In his introduction to Infinite Fictions, his new collection of the reviews he has written over the past several years, David Winters refers to the review as "trivial," even contending that "triviality is among the allures of the form." Of course, Winters surely does not really think his reviews are in fact trivial--if they were, why would he expect anyone to read them, perhaps for some a second time now that they have been bundled together in a book? Instead, his characterization speaks to a no doubt widespread perception that book reviews are utilitarian and ephemeral, good for immediate consumer guidance but without lasting value as literary criticism (to the extent literary criticism itself has lasting value).
Infinite Fictions itself certainly belies the notion that a book review cannot be a credible form of literary criticism. Far from engaging in "trivial" exercises in plot summary or facile judgment, Winters consistently provides meticulous description and analysis, dispensing praise or criticism only while also offering evidence and reasoning to support it. Perhaps in finding the review a congenial form precisely because of it "triviality," Winters is really expressing some impatience with academic criticism, which in its greater length, supposed rigor, and theoretical sophistication is more genuinely serious criticism--"real" criticism. Academic criticism in its present incarnation, while ostensibly often invoking "close reading" as an interpretive strategy, generally uses the strategy to "situate" a text within a larger theoretical, political, historical, or cultural perspective, not as a way of reckoning with a work's literary qualities per se.
Reckoning with literary qualities is something Winters does exceptionally well. Most of the books discussed in the first section of Infinite Fictions ("On Literature") are complex, unconventional works of fiction, and Winters is painstaking in attempting to describe the strategies the author at hand seems to be using, to account for the effect of reading the work as registered in Winters's own experience of it. As he says in the introduction to the book, "As a reviewer, all I can do is try to stay true to the texture of that experience. . .Strange as it sounds, each of these books briefly allowed me to subtract myself from reality. In this respect, when writing reviews, I'm less intent on making prescriptions than on exploring the space left by my subtraction." Thus Winters attends to the specificity of the reading experience itself, something academic criticism generally abjures, while also avoiding the superficial approach of the most "trivial" kind of book reviews, the kind that aim merely to "make prescriptions."
"Subtraction" from reality perhaps seems like a version of being "immersed" in a book, but I would presume Winters means something closer to what John Dewey called "pure experience," which Dewey believed becomes most accessible to us as aesthetic experience. According to Dewey, aesthetic experience is "experience freed from the forces that impede and confuse its development as experience; freed, that is, from factors that subordinate an experience as it is directly had to something beyond itself." The reader truly receptive to the kind of experience art, in this case literary art, makes available is not in some kind of mystical trance but is fully engaged in an act of what Dewey calls "recreation," perceiving the writer's conceptual and expressive moves thoroughly enough that the reader in effect replays those moves. Literary criticism then becomes in part the attempt to communicate the tenor of this reading experience through the most felicitous description and analytical insight the critic can muster.
I am not suggesting that David Winters is a proponent of the aesthetic philosophy of John Dewey, merely that Winters's account of his reading and reviewing practices seems strikingly evocative of Dewey's theory of "art as experience," which seems to me the most compelling elucidation of both the impulse to create art and the most fruitful way of responding to it. Criticism of fiction, of course, requires first of all an attentiveness to language, and Winters again proves very adept at assessing the stylistic qualities of the fiction he considers. Indeed, he gives special attention throughout the first section of the book to writers associated with the "school of Lish," such as Gary Lutz, Sam Lipsyte, Christine Schutt, and Dawn Raffel (not to mention Lish himself), writers whose work is particularly focused on intricate effects of language. His skill at "close reading" is repeatedly demonstrated in these reviews.
About Lutz's Divorcer, Winters observes that "it's as if divorce has seeped into the structure of these 'stories,' like a rot in the grain of their language: something sweetly corrupt that can't be cut out of them. It's buried deep in their syntax, motivating the phrasing that estranges the opening of any errant sentence from its end. In each of the book's seven entries, words are put to work on pulling something apart--a family, a body, a memory of bodies together--in ways that render how life's breaking points really feel when reached." A story by Lipsyte "starts with a sentence setting an initial condition. The second sentence reconfigures the first, curving or swerving back into it. The next sentence swerves harder still, and so on, always with the aim of raising the stakes, tightening the tautness." Dawn Raffel's prose "clings closely to sensory surfaces, calibrating language to the contours of a world which can't clearly be spoken of."
Winters is drawn to fiction in which language does indeed mark a limit, beyond which the real can be sensed or captured fleetingly but otherwise "can't clearly be spoken of." Writing becomes a site where such brief moments of revelation might be afforded, but only through its implicit testimony that the effort to fully grasp a transcendent reality must fail. Thus the reviews in Infinite Fictions are focused on works that are not just stylistically but also formally adventurous, fiction that for the most part makes no pretense to be an exercise in realism, since the most realistic fiction would be that which concedes its own impossibility. Several of the books Winters discusses might even be described as subverting literature itself, working to produce a kind of anti-literature, such as Lars Iyers's Dogma, which deliberately fails to become literature as "a means of overcoming it," instead becoming "less than literature." Jason Schwartz's John the Posthumous is "impossible to synopsize" because it subverts the reading process itself: "In this respect, Schwartz's writing spins the reading process into reverse. His prose puts readers in a position where the most rudimentary aspects of reading are no longer givens . . . ." What Winters says about Gerald Murnane's Barley Patch could in some ways apply to most of the fiction he considers. Murnane's novel "begins before literature" in its refusal to take on conventional literary form. It "abandons the prearranged reading paths of realist novels, presenting instead a series of scenes set for stories that forget to occur; it progresses by means of digression and detour."
Winters includes several reviews of translated works, which also proceed through digression and detour, through the avoidance of the usual literary devices that distort rather than illuminate. Appropriately, he does not in these reviews attempt close stylistic analysis (which would at best be misleading for a translated text) but instead emphasizes more plausibly discernible elements such as voice or setting. If these reviews are somewhat more impressionistic, Winters nevertheless conveys a vivid sense of the way these books also participate in the kind of experimentation with form that in its determination to be "less than literature" still manages to extend the possibility of literature. "The book's most unfathomably mystery lies in the way it insistently spells itself out," he writes of Enrique Vila-Matas's Dublinesque. "As a result. . .literature is returned to the realm of experience. The novel is not a puzzle to be solved. It has always and already solved itself, bringing what was buried back to life." Similarly, Andrzej Stasiak's Dukla is "all surface, all the way down. . .In the end there is no novel, and all that's left is what is sensed and felt."
Part 2 of Infinite Fictions, "On Theory," ranges widely over several recent books of literary theory and philosophy, including Terry Eagleton's The Event of Literature, Franco Moretti's Distant Reading, and Simon Critchley's The Faith of the Faithless. Some of the books reviewed are more or less straight theory or philosophy, such as the two books on Heidegger Winters discusses, a book by Jacques Ranciere, and The Faith of the Faithless. Others are works of theory as a mode of literary criticism, and, while Winters exhibits a thorough familiarity in general with contemporary critical theory and its philosophical roots, his reviews of the latter books are the most revealing and provide the most continuity with the underlying approach to criticism (and to literature) exemplified in the first part of Infinite Fictions.
In his review of Eagleton's book, Winters appears to side with Eagleton in the latter's disapproval of theory's drift from a focus on the specificity of literature to a "culturalism" that, in Winters's words, makes literary criticism "a subfield of cultural studies." Winters describes Eagleton's attempt to renew theory as the attempt "to reassert the centrality of close literary analysis, recovering literature as a determinate object of study." Winters's ultimate lack of enthusiasm for Franco Moretti's quantitative method of "distant reading," the polar opposite of "close literary analysis," is palpable:
The life that inheres in literature seems too capacious to be captured by a particular critical method. Ironically, many of Moretti's methods rely on instrumental reason--his ideal of distance belongs to the bourgeois spirit. But criticism can't be contained by what any one critic wants of it. Indeed, criticism reveals rhythms of its own, and these are not necessarily those of science.
In his review of Mark M. Freed's Robert Musil and the Nonmodern, a book that is typical of much contemporary academic criticism in its effort to "apply" critical theory and philosophy to works of literature, Winters perhaps most directly identifies the limitations of theory as a primary mode of literary criticism: "The academic study of literature has reached a slightly strange understanding of itself, if it assumes that insights drawn from philosophy and social theory can straightforwardly account for aspects of fictional worlds, and fictional characters." Winters continues: "Until critics give some closer attention to why they're applying their theories to fictional objects, such applications might seem to rely on little more than a confusion of categories."
Theory can provide a valuable perspective on the implications and entanglements of literature, but it can't subsume it. Winters concludes this review (which really becomes a reflection on the power of Musil's The Man Without Qualities) by asserting that "There's something about The Man Without Qualities that seems to resist conclusive criticism. Something not so much unfinished as uniquely continuous; infinite. The reason the novel is unlike anything else you've ever read is because it goes on reading itself when you're finished reading it." This "something" is a something not just about this particular novel but all great works of literature. They elude our attempts to find the critical angle that will render them finite, fully fathomed. Criticism can help us begin to fathom what we read, even if a good beginning is all we might really hope for. This book shows David Winters to be a critic remarkably gifted at getting us started.