ReadySteadyBlog

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.

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.

A Pragmatic Policy has an extremely bloated and yet rather dull-witted response to Zadie Smith's recent, excellent NYRB article Two Paths for the Novel. It can be enjoyed alongside a similarly uncomprehending attempt at a rejoinder, Zadie Smith’s annoying Critique of ‘Realism’ (sic!), from Nigel Beale.


There are countless non-sequitors and much out-of-place hubris in both responses, which I'll leave y'all to chew on yourselves, but I would like to respond to both parties failure to understand Smith's central point that the "perfection" of what Smith calls lyrical Realism (ELF to me) is not a good thing.


Talking about Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, Smith says, "It seems perfectly done -- in a sense that’s the problem." Neither Beale nor APP gets why this is so spot-on. Perhaps a visual analogy would help them? Artists could keep painting wonderful, detailed landscapes -- different landscapes, in competing realist styles -- but art wouldn't move forward until a dude put a bog in an art gallery and called it art or, 20-odd years later, another dude put a canvas on the floor and started dribbling paint all over it!


The Victorian novel with a few Jamesian knobs on (lyrical Realism, ELF, call it what you will) is not the only path the novel can take. Its dominance means that each year a flood of Booker-ready novels in the sclerotic genre of literary fiction are declared masterpieces. Some of them are near-perfect embodiments of the genre which their near word-perfect amanuenses have bodied forth, but that perfection pushes them far away from literature itself.

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.

 

Bored with ELF!? I've not read anything published by these folk, but they look like they might be interesting: Fiction Collective Two "is an author-run, not-for-profit publisher of artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction. FC2 is supported in part by the University of Utah, the University of Houston - Victoria, University of Alabama Press, Illinois State University, and private contributors."


Of course, just as "Booker-winner" is code for dull, dull, dull, experimental fiction can be code for all over the place, but, regardless, FC2 might be worth y'all taking a look at.

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...)

My recent post asking why fiction is (in response to James Wood's book How Fiction Works) prompted some interesting comments here on RSB and a very good discussion over on This Space, where I've attempted to elucidate my original post by writing, "the 'ontological status', then, of fiction is what I'm thinking about here. Blanchot and Heidegger guide the thinking. For sure, my question touches on the personal reasons as to why a writer might choose fiction to express themselves, but I wanted to draw attention to fiction's own being, to its own ground, to our assumptions about it before we approach or write or read it. These assumptions are rarely aired, but a strain of writing from Sterne through to Robbe-Grillet has attempted to grapple with them in their own fiction."


And now this excellent post from the No Answers blog:


... fiction itself is very much about its own response to this argument. More than representation, more than beauty, perceived or otherwise, more than didactic elucidation, it remains the very thing that rebuffs such questions, and it is within such a general rebuttal that it defines itself. Note that I don't mean by this that fiction is somehow inherently ambiguous, or contradictory, or disingenuous: fiction is simply this -- that which continues to escape.

I mentioned the other week my disappointment about James Wood's How Fiction Works. One of the first rules of book reviewing, surely, is that you review the book at hand on its own terms? No point complaining that a book called, say, The History of Rugby has nothing in its pages about football. A fair review of How Fiction Works, then, would critique and/or praise its terminology, its history, its readings and its style. It would judge what it was setting out to teach and see if it achieved its own goals. Wood sticks close to the commonly used critical lexicon (and is very good at explaining free indirect style which has, effectively, become his phrase), contextualises the books he reads, is a conscientious and voracious reader, and whilst he exclaims a little too often and sometimes confuses approbation with attentiveness, is a fairly decent writer in his own right too. What How Fiction Works sets out to do it does well enough. I wish it had been a more ambitious book and I wish Wood's oft-remarked intelligence was more clearly on show (his book is a good crib, no more); but it does what it does very well.


My problem with How Fiction Works then is, to some extent, rather beside the point. Articulating my problem with it contravenes that first rule of book reviewing that I mentioned above, but a footnote to the rule is that it is surely right to point out, regardless of its local felicities, whether a book is wrong-headed. My problem with How Fiction Works is that how fiction works is not a very interesting question (hence Wood's perfectly adequate answer becomes a not particularly interesting book).


When faced with a novel, I'm not reading as a practitioner or would-be practitioner. Close reading, for me, isn't an attempt to unlock a code, it isn't about seeing how it has all been done, so I can then go away, tooled-up, and create a version of it myself.


I'm not interested in such unpicking, but not because I don't want to "ruin the magic" or some such: I'm not interested because I think far more interesting questions about the novel need to be asked. It seems to me that asking how fiction works is a very dull question indeed next to the existential one that really matters: why fiction is.

Elizabeth A. Brown reviews Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Good Writing over at csmonitor.com. Brown says, Leonard wants the writer to be invisible: "Good writing is not about the writer (and the way he sounds or the size of her vocabulary), but about the story."


Not for me.


For me, good writing is precisely about the writer and their struggle to write what they are writing (for sure, I'm not interested in the size of anyone's vocabulary!) Otherwise it is merely a story ... and I'm not that interested in stories. Or -- better -- I am interested in stories, but my interest is second to my interest in why this particular writer thinks that this particular story is important enough for them to write and me to read. A self-consciousness about the act of writing and reading needs to be folded into the writing for the writing in front of me to become more than merely a vehicle to carry a plot. Only with that self-consciousness -- adroitly brought about and not merely some clever postmodern intervention where the writer tells you (s)he is writing -- can I be sure that the novelist hasn't simple taken the general shape of your typical literary fiction novel for granted and merely filled in the gaps. If that is the case, the novel becomes artless, empty, and I quickly lose interest in ... yet another story. No matter how accomplished, a novel that just tells me a story also tells me that the novelist hasn't thought enough about exactly what they are doing when and as they write.


Brown says, Leonard's most important rule sums up the rest: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." With this, I mostly concur. If it sounds like novelese, run away! Indeed, this was the problem I had with Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe which I finished reading yesterday evening.


Giovanni Drogo is a young army officer who is posted to Fort Bastiani, a remote and almost forgotten outpost that looks out over the desert and mountains of the steppe and onto the barren reaches of the Northern Kingdom. There is a vague possibility that acrimonious relations with the Northern Kingdom could, at any time, descend into war. There is an even vaguer chance that if war were to come it would arrive over the inhospitable steppe. Whilst younger officers, like Drogo, keep their spirits up with constant chatter about the possibility of such an attack, the older officers know better. They have spent a lifetime waiting, they've succumbed to many a false hope but, in their hearts, they know that no-one will attack, certainly not over the steppe, and that their chance to prove themselves as valiant soldiers has slowly died over the course of many years pointlessly waiting for something to happen. Drogo is astute enough to see this. As soon as he arrives at the Fort he asks to be posted somewhere else, but is persuaded to stay for a few months. Those months turn into years. The years quickly turn into a lifetime.


The Tartar Steppe is a very good book, but it is not "great" because it overreaches and becomes poetic at just the wrong moments and in absolutely the wrong way. It succumbs to its own story and ruins the stark effect it has been striving for by piling up the adjectives and metaphors (particular in the key moment when one of the officers, Angustina, dies on a nonsensical trip to the border). The whole book is a tremendously powerful allegory anyway and it does not need the writing to underscore the allegory. Like Henry James does in his breathtaking Beast in the Jungle, Buzzati shows clearly the absurdity of spending a life waiting for a life-changing event: life is the journey, not the destination, simply because the destination of the absurd journey is the same for each of us. If we wait around, biding our time, endlessly watching for some episode to validate our lives, our lives will pass, our life will have been wasted. But, then, as all life ends in death, a wasted life and a fulfilled life end up looking much the same.


This is a book that will linger long in the mind ... and, doubtless, it will improve there! It will become, in memory, as unalloyed and beautiful as it hopes it is on the page but, actually, on the page it often strained: sometimes too flowery, sometimes awkward and mawkish. But, goodness, much better than most of the nonsense one reads!


Ellis Sharp enthusiastically reviews RSB-contributor Lee Rourke's book of shorts Everyday on his blog The Sharp Side. Hopefully, my copy will arrive soon!


Every insurrection requires leadership and drive. In storming the citadel of Establishment Literary Fiction, Lee Rourke has, over the past two or three years, emerged as the V.I. Lenin of the literary underground. As the editor of Scarecrow he has both set out a manifesto and passionately and enthusiastically promoted a very diverse range of writers from the margins of our culture. We are no longer in the realm of Martin and Julian and Ian but in a bleaker, less consoling place. Stewart Home, Ann Quin, Noah Cicero, Tom McCarthy. And many, many others. An alternative geography of literature to the ones in the corporate supplements, the corporate review pages.

T'was I who first coined the phrase Establishment Literary Fiction and I'll be writing more here on the blog, and elsewhere, about what I consider it to be very soon. But I just wanted to note, today, that by deriding most current literary fiction as merely a particular brand of genre fiction, I wasn't suggesting that the remedy for this was something one might call "anti-Establishment Literary Fiction."


Novels/short-story collections are churned out in their tens of thousands each year. The antidote to this excess of mediocrity is art. It is artistry that is lacking in so very much of what is pumped out today, and being anti-corporate is no guarantee that what you are writing is not going to simply be an inverted form of Establishment Literary Fiction itself.

In this week's TLS there is an abridged version Gabriel Josipovici's lecture What Ever Happened to Modernism? (which I heard Gabriel give in London, back in March, as did Stephen Mitchelmore and Ellis Sharp).


The lecture, and now the essay (which I'm afraid isn't online), made me think again about Establishment Literary Fiction (ELF). It isn't that ELF is bad. Some ELF is good. And certainly much of it is very good indeed at being ELF! But since Modernism, and again since Modernism's questions were re-articulated by the writers of the nouveau roman — especially, then, for those who see the novel as a mode of enquiry or, better, a mode of discovery ELF seems to me to be the embodiment of Bad Faith. It manifests a willing refusal to acknowledge that the questions that Modernism posed even exist (or that the novel might be a place to inquire about their answers).


Therefore, ELF endlessly repeats the tropes and styles of the Victorian Novel, with its fingers in its ears, shouting its (sometimes very good) narrative, flaunting its (sometimes very finely drawn) characters, refusing to be interrogated and refusing to recognise its own structural ressentiment.

John Self, over on his Asylum blog, has written an excellent review of Roth's Exit Ghost. John's review could easily grace the pages of any broadsheet, but it misses what makes Roth's book so exciting and different to the mass of adequate Establishment Literary Fiction that crowds the shelves.


James Wood gets nearer to what makes Roth special in his New Yorker article Parade’s End: The many lives of Nathan Zuckerman:


Roth has been the great stealth postmodernist of American letters, able to have his cake and eat it without any evidence of crumbs. This is because he does not regard himself as a postmodernist. He is intensely interested in fabrication, in the performance of the self, in the reality that we make up in order to live; but his fiction examines this “without sacrificing the factuality of time and place to surreal fakery or magic-realist gimmickry,” as Zuckerman approvingly says of Lonoff’s work. Roth does not want to use his games to remind us, tediously and self-consciously, that Nathan and Amy and Lonoff are just “invented characters.” Quite the opposite. Unstartled by their inventedness, he swims through depthless skepticism toward a series of questions that are gravely metaphysical, and more Jamesian than Pynchonian: How much of any self is pure invention? Isn’t such invention as real to us as reality? But then how much reality can we bear? Roth knows that this kind of inquiry, far from robbing his fiction of reality, provokes an intense desire in his readers to invest his invented characters with solid reality, just as Nathan once invested the opaque Amy Bellette with the reality of Anne Frank. In this kind of work, the reader and the writer do something similar—they are both creating real fictions.

Roth "does not regard himself as a postmodernist." And neither do I. The power of Exit Ghost comes from Jamesian questions, as Wood says, not postmodernist answers. The power comes from Roth's modernism.

Over the past couple of weeks I've read three vaunted books: Bruno Arpaia's The Angel of History, J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year, and Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. All three were flawed, of course, because all novels are flawed. Literature is, after all, a project of failure: "Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." The Coetzee, however, stands head and shoulders above the other books: why?


Arpaia's story of the last months of Walter Benjamin's life reads like an accomplished novelisation of the film of Benjamin's trials and tribulations in trying to protect the manuscript of Passagen-Werk (what we now know as The Arcades Project) whilst fleeing Nazi Germany and trying to cross into Spain over the Pyrenees to the relative safety of Portbou. Intertwined with Benjamin's tale, told in the third person, is the first person narrative of Laureano Mahojo, a Republican militant who fought in the Spanish Civil War. His memories of the war form the background to the focal point of the novel when, one night, he meets Benjamin, and their lives briefly entwine.


Both the first and third person narratives disappoint, but in different ways. The tone of the former is deliberately that of the storyteller. Laureano is speaking directly to someone he addresses irregularly as "my son": we, the reader, are thus spoken to, admonished, involved quite directly. Aware that the Benjamin story is what we've come for, Laureano teases us that the detail of their meeting is soon to come, but first he wants to tell his own story, lay down in full the context of that meeting (at one level of abstraction, this does nicely reinforce the fact that the Spanish Civil War was an essential precursor to the coming slaughter of the Second World War). Confidently, he gives a bravura performance telling of his part in the heroism and folly of war. But the very coherence and detail of the linear narrative undermines any notion that Laureano's memories are anything but a story created by Arpaia. The author's eloquence foregrounds a lack of authenticity that is never investigated or even recognised. There is an awful, self-assured rhetorical quality that forbids deep involvement on the part of the reader who can never forget that this is a story and is never given the credit for a recognition that needs to be shared by the writer.


The parts dealing with Benjamin himself amount to a decent potted biography of his desperate last months. But they are arch and over-dramatised. At no point are Benjamin's thoughts on the novel used by Arpaia to help him investigate what it is he is doing writing his own book about the German critic.


McEwan's On Chesil Beach is airless, arid, almost pointillist. Exact and pedantic -- the work is claustrophobic and inorganic. It never becomes an artwork because it isn't an investigation into anything: it is the laying bare of a meticulous plan. McEwan doesn't write to discover, he writes to deliver his knowledge about his puppet characters. There is no silence in the work, there is only witheld information, which is quite a different thing. Is the starched writing a kind of pathetic fallacy for his characters' inward desperation? No. McEwan eschews empathy -- his writing constitutionally unable to create it -- because of his overarching need to direct. He is, perhaps, the best exponent of Establishment Literary Fiction that we have ...


Coetzee's latest effort is infuriating and frustrating in parts, as I said in the brief review of it I posted yesterday. But its investigation into itself makes it an invigorating read. I find myself, however, at odds with what I perceive to be Coetzee's project of deep irony that underpins his recent work. The provisionality that grounds, yet undoes, all writing can be addressed in a modernist or a postmodernist way: the search for new ways of investigating the endeavour of writing; or scepticism towards the possibility of such an address. When that scepticism is wrapped inside the investigation itself, absurdity beckons.

I suppose, in a sense, this post is a kind of manifesto or, more modestly, the beginnings of a statement of intent about where I see ReadySteadyBook heading over the next couple of years.


As many of you know, I wear two hats: I'm editor here at ReadySteadyBook and I'm also, in my day-job, lucky enough to edit The Book Depository (TBD) website. As editor of TBD my role is to make sure that the frontlist titles that I choose to review and feature on TBD's pages, and the authors and publishers I interview, reflect in some modest way the astonishing range of books that TBD customers buy every day. The breadth of their purchases is amazing; I want TBD's homepage to be, in a small way, similarly catholic.


Here on RSB I have a different role. Certainly, it is one that I'm making up as I go along. I started RSB thinking of the site as an online literary journal that would reflect many opinions, air many voices, and I still think that that aspect of the site is important and needs growing (if you want to contribute, email me), but principally RSB is -- like it or loathe it -- me and my musings. My thinking about literature and books over the last three or four years has developed and, I hope, deepened. RSB facilitates that ongoing learning by forcing me to attempt to articulate what it is I think I feel about literature, and engaging with others in the blogosphere about those ideas.


When I talk to folk, especially publishers, about what kinds of books I like to feature on RSB, I often reach for the phrase Literary Fiction ... and then I quickly backtrack. Literary Fiction is one of the genres of fiction that I'm happy to feature on TBD's homepage, alongside a host of other types of books. And Literary Fiction is, undoubtedly, the genre that many of the books that have been reviewed on RSB in the past have belonged to. But, editorially -- and by that I mean, via the blog, and from my heart -- I'd actually like RSB to be seen as being anti-Literary Fiction. Indeed, what I've taken to calling Establishment Literary Fiction is, to me, the very antithesis of literature: it is hubristic, formulaic and trite; it is non- essential.


Literary Fiction is genre fiction; literature, art, is writing that deconstructs the very idea of genre. Proust's In Search of Lost Time isn't literary fiction, but a novel that destroys the idea of the novel in its very realisation. Beckett's famous lines from Worstward Ho -- Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. -- are in themselves a manifesto for writers and writing. If Literary Fiction is defined by its proud masterpieces, its smug perfections, literature should be known as a failed art that in its failing helps us to understand our own feeble inadequacies and helps us to fail better.


Simon Critchley writes (in Infinitely Demanding): "When I pull myself out of the slumber of my inauthentic existence and learn to approve the demand of conscience, which for Heidegger is the demand of my finitude confronted in being-towards-death, then I become authentic, I become who I really am." This "I" -- as Simon recognises -- is conflicted, multiple, but it is the demand of which he writes -- of ethics, of art -- in the face of finitude, of silence, that I'm interested in here. This demand, taken up by art, by literature, is infinite. Literature can approach, help negotiate, begin to articulate, that demand; Literary Fiction withers in the face of it, never having heard its call, deaf to it.

Elizabeth A. Brown reviews Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Good Writing over at csmonitor.com. Brown says, Leonard wants the writer to be invisible: "Good writing is not about the writer (and the way he sounds or the size of her vocabulary), but about the story."


Not for me.


For me, good writing is precisely about the writer and their struggle to write what they are writing (for sure, I'm not interested in the size of anyone's vocabulary!) Otherwise it is merely a story ... and I'm not that interested in stories. Or -- better -- I am interested in stories, but my interest is second to my interest in why this particular writer thinks that this particular story is important enough for them to write and me to write. A self-consciousness about the act of writing and reading needs to be folded into the writing for the writing in front of me to become more than merely a vehicle to carry a plot. Only with that self-consciousness -- adroitly brought about and not merely some clever postmodern intervention where the writer tells you (s)he is writing -- can I be sure that the novelist hasn't simple taken the general shape of your typical literary fiction novel for granted and merely filled in the gaps. If that is the case, the novel becomes artless, empty, and I quickly lose interest in ... yet another story. No matter how accomplished, a novel that simply tells me a story also tells me that the novelist hasn't thought enough about exactly what they are doing when and as they write.


Brown says, Leonard's most important rule sums up the rest: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." With this, I mostly concur. If it sounds like novelese, run away! Indeed, this was the problem I had with Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe which I finished reading yesterday evening.


The Tartar Steppe is a very good book, but it is not "great" because it overreaches and becomes poetic at just the wrong moments and in precisely the wrong way. It succumbs to its own story and ruins the stark effect it has been striving for by piling up the adjectives and metaphors (particular in the key moment when Angustina dies). The whole book is a tremendously powerful allegory anyway and it does not need the writing to underscore the allegory. Like Henry James does in his breathtaking Beast in the Jungle, Buzzati shows clearly the absurdity of spending a life waiting for a life-changing event: life is the journey, not the destination, precisely because the destination of the absurd journey is the same for each of us.


This is a book that will linger long in the mind ... and, doubtless, it will improve there! It will become, in memory, as unalloyed and beautiful as it hopes it is on the page but, actually, on the page it often strained: sometimes too flowery, sometimes awkward and mawkish. But, goodness, much better than most of the nonsense one reads!