Monday, 4 July 2011

Literature's New Clothes

Contemporary literary fiction is a case of the Emperor's new clothes. It is time somebody shouted out from the crowd: "But they aren't writing anything at all!"

Plato distinguished the products of what we now call "art" as those whose appearance alone is of interest. These days, we may quickly move to dismiss this definition, given the iconic status attributed to several twentieth-century artworks that seem to undermine it, not least those indiscernibles whose appearance cannot be definitive, or those conceptual pieces which do not appear at all. But even these artworks have entered the fray broadly as examples of visual art. And, for visual art, the challenging of Plato's claim, that art is appearance alone, has about it just that kind of apparent impossibility that suits so well the spirit of the avant-garde.

But what of literature? Not so easy for literature to position itself in respect of Plato's claim - and it was a claim originally intended to be true of poetry more than of any other art form - given that appearance would seem almost the preserve of the visual. We might say, then, that, as the visual arts pursued an almost impossible antipathy towards appearance, the literary arts pursued an almost impossible affinity with appearance, through that aspect of appearance that was, happily, both the perfect mode of appearance for literature and the favoured mode of appearance for Plato: form.

But has not literary form had its day? Have the formalists, and the structuralists, and the post-formalists and the post-structuralists, not been and gone? True, but something still remains of form: not any literary form, but the form of literature itself. Contemporary literary fiction continues the attempt to live up to Plato's definition of art - which, for Plato, made art true - by writing in a manner to give the appearance alone of literature. The effect is a genre in which, for the writer, the sense of Writing Literature is dominant, and, for the reader, the sense of Reading Literature is dominant. And this effect is produced, not simply by the abandonment of most of the elements of character and plot, not simply even by an avoidance of high-literary language and style, but by a self-conscious juxtaposition of the signs of excruciating effort - short, elliptical sentences; absence of fulsome description; muted tone of painful sublimation - with the signs of iconoclastic casualness - colloquialisms; lack of trajectory; air of the incidental. This is how the appearance alone of literature is pursued: by the combination of painful retention, of a Literature that will never appear, and easy production, of a Literature that need only appear.

The Emperor ordered his new suit of clothes to appear invisible only to those stupid and incompetent subjects not fit to remain at their posts. And there does seem that kind of intellectual stake in contemporary literary fiction, that those who cannot appreciate it are those too stupid to do so. But stupid people too can read and write. It is just that, for now, they must do so without giving the appearance of doing so. They must wear clothes that people can see, which leaves them far more exposed than they would be if they wore clothes that only appeared.

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