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Dan Green reports that Josh Corey detects an "anti-literary" attitude behind much contemporary poetry and fiction:


We have overshot, then, the hermeneutics of suspicion that characterized "theory" in the 1970s to arrive at a poetics of suspicion: only literature that puts the very premises of the literary into question can now summon the aesthetic impact we associate with great literature.

Well, half of me wishes that Corey was -- even just empirically -- correct, but most (nearly all) contemporary fiction has been neither troubled by modernism nor postmodernism. I've called it "Victorian literature with Jamesian knobs on" and I think that gets it down pretty well. Establishment Literary Fiction is rarely characterized by a poetics of suspicion, rather it clearly evidences a poetics of submission -- submission to a particular brand of realism that thoroughly holds sway in publishing. A "postmodernist" like e.g. Salman Rushdie uses his postmodernism merely to pay lip service to the existence of the hermeneutics of suspicion, but never so that it will stop the creation of a rollicking read.


Corey, I think, is talking about a particular sub/parallel Canon of American postmodernists which the American academy has -- rightly or wrongly -- valorised. Pynchon, Delillo, Coover, Sorrentino and Barthelme produce "great literature" (books which are studied as examples of great literature in American universities, that is) and they are, indeed, postmodernists. But postmodernism was always a minority sport; sadly, what is generally called great is mind-numbingly dull.


I agree with Corey, however, in some of what he is saying: "only literature that puts the very premises of the literary into question" should be called literature. And why? Not because game-playing is a way to revivify an ossified genre, but because any work that begins already knowing how it will progress (i.e. by following the pattern of a thousand other novels that have gone before) cannot by definition be art. What is created can, doubtless, be artful, but the piece will be merely an exercise in cleverly filling in the dots, following an old pattern and, inevitably, producing yet another version of what we've all read before. Each work of art must begin with the question of how it can best express itself being right at the heart of its creation. And it must produce an answer of its own that is genuinely sufficient to itself, not an answer that is sufficient only to a question asked (and answered) previously of something else. If it doesn't do that its genre fiction, and however well-written, intelligent, moving etc. it is, it ain't literature.

Readers Comments

  1. "Each work of art must begin with the question of how it can best express itself being right at the heart of its creation. And it must produce an answer of its own that is genuinely sufficient to itself, not an answer that is sufficient only to a question asked (and answered) previously of something else."


    Yes, yes, this is so well-said, Mark. Really, thanks for these thoughts.

  2. Edmond Caldwell Friday 09 January 2009

    Great post, Mark -- "a poetics of submission" indeed. And nice to see the knobs on that Victorian novel!

    A quick comment on the topic of the "subcanon" of American postmodernists; you make it sound a little too much like its "valorization" might only be the creation of the academics. But there was a real upsurge of interest in the writers -- especially Pynchon -- coming out of the sixties/early seventies among young readers. I remember a friend who told me about how he dropped acid for the first time and read Pynchon's "V" at a sitting over the same shore-leave and went AWOL from the Navy as a result. Of course, a lot of these folks washed ashore in academia (the so-called "long march through the institutions"). But there's still a distinct trend of enthusiasm for these writers that is not assoc. with academia. I say this as someone not especially a "fan" of this type of novel *as type* (I like DeLillo and one or two individual works by others in the crew, but not because of any special fondness for an overall approach, to the extent that there is one, and preferring my modernism sans posts)

    Complete agreement otherwise; thanks for this.

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