My review of Pynchon's Bleeding Edge has now been posted at Full Stop:
Bleeding Edge is a book worth reading simply because it’s by Thomas Pynchon, although anyone contemplating it as an introduction to Pynchon’s work should instead go immediately to V or Gravity’s Rainbow or even The Crying of Lot 49, which, although now apparently somewhat disdained by Pynchon, has long served as a more accessibly condensed example of Pynchon’s literary strategies and worldview. Ultimately, however, Bleeding Edge is not so much “minor” Pynchon as it is a kind of synthetic replica of a Thomas Pynchon novel, all the more disappointing because it was written by Pynchon himself.
In a review of the novel in Review 31, Helen McClory makes a curious criticism of Helen DeWitt's 2011 novel, Lightning Rods:
What it lacks is interiority. The narration, because it is so slick and over-worked, has the feel of a voice-over; it's all surface, even when we are ostensibly presented with access to the minds of the characters. This creates a sensation of hollowness. . .
The total misperception of DeWitt's purpose in Lightning Rods is extraordinary. As almost all other reviewers of this novel observed, it is most certainly a novel of "interiority," although it is a special kind of interiority that deliberately uses the contents of consciousness--more importantly, the forms of expression those contents assume--to create a pervasively "surface" effect. If it seems "slick and overworked," that's because the modes of thinking the novel travesties are themselves so formulaic and riven with cliche. "A sensation of hollowness" is precisely the effect Lightning Rods is designed to create.
The plot of Lightning Rods is no doubt by now well-known, as the novel received numerous reviews that prominently emphasized its outrageous premise. A failed vacuum cleaner salesman, Joe, is inspired by his own sexual fantasies to begin marketing a new service designed to help alleviate sexual harassment in the workplace: a contraption installed in an office bathroom that allows testosterone-addled men to have anonymous sex with women (the lightning rods) whose bottom halves are exposed rearward and then withdrawn back through the bathroom wall. The service proves to be quite successful, for the companies whose workplaces become less litigious, for the men whose needs are fulfilled and thus become more efficient and cooperative workers, and for the women. who are handsomely rewarded financially and in some cases use the job to work themselves up the "corporate ladder." (One of the lightning rods eventually becomes a Supreme Court lawyer.)
Joe's diligence and sincerity are reflected in the manner of the book's narration, nominally in the form of "free indirect" discourse, the stylistic/narrative mode developed precisely to plumb a character's "interiority." But while the language with which the story is told surely does capture the way Joe both perceives the world and explains it to himself, it is indeed shallow and hackneyed, permeated by the external languages of self-help and commerce:
Now if you're selling encyclopedias it's obvious you're selling people the idea that they can be what they want to be. But even if you're selling vacuum cleaners you're selling people the way they could be--they could be people who will clean their stairs and the furniture and curtains using appropriate attachments, instead of borrowing a vacuum cleaner for Thanksgiving and Christmas from their next-door neighbors. You're selling the chance to fix something that's wrong. What you're selling, basically, is the idea that there's nothing wrong with the customer; maybe they don't know as much as they should, or maybe they happen to live in a dirty house, but that's because they don't have the one thing lacking to put it right.
The reader could turn to practically any page in Lightning Rods and find a passage like this. Clearly DeWitt wants not just to emphasize Joe's subjectivity, but to suggest that this very subjectivity has been thoroughly determined by the all-pervasive discourses, and the underlying assumptions, of American-style capitalism and its accompanying modes of therapeutic encouragement. No matter how "deep" we plumb into Joe's "interiority," we're only going to find more such platitudinous language and bromidic concepts, since in effect they have replaced any genuine interiority, substituted for any genuine thinking, beyond the need to apply the concepts most effectively. As Edmond Caldwell observes in his review of the novel, "It is less like Joe 'uses' this language. . .and more like this language thinks him"--although it might be even more accurate to say there is no thinking at all going on, only the pre-formulated thinking represented by the recycling of familiar expressions.
Caldwell also maintains that the novel is a satire of its own ostensible genre, the novel of "psychological realism," which "stands revealed as a patchwork of readymade materials--cliches and slogans, the hoariest sententia and newly-minted banalities." If all such novels are "no less a howling absurdity than Lightning Rods, the difference is that one of them knows itself as such." While I would not deny the accuracy of this reading, I don't think the self-satirical impulse fully accounts for the effects DeWitt manages to achieve in nevertheless exploiting the assumptions of psychological realism. She employs its "cliches and slogans" in a way that, at the same they are revealed to be such, transcends the "banalities" of this mode of narration to tell a story that is far from banal, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of John Barth's notion of a "literature of exhaustion" that takes the very "used-upness" of a literary practice and creates something new. As much as it shows psychological realism to be "a patchwork of readymade materials," the novel also shows that human consciousness itself (at least of the "ordinary" variety) might be a hodgepodge of such materials. There's no going "deep," only going sideways into more culturally determined fragments of predigested language.
"Surface" and "interiority" are interchangeable, versions of each other. The characters' motives are not hidden (to themselves or to us) but quite transparent, although those motives are encapsulated in the shallowest, most insipid kind of interior discourse. The most powerful human motive, sex, is, of course, thoroughly externalized, subjected to the same trivialization and commodification by which American culture reduces all human activity to commerce. (It isn't prostitution if it makes good business sense.) Much of the humor in Lightning Rods comes from the way in which the characters readily adapt to circumstances that might otherwise provoke feelings of shame and degradation, how easily the sexual drive comes to be regarded as something that merely requires the right kind of management.
What makes this novel more than simply satirical (whether of the American commercial imperative or the novel of psychological realism) is that the ostensible target, our protagonist Joe, in whose "interiority" we have been placed and whose idea it is to channel the sexual drive in his commercialized service, is finally not a character deserving only of our laughter. Above all, Joe is utterly sincere in his belief that his service will have beneficial effects, that in offering it he is doing good. He shows concern for his employees, and as a sideline to the main business of providing lightning rods, he also devises an adjustable toilet to make public restrooms easier on short and/or obese people. His sincerity and good intentions make it difficult to regard Joe as a purely risible figure; he winds up being a rather sympathetic character who at worst has succumbed to the irresistible influence of cultural forces outside his control.
Readers of DeWitt's first novel, The Last Samurai, might at first find Lightning Rods a radically different kind of work, almost to the point it doesn't seem by the same writer. Samurai is a sprawling novel that at times courts formlessness, while Lightning Rods is a compact, sharply focused work exhibiting a unified narrative perspective that contrasts with the bifurcated perspective of The Last Samurai. Ultimately The Last Samurai could be called a novel about a search for identity, while the characters in Lightning Rods seem quite confident in their identities, even if those identities are ultimately culturally constructed. To a degree, however, both books are about the use and abuse of language.The Last Samurai highlights the possibilities of language in its story of the budding genius Ludo and his facility in many languages and ability to relate them to each other, something that DeWitt also does in the novel as a whole. Lightning Rods illustrates our more common relationship with language, whereby we allow our thinking to be determined by language in its most ossified, restrictive forms. If The Last Samurai implies the yet untapped potential of language when viewed cross-culturally, Lightning Rods reveals how any language can become so burdened with the conceptual debris scattered by one's culture as to become hazardous to all thought.
My review of Those Whom I Would Like to Meet Again by the Lithuanian writer Giedra Radvilaviciute is now available in the Fall issue of The Quarterly Conversation:
What is most significant in the publisher’s description of Radvilaviciute’s writing is that it identifies the contents of this book as “stories.” Although these “stories” are further characterized as “combining fiction, memoir, and essay,” this attempted clarification is more confusing that illuminating—to what extent can fiction, memoir, and essay really be “combined”?—and finally doesn’t adequately prepare the reader for the true indeterminacy of genre these stories achieve. Clearly enough the intention is to categorize Radvilaviciute’s work as fiction, and while there are qualities in these pieces that would justify considering them as fiction, this representation of them to American readers is at the least misleading about the way they are received in Lithuania, where Radvilaviciute is more likely to be considered an essayist and where the essay itself has become an increasingly prominent literary form. . . .
Graham Harman's attempt to elevate H.P. Lovecraft to the pantheon of supreme literary artists in his book, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (Zero Books, 2012), begins with a defense of Lovecraft's work against what is probably the most famous dismissal of it, made by the critic Edmund Wilson in the 1930s. "The principal feature of Lovecraft's work," wrote Wilson, "is an elaborate concocted myth" about "a race of outlandish gods and grotesque prehistoric peoples who are always playing tricks with time and space and breaking through into the contemporary world, usually somewhere in Massachusetts." One of Lovecraft's stories, "At the Mountains of Madness," focuses on "semi-invisible polypous monsters that uttered a shrill whistling sound and blasted their enemies with terrific winds."
According to Harman, in his critique Wilson has unfairly "reduced to literal absurdity" Lovecraft's plots through an especially brutal "paraphrase," a term that Harman uses to describe any attempt to translate any "statement, artwork, or anything else" into terms other than its own. For Harman, Lovecraft is a writer whose work is especially noteworthy for its "deliberate and skillful obstruction of all attempts to paraphrase," and the burden of most of Weird Realism is to show how and why this is so. But is Wilson's paraphrase--if that's what it is--really unfair, a diminution of Lovecraft's actual achievement?
It certainly seems accurate to say that Lovecraft's work centers on the "elaborate concocted myth" of Cthulhu and other related beings (the "Old Ones"), creatures who predate the appearance of human beings on Earth, who make occasional appearances in the present (providing the horror), and who originate from somewhere else in the cosmos. Perhaps the word "concocted" has pejorative connotations, but would the sense of the phrase markedly differ if Wilson had chosen a near-synonym such as, say, "fabricated"? Is it not simply true to say that in his stories H.P. Lovecraft fabricated an "elaborate myth," meaning one of Lovecraft's own creation? Isn't it also true to say that the creatures featured in this mythos are pretty "outlandish" (so outlandish that Lovecraft's narrators have a hard time describing them) and at times "grotesque"? In the first chapter of his book Harman refers to them as "monstrous creatures," and it's hard to see why this would be considered some kind of neutral description rather than itself a "paraphrase" that could be seen as just as condescending as Wilson's if we choose to forget that it is the very nature of horror that its creations be both outlandish and monstrous.
Similarly, it seems to me literally true and in no way a paraphrase of a Lovecraft tale to note that it is likely to be "playing tricks with time and space," that the "monstrous creatures" are likely to be featured "breaking through into the contemporary world," and that this is likely to take place in Massachusetts.(Arkham, to be more precise--although Wilson is correct that it might range outside of Arkham into the countryside as well). If anything, Wilson's characterization of "At the Mountains of Madness" seems even more accurate as a literal report on the creatures in that story. In short, I can find no compelling reason to regard Wilson's account of Lovecraft's work as reducing that work to "absurdity." I would not suggest that Wilson himself was attempting a neutral description, nor that he did not mean to communicate a negative judgment of Lovecraft's fiction. Clearly that fiction was at best not the sort of thing Wilson wanted to read; at worst it was too "outlandish" for him to take seriously absent some other compensatory quality he could not find.
Harman thinks that any attempt to describe a literary work is going to be insufficient in capturing the spirit of the work (and sometimes such attempts can be just flat-out incorrect), and of course he is right. However, if Edmund Wilson can be faulted in his brief discussion of H.P. Lovecraft it is not because he has reduced the stories to absurdity (Wilson was perfectly aware that the novels of a writer like Dickens were full of the "outlandish," but he still thought Dickens a great writer) but because he has limited their possible appeal to their plots. His criticism is incomplete. It seems likely that had Wilson attempted a lengthier, more developed critique of Lovecraft's fiction he would have found little to recommend it in its atmospheric effects, its style, or its philosophical implications, but he would have more fully justified his position and more adequately stated his "paraphrase." Doubtless Graham Harman would have found it equally unpersuasive. But at this point dismissing Wilson because he is paraphrasing seems close to dismissing him because he doesn't like H.P. Lovecraft, and further dismissing any negative criticism because it can't escape the confines of Harman's conception of "paraphrase" (although presumably a positive evaluation can't, either.)
I myself think somewhat more highly of Lovecraft than did Edmund Wilson. But I don't think it's much of a defense to decry otherwise accurate, if only partial, summaries because they don't make the writer seem very serious. There are indeed elements of Lovecraft's fiction that can't be taken very seriously, and Wilson wasn't wrong to point this out. Only if you think Lovecraft's stories can't survive a focus on the goofier qualities of their plots would it even seem necessary to respond to Edmund Wilson. Graham Harman doesn't think that (although he probably wouldn't accept such a characterization of them), since most of his book is dedicated to showing that Lovecraft is also a stylist and a philosopher, but it does allow him to introduce the problem of paraphrase, which he will continue to pursue throughout the book as the primary form of criticism directed at Lovecraft's work, apparently presuming critics who finally can't consider a "pulp" writer like Lovecraft worth the effort to make more focused and nuanced criticism.
Most of the book is devoted to a systematic analysis of 100 passages from Lovecraft's fiction, each more or less concluding that the passage in question illustrates a typically Lovecraftian move, producing an effect that could not be created using some other move, cumulatively showing Lovecraft to be not just a good writer, but "one of the greatest of the twentieth century." Harman presents this as a form of close reading that avoids the flaws in the conception of close reading offered by New Criticism, which from Harman's perspective is guilty of a "holism" that puts too much emphasis on the "interrelations" among individual words, images and ideas within the work so that meaning becomes too dependent on internal (as opposed to external) context. This critique of New Criticism (specifically using Cleanth Brooks as example) is predicated on the philosophical assumptions of Object-Oriented Onotolgy/Speculative Realism, the currently prominent movement in philosophy of which Harman has been one of the most prolific proponents. I do not wish to focus on the validity of these assumptions per se, but only on the way Harman applies them to both literature as represented by H.P. Lovecraft and to literary criticism as represented by Cleanth Brooks--or at least by the account of Brooks Graham Harman provides.
My problem with Harman's characterization of New Criticism as exemplified by Cleanth Brooks begins with his initial description of what would seem to be a kind of first principle for New Critics: "A poem was to be treated as an autonomous entity, working like a machine to create certain effects." Although certainly "autonomy" is an important term in the New Critics' approach to "understanding poetry," there is little reason to believe that any New Critic, Cleanth Brooks especially, would consent to the idea that they regard a poem as an "entity" in the sense Harman has in mind. Since this sort of entity is more like a "machine," such a notion seems even more inappropriate as a characterization of the New Critics' contention that a poem should be read not as the means to a "statement" that could just as easily be paraphrased but as a self-enclosed work of art that indeed needs to be considered as a whole. Brooks does invoke the "organic" quality of a poem, but if this plausibly suggests a metaphorical "entity," it hardly seems consistent with the poem as "machine."
In my opinion, Brooks did not mean his account of poems as "organic," or his analogy between Keats's poem and the urn it apostrophizes, to literally objectify the poem as Harman does. In fact, Brooks in The Well-Wrought Urn is as likely to speak of the poem as an activity or a performance as to represent it as an object. Indeed, his analysis of "Ode On a Grecian Urn" specifically uses the terminology of drama to account for the poem's effects, his discussion of the poem's famous closing lines concluding that "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' has precisely the same status, and the same justification as Shakespeare's 'Ripeness is all.' It is a speech 'in character' and supported by a dramatic context." Brooks does not claim merely that poems "create certain effects." The effects are of the sort that require a very active reader, one who does not wait for the poem to announce its "meaning" but in a sense "follows" the poem in the same way an audience member needs to follow a play.
In considering the label of "formalism" often employed to discredit Brooks and the New Critics, Harman defends Brooks but maintains that, nevertheless, Brooks "fails to acknowledge the size of the problem that results from downplaying the content of literature so severely in favor of structural irony and paradox." Here it seems to me that again Harman is not characterizing accurately the position Brooks takes on the vexed question of the relationship between "form" and "content." Brooks does not "downplay" content in favor of form because he believes that in a poem--at least in a good poem--the two cannot be separated. Brooks writes, "The structure [form] obviously is everywhere conditioned by the nature of the material [content] which goes into the poem. The nature of the material sets the problem to be solved, and the solution is the ordering of the material." In Brooks's conception of a poem, it is meaningless to abstract the content from the form because the former has been transformed by the latter in a seamless merger to become the poem itself. If we want to talk of the "content," we can find it only in the "ordering" that form has made of it, that makes the poem what it is.
This ordering is what Brooks means by "context," but more importantly it is the reader's perception of context that is the most crucial element in our appreciation of poetry, not the irony or paradox the poem itself insists on or that the poet has "intended." "Meaning" is what the reader helps to create, not what the poem communicates directly.Thus when Harman asserts that Brooks cannot be right when he claims that the meaning we take away from the final line of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" comes from "its relation to the total context of the poem" because he gives inadequate respect to "individual elements within the poem," he is effectively emptying New Criticism of its own specific content, since at its core is the principle that "the total context of the poem" is the poem. To instead attend closely to "individual elements within the poem" in their own "autonomy" is to treat the poem as something other than a poem.
While Cleanth Brooks certainly wants to correct what he thinks are misconceptions about what makes a poem a poem, ultimately The Well-Wrought Urn is more about what a poem requires of the reader than what it requires of the poet, less about getting the meaning right by attending to "total context" than about allowing a poem to afford the reader the most expansive reading experience possible, although no one such experience will be expansive enough to exhaust the poem's potential effects or implications. "Irony and paradox" are only elements that contribute to this expansiveness, not those that somehow prescribe what features poetry must exhibit to be poetry. Thus when Harman asserts that Brooks overlooks the fact that "philosophy and science display as much irony and paradox as literature," he is arguably correct, but only in the sense that the subjects of philosophy and science can be paradoxical, not because they aspire to incorporate irony and paradox as discursive modes that help to deflect "meaning" and thus discourage coming to conclusions.
Harman's critique of the unjustified holism of New Criticism is finally his own justification for the approach to Lovecraft's work he takes in his extended analyses of passages (sometimes single sentences) from Lovecraft's best-known stories. Here he both grants the autonomy to the "individual elements" within a literary work he believes Cleanth Brooks denied and uses these passages to discuss Lovecraft's fiction more broadly. This exercise seems designed most urgently to defend Lovecraft against the charge that as a prose stylist he leaves something to be desired, a task Harman performs through a tactic he calls "ruination," which is the effort to determine whether in "discovering how a given passage might be made worse," we might also "find an indirect method of appreciating its virtues." Not so surprisingly, we discover that very few of Lovecraft's sentences can be ruined in this way, as most attempts to do so fall woefully short of approximating in a suitably reductive form anything like the stylistically impeccable, philosophically charged effects Lovecraft's prose achieves. Although Harman does also cogently explicate some of the recurring features of Lovecraft's body of work along the way, it is difficult to take the relentless demonstrations of the difficulty of ruining Lovecraft's signature strategies as anything less than a prolonged rebuke of Edmund Wilson for his condescending "paraphrase" of Lovecraft, condescension that has continued to shadow Lovecraft's work ever since.
Certainly Harman's defense is vigorous: "Far from being a bad stylist, Lovecraft often makes innovations that feel like technical breakthroughs of the sort Vasari finds in various Italian artists." He does not hesitate to use words like "brilliant" and "masterful," to the point that ultimately even sympathetic readers might wonder whether Harman is protesting just a little too much. It is entirely possible to find Lovecraft's stories (some of them) to be imaginatively conceived and full of effectively creepy creatures and also to find them full of wooden prose and stilted dialogue. It might even be the case that these stories do indeed have interesting philosophical implications, even that they illustrate the particular insights of Speculative Realism/OOO, but why in order to concede these possibilities we must accept that H.P. Lovecraft is also a supreme craftsman and stylist is not at all apparent. The impression left by Harman's readings of Lovecraft is partly of a philosophically-informed literary critic making perceptive comments about the writer and work at hand, and partly of an ardent fan of H.P. Lovecraft so convinced of his genius that no kind of praise could possibly seem excessive: "The idea that Lovecraft is outclassed as a stylist by the likes of Proust or Joyce. . .is not an idea to which I can assent. The opposite claims seems closer to the truth."
To his credit, Harman does pick out passages that are certainly vulnerable to criticism by readers who share Wilson's judgment. Thus he quotes this sentence from "The Call of Cthulhu":
He talked of his dreams in a strangely poetic fashion; making me see with terrible vividness the damp Cyclopean city of slimy green stone --whose geometry, he oddly said, was all wrong. . .
The emptiness of phrasing--"strangely poetic," "terrible vividness, "oddly said"--is particularly concentrated here, but this sort of writing is quite common in Lovecraft's stories. Harman plausibly appeals to the importance of considering that the source of such writing is in a first-person narrative by noting that in this case the phrase "strangely poetic" registers the narrator's "hesitation at endorsing" this account, but the persistence with which Lovecraft's narrators resort to formulations like this could also as easily be taken as a sign Lovecraft thinks they are appropriately evocative. Even if we grant the narrator's right to his flat phrasing, however, "terrible vividness" seems especially bland, and while Harman asserts this "empty signifier" actually "functions more effectively than any concrete list of terribly vivid things could ever do," he thus neglects to consider that to achieve the verbally "concrete" does not necessarily entail a "list." Likewise Harman claims that "oddly said" signifies that "the net result remains problematic for the narrator" without noticing that it does so in a particularly colorless way.
Harman's most substantive claim on behalf of Lovecraft as a stylist is that Lovecraft's fiction achieves what Harman calls "literary cubism." He cites this passage among others:
If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing--but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.
Rather than presenting a concrete, unified image of this creature, according to Harman Lovecraft instead "splits the usual relation between an accessible sensual thing and its accessible sensual qualities," presenting "such a multitude of surfaces that it can no longer be identified with any mere summation of them," in the manner of Picasso or Braque. Perhaps it is true that Lovecraft's favored way of conveying the sheer otherness of his benighted world is to splice together such separate images, simultaneously affirming and asserting their essential incompatibility, but this begs the question of whether any particular such stacking of images actually works very well. In this instance, I must say I cannot myself find the blurring of octopus, dragon and "human caricature" (whatever that might be) to be particularly effective. Not only does there seem to be no discernible reason why these things (rather than three other things) should be yoked together, but the breathless way in which they are invoked strikes me as rather silly. The narrator obviously regards this composite thing as terrifying; I just can't. (It doesn't help that the creature is not just ""shocking" or "frightful" but "shockingly frightful," a yoking together of equally vague words such that their "summation" merely blends them in a haze of cliche.)
Although the premises of Lovecraft's stories are frequently intriguing (within the confines Lovecraft's more general vision of the lurking, ancient horrors lying behind our ordinary reality allows), and the best of the stories create a legitimately ominous atmosphere and are well-paced enough to make their revelations effective, they are also consistently marred by this kind of writing. Too often we come upon descriptions such as this:
The Great Race's members were immense rugose cones ten foot high, and with head and other organs attached to foot-thick, distensible limbs spreading from the apexes. They spoke by the clicking or scraping of huge paws or claws attached to the end of two of their four limbs, and walked by the expansion and contraction of a viscous layer attached to their vast ten-foot bases.
I have no idea what a "rugose" cone would look like, and unfortunately the rest of the description doesn't make it any more vivid. "Other organs" seems just lazy, nor do "distensible limbs" emerging from the "apexes" (of the creatures?) make me see the creature any better. This is not the result of Lovecraft trying to merely "suggest" otherwise incomprehensible entities, but of bad writing. And again I am simply not able to take seriously the image of this "great race" clicking and scraping its paws in order to communicate. By the time we see them in locomotion through "the expansion and contraction of a viscous layer attached to their vast ten-foot bases," I can no longer suppress my laughter. (And why is ten feet so "vast"?) A writer who not infrequently produces prose that is unintentionally funny cannot, in my view, be a supreme prose stylist surpassing Proust and Joyce.
It seems to me that in putatively attending to Lovecraft's "style," Harman is not actually concerned with Lovecraft's style at all. While not all of Lovecraft's descriptions are as clunky as this one (his descriptions of actually existing terrestrial nature can sometimes be quite nice), they occur often enough that according to any definition of "style" consistent with its proper application to works of fiction--as a measure of the writer's care and facility with language considered as an artistic medium--Lovecraft's style is perfunctory at best, at worst indifferent to "art." What Harman is really responding to in Lovecraft's work is its fanciful ideas: the notion that the geometry is "all wrong," that an entity might be three-things-in-one. That Lovecraft's fiction is full of these ideas is undeniable, and if they lead Graham Harman to think these ideas are remarkably congruent with his own, that the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft provides an apposite literary illustration of the philosophical tenets of Object-Oriented Ontology, I offer no objection. However, in most cases, when Harman claims to be examining Lovecraft's style, he is at best instead highlighting the articulation of these ideas--"simultaneous pictures of a an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature." There is very little in this sort of articulation that could meaningfully be identified as "style" at all.
A city "whose geometry was all wrong" is a productively vague notion, and of course Harman argues that its vagueness is precisely the point. Lovecraft is depicting an alternate reality so utterly unlike our own that our usual terms and concepts can't possibly make sense of it except to declare that from the human perspective it is "all wrong." And indeed in the climactic episode of "The Call of Cthulhu," in which we finally get a view of the "Cyclopean city," it is presented as geometrically weird, "all wrong" according to ordinary human experience. Yet even here, the description remains vague and colorless, as when the city appears "loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours," full of "crazily elusive angles." Lovecraft does at least provide some more concrete illustration of these crazy angles and other loathsome features: "In this phantasy of prismatic distortion [the door] moved anomalously in a diagonal way, so the all the rules of matter and perspective seemed upset." In fairness, there are other moments in this account when Lovecraft offers some real writing: "The aperture was black with a darkness almost material. That tenebrousness was indeed a positive quality, for it obscured such parts of the inner walls as ought to be revealed, and actually burst forth like smoke from its aeon-long imprisonment, visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away into the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membraneous wings."
However, this passage still reveals Lovecraft's fundamental limitations as a prose stylist. The recourse to abstract, pompous vocabulary ("tenebrousness," "gibbous," "membraneous") and the melodramatic effect created through reflexive italicizing and emphatic phrasing ("aeon-long imprisonment"), added to the work Lovecraft wants those adverbially modified adjectives ("loathsomely redolent") to do, substituting for more generous description, gives me, at least, the impression of a writer trying to avoid style more than cultivate it. You can say that this prosaic, deliberately stiff and doggedly bland kind of writing is Lovecraft's chosen style--but that doesn't mean it's any good.
My review of Joseph McElroy's Cannonball is now available at Full Stop.
I am currently writing an extended response to Graham Harman's book, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, but there are some issues related to Harman's underlying assumptions, assumptions directly related to Object-Oriented Ontology/Speculative Realism, that I also need to think my way through even if I don't take them up directly in the response.
These issues concern Harman's critique of New Criticism, specifically represented by Cleanth Brooks. Harman asserts that Brooks was guilty of what Harman calls the "Taxonomic Fallacy," by which he makes an untenable distinction between literature and the discourse of science and philosophy. "For while it is correct to identify a difference between literal content and the unparaphrasable," writes Harman, "there is no justification for allotting these two structures to two different types of human intellectual pursuits--a division of labor in which philosophy and science would be responsible for literal truths, while literature would handle all the irony and paradox."
No justification? That's an awfully unconditional claim, that no. Isn't it perfectly possible to make an entirely pragmatic justification for holding literature as the human activity devoted to creating verbal artworks specializing in irony and paradox, while philosophy and science are activities hoping to discover "literal truths"? Doesn't some such division of labor actually bring definition to these disparate activities, help to justify using these different terms to identify different goals? Harman notes that philosophy and science are sometimes immersed in irony and paradox, but can't we agree that for the most part these are discourses that hope to avoid them, while literature is the discourse that wants to create them? Of course, in the end there is no final, absolute and categorical justification for separating the literary from the philosophical or scientific, but do we need an absolute, metaphysically sealed justification? I think not, but it seems to me that Harman's statement betrays a desire for it, which makes me think that OOO itself embodies a longing for indisputable truth--and which also fits uneasily with his book's encomia to Lovecraft as a writer who illustrates the "gap" between the real and our experience of it.
At the end of his relatively brief discussion of Brooks, Harman claims that Brooks "falls into the Taxonomic Fallacy twice: the first time by distinguishing falsely between the rhetorical status of literature and other disciplines, and the second time by saying that holism is bad when it reduces the poem to its historical context, but good when it reduces it to an internal context of interrelated meanings." Well, so what? Harman clearly believes he has caught Cleanth Brooks (and thus New Criticism in general) in a contradiction, but is it really that devastating to the principles of New Criticism (formalism more broadly) to say that the first kind of holism is bad and the first kind good? If this approach can make for more satisfying reading of works of literature (which I believe it can, although I have to assume Harman doesn't), what's really wrong with it? It's nicely ironic and paradoxical.
(Note: This essay was published in the American Book Review in 2000. In the thirteen years since, ABR has never made it available online, so I am taking advantage of the fact that I recently discovered the typescript of the essay to post it here. The essay still seems pertinent to me, although the "curricular wars" were perhaps more heated in the late 1990s than now.)
In his recent book In Plato's Cave, Alvin Kernan describes a career crisis that he no doubt shared with many other literary scholars of his generation:
The canon of great books, authors and their powerful imaginations, the formal perfection of the literary text, and the belief that literature was a central pillar of culture—these foundations of Literature were all crumbling. . .Fine poems and novels were still being written, but somehow they no longer became Literature.
Kernan's lament for what in an earlier book he called "the death of literature" has been echoed often enough over the last decade (most loudly perhaps in John M. Ellis's 1997 book Literature Lost), but the elegiac tone of his remarks suggest a resigned rather than a combative attitude toward the passing of the old order of literary study in which men like himself were entrusted with shoring up the "foundations of Literature." In Plato's Cave is Kernan's attempt to account for his career in academe, but ultimately he is willing to cede the ground to those, by now a majority, who no longer share his assumptions about the status of literature and the role of literary study.
Now that the battle between the defenders of capital-l literature and the partisans of the iconoclastic styles of scholarship identified with what has come to be called cultural studies does indeed seem to be over, the outcome decidedly in favor of the latter, what seems most striking about comments like those just quoted is the clearly implicit association, as if it didn't need to be stated, between literature broadly conceived as verbal works of art—poems and novels—and the academic study and analysis of literature. All of the features Kernan ascribes to "literature," such as the unique formal elegance of the literary text, are actually the products of academic theories about literature, meant to foster a certain kind of literary criticism and to facilitate classroom instruction. So accustomed are we now to thinking of literature as the subject identified by that name in the curricula of various university departments, primarily the English department, that it is almost impossible to use the term as a way of describing specific works outside of that context. And this, of course, applies as much to the currently trendy styles of criticism and scholarship as to the old-fashioned kind of literary scholarship practiced by someone like Alvin Kernan. If anything, the champions of cultural studies are even more dependant on the exclusive right claimed by the academy to the brand name Literature—their work would be almost unintelligible without an academic literary establishment to rebel against in the first place, and the new scholarship, at least that which seeks to historicize and politicize our notions of the literary, would itself hardly be sustainable if the idea of capital-l literature were simply to be abandoned.
Even though Alvin Kernan and other like-minded literature professors were largely unable to separate an appreciation of imaginative writing from the disciplinary imperatives of academic literary study, they nevertheless generally spoke of the qualities they most admired in works of literature as qualities that inhered in the works themselves, had clearly always been considered the salient characteristics of great literature, not as creations of the very discourse these professors had adopted for their own professional purposes. It is true that the urgently serious, at times even ponderous, approach to the "canon of great books" and much of the critical lexicon of the mid-century academic literary establishment were filtered through the writings of such poet-critics as Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, and John Crowe Ransom, but by far the most significant development in the practice of literary criticism in the twentieth century was the investment of authority over literary matters in the figure of the academic critic, from such celebrated members of the order as Lionel Trilling, Cleanth Brooks, and Northrop Frye to current critics such as Stanley Fish and Helen Vendler, around whom is still draped some vestige of this authority, however ragged it has become. To the company of so eminent and formidable a group of "scholars" as this, no mere literary journalist or, worse, lowly book reviewer need apply: criticism would no longer be in the hands of the ink-stained wretches, namely writers, but would become almost entirely transformed into the job description of a professional class of literary experts.
As someone who once sought admittance to this class, who still considers it at its best to have embodied an attitude toward literature well worthy of respect and to have produced a body of scholarly work both present and future readers should continue to find entirely useful, I do not believe that the assumption of such expertise on the part of literature professors was necessarily self-interested or carried out in bad faith. By and large, the institution of literary study as administered from roughly the 1930s to the 1980s was dedicated to admirable goals, even if those goals—broadly speaking, to help provide students with a modicum of a liberal education, more specifically, to advance knowledge about the nature and history of literature and provide instruction to those interested in the formal analysis of literary texts—melded uneasily, if at all, with the overall curriculum of the university, which has always reflected American society's intensely practical philosophy of education. Like any institution, however, it came to regard its established practices as settled and incontestable (how else to go about studying literature?), and when doubting Thomases did indeed begin to speak out from within its own ranks, the response from what came to be regarded as the old guard was at first dismissive, later mostly incredulous, and finally simply enraged.
Kernan's The Death of Literature (1990), comes from the second stage in the academic literary establishment's response to the new ways of thinking about literature and its place in the academic curriculum. So mystified does he seem in this book by the assault on the literary values that once seemed to need no defense that he really offers none, propounding instead the idea that the era of what he calls "romantic and modernist literature" has simply passed, that literature itself as we have known it for the past 200 years or so has ceased to be relevant. In neither The Death of Literature nor In Plato's Cave does Kernan seem able to admit what his analysis and experience clearly show: that Literature is a product of the academic environment in which it has been defined and scrutinized since national literatures became respectable subjects of academic study early in the twentieth century—that professors like himself deserve most of the credit, or the blame, for inventing Literature in the first place.
Thus what drives Alvin Kernan and his generational cohorts crazy is not just that the discipline they helped to build has fallen so easily into the hands of a new breed of scholar who question the integrity of what was built, with furthermore an insufficient appreciation of the ramifications of this development on the part of college administrators or the public at large, but that what may have been their greatest achievement, the creation of a fascinating cultural artifact out of old books, poems, and play scripts has lost so much of its luster as to be no longer recognizable. Because most of them found their way into the discipline out of a genuine belief in the importance of these texts (In Plato's Cave succeeds in affirming this impression), their dismay at witnessing a decline in respect for the great books must be taken as sincere, although it is tempting to judge their enmity toward the currently dominant forms of scholarship as largely a case of professional resentment. Their failure to understand their own role in summoning Literature into being at all, however, making it almost inevitable that its exalted status would come to be challenged, is less easy to justify.
A succinct statement of the way capital-l literature was constructed as an essentially academic subject is provided in another book, John M. Ellis's Literature Lost. Against the "utilitarian" view of education held by many in American society, the professors responded with an alternative, although not incommensurate, view, according to Ellis:
The standard defense of the humanities. . .was that humanistic education provided all kinds of rewards, but the least important [emphasis mine] was the enrichment of our leisure through great literature and the arts. The most weighty arguments were that the humanities enabled us to see ourselves in perspective, to become more enlightened citizens, and to think more deeply about important issues in our lives. A society of people educated not just for a vocation but for full and intelligent participation in a modern democracy would be a far better and happier society—so ran the argument—and this overriding social usefulness of humanistic education compensated for its not leading directly to a means of earning one's living.
It is hard to imagine that many of the writers who actually left us with what Ellis would accept as "great literature" could have used language like this to describe their own sense of what their work was meant to accomplish. (Especially surprising would be the suggestion that the "enrichment of our leisure" should be at the bottom of our list of expectations of poems, plays, or novels.) Not even Matthew Arnold, perhaps the first great literary critic to postulate the existence of capital-l literature in anything like the terms delineated here by Ellis, could really have envisioned a formal course of literary study with ambitions quite like these. The extent to which the notion of "great literature" has been transformed into an entire system of interlocking texts is manifestly clear when Ellis further remarks that "[t]he body of enduring literary and philosophical books of the Western tradition is. . .a remarkable set of fascinating struggles with problems and issues. Always prominent is the conflict and competition between the ideas and vision of one writer and those of others, and there is often a high degree of self-criticism."
John Ellis believes that literature has been "lost" because this system is no longer taken for granted. Unlike Alvin Kernan, who ultimately seems mostly wistful about the dismantling of the system that once sustained him, Ellis is one of those compelled to vent his rage over what has happened. All of the usual suspects—multiculturalists, deconstructionists, feminists, Marxists—are brought forth and denounced for their apostasy, their refusal to acknowledge the supreme authority of Literature, and by the end of the book Ellis has in effect declared that with the overthrow of the traditional Western Literature syllabus, civilization itself is nearing its end. While some of his analyses of current scholarly methods and classroom practices are cogent enough (he is right in claiming that what passes now for literary study in many of the elite colleges and universities is little more than crude political posturing), Ellis is even less able than Kernan to imagine works of literature being read and appreciated outside the academic walls he has helped to put up, much less to think of literature as a still vital activity carried on by living fiction writers, poets, and playwrights. That he finally lays the blame for the perceived affront to the dignity of Literature on affirmative action, both in admissions and faculty hiring, only underscores the impression that for literature professors like John M. Ellis, the "body of enduring literary and philosophical books" properly belongs to a select group of academics teaching a similarly select group of compliant students suitably grateful for the honor.
In arguing that those currently in charge of literary study in American universities have banished, killed, or otherwise discredited literature, however, Kernan, Ellis, and company misleadingly suggest the new literary scholarship no longer accepts the academic concept of capital-l literature and its attendant history. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Literature remains a significant category in scholarly publishing, and most of the books published in this category do little to challenge the legitimacy of the underlying idea—especially not those books that explicitly claim to question the "hegemony" of canonical literature. Take, for example, Janice Radway's A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (1998).
Radway presents her study of what might be called the book club aesthetic as an alternative to the conventional kind of literary analysis that emphasizes "intricacy, subtlety, and complexity." Radway's problem with "serious" literature, especially the more formally complex works of modern literature, is their lack of immediate accessibility:
The books that came to me as high culture never seemed to prompt the particular shudder, the frisson I associated with the books of my childhood, because they carried with them not mere promise alone, but also a threat, the threat that somehow I might fail to understand, might fail to recognize their reputed meaning and inherent worth. I developed, as a consequence, an aloof, somewhat puzzled relationship to "Literature" and to the ways of reading required and rewarded in my graduate seminars.
Radway clearly wants us to believe that the sort of book traditionally offered by the Book-of-the-Month Club (the sort that might excite in its reader the "shudder, the frisson") deserves the same kind of respect as those books associated with "high culture," but no one reading A Feeling for Books could conclude that its author advocates giving up either the class of books she learned to regard as Literature or the modes of analysis the study of such books gave rise to in the academy. For one thing, it is only in opposition to high-brow notions of literature that the competing notion of the middlebrow that informs Radway's account of the Book-of-the-Month Club can even be formulated. Paradoxically, those who most want to topple literature from its high culture pedestal are obliged to keep it fixed there in order to extol the equal value of popular or non-canonical forms of writing. Further, Radway's chosen critical method could not be more immersed in the conventions of the academic style. Indeed, the dense and jargon-choked middle section of A Feeling for Books (a laborious examination of her subject's "ideological position") seems to presume a reader at least as specialized as any unrepentant formalist, and Radway doesn't really invalidate qualities such as "intricacy, subtlety, and complexity" as standards by which to appraise some forms of expression. Instead, she simply elevates what seems a question of taste—a preference for poetry and fiction that are more emotionally direct, that provoke the "shudder, the frisson"—to a level of purported theoretical reflection that itself manifests a formidable degree of complexity.
Despite the inability, or unwillingness, of writers like Janice Radway and John Ellis to inquire into their own deep-seated and mutually unexamined assumptions, it is nevertheless certainly true that literature as an academic subject has been radically transformed in most upper-tier colleges and universities, and its survival in something resembling its orthodox form in some lower-rung schools is not likely to save it from eventual obsolescence. As traditionalists like Kernan and Ellis maintain, literature has lost the respect it once enjoyed from those devoted to its study, and it is not likely to regain that respect any time soon. And, as radicals like Radway would have it, capital-l literature has been promulgated with at best an overly reverent solemnity, at worst a kind of smug elitism that made the appearance of A Feeling for Books and similar rebellious efforts wholly predictable. However, while I could agree with the radicals that the institution of literary study came to be enveloped in an atmosphere of pretension and self-satisfaction, their current occupation of the grounds has hardly been an improvement.
Only if one accepts that literature and the academy are linked in some necessary and unavoidable way will one also feel that Literature's fall from academic grace is quite the catastrophe the traditionalists make it out to be, however, or that its influence had to be counteracted in the name of other causes one values more highly. Once this link is broken, Literature ceases to be, and the forms of writing that have long been held hostage to it—"fine poems and novels"—would then no longer be subject to any of the agendas academic scholars and critics bring to the discipline-based study of capital-l literature. I am convinced that this would be the best possible outcome of the curricular wars, both for the survival of those older works that once formed the core of the academic canon and for the work of living writers, which has generally either been considered unworthy of attention at all or otherwise made the objects of the most politicized, coarsest forms of analysis. Freed from the pomposities and prejudices of the literature professors, perhaps the books that have been drained of interest to all but those who want to believe in Literature can find the audience they still deserve, and, more importantly, perhaps even small-l literature might continue to be a meaningful term, especially if it were used to describe a continuum of "literary" activity that, if anything, privileged contemporary writers whose work is able to extend and replenish the genres comprising what can truthfully be called an enduring tradition of imaginative writing.
Cutting the ties that have kept literature bound to the academy could in addition have the salutary effect of reviving literary criticism as part of the potential renewal of an authentic literary culture apart from the enervating influence of the academic critics. While some may question whether the United States has ever had, or ever really could have, a literary culture worthy of the designation, certainly the invention of Literature has proved to be at best a synthetic substitute. One could easily conclude from the lively coverage of the literary scene by web-zines like Salon, from the multitude of other literary e-zines publishing book reviews and critical commentary, as well as original creative work, from the proliferation across the country of book discussion groups, that an interest in small-l literature persists among non-academic readers, that were the remaining superstructure supporting academic Literature to collapse entirely from its own dead weight (there are reasons to believe this is happening—see Robert Scholes's The Rise and Fall of English), a more finely-tuned, less grandiose kind of literary criticism would soon enough emerge from its ruins. Such criticism might even be practiced by many of the would-be critics who currently regard academe as the only plausible option for anyone who takes literature seriously; professional without being professionalized, this sort of criticism would ideally combine an immediacy of response not often to be found in even the best academic criticism with an ability, developed through simple attentiveness, to contextualize and to read closely, as surely any seriously conceived and executed attempt at literary art deserves.
It is certainly possible, of course, that nothing like what I am describing here will ever come to pass. Capital-l literature will continue, in however debased and beleaguered a form, as the self-claimed domain of academic "experts," and non-academic criticism will remain a scattershot affair, confined to routine book reviews in the usual periodicals, at best to the websites and journals most committed to the informed discussion of new writing. It is even possible that what we now call literature will simply vanish into the virtual ether of cyberspace, recognized only as an artifact of intellectual history, if at all. Such a fate seems to me almost inevitable, in fact, if those who retain an interest in the possibilities of literature (small-l) hold on to the assumption that the responsibility for ensuring its survival lies with the academy. The folly of this assumption cannot now be more apparent. Fine poems and novels are still being written, and we can only hope they never become Literature.
My review of William Gass's Middle C is now available at Identity Theory:
If writers such as Gary Lutz, Diane Williams, and Christine Schutt have brought increased attention to the sentence as the fundamental, perhaps even self-sufficient, source of aesthetic interest in fiction, the most important precursor to their particular kind of inspired sentence-making must be William H. Gass. While these writers cite Gordon Lish and his notion of “consecution” as the most immediate influence on their own practice of allowing form to evolve from the serial progression of meticulously constructed sentences rather than regarding form as the pre-existing container to be filled with the writer’s words, Gass was exploring the potential of the sentence as the focus of the writer’s art before Lish began exhorting his cadre of students to embrace this approach. . . .
I've rarely read an essay whose title so inaccurately signals its content than Annie Murphy Paul's "Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer," posted at Time.com. It is ostensibly a response to Gregory Currie's post on the New York Times's Opinionator blog, "Does Great Literature Make Us Better?," but in fact after quoting Currie's contention there is little evidence "that people are morally or socially better for reading Tolstoy," Paul does not discuss "literature" at all but instead moves on to make claims about the nature of reading that can't withstand scrutiny and do nothing to show that reading literary works makes us "smarter and nicer."
The bulk of her argument is a brief on behalf of "deep reading," which she then uses to attack the kind of reading she thinks the internet encourages. According to Paul
Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading — slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity — is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words. Although deep reading does not, strictly speaking, require a conventional book, the built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions — Should I click on this link or not? — allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.
This sort of affirmation of what is asserted to be "deep reading" has become quite common among those who think the internet has endangered it, but on a fundamental level, Paul's articulation of the claim is incoherent. The biggest problem is in the conception of "reading" (presumably fiction) to begin with. It's certainly unclear why "deep" must be equated with "slow," but even more perplexing is the notion that reading might be "rich in sensory detail" and involves "emotional and moral complexity." The only "sensory detail" that could possibly accompany the act of reading is the visual detail of words on a page encountered by the eye. Any other manifestation of sensory detail occurs in the reader's mind as he/she projects the images the writer attempts to simulate through words--but of course these images are not literally present for the reader to perceive. Similarly, "emotional and moral complexity" is not something we read, but instead create ourselves upon reflection about what we have read--probably considerably after the fact.
This alleged "deep" experience of detail and complexity Paul sums up in her use of the word "immersion," which "is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life." At least Paul here acknowledges that the activities of reading are psychological/neurological activities produced by the mind itself, but she also reveals that her underlying assumption about "literature" is that it essentially consists of an image-based narrative that can be followed as if "the scene were unfolding in real life." In other words, what "immersion" in a literary work amounts to is that the brain converts the text into a "mental representation" that is a lot like a movie.
Thus we are "immersed" in a book in the same way we allow our attention to be captured by the most compelling movies. Indeed, Paul describes this almost involuntary immersion as akin to "a hypnotic trance." Paul clearly believes this is a beneficial state in which to find oneself as a reader, but it's not at all clear why this would be the case. Is it really a good thing that this sort of "deep" reading "frees the reader from making decisions"? Shouldn't serious reading be an active experience that broadens our awareness rather than the passive experience that constricts it Annie Murphy Paul is offering us? Isn't reading really something very different from watching a movie, calling on entirely other human capacities?
Ultimately Paul's essay devolves into the same old simplistic celebration of print over internet, even though that has nothing at all to do with the issue Currie raises in questioning the putative moral effects of works of literature.Online reading, with its pesky decisions and constant distractions, threatens to undermine our ability to read deeply, which is really only encouraged by print, etc., etc. Curiously, after deploring the tendency of online reading to present obstacles to uninterrupted reading, Paul claims that "slow, unhurried" reading has the virtue of allowing readers time "to enrich their reading with reflection, analysis, and their own memories and opinions." What is the deflection of attention to "reflection" and the intrusion of "memories and opinions" if not distractions, wanderings away from the work at hand? Here it seems to me that Paul simply casts deep reading as a more elevated form of preoccupation with self.
Unfortunately, the whole debate on the nature of reading and on the effects of reading "literature" in particular is usually predicated on a view of literature that is reductive and misleading. Paul and Currie alike rely on a concept of literature that first of all restricts it to fiction (usually novels). Seldom included in the discussion is the experience of reading poetry, which in most cases surely can't be equated with the act of following a narrative as if it were a movie running in our heads. Its moral effects can't be based on our response to characters and their dilemmas or, as suggested by some studies of readers' responses to fiction, through our identification with their "mind." Further, the fiction considered in these discussions is usually the most conventional, story-centered and realistic sort (except when it is most obviously "mind"-centered, as in Virginia Woolf). Are we "immersed" in, say, Finnegans Wake or The Unnameable in the same way Paul claims we are in those narratives featuring "scenes" that seem to be "unfolding in real life"?
Reading works like these would have to involve engaging "deeply" with the irreducible medium of literature, language itself. Since such works in their own deep immersion in language and its aesthetic possibilities have an even greater claim to be considered "literature" than the kind of routine narrative fiction the debate about the importance of reading usually presumes, perhaps those involved in this debate ought to devote some attention to them instead.
My review of Haruf's Benediction at Full Stop:
If Benediction does seem “authentic” as a kind of slice-of-life account of the lives of people like those living in his fictional Holt County, we might nevertheless still ask whether, 150 years after its ascension, this sort of realism retains credibility as an aesthetic strategy in fiction. If we grant that Haruf employs the conventions associated with such realism very well, what do we find in a novel like this that we wouldn’t find in the fiction of those writers on whose work it is modeled? What do we find that is surprising, that takes not just realism but fiction as a literary form in a new or surprising direction?. . . .
In a post at the Guardian's Books blog, Stuart Kelly argues that we have reached the end of the "genre wars" in criticism, although this has not yet fully registered with publishers and booksellers, who still cling to increasingly "irrelevant" distinctions among genres.
Although I can't disagree with Kelly that few literary critics would want to "dismiss genre writing solely on the basis that it is genre writing," the very fact that "genre" is no longer a barrier to critical respectability (to the extent it ever was) makes his reasoning when accounting for the persistence of genre categories all the more peculiar.
According to Kelly, "if there is a major shift it probably has more to do with the waning of the FR Leavis idea of what constitutes the canon." Thus, it would seem, publishers and booksellers are still unduly influenced by F.R. Leavis and his preference for "social realism." For them, "literary fiction" and "social realism" are synonymous terms, so not only do genre writers get shortchanged, but also literary writers who aren't social realists.
Or at least I think this is Kelly's argument, since finally it just doesn't make any sense. F.R. Leavis no longer holds sway among critics but he does among the marketers who decide how books will be displayed at Barnes & Noble (or Waterstone's)? Publishers make their decisions by consulting The Great Tradition?
Ultimately, Kelly seems more intent on discrediting social realism than in making any useful points about genre fiction. Indeed, the burden of his analysis seems to be that fiction can be divided into social realism and everything else, with all the prestige attached to the term "literary" still going to the former. If Kelly wants to maintain that more adventurous kinds of ostensibly "literary fiction" are often neglected (by publishers and critics alike), I'm with him, but his defense of genre fiction in particular, it seems to me, isn't well advanced by his specific critique of the limitations of social realism.
"Naive realism is no longer the default setting for literary fiction," he asserts, since
The idea of character as psychoanalysable, intact "self", of narrative as a sequence of events, or the liberal assumption that people are, deep down, identical (CS Lewis's unchanging human heart) have all been thrown into disarray, and rightly so.
While this is hardly a novel observation, it is nevertheless largely correct, if incomplete. (The most significant reason that realism has lost credibility is that we no longer have the same trust in the capacity of language to "represent" the world transparently.) Yet it would be difficult to claim that genre fiction itself avoids these same problems. I can think of very little genre fiction that does not center around characters with "intact" selves (some genres, such as crime fiction, depend on characters who are "psychoanalysable"), feature stories that are essentially a "sequence of events" (often strictly linear), or assume continuity in human identity. In my opinion, Kelly is confusing "realism," which is a problem of representation broadly conceived, with the literary strategies that might be used to achieve it. Realism may or may not rest on the kind of conventional assumptions Kelly identifies. Genre fiction almost always does.
If genre fiction still doesn't always quite get the respect many people think it deserves, it can't be because there remains a widespread bias in favor of social realism. I might argue that it has to do with certain assumptions about style, assumptions that genre writers can certainly meet by writing well, and about form--assumptions that are more difficult to meet because genre fiction has a harder time escaping entrenched conventions of story and character.
Colin Marshall provides a very good introduction to the South Korean novelist Kim Young-ha, but in the midst of discussing the newly translated Black Flower, he suddenly informs us parenthetically that "I look forward to Korea's coming film adaptation of Your Republic is Calling You, but a cinematic version of Black Flower could do even better, with this high watermark of futility in its New Korea episode, assuming it finds the right director — Werner Herzog, for instance."
This preoccupation with the film version, or the possibility of a film version, of a work of fiction has become very annoying to me. It's as if a literary work can no longer be truly validated unless it becomes a film "adaptation" (or that only those works that are provided such adaptation are thereby validated.) I love movies (and was even at one time myself a quasi- film scholar), but must we reinforce the general cultural preference for the visual appeal of films by implicitly sharing that preference in literary criticism? Doesn't Marshall's statement suggest that Black Flower won't be complete until that version directed by Werner Herzog comes along? That Hezog's version will in some way even be better?
It makes me think that readers and critics ostensibly committed to fiction as an artistic form nevertheless read fiction with the possible film adaptation in mind. This seems perverse to me.
It appears there are still those in mainstream media and publishing worrying over the the dilution of "standards" in the era of the internet and of self-publishing. Alison Walsh at the Irish Independent is concerned that
In the 'anyone can do it' age, it seems that all you have to do is join a creative writing group, or upload a short story on to one of many websites, or chat to your friends on author forums and hey, presto. But while writing courses can encourage a certain standard, can make you aware of point of view and plot development, can equip you with the skills to compose something that resembles a novel, they can't make you a writer. They can't give you that extra something that lifts a work out of being just a humdrum collection of words into something special, that magic that only a very few possess. . . .
One might have thought that by now self-styled "gatekeepers" would have given up on the idea that they must retain the status they believe they possessed in the old print-only dispensation, but Ms. Walsh is sure that
what's missing from the whole 'anyone can write' idea is a yardstick of quality. The imprimatur of an experienced, skilled individual saying, 'This is good enough to be published', and lifting the standard of literature in the process.
Pretty obviously Alison Walsh is staking a claim to be such an "experienced, skilled individual," although frankly I can find no information about her that would assure me she has the qualifications or ability to determine "the standard of literature" that should be applied to the work of serious writers. Simply because someone has been designated an "editor" by a publishing company whose first priority is always profits does not at all mean that such a person knows the first thing about "literature" or what gives "quality" to writing.
Walsh herself identifies the main reason why "gatekeeping" of the sort she has in mind is a misguided enterprise when she writes that "creative talent can't be judged objectively and what one editor will rave about, another will dispatch to the wastepaper basket." Editorial gatekeeping is at best a hopelessly subjective and uncertain enterprise that encourages the editor (who has often arbitrarily been granted power over a writer's fate) to project his/her fallible judgment as the "standard of literature." At worst it jettisons such a standard altogether in favor of commercial potential or the belief that the target audience's expectations must be met.
If anyone could be said to plausibly have a gatekeeping role it would be the literary critic (although the critic who actually calls him/herself a gatekeeper deserves whatever mockery might ensue). Indeed, what the literary world needs now is not more editors and publishers pretending to be upholding "the standard of quality" but more critics willing to expend the effort to study literature and literary history (which certainly does not require any sort of academic degree) so that judgment is grounded in some degree of knowledge, to consider works of literature comparatively, and to pay the kind of attention required to apprehend and describe what a seriously intended literary work seems to be attempting. Only the presence of this sort of criticism can mitigate against the sort of chaos that people like Alison Walsh think will accompany the "democritazation" of literature. I, for one, don't see why such a critical presence should be an unattainable goal, thus making the era of "anyone can do it" just as likely as any other to produce "quality" works of literature.
D. G. Myers wants to know "what happened to literary history?" According to Myers, "Seven decades after John Crowe Ransom named the movement, the New Critics have achieved what they were after. . .The syllabus of nearly every English course is little more than a series of discrete texts which can’t be read historically because no one has any literary history."
Although I agree that "undergraduates arrive at American universities notoriously ignorant of their cultural heritage," I certainly cannot agree that this is because for these students "no other conception of literature, if it is to be studied as literature, has any standing" other than the New Critical strategy of "close reading." The problem is that while informing them of literary history (even focusing narrowly on the students' own "cultural heritage") is not on the agenda in what remains of the high school literature curriculum, neither is a focus on literature "as literature," at least to the extent that the "study" of literature means close critical analysis. Since this kind of analysis isn't really testable on the kinds of anti-intellectual, utilitarian tests now favored by the political bean counters and educational "experts," works of literature are reduced to simplistic sources of information that might somehow be "relevant" or contribute to "core skills."
The biggest problem with Myers's own analysis is his identification of the pedagogical strategy at work in both high school and college classrooms as New Criticism. Certainly few high school teachers these days have been trained in New Criticism, but even if we accepted that what literature professors now do with their "discrete texts" is a form of close reading, it is not in any way the kind of close reading advocated by the New Critics. At best this form of close reading amounts to a vague "paying attention" to some elements of the text (certainly not the text as whole, as illustrated in the practice of New Critics), but such attention is not focused on the literary qualities of literary texts but on those details or characteristics that can prompt a consideration of cultural, ideological, and, yes, historical questions. The "history" so addressed indeed is not literary history, but this only confirms that ultimately no one any longer wants to teach or study literature "as literature" at all.
I was in graduate school sufficiently long ago now that some of the faculty still had been influenced by New Criticism, although a number of professors were also conventional literary historians. These were considered not antithetical but mutually supportive approaches. Literary history was important in properly contextualizing the encounter with any particular text, but the reading experience itself required the kind of close attention to not just the particulars but the overall shape and the interdependent relationships among the parts of the text encouraged by New Criticism. If for the last twenty-five years or more students have been deprived of literary history, that's because literature itself is not considered central enough that we would need to know anything about its history, just as we don't really need to read it very carefully.
A lot of people are rising into high dudgeon these days about the fact that most writers don't get paid for what they write. While this is partly related to the still-existing hysteria about the supposed nefarious effects of the internet (too many amateurs writing for fun), it nevertheless extends as well to fiction writers who seem to have just realized that, except for a few prominent novelists who have managed a degree of financial success, writers of "serious" fiction make little or no money at all from their writing.
Various explanations are given for this situation, ranging from the willingness of editors and publishers to ruthlessly exploit the writers they publish to the general lack of interest among American readers (in their already small numbers) in this kind of fiction.
But the best explanation is much simpler and is a direct result of the very "professionalization" of writing that has taken place over the last 50 years or so. This professionalizaton has manifested itself in the proliferation of creative writing programs that has attached a certain kind of "training" to the writing of fiction and poetry and thus a degree of professional prestige for the graduates of these programs. This sort of "prestige" has extended itself to the thousands of literary magazines that have come into existence during this period (some only to disappear after a short period of time) and that have become the primary mode of publication for the writers emerging from the programs. Mere publication in one of these magazines is often necessarily the ambition of such writers, which in turn becomes a form of certification to teach in a creative writing program. Since the latter is the real goal of graduating from a creative writing program, literary magazines don't need to pay the writers who appear in their pages. So of course they don't. Writers must be content with the salaries they earn as duly qualified participants in creative writing as an academic discipline.
The real question thus becomes not why writers aren't paid but whether we should consider the sheer increase in the number of writers we now have, as well as the increase in the amount of writing available to us, some of which is unquestionably good (the worst of which is just generally mediocre), to be worth the effective withdrawal of serious literary writing from the capitalist marketplace--which of course inevitably results in frustration for many writers who believe their labors should receive some recognition in this marketplace. How important is it for writers to be validated by capitalism and what Adorno called its "exchange value"?
In 2008, Zadie Smith somewhat unexpectedly seemed to declare herself partial to the experimental impulse in fiction (as represented by Tom McCarthy), as opposed to "traditional" realism ("Two Paths for the Novel"). This was unexpected because, while some critics had mistakenly identified White Teeth, Smith's first novel, as somehow "postmodern," both it and Smith's two subsequent novels, The Autograph Man and On Beauty, were quite obviously themselves in the realist tradition, even recalling the very early stage of that tradition in 19th century novelists such as Dickens. Smith in her essay acknowledges her work's commitment to realism, affirming that it belongs to the version she calls "lyrical realism."
Nevertheless, readers might reasonably have expected Smith's fiction subsequent to this essay to show the influence of her new thinking (if that is what it is) about both the present and the future of fiction. And, indeed, it would be hard to call her recent novel, NW, a work of lyrical realism. At the same time, it could hardly be called "experimental," if genuinely experimental fiction should be expected to do more than simply imitate a mode of fiction that was at one time experimental, as NW in fact does in assuming the form of the modernist psychological novel, at times invoking specifically the stream-of-consciousness method associated with Joyce and Woolf. 90 years ago, this was indeed a new approach to the art of fiction, especially when applied as radically (and effectively) as we find it in Joyce and Woolf, but it hardly counts today as an innovation, however much it might show Zadie Smith moving from the surface realism and loosely structured Dickensian narrative of her first three books to the more tightly controlled interior monologues dominating NW.
The use of such monologues is not, of course, really a departure from "realism" at all. Although the modernists' use of this technique was certainly disruptive enough when books like Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses appeared, these novels were at least as much an effort to enhance realism by adding the subjective perception of reality (analogous to our own experience of it) as an important factor in convincingly representing the world in works of fiction. It is in fact this brand of realism that is the favored mode of a critic such as James Wood, for whom the capturing of "Mind" is the supreme ambition both of fiction and of literature itself. Indeed, it is telling that Wood included NW as one of his "books of the year," finding that it reveals a "steady, clear, realistic genius" that made him read it "with mounting excitement." Of course, Wood had previously (and infamously) labeled Zadie Smith's work as a prominent example of "hysterical realism," a designation Wood based on the perception that the kind of realism to be found in her earlier books was undisciplined and directed toward external actions and appearances. His newfound enthusiasm for her fiction can only now be based on an altered perception that the realism of NW has gone inward, validating the triumph of the "free indirect style" pioneered by Joyce and Woolf (and earlier Henry James) that Wood believes is the supreme expression of fiction's potential as a literary form.
It seems to me that NW is not an effort to integrate new thinking about experimentation in fction but to gain the approval of James Wood, to escape his declaration of her work as exhibit one in the case against hysterical realism. Among the criticisms Wood made of this purported practice as exemplified in Smith's fiction (specifically White Teeth) was that it valued a superficial "liveliness" over psychological depth. If indeed Smith wanted to address this criticism by removing all such liveliness from NW, she has certainly succeeded. I have not recently read a less lively book. Although it incorporates a few equally superficial formal flourishes (alterations in font size, dialogue without quotation marks, irregular indentation, captioned fragments in the novel's longest section), they are entirely random and do nothing to compensate for the slow slog we must make through the perfunctory passages of free indirect discourse, as well as for the unengaging characters and uninspired narrative structure. If NW does represent an attempt on Zadie Smith's part to be more "experimental," it's the sort of experiment that ultimately gives experimentation in fiction a bad name by being so utterly boring.
I would myself resist James Wood's critique of hysterical realism in Smith's earlier work because I don't find those books to be particularly "lively," either. NW shares with White Teeth and The Autograph Man its setting in the northwest of London, the comprehensive portrayal of which is clearly an important part of Smith's literary project. Like those two books, NW focuses in particular on the multicultural diversity of this section of London, and as a consequence Zadie Smith has been celebrated as a kind of urban-based local colorist bringing attention to London's multicultural character (especially for American readers). While it certainly makes sense that if one of your primary goals as a writer is to make visible a cultural group or environment previously neglected in fiction, realism, hysterical or otherwise, would be your strategy of choice, but both "Two Paths for the Novel" and NW itself would seem to indicate that Smith takes interest as well in the aesthetics of fiction, in the formal/stylistic choices that confront the writer. NW attempts to embody different choices (more stylistically restrained, formally tighter) than those informing the first three books, but finally these choices provide mere surface variation on the same underlying objective to represent multicultural London with authenticity and on the same themes of identity and assimilation.
There are those, of course, who believe that this objective and these themes are worthy, wholly sufficient goals, that they indeed describe what has become one of the most important developments in contemporary fiction--what could be called multicultural realism. By this measure, simply by presenting her characters and her setting with convincing authenticity Zadie Smith is credited with an aesthetic achievement that is also a contribution to social progress. "Two Paths for the Novel" is a clear enough indication that Smith herself probably would not accept this as an adequate criterion for judging a work of fiction (certainly not as the sole criterion). She is not, of course, responsible for readings of her work that apply spurious standards or appropriate it for agendas that are at best tangential to the creation of literary art. Still, however much Smith wants her novels to be taken seriously as literary art, she has yet to write one that connects form to subject in such a way that the former becomes more than the well-worn path to recognizing the latter.
Even if one were to concede Zadie Smith her strategies of choice, despite a lingering impatience with those strategies, her realization of them in the four published novels does little to redeem their possibilities. Contrary to Wood's classification of White Teeth as hysterical realism, I actually found this novel a pretty drab affair, its gestures toward a Dickensian amplitude in the characters falling completely flat. The Autograph Man is even more listless in its characterization, the characters so uninteresting in their supposed eccentricities as to make the novel almost unreadable. On Beauty is more reader-friendly, and is the best of the books Smith has so far produced. (Coincidentally or not, it is also the only one not set in northwest London.) It tells a rather familiar story of academic rivalry, but the characters are not exactly of the sort we usually find in an academic novel and do add some interest to the story of scholarly warfare and its effects on the families of the combatants. NW, in returning to the setting of the first two novels, also returns to the prevailing tedium that unfortunately accompanies it.
That On Beauty, alone among Smith's four novels, manages to hold the reader's attention with relative consistency hardly seems to merit the critical approbation this fiction has generally received. I can think of few writers whose work has created a larger gap between the praise it has accumulated and what I am able to determine to be its actual quality than Zadie Smith.
The two primary modes or tendencies in Richard Ford's fiction are juxtaposed most prominently in The Sportswriter and Rock Springs, published in 1986 and 1987, respectively. Rock Springs is a collection of short stories set in the Western United States, in and around Great Falls, Montana in particular. The stories in the book evoke the relative desolation of this landscape where the prairie meets the mountains, reflecting the desolation in the lives of many of the characters. Although few of the stories rely heavily on plot in any melodramatic way, most of them do emphasize incident and event, related in a generally brisk, translucent prose. Early in his career, Ford was often linked to minimalism (he was friends with Carver and Tobias Wolff), and Rock Springs, which gathers together the short stories he wrote before publishing The Sportswriter, comes closer than any of other Ford's other books to showing why such a connection might have been made, even though his subsequent books reveal him to be a very different sort of writer.
My review of Percival Everett's Percival Everett by Virgil Russell is now available at Full Stop.
In Everett’s new book, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, that authority, the authority of the very narrative we are reading (to the extent we can unravel the narrative) is itself questioned, quite deliberately, as Everett takes storytelling and fiction as a mode of storytelling for targets of mockery. This quality in Everett’s work, which also characterizes such previous novels as Glyph and Erasure, is most frequently described as metafictional and postmodern, but I think the impulse behind it still best regarded as satirical rather than postmodern per se. . . .
The books that brought A.M. Homes her initial notoriety (and her work did become rather notorious), the story collection The Safety of Objects (1990) and the novel The End of Alice (1996) are clearly designed to provoke, especially in their choice of subjects. The first story in The Safety of Objects, "Adults Alone," chronicles the increasing degradations of a married couple who take advantage of the temporary absence of their children to behave very badly indeed (including buying and smoking crack). In "Looking for Johnny," a young boy is kidnapped by a pedophile only to be released when he turns out to be too annoying. "Slumber Party" and "A Real Doll" are disquieting accounts of pre-pubescent sexuality that evoke an atmosphere of equal parts innocence and menace. The End of Alice, of course, picks up the themes of predation and adolescent sexuality in its story of a child killer and his prison correspondence with an adult woman who confesses to her own desire for a young boy.
My review of George Saunders's Tenth of December is now available at Full Stop:
However much these particular stories depict characters facing extreme situations, they are otherwise describable as works of narrative realism. Even Saunders’s more radically surrealist stories do not really depart from the requisites of conventional storytelling, and in this his fiction is consistent with (probably one of the inspirations for) most of the neo-surrealist fiction that has become quite a noticeable development in recent American writing. . .
In the January 2013 issue of The Believer, Colin Asher surveys the life and career of Nelson Algren, attempting along the way to illustrate the implicit claim that Algren is a neglected figure who is actually an important postwar American writer. Since my familiarity with Algren's fiction is limited, I am more or less agnostic on the merits of his work (although I certainly don't accept the assertion that The Man With the Golden Arm is "among the very best books written in the twentieth century"), but I don't think Asher's essay will be very successful in rehabilitating Algren's reputation, not so much because he overpraises Algren but because of the limitations of the sort of essay he has chosen to write.
It is in fact the kind of "critical" essay that has become the default practice in literary journalism, although the problem with this form of literary criticism is that there really isn't much actual criticism included at all. Instead, Asher provides us with a mini-biography of Algren, an extended narrative that literally takes us from Algren's birth ("Algren was born Nelson Algren Abraham in Detroit in 1909") to the disturbing circumstances of his death ("Algren’s body went unclaimed for two days"), while Algren's books, presumably the reason anyone would be interested in Algren at all, serve as plot points in between. Mostly they serve as prompts in the more sweeping story of Algren's rise and fall.
Granted, Nelson Algren's life especially lends itself to this synoptic approach, from his rough, working-class childhood to his voluntary experiences with the down-and-out, from the heights of literary success (including work in Hollywood) to the bottoming-out in near obscurity. But the biographical narrative doesn't really do much to convince us that the books he left behind are still worth reading, other than as curios that might further adorn this narrative were we to pick one up. The discussion of The Man with the Golden Arm, for example, consists of little more than some plot summary and some brief sociological analysis, locating the themes of the book in the context of the immediate post-World War II cultural milieu. Much more space is then given to Algren's struggles with success and with his role (as victim) in the Hollywood blacklist era.
If The Man With the Golden Arm is one of "the very best books written in the twentieth century," shouldn't we get more critical testimony establishing such a lofty status than this? Can we really conclude this is a valid judgment based simply on a truncated description of its plot and characters and an assurance it bears great historical weight in its depiction of postwar America? Algren's other books are given a similar treatment, each subsumed to the role it played in the ongoing saga of his life, the saga itself pinned to the thesis that Algren never compromised his integrity (he "kept going his own way"), even when that refusal might have harmed his career. The ultimate effect, although it is surely not the one Asher intended, is to suggest that Algren's life is more interesting than his work, that it is Algren as an emblematic figure hewing to his principles even when it leads to a tragic end we should remember.
If the goal is to bring this writer's books back into circulation as important work, "classic" American fiction, why wouldn't a publication like The Believer give space to a critical consideration of that work itself, rather than the same old conventional chronicle of the writer's life and fortunes? Why not focus entirely on The Man With the Golden Gun, or at least on what the critic believes is the writer's most important work, giving us a close analysis and a sense of the work's concrete accomplishments? This would seem to be a better way of cultivating interest in the writer, not all of whose books are going to seem equally deserving in the long run, anyway. As it is, Asher's essay encourages the conclusion that in reading it we have learned what's really important about Nelson Algren, making it superfluous to read any of the books--assuming we ought to read them in the first place.
Since David Foster Wallace's death in 2008, much if not most of the voluminous commentary about him has focused, understandably enough, on the circumstances of his life, especially those that might help explain how he came to commit suicide when by almost all measures of literary success he had accomplished a great deal, even to the point of being considered by many the most important writer of his time. Most of his readers no doubt expected even greater accomplishments from him in the future, and because his death at such a relatively young age meant his already extant work would now be his complete work (although of course the partially written The Pale King would appear posthumously), even discussions centered on that work rather than Wallace's life often have attempted to reinterpret the work by reading our expanded biographical knowledge of Wallace's struggles, both medical and existential, back into his fiction and essays. This tendency will probably only be encouraged by D.T. Max's recent biography of Wallace.
To an extent, some such reinterpretation of Wallace's work is inevitable, and if the current preoccupation with his troubled life ultimately results in more attention being paid to the work (as opposed to a Wallace legend in which he becomes the latest in the line of suffering artists, the sacrificial figure of his generation), then it will have performed a useful service. A good place to start in considering Wallace and his work from a fresh perspective might be the latter's relation to postmodernism, with which his fiction is usually associated, although perhaps as much in its resistance to certain fundamental features of postmodernism as an unambiguous affinity with its goals. Wallace himself expressed his unease with what he believed was its defining characteristic in his 1992 essay, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction."
This essay is presented as a reflection on the influence of television, but in the long run it is more important as Wallace's analysis of the state of fiction at this time and, perhaps most significantly, as an implicit statement of Wallace's own preferred practice as a writer of fiction. Here Wallace identifies "postmodern irony" as the characteristic approach of the most advanced American writers, and further identifies Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo specifically as the older writers whose work provides the touchstone in deploying such irony. He believes that irony in their fiction, "started out the same way youthful rebellion did. It was difficult and painful, and productive--a grim diagnosis of a long-denied disease. The assumptions behind this early postmodern irony, on the other hand, were still frankly idealistic: that etiology and diagnosis pointed toward cure; that revelation of imprisonment yielded freedom."
One could quarrel with Wallace's characterization of 1960s postmodernism here. Although it is true that what we now call American postmodernism emerged from the same cultural mileu that produced the era's "youthful rebellion," it doesn't seem faithful to the dynamic and largely comic spirit of 60s fiction to describe its effect as "grim," however much it might be responding to grim social and cultural conditions. I think it is also inaccurate to describe the comedy of this fiction as being of the sort that involves "diagnosis" and "cure." The comedy in Pynchon and DeLillo (as well as Coover, Elkin, or Barthelme) is not conventionally satirical in that it proposes no solutions to the social dysfunctions and existential dilemmas it portrays other than sustained laughter, although one could say it is this laughter that does promise the liberation into freedom, the "revelation of imprisonment." Still, by calling the postmodern irony of such writers "idealistic," Wallace clearly wants to exempt them from the criticisms he makes of writers following in their wake, who no longer have the idealism he finds in Pynchon and DeLillo. At worst Wallace wants to call into question the way their influence has been assimilated, not the literary value of their books.
And this influence was not communicated directly to younger writers, or at least so Wallace wants to argue. The bulk of this essay is actually taken up with an extended--some might say overextended--critique of television focusing on the way it has taken up the ironic stance traceable to these early postmodern writers and robbed it of its "idealistic" intentions. Describing the relationship to tv of a fictional everyman, "Joe Briefcase," Wallace observes:
For to the extent that TV can flatter Joe about "seeing through" the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of outdated values, it can induce in him precisely the feeling of canny superiority it's taught him to crave, and can keep him dependent ot the cynical TV-watching that alone affords this feeling. And to the extent that it can train viewers to laugh at characters' unending put-downs of one another, to view ridicule as both the mode of social intercourse and the ultimate art form, television can reinforce its own queer ontology of appearance: the most frightening prospect, for the well-conditioned viewer, becomes leaving oneself open to others' ridicule by betraying passe expressions of value, emotion, or vulnerability. Other people become judges; the crime is naivete. . . .
Again there is much here that is debatable, however much the general account of television "cool" might be. Wallace's definition of "television" seems very broad, seems indeed to encompass the medium as a whole, but in his discussion he seems primarily concerned with sitcoms and commercials. Perhaps it is the case that those responsible for creating this kind of television are also most likely to have read and felt the influence of avant-garde and experimental fiction, but if so Wallace does little to show that this sort of direct influence was likely. Instead, he suggests that tv and postmodern fiction "share roots," but his assertions about these "roots" only create confusion about what he counts as "postmodern" after all:
In fact, by offering young, overeducated fiction writers a comprehensive view of how hypocritically the U.S.A. saw itself circa 1960, early television helped legitimize absurdism and irony as not just literary devices but sensible responses to an unrealistic world. For irony. . .is the time-honored way artists seek to illuminate and explode hypocrisy. And the television of lone-gunman Westerns, paternalistic sitcoms and jut-jawed law enforcement circa 1960 celebrated a deeply hypocritical American self-image.
It's not one bit accidental that postmodern fiction aimed its ironic cross hairs at the banal, the naive, the sentimental and simplistic and conservative, for these qualities were just what sixties TV seemed to celebrate as "American."
From this one would conclude that for Wallace, "postmodern" writers are those writing what he calls "Image-Fiction," writers such as William Vollmann, Jay Cantor, Stephen Dixon, A.M. Homes, and Michael Martone, most of whom could only be called second-or third-wave postmodernists if Pynchon, DeLillo, and Coover are the original postmodern writers (Dixon is of the same generation as Pynchon and DeLillo, although he came to fiction writing at a later age.) It is not really plausible to think that such first-wave postmodernists would have been inspired in their practice by television rather than the modernist writers of the previous generation (although ultimately some of them--Coover, for example--do take the pervasive presence of television as a subject, while Pynchon and DeLillo are certainly sensitive to the influence of television and mass media on American culture), and Wallace seems to be suggesting that tv was as important an influence in the development of "postmodernism" as any literary influences. Furthermore, he also seems to be suggesting that television writers may themselves been influenced in their own version of postmodern irony primarily by television and not by postmodern fiction, after all.
It seems to me overwhelmingly likely that the irony expressed and the attitude of "canny superiority" encouraged by certain kinds of television shows are mostly a function of the history of television rather than of postwar American fiction. Television becomes just another of the features of American culture that causes both kinds of writers to hold that culture at a distance, even if in doing so the tv writers are contributing to the trivialization of that culture, which Wallace correctly enough points out. The ubiquity of the television version of reality as well could perhaps be the main source of tv's influence on fiction writers, as they struggle to register that ubiquity and its distorting effects on actual reality. Wallace is describing what he calls a "cultural atmosphere" in which irony is a privileged aesthetic response to experience, but the irony of television is superficial and self-satisfied, while the irony of postmodern fiction just isn't.
It's pretty clear that when Wallace refers to the "U.S. fictionist" who shares this atmosphere but also "sees himself heir to whatever was neat and valuable in postmodern lit" he is writing primarily about himself. It was, in fact, clear enough when this essay was published, but now it seems even more apparent that "E Unibas Plurum" is ultimately a kind of manifesto for Wallace's own artistic practice, at least insofar as that practice is based on prolonged reflection on his own relationship both to the "cultural atmosphere" television has helped create and to postmodern lit. He is drawn to postmodern irony, but finds that the cheap irony of television (of contemporary culture generally) has to some extent usurped it. At the same time, he wants his writing to convey a kind of sincerity, which he does find in early postmodern fiction, but which is becoming increasingly impossible, as he tries to point out in his critique of Mark Leyner's My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist at the conclusion of his essay.
"Leyner's work," Wallace writes, "is both amazing and forgettable, wonderful and oddly hollow" and "in its masterful reabsorption of the very features TV had absorbed from postmodern lit, it seems as of now the ultimate union of U.S. television and fiction." But also it is "just plain doomed by its desire to ridicule a TV-culture whose ironic mockery of itself and all 'outdated' value absorbs all ridicule." Wallace attempted to avoid this "doom" in his own work by steering clear of "ironic mockery"--although there is plenty in his novels and stories that could at least be taken as satirical--even while he could not avoid other postmodern devices and strategies. One could say that rather than moving away from postmodernism, Wallace in attempting to recover its original sincerity was trying to reinforce its initial possibilities.
Still, "E Unibus Pluram" works better as illumination of what David Foster Wallace was hoping to accomplish as a writer than it does as an examination of postmodern fiction. It doesn't really make the case that "TV had absorbed from postmodern lit" any of its own unproductive irony. To conclude that the popularity of irony on television must be related to the prevalence of irony in postwar fiction is to underestimate the ability of tv writers (and audiences) to understand the appeal of in-jokes and generalized mockery all on their own and, sadly, to overestimate the reach of American writers in the 1960s and 70s, however much in retrospect they seem to have presaged a significant cultural shift. Moreover, Wallace conflates the postmodernism of "postmodern irony" with the specific postmodern practice of metafiction, which he discusses briefly on the way to a much longer discussion of self-reflexivity in television. "Postmodern" irony becomes "self-conscious" irony, which is "the nexus where television and fiction converge and consort."
But metafiction and postmodernism are not synonymous, although their appearance on the literary scene was more or less coterminous. Metafiction was not "deeply informed by the emergence of television" but has its roots in the fiction of Beckett and Borges, or, if we want to trace it to its earliest manifestation in fiction, Cervantes and Laurence Sterne. It was not "self-conscious" in the superficial and trivial way in which television celebrates its omnipresence, but called attention to its own artifice as part of an effort of self-renewal, shedding encrusted assumptions and expectations to make further invention possible, not settling for facile mockery.
Ultimately I have to think that Wallace himself knew that as literary criticism/history this essay wouldn't stand up to serious scrutiny. Or perhaps he was so wary, as someone otherwise receptive to what was "neat and valuable" about "idealistic" postmodernism but also bathed in the noxious "cultural atmosphere" exuded by television, of succumbing to the debilitating irony of television he was not able to make these distinctions. Nevertheless, however much "E Unibus Pluram" might provide us insights into Wallace's intentions as a fiction writer, it doesn't really provide many insights into the actual nature and history of postmodernism.
My review of Noy Holland's Swim for the Little One First is now available at Full Stop.
. . .Swim for the Little One First confirms Noy Holland to be a writer who can start with this sensitivity to language and use it to build formally intricate fictions that are also a great pleasure to read.
In her recent review of the reissue of Andrey Platonov's Happy Moscow (NYRB Classics), Christiane Craig observes that "The work of translating Platonov must demand an almost inhuman attention to the particular structures of the Russian language and to how the subversion of these structures might serve to transform thought." This is because Platonov "seeks to demonstrate the natural limits of his own language." Craig quotes Joseph Brodsky on Platonov:
He will lead the sentence into some kind of logical dead-end. Always. Consequently, in order to comprehend what he is saying, you have to sort of “back” from the dead-end and then to realize what brought you to that dead-end. And you realize that this is the grammar, the very grammar, of the Russian language itself.
Craig adds that translating Platonov "should also require superior imagination, a sense of how to remake Platonov’s 'supermarket' in English, to reconstitute the same 'variety' that Brodsky observes in the original." I would say that, if Brodsky's description of Platonov's practice is accurate (I assume that it is), then all the imagination in the world isn't going to provide those of us who must read a writer like Platonov in translation with anything like the actual work the author composed--or, perhaps more to the point, is only going to give us something that is "like" that work. (The problem seems to me particularly acute with a language such as Russian, which is arguably farther removed from English than, say, German, or even the Romance languages.)
Perhaps that is an obvious enough point, and represents a state of affairs we simply have to live with unless we're going to make the effort to learn the language used by every writer we want to read writing in a language we don't currently know. However, I do think that in reviews and criticism of translated fiction this reality is sometimes not acknowledged, or is even ignored, especially in those reviews that claim to speak of the writer's "style" or of the effects of language more generally. If a writer's style interrogates the "very grammar" of its language, if doing justice to the writer requires attention to the "particular structures" of that language, then shouldn't the critic know something about that grammar and those structures in order to assess the writer's ambitions and accomplishments for us? How can we appreciate a writer who explores "the natural limits of his own language" if we don't know what those limits are and the critic can't show us?
I am not posing this as a problem with translation, as if we could do without translated works because they will inevitably fall short of fully representing the "real" text of which they are a version, but with criticism. In our fallen world, translation of fiction (and poetry) from languages other than our own is both imperative and what we're stuck with. But unless the critic is also fluent in the language from which the work is translated, and can perhaps delineate in a general way how the translator has provided "structures" that do or do not adequately approximate the structures of the original, discussions of style or of specific linguistic devices seem to me pointless, if not outright deceptive. At best they confuse the skill of the translator with the skill of the author, while at worst they encourage the notion that all features of the literary work that originate in the distinctive features of a particular language can be subsumed to some universal practice of "good writing" that just doesn't exist, thus erasing linguistic differences.
In my reviews of translated fiction, I confine myself to commenting on observable formal features that likely are transferable beyond linguistic barriers, although of course some elements of form--point of view, for example--are inextricably linked to the linguistic resources of a specific language. I don't believe I can responsibly go beyond describing my experience of reading the work being attentive to formal qualities not obviously dependent on the discrete properties of an unfamiliar language. If this suggests that criticism of translated literature is inherently incomplete, it seems to me necessary to acknowledge this limitation in order to resist making claims that simply can't be supported.The reality of such a limitation does not make criticism of translated literature less important, but it does require the critic to be more scrupulous in reaching conclusions and rendering judgments.
My essay on James Wood as literary critic is now available in the new issue of The Quarterly Conversation:
. . .The comedy of manners has certainly played an important part in the development of fiction (and many very good writers have participated in the genre), but admirers of James Wood’s book reviews should realize that the judgments he makes as a reviewer are rooted in his preference for this sort of fiction and should remember he has devoted most of two books to the attempt to critically justify the view that it represents not just a significant achievement in the art of the novel but is in fact the settled form in which that art can be realized, that the literary history of the novel in effect comes to an end with its ascension.
Links to my reviews:
Malarky, by Anakana Schofield
Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant, by Edmond Caldwell
Vicky Swanky is A Beauty, by Diane Williams
Swim for the Little One First, by Noy Holland
Many liberals have spent the recent time since the election warning the Republican party that its current ideas and strategies are not working, in effect urging Republicans to change their ways. I can't myself resist the temptation to give the GOP my own advice about how they might best move forward, although I would first of all suggest that most of these earnest entreaties offered by liberals can't be trusted--many Democrats would like to blunt the Republican edge, blur the lines between liberal and conservative so that all might link arms and march into the future promised by the new liberal order, a market-oriented paradise overseen by liberal technocrats. Beware this effort to rob you of your righteous anger and your well-earned grudges.
My advice is simple and easily stated: Keep doing what you're doing. Don't let liberals and even some of your fellow Republicans convince you that your ideas need to be modified and your tactics changed. Don't trim your sails for the sake of political expediency. These ideas and tactics may not have worked this time around, but surely if you maintain the faith they'll win the day eventually.
Allow me to be more specific. Turn a deaf ear to all of these proposals, which surely you will continue to hear repeated:
--Never reconsider your belief that millionaires and billionaires should contribute as little as possible to the common good except through their unquestioned skill as "job creators." Taxes on the wealthy should never be raised!
--Give no credence to these suggestions that you must appeal more to Hispanics or African Americans. What have they ever done for you except assault you with their foreign words, frighten your children, or fail to adequately clean your hotel room? Please continue to alienate as many non-white citizens as possible, since they deserve no better.
--Do not ever trust the geeks and numbers crunchers who apparently have no other purpose except to predict your electoral defeat through their specious forms of "analysis." Down with math! Down with logic! Surely they only threaten your profits and your cherished ideals!
--Reject the appeals to nominate "better candidates." I can attest that here in Missouri, the candidacy of that paragon, Todd Akin, was nothing short of a revelation to all those benighted citizens who had no idea so many women were claiming to be raped just so they could appeal to our sympathies when they resorted to the abortion clinics. No doubt free of charge! One prominent Republican has threatened to cut out the tongues of future candidates who dare speak the truth on this issue, but do not heed the warning of this traitor. Continue to speak your minds!
--(If I might also suggest: try to make sure every Republican candidate in the country hires Dick Morris as political consultant. I swoon at his brilliance.)
--Resist the pressure to turn your backs on such patriots as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. If they act as "spokesmen" for the Republican party, this is only as it should be, since you are yourselves the true spokesmen of this country in your adherence to what is right and good, and they only articulate what you are thinking.
--Never, ever, mute your principled voices on those all-important "social issues." Yes, for now you may be pushing away younger voters, who seem to have no moral center, and this may result in making these voters identify with the Democrat party, but please remember great advances are being made in extending life expectancy. Many of you elderly Republicans might very well persist into your 90s and, who knows, maybe even 100s. Forget the Young Republicans. Form a new organization, the Geriatric Republicans!
--Do not forget that America is the Beacon to the world, the guarantor of justice and freedom, and that it is America's first duty to monitor all conflicts in the world so that we might eventually start a war there.
In short, my Republican friends (you know who you are), I can summon no greater wisdom than to beseech you: Don't ever change.
Depressing that this would seem contrarian:
Reading Perloff, the immediate sense is of an inductive criticism grounded in a grappling with the poem at hand. Contrary to common academic practice, poems are not used to illustrate a thesis, whether cultural or historical. Perloff leads with the poem, drawing conclusions based on her readings.
"Digital Humanities" is a rather amorphous term that appears to cover just about any consideration of the "humanities"--in particular literature--as it is manifested in the existence of texts in digital or online form. Wikipedia defines it very vaguely as "an area of research, teaching, and creation concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities."
Perhaps the most prominent area of "inquiry" in the digital humanities is "data mining," the exploitation of texts in digital form to examine them in purely mechanistic ways to uncover patterns or extract statistical, measurable "information." This is essentially the form of digital humanities that Stephen Marche attacks in a recent Los Angeles Review of Books essay. Quite simply, Marche tells us, "Literature cannot meaningfully be treated as data."
This is quite obviously wrong. "Literature" as the accumulation of written texts, like any other accumulation of texts regarded from a particular perspective, can certainly be "meaningfully" approached as a source of data. The real question, of course, is whether this is something one would want to do. To the extent this really the issue Marche is raising, his critique of data mining deserves to be taken seriously, but that many intelligent people do indeed clearly believe that data mining and statistical analysis of literature broadly defined is worth their time can't really be just abruptly dismissed.
Marche's contention that digital humanities is "yet another next big thing" at a time when literary studies needs a new big thing is a more cogent response to the rise of digital humanities, and in my opinion gets at the most significant limitation of data mining as a phenomenon in literary studies. Academic criticism has been for the past forty years certainly, and perhaps for the entire history of academic literary criticism, a series of new "things," new approaches to the "scholarly" study of literature. What all of these approaches, including digital humanities/data mining, have in common is that they take the emphasis away from "literature itself," from the inherent value of the reading experience itself, to other ways of "using" literature--for historical or political analysis, for illustrating theoretical positions, etc. Data mining is no more excessive in its abandonment of literature for other, more "cutting edge" pursuits than these earlier "advanced" agendas.
Most of the points Marche makes about the ability of literature to elude the reductiveness of something like data mining are perfectly well-taken, but in the context in which this activity occurs, the academic disciplines that ostensibly take literature as their subject, they are entirely irrelevant. It is indeed the reading experience afforded by the greatest works of literature that ultimately makes them valuable, which cannot be accounted for by this most recent development in the "literary" academy any more than the other non-literary approaches to literature that have dominated academic criticism for decades. But academic criticism is no longer concerned with reflection on or enhancement of the reading experience, is no longer concerned with literature as a subject of humanistic study at all. If Marche wants to convince the literary academy to return to the reading experience as its subject, good luck, but otherwise simply accusing digital humanists of neglecting the literary in literature is more or less redundant.
In a review of Pete Townshend's new memoir, Who I Am, Robert Christgau observes that one of its chapters "is an extreme instance that typifies a major problem, one that worsens as the book proceeds: because he wants to get everything in, including hundreds of dropped names, Townshend can’t take the time to make much come alive." This is probably a sound enough criticism of this particular book, but it seems to me one that can be made of very many memoirs--and also biographies--at least of the sort in which the writer's goal appears to be to give as full an account as possible (if not actually getting "everything in") of the subject's life, or of some important episodes of the subject's life.
The attempt to get everything in could be taken as an honest attempt on the author's part to fulfill the presumed goal of memoir/biography, and thus satisfy the presumed interest of readers in such books: to give an account of the subject's life, to let the reader in on the details about which the reader is curious. This kind of curiosity about other people's lives--made more intense when the person in question is a celebrity or somehow regarded as an important figure--seems to me the only real reason anyone would read a memoir or a biography, the only real reason why they exist in the first place.
The attempt to make its narrative "come alive," while attractive in theory, only makes memoir shift away from its primary purpose. Mostly it means being less than forthcoming, or giving emphasis here and taking it away there, which begins to "shape" the story so it's no longer quite accurate. The most radical attempts to "shape," have, of course, resorted to outright fabrication, and the outraged response to this suggests to me that making a memoir "come alive" is valued only if it is still "true" to the same degree "getting everything in" would be. Which of course is simply not possible.
I'd say that if you're reading Pete Townshend's memoir it's because you want to know as much as possible about him, especially about his time with the Who. If the book is less than compelling as writing, perhaps you simply have to accept it, or should be reading something else. Maybe you should just listen to Who's Next instead.
Excellent review by Edmond Caldwell of Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods in the Chicago Review:
In the unsparing light of Lightning Rods, the contemporary novel of psychological realism stands revealed as a patchwork of readymade materials—clichés and slogans, the hoariest sententia and newly-minted banalities made “original ” by the unspoken complicity of all parties involved to find each particular identikit combination worthy of suitably breathless blurbs. DeWitt’ s “bad" book makes a joke of all the agents and editors, marketing and publicity departments, booksellers and book reviewers, and readers who take genuinely mediocre works for good coin. Jonathan Franzen’ s Freedom is no less a howling absurdity than Lightning Rods ; the difference is that one of them knows itself as such.
In this post about a writer's response to a negative review, Ron Hogan suggests that all writers should probably resist the urge to answer their critics, although at the same time he quotes one writer's comment that “Criticism that we don’t like is part of what we signed up for when we published." However, the example Hogan cites is probably a better illustration of the limits of snark than a case that should warn writers off of trying to engage their critics in a productive dialogue about either the merits of a book that might be in question or about the nature of literary criticism.
In fact, literature could very well benefit from more such dialogue if conducted civilly and seriously. I can't see that maintaining a firm line between writer and critic, assigning them each their own separate, non-overlapping domains, inherently serves some necessary purpose. When book reviewing/literary criticism was conducted entirely in print, such interaction, if it happened at all, could occur only long after the fact, and subsequently debate and dialogue lost any sense of immediacy. Online book reviewing, of course, can eliminate this time lapse and enforced distance, and if a writer has a legitimate point to make in response to a review, the critic ought to be willing to reply in defense of his/judgment or expand on his/her analysis.
Thus, I would hereby invite any writer who takes exception to or doesn't understand the basis of a critique I have made in a review, either here or in one appearing elsewhere, to ask for the space to respond. I would post such a response as a separate entry, to which I would reply in turn, rather than as a comment in the comment section, as a way of equalizing the dynamics of a debate and avoiding a long and potentially fragmented comment thread. It seems to me possible that this sort of exchange could in fact cast light rather than heat on a literary disagreement, and make both writing and criticism part of a common endeavor to more fully appreciate literary creation as well as the act of critical appraisal.
I enjoyed reading Anakana Schofield's Malarky. It engaged my attention from the beginning, and it sustained attention through the appeal of its down-to-earth protagonist, its narrative of the protagonist's odyssey of self-discovery, and its quietly compelling style. It is an impressive first novel.
However, the reception of Schofield's novel has prominently emphasized its "experimental" qualities. In her review, for example, Emily Keeler refers to "its expansive and experimental spirit." Sharon Chisvin notes its "strangeness. . .in plot, structure, language and characterization." The novel's episodic narrative and fractured chronology in particular have been identified as creating this sense of "strangeness."
Despite my ultimate admiration for Malarky, I just can't accept that there's anything particularly experimental or innovative about it. The fragmentary narrative is effective, but it's hardly at this stage in literary history an innovative or shocking move. "Linear narrative" has been in retreat since modernism, to the extent that it's somewhat unusual these days to read a novel that is truly "linear" in the fashion of 19th century fiction. Similarly, the scrambled chronology works well in this novel, but Anakana Schofield is certainly not the first writer to think of using this strategy as a way of suggesting the operations of memory or of reflecting the unstable state of a character's mind. Schofield has artfully used both of these strategies in Malarky--they are perhaps the only strategies she could have used this successfully given the story she wanted to tell and the characters she wanted to evoke--but to call them "experimental" tells us less about this novel than it does about some readers' inability to consider the novel in its appropriate context.
There's nothing really "strange" about the characters in Malarky, although referring to the protagonist, an ordinary Irish farm wife, as "Our Woman," and to her loutish husband as "Himself" does create a certain oddity in the narrative. The novel's other major character, Our Woman's gay son Jimmy, is a somewhat mysterious figure, due to the fact that we really perceive him only from a distance, through Our Woman's recollections and in scenes witnessed by her but not presented to us directly. Jimmy is ultimately a mysterious figure to Our Woman as well, as her discovery that her son is gay (a literal discovery when she comes upon him having sex with another boy) is one of the events that leads her to question her assumptions about the life she has led and sets her on a journey that will end only after both Jimmy and her husband are dead and she has been hospitalized for a mental breakdown. Our Woman also discovers, through a meeting with a woman calling herself "Red the Twit," that Himself has apparently had an affair with her (Red the Twit turns out to be not so reliable a source, however). In response, Our Woman decides to engage in her own extramarital sexual explorations, encountering a card salesman (Card Man), who turns out to be something of a nonentity, and Halim, a Syrian security guard who is rather more interesting. Halim's sexual interest in Our Woman seems closely related to his interest in the biological realities of reproduction, and he repeatedly questions Our Woman about what it is like to give birth.
Our Woman's experiences are presented to us in a discontinuous form, moving freely through various stages of her relationships with Jimmy, her husband, and her lovers, including sessions Our Woman eventually has with a counsellor, "Grief," after her hospitalization. The novel might be called "expansive" in the way it seems to bring all of these stages of the protagonist's life into the narrative "present," and eventually even to blur the line between past and present through this shuffling of chronology, but really Malarky is a remarkably honed and concentrated work that in spite of its disjunctions might be described as "poetic" in its unity of effect rather than experimental in its breaking of form. It might indeed also be called "expansive" in its portrayal of a woman seeking to enlarge her own sense of possibility (as well as her understanding of the world), but this is the novel's thematic focus, not a formal quality.
The most admirable feature of Malarky is its idiom-inflected language, which evokes Our Woman's speech patterns--sometimes directly, as parts of the narrative are related in the first-person--without losing the appeal of her Irish-flavored speech by in effect burying it in a psychological realism that goes too deeply into the perceiving consciousness of the character, where distinctions of idiom and accent disappear into generic "thought." Nevertheless, the novel's style does work to augment character, helping us to feel closer to Our Woman, at the same time it influences us to apprehend her world as she does, delineating that world in a dynamic and often memorable way, as when she begins to consider Jimmy's behavior shortly after realizing he must be homosexual:
Of course she worried tall that it was off to Patsy's boy he was. It there was a way to separate them, she'd build a wall for the sake of it. She'd to steady herself into the chair as it came back to her again. She pulled the cushion, the strange one with off-colour ducks on it that one of the girls had embroidered for her and now she couldn't recall who and she wanted to recall who because she wanted her mind cleared of what was rolling in to remind her of that night. It was Jimmy. All Jimmy. She couldn't blame the other boy for he was the younger. If she'd turned away she could have saved herself. but she did not. Every time she saw a cup or glass of orange squash, it would come back to her. She was in it now.
Passages such as this occasionally require somewhat more patient reading in order to untwist the syntax or to "hear" the voice. One might thus say that in this way, along with the novel's fragmented structure, Malarky asks for a more active reader, but neither the structure nor the language is so utterly unfamiliar that they would really disconcert an attentive reader. Schofield has written a novel that draws on existing strategies that nevertheless don't allow the reader to fall back on the most conventional expectations of sequential plot and transparent prose, but the conventions of fiction, the strategies and techniques a writer might draw upon, have surely developed enough beyond those that existed a century ago that a work taking advantage of these later developed strategies would not still be viewed as experimental. (To regard it as such would be unfair not just to other works that might indeed be called experimental but to a work like Malarky itself, applying standards or criteria that are inappropriate for judging it.) Malarky uses its chosen strategies very effectively, and that is the sign of its artistry, not the degree of its "experimental spirit."
Perhaps the clearest mark of her artistry is the way in which Anakana Schofield employs the formal and stylistic devices found in Malarky to produce a novel of considerable emotional power. Our Woman is a convincingly invoked character who earns our sympathetic response, both to her confusion when faced with the apparent breakdown of her marriage (or the breakdown of her role as "wife") and with the probability that her son is gay, as well as to her subsequent attempts to change herself. The novel's final words has Our Woman reflecting that "It's beautiful when it all makes sense, so it is. Occasionally it makes sense, just for a moment," and Malarky is most successful as the portrayal of Our Woman's attempts to make her life make sense. In this way we could say that the novel's fragmented form reinforces the protagonist's quest by asking the reader to help make sense of the narrative by piecing together its continuity in a more exacting way than other stories of self-realization might. The reward is worth the effort, however, as when we finish the novel we feel we have reached a "moment" of aesthetic completion that might not have been possible had Schofield used some other narrative form.
It is the triumph of Malarky that by the end its main character seems conjured fully into life but also that this has been accomplished not through obvious appeals to emotion or overdramatizing but through the clarity and rigor of style and structure skillfully applied. This need not lead us to categorize it as an experimental work, but it should prompt us to call it a very good novel.