This "beautiful essay on language and the work of Peter Handke was presented two days ago by Karl Ove Knausgaard at the Skien International Ibsen Conference. The Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke is the winner of the the 2014 International Ibsen Award, the world’s most prestigious theater prize." It really is a stunning essay and one, I think, that shows that those who read Knausgaard as some kind of uber-realist are missing his supreme literary artistry...

I was honoured to be invited to speak at The Literary Consultancy's Writing in a Digital Age conference yesterday. (A particular personal pleasure because I got to see Lynne Hatwell and Sam Leith again, and it had been far too long in both cases.) Huge thanks to the organisers for inviting me. Seemed to be a very vibrant and well run affair, and I enjoyed the discussion immensely.

The conference was the occasion for writing this piece (What became of literary blogging?) for the Guardian last Monday. It was the subs at the Guardian who framed the piece thus: I hoped that blogs could provide an outlet for the serious criticism missing from the mainstream media. I didn't reckon on Twitter but it doesn't give a terrible sense of my thinking.

Principally, I wanted to make the observation that whilst the book blogosphere had thrown up some fine writers (those I mention at the foot of the piece, but several others could be cited - and, indeed, the comments thread, whilst occasionally inane and dyspeptic as per Guardian comments threads, throws up some fine examples) it had not thrown many good literary critics. This is simply a fact.

Blogging has been around a good decade now, and the online writing revolution has touched every sort of genre and created well-known writers of many stripes. We've had the rise of fan-fiction (E.L. James), paranormal fiction (Amanda Hocking), women's fiction (Anna Bell) and erotica (James, and H.M. Ward); we've had food writers (Jack Monroe), political blogs (from Paul Slaine / Guido Fawkes to Richard Seymour / Lenin's Tomb) and philosophers (the rise of and rise of speculative realism and all its countless blogs and forums) all hugely affecting their respective fields; we've had wonderful book bloggers (like John Self) arrive on the scene and add sparkle and insight to the book review pages of the MSM; and we've had exciting Multi-Author Blogs (like 3:AM, Berfrois, LARB) arriving to show how broad-based, intelligent and informative online writing can be. All this shows the wonderful diversity and energy of online writing. Most all examples are to be welcomed. But despite the fine work of a few (and I should mention Dan Green here because Dan has worked hard over the years to use blogging as a means to write seriously about books and literature) good literary critical writers have not turned up in droves. I wish I was wrong about this. But it's a fact.

I'm deliberately not defining literary criticism above because by not defining it I'm hoping to keep the category as wide open as possible; I'm not being prescriptive here: if you think it's literary criticism, that's good enough for me. I think most would agree that book reviewing and literary criticism are very different (even if they can be on a continuum). And we all know the difference between a Guardian review and an essay in the LRB and a book by Gérard Genette. Many fine book reviewers have emerged from the blogosphere, but I don't think we can hide from the fact that no serious literary critics have emerged, maintaining a blog, doing innovative work and gaining a following for that work as we have seen in plenty of other fields.


Two music-related books to get me through Sunday...

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine (she of The Slits; if you don't know, you probably won't care, but maybe you should – she writes well about "art school, squatting, hanging out in Sex with Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, spending a day chained to Sid Vicious, on tour with The Clash, and being part of a brilliant, pioneering group of women making musical history").

And Emily Petermann's The Musical Novel: Imitation of Musical Structure, Performance, and Reception in Contemporary Fiction:

The Musical Novel builds upon theories of intermediality and semiotics to analyze the musical structures, forms, and techniques in two groups of musical novels, which serve as case studies. The first group imitates an entire musical genre and consists of jazz novels by Toni Morrison, Albert Murray, Xam Wilson Cartiér, Stanley Crouch, Jack Fuller, Michael Ondaatje, and Christian Gailly. The second group of novels, by Richard Powers, Gabriel Josipovici, Rachel Cusk, Nancy Huston, and Thomas Bernhard, imitates a single piece of music, J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations.

Fifty years ago, Terry Eagleton—one of the foremost and polemical cultural critics and literary theorists—was appointed Fellow in English at Jesus College, Cambridge shortly after graduating from the university himself with a First in English. He was the youngest fellow in the history of the college since the eighteenth century, and he hasn’t stopped working at such an accelerated pace. While accepting professorships in the U.S, the UK, and Ireland (not to mention countless guest speaker appearances worldwide), he has published more than forty books that cover topics across the board, perhaps because, as he joked to The New York Times, “I don’t actually read other peoples’ books. If I want to read a book, I write one myself.” From literary and political theory; cultural criticism; and religion to memoir; screenplays; theater; and fiction, Eagleton has nearly done it all, leaving his mark in many areas of intellectual discourse...
Read more over at the Yale Books Unbound...

Edmund Wilson and the Poets by Tony Roberts at PN Review Online:

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was the most influential of twentieth-century literary and social critics in America, a journalist in the biographical tradition of Johnson, Arnold and Sainte-Beuve, who energised the magazine columns until the 1960s. A Princeton graduate and friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the much-published Wilson was editor at Vanity Fair (1920- 21) and then The New Republic. He also reviewed for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

Wilson's blind spot is said to have been poetry. Worse, in an infamous essay from 1934 he wrote of it as a 'dying technique'. At the same time, he wrote occasional poetry himself and contributed some necessary and judicious work on the Modernists in Axel's Castle (1931) and on Civil War poetry in Patriotic Gore (1962), a monumental study of the literature and character of that time, as well as some significant essays in his collections The Shores of Light (1952), Classics and Commercials (1950) and The Bit Between My Teeth (1966). These are the books his reputation lives by and where his contribution to the poetry of his time is remembered. MORE...

RCF British Fiction

Been out for a little while now, but worth another push (this below from a Durham University blog):

A special issue of the journal The Review of Contemporary Fiction, edited by Professor Patricia Waugh and Jennifer Hodgson, considers the vitality (or otherwise) of the British novel today.

Bringing together writers, literary critics, and academics, this issue on The Future of British Fiction aims to challenge fossilized approaches to British contemporary fiction. It attests to the vitality (or otherwise) of the British novel today. Contributors such as China Miéville, Stewart Home, Jim Crace, Maureen Freely and Vic Sage pose difficult questions about the status of the literary in contemporary Britain – where it has been, and where it is going.

The journal Review of Contemporary Fiction features critical essays on fiction writers whose work resists convention and easy categorization. The Review‘s aesthetic focus is on literature that might be considered experimental or avant-garde, with a view to bringing this aesthetic to a wider audience. Uniquely, this special issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction is devoted to contemporary British fiction, exploring the innovative tendencies that can be found within British literary culture.

In a parallel exploration of the state of innovative British writing, Patricia Waugh and Jennifer Hodgson also recently authored an article on “The Exaggerated Reports of a Decline in British Fiction,” in the journal The White Review. You can hear them discuss their reasons for a renewed interest in innovative literature in this podcast on READ.

In other words, I think I’m giving an even stronger critique of authorial intention than is usually the case. Not only do authors fail to master the infinite dissemination of their texts, they probably don’t even put the text in the right shape in the first place. Most of them should have written better texts. Just as social surroundings fail to exhaust a literary work, the exact written form of a literary work fails to exhaust the deeper spirit of that work...

Graham Harman responds to Dan Green (who in turn was writing in response to Harman's The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism [pdf]).

Speculative Realism and OOO have much of interest to say on literature and literary criticism. In particularly, Harman's concept of a withdrawing ontology, of objects that can't be fully known, has some potentially interesting literary critical applications. The conversation between Green and Harman opens up some interesting avenues, but I think there is yet a lot more to say on this...

It’s often unclear whether Ulven’s voices are meant to be many, or one. They certainly speak and think of similar things. Like Beckett’s creations, all are crippled, decrepit, or otherwise waning. Decay, says one, is the “lowest multiple,” which may be why these characters seem to converge. In their infirmity, each shares something essentially human. As it’s put at one point, “people are only really revealed in decline.” Yet if decay and decline disclose the human condition, they also herald a kind of heroism. Early on, we meet an old man for whom “unbuttoning a shirt is a real task . . . a project in itself . . . a triumph every time.” Replacement is full of such everyday struggles. But because the book balances all events equally, compressing life’s major and minor moments, these delicate acts acquire a heartrending resonance...

David Winters reviews Tor Ulven’s Replacement on

I want to argue that works of art are machinic rather than hermeneutic. In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari say that the unconscious is a factory, not a theater. By this they mean that the unconscious does not represent or mean, but that it produces. I want to say that works of arts are factories or machines, not theaters. They don’t have meanings, but are powers of producing differences in the world. They are real actors. They do not represent, even in the tradition of realism, but make. I read Proust, for example, and his exquisite discussion of various emotional states has the power to actually create new forms of affect in me that I never before had. I begin to love as Proust’s characters do. The work of art is thus a factory that both transforms the artist that creates it (artists tell me that they become something else as a result of their work) and that transforms the audiences that encounter the work. Works of art are difference engines that circulate throughout the world and that transform the people and things that encounter them. Picasso’s Guernica does not represent the bombing of Guernica, but both transforms the event of that bombing, giving it a new sense, and creates an affect for the slaughter of the innocents everywhere....

Machinic Art: The Matter of Contradiction

Me, or is there a fair bit of Mallarmé about at the moment?

A new edition of Stéphane Mallarmé: The Poems in Verse (from Miami University Press), Ranciere's Mallarme: The Politics of the Siren (from Continuum) and Roger Pearson's Stéphane Mallarmé: "blending a biographical account of the poet’s life with a detailed analysis of his evolving poetic theory and practice" (Reaktion).

So, that batch of good stuff, and now (Continental) philosophy's most favoured young Turk, Quentin Meillassoux, has entered the fray with The Number and the Siren (Urbanomic, the good folk who brought you Nick Land's collected effusions):

A meticulous literary study, a detective story à la Edgar Allan Poe, a treasure-hunt worthy of an adventure novel - such is the register in which can be deciphered the hidden secrets of a poem like no other. Quentin Meillassoux, author of After Finitude, continues his philosophical interrogation of the concepts of chance, contingency, infinity and eternity through a concentrated study of Mallarmé's poem Un Coup de Dés, patiently deciphering its enigmatic meaning on the basis of a dazzlingly simple and lucid insight with regard to that 'unique Number that cannot be another'.

George Steiner: The high priest of high art

George Steiner’s profoundly European sensibility has rarely been more evident than in this series of meditations on what Maurice Blanchot calls the “exultant antagonism” between poetry and thought (more...)

George Steiner: The high priest of high art

Posted by Mark Thwaite on Thursday 29 March 2012 - Comments (0)
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St. Thomas and St. Augustine make frequent appearances in Kermode’s criticism, and he read them and bantered with them the way that most people do the sports page. He was himself a nonbeliever, but because he could give conditional assent to concepts like omniscience and immortality he could fluently translate these thinkers into the secular era and therefore mingle their ideas with those of contemporary theorists, even those as radical (at the time) as Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes. Kermode practiced criticism during a phase of intense rupture in the academic world, when most literary scholars had divided into reactionary camps, contentiously alienated from each other, from the precepts of the past, and most of all from the reading public. Kermode’s genius was in traveling freely among these schools of thought, and even among the styles of writing, employing their competing theories but not being defined by them—and also subtly demonstrating their commonalities. He was the age’s great critical syncretist (more...)

Seer Blest: Sam Sacks on the great Frank Kermode.

The Modernist Journals Project is a multi-faceted project that aims to be a major resource for the study of modernism and its rise in the English-speaking world, with periodical literature as its central concern. The historical scope of the project has a chronological range of 1890 to 1922 (though the earliest journals that currently appear on the site date from 1896 and 1904), and a geographical range that extends to wherever English language periodicals were published. With magazines at its core, the MJP also offers a range of genres that extends to the digital publication of books directly connected to modernist periodicals and other supporting materials for periodical study...

RSB interviewee Derek Attridge has a 50 minute talk (about Reading and Responsibility), originally delivered on October 16, 2007 at the University of Washington, up on ARCADE.

Lukács first published the Hungarian version of Soul and Form in 1910, so this is its centennial. In the hundred years since the first edition, consider how vastly the world has changed; even Lukács’s own thinking went though profound transformation after penning these essays. Yet the essays still speak to us powerfully: of the difficulty of meaningful communication and the forms though which it can be achieved, of the need to criticize forms of authority without taking on the mantle of authoritarianism, of the sort of suffering that characterizes human alienation and of its honest assessment. In other words, these essays engage ideas that continue to trouble and encourage us, not merely as topics in aesthetic or political theory, but as matters of binding human concern. In a way, one wants to insist that these essays are searching, evocative, and often downright beautiful, simply in themselves. Yet Lukács also addresses a diverse set of thinkers, including his favorite author-heroes, among them Plato, Novalis, Kierkegaard, and Stephan George. And as he does, Lukács inaugurates a unique approach to aesthetics and literary criticism. From the perspective of our distance from that inauguration, we can appreciate where the thought presented here indicates a serious challenge to well-known readings of Lukács as well as to common approaches of our contemporary literary criticism. So, for us personally, when we began rereading these essays we were struck by the perspective they allowed on Lukács’s thinking and on subsequent developments in criticism as well as by their contemporary relevance...

Jack Sanders and Katie Terezakis, coeditors of the new edition of György Lukács's Soul and Form, interviewed on the Columbia University Press blog.

I'd love to be remembered as a good teacher of reading, and I mean remedial reading in a deeply moral sense: the reading should commit us to a vision, should engage our humanity, should make us less capable of passing by. But I don't know that I've succeeded, either for others or for myself.

Is there any kind of education, schooling in poetry, music, art, philosophy that would make a human being unable to shave in the morning — forgive this banal image — because of the mirror throwing back at him something inhuman or subhuman? That's what I keep hammering at in my own thinking, in my own writing. Hence the move in Real Presences, coming around that immensely difficult corner, towards theology. What about the great poets, the great artists who have known about such things — Dante, for example, or Shakespeare? Could something make us incapable of certain imperceptions, incapable of certain blindnesses, deafnesses? Is there something that would make the imagination responsible and answerable to the reality principles of being human all around us? That's the question...

The key issue here is the sense of what cannot be analyzed or explained. A major act of interpretation gets nearer and nearer to the heart of the work, and it never comes too near. The exciting distance of a great interpretation is the failure, the distance, where it is helpless. But its helplessness is dynamic, is itself suggestive, eloquent and articulate. The best acts of reading are acts of incompletion, acts of fragmentary insight, of that which refuses paraphrase, metaphrase; which finally say, “The most interesting in all this I haven't been able to touch on.” But which makes that inability not a humiliating defeat or a piece of mysticism but a kind of joyous invitation to reread.

George Steiner interviewed in the Paris Review.

One of the enduring mysteries of American literature are a series of three letters drafted by Emily Dickinson to someone she called “Master.” The letters—written between 1858 and 1862—were never sent, and were discovered shortly after Dickinson’s death in 1886. No one knows to whom they were intended. Perhaps the Reverend Charles Wadsworth (they had a correspondence, none of which survives), or Samuel Bowles, the editor of a newspaper in Springfield and a family friend, or a professor named William Smith Clarke. Or perhaps they are not to a person at all, but to God. Or the Devil. For nearly twenty years I’ve taught Dickinson and the Master Letters in my early American literature course, always hoping to come closer to the source of the mystery. Instead, just the opposite has happened. The mystery has deepened. The more I study them, the more we hash them out in class, the longer the shadows grow and deepen over their meaning...

The Dark Mystery of Emily Dickinson’s “Master” Letters

Nice piece in the Guardian a month or so back with Stefan Collini reviewing The Good of the Novel (edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan):

This book contains some outstanding writing about fiction, about individual novels and also, along the way, about the power and reach of the novel as a form. In an age of drive-by reviewing, when every reader can tell the (electronic) world whether or not they "like" a particular book, these 13 essays together constitute something of a manifesto, speaking up for the continuing vitality of that traditional form, the critical essay, a discursive piece of writing which is longer than a journalistic review but more accessible than an academic article. Almost all of them strike those sparks of understanding whereby we recognise that we half knew what they tell us yet didn't, in any articulated way, know at all. This is true of Mary Hawthorne on Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac ("how to live in the world in the absence of having achieved one's heart's desire"), and Frances Wilson on Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy ("Breaking up is a form of editing, which is perhaps why writers do it so well")...

Wonderful quote, from Mary Hawthorne, about Anita Brookner, a writer whose work, in book after book, has been such a moving meditation on loneliness, and on how arid life can be when it is shorn of love.

Of the novels discussed here, JM Coetzee's Disgrace is the only one I have read more than once, so it might be expected that a critical essay on this book would have more of an uphill task than the others to engage me and make me feel I was learning very much. But Tessa Hadley manages this and more, and does so precisely by concentrating on questions of "technique". She returns to that old chestnut of novel-criticism, "point of view", though without the clanking of heavy machinery that often accompanies excursions into narratology. How far is Disgrace written from the point of view of its central character, David Lurie, and how far from that of an omniscient narrator? Taking an instructive detour through the narrative technique of Boyhood and Youth, Coetzee's ostensibly autobiographical accounts written in the third person, she alerts us to the way in which the novel shows us the world through Lurie's sensibility while also including that sensibility as, in some sense, part of its "subject-matter". As she acutely observes: "We aren't given any alternative secure perspective from which to 'know' Lurie, but we are able to scrutinise the edges of the knowledge his temperament makes available to him." This now seems to me dead right, but something it was very hard to get right. The brilliance with which Coetzee pulls off this delicate operation is enhanced rather than diminished by Hadley's analysis, even though, on a reductive view of the matter, she hasn't given me any information that I didn't already possess.

Aside from Collini's rather ill-informed jibes about online reviews which pepper and unbalance his piece, his review is an excellent little essay in defence of literary criticism: "What is going on, I'm tempted to say, is literary criticism, something more ambitious than much everyday reviewing. Such criticism, at its best, involves a sustained attentiveness to how a work of literature achieves its effects plus a focused analysis of what kind of achievement it represents and where that comes in the scale of things."

London-based readers may be interested to know that The Good of the Novel is being discussed at the London Review Bookshop on Monday 16 May at 7.00 p.m.

Below is an unused review of Gabriel Josipovici's two 'novellas' After and Making Mistakes that was never taken up and I'd almost forgotten having written.

I'm not sure it quite ever fully opens up, but it does the beginning of a job, I think:

To be human is to be amongst those who thoughts we don't we know; to be in the dark. Perhaps this condition is the source of our urge to speak. Language, born of absence, filling a lack, generating light. To be human is to be alone, and also to know that we are in thrall to thoughts we call our own, yet are barely aware of. Perhaps this very unknowingness is the source of writing. Writing from out of a void, to fill a void. Both speaking and writing, then, veil ignorance of ourselves and of others even as they display it, even as they ameliorate it.

There is an element of Bad Faith to the traditional novel. This gloriously humanistic art-form is peopled with voluble, intelligible puppets, but the novelist's urge to get inside his or her characters in order to make those characters "fully-rounded" – the oddest beacon of a novel's success and one that has become a fetish for most reviewers – is the one thing that should give us pause. By colonising a character's thoughts a novelist, finally, confirms that they are only characters and subverts the entire project. Realism collapses in the face of what we've been told to think of as realistic characters. This is why a novelist like Dickens can be simultaneously so sympathetic – the humanist urge is palpably there – and so sentimental. Certain books in the Modernist tradition (from Joyce to Kafka and beyond) whilst accused of being cold (lacking in 'humanity') or austere or overly-intellectual have every right to complain that their radical humanism (their concern with writing itself, their awareness of their potential for solipsism, their ability to see and respect both the Self and the Other as finally unknowable) has been ignored because it doesn't display itself as mawkishly as the character-stocked mainstream.

Gabriel Josipovici is a writer firmly in the modernist tradition. As a critic he has taught that modernism is not merely an aberration (or exultation) in the arts that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but rather a thread (a threat?) that runs from the most exuberant early novelists (Sterne, Rabelais, Cervantes) through the Victorian novel where it was rather submerged and flowered again, at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, in the period of (official) Modernism. But modernism remains a challenge, an embarrassment to the (post-)Victorian novel, a question posed against its unacknowledged assumptions. The work of Beckett is vital here. From the fifties, a singular body of work appeared that made much of the rest of American and European Letters look flaccid and insincere.

It is facile to suggest we should judge Josipovici’s critical work by how well he writes himself. Nonetheless it is fascinating to see how such an important critic (whose recent What Ever Happened to Modernism? has gained a good degree of notoriety) goes about the real work of writing fiction, and whether or not his own fiction could withstand a dose of Josipovician critique.

In After, Alan Schneider finds himself ‘pursued’ by a woman from out of his past. Alan is married but, we’re led to believe, also has something of an eye for the ladies: we oversee him flirt, for example, at a party and on his way to see a grieving friend. Claude, however, is different, more than an earlier dalliance, more substantial and more threatening. Alan is unnerved by her reappearance, and by memories of the event that led him to leave her and Princeton where he worked, and return to London fifteen years before we meet him.

At a critical point in the narrative we learn casually: ‘And now it seems, they are walking in Epping Forest.’ This is quietly devastating. Josipovici allows his characters to come alive simply by the conversation that seems to occur naturally between them, but simultaneously – the harder part, the key to the artistry revealed here – reminds us that these are not real people. This is an ethical move embedded in the fiction rather than a post-modern trick that brings attention to itself. It suggests we can never know what someone is thinking: we meet them via words. The literary blurs with the real, then, not because of fidelity to facts, but by revealing the literary shape, taste, depth of the real itself.

The same trick occurs when Alan speaks with his artist friends, and with his own mother, about art and writing. What is at stake for his characters is at stake for Josipovici as a writer. None of this is arch. Josipovici is a hugely intelligent writer, yet this is an awkward form of praise with which to burden such an entertaining one. That the critical event in After, the reason for Claude’s reappearance, the memory of which is insubstantial, contradictory, but requires both their conspiracy and their co-creation, reminds one of Blanchot’s concept of the Disaster, and of the rupture that Alain Badiou portentously calls an Event, or, more appropriately, what Proust has written about memory and its infelicities, voids, tricks and inversions, about the delusions we hold about ourselves, others and the past – all could suggest a stubborn intellectuality. But nothing could be further from the truth. Warmth and humour exude from these two short novels which are best described as comedies (with all the historic weight of that word acknowledges) – and, incidentally, would make wonderful radio plays.

It is a cliché most normally applied to poetry, that it is the gap between the words that are most important. It is true for Josipovici’s work. Making Mistakes is more playful than After. It is a story echoing the tale told in Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Two couples change partners, and then change again. The comedy here is both richer and more absurd, the writing sparkles. A lightness of touch – lightness is a touchstone in Josipovici’s criticism – is maintained throughout. But witty repartee never masks the fact that couples – lovers, readers/writers – will keep making mistakes, especially if they think we can ever really know one another. And we can't. Because we are never transparent, not even to ourselves, making mistakes is what we do, it is what makes us human. Only a writer as subtle as Josipovici could remind us of this old lesson in a form that so often wants to pretend our opacity away, to use a knowing verbosity to fake what is going on inside. Lighter is better, and better at keeping us in the dark.

Is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon? poses a familiar problem, asked countless times over many years, and always likely to reappear in the run-up to the Man Booker prize (judges were announced back in November, longlist will land in July). Unfortunately, it is an uninteresting question, badly put. Damien G Walter asks whether speculative fiction can ever "receive the critical recognition accorded to their literary cousins", and he conflates this lack of recognition with a lack of success in garnering gongs for literary fiction. Lack of critical kudos is "a fact most evident in" SF not achieving the success in "the major literary awards, not least the Man Booker prize." The same question was asked by Kim Stanley Robinson, back in September 2009, when he accused the Man Booker judges of "ignorance" in neglecting science fiction, which he called "the best British literature of our time".

Years back, Ian Rankin made the same plea for crime fiction to receive the Man Booker's approbation (Crime writers are denied prizes by literary snobs, says Rankin). And he's continued to grumble about it ever since. Acres of newsprint, TV series, sales in the hundred of thousands via a loyal and vocal and intelligent (and ever-growing) readership is not, it would seem, enough. Crime fiction, like speculative fiction, wants the distinction, indeed the eminence, granted to literary fiction by prizes. Their own prizes are not enough (for SF, e.g. the Hugo, the Nebula, the Philip K. Dick and the Arthur C. Clarke; for Crime, see this wikipedia list), what they want to win is literary fiction prizes.

This is a very curious thing. There are often criminals in speculative fiction (China Mieville’s The City and The City is a hard-boiled SF novel), but I don't see the SF crowd clamouring to be awarded the CWA Gold Dagger. Why, then, the lack of self-confidence? Why the angst? Why does one genre (SF) want to win the awards handed out to another (literary fiction)?

Ah! Well, therein lies the rub. Damien G Walter, like Kim Stanley Robinson and Ian Rankin before him, and countless others who make the plea for 'SF to be taken seriously', has bought into the biggest myth around -- one propagated by publishers, authors and the media at large -- that Man Booker fiction isn't a genre, and that it is synonymous with Literature. SF doesn't really want to win literary fiction prizes, it wants to win literature prizes, and its planet-sized blind spot is thinking that the Man Booker Prize is such.

I've always thought that Plato's theory of Forms has a wonderfully SF-feel to it. The world we see is a mere reflection of an alternative universe, and it is that alter-space that is really real. Here on our own tiny planet, spinning slowly next to a dying sun, what we think of as real, true, solid is illusion. The Ideal, the Real, is out there. But glimpses, suggestions -- ghosts of the Real, if you will -- haunt the everyday, with the Forms making palpable what we think of as real, supporting its gossamer, embodied insubstantiality and giving the corporeal a vestige of solidity.

I have a similarly Platonic notion about literature. We see what literature is through those books that nearly measure up to our Ideal of it, and that have plotted out the topography of the space that it could or should inhabit. Shakespeare shows us that a poet's ear for language and a gourmand's relish for words is vital; Dante that the demotic can stand for the divine; Beckett that the absurd, relentless quotidian needs minute examination, to show us its heartlessness and humour, its pain and pathos; Proust that literature begins to discover itself only in pursuit of ineffable time, ever a fragment, detail after detail failing to stop the sand running out of the hourglass...

Literature is the Form that subverts what we think of as real. It is not is the pomposity of an Ian McEwan, the priggish politics of a Monica Ali, the smug, sub-Bellovian comedy of a Martin Amis. Genre fiction, as pleasing and entertaining, as comforting and exhilarating, as it most certainly can be, merely affirms the real. At best, it only shows us what we already know.

Literature is always more than this. An excess, a supplement. It is Real, and it is out there. And SF should reach for it by writing towards it, and not by clamouring for prizes given to those books that can claim nothing except complacent, establishment-pleasing credentials.

Ficton Uncovered invited me to contribute to their site. So I wrote about Gabriel Josipovici's fiction...

(The Ficton Uncovered has been down since the weekend, so I'm now reproducing my article in full below...)

In the summer of this year (2010), a critic of some standing (and with over 25 books under his belt) suddenly seemed to cause a silly season media storm for saying in his latest book what he’d said in all his previous ones, and what he’d dedicated a lifetime to articulating. The academic in question is Gabriel Josipovici, the controversial book was What Ever Happened to Modernism?. In it, Josipovici argued that modernism wasn’t confined to the period of Official Modernism at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, that literary art always needs honestly to face modernism’s perennial questions, and that many of today’s most vaunted writers of literary fiction are woefully overrated. I couldn’t agree more strongly with Josipovici in his overall analysis. The media was less convinced. What it particularly seemed to find galling was that an “unknown” academic had the nerve to tell writers how they should write, and implicitly accuse literary journalists of not realising that their novel-writing emperors were inadvertently wandering around without any pants. What, they growled, did a dusty academic really know about fiction?

The question is idiotic, of course. Critics of all forms of art don't have to be practitioners to have useful things to say; indeed, if that was the case, none of us would be allowed to respond to anything. Whatever your view of, say, Brian Sewell, I think we can all agree that he probably can't paint as well as Rubens! The bile directed at Josipovici was yet more idiotic because, firstly, he was not in any way unknown -- countless books, a longstanding contributor for the TLS, JQ etc, and a regular reviewer in the Irish papers to boot. Secondly, and arguably more important, he too is a writer of fiction! Josipovici, it turns out, is a practitioner of some considerable note, with 13 or so books of fiction published over the last few decades. What we have here, then, is precisely the kind of critic the media so often call for: one who really knows what he is talking about, and from the inside.

It is true, however, that Josipivoci is, as a novelist, comparatively unsung (he did win the Somerset Maugham Awards back in 1975). This is a real shame. Whilst his critical work is peerless, it feeds into and comes out of his work as a practitioner. A subject close to Josipovici's heart is that of authority. In short, artists from the dawn of time worked as craftsfolk within a tradition. When tradition began to splinter -- and it is ever-splintering, so choose your own moment of Fall -- artists had to ask themselves: who/what gives me the authority to speak, to write, to paint. Rabelais and Sterne asked this of themselves when, no longer community storytellers, they knew that the printed book would see their words take wings and reach a much wider audience than ever before: but what of their responsibility to their 'audience', now unknown, now so detached from direct contact with them? A connection had been broken in this brave new world. TS Eliot felt the same lack of connection to a world in pieces after WW1. Why should someone listen to Prufrock's woes?

Art without authority forces the question of the responsibility for art back onto the artist. Why am I saying this? To whom? What right do I have? These questions can't be answered archly. These aren't the ingredients for postmodern insouciance. But they are the questions that serious literary artists have to know hang in the air as they write. Of course, heavy questions don't always need earnest answers. Josipovici is a delighfully light, funny and engaging fiction writer. A comedian in the fullest sense: intelligent, knowing, sly. As he punctures others' pomposity, he also laughs at himself. His critical bombshell, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, landed earlier this year, but it followed last year's novellas After & Making Mistakes (published together in one beautiful volume by Carcanet Press) and is followed this autumn by two more books. Hearts Wings and Other Stories collects together a lifetime's worth of short fiction; Only Joking (CB Editions) shows the author at his comic best.

So, Josipovici the critic is someone I'd say you really must read if you want to think carefully about what writing fiction means, but Josipovici the novelist is someone you must read to know what delightful, considered, modern writing actually is.

As Mr Mitchelmore informs us, "to celebrate its fifteenth year, Spike Magazine has created a 600-page PDF book sampling its online output. You can download it for free from the website." As he goes on to explain, Mitchelmore was an early — and key — contributor, and even if he is less than happy about his own excellent contributions, the rest of can only be glad that they are gathered amongst a lot of other goodies herein.

Chris Mitchell, Spike's founding editor, says in his introduction, "there was very little about books or literature on the web". Well, there is plenty of books on the web now, but literature, I'd argue, still has a hard time getting heard. Those of us who followed Spike's example onto the web can only salute, and hope to emulate, it's longevity, but also know that there is a very long way yet to go to create a web journal that is truly worthy of the best writers that we read and seek to comment critically and intelligently upon...

What is left, for me, of The Kindly Ones now? I finished Jonathan Littell's astonishing book (wonderfully translated by Charlotte Mandell) two weeks ago, and I could, I'm sure, knock-out a half-decent review of the book if I was so minded. But reviews abound (as so often, Stephen Mitchelmore sets the standard; Carey Harrison's review here on RSB is not too shabby either) and, anyway, I'm more interested, at the moment, in wondering what it means to have read it, what the reading has left me with, what it has done to me...

But to investigate, however cursorily, the phenomenon of having read, one is inevitably drawn towards making a balance sheet of the book in question. One moves towards writing a review in order simply to discover what one remembers of the now-finished novel. To describe TKO, two writerly adjectives come to mind. I want to say that the book is Proustian, and also that it is Sadeian. Proustian, because this is a novel presented as a memoir, because it investigates memory by way of showing us everything that our principal protagonist, SS Officer Dr. Maximilian Aue, remembers and forgets; but more so because its weight and detail, its heft and extent, never add up to it being any more than a fragment. As with Proust's work, one is deliciously confronted with the ambiguity (an ambiguity that, say, Don Delillo plays with in Libra) that no matter how many facts one gets down, reality is overwhelmingly complex in the face of one's inevitably pathetic list. As one reads on, with page after page of detail piling up, one is confronted with all Aue is leaving out, either on purpose or has forgotten: Littell's brick of a novel counter-intuitively remains a testament only to all he does not say. The absence one is left with weeks after reading (indeed, even as one is reading) echoes the absence that the book's presence can never hide from sight.

The novel is Sadeian, of course because of the sexual details (of which, actually, there are precious few: Aue is coprophilic, and at the beginning and end of the novel incestuously priapic, but you'd be hard pressed to be able in any way to thrill to his own thralldom: the novel is a million miles away from pornography) but, more specifically, it is Sadeian in the encyclopeadic sense. In France between 1751 and 1772, Denis Diderot oversaw the creation of a 35 volume encyclopedia. As wikipedia will tell you, "Many of the most noted figures of the French enlightenment contributed to the Encyclopédie, including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu." The Enlightenment held knowledge as sacred, and the world was further desacralised by its endeavours as information piled up in ever-increasing volumes. De Sade's own project was inspired by the same animus: to get everything down. The 120 Days of Sodom is an excruciating (and to be honest, tiresome) list of every perversion Sade can enumerate, but something comic, something self-cancelling, issues from all these facts: boredom and forgetting structure the sexual excitement (come before it, after it, and are never eliminated by it), pleasure is predicated on tedium, and extremity seems to be an instantiation of an awful, corroding detachment, a horrifying lightness of being. As Aue is promoted within the Nazi hierarchy, as he learns more of the brutality of its system, he focusses on his own professionalism. He is a functionary, deeply involved, but somehow never an actor, never a player. Like us, he watches; sometimes in horror, but mostly divorced from what is going on: he is the reader of his own life, not the author.

Littell seems to have a rather Foucauldian reading of Nazi power. The idea of the banality of evil is mocked by Aue within TKO's pages (Eichmann is a key figure), but what we see is evil reigning, evil at large, but so implicated within the Nazi structure that responsibility for particular actions always lies elsewhere (power is productive, unbounded, fluid, ubiquitous but untouchable). Aue fights corruption within the ranks — principally by writing reports — but the corruptness of the regime as a whole rarely bothers him. Only occassionally, just out of view, just off the edge of page, do we glimpse Aue glimpsing, grasping the wider truth. Essentially, he is all about the detail. We too, as readers, drown in those details, are appalled by those details, but forget them as we plough on fascinated by them. Only one or two stand out: a corpse here, a rape there. Aue implicates us even as we think ourselves to be so utterly unlike him. Indeed, tragically, we are all very like him, and we prove ourselves inhuman, prove ourselves guilty, even in that most civilised process: reading, reading and forgetting.

Looking over some of his old essays, a friend suggested to me that he didn't recognize very much of what he had once written. More than that, he often didn't even remember writing them. Rereading old essays of my own, I wonder who I was when I wrote them, I wonder where that 'I' -- once so utterly focused on the subject under discussion, once seemingly so self-aware -- has now gone. Actually, I'm sure that that is part of why we write: as much to forget, to purge, as to remember. Proust's huge meditation on memory is so profoundly moving because it fully fleshes out the commonplace that life is forgetting, yet memories are, quite literally, also who we are: our self is what we remember of our self and of others. Life is the accommodation we make, or is made for us, between holding on and letting go. But who makes the accommodation? Ourselves? But who is that self, and why should we trust it when it proves itself, in the very process of remembering, to be based on such vistas of absence, to be so insubstantial, so untrustworthy?

Via Borges (Funes the Memorious), we know that to over-remember is to fail to live fully, but to forget is to inhabit a void. Too much information and we can't move, can't breathe; too little and we're equally stifled, but this time via a conspiracy of contextlessness. The Novel itself replicates this, in a sense. Pierre Bayard's surprisingly stimulating How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is, as much as anything, an investigation into memory: what does it mean to say that one has read a book if days, weeks or months later one can remember nothing about it? Does some homeopathic traceless residue somehow remain? Has an altering occurred with the reading? A substantive shift that once achieved doesn't need the memory of content to pertain? Or has the event, even though we live in its aftermath, now failed to have occurred?

Even as we move through the pages of a book -- especially a large book; I've just read Jonathan Littell's 1,000 page The Kindly Ones, so I'm particularly aware of this -- we are constantly forgetting the detail which defines it. A novel is everything that the writer does to flesh out the basic story. Some claim there are only seven basic plots; a cursory knowledge of Shakespeare will confirm that Will got most all of them boxed-off, and repeated a fair few, in his 30-odd plays. But particularities are the very things that we forget as we move through and are moved by any story. The novel is everything that the writer does to flesh out the basic story, and reading is the process of forgetting those details. A novel is defined by being too much to hold in our mind all at once: in a sense, it is unreadable, and always remains unread.

In a recent Guardian article, ReadySteadyBook reviewer (and author of The Canal) Lee Rourke speaks to our friend Tom McCarthy about Tom's novel C, about art and culture generally, and about Modernism:

LR: You recently reviewed Gabriel Josipovici's latest book What Ever Happened to Modernism? for this paper, calling it a cure for our conservative times. What did you mean by this?

TMcC: It's a wonderful book. We've had over a century of these radical writers such as Beckett, Celan and Kafka, and in philosophy people like Bataille, Levinas and Derrida, and in psychoanalysis Freud and Lacan, and in film Godard and Lynch, and so on. It's incredibly dynamic stuff, and unleashes a vertiginous set of possibilities – not to mention the amount of anguish and trauma that's gone into producing it. I mean, Paul Celan virtually walked out of Auschwitz to write his poetry. For us to dismiss its legacy as if it was just some irritation that got in the way of an ongoing rational enlightenment is negligible to say the least. In fact, I think it's actually offensive. It's an ethical thing: to brush all this aside and to regress to sentimental humanism is almost like revisionism: it's the cultural analogue to historical revisionism, it's just ethically wrong and aesthetically rubbish. Modernism is a legacy we have whether we want it or not. It's like Darwin: you can either go beyond it and think through its implications, or you can ignore it, and if you do that you're a Creationist (more...)

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.

Via Continental Philosophy, I hear we have a new book from Columbia University Press of interviews with Hélène Cixous: White Ink: Interviews on Sex, Text, and Politics:

These interviews with Hélène Cixous offer invaluable insight into her philosophy and criticism. Culled from newspapers, journals, and books, White Ink collects the best of these conversations, which address the major concerns of Cixous’s critical work and features two dialogues with twentieth-century intellectuals Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. The interviews in White Ink span more than three decades and include a new conversation with Susan Sellers, the book’s editor and a leading Cixous scholar and translator. Cixous discusses her work and writing process. She shares her views on literature, feminism, theater, autobiography, philosophy, politics, aesthetics, religion, ethics, and human relations, and she reflects on her roles as poet, playwright, professor, woman, Jew, and, her most famous, “French feminist theorist.” Sellers organizes White Ink in such a way that readers can grasp the development of Cixous’s commentary on a series of vital questions. Taken together, the revealing performances in White Ink provide an excellent introduction this thinker’s brave and vital work-each one an event in language and thought that epitomizes Cixous’s intellectual and poetic force.

Readers of Cixous should also be reminded that Zero's Neighbour: Sam Beckett is out next week with Polity: "In this unabashedly personal odyssey through a sizeable range of his novels, plays and poems, Cixous celebrates Beckett’s linguistic flair and the poignant, powerful thrust of his stylistic terseness, and passionately declares her love for his unrivalled expression of the meaningless ‘precious little’ of life, its unfathomable banality ending in chaos and death."

At the launch event for Best European Fiction 2010 a few weeks ago, the Norwegian author and dramatist Jon Fosse made some wonderfully cutting and dismissive remarks about crime fiction.

Here, exclusively for ReadySteadyBook, Jon expands on his thoughts about what he calls the "pornography of death":

Literature is basically a personal, and at the same time universal, asking into the fundamentals of existence, made possible by the aesthetic possibilities of language. The more personal it gets, the more universal it becomes. When literature gets private, it looses its quality, as it does if it ends up as universal in this sense: something everyone agrees about.

Of course, one can learn about life in literature, for instance to see how life is for other persons, perhaps in another time, in another culture: in the novel everyone has the right to be understood, nowhere else. And to me dramatic literature is about getting a glimpse of the forces that somehow, in their invisible way, direct life. But more than this, literature is about learning to die, as Harold Bloom has put it.

What then about crime fiction, so highly esteemed as literature, at least here in the Scandinavian countries? Is it at all literature? No it isn’t. The aim of this literature is not to ask into the fundamentals of existence, of life, of death, it is not to try to reach the universal through the unique, it is a try to avoid such an asking, such unique universality, by stating already given answers that are not really answers, but just something one has heard before. It therefore feels as a pleasant and safe answer, and what feels pleasant and safe one could also call entertaining.

Death, perhaps literature’s basic concern, at least when doubled with what cannot exist without it, love, is in crime fiction made into a kind of puzzle which can be solved. Death is made safe by being looked at as something which might well not exist, if it wasn't for a murder, and then is reduced further by making this murder, death, into a puzzle to be solved. And which will be solved.

And when even the aesthetic ambition, this never-ending process of saying it all again, seen from a new perspective, is replaced by filling out a plot with variations, how can one possibly see crime fiction as literature? Add some political correctness to this plot, and we live in a perfectly safe and stupid world.

Literature is writing so strong that one sees life as something else after meeting it. It has to do with the uniqueness in every human being, and with this truth: the most unique is the most universal. Crime fiction is the opposite, to see life as the same all the time and feel safe in one's lie. It's pornography of death, and much less honest than the pornography which has to do with the beginning of life.

I don't normally think of the London freesheet Metro as the place to go to read a decent book review, however I think Ben Felsenburg's dismissal of David Shields Reality Hunger is pretty spot-on here:

Whatever criticisms David Shields will attract for Reality Hunger – and he can expect plenty for a book as divisive as Marmite – no one’s going to accuse him of modesty.

This collection of 617 pensées is subtitled A Manifesto and sets out its stall in grandiose style: ‘Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.’

For some that line will be playfully provocative, for others ridiculous and infuriating; the same goes for all that follows.

Shields draws upon Ezra Pound, Eminem, Proust and Moulin Rouge as if they’re all knocking around one pick’n’mix bag. Wave after wave of quotes and Shields’s wearying pontification work that old saw about the way fiction and non-fiction are blurring into one.

Telly viewers know the concept – it’s called Big Brother. One surprise, though: Reality Hunger might be mistaken for the notebook of a naive undergraduate after a first encounter with Postmodernism 101. Shields is a middle-aged professor.

You'll be hearing a lot about David Shields' supposedly iconoclastic Reality Hunger over the next few weeks (it publishes at the end of the month). It will be touted as the "one book of literary criticism" (or some such) that you absolutely must read and is, in the words of its publisher, an "audacious stance on issues that are being fought over now and will be fought over far into the future." Actually, it's a dog's breakfast that deserves a really robust response -- happily, Mr Mitchelmore is already on the case:

Reading David Shields’ new book – but in what way is it a book? – is a frustrating experience. As demonstrated by the previous sentence, on almost every page of Reality Hunger the reader is interrupted by responses, doubts and questions. "Every artistic movement from the beginning of time" it begins, "is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art." Why, one asks, half-aware of the question because one is trying to get into the book, does he use "artistic movement" rather than "artist"? The answer is soon clear: he is seeking to galvanise a new artistic movement by expressing his own concern with the relation of art to reality. It has an impact on the form and content of the book, so much so that it fails to become a book yet, as a consequence, ends up enacting part of Shields’ manifesto. However, what remains betrays it (more...)

Nice article (from the New Scientist magazine) about Virginia Woolf and science fiction (thanks Robin)

I would have thanked you for your book before, but I have been very busy and have only just had time to read it. I don't suppose that I have understood more than a small part - all the same I have understood enough to be greatly interested, and elated too, since sometimes it seems to me that you are grasping ideas that I have tried to express, much more fumblingly, in fiction. But you have gone much further and I can't help envying you - as one does those who reach what one has aimed at.

Many thanks for giving me a copy,
yours sincerely,
Virginia Woolf

This was Virginia Woolf's reply to the influential science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon after he had sent her a copy of his recently published novel Star Maker. In an earlier exchange of letters, she made it clear that she had also enjoyed previous works of his, probably including Last and First Men from 1931. These two novels, Stapledon's masterpieces, are enduring monuments of science fiction and of British literature generally. Within a decade of Edwin Hubble's discovery of the red shift, which revealed the universe to be vastly bigger than anyone had imagined, Stapledon's work compressed an entire poetic history of humanity and the cosmos into two slight volumes (more...

Interesting post from Andrew Seal on point of view:

At times, I think David Foster Wallace actually takes his reader in the opposite direction: convincing them that they're reading a 'highbrow' modernist novel par excellence, where the question of point-of-view is always problematic and the reader mustn't fall into the trap of identifying with one point-of-view. And then he basically makes you commit to a point-of-view: I question whether anyone can get through it (and enjoy it) without doing so. And that doesn't mean that you pick a character to empathize with for the rest of the novel, but that you have to create a position of provisional coherence from which to view the events and data of the novel and process them—whether that is identified with a character or with the author or with some external position. So by the end, you're just reading a very complex "middlebrow" novel (more...)

Today is Bloomsday, of course. has a useful "selective list of online literary criticism for James Joyce, favoring signed articles by recognized scholars, articles published in reviewed sources, and web sites that comply with MLA guidelines."

I'm reading Stephen Mulhall's The Wounded Animal: J.M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy which is very fine indeed. It has got me to thinking, again, about who are the other interesting academics writing about literature today (I'm thinking about those academics who manage to retain their rigour, but speak beyond the academy, if only to a quite self-selecting and small audience). As Steve said, when he mentioned Mulhall the other day, it isn't Jonathan Gottschall!

The work of Gabriel Josipovici, Frank Kermode, George Steiner, Terry Eagleton, Paul West, A.D. Nuttall (to mention just a few critics, off the top of my head, who are important to me) will always be challenging and relevant, but I'm thinking about newer kids on the block: Franco Moretti, Nancy Armstrong, Derek Attridge, Sharon Cameron, Asja Szafraniec and the Nietzsche scholar Jill Marsden are all helping to help me think about literature afresh -- who is doing it for you!?

The comedian David Mitchell once told a joke about how the neutral, in their neutrality, can never understand the passion of e.g. football fans and, indeed, that their very common sense neutrality (oh, it doesn't matter who wins, just jolly nice to see two teams having such a jolly good time) was far more absurd than the passion of the fans that they so ignorantly lampooned. Of course, when he told it, it was funny. (And he is equally funny laughing at fans too -- this YouTube video is wonderful.)

Criticising someone for their taste is plainly silly. Liking one particular cultural artifact over another does not and cannot make you a better human being than anyone else. We like what we like. Doesn't criticism takes that for granted? In the same way, we accept that e.g. football isn't the be all and end all of everything... and then we enter the fray regardless; and, on entering, at that point we believe with Bill Shankly that football is not a matter of life or death, but actually much more important than that. We cast off our neutrality because engagement is life. This is not too far from the view held by Alain Badiou when he argues that it is only through passionate allegiance to an event that we become authentic subjects...

If you were to come to tea at my house, you'd no doubt be bombarded by some weird music (György Kurtág anyone? Machinefabriek? Keith Fullerton Whitman?) and then we could settle down to a Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr film. Or, just as likely, we could kick back with some Friends repeats on E4, grab a pizza, and then watch a RomCom: Notting Hill or Four Weddings anyone? You decide! If the former happened, would you think me pretentious? If the latter happened, well, how would you judge me then?

Regardless of this pastel-coloured relativism, however, evaluative practices are inevitably part of how we talk about the arts and how we try to understand them. Not understanding that is a little like being one of the neutrals that David Mitchell poked fun at at. In What Good Are the Arts?, John Carey is right to argue that liking opera does not, and cannot, make you a good person. As I've said, that is surely a given. Further, it'd be a difficult task to argue that opera, say, was better (or worse) than rock 'n' roll. But it would be interesting, informative, educative, and possibly surprising and entertaining to know why a particular critic thought Schoenberg's Moses und Aron was better or worse than Berg's Lulu. If we were lucky enough to read two critics evaluating both we'd inevitably make judgements on which critic most persuavely persuaded us of the case for which of the works we should make sure to seek out.

And so to fiction... If it needs repeating: like and enjoy whatever you like! But evaluating, judgement, is part of what we do as soon as we (try to) engage with something. And engaging with something can be one way of deepening and extending our enjoyment of it. If we want to make an evaluative move, to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of one text against another, first we need some common ground. Genre fiction -- except when Ian Rankin starts his especially specious pleading -- is normally content to evaluate itself againt other books in its field, so a new crime novel might say that it is pacier, gritter, knottier, more honest, more gripping, more realistic, more harrowing, the denoument more startling than another in its field. And, if we accepted that, we'd be a good way to being able to say that the new crime novel was better than the old one. The trouble with the genre of Literary Fiction, however, is that it puts itself up against literature. And, if it does that, then it must be expected to be judged against it. Literature -- like art itself, as Carey found -- might be treacherously hard to define, but if we triangulate Proust, Beckett and Dante or, say, Shakespeare, Kafka and Blanchot we might get somewhere near to being able to think about what something we call literature just might be. Rankin can go head to head with Agatha Christie and we can make sound comparisons between their writing and their plots (and we can, regardless, enjoy either, neither or both) but if he suggests he writes literary fiction, and by doing that makes claims to be writing literature, then he is going to be going up against Proust and so he needn't be surprised when he comes off looking decidedly worse for wear!

However, beyond the evaluative move, a move that inevitably happens as soon as we engage with any artform (even if that evaluation leads us to say nothing more exceptional than e.g. they are both good, but in different ways) there is the question -- and it is fiction here that is my concern -- that is much too rarely asked: what does literary actually mean? The question can only be answered from within literature itself: not when literature is arch and awkwardly self-ironising (the postmodern gesture), but when the existential question of literature's being is revealed to be the internal secret, and heartbeat, of the text itself. "Literature begins," as Blanchot famously says in Literature and the Right to Death, "at the moment when literature becomes a question." And so reading begins not when we mark books out of ten, but when we let them mark us; not when we question how good they are, but when they themselves question what they are and, simultaneously, undermine the certainty we feel when we make those inevitable evaluative moves.

Mark Sarvas has been sent a PDF of an article James Wood wrote about fifteen years ago listing out what Wood then considered to be the best books since 1945. Mark has reproduced the list, amongst other reasons...

... as a corrective of its own to some of the foolishness that has cropped up around Wood of late. He certainly doesn't need me to defend him but this list should give the lie to the popular cliche of Wood as the hidebound dean of realism who thinks fiction stopped with Flaubert. The list appears in its entirety after the jump, typed up exactly as it ran (with its idiosyncrasies), but I think you'll find some surprises. Pynchon! Barthelme! DeLillo! And quite a few others. (More...)

Via Continental Philosophy, a provocative article from World Picture Journal by Derek Attridge and Henry Staten: Reading for the Obvious: A Conversation:

As you know, I’ve been trying for a while to articulate an understanding of the literary critic’s task which rests on a notion of responsibility, derived in large part from Derrida and Levinas, or, more accurately, Derrida’s recasting of Levinas’s thought, one aspect of which is an emphasis on the importance of what I’ve called variously a “literal” or “weak” reading. That is to say, I’ve become increasingly troubled by the effects of the enormous power inherent in the techniques of literary criticism at our disposal today, including techniques of formal analysis, ideology critique, allusion hunting, genetic tracing, historical contextualization, and biographical research. The result of this rich set of critical resources is that any literary work, whether or not it is a significant achievement in the history of literature, and whether or not it evokes a strong response in the critic, can be accorded a lengthy commentary claiming importance for it. What is worse, the most basic norms of careful reading are sometimes ignored in the rush to say what is ingenious or different (more...)

Dan Green and Richard Crary, and their many commenters, are discussing what the novel is and whether the term is useful/restrictive (Richard: "I've wondered why we insist on having the word "novel" encompass so much. Why must it be asserted that the books written by Sebald and Bolaño "are certainly" novels? Are they? What is a novel?").

I'll respond at the weekend, but do read both Dan and Richard's excellent posts and get involved in the discussion.

Via the TLS:

Roberto Bolaño once said that he would rather have been a detective than a writer – not a humdrum gumshoe but an avenging angel, “someone able to return alone, at night, to the scene of the crime, and not be afraid of ghosts”. Like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, he was a disillusioned romantic with a passion for exposing evil and fortifying hope. It is true that Bolaño would have scoffed at the notion that he was untarnished or unafraid, but he admired courage, and often displayed it in a short life spent largely in the mean streets of Latin America and Europe. He viewed art as a forensic tool, using it to transfix and then transfigure the void he detected at the heart of existence. (More...)

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.

Worth looking out for in February 09, The Wounded Animal: J. M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy by Stephen Mulhall:

In The Wounded Animal, Stephen Mulhall closely examines Coetzee's writings about Costello, and the ways in which philosophers have responded to them, focusing in particular on their powerful presentation of both literature and philosophy as seeking, and failing, to represent reality -- in part because of reality's resistance to such projects of understanding, but also because of philosophy's unwillingness to learn from literature how best to acknowledge that resistance. In so doing, Mulhall is led to consider the relations among reason, language, and the imagination, as well as more specific ethical issues concerning the moral status of animals, the meaning of mortality, the nature of evil, and the demands of religion. The ancient quarrel between philosophy and literature here displays undiminished vigor and renewed significance.

Stewart Home, Tom McCarthy and Hari Kunzru discussed the avant-garde on Radio 4's Today programme this morning:

... avant-garde is no longer considered de rigueur as a description of boundary-testing artists, but that does not mean that an artistic underground has ceased to exist. However, finding out about those artists who test the boundaries of their art is not as easy as stepping into your local book store or record shop (more...)

D.G. Myers has a provocative -- if also rather silly -- pop at Theory, Seven theses about the history of literary theory, over on his excellent A Commonplace Blog. Provocative because each of the seven theses contain banalities, truisms and misapprehensions in equal measure; silly because -- well, attacking Theory (which is so capacious) in such a bluff way always strikes as fatuous. Nonetheless, the post warmed me up for the day, and you can't ask for more than that on such a frosty morning!

Myers does pull out a quote that I did very much enjoy from J.V. Cunningham who wrote:

If I read books I should know how books are made and where to find them. If I read Shakespeare I should know it may not be Shakespeare. We call the one bibliography, the other textual criticism. If I read a language I should know the language, whether it be of Tudor London or contemporary Western American. We call this philology. If what I read has any real reference I should know something of the referent. We call this history. If the referent is, in part, as it is in Lycidas, prior literature, I should know that. We call this literary history (more...)

Anthony Cummins has written to me responding to the recent discusion around here on Zadie Smith. With his permission, I reproduce Anthony's email to me below:

Excuse the ramble which follows, but it's fascinating to follow the cackhanded response to Zadie Smith's superb NYRB essay via ReadySteadyBook. Via Monk's House I note: "And maybe Smith in quarreling with Netherland is quarreling in part with James Wood, from whom she has famously diverged before, and who ecstatically reviewed O'Neill in the pages of The New Yorker."

I think this is the key -- not a side issue -- in understanding what Smith's on about: "Lyrical Realism" -- an odd term she must repeat so much only because of Wood's "hysterical realism" tag; the emphasis on Flaubert, the darling of How Fiction Works; the fact that Wood effectively made the reputation of Netherland; HFW vs DFW. The NYRB already reviewed Netherland, too, when Alan Hollinghurst wrote about it the other month: how often does that happen? I reckon it's a more calculated attack on Wood and How Fiction Works than people seem to have realised.

Did you catch this interview with Robert Silvers? "'[Zadie's article is] an ambitious essay, a daring and original piece by a brilliant mind,' Silvers said. In it, she dismantles the status quo in the form of a review of two new novels - Netherland and Remainder - that she holds up as representing where the novel's been and where it's going. 'Some people will be slightly shaken,' Silvers said, with delight." Among them James Wood? It's quite curious since John Banville's moderate piece on HFW immediately precedes Smith's essay. I suspect it has something to do with heralding Smith's arrival as a Wood-status critic pre-Fail Better.

One of the things that every human being learns as they mature is that human relationships are an odd mixture of the simple and the complex. A mother is simply the person who gave birth to you. Simply? Oh my goodness no! A mother is the person who gets you going, but from whom you'll never get away, the person who gets you started, but with whom you'll never finish...

Art, too, is marked by such complexity. Kasimr Malevich's Black Square (1913) is just a painted black square, but it is also the focal point of a thousand years' worth of conversations about painting and representation, and the starting point for a thousand more conversations.

Melville's Moby-Dick, then, is just a great, big book about a whale. Or it is a kind of palimpsest of such complexity that we can and must write anything we like upon its canvas to help to explain it to ourselves. And very many of the differing literary critical strategies we might invoke will help us to explain different bits of its complexity: a Marxist reading that focusses on the experience of working on the Pequod and on slavery; a feminist reading that focusses on the lack of female characters; a religious reading alive to Melville's exquisite symbolism; a psychoanalytic reading that focusses on Ahab's mania... All can help, but none will finally pin Moby-Dick down. Indeed, the lack of success of any such critical strategies to say the final word on such a book is testimony to the wonderful ambiguity of Melville's art.

And how we feel about the book, its aesthetic effect upon us, can never be fully explained. We can use critical tools (formalist, narratological, structuralist, deconstructivist... whatever) to help us see how certain effects of the writing are achieved, but its overall aesthetic effect will remain beyond our ken (it is, in the end, an aesthetic effect on us, and we are forever just beyond our own ken). Art's effects are, finally, inexplicable. Like love, or family ties, there are explanations, but none that are fully complete.

In a post yesterday, Dan Green discusses the "descriptive mode of criticism" which he suggests is the best way "to carefully elucidate the manifest qualities of a given text." He quotes Rohan Maitzen who suggests that "one of the key features of this approach is working with a text on its own terms." Well, that is lit crit 101. If you are reading a comic novel and not laughing something isn't right; if you are reading a book called The History of Sport and it doesn't mention football, something may well be going wrong; if you are reading a book called The History of Cricket and football isn't mentioned, don't panic.

Every novel sets up an almost Platonic ideal of itself, and you can and should be able to measure it up against itself. That might be your first evaluative move. The question here being: what is the novel trying to do/say? It would be unfair to criticise it, at this point, for not doing something it never set out to do. (You might then judge one book against another -- not unlike how in a dog show a chihuahua can be judged against a dalmation -- by seeing how well it lives up to its own ideal of itself. If the vampire novel is scarier than the comic novel is funny and you have just one prize to give, the vampire novel gets it.) But evaluation is just one task. The next question might be, how well is it saying it? This has at least two parts to it. How well is it saying it on its own terms (if it is a dialect novel, its own terms are set differently to a novel in, for instance, Standard English) and how well is saying it per se (above and beyond the dialect, how good is this?)?

But, after this, we are left with at least one other question: was it worth saying? There is, then, an evaluation that needs to be made above and beyond the individual text itself. You can, of course, choose not to make this evaluation and stay with the difficult task of carefully elucidating "the manifest qualities of a given text", but the question of what literature is remains in the air. And that question can't be answered by e.g. a tenacious new critical focus. What literature is -- like what is a mother -- might be both very complex or very simple, but -- just like a mother -- it isn't something we can easily get away from. It may simply be an Ideal, but all is measured against that Ideal whether we like it or not.

Zadie Smith, writing a piece in the NYRB entitled Two Paths for the Novel about Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and Remainder by Tom McCarthy, seems to be groping her way to an understanding of Establishment Literary Fiction. This is very interesting:

From two recent novels, a story emerges about the future for the Anglophone novel. Both are the result of long journeys. Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill, took seven years to write; Remainder, by Tom McCarthy, took seven years to find a mainstream publisher. The two novels are antipodal — indeed one is the strong refusal of the other. The violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland is, in part, a function of our ailing literary culture. All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene.

These aren't particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done — in a sense that's the problem. It's so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait (more...)

"It seems perfectly done — in a sense that's the problem." Yes! Exactly.


Via The Wooden Spoon:

At the Times Literary Supplement, David Hawkes reviews Russell A. Berman’s Fiction Sets You Free, a capitalist dialectical materialist critique of literature. "Like the most doctrinaire dialectical materialist, he insists that cultural trends are epiphenomenal reflections of economic interests. Anti-Americanism is really anti-capitalism, and in Fiction Sets You Free, Berman suggests that anti-capitalism is the true source of an intellectual anti-humanism which opposes imagination, enterprise, even literature itself." It's painful just to see the book reviewed, but I expect these kinds of theories to start popping up all over. Berman apparently tries to cite Theodore Adorno as a predecessor of pro-capitalist literary theory. This is insane. It's like Ayn Rand citing Lenin as a great influence. The inmates are loose! Release the hounds!

Tony Christini has posted a PDF of Fiction Gutted: The Establishment and the Novel (thanks Steve) which is "a sustained and passionate critique of James Wood's How Fiction Works" (according to the Contra James Wood blog):

As Gideon Lewis-Kraus notes, writing in the Los Angeles Times, James Wood is a writer who matters. People read him, people of the educated, monied, controlling part of the populace. That's why it's important that what James Wood writes does not matter – in central ways. Nowhere is this more on display than in How Fiction Works, the star critic's most recent book, a truncated politically-charged though aesthetic appreciation of fiction that is spectacular in its misrepresentation of reality, or "the real, which is at the bottom of [Wood's] inquiries." Ask Wood to annotate a novel, and he provides sometimes splendid views of narrative lines by way of an at times "uncannily well-tuned ear," as Terry Eagleton notes. He is eager to discourse at length, often with quick pith, on how to strive toward reality in fiction (or criticism), reality of the profound sort, the truth, a worthy aim. Unfortunately, HFW is resolute in not accurately representing central elements of reality in both fiction and, call it, actuality, life outside fiction (more...)

A fascinating interview with this almost forgotten writer in Saturday's Guardian. Experiencing penury on the streets of Whitechapel before finding literary success in the company of Elias Canetti and Herbert Read – and publicly attacking TS Eliot for his anti-semitism. I stumbled across him last year when I found his long out of print (as, sadly, is all his work) but wonderful novel of the Siege of Sydney Street and the radical milieu of the pre-First World War East End, A Death Out of Season. Penguin have just reissued his memoir of Jewish East End life, Journey Through a Small Planet, with a new introduction by Patrick Wright.

Even though I shall be hungrily devouring it as soon as I can get my hands on it, I can’t help but feel ambiguous about this publishing trend. Once banished to the murky depths of self-publishing and vanity presses, there are now a plethora of histories, novels and autobiographies of East London and its residents. It's become a veritable sub-genre of literature: like the 'misery memoir' almost worthy of its own bookshop bay. A fashion triggered by the success of Iain Sinclair's psychogeographic explorations (although see John Barker's interesting critique of Sinclair's work), the East End now stands in for some idea of 'authentic' London. Painted as being at the forefront of social change it’s seen as multi-cultural, dynamic, violent.

But where are the memoirs of those who lived in Crouch End? Or Croydon? Or even (ugh) Clapham? And what of Nottingham? Sunderland? Norwich? All places that experienced the high-speed friction and transformation of modernity, but without popstars, YBAs and literary celebrities the histories of these places simply don’t exist.

Reginald Shepherd thinks about authorship with Barthes and Foucault:

For us, the idea of the text and the idea of the author are inseparable. This has not always been the case, nor need it continue to be: the author is only one possible specification of the subject. “The author-function is not universal or constant through all discourse” (What Is an Author?, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, p.125). Not only has the importance of the attribution of a given text to a specific subject varied widely from one historical period and/or discursive field to another, but in many discursive fields (the oral tradition of ballad and folk-tale, for instance) there can be no attribution of a particular text to an individual author. We think of a discrete text as invariably produced by a discrete author, but many texts are what might be called negotiated texts, the products of far more numerous and disparate determinations than are taken into account in the blanket application of the author concept as causal or explanatory more...

Good, long review of Wood's How Fiction Works in The Australian (via 3Quarks):

In How Fiction Works Wood holds up Flaubert as the turning point in the novel's becoming modern: for introducing, all in one package, acute visualisation, a lack of sentimentality, unshowy narration and, above all, an instinct for "truth", no matter how unpalatable. For Wood, this is a moral mission. Flaubert is bent upon a scrupulous investigation of how people really are. But the problem is that Flaubert also seems to represent the novel's endgame for Wood. As a yardstick, Wood's strictly defined ideal of the real leaves him a restricted space in which to move as a critic, and the novel little wriggle room to develop further. It is not nearly as flexible as Kundera's more historical understanding of the novel, as a kind of enlightened mindset, which leaves room for its form to shift and evolve. For in spite of the fact that Wood's books pay lip-service to (and borrow much of their gravitas from) Kundera's two chief preoccupations, scepticism and humour, Wood lacks his cannier understanding that novels are also always strategic. (No wonder Wood, who never openly acknowledges his debt to Kundera, and who differs so fundamentally on the issue of an author's freedoms to self-consciously reflect upon such matters in his work, distances himself from that author at the beginning of How Fiction Works with a snide comment about the lack of "inkiness" in The Art of the Novel.)