The Unread and the Unreadable

This appeared in Guardian Books on 18 February 2013:

The Unread and the Unreadable

We measure our lives with unread books — and ‘difficult’ works can induce the most guilt. How should we view this challenge?

[Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake … 'It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.' Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

[Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake … ‘It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.’ Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images]

There was a time when a learned fellow (literally, a Renaissance man) could read all the major extant works published in the western world. Information overload soon put paid to that. Since there is “no end” to “making many books” — as the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes prophesied, anticipating our digital age — the realm of the unread has spread like a spilt bottle of correction fluid. The librarian in Robert Musil‘s The Man Without Qualities only scans titles and tables of contents: his library symbolises the impossibility of reading everything today. The proliferation of lists of novels that you must, allegedly, have perused in your lifetime, reflects this problem while compounding it. On a recent visit to a high street bookshop, I ogled a well-stacked display table devoted to “great” novels “you always meant to read”. We measure out our lives with unread books, as well as coffee spoons.

The guilt and anxiety surrounding the unread probably plays a part in our current fascination with failed or forgotten writers. Hannah Arendt once wondered if “unappreciated genius” was not simply “the daydream of those who are not geniuses”, and I suspect there is indeed a touch of schadenfreude about this phenomenon too. On the book front, we could mention Mark O’Connell’s Epic Fail, the brilliantly idiosyncratic Failure, A Writer’s Life by Joe Milutis, and Christopher Fowler‘s Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared, based on the longstanding column in the Independent on Sunday. Online, there is The New Inquiry‘s Un(der)known Writers series, as well as entire blogs — (Un)justly (Un)read, The Neglected Books Page, Writers No One Reads — devoted to reclaiming obscure scribes from oblivion. One of my personal favourites is The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, which celebrates the lives of writers who have “achieved some measure of literary failure”. The fact that they all turn out to be fictitious (à la Félicien Marboeuf) and that the website will vanish after a year, make it even more delightful. I recommend the tale of Stanhope Sterne who, like TE Lawrence, lost a manuscript on a train — at Reading, of all places: “Is there, I wonder, some association with that dull junction’s homonym, that it is a writer’s fear of someone actually reading their work that causes these slips?”

When Kenneth Goldsmith published a year’s worth of transcribed weather reports, he certainly did not fear anyone would read his book from cover to cover — or even at all. That was not the point. With conceptual writing, the idea takes precedence over the product. This is an extreme example of a trend that began with the advent of modernity. Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” — and hence that of modern literature — as “the solitary individual”: an individual now free from tradition, but also one whose sole legitimacy derived from him or herself, rather than religion or society.

In theory, the novel could thus be anything, everything, the novelist wanted it to be. The problem, as Kierkegaard observed, is that “more and more becomes possible” when “nothing becomes actual”. Literature was a blank canvas that increasingly dreamed of remaining blank. “The most beautiful and perfect book in the world,” according to Ulises Carrión, “is a book with only blank pages.” Such books had featured in eastern legends for centuries (echoed by the blank map in “The Hunting of the Snark” or the blank scroll in Kung Fu Panda), but they only really appeared on bookshelves in the 20th century. They come in the wake of Rimbaud‘s decision to stop writing, the silence of Lord Chandos; they are contemporaneous with the Dada suicides, Wittgenstein‘s coda to the Tractatus, the white paintings of Malevich and Rauschenberg, as well as John Cage‘s 4’33”.

Michael Gibbs, who published an anthology of blank books entitled All Or Nothing, points out that going to all the trouble of producing these workless works “testifies to a faith in the ineffable”. This very same faith prompts Borges to claim that “for a book to exist, it is sufficient that it be possible” and George Steiner to sense that “A book unwritten is more than a void.” For Maurice Blanchot, Joseph Joubert was “one of the first entirely modern writers” because he saw literature as the “locus of a secret that should be preferred to the glory of making books”.

If literature cannot be reduced to the production of books, neither can it be reduced to the production of meaning. Unreadability may even be a deliberate compositional strategy. In his influential essay on “The Metaphysical Poets”, TS Eliot draws the conclusion that modern poetry must become increasingly “difficult” in order “to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into its meaning”. The need to breathe life back into a moribund language corrupted by overuse, chimes with Stéphane Mallarmé‘s endeavour to “purify the words of the tribe”. The French writer was very much influenced by Hegel, according to whom language negates things and beings in their singularity, replacing them with concepts. Words give us the world by taking it away. This is why the young Beckett‘s ambition was to “drill one hole after another” into language “until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through”.

Literature (for the likes of Mallarmé and Blanchot) takes linguistic negation one step further, by negating both the real thing and its surrogate concept. As a result, words no longer refer primarily to ideas, but to other words; they become present like the things they negated in the first place. When critics objected that Joyce‘s Finnegans Wake was unreadable, Beckett responded: “It is not to be read — or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself”. Unlike ordinary language, which is a means of communication, literary language resists easy, and even complete, comprehension. Words become visible; the bloody things keep getting in the way. From this perspective, the literary is what can never be taken as read. In a recent article, David Huntsperger gives an interesting contemporary twist to this debate. He views the opacity of some contemporary novels as a healthy corrective to our “clickthrough culture, where the goal of writing is to get you from one place to another as effortlessly as possible, so that (let’s be honest here) you can buy something”.

La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

This appeared in Guardian Books on 9 October 2012:

La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

The French books world’s demented annual commercial knockout context shows little sign of going away

[Eternal return… Parisian book buyers. Photograph: Alamy]

Much ink was expended, earlier this year, on the subject of parenting in France. For better or worse — usually the former — it was deemed far less “child-centric” than across the Channel. There is, however, at least one area where French kids set the agenda: the agenda (French for “diary”) itself.

Although nominally in December, the end of the year really occurs in early summer, when schools break up for a two-month hiatus. By August, Paris feels eerily empty, in a way that London, for instance, never does. At times, it almost looks like the local population has been wiped out by a neutron bomb, leaving hordes of tourists roaming around a ghost town. Most of those who cannot afford to go away are relegated — out of sight, out of mind and out of work — to the infamous banlieues, which, owing to some strange optical illusion, only become visible when they disappear in flames.

By the same token, it is September, and not January, which marks the true beginning of the year; a beginning that spells eternal recurrence rather than renaissance. “La rentrée” — the back-to-school season extended to the entire populace — never fails to remind me of Joey Kowalski, the narrator of Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, who, despite being 30 years old, is marched off to school as though he had been caught playing truant. “La rentrée” is the bell that signals the end of playtime; the restoration that follows revolution. In an annual re-enactment of the “retour à la normale” after the carnival of May 1968, everybody returns to the old “train-train quotidien”: the daily grind of “métro, boulot, dodo” (commute, work, bed — an expression derived from a poem by Pierre Béarn). A vague sense that real life is elsewhere (as Rimbaud never quite put it) lingers a while, before fading like suntans and memories of holiday romances.

The start of the new school year (“la rentrée scolaire”) coincides, give or take a few weeks, with the opening of the publishing season (“la rentrée littéraire”). In fact, both rentrées go together like cheese and wine, Alsace and Lorraine, or Deleuze and Guattari. This is not purely coincidental, since publishers are largely dependent upon education for the grooming of future generations of book buyers. The “rentrée littéraire” is the equivalent of cramming for your finals — a tome-intensive blitzkrieg geared towards the autumn literary prizes and subsequent Christmas sales. The season kicks off mid-August, really kicks in mid-October, and climaxes in November, when most book prizes are awarded: the illustrious Prix Goncourt (hot on the heels of the Grand Prix de l’Académie française in October) but also the Prix Décembre, Femina, Flore, Interallié, Médicis, Renaudot, and a few others besides. The major publishing houses tend to carpet bomb, chucking as many titles at these awards as they can, while the indies have no other choice but to go for surgical hits, on a wing and a press release.

So far, this year’s vintage has been pretty much business as usual, apart from the growing popularity of ebooks. At season’s close, 646 novels will have been released (compared with 654 in 2011 and 701 in 2010). If French fiction is down a little, the number of foreign titles remains constant (220 against 219 last year). As a result of the uncertain economic climate, there are fewer debuts (69 against 74) and more mass-market print runs (including Fifty Shades of Grey and the new JK Rowling). Pursuing a trend observed over the past few years, many of the heavyweights (Jean Echenoz, Patrick Modiano, Philippe Sollers et al.) have been held over until mid-October in order to heighten anticipation and maximize impact upon November’s book prizes.

Some of this season’s most hotly touted titles have a distinct whiff of déjà vu. There’s the new Houellebecq (Aurélien Bellenger, whose first book was an essay on the old Houellebecq). There’s the presidential campaign, which is fast becoming a sub-genre, with no less than seven books devoted to the latest instalment (including a non-fiction novelisation by HHhH author Laurent Binet). And then there’s the obligatory scandal which, this year, comes courtesy of Richard Millet (“l’affaire Millet”!) and his “literary praise” of mass murderer Anders Breivik.

The best take on the “rentrée littéraire” appears in Ecclesiastes: “of making many books there is no end”. In no other country is so much fiction published in such a short period of time. With hundreds of novels competing for a dozen prizes or so, most are destined to sink without trace — unsold and unread. Industry observers claim that if a debut novel has not caused a buzz by mid-September, it’s (French) toast. The result is a book glut comparable to Europe’s wine lakes and butter mountains.

David Meulemans, who heads indie press Aux Forges de Vulcain, made a few waves recently by announcing that he would not be taking part in this year’s rentrée. He described the publishing season as “mass commercial suicide”: a launch pad for prizes virtually no one stands a chance of ever winning. Sylvain Bourmeau — who praises the extraordinary diversity of publications on offer (belying, in his view, the French literati’s reputation for navel-gazing) — acknowledges, in Libération, that the rentrée is indeed a “weird national lottery”. For the past decade, Pierre Astier has been one of its most vocal critics. This former indie publisher, who went on to launch one of France’s first literary agencies, highlights the hypocrisy of a system — controlled by an old boys’ network — that fosters cut-throat competition without establishing a level playing field. Conflicts of interest abound; nepotism is rife. Being life members, the Goncourt judges are endowed with godly powers. Four of them even have books in the running for this year’s awards, which are usually carved up among the major publishing houses anyway. Astier also criticises the lack of openness to francophone writers, which he interprets as a sign that decolonisation has not gone far enough.

Although its quaint customs are often parodied (as in Patrick Besson’s Ma rentrée littéraire), the publishing season, is still widely seen as an instance of France’s cultural exceptionalism; its “droit à la différence” — or even différance.