The Boy Looked at Eurydice

This piece appeared in Berfrois on 17 July 2014.

The Boy Looked at Eurydice

Retro-futurism, as we now call it, came out of the closet in the late ’70s due to the widespread feeling that there was indeed ‘no future’ any more. Whilst Johnny Rotten waxed apocalyptical, Howard Devoto screeched existentially about his future no longer being what it was. Time seemed topsy-turvy, out of joint; the future not something to look forward to, but to look back on. “About the future I can only reminisce,” sang Pete Shelley on a dotty ditty dedicated to “nostalgia for an age yet to come”. (Significantly enough, it was almost immediately covered — recycled — by Penetration.) This trend was knowing and ‘ironic’ in typical postmodern mode (à la Rezillos or B-52’s), but also imbued with a genuine longing for a time — mainly the 50s and 60s — when the march of progress (in the shape of the space age and consumer society) seemed unstoppable. A time, crucially, when the future punks were still children, or twinkles in their parents’ eyes. Twinkling little stars.

When we were young, we were very young. You had to be. After witnessing the Sex Pistols for the first time, Richard Strange (Doctors of Madness) suddenly sensed that his time was up: “I’m two years too old,” he lamented. Joe Strummer could have drawn the very same conclusion. Upon joining The Clash, he was deemed “a bit old” by Glen Matlock (himself only four years younger). Concealing his real age would be an essential part of the public schoolboy-cum-pub rocker’s reinvention as a bona fide punk. A year on from the Pistols’ acrimonious demise, Steve Jones confided in Sounds, “I feel a bit old. I walk down the street and see these little punk rockers, about 13, and they don’t even recognise me”. Already in his mid-thirties by 1980, Charlie Harper (UK Subs) screamed his desire to be “teenage” as though it were a state of mind, or perhaps even the only way to be: “Teenage / I wanna be teenage / I wanna be teenage / I wanna be”.

When we were young, we were impossibly young. Sid Vicious boasted that he “didn’t even know the Summer of Love was happening” because he was “too busy playing with [his] Action Men”. “See my face, not a trace / No reality,” sang the Sex Pistols on “Seventeen,” the closest they ever got to a generational manifesto. Buzzcocks, who had barely reached adulthood, penned a paean to “feeling almost sixteen again”. In a cheeky act of lèse-majesté — given that this was the single John Lydon had mimed to during his fabled King’s Road audition — Eater wound back Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” to “Fifteen,” thus reflecting the group’s average age. The Lurkers, and countless others, glamorised the growing pains of being “Just Thirteen”…

“It’s funny,” says Nicky in The Vortex, “how mother’s generation always longed to be old when they were young, and we strain every nerve to keep young.” Was The Vortex club named after Noël Coward’s 1924 play, or was it a nod to Ezra Pound’s 1914 essay? All we can say for sure is that, more than any other subculture before or since, punk was afflicted with Peter Pan syndrome. Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism — “To be premature is to be perfect” — had found its ideal embodiment. Early gigs frequently resembled a St Trinian’s prom night gatecrashed by the Bash Street Kids. The ubiquitous school uniforms — all wonky ties and peekaboo stockings — were designed to rub punks’ youthfulness in the face of the rock dinosaurs and other Boring Old Farts. One could also flag up the recurring theme of onanism (“Orgasm Addict” and “Teenage Kicks” being the prime examples) as well as McLaren’s dodgy flirtation with paedophilia (from the early nude boy T-shirt through Bow Wow Wow) to argue that the Blank Generation was more clockwork satsuma than orange. Bliss was it in that dawn to be young. But to be a punk rocker was very heaven!

Punk was carpe diem recollected in cacophony — living out your “teenage dreams,” and sensing, almost simultaneously, that they would be “so hard to beat” (The Undertones). The movement generated an instant nostalgia for itself, so that it was for ever borne back to the nebulous primal scene of its own creation. Its forward momentum was backward-looking, like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history. To quote the Cockney Rejects on their debut album:

I wanna go back to where it all began / And I wanna do a gig in my back garden / Wanna have a laugh before the press get in / If you give ’em half a chance / They’ll kill the fucking thing (“Join the Rejects”).

By 1980, when that record was released, going back to “where it all began” meant totally different — and even contradictory — things to totally different — and indeed contradictory — people. Every splinter group that joined the ranks of the punk diaspora (goth, oi!, the Mod revival, 2-Tone, No Wave, cold wave, post-punk, early New Romanticism, anarcho-punk, positive punk, psychobilly, hardcore, etc.) was a renewed attempt to recapture an original unity, which the emergence of these very splinter groups made impossible. As Paul Gorman put it in a recent documentary, “People began to play with, and tease out, the strands which were therein, and it was so rich, and so full of content, that one strand could lead to a whole movement”. When Garry Bushell claims that the Rejects were “the reality of punk mythology” — which is precisely what Mark Perry had previously said apropos of Sham 69 — he is referring to a very restrictive, lumpen version of punk that excludes most of the early bands bar The Clash. (Even within The Clash, only Joe ‘Citizen Smith’ Strummer ever really subscribed to this view.) Many Blitz Kids felt that it was their scene — which was not only contemporaneous with Oi! but also its inverted mirror image — that captured the true spirit of the early movement.

Expressing a desire to “go back to where it all began” is all well and good, but where did it all begin, and how far back do you have to go to get there?

Where is a bit of a red herring. New York City had a head start, but it is obvious that punk would have remained a drug-drenched late flowering of the beatnik scene without Britain’s contribution. If punk came from the United States, the United Kingdom was its destination; its manifest destiny. When former New York Doll Syl Sylvain failed to join the fledgling Sex Pistols, in London, Malcolm McLaren gave his white Les Paul to Steve Jones. This symbolic passing of the baton was echoed by the recruitment of Johnny Rotten in lieu of Richard Hell, who also remained stranded on the other side of the Pond. Rotten looked a hell of a lot like Hell — which is why he was auditioned in the first place — but he certainly was no lookalike. The fact that he had developed a similar style (spiky hair and ripped clothes) was purely coincidental, proving that something must have been in the air.

Attempting to pinpoint when that something first appeared is also a non-starter. Do you go back to Television’s early gigs at CBGB, or to the New York Dolls, or the Stooges, or right back to Dada by way of Situationism? The point of origin recedes as one approaches it.

Locating the end point of the first — authentic — stage of punk proves equally problematic. Was it when Sid Vicious lobbed a pint glass during The Damned’s set, on the second night of the 100 Club Punk Festival (September 1976)? Or when the Pistols, goaded by Bill Grundy, swore on prime-time television (December 1976)? When The Clash signed to CBS (January 1977)? The chaotic Silver Jubilee boat party (June 1977)?…

The history of punk is, above all, the story of the traumatic loss of its elusive essence: that brief moment in time when a new sensibility was beginning to coalesce — sufficiently well defined to be recognised by the cognoscenti; sufficiently amorphous to accommodate a wealth of conflicting impulses. A brief moment which may have ended, symbolically, with Jonh Ingham’s “Welcome to the (?) Rock Special” piece, published on 9 October 1976. Significantly, the article opens with a few crucial considerations on onomastics:

I was hoping to avoid mentioning the bloody word at all, but since Sounds has so adamantly advertised this shebang as a Punk Rock special, I guess there’s no avoiding it. In the context of the band [the Sex Pistols] and people mentioned in the following pages, I hate the word as much as they do.

The debate surrounding the new movement’s christening is often glossed over nowadays. McLaren, for instance, favoured ‘new wave’ in homage to the French nouvelle vague — a monicker that ended up describing punk’s more commercial fellow-travellers and other bandwagon-jumpers. The fact that the noun that finally stuck (courtesy of Melody Maker journalist Caroline Coon) was second-hand — ‘historically inaccurate,’ as Ingham points out — made it all the easier to reject. To get a purchase on the new phenomenon it was necessary to name it, but the transaction could only be a rip-off: the word gave you punk by taking it away, replacing it with a grotesque caricature.

My contention is that punk died as soon as it ceased being a cult with no name (or with several possible names, which comes to the same thing). Linder Sterling recently recalled how, upon witnessing the Pistols for the first time, she did not “even have the language to describe what it [was]” — which is doubtless why the impact it made on her was so profound. In the beginning was the unword, when the unnamed cult remained a question mark to outsiders and insiders alike. Punk — in its initial, pre-linguistic incarnation, when the blank in Blank Generation had not yet been filled in by that “bloody word” — was the potentiality of punk. It escaped definition, could never be pinned down, as it was constantly in the process of becoming. Punk was a movement towards itself, made up of people who disliked movements and kept pulling in opposite directions. Devoto’s brilliant parting shot, when he sabotaged the first stage of his career, springs to mind: “I don’t like music. I don’t like movements”.

Michael Bracewell claims that “one of punk’s very first roles was to debate its own definition — to make internal dissent an integral part of its own identity”. Such self-reflexivity ensured that the nascent movement never quite coincided with itself. If the original spirit of punk is anywhere to be found, it is in this gap, this disjuncture — this grey area. One could even argue that punk was “a thinking against itself”, to hijack Adorno’s famous phrase: internal dissent was its identity. Take Buzzcocks’ “Boredom” (on the Spiral Scratch EP, released in January 1977) which was so presciently contrary that it performed the feat of debunking punk clichés before they had even had time to become clichés.

A mere four years after the launch of Dada, Tristan Tzara declared that “the real dadas” were now “against DADA”. The real punks were also against punk, or at least the label. Being a true punk was something that could only go without saying; it implied never describing oneself as such. Insiders would often claim that they listened to heavy dub reggae, krautrock, or just about anything but punk rock itself. Like Eurydice, punk could only be approached by turning away.

Punk’s year zero mentality (like all other attempts to start again from scratch) was haunted by a yearning to return to some original, prelapsarian state — back in the garage, when the cult still had no name, before they killed the fucking thing. Being born again is just that: being born again. Being borne back.

Punk fashion reflected this doomed quest for authenticity. The playful, postmodern plundering of rock history’s wardrobe, the deconstruction and reassembly, collage and bricolage; the ambiguous semiotics and DIY aesthetics, gave way to a drab, off-the-peg uniform. The look was radicalised and codified until it finally ossified into mohicaned cliché — a process which mainly took place between 1979 and 1981. By increasingly becoming itself, punk, paradoxically enough, lost its soul — that sense of feeling “almost” sixteen again; of being on the cusp of an awfully big adventure.

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The End of Realist Stories

This appeared in Guardian Books on 12 November 2013:

The End of Realist Stories

The limitations of mimetic storytelling are ever more apparent, but what should come next is less clear

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter's painting 'Strip' showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter’s painting ‘Strip’ showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Literary fiction is dead — or if not dead then finished, according to the Goldsmiths prize-shortlisted writer Lars Iyer, who argues it has become a “repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas” and suggests that novelists should spread the word that “the time for literary novels is over“. But literary fiction has always been dead, has always needed the mould-breaking writing which the Goldsmiths prize celebrates.

Ever since its birth, writers have been suspicious of the novel, reaching for the authenticity of the real — often presenting their work as memoir, à la Robinson Crusoe. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. Ashamed of its frivolity, fiction drapes itself in the gravitas of non-fiction.

If literature needs to be something more than just storytelling, then perhaps one could argue with Maurice Blanchot that it only truly becomes grown-up when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno’s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth“, but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree“.

But things were never as simple as that. The original realist novel was no straightforward attempt to describe the world; rather, an attempt to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality already present in literature of the time. For Fredric Jameson, realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary, for instance, carries romance in its narrative in order to kill it off, and turn into its antithesis.

Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of the secularisation of society; a process that ran counter to the “universalising conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels sought to focus on the singular, contingent, and therefore unliterary aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomisation of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of “affects”, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told.

The realist novel was a product of this tension between telling and showing; between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the narration of a tale that has happened “once and for all”) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” was explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention frequently broke down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognisable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new conventions, sub-genres, and stereotypes, which would have to be deconstructed in turn. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of fiction today. With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s idea of capitalist realism, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is fiction’s unsurpassable horizon.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its made-up nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. As Borges warns, “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete”.

The history of the novel could thus be reinterpreted as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. Don Quixote perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Emma Bovary is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing”, and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and EM Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. Similarly, the realist novel attempted to dissolve whatever smacked of literariness. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists”, and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”.

Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality“. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe”, and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. For his part, the nouveau romancier was convinced that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he called for, the presence of the world — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Reality is no longer a given, but a taken; something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

The nouveau roman may not be very new any more, but there’s no shortage of writers lining up alongside Iyer to call time on the traditional novel. For David Shields, novels are “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. JM Coetzee is “sick of the well-made novel,” while Zadie Smith says she suffers from “novel-nausea”. Even the thought of fiction is enough to make Karl Ove Knausgaard “feel nauseous“.

Tim Parks is the latest to confess he shares “Shields’s changing reaction to traditional novels,” but he’s less convinced that Shields’s hunger for reality is the answer. Writers such as Beckett or Lydia Davis may have avoided the trap of the traditional novel, he argues, but “this kind of writing … seems to derive its energy by gauging its distance from the traditional novel, by expressing its disbelief and frustration with the form, and there is a limit to the pleasures, comedy and wisdom of negative energy and deconstruction”.

If the novel is dead — always already — as Iyer suggests, then it’ll take more than a dose of reality to infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing lying at our feet.

****

Here is a longer, earlier incarnation of this piece:

Fictive Realism

The Goldsmiths Prize, whose first laureate will be announced next month, was launched “to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. Hopefully, it will act as an antidote to the blandness of the Booker and the spread of so-called fiction fatigue. Reports of the death of the novel have always been greatly exaggerated, of course, but David Shields clearly struck a chord with his Reality Hunger manifesto. Novels, he claimed — reprising arguments which Robbe-Grillet and John Barth had rehearsed in the 50s and 60s — are “works of nostalgic entertainment,” “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. J. M. Coetzee declared that he, too, was “sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings”. Zadie Smith came down with a similar bout of “novel-nausea”. Karl Ove Knausgaard reached a stage where “just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made [him] feel nauseous”. According to Lars Iyer — whose coruscating comedy, Exodus, graces the Goldsmiths shortlist — literary fiction has become “a kind of repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas”. In a recent interview, he even argues that the task of the novelist today is to spread the word that that “the time for literary novels is over”.

According to Nietzsche, the terrible truth about existence was revealed but also beautified in tragedy at its Grecian best. Offered a glimpse into the abyss, the spectator was saved from the temptation to jump by the aesthetic anaesthetic. Likewise in literature, where fact is viewed, obliquely, through fiction. This tension between the Dionysian and Apollonian accounts for some authors’ ambivalence towards the narcotic of narrative: its reassuring reordering of chaos, and entertainment value. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. This, no doubt, is why so many early novels purported to be authentic documents — frequently memoirs, à la Robinson Crusoe. Ashamed of its frivolous lack of necessity, fiction draped itself in the gravitas of non-fiction. After Maurice Blanchot, one could argue, contrarily, that literature only truly emerges when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno‘s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth,” but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days,” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree”.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its fictive nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, are wary of the consolations of fiction, with their whiff of prelapsarian micturation. They sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete,” warns Borges, in one of his most famous stories. The history of the novel could thus be construed as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. In Don Quixote — arguably the first great novel — the eponymous anti-hero perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Likewise Madame Bovary. Emma is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing,” and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and E. M. Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists,” and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”. Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality”. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe,” and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. The nouveau romancier believed, for his part, that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he called for, the presence of the world  — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Although the world is simply there in all its awesome weirdness, reality is no longer a given, but a taken; something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s “capitalist realism“, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is literature’s unsurpassable horizon. The paradox is that the original (real?) realist novel, set out to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality, as Fredric Jameson explains in The Antinomies of Realism. The title of his latest work refers to the conflicted, agonistic nature of this literary trend. Realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary, for instance, carries romance within its belly in order to abort it, and turn into its antithesis.

Uncontentiously, Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of a process of secularisation of society, that ran counter to the “universalizing conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels took on an Adamic quality by focusing on the singular and contingent — aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomization of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified (and literary) “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of affects, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told. The realist novel was the result of this tension between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the telling of a tale that has happened “once and for all” in the preterite tense) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” would be explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention would frequently break down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognizable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new sub-genres and stereotypes which would have to be deconstructed in turn. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of the novel today. “A book that does not contain its counterbook”? Sounds like literary fiction to me.

A Writing Against Itself

Andrew Gallix, “Go Forth (Vol. 4)” by Nicolle Elizabeth, The Believer Logger 14 November 2012

Andrew Gallix is editor-in-chief of 3:AM Magazine, which the Guardian credits as technically the first literary blog ever. He writes fiction and criticism, edits books, and teaches at the Sorbonne, and I love him.

NICOLLE ELIZABETH: What is 3:AM, and how did it start?

ANDREW GALLIX: 3:AM is one of the oldest literary webzines out there, as it was launched in April 2000. We were among the first to make use of the international dimension of the web: the founder was American, our first webmaster was Canadian, and the rest of the team was located in Britain, France, Ireland and the US. We were the first, or one of the first, to launch a literary blog (if by that you mean a compendium of literary news links). We innovated by placing fiction in a wider cultural (artistic, in particular musical) context. We also pioneered the revival of live literary events in London, mixing music, art, and spoken word.

NE: This is a collective thing?

AG: Very much so. The whole point of 3:AM was to foster a community of literary loners; to create a space where we can be alone together.

NE: Print ever or no?

AG: Two anthologies of 3:AM short stories (edited by Andrew Stevens) have been published, but the magazine itself is online-only. I think we were also pioneers from that point of view: we realized that online publications were the way forward. They cost virtually nothing, which means that only literary/artistic criteria apply, instead of financial considerations. There are no space constraints (a piece can be as long or as short as it needs to be). You can reach so many more readers than if you publish a story in a small literary journal. Christiana Spens has just launched 3:AM Press, which releases both ebooks and limited print editions, showing our attachment to both formats.

NE: Main concerns ethically?

AG: There is no party line, although we are rather contrarian, hence our tagline (a nod to Groucho Marx, the Ramones, and Adorno): “Whatever it is, we’re against it.” It sounds rather pedantic, I know, but what I consider to be real literature is always, at some level, a writing against itself.

NE: Main concerns aesthetically?

AG: Once again, 3:AM is a very broad anti-church. Personally, I think we should publish fiction that has the inevitability of death.

NE: What advice do you have for those who wish to start a magazine?

AG: Don’t give up the day job.

NE: Anything else you’d like to tell us here?

AG: Sure, but only things which cannot be told.

The Death of Literature

This appeared in Guardian Books on 10 January 2012:

The Death of Literature
The fact that people have been proclaiming its passing for centuries only makes the sense of its ending more acute

[The end: headstone in Lund Cemetery, Nevada. Photograph: Deon Reynolds/Getty]

“We come too late to say anything which has not been said already,” lamented La Bruyère at the end of the 17th century. The fact that he came too late even to say this (Terence having pipped him to the post back in the 2nd century BC) merely proved his point — a point which Macedonio Fernández took one step backwards when he sketched out a prequel to Genesis. God is just about to create everything. Suddenly a voice in the wilderness pipes up, interrupting the eternal silence of infinite space that so terrified Pascal: “Everything has been written, everything has been said, everything has been done.” Rolling His eyes, the Almighty retorts (doing his best Morrissey impression) that he has heard this one before — many a time. He then presses ahead with the creation of the heavens and the earth and all the creepy-crawlies that creepeth and crawleth upon it. In the beginning was the word — and, word is, before that too.

In his most influential book, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom argued that the greatest Romantic poets misread their illustrious predecessors “so as to clear imaginative space for themselves”. The literary father figure was killed, figuratively speaking, through a process of “poetic misprision”. TS Eliot had already expressed a similar idea in 1920, when he claimed that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different”. Borges (a disciple of Fernández, whom Bloom references) was on the same wavelength (but at the other end of the dial) when he claimed that “each writer creates his precursors”.

According to Bloom, this feeling of “secondariness” is not specifically a Romantic phenomenon, but rather the very engine of literary history. Down the centuries, literature has always been a two-way dialogue between past and present — the former living on in the latter; the latter casting new light upon the former. George Steiner thus contends that the highest form of literary criticism is to be found within literature itself: “In the poet’s criticism of the poet from within the poem, hermeneutics reads the living text which Hermes, the messenger, has brought from the undying dead” (Real Presences, 1989). This implies that writing is not, primarily, about self-expression, but about reception and transmission; as Winnie the Pooh once put it, with uncharacteristic menace, “Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you”. What is striking here is that Steiner — steeped in the Judaeo-Christian tradition; scourge of Gallic theory — should be in total agreement, on this point, with novelist Tom McCarthy, who comes, as it were, from the other side of the barricades. For the author of C — a novel which is all about fiction as reception and transmission — “the writer is a receiver and the content is already out there. The task of the writer is to filter it, to sample it and remix it — not in some random way, but conscientiously and attentively”. Turning chronology on its head, he sees Finnegans Wake as the source code of anglophone literature — a new beginning — rather than a dead end or a full stop. The novel, says McCarthy, has been “living out its own death” ever since Don Quixote; the “experience of failure” being integral to its DNA. If it weren’t dying, the novel would not be alive.

According to Steiner, the rise of the novel was contemporaneous with a growing linguistic crisis. After the 17th century — after Milton — “the sphere of language” ceased to encompass most of “experience and reality” (“The Retreat from the Word“, 1961). Mathematics became increasingly untranslatable into words, post-Impressionist painting likewise escaped verbalisation; linguistics and philosophy highlighted the fact that words refer to other words … The final proposition in Wittgenstein‘s Tractatus (1921) bears witness to this encroachment of the unspeakable: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. Four years earlier, Kafka had conjectured that it may have been possible to escape the sirens’ singing, but not their silence.

Harold Bloom is right: belatedness is not merely an “historical condition”. After all, it was already one of the major themes in Don Quixote. Yet, as Gabriel Josipovici points out, “this sense of somehow having arrived too late, of having lost for ever something that was once a common possession, is a, if not the, key Romantic concern” (What Ever Happened to Modernism?, 2010). Against the backdrop of declining confidence in the powers of language — just as Schiller‘s “disenchantment of the world” was becoming ever more apparent, and the writer’s legitimacy, in a “destitute time” (Hölderlin) of absent gods and silent sirens, seemed increasingly arbitrary — literature came to be considered as an “absolute“. Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” as “the solitary individual”: an individual cut off from tradition, who could no longer claim to be the mouthpiece of society. As soon as this “solitary individual” was elevated to the status of an alter deus, the essential belatedness of human creativity became glaringly obvious. “No art form,” says Steiner, “comes out of nothing. Always, it comes after,” and the “human maker rages at [this] coming after, at being, forever, second to the original and originating mystery of the forming of form”.

As early as 1758, Samuel Richardson had wondered if the novel were not just a fad, whose time had already run out. By the 20th century, the picture looked far bleaker. Theodor Adorno felt that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. In 1959, Brion Gysin complained that fiction was lagging 50 years behind painting. In the early 60s, Alain Robbe-Grillet attacked the mummification of the novel in its 19th-century incarnation. In 1967, John Barth published “The Literature of Exhaustion” in which he spoke of “the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities”. The same year, Gore Vidal diagnosed that the novel was already in its death throes: “we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend other gods”. The death of literature, and the world as we know it, became a fashionable topic among US academics in the early 90s (see, for instance, Alvin Kernan’s aptly-titled The Death of Literature, 1992). Their argument was usually that English departments had been hijacked by cultural studies, Continental theory or political correctness gone mad (Bloom’s “School of Resentment”).

Since then, two things have happened. The novel — which was meant to fuse poetry and philosophy, to subsume all other genres and even the entire universe (following Mallarmé‘s conception of The Book or Borges’s dream of a “Total Library”) — has been reduced to “literary fiction”: a genre that approaches writing as if the 20th century had never happened. At the same time, the digital age has taken information overload to a whole new level. As a result, David Shields believes that the novel is no longer equipped to reflect the vitality and complexity of modern life (Reality Hunger, 2010). Kenneth Goldsmith — the poet to whom we owe the wonder that is UbuWeb — urges us to stop writing altogether in order to focus on recombining the texts we’ve accumulated over the centuries (Uncreative Writing, 2011). We may all be “remixologists” now, but what if (as Lewis Carroll wondered) word combinations were limited, and we had used them all up?

According to Steiner, we are “terminalists”, “latecomers”: “we have no more beginnings“. For us, language “is worn by long usage” and the “sense of discovery, of exuberant acquisition” exhibited by writers during the Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean periods “has never been fully recaptured”. On the eve of the unspeakable horrors of the second world war, Adorno already felt that “the carcass of words, phantom words” was all we had left. Language had been corrupted; irredeemably soiled by “the usage of the tribe” (Mallarmé). Perhaps is it no longer possible for us to follow Ezra Pound‘s injunction to “make it new”.

“Even originality itself no longer has the ability to surprise us,” writes Lars Iyer in a remarkable essay recently published by The White Review. According to the author of Spurious (shortlisted for the Guardian‘s Not the Booker Prize), we live in “an unprecedented age of words”, but one in which Important Novelists have given way to “a legion of keystroke labourers”. Literature only survives as literary-fiction kitsch: a “parody of past forms”; a “pantomime of itself”. In “The Literature of Exhaustion”, Barth had envisaged how the “felt ultimacies of our time” (ie the end of the novel as “major art form”) could become the material of future works. Iyer cranks this up a notch. We are no longer writing literature’s conclusion but its “epilogue”: ours is a “literature which comes after literature”. Where Bloom’s Romantic poets felt “belated” vis-à-vis their predecessors, Iyer feels that we have come too late for literature, full stop. Literature today is thus no longer “the Thing itself, but about the vanished Thing”. The writer’s task is “to conjure the ghost” of a tradition that has given it up. By this token, the novels of Tom McCarthy, Lee Rourke and Iyer himself are not so much evidence of a nouveau roman revival as instances of a new type of hauntological fiction which explores the lost futures of Modernism.

Given that Iyer has published two books on the work of Maurice Blanchot, one cannot but think of the French author’s answer to the question ‘Where is literature going?’: “literature is going toward itself, toward its essence, which is disappearance”. Perhaps the “Thing itself” was about “the vanished Thing” all along – but stop me, oh-oh-oh, stop me, stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before.