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.


  1. I'm struck by your contempt for contemporary literary fiction as a recent phenomenon; that withering adjective! Can you say how is it distinct from "the literary arts [that] pursued an almost impossible affinity with appearance"? The past tense is intriguing. When did this pursuance end?

    I suppose there's an answer in your reference to the theorists (structuralists, formalists) who have been and gone, leaving only the form of literature rather than something less pure. Can we assume then that literature is thereby dependent on a theoretical apparatus for it to appear or disappear? You imply this in trusting to Plato's defining light which somehow has never been and gone, and as if his dialogues are themselves not also a form of literature pursuing an impossible affinity with appearance. Yet how can it be otherwise, and where would this leave stupid people?

    Your contempt for unnamed writers writing "short, elliptical sentences" etc. suggests these techniques are in contrast to those who used "character and plot" and "high-literary language and style". Yet both are mere genre features, both inevitable as the writer either trusts to the form or appearance it promises or one remains like Socrates literarily silent (but, as Blanchot points out, even he sought metaphysical weight to his words by drinking hemlock Рbecoming a generic human corpse). The only distinction you offer is the former's "self-conscious" use of techniques. Yet how can one tell which is self-conscious and which is not? Your lack of examples leads me to presume a frustration with literature itself rather than its practioners and contemporary examples. Literature is after all necessarily the emperor's new clothes, a clich̩ conveniently masking the critic's wish also to be naked.

  2. That Plato's defining light has never been and gone is one of the (surprising, perhaps) implications of the state of contemporary fiction rather than a predetermining condition of my reading of it, I think. I do not trust in it further than as it seems to me to offer a plausible explanation for the development in question, that is, of literature through the twentieth century and up to the present. That Plato too wrote literary pieces, and that the definition that I take from him is given and expanded upon in a literary form is, I think, in the nature of critical discussion; unlike Plato, we do not hope for, certainly we do not wait for, the grounds of our critical practices to be free of the conditions of which we would be critical! If and when this makes a material difference to our arguments, then we may address the issue in terms of its implications for their content, and not just their formal acceptability...

    I think a version of this response might be given also to the identification of emphasis on, or rejection of, strong character and plot as, equally, generic. My argument rests on the presupposition that some genres, not to put too fine a point on it, are better, more enlightening, more productive, than others, because they are less self-involved, less self-congratulatory, or other contemptuous descriptors. In this sense, it is not the case that all genres trust to form or appearance, although I think it is the case that it has become almost impossible to write "literature" without doing so. One of our only defenses against this, in "critical" writing at present, is the use of the scare code (""); in "literary" writing, the situation is equally challenging: how to write against what is now understood as "writing."

    The objection that there are no examples provided is well-founded, and well-taken I hope, but not so well-taken as to tempt me to seek them out. In this case, I would rather form a hasty opinion and then work to consider it reasonably, that to form the kind of reasonable opinion that would require me to read what I clearly do not enjoy! And that admission leaves me just about as naked as the critic can be!

  3. I had to smile in reading this and have to stick up my hand to say that much of what I've attempted as literary writing has been "a self-conscious juxtaposition of the signs of excruciating effort with the signs of iconoclastic casualness", with an emphasis on "excruciating". I have been appropriately self aware to realise that I am indeed an Emperor naked. I have though a reader who most would consider too illiterate to see my invisibility cloak. And in his blunt way he shouts out my nakedness to me and says, "You're not writing anything at all. You know why. I'm not getting past the first paragraph." Then I get embarrassed and he gets embarrassed that I'm embarrassed and we talk about what has appeared between us.