secondary flaw we have to countenance while otherwise acknowledging the narrative power of the novel as a whole. The Kindly Ones rather early on overwhelmed my own general disdain for history-based fiction not by "bringing history to life" but by bringing life to history.
In his book on the work of Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Federman (The Novel as Performance (1986)), Jerzy Kutnik comments:
The rise of Action Painting, the Happening, The Living Theatre, John Cage's experimental music and Charles Olson's "projective verse," to name only a few examples of performance-oriented works of the 1950s and 1960s, forced many aestheticians to review the underlying assumptions of classic aesthetics. Performance was now seen as a category which could be made relevant to all art forms. Indeed, for the postmodern artist, performance was shown to be an essential element of all creative activity, a fundamental value in itself, an indispensable, even unavoidable, ingredient of the work of art.
But it should also be noted that performance is not something that, as a result of certain historical developments, was added as a new element in the creative process, for it had always been there, though ignored or suppressed. What was added, rather, was the awareness that all art is always performatory, that it not so much says something about reality, but, by its occurence and presence, does something as a reality in its own right. . . .
Although I am working on a longer post about Federman's fiction that will appear shortly and that will return to what Kutznick says here, I would like to more briefly discuss the implications of Kutznick's point as it applies generally to both "experimental" fiction and to the "aesthetic" approach to fiction as a whole that I pursue on this blog.
Federman is a writer who directly and self-consciously engages in a "performance" strategy--anyone who picks up Double or Nothing or Take It or Leave It will immediately encounter Federman's notational performance as his text spreads itself across and down the page in seemingly (but not actually) chaotic arrangements--but ultimately his work forces us (or should force us) to consider the extent to which the writing of fiction and poetry is always, as Kutznick points out, about doing rather than saying. While few fiction writers play around with "text" as explicitly as Federman (or Sukenick), poets have certainly always done so; thus, what Kutznick is really getting at is that the work of writers like Federman insists that fiction as well be a mode in which the writer "does something as a reality."
The great majority of literary fiction is overwhelmingly dedicated to the task of saying something. This is why the great majority of literary fiction is not worth reading. Not only do most writers of such fiction have very little to say in the first place--the "theme" of most literary novels can usually be reduced to platitudes--but whatever "performance" that is involved in the use of the elements of fiction is dull and familiar, at best focused on forwarding the theme most expeditiously. Much experimental fiction is also dull and familiar, reworkings of previous, and better, performances of other experimentalists. However, the departures from the norm to be found in even the most perfunctory experimental fiction does at least continue to remind us that it is possible to conceive of fiction as a practice in which form and language are malleable, the medium through which the writer may offer a fresh and distinctive performance.
Even from within the confines of conventional practices it is possible to write fiction that is more doing than saying. The enactment of point of view and narrative structure affords ample opportunities for "performance-oriented work," and the best fiction has always taken advantage of these opportunities. Style also can be an "ingredient" in the performance of literary art, as long as style is regarded as something other than, something beyond, "pretty writing" of the usual kind. Unfortunately, most attempts to manipulate these elements that I read (or start to read) are again usually carried out in the name of more colorfully reinforcing theme, not as a performance seeking out its own limits or capable of sustaining interest in and of itself.
As Larry McCaffery puts it in his foreword to Kutznick's book, writers like Sukenick and Federman (and, I might add, Gilbert Sorrentino and Stephen Dixon and David Foster Wallace, to name only three) show us that the most challenging fiction "seeks to be an experience for its own sake." This is precisely what John Dewey, the foremost proponent of "art as experience," had in mind when he extolled the achievement of "adventurous" art. Like all other such art, adventurous fiction enhances experience by encouraging us to attend more closely to performance, in the best cases a performance unlike any we've experienced before.
Top five novels about flyfishing:
Rainbow Trout, Run--An intensely wrought account of a fisherman who finds the old methods of flyfishing too confining and flails out at those who would prevent him from devising new strategies. The character of "Racoon" Van Dyke is one of the freshest and most complex characters I've come across in years.
Hello, Duluth--A young flyfisherman tries to make his mark among the grizzled veterans of the far north. He falls for the daughter of one of the old coots, and tragedy ensues. This one made me cry.
Endless Japes--A flyfisherman experiences withdrawal when his wife forbids him to go fishing with the guys. It would seem it is possible to become addicted to angling after all! The wife is mollified when her husband convinces her that a "rod" can be more than a fishing pole.
Ferlin Fish-Boy--A kaleidoscopically experimental novel in which a flyfisherman dreams he has become a trout and must train himself to become one of the school. It becomes deliciously meta- in those scenes in which the fish-boy must learn to evade flyfishermen.
Stinginess: A Reduction--A world-renowned flyfisherman begins to lose his skills but ultimately finds recompense in a love affair with a bass. A little treacly, but it gets you in the end.
Top five novels featuring characters named "Lil":
Against the Wall M*****F******--The latest from acclaimed mystery writer J.D. Grafreichsermann, in which tough-gal detective Lil Zabrisky tracks down a serial killer targeting--I kid you not--flyfishermen. Somewhat contrived in places, this novel nevertheless once again made me hot for Lil!
Oops!--Cletus Bolch's novel, in which protagonist Lil has a sex-change operation and becomes Lyle. I will now forevermore cringe when I hear the word "scrotum."
None Dare Call Me Lil--A young man's struggle to cope with his unfortunate nickname. I deeply sympathized with this character, as in my younger days I was known to many as "Blanche."
Lil' Pictures--No actual character named Lil, but kudos to the author for the contraction.
Lil of the Arroyo--A sturdy Western in which gunslinger Fritz O'Shea fights for the honor of barmaid Lil. At the novel's conclusion, Fritz gives up his sharpshooting ways and becomes a flyfisheman.
Best novel of the year featuring lists of the best novels of the year:
Enumerations--Chronicles a day in the life of literary critic Sandy Prospect, who pauses at fixed periods to make a new list. By the end of the day Sandy realizes he has discovered an algorithm that allows him to name not just every novel published that year but every novel ever committed to print. This one really hits me where I live.
In an essay on Flannery O'Connor for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, David E. Anderson writes:
Revisiting O’Connor after five decades, it still remains difficult to find that Catholic sensibility she and many of her admiring critics insist permeates her work, and other shortcomings—in particular the almost complete absence of attention to race and the civil rights movement that was convulsing her beloved South as she wrote some of her most powerful works—become increasingly apparent with distance. It can even be argued that the signature elements of her style—character as grotesque, gratuitous violence as the bearer of meaning—no longer shock, no longer convince.
Anderson is principally concerned in this essay with the question of whether O'Connor's work is adequately and recognizably Catholic for current readers, and about that subject I have no opinion. The way in which O'Connor's work embodies a particular interpretation of Catholic doctrine has always seemed to me the least interesting subject of inquiry into her fiction, and, as Anderson does correctly note, most non-scholarly readers remain unaware that it even is a subject relevant to the fiction, so fully is that fiction otherwise focused on its depiction of its Southern mileu, grotesque characters, and perversely melodramatic events.
I am interested in the issues Anderson raises in the passage I've quoted, mostly because his comments are so misguided and misleading. Anderson identifies as a flaw in O'Connor's fiction "the almost complete absence of attention to race and the civil rights movement." It has always seemed bizarre to me that an "absence of attention" to this or that condition or phenomenon in a writer's work could be considered a "shortcoming," as if every writer is under the necessary burden to address every fact of life that confronted the writer in his/her time and place. O'Connor had no obligation to portray race relations or to confront issues of civil rights. Her subject lay elsewhere, in the lives of white Southerners and the effects of class and religion. If it is true that O'Connor's work is anchored in the belief that the world around her was "mired in nihilism," that view could not plausibly be embodied in stories centered on the lives of Southern blacks. They were themselves neither nihilists nor the victims of nihilism in the theological/philosophical terms with which O'Connor was concerned. They were the victims of bigotry, and this is a more mundane human evil that doesn't really get to the spiritual corruptions O'Connor was at pains to disclose. A writer should be judged by what her work does attempt, not by what it doesn't.
Anderson's most nonsensical assertion, however, is that the distinctive features of O'Connor's "style" are to be found in "character as grotesque, gratuitous violence as the bearer of meaning." This shows such a thorough misunderstanding of what "style" in fiction refers to that it really cancels out everything else Anderson has to say about Flannery O'Connor as a literary artist. It may be true that the narrative use of "violence as the bearer of meaning" no longer shocks, although I never thought the violence in O'Connor's fiction was exactly shocking in the first place--the violence at the conclusion of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is so prolonged and so interspersed with absurd dialogue ("absurd" as in "darkly comic") that the effect is more operatic than startling. And I, for one, find her characters just as grotesque the second or third time around as I did the first time I encountered them. "Style," however, encompasses not the writer's narrative strategy or character creation but her "signature" use of words, her language, her way with phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. This element of O'Connor's fiction has not eroded with time at all but is still just as compelling as ever.
Here's one of the first paragraphs in the story "Greenleaf":
She had been conscious in her sleep of a steady rhythmic chewing as if something were eating one wall of the house. She had been aware that whatever it was had been eating as long as she had had the place and had eaten everything from the beginning of her fence line up to the house and now was eating the house and calmly with the same steady rhythm would continue through the house, eating up her and the boys and then on, eating everything but the Greenleafs, on and on, eating everything until nothing was left but the Greenleafs on a little island all their own in the middle of what had been her place. When the munching reached her elbow, she jumped up and found herself, fully awake, standing in the middle of her room. She identifed the sound at once: a cow was tearing at the shrubbery under her window. Mr. Greenleaf had left the lane gate open and she didn't doubt that the entire herd was on her lawn. She turned on the dim pink table lamp and then went to the window and slit the blind. The bull, gaunt and long-legged, was standing about four feet from her, chewing calmly like an uncouth country suitor.
Surely this passage is just as cadenced, just as precise and as evocatively creepy as it was when O'Connor wrote it. Far from being no longer convincing, O'Connor's style survives all the blather about theology and "Christian realism" and cathartic violence that only takes us away from the words on the page, where O'Connor's real literary legacy is to be found.
Anderson's flip, and deeply misinformed, dismissal of O'Connor's style bothers me not just as it applies to Flannery O'Connor's style in particular but as an illustration of a broader ignorance about what we talk about when we talk about literary style. "Style" operates in much literary discussion as an all-purpose substitute for narrative method or point of view, "technique" or "tone," characterization or particular types of dialogue. I understand that readers don't always want to be bothered with the niceties of literary criticism, but a great deal of ordinary discourse about literature seems designed to distract us from a writer's actual words, where "style" is indeed substance.
Although I agree with Alan Kaufman that for longer works the paper-based book remains a perfectly adequate purveyor of text--I don't own a Kindle and still can see no reason why I should, given my habits as a reader--and that Google Books, so far at least, is more annoying than useful, his lament over the demise of "book culture" nevertheless seems excessively dolesome. The resistance to the electronification of writing is likely to continue into the foreseeable future, and probably will get even more rancorous as the process intensifies, but I can't see how Kaufman's sort of stamping of the rhetorical feet is going to convince many people to join it.
The book is fast becoming the despised Jew of our culture. Der Jude is now Der Book. Hi-tech [sic] propagandists tell us that the book is a tree-mudering, space-devouring, inferior form of technology, that society simply would be better-off altogether if we euthanized it even as we begin to carry around, like good little Aryans, whole libraries in our pockets,downloaded on the Uber-Kindle.
This would be offensive if it weren't so silly. Perhaps Kaufman would find fellow-travellers in the teabaggers, who similarly seem drawn to inane Nazi analogies and also apparently regard any change as evidence of tyranny.
But even less convincing is the nature of Kaufman's defense of the physical book:
To me, the book is one of life's most sacred objects, a torah, a testament, something not only worth living for but. . .something that is even worth dying for. . .The world is moving to embrace the electronic media as its principle mode of expression. The human has opted for the machine, and its ghosts, over the haptic companionship and the didactic embodiment of the physical book. . . .
Kaufman's reason for finding books "sacred" is that, well, they're books. Kaufman aspired to publish his words within the "appropriate temple" of the book, but why it is either especially appropriate or constitutes a temple is not explained. Kaufman seems to assume we all know a book is special, a bastion of culture, but for myself, when I look at a modern book I see some strips of paper, not always of the best quality, glued between two pieces of cardboard, not always that securely. Kaufman is offended by the notion that a book might be reduced to its "utility as a medium for language," but for those of us who value books primarly for the words contained therein, for the verbal compositions they make available, what else besides their utility brings them into existence in the first place? If books should be saved only because they are "cultural artifacts," then I, for one, feel no particular urgency to save them. I'm interested in books because they enable the reading experience, not because I want to contemplate them as artifacts.
I also agree with Kaufman that "publishers. . .are producers not of books but money, while books have become simply another vehicle, along with the Washing Machine and the iPod, for generating capital." But this hardly seems a state of affairs that lends itself to the preservation of the book as Alan Kaufman has known it. Publishers aren't going to become less philistine, and why we would want to entrust the survival of books to such people is manifestly unclear to me. If anything, the corporate capitalists are going to have less control of e-printing, so the rational response to the problem Kaufman identifies is to encourage respect for the written word online and in e-publishing, not to undermine the potential of these media by associating them with Hitler.
I suppose if you think that "Not since the advent of Christianity has the world witnessed so sweeping a change in the very fabric of human existence" as that ushered in by the "hi-tech revolution"--an outburst of hyperbole even the loudest cheerleaders of that revolution themselves would no doubt hesitate to venture--then the resort to the over-the-top analogies in which Kaufman indulges in this essay might seem justified. If you think that trading paper technology for that of cyberspace means human beings are turning over their lives to the "machine," a declaration that "I will fight it" might seem a heroic sentiment. But surely a change that substitutes pixels on a screen for print marks on a page isn't going to transform "the very fabric of human existence." At the most, we might ultimately witness some dimunition in length of some texts--which for many kinds of writing, for example academic criticism or history or narrative reporting, won't be such a loss at all. The idea that accessing a text by "electronic" means will turn us into compliant subjects of a fascist e-regime, however, just seems weird. Kaufman and his fellow resistance fighters both attribute a totemic status to the printed book and regard pixel-based display of text with a horror that is finally inexplicable to me.
Among those American writers who were originally identified as "minimalists," a group that would include Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie, and Tobias Wolff, Mary Robison may have been the most minimalist of them all--or, to use the word she has said she prefers to describe the narrative/expository strategy employed by these writers, the most radically "subtractionist."
Readers looking for an introduction to minimalism in its most rigorous form could do no better than Robison's first book, the story collection Days (1979). In the book's first story, "Kite and Paint," two men and a woman hold a mostly trivial conversation while waiting for a hurricane to arrive. At the close of the story--which has taken up only six pages--the two men are about to go outside into the increasing windstorm to fly kites. In "Sisters," a college-age woman staying with her aunt and uncle receives a visit from her sister, a nun. They all go to a spagetti dinner in the basement of the local Catholic Church. In "Widower," a recently widowed dentist and his two children are visited by the father's new girlfriend, and as the children and the girfriend are heading to the beach, the father receives a phone call from a man with a dental emergency. There are intimations of larger significance in such stories, fleeting implications of backstory or future forward movement, but mostly they seem to be fixated on the depiction of present moments.
Robison's style is as pared back as her narratives. It is essentially restricted to brief expository statements--"Guidry was in bed, tangled in the oversheet"--and seemingly insignificant details--"At the firehouse, two men in uniforms were playing pinochle and listening to Julie London on the radio." The largest part of most of the stories in Days is dialogue, and much of it works by indirection as well, except for those moments when a character suddenly blurts out some incongruous statement: During the spaghetti dinner in "Sisters," we hear the college student sister tell a priest that "I'd like to be excommunicated. . .I want the thirteen candles dashed to the ground, or whatever, and I want a letter from Rome."
What really distinguishes Robison's fiction from that of her fellow minimalists is its humor. While occasionally a grim type of humor emerges from the stories of Carver or Beattie, Robison's are more unashamedly comical, both in tone and in execution. The atrophied narrative structure of the stories itself is inherently comic, giving them a kind of absurdist feel, and the dialogue is often explicitly funny:
Leah said, "Jack is the one person who shouldn't keep a revolver."
"He's so much worse since you've been gone," Barbara said. "My dad thinks it's because Jack reads so much. You know who Jack always liked, though?" Barbara leaned over and snapped one of the buttons on her galoshes. "Your sister, Bobby."
"Yes, I think he really did," Leah said. She sighed, and turned the shard of bone with the toe of her shoe. "You can tell him Bobby's wonderful. Just remarkable. She takes a lot of speed still. She's chewed a nice hole in her lip."
"Bobby's disturbed," Barbara said. "You can tell that just from the way she walks."
Robison further developed the humor of the stories in Days into an even broader kind of comedy in her 1981 novel Oh! (described on the back cover of my copy of the book as about "a madcap Midwestern family"), but in my view the slyer, more surprising moments of humor in the stories of Days works much better and makes this, in its blending of minimalism and jokiness, one of the more significant books published by an American writer during the 1970s.
Robison largely disappeared from the literary scene after her 1991 novel Subtraction but returned in 2001 with the novel Why Did I Ever, about a Hollywood writer trying to cope with her disorganized life, and in 2009 has published One D.O.A One on the Way, set in New Orleans and the aftermath of Katrina. Both of these books employ a collage method of composition, offering snippets of action and/or dialogue that range freely over time and place. Both feature a harried female protagonist loosely tied to the film business whose unraveling lives seem well-captured through the collage strategy. Ultimately this strategy seems a more rewarding expansion of Robison's gifts into the novel (as brief and brisk as each of these two are) than the more continuous narrative structure to be found in Oh! and Subtraction.
Why Did I Ever seems to me the more successful use of the fragmented form to to portray its protagonist's attempt (mostly unsuccessful) to pull her life together. Eve Broussard, the protagonist of One D.O.A., seems more artificially the fleshing-out of the bitterly comic concept of a location scout responsible for identifying suitable spots for movie and television productions in post-Katrina New Orleans. Her conflicts with her rich parents-in-law and her affair with her husband's identical twin brother don't seem as urgent as Money Breton's relationships with her emotionally scarred children in Why Did I Ever, although they are presented with Robison's signature humor. (And Robison's humor, especially as provoked by her witty dialogue, is retained in both of these novels.) In general, her character has to compete with the novel's depiction of New Orleans in tatters for primary attention, and finally she only barely wins out.
On the other hand, Robison's collage method does prove rather effective in portraying New Orleans's agonizingly extended present moment. "Subracting" seems an appropriate strategy in representing a city from which so much has already been subtracted. Comprehending the totality of the effects of Katrina and the government's criminal inaction seems an overwhelming task, and the glimpses into the city's devastation provided by One D.O.A One on the Way perhaps add up to an overall perspective sharpened by the smaller details.
Although one might hope that Robison would again concentrate more of her attention on the short story, the form in which I believe her best work is to be found, it nevertheless will be interesting to see if she can continue to apply her miniaturist skills to compelling effect in whatever future novels she may write as well.
According to the Financial Times, a study published in Psychological Science concludes that an encounter with surrealistic art "enhances the cognitive mechanisms that oversee implicit learning functions."
The idea is that when you’re exposed to a meaning threat - something that fundamentally does not make sense - your brain is going to respond by looking for some other kind of structure within your environment.
It would seem that this study indicates that "difficult" art, the kind of art that defies the audiences expectations of coherence--most immediately a coherence between the world depicted in the work and the audience's conception of the "real world"--actually motivates viewers and readers to try and make sense of it by finding alternative "structures." With surrealism this involves, presumably, finding a way to integrate a surrealistic presentation with one's prior conceptions of the way things are: surrealism becomes an alternative vision of the world, one that breaks from the "normal" perceptions most of us share only to portray that world just as truthfully if more obliquely. One rescues representation in surrealist art by acknowledging the challenge to it.
But "difficulty" in art and literature can manifest itself in other ways as well, on a formal and stylistic level that doesn't necessarily, or doesn't directly, result in a patently distorted view of the world. I believe that innovative, adventurous fiction of this kind can provoke the same kind of response in readers as that described in the PS study. In this case, the reader is asked to suspend the "normal" expectations one might have of fiction--which might be brought together through the notion of "transparency," transparency of language, character, event, setting, etc.--and to make new sense of the challenges to literary experience the work's deviations represent. Ideally, the reader is asked to scrutinze his/her assumptions and to conclude that perhaps the innovative device or practice might make its own kind of sense as a variation on established devices and practices. The reader will have "learned" that fiction might come in multiple forms and various styles, that where the art of fiction is concerned there is no normal.
However, the obstacle to enhancing the "cognitive mechanisms" involved in the reading of fiction is not most readers' inability to make this kind of adjustment but their reluctance to give unconventional fiction a chance to engage their attention in the first place. If they don't simply refuse to countenance such fiction at all, they approach it with the kind of desire for "identification" that makes any departure from the comfortable and familiar difficult if not unacceptable. I am not one to recommend a given work of fiction on the grounds that readers might "learn something" from it, but learning how to read more expansively can't be the least timeworthy use one could make of a book.
A post at OnFiction speculates on a phenomenon in which "readers sometimes struggle against or try to mitigate the effects of reading the fictions in which they are engaged."
Some readers say that they slow their reading before coming to the culminating moment in a tragedy. I wonder if book clubs are another strategy that people use to put some distance between themselves and the fiction they read. We simply do not know what we’re coming upon in the wilderness of some stories. If we have the company of others, though, we may feel emboldened to carry on.
Apparently, some readers need such "self-protective strategies" that "buy time, until the reader can sort out what is happening to her emotionally. . . ." I say "apparently" because this is a reading practice so foreign to my own that I want to think the "struggle" invoked here is being considerably exaggerated. I have never tried to "mitigate the effects" of any fiction I am reading other than to read more carefully. I have never engaged in a "self-protective strategy" in order to "buy time," especially not to "sort out" my emotions. If a particular work of fiction does provoke a strong emotion--which for me actually happens only rarely--I presume that this is the emotion the text was designed to create (otherwise I'm just reading badly) and that my role as reader is to meet the text halfway and pursue that emotion where it's going to lead. That I would try to actively resist the work's effects--emotional, psychological, or formal--seems antithetical to my understanding of what a "reading experience" has to offer.
The explanations that the post's author, Rebecca Wells Jopling, gives for this resistance among some readers seem to me as unconvincing as the phenomenon itself is strange. "It could be," she writers "that these readers know, perhaps not consciously but subconsciously, that the book could change their beliefs, and not always in a predictable way." I can understand a kind of squeamishness about strong emotions--fear, grief, anger--that one doesn't necessarily want to indulge (although in that case you probably shouldn't be reading the kind of fiction you know is going to give rise to such emotions), but that reading a work of fiction might make one squeamish about one's beliefs seems a very large leap, even, as explicated, incoherent. Beliefs about what? Research is cited that supposedly shows that readers are vulnerable to a kind of cognitive incaution and "must engage in effortful processing to disbelieve the information they encounter in literary narratives." "Belief" is thus largely epistemological, or so it would seem, the process of arriving at conclusions based on "information."
But is this "information" about the characters or incidents in a fictional story, or is it "information" of the sort one needs to form firm beliefs about the world outside the text? Since it is implausibe that readers would need to disbelieve their supension of disbelief--we all know going in that our suspension of disbelief is artificial--it must be the second kind of "information" that needs to be combatted. Again, I am hard-pressed to understand this fear of "information," since I don't read novels for information, and wouldn't recognize it if it were presented. Reading fiction is an experience, an aesthetic experience in which at best "information" is woven into the fictional fabric, conditioned by its manifestation in fiction. Novels that attempt to convey information without integrating it in this way are bad novels, and I don't know why a theory of reading would focus on such a flawed conception of what novels do.
The post continues:
Perhaps strong feelings of rejection toward a story and the resulting strategies for distancing oneself arise because readers somehow know that continuing to read may leave them walking around holding beliefs that they do not want to hold, having thoughts that they do not want to have, and re-experiencing images that they do not want to re-experience.
While it is more plausible to me that some readers might while reading, or after reading, a novel be "having thoughts that they do not want to have, and re-experiencing images that they do not want to re-experience" than that they are "walking around holding beliefs that they do not want to hold," it remains unexplained why any serious readers of fiction would be so shocked that what they read might challenge their assumptions or present vivid images. These are among the most historically-recognized functions of literature, and even in popular fiction many readers return to particular genres precisely because they know that certain kinds of "thoughts" and certain kinds of "images," some of them disturbing, are going to recur. Unless the authors at OnFiction, in their concentration on the psychology of fiction, are confining themselves to the most naive and most unadventurous of readers, it's very difficult to accept that the fear of alien thoughts, images, or beliefs motivates many readers' responses to aesthetically credible novels, or any works of narrative art, for that matter.
The very need to "distance ourselves" in the emotionally immediate way described in this post only really testifies to a flawed, unreflective way of reading fiction. It posits an intensity of involvement with "character" and "event"--the creation of which isn't ultimately very hard for most minimally skilled writers--such that all other considerations, point of view, style, narrative method, simply disappear into irrelevance. A reading attentive to these elements already incorporates an appropriate "distance." A reading of fiction that ignores them is to that extent an impoverished reading.