“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things


Thursday, September 30, 2010

Commenting on Overland's Comments on My Comments on Overland

Last week, I wrote a response to two pieces on Creative Writing programs, one of which was by Overland's Rjurik Davidson. Yesterday, he responded to my response, which you can read here. It's generally very thoughtful (and, in particular, I was pleased to see his fluent, if slightly tentative, discussion of the problems with 'realism' as a literary mode), but I'm still not convinced about the notion of 'engaged' literature that he, Jacinda Woodhead and others have put forward on the Overland blog.


My first set of concerns are founded on the interpretive problems that such a notion suggests, but I won't go into detail about these since I do go into detail about these issues in an article I have coming out in the next issue of Kill Your Darlings. I will note that it's got a great deal to do with what's known as the intentional fallacy in literary criticism.


My other concerns have to do with the notion of so-called 'literary value' (just to be clear, I do believe in the notion of literary value and feel that it's worth defending); I have a lot to say on this issue that I still haven't articulated in this space, but I'll save that for another time (or perhaps, even, another article).


Lastly, though, I should also note that there's a (personal) weirdness for me in even disagreeing with Overland at all; of all the literary journals in Australia, Overland's politics are certainly closest to my own, and Davidson is correct to note that my views of literary culture are heavily indebted to Marxist analytical traditions (although Pierre Bourdieu's The Rules of Art is probably closest to my position). All of which is to say that I suspect we would agree on most matters--just not on this one.

7 comments:

danielwood said...

"I should also note that there's a (personal) weirdness for me in even disagreeing with Overland at all; of all the literary journals in Australia, Overland's politics are certainly closest to my own..."

Me too. But I think it helps to distinguish their socio-economic, socio-political, and generally policy-oriented politics from their questionable literary and aesthetic politics, which basically demand that art should serve as propaganda for the cause of social justice and that any art that doesn't actively serve this cause is pointless, decadent, and thus conservative. For a journal whose thinking on other subjects is quite sophisticated, I'm surprised the editors can in good conscience take such a reductive (and infantile) approach to art.

Emmett Stinson said...

Yes, that's a much clearer way of saying it. It seems to me that a lot of otherwise intelligent people have uncritically swallowed notions of 'aesthetic ideology' that arose in the 80s or 90s, as if these issues were thereby solved for all time. Even worse, a lot of people cite Bourdieu in so doing, but have clearly only read Distinction, and not his other work (which clarifies his position, which is neither anti-art or that art is inherently elitist and therefore evil...). It's strange to me that these old battles so frequently recur without any acknowledgment of their previous iterations...

rjurik said...

Daniel, you claim that Overland's position is that: "art should serve as propaganda for the cause of social justice and that any art that doesn't actively serve this cause is pointless, decadent, and thus conservative. For a journal whose thinking on other subjects is quite sophisticated, I'm surprised the editors can in good conscience take such a reductive (and infantile) approach to art."

All I can say is that, um, is there a different Overland that we're talking about? Because no-one at Overland that I know of holds that position (Did you bother to read my post?). In fact, you make us sound like imbeciles (it's a good debating tactic though: you can set us up with a stupid position that we don't hold, then it's all the more easy to knock us down). Personally, I think some of the greatest art is arguably pretty politically conservative (off the top of my head, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, various post-apocalyptic novels, and so on). Just as there's plenty of so-called "worthy" fiction that is pretty bad art. In other words, art is not politics.

Having said that, we don't believe in art for arts sake. Instead, we think there's a relationship between art and the social world (and hence politics), and we're not really interested in publishing racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise right-wing literature. Sorry to be "reductionist" about it. We are interested in art which is an engagement. What would you say to the 1960s generation who insisted on having women, blacks and other marginalised groups represented new, more positive or honest or at least interesting, ways? (Not to mention the ways these groups were marginalised from the industry itself). I suppose those movements were "reductionist" in your eyes too. They no doubt had fallen into a "questionable" literary and aesthetic politics. All those feminists and black activists, making a category error between art and politics ... if only they weren't so infantile.

Jacinda Woodhead said...

There seems to be a theoretical difference here about the roles of culture and politics (which I would define as power-relationships within definite social relations).

For some, politics is something separate to themselves that other people do. But for those in a practical Marxist tradition, politics is something that happens everywhere. So neglecting politics in the creation of art, culture, science (of course science is neutral, but funding and research are not) is the same as neglecting any traditions. It’s ahistorical and leaves you, for example, with writing abstracted from the world and its literary traditions.

We think about all these other factors when we write – genre, subject, context, technique, voice, rhythm – and they all imply a politics (ie. a world view). Writers choose the politics they include. What are the politics inherent when just writing about the self and not the world or its plurality?

None of this, of course, discounts critical readings of an author’s works. But critical readings can be contrary to an author’s intent. It seems to me that there are two arguments here. One is about literary criticism and the other is about authorial engagement.

We do however agree on some key points: the problems in traditional publishing are systemic and economic, as you acknowledged. And radical change in society comes through the economic activity of people – through revolutionary action, organising or the withdrawing of labour.

What we are talking about here, I believe, is the role of culture. What kind of culture do we want? Do we want culture that simply consists of white men from privileged backgrounds talking about how hard done by they are?

Surely it’s time for something more consciously political and sophisticated.

Emmett Stinson said...

Hi, and thanks for all of your comments. Overland, historically, has been seen by many people (including me) to support social-realist writing (and in this sense, has traditionally been seen as politically radical and aesthetically conservative). I realise that this has changed to a large degree under Jeff's editorship, but it's hard for me (and probably for others) not to see both Rjurik and Jacinda's position(s) in that particular historial context (speaking of ahistoricity).

Rjurik, you ultimately note that 'we think there's a relationship between art and the social world', but I'm still not completely clear on what this relationship is for you (and your post didn't really clarify that for me either); despite your protestations, it's hard for me to see how your position isn't just making the aesthetic subservient to the social (worrisome given the history of such positions in left-wing thought).

Jacinda, thanks for your measured and thoughtful comments, but I'm not sold on your description of the link between politics and culture in Marxist thought; specifically, it strikes me that your brief description sounds post-Althusserian (particularly your identification with genre and world-view) and omits the (often paradoxical) complexities of base and superstructure. It also strikes me that your position regarding diversity among authors, while admirable and something I ultimately support, misses my point, which is about a diversity of texts or types of texts, rather than about identity politics and speaking positions, per se (and to equate the two is reductionist).

As to the desire to separate authorial engagement and critical response--my whole position is that you cannot separate the two (or, as Bourdieu says it, you cannot separate production and reception). How can we know what authors intend? What does authorial intent even mean? Can authors even be said to know their intent? These are important questions that go back to the very basic issues of hermeneutics (and the hermeneutic circle, more specifically), and to ignore them, is, I think, very problematic.

My major problem with both of your positions, though, is the very dichotomy you invoke: art for art's sake vs. engaged art. Are we still stuck between these positions? Aren't there any other possibilities for the left wing view of art beyond such simple dichotomies?

I'm not bringing up these issues to attack either of you or Overland. My wife and I subscribe to Overland, and read each issue with much excitement (and publishing an article in the magazine was a particularly proud moment for me)--rather it seems to me that Overland is the perfect place to consider new possibilities, rather than simply recycle the old antinomies between art and the social.

rjurik said...

Emmett,

We do appreciate your support of Overland, and I hope you'll not take these (and above comments) as anything other than healthy debate.

Anyway, in response to your comments: Overland does have a history, but wouldn't it be better to judge the magazine by what we've produced as an editorial team, together with what we actually say? It's disingenuous to suggest that we belong either to the social realist tradition (particularly ironic in my case, as I've never published a social realist story), or that we believe that art should be measured solely by political standards. Actually, once corrected, it becomes willful misreading.

You write: 'Aren't there any other possibilities for the left wing view of art beyond such simple dichotomies?' There is a deep irony to this formulation. Are you sure you mean 'left wing art'? As you might argue, that sounds suspiciously 'didactic'. Actually, I don't buy into your assertion that the antinomies are between art and the social, or art for art sake and engaged art. If there is a division or contradiction (rather than an antinomy, really), it's between art of arts sake and didactic art. I'd consider my formulation of engaged art as transcending this dichotomy.

Your mention that I, "you ultimately note that 'we think there's a relationship between art and the social world', but I'm still not completely clear on what this relationship is for you (and your post didn't really clarify that for me either); despite your protestations, it's hard for me to see how your position isn't just making the aesthetic subservient to the social". This is an astute question. Obviously this is a blog post so I can't bang on indefinitely, and I'll be writing again on this soon elsewhere, but partly it has to do with the relationship of form and content. Briefly put, all art has a world-view of sorts: that world view (as all world views are) is political (as Jacinda has noted. Indeed some may see this as a neo-Althusserian formulation but it could fit within many other theoretical frameworks including Lukacs', Trotsky's, Adorno's etc). So that answering certain formal questions (POV, etc) implies a relationship to the social. Here Jacinda and I share the same vocabulary. Often formal innovations have great political consequences (here I think of many of the avant-gardes), that is they've rearranged their relationship to the social. So it's not a matter of having art "here" and the social "there", but examining the determinate relation between the two. What does this mean for "left wing art", as you term it? Well, I'm not convinced that Overland as a magazine should take a position on exactly the form of art which best corresponds to the kinds of world-views/and or debates/thought experiments appropriate to the current moment. In the past, Overland editors have suggested forms or realism. That's not been our vector of approach. Rather than argue for one kind of literature, I'd say the magazine would want to leave itself open to all kinds of approaches, from realism and dirty realism to the avant-garde and science fiction, in the same way that it is open to many different left-wing political positions. (Personally, I have my own preferences which stray towards the avant-garde and non-realism, which you can read about here if you cared to: http://benpeek.livejournal.com/793754.html)

Emmett Stinson said...

Thanks for your comments, Rjurik! Just to clarify, quickly, I did say the 'left-wing view of art' and not 'left-wing art', which, to me, are significantly different. I'm interested to see what you have to say about forms and the social (which, for me, is an important issue, and one that T.J. Clarke, for example, is quite interesting on), and look forward to reading about it. The notion of forms/modernity already in your Overland post/comments is one I did find intriguing.

From my point of view, this does clarify your position (at least a bit), and does a better job of differentiating it from the complaints about the lack of 'issue-based' novels that have been issuing from Franzen et al over the last decade.

I still have a great number of questions and concerns, I suppose, but at this point, I think I'll hold off on those until you write about the issue more (and, for that matter, I don't think I've done a great job in explaining exactly where I'm coming from, either--and whenever I find some time in the next few weeks, I might try to write something clarifying that, too).

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