“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

Monday, June 10, 2013

Decline Polemics

Over the last year, there has been a lot of discussion about the role of popular criticism in Australian literary culture. I have written two pieces that touch on this subject in different ways: ‘Critical Danger’ for the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas, and ‘In the Same Boat’ for the Sydney Review of Books. I have been very pleased that both of these pieces have received some attention, and also that they have been mentioned in two other very intelligent articles on Australian book reviewing—Ben Etherington’s ‘The Brain Feign’ and Kerryn Goldsworthy’s ‘Everyone’s A Critic’ (which, sadly, is behind a paywall). While I admire the work of both critics (indeed, Goldsworthy quite rightly received this year’s Pascall Prize for criticism), I would nonetheless like to clarify an important aspect of my position that these articles have, albeit understandably, misconstrued.
My critical stance towards aspects of contemporary literary culture has led both Etherington and Goldsworthy to presume my arguments are examples of the ‘decline polemic’, a genre that—as both authors suggest—is a commonly repeated lament across literary cultures throughout history. Etherington draws this conclusion by quoting the end of my article for the Wheeler Centre, mistaking the note I chose to end on for something more apocalyptic than I intended:
More recently, however, roused by Silverman’s complaints in Slate, Stinson has issued his own ‘decline’ clarion: ‘Australian literature should be embattled, passionately fought over … Australian literature doesn’t need saving or preserving – what it needs are partisans, contrarians and heretics.’ The change in pitch would seem to be the result of an increasing awareness of the ‘invidious networks of backscratching and bootlicking’ of online literary communities: it turns out that strongly critical voices are necessary … now!
My critique was not motivated by such ‘invidious networks of backscratching,’ nor do I think the existence of such networks indicates a ‘decline’. As I pointed out in the article, my belief is that social media has simply made these networks ‘newly open to public scrutiny’. In other words, social media, from my perspective, has not created a problem, but rather made explicit a set of networks that have more or less always been there. This is not a decline, but rather a historical continuity.
        Goldsworthy similarly sees both my piece and, interestingly, Etherington’s piece (which I have quoted above) as contemporary examples of ‘the “decline” theme’ which ‘have focused specifically on the Australian literary critical scene and have found it lacking for some of the usual reasons, though both also make other, better and more important arguments.’ Once again, my objection is that my critique of some contemporary reviewing practices does not constitute a belief that there has been a decline in reviewing. I have read too much about the historical reception of texts to believe that there was a golden era of reviewing. One only needs to consider historical examples like William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, whose reviews were so careless that they inspired a book-length response called Fire the Bastards! by Jack Green, or even T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which inspired a shock and outrage in some reviewers that seems unimaginable today. Indeed, I think bad reviewing is a perennial (and likely intractable) problem, and I would actually argue that the persistence of more genuine ‘decline’ polemics testifies to this fact. Again, what I see actually suggests a historical continuity rather than a decline. My main argument in ‘In the Same Boat’ was actually about precisely such a historical continuity: I claim that the cultural cringe still exists, albeit in a new permutation (a point I will return to in a minute)
Admittedly, however, both of these articles—as Etherington notes—sounded a polemical note. Perhaps it was too opaque, but my heightened rhetoric here had a very specific target: those prominent advocates of Australian literary nationalism who have claimed that that Australian literature is being ignored by both universities and the public, and needs to be ‘saved’ from obscurity. I am not entirely unsympathetic to the quite sincere passions that have motivated these nationalist diatribes, but I am (rightly, I think) nervous about the conservative, unnuanced and ultimately ahistorical approach to literature that such positions typically foster. Attempting to create (and institutionally implement) an Australian literary canon is also, from my perspective, not only undesirable but also unlikely to bring about the ends that these nationalists desire. To use a completely anecdotal example, I was educated entirely in the U.S., and yet I never took a single course that included works by Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Emerson, Hemingway, or Thomas Wolfe, but I don’t think U.S. literature is suffering because of this fact.
I will also note that this new literary nationalism happens to coincide (in what certainly is not a coincidence) with several major publishers’ reprinting lists of Australian ‘classics’. Those who know anything about the publishing industry know that selling reprints of classic works is highly profitable, since such reprints don’t incur editing and typesetting costs, are typically printed with stock artwork across a list (i.e. less expensive cover designs), and are often printed on inferior (and therefore cheaper) paper. Works in the public domain are even more profitable, since no royalties need to be paid to the author, meaning that the publisher absorbs the author’s margin (which is usually around 10% of the recommend retail price). For these reasons, it is difficult to discern where the new nationalism stops and the economic rationalism begins.  
             While I remain sceptical of this new nationalism, which I do not think ultimately addresses the unique historical factors that are indirectly affecting publishing, criticism, and literary production more generally, I also wanted to avoid the trap of much academic criticism—often written in abstracted, officious tone—that pretends to have risen above all worldly interests to arrive at the only logical conclusion possible. I was trying to argue for a concept of criticism that is impassioned and opinionated, but still analytical and reflexive. 
         Given the positions articulated both here and in the article itself, the most head-scratching response to ‘In the Same Boat’ comes from Ali Alizadeh, who, in a post for Southerly, seems to think that I support the nationalist position (I explicitly state my disagreement with the literary nationalists twice in the article). He also seems to think the fact that Cate Kennedy published several books in Australia before being published in The New Yorker refutes my point. But this actually supports my argument: despite a strong local track record of publishing, she only received broader notoriety after international success in The New Yorker. Despite these oddities, I agree with many of Alizadeh’s other arguments, including that literature serves an ideological function; indeed, one of the key points of my article was to argue that certain ‘progressive’, liberal notions of multiculturalism and globalism in Australia paradoxically foster a nationalist ideology (a point that has been made, if in very different terms and contexts, by Ghassan Hage), and that Australian literary production reflects this fact. 
          The problem with Alizadeh’s argument—and the reason, I think, why he misinterprets my arguments—is that he has completely failed to understand the cultural cringe. Alizadeh seems to think that the cultural cringe cannot exist because he finds ‘the proposal that contemporary Australians may be lacking in national pride rather absurd’. I agree that Australians have national pride (again, I make this point explicitly in my article), but having national pride does not mean that the cringe has been overcome; in point of fact, such nationalism is actually part of the cringe, a point that A.A. Phillips himself makes by terming excessive displays of national pride the ‘cringe inverted’. The cringe is a phenomenon that actually represents the anxiety that Australians feel about their own cultural products in relation to foreign culture. This anxiety can manifest in strange and paradoxical ways, which is precisely what I tried to argue in ‘In the Same Boat’—that the new internationalism in Australian literary production still responds to the same anxieties that motivated the original cringe, even if it manifests in a very different form. Indeed, the fact that so many conversations about the place of Australian literature in relation to global literatures have taken place, regardless of the positions taken by the various interlocutors, seems to me to suggest that the anxieties which have underpinned the various forms of the cringe are very much alive and well.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Against Creativity

The below was a “provocation” I delivered at the conference NonfictionNow held last weekend in Melbourne for a panel (dubiously) entitled "Public Sphere Literary Criticism as Creative Nonfiction."

The main contention of this panel, as I understand it, is that literary criticism in general, and book reviewing in particular, should be viewed as a creative act. It’s worth thinking briefly about why such a claim would be contentious—and the answer, I think, is that definitions of creativity over the last 500 years have typically evolved in opposition to conceptions of criticism and scholarship. The key term in the history of the division between criticism and creativity is genius.
When the conception of genius appeared in the 18th Century, the artist’s task was profoundly changed: unlike the master artists of the classical tradition, geniuses did not require formal schooling to master their artistic technique. As Edward Young noted in his Conjectures on Original Composition from 1759, ‘genius is from heaven, learning from man.’ For the genius to rely too heavily on erudition would result in scholastic imitation, rather than radical originality.
But the genius’s ability to generate original works of art comes at a great price: the genius is not capable of understanding how his or her own work is produced, because the genius’s creative ability is not a product of rational understanding, but an innate faculty or talent. As Kant says in his Critique of Judgment, ‘no Homer or Wieland can show how his ideas, so rich at once in fantasy and in thought, enter and assemble themselves in his brain, for the good reason that he does not himself know, and so cannot teach others.’ In simple terms, genius is, above all, a figure who does not understand what it is he is doing.
         Because the genius can only produce work without understanding it, the post-Kantian paradigm of art had to suppose an informed spectator in the form of a knowledgeable critic, who—in a relationship not dissimilar to that of the analysand and analyst—supplements the work of art by explaining what it means. The critic becomes necessary for decoding the work of art, which the genius produced but can’t possibly understand. The result of this fairly sad state of historical affairs is that critics and artists have been pitted as would-be antagonists, even as each has parasitically relied upon the other.
           But the notion of the genius that I have just described died somewhere in the second half of the 20th Century, I think—I will let you decide where. Instead, we are in the process of developing a new notion of aesthetics in which the key term is no longer genius, but rather creativity. While I am in no way nostalgic for the older paradigm of genius, it is nonetheless hard to see the new paradigm of creativity as a positive development. Creativity is one of those words that provokes an immediately positive response, and therefore is beloved by bureaucracy. 
          Creativity, above all, is a neoliberal and late capitalist word that we associate not only with such entities as creative writing programs, but also with economic concepts like the creative class and cultural creatives—and what creativity signals above all else is a lifestyle choice, a choice to be the kind of romantic, inner-city dwelling person who is not tied down to a specific locality, a restrictive work schedule, and who does not see the value in traditional institutions (in this sense, the advertising "creative" may be the figure of contemporary creativity par excellence). The “creative” person is thus a member of a transnational, cosmopolitan bourgeoisie, and “creativity” itself becomes a celebration of precisely this state of affairs.
The paradigm of creativity no longer needs the critic, because “creatives” are not interested in criticism or in systematic critical thinking or even the history of art, since being creative is about being in an amnesiac and ever-present state of possibility—a constant state of a potential coming to fullness that ultimately reflects the hyperproductivity of a globalised, networked post-historical monoculture. Indeed, creativity is, for better or worse, simply the cultural equivalent of what is perhaps neoliberalism’s favourite word—innovation, and the modern paradigm of the creative individual more or less adheres to a model of entrepreneurship, albeit an entrepreneurship in which the return on investment is perpetually delayed, perhaps until death and even beyond.
Under the paradigm of creativity, the critic’s traditional function has been absorbed by a new set of institutions that now consecrate creative works. Much of the process of canonization of writers now falls onto the prize system, and literary culture, for better or worse, has become almost entirely a prize culture—a state that is evident in the way all authors’ bios list not only their wins but also the instances in which they have been shortlisted for an ever proliferating number of literary prizes.
Although it is increasingly being stripped of both its cultural capital and largely phased out of a variety of institutions, such as universities and the media, where humanities and book reviews appear under constant threat, criticism is more important now than ever. For the reasons I described above, I would be very happy if criticism—despite the fact that it certainly involves and requires creativity in the everyday sense—continues to stay away from creativity. Even better, I truly hope that it takes a few artists with it, pushing them to be not creative at all, but scholastic, learned, imitative, critical, to accept that rational thought is part of the repertoire of human experience and emotions rather than something that is opposed to emotion, and to aspire towards work that is difficult, rigorous, complex, obscure, discomfiting, challenging, and even painful from time to time. Rather than a creative criticism, how about a criticism that aspires toward a non-creative fiction, towards a more substantial art than the disposable commercial realism of most so-called literary works?
          I would suggest that in the current climate of “creativity,” criticism’s job—its work—is to be both utopian and reactionary, and to do what it can to work against the diffusion of generic principles of a marketable creativity, to argue for the value of difficulty, and to excavate and enliven dead traditions that have too quickly been cast-off by a modernity that has attempted to declare all of history obsolete. In simple terms, it still falls to the critic to encourage people to think, to read, to question, and to remind everyone that art is and needs to be something more than an entertaining reflection of our vertiginous world which seems stuck in a never-ending present even as it hurtles toward an uncertain future.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

My Struggle (Vol. 1) By Karl Ove Knausgaard

The first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle is simultaneously very easy and virtually impossible to do justice to in a book review. On the one hand, this is a novel whose very name aims for provocation: it's Norwegian title, Min Kamp, explicitly echoes Hitler's Mein Kampf. Moreover, the incredible ambition of the book screams for attention: billed by its publishers, Archipelago Books, as a "Proustian" novel, My Struggle stretches across six volumes all of which purport to dissect its author's life with an obsessive attention to detail. Indeed, the book, which was a bestseller in Norway, has prompted intense, negative reactions from many of the real people "depicted" in the book, including Knausgaard's uncle and his first wife. But these newsworthy details are ultimately misleading, and My Struggle is a far more nuanced, subtle and complicated book than this thumbnail sketch would suggest. In my opinion, it is also, without a doubt, the most exceptional novel yet to be published this year.
     The book opens with an abstract passage that has been much quoted in reviews: "For the heart, life is simple: it beats as long as it can. Then it stops." After several pages of beautiful expository prose, the narrative mostly focuses on Knusgaard's childhood and adolescence, with particular attention paid to his problematic relationship with his father. Much of the material here--though excellently paced--may feel like a fairly typical Bildungsroman: the older Karl Ove reflects on his younger self's naivete and failings with a subtle and distanced irony that recalls not just Proust but the long tradition of the self-ironizing "confession" that stretches back through Rousseau and Augustine. There is a wonderful charge to this section, and, although I grew up in America and not Norway and am over a decade younger that Knausgaard, I identified directly with a great deal of this material--as I suspect will most Western readers (in this sense, My Struggle demonstrates how universal cultural experiences in the first world have become under late capitalism). But I was also struck by the fact that at points the prose seems--while never dull--almost unremarkable; the attention to detail is beyond fastidious, and many recountings of conversations violate the first rule of novelistic dialogue (which is never to allow a character to give a straight answer to a simple question).
     As it turns out, however, this approach--though never calling attention to itself too directly--is essential to Knausgaard's aesthetics, which are indirectly articulated in the brilliant second half of the novel. Although My Struggle's style could hardly be considered Modernist, in the second section it becomes clear that the book takes very seriously the long history of 20th Century art, and what it seeks is rather to chart an alternate path to Modernity; instead of rejecting the mimetic mode of "realism" (in the 19th-Century sense), My Struggle is a hypertrophic realism, in which detail accumulates to the point where traditional modes of mimesis are overwhelmed by detail itself. The novel explains this position when Karl Ove discusses his preference for pre-20th Century paintings: "However, it was striking to me that [my favourite works] were all painted before the 1900s, within the artistic paradigm that always retained some reference to visible reality. Thus, there was always a certain objectivity to them, by which I mean a distance between reality and the portrayal of reality, and it was doubtless in this interlying space where it 'happened,' where it appeared, whatever it was I saw, when the world seemed to step forward from the world." (Obviously, this section also provides a key insight into the novel's complicated configuration of biography and fiction.) 
     Put simply, My Struggle is as much about the struggle to write a novel after the weight of the 20th Century and literary theory (the book explicitly references, albeit in a thankfully non-systematic fashion, Derrida, Walter Benjamin, and Blanchot), as it is about the life of "Karl Ove Knausgaard." Yes, there are intentional nods toward Proust; aside from being six volumes long, there are many descriptions of tea brewing in tea cups, which might be an allusion to Proust's "episode of the madeleine," although Knausgaard's versions are intentionally stripped of symbolic value through their repetition--and in this sense the seeming allusion is actually a marker of distance. If My Struggle is "Proustian," then it's a Proustian novel after Blanchot--a Proustian series of rememberances in which any sentimental notion of memory itself is intentionally "unworked" by an overly rigorous attention to detail, which becomes claustrophobic in the second half of the novel as Karl Ove is required to clean his grandmother's absolutely squalid house. The final section also significantly involves a corpse--a seeming invocation of Blanchot's "Two Versions of The Imaginary," a text that links the notion of the work of art directly to the conception of a dead body.
     At the same time, it's worth emphasising that this book is surprisingly easy to read; despite the fact that very little happens, there are a huge number of fulfilling narrative revelations, and, for this reason, I haven't tried to say too much about the novel's plot as such. What I will note is that the novel, in this sense, also represents a major achievement: for all of its (clearly) high-art pedigree, it is a book that will equally appeal to fans of more standard literary faire, and this, to me, is what makes it an exceptional work of literature: My Struggle simultaneously follows in both the 19th Century realist tradition and the 20th Century Modernist tradition (which rejected realism!)--no small feat. This is why My Struggle is likely to be the best book published this year. There have been other great novels out this year, like Laszlo Krasznahorkai's Satantango--but however good, Satantango is recongnisably a certain kind of late modern/postmodern novel: whereas Satantango's shifting perspectives, Faulknerian long sentences, thematic considerations of observation (i.e. Foucault's Panopticism/Systems Theory/Quantum Mechanics), and Moebius-Strip structure all draw from a well-established playbook, My Struggle cannot be so easily categorized. This isn't to criticise Satantango, which is a great late-modernist, high-art novel, but only to point out that it is a great example of a certain tradition rather than an exceeding of that tradition as such. My Struggle, on the other hand, represents something genuinely new--the establishment of a possibility in literature that has not yet been exhausted by Joyce or Proust or Woolf or Sebald or Gertrude Stein (although, arguably, My Struggle's compulsive detail is not entirely distant from Stein's linguistic obsessiveness). Simply put, this is one of the few books from the last decade (I would list Bolano's 2666 as another) to demonstrate that the novel has life left in it, and that there are trajectories that remain beyond the well-trodden paths of Modernism and Postmodernism. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

'Graham Greene Is The World's Greatest Second-Rate Novelist'

Below is a video of a talk I gave the other month on Graham Greene's The Quiet American, a book that I am ultimately not fond of (for reasons that I articulate in the video). Also, N.B. the clip assumes you have read the novel, so there are massive spoilers about the ending from the very start.

Monday, July 30, 2012

'The Problem with the New Yorker Story Is That It's Too Well Written'

My friend Adam Rivett drew my attention to these totally awesome Bookworm interviews with Gilbert Sorrentino, who is/was one of my heroes (and the author of the quote at the top of this blog). Anyone interested in his work--and, really, anyone who has ever wanted to be a writer or an artist--should buy Sorrentino's brilliant Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things immediately. But these interviews also provide some really useful insights into his writing, and they also emphasise the continuity between Sorrentino's work and the 'homemade' quality of much American modernism--in that both attain a great deal of textual and theoretical complexity while engaging with material that is openly local and often (intentionally) banal. But despite engaging with the simple, Sorrentino's work remains both philosophically dense (it is not inappropriate, for example, to note a resonance between Sorrentino's ideas and Blanchot's literary theory) and innovative in a rigorously formal manner (much of Sorrentino's methodology, as the below interview emphasises, resembles Oulipo).

In this interview, Sorrentino also does a great job of explaining something that I have often not been able to articulate clearly: why I don't like The New Yorker (many of whose staff members are soon to descend upon Melbourne). Sorrentino's point, both brilliant and humble, is that the problem with the kind of realist fiction that the The New Yorker represents is that it appears to know things, or to teach us things, with a kind of discomfiting certainty:

'The problem is that the writers who write those [New Yorker] stories always annoy me because they take this position in which they supposedly have the answers. They know everything. Well, I don't know everything. I know very little. And my point is to try to write a book that is true to its own structure...a writer can only really lie in terms of his form. He can't really lie any other way.'

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On the Arriere-Garde

'Since the end of the 19th Century then, literature has been living under the sign of anachronism: it does not feel in sync anymore, either with society and with the expectations it no longer feels capable of fulfilling, or--[a] fate which is even worse--with itself and with the ideals that Romanticism lent to it. It is not enough then to consider arriere-gardism as the simple reality of a few marginalized literary movements which should only interest us to the extent we seek to exhaust all aspects of history. On the contrary, we should enlarge our perspective and face the facts: literature in the 20th century existed in a state of generalized arriere-gardism, and in the general feeling of a permanent time delay of which, paradoxically, the existence of the avant-garde was the most flagrant indicator. If the century that has just ended can still retain the title "century of the avant-garde", and if the avant-garde has succeeded in making its presence felt more than ever, it is for a reason. And it is for the same reason that the question of the rapport with the past has never been asked with such anguish: in the 20th century, literature lost its temporal markers and had to create artificial ones to remedy the loss; the invention of avant-gardist tension, a tension that was as political as it was aesthetic, had no other real function but to impose a power orientation--even though it was part of a fictional one--on a history that seemed to lack meaning. The avant-garde forges a way to the future: it seeks a way out of the crisis by moving ahead or simply by leaving History. Vincent Kaufmann puts it this way: the avant-garde authors "never tackled anything else than the project of a total book, that is, the Book, representing the end of books, in every sense of the word".'
--William Marx, 'The 20th Century: Century of the Arriere-Gardes?' in Europa! Europa? The Avant-Garde, Modernism and the Fate of a Continent, Eds. Sascha Bru et al.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On the Figure of the Aporia

“Why this language, which does not fortuitously resemble that of negative theology? How to justify the choice of negative form (aporia) to designate a duty that, through the impossible or the impracticable, nonetheless announces itself in an affirmative fashion? Because one must avoid good conscience at all costs. Not only good conscience as the grimace of an indulgent vulgarity, but quite simply the assured form of self-consciousness: good conscience as subjective certainty is incompatible with the absolute risk that every promise, every engagement, and every responsible decision—if there are such—must run. To protect the decision or the responsibility by knowledge, by some theoretical assurance, or by the certainty of being right, of being on the side of science, of consciousness or of reason, is to transform this experience into the deployment of a program, into a technical application of a rule or a norm, or into the subsumption of a determined ‘case.’”
                                           --Jacques Derrida, Aporias, 19.