In this week's TLS there is an abridged version Gabriel Josipovici's lecture What Ever Happened to Modernism? (which I heard Gabriel give in London, back in March, as did Stephen Mitchelmore and Ellis Sharp).

The lecture, and now the essay (which I'm afraid isn't online), made me think again about Establishment Literary Fiction (ELF). It isn't that ELF is bad. Some ELF is good. And certainly much of it is very good indeed at being ELF! But since Modernism, and again since Modernism's questions were re-articulated by the writers of the nouveau roman — especially, then, for those who see the novel as a mode of enquiry or, better, a mode of discovery ELF seems to me to be the embodiment of Bad Faith. It manifests a willing refusal to acknowledge that the questions that Modernism posed even exist (or that the novel might be a place to inquire about their answers).

Therefore, ELF endlessly repeats the tropes and styles of the Victorian Novel, with its fingers in its ears, shouting its (sometimes very good) narrative, flaunting its (sometimes very finely drawn) characters, refusing to be interrogated and refusing to recognise its own structural ressentiment.

Readers Comments

  1. Mark, I can't express how important your words are to me, to the differences between Literary Establishment literature (a comfort zone and certainly well-done) and the continuation of "modernism".

  2. Conventional narrative as transparent window to "reality" renders the politics of the status quo opaque to deeper criticism. The police state merely takes up the same old story, tells it again and again: factual, untilitarian, moral, economic--all arguments slide off like so many eggs on the windshield of the passing Car of State.

    As long as we believe the story is real, any story, as long as we cannot bear to see the artifice--we are complicit in creating the monster. I find those ELF writers guilty of more than bad faith.

  3. You can find links to several 'Books of the Year' lists (from the NY Times, New Statesman, etc.) at:

  4. Just to add what what Jacob said, ELT also is connected to a marketplace which will focus only literature that brings some kind of comfort-zone and being the "year's best in the crowded marketplace" to the reader, as product which also allows the status quo to actually express little politic dissatisfaction and remain powerful, since it feels "democratic", the "majority of people agree--here are the sales figures to prove it. "Too bleak" "Too heavy" too "Complicated" "won't sell" are common publisher's rejection terms which differ radically from the modernists sense of risking popularity. I think psychological depth is forfeited for a surface pseudo-modernism often, too, I think of recent books thought of as so "modernist:" and really there depthlessness was a blaring problem. Uncomfortable emotional and existential nuances are avoided so there is an illusion of the "intellectual" at work, but I don't think you'd find a Genet here in prison for petty theft--that kind of nuance and/philosophical depth, or psychological depth AND that kind of book which will ask a reader to live honestly with a masturbator in a filthy jail cell who finds "salvation". Sorry to go on, but so much of this isn't being discussed so I'm got very enthused about saying all this here. Even in Victorian novels, and 19th century narrative novels there were tremendous risks taken by authors who often found them taken to court (Flaubert) for writing uncomfortable "truths", so form even if it isn't realistic narrative and closer to "modernist" modes in ELT still misses for me because of its lack of depth.

  5. Edmond Caldwell Monday 03 December 2007

    I'm in almost complete agreement about ELF, or what I usually call "commercial realism." I would just sharpen one element of the characterization: I think it isn't exactly a reproduction of the literary protocols or conventions of "Victorian fiction," although that's often the shorthand in discussions such as this. I think there's also been a considerable naturalization or normalization of some of the conventions of what might be called "early modernism" or "first-phase" modernism (or "literary impressionism"), especially the use of free indirect discourse (from James, Conrad, etc.) as well as some domesticated stream of consciousness. (I grant that this could also be called "Late Victorian"). The novel of ELF or Commercial Realism is a
    reification of the literary conventions of, say, 1910 rather than 1850.

  6. A good point, Edmond. There's no escape from "conventions." The Victorian novel in its own setting can be quite subversive. What happens is, the conventions become common coin. Even in the work of the same artist.

    Think: Chagall in 1922, and Chagall in 1950.

  7. Diana Manister Monday 14 July 2008

    Mark I cannot find that article on Josipovici's lecture "Whatever happened to Modernism?" in The Times Online. Can you point me to it? I searched several ways.

    Many thanks, Diana Manister

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