If ReadySteadyBook had not have been called ReadySteadyBook, then I might just as well have called it The Gabriel Josipovici Fan Club. I've been reading Josipovici since the early 90s, a time when my reading was mostly philosophical and political. When I launched ReadySteadyBook in 2003 -- a signal to myself that my reading was now primarily literary -- Josipovici attained key importance in my own personal pantheon, and ReadySteadyBook has regularly referred to (and been informed by) his work over the several intervening years. Aside from Stephen Mitchelmore's blog This Space, I don't think any other website has banged the drum for Josipovici as loudly. It is ironic, then, that over the summer, whilst ReadySteadyBook has been mostly off the air (due to it gettting a new 'engine' and my getting a time-consuming new job), Josipovici has attained a degree of notoriety for remarks made in his latest book What Ever Happened to Modernism? (and in a non-interview in the Guardian that came about because of it).
L'affaire Josipovici has crystallised a number of things in my mind about British literary culture, so this won't be the last time I refer to it as ReadySteadyBook comes alive again over the next weeks and months. Today, however, I just want to respond to Ian Jack's petty and undignified piece in the Guardian yesterday.
It's interesting that Josipovici's book which, in many ways, is both a call to read more carefully and an enquiry into why reading carefully is beyond so many cultural gatekeepers, has been read so sloppily by so many of its critics. Josipovici 's book is in no conceivable way an encomium for "experimentalism" as Ian Jack so astoundingly misreads it, nor is it an essay of high praise for High Modernism as others have assumed. Josipovici doesn't invoke marginal or avant-garde writers, nor praise typographical or narrative playfulness over stale traditionalism, but rather brings us back to canonical writers (a good part of his essay is taken up with Wordsworth) and allows us to see what was at stake for those artists in their work, and what is at stake for us as readers. The best reviews of the book (if I have the strength, I'll consider the worst reviews at another time), Sam Leith's grudging appreciation ("I enjoyed the sinuousness and vigour of Josipovici's arguments") or Tom McCarthy's measured and welcome warmth both make mistakes about this book even as they fail fully to come to terms with its arguments. Leith inexplicably reverses Josipovici's considered appraisal of Euripides; McCarthy (a friend, and a writer and critic of considerable skill) misattributes to Josipovici views he rightly criticises Adam Thirlwell and Julian Barnes for espousing; Ian Jack just writes a lot of nonsense about Gertrude Stein that suggests he hasn't read Josipovici properly (if at all) and that he most certainly wouldn't understand Stein if he got anywhere near her challenging work.
Josipovici's subtle, serious and very moving book is the only one I know that takes us beyond stale (and historicist) arguments about Form. It is the only book I know that gives us the tools to see how the experimentalism-lite of, say, Will Self, David Mitchell and Salman Rushdie is postmodernism's way of not responding to the perennial challenge of modernism (in the same way that much Victorian fiction didn't respond to Cervantes and Sterne; most Edwardian fiction didn't understand what Woolf was having to respond to in order to write as she did: let us not forget, most Edwardian readers were taking out, from the Woolworths lending libraries, the kind of books that Persephone Books now republish; or, on the continent, were reading Némirovsky!).
Two themes dominate Josipovici's book, as two themes have dominated most critics’ response to it. In a world that moved from being viewed by the vast majority through a sacramental lens, to one where earthly powers had ever more secular explanations, the problem of authority became a problem for art and artists. Why and in what way did the artist have authority to speak? And how could that question inform the art that the artist produced, so that their work did not exhibit the bad faith of pretending that question away. This leads to our second theme: the disenchantment of the world. Do artists seek to re-enchant the world (and who/what gives them authority to do so) or to respond to its disenchantment? Either way, it's a serious job, even when you're laughing as you do it, like Sterne or Spark. For readers who seek through their reading to reach into existenital questions of their own, it is a vital activity. The critics who responded to Josipovici seem disenchanted that he has reminded them how small their current giants are, annoyed that he has asked why so many of the books they have spent a lifetime praising are so thin and insubstantial, and they have responded spitefully to an authoritative critic that they don't have the nous to read carefully and even to begin to understand.