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”.

Purposely with Ghosts

Tom Bradley, Rev. of Apparitional Experience, 3:AM Magazine 6 March 2013

Fiddleblack Annual #1: Apparitional Experience, Fiddleblack Press 2013

This is a collection of ghost stories “purposely without ghosts”. The epigraph, from On the Road, serves to announce the emphatic Americanness of the contents. Like Kerouac with his continuous roll of typing paper, most of the authors herein have opted for the unadorned style, which has its roots in that country’s Puritan past. The collection satisfies eminently one’s appetite for such work. There are few or no ghosts of the literary sort haunting the first hundred or so pages of this book.

And then, all of a sudden, in the last story, up springs a manifestation that couldn’t be more unAmerican, in the best of all the good senses of that near-universally approbative adjective. It’s Andrew Gallix, and he is purposely with ghosts.

His story, “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter”, displays all the anti-Puritannical virtuosity, erudition, urbanity and sensory luxuriousness that have been established as his trademarks in such works as “Dr Martens’ Bouncing Souls“, “Celesteville’s Burning“, “Half-Hearted Confessions of a Gelignite Dolly-Bird” and “Forty Tiddly Winks“. Andrew Gallix stands out, not only in this book, but on the literary scene at large, as a major exponent of literary sophistication, both syntactical and philosophical.

When he goes On the Road (in his case, that would be the rue Victor Cousin, on his way to teach at one of the world’s oldest universities), Andrew Gallix treads in the astral traces of such unabashed eschewers of the unadorned style as Aquinas, Erasmus, Saint Francis Xavier, Balzac, Saisset, Victor Hugo, de Beauvoir, Teilhard de Chardin, Barthes, Deleuze, Ricoeur, et al. It stands to reason that he’s not obsessed with counting and banishing modifiers and flagellating subordinate clauses down to the bare declarative bones. He knows nothing of the retentive rules of deportment laid down by creative writing programs in the country that invented those institutions.

“Joycean” has been whored out as an adjective for so long, especially by Americans, that it lost meaning two generations ago. But if the term could be resurrected and shriven, it would apply to “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter” better than any fiction I’ve read in years. Andrew Gallix has done precisely what the stream of consciousness demands — and I don’t mean the long-hackneyed literary device, but the complex phenomenological proposition. Every sentence, every phrase, depicts and serves the multiple functions of human awareness, all at once, without discontinuity. The lush descriptions are delivered in a voice that delineates its own quirky persona and those around it, while moving the plot along, expanding upon thematic material, and being hilarious in the bargain.

This complexity can only be achieved by a writer who has at his fingertips all the resources of a longstanding culture, the full vocabulary of two languages, and none of the self-conscious laconicism of those perpetual Puritans who pout, unhaunted, across the Atlantic.

That Something Itself

Samuel Beckett,”Dante…Bruno. Vico…Joyce,” 1929

[Apropos of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake] Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. 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. [More.]

Whatever Happened to 3:AM Magazine?

This appeared in Guardian Books on 10 July 2012:

Whatever Happened to 3:AM Magazine?

When the 3:AM website suddenly vanished last week, the might of social media helped track down the person who could switch the server back on. But what are the implications for online magazines?

[Turn it on again … server outages were undeniably on the rise, but this time there was no website to check. Photograph: Thomas Northcut/Getty Images]

I concluded my last contribution to this site with a quotation from Maurice Blanchot: “Literature is going toward itself, toward its essence, which is disappearance”. Little did I know that 3:AM Magazine — the literary webzine I had edited with a group of friends for more than a decade — would shortly after vanish suddenly into cyberspace. Whether it was going toward its essence is a moot point, which falls outside of our present remit.

When I am not running late, I often check the website, along with my email, before setting off for work. The last time I performed this routine, I sat, for what seemed like ages, staring, bleary-eyed, at an empty page that obstinately refused to load. Blogger’s block, as I like to call it, is a less heroic, technological version of l’angoisse de la page blanche: the agony experienced by writers in front of a blank page. The only sign of activity came from the little dotted line going round and round in vicious circles like Sisyphus‘s boulder or — rather fittingly in this instance — nobody’s business. With hindsight, I realise it should have put me in mind of the proverbial dotted line on which dodgy contracts are carelessly signed. At this juncture, however, I wasn’t unduly worried — or at least I wasn’t yet aware that my relative (and frankly uncharacteristic) nonchalance may have been (was) inappropriate. After all, this sort of thing had been happening — not happening — on and off for several months, and each time normal service had resumed of its own accord, as if by magic.

Although rare, server outages were undeniably on the rise, and downtime had gone from a couple of hours to a couple of days. This, of course, should have prompted a reassessment of my non-interventionist attitude, but there was little I could do, short of moving the entire website to a new company and server, which is precisely the kind of drastic measure I was eager to postpone for as long as possible. Attempting to make contact with our host — whether by phone, email, carrier pigeon or Ouija board — was a fruitless exercise I had long given up in favour of more fulfilling pursuits such as staring at empty web pages failing to load. Besides, these outages afforded me a few guilty pleasures, not least a little breathing space from the frenzy of online activity: they reminded me of the carnivalesque atmosphere brought about, in my childhood household, by the power cuts of the 1970s. And there was the frisson of flirting with disaster without going all the way — until that fated morning when I tried to check the website only to discover that there was no website to check. There was still no website when I came home from work that evening, nor the following day, nor the day after that. When the expected resurrection had failed, Godot-like, to materialise for almost a week, we were forced to contemplate the nightmare scenario of having lost 12 years’ worth of archives.

The web is a Library of Babel that could go the way of the Library of Alexandria. It is the last word in the quest for a book in which everything would be said — a tradition that extends from epic poetry to Joyce’s Ulysses through the Bible, the Summa Theologica, Coleridge‘s omnium-gatherum and the great encyclopedias, as well as Mallarmé‘s “Grand Oeuvre”. It is the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk — “the catalog of catalogs”, the “total” library conjured up by Borges — but it also marks the triumph of the ephemeral.

In order to mimic the instant gratification provided by the web, Argentinian publisher Eterna Cadencia recently published an anthology of short stories using disappearing ink. Once you open the volume, the ink begins to fade in contact with light and air, vanishing completely within two months. In recent years, I have received a growing number of requests from early contributors to 3:AM Magazine, asking me to delete a poem or story of theirs. These people are usually applying for a new job, and find themselves haunted online by youthful incarnations of themselves that may jeopardise their futures. Yet it only took an instant for someone to switch off 3:AM‘s server and solve this problem. The past does not pass on the web; it lingers or resurfaces — unless, of course, it is wiped away. In our case, most of the material was retrievable via the Internet Archive, but as Sam Jordison pointed out in a recent email, how can we be sure that this site, or a similar one, will always be around? At least, in the old days of dead trees, you could safeguard copies of your journal in libraries or universities. When 3:AM was launched, I used to print out every new article we posted, but stopped when the site started running to thousands of pages. I had never imagined that the company I was paying to host, and indeed back up, our webzine would vanish without a word of warning, like disappearing ink.

3:AM‘s servers (located in Dallas, Texas) were owned by a company (based in Saint Joseph, Missouri) whose website was down. Emails bounced back and the phone had been disconnected. We naturally assumed that the owner — whose main claim to fame was his contribution to the penis-enlargement business — had done a runner. But as soon as the word was out, we were inundated with heart-warming messages of support and offers of help via social media, and within a few hours, Twitter had located the owner’s whereabouts. 3:AM readers informed us that he was now the landlord of — or an employee in (there were conflicting reports) — a tattoo parlour. Someone even kindly mailed me an overexposed picture of the aforementioned establishment.

American novelist Steve Himmer spotted that he and the alleged fugitive had a friend in common on Facebook, who was able to send a direct message. London-based author Susana Medina friended him and striked up a conversation. His mobile phone number and personal email addresses were soon unearthed and passed on by amateur sleuths. Blogger Edward Champion conducted a phone interview with the errant entrepreneur in which the latter claimed that he had wound up his web hosting business in 2008 and had no idea that he was still hosting us. He mentioned a “server admin in Bucharest” — name of Florin — who had been handling the company’s “lingering details”. If this is all true, and it could well be, 3:AM had been running on some unattended phantom server. I also wonder whom I have been paying all these years.

Thanks to our readers’ support, and to Champion’s fine detective work, the server has been switched back on (possibly by Florin) … until we migrate elsewhere.

(Wo)men Without Qualities

Tim Parks, “The Chattering Mind,” The New York Review of Books (NYRblog), 29 June 2012.

“Who is the most memorable character in the novels of the twentieth century?”

[…] I can’t be bothered to think of a name myself. […] But now suddenly it occurs to me that by far the main protagonist of twentieth century literature must be the chattering mind, which usually means the mind that can’t make up its mind, the mind postponing action in indecision and, if we’re lucky, poetry.

There were plenty of forewarnings. Hamlet is the most notable. To take action would be to confirm his identity as his father’s son, his father’s avenger, but Hamlet thinks too precisely on the event, he’s too smart, and so fails to become anyone at all, either his father’s son or Ophelia’s husband. He suffers for that failure and spins out unhappy procrastination in fine poetry. In a comic vein, Tristram Shandy is another forerunner, too aware of his narrative performance to narrate anything coherent, let alone act. Both Hamlet and Tristram are characters who didn’t reach the height of their popularity until the twentieth century. We had become like them.

Prone to qualification, self-contradiction, interminable complication, this new kind of character finds his most sinister early manifestation in the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. “I am a wicked man,” this nameless individual introduces himself, then reflects “but as a matter of fact, I was never able to become wicked. I never managed to become anything: neither wicked nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect.”

Again, the reason for this indeterminacy is an excess of intellectual activity; so the cause for failure is also a source of self-esteem: “An intelligent man of the nineteenth century,” Doestoevsky’s narrator tells us, with a mixture of complacency and despair, “must be and is morally obliged to be primarily a characterless being; and a man of character, an active figure — primarily a limited being.”

Seeing the pros and cons of every possible move, this modern man is paralysed, half-envying those less intelligent than himself who throw themselves instinctively into the fray: “[The man of action] is stupid, I won’t argue with you about that, but perhaps a normal man ought to be stupid.” And the voice is actually pleased with this formulation. It’s great to feel superior to those happier than oneself.

In the twentieth century this monstrously heightened consciousness meshes with the swelling background noise of modern life and we have the full-blown performing mind of modernist literature. It starts perhaps in that room where the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Soon Leopold Bloom is diffusing his anxiety about Molly’s betrayal in the shop signs and newspaper advertisements of Dublin. In Mrs Dalloway’s London people muddle thoughts of their private lives with airborne advertisements for toffee, striking clocks, sandwich men, omnibuses, chauffeur-driven celebrities.

Looking back, what surprises how enthusiastically the literary world welcomed this new hero. Prufrock’s mind might be trapped, inept and miserable, but it is wonderfully poetic. I’ll never forget how my high school teacher gushed. Bloom may be incapable of imposing any direction on his marriage, drifting between fantasy and frustration as his wife prepares to betray, and Stephen Dedalus may be marooned in an impossible relationship with his father and jobs that give him no satisfaction, yet Ulysses is a celebration of the inexhaustible fertility of their minds as they move through the commercial flotsam and jetsam of Dublin against the vast backdrop of world literature and myth. It’s all quite reassuring, even self-congratulatory. What wonderful minds we have, even though they don’t seem to get us anywhere, or make us happy.

Virginia Woolf sounds darker notes, warning us that the mind risks being submerged by the urgent blather of modern life, yet in the end even the crazy, shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith gives us paragraph after paragraph of poetic prose before he throws himself to his death from a high window, something that Clarissa Dalloway will think of as an act of impulsive generosity. It’s as if the stream of consciousness had been invented to allow the pain of a mind whose chatter is out of control to be transformed into a strange new beauty, which then encompasses the one action available to the stalled self: suicide.

The way this aesthetic consolation is constructed shifts constantly through the century. Faulkner has no time for the easy lyricism of the mind adrift on the ebb and flow of urban trivia. Now the unending voice revolves obsessively around the traumas that block any positive forward movement: past wrongs, sexual violence and betrayal, incest, the disgrace of institutionalized discrimination. Still, there is grandeur in the sheer scale and awfulness of the mind’s shipwreck, individual and collective. Slowly you get the feeling that only mental suffering and impasse confer dignity and nobility. Our twentieth century author is simply not interested in a mind that does not suffer, usually in extended syntax, and not interested in dramatizing the traumatic event itself, only the blocked and suffering consciousness that broods on it afterwards.

Beckett resists and confirms the formula. He understands its perversity: pleasure taken in the performance of unhappiness: “Can there be misery loftier than mine?” he has the aptly named Hamm remark in the first moments of Endgame. Beckett exposes the spiral whereby the more the mind circles around its impasse, taking pride in its resources of observation, so the deeper the impasse becomes, the sharper the pain, the greater the need to find a shred of self-respect in the ability at least to describe one’s downfall. And so on. But understanding the trap, and the perversity of the consolation that confirms the trap, doesn’t mean you’ve found a way out of it; to have seen through literary consolation is just another source of consolation: at least I’ve understood and brilliantly dramatized the futility of my brilliant exploration of my utter impotence.

Butor, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Thomas Bernhard, Phillip Roth, Updike, David Foster Wallace, James Kelman, Alison Kennedy, Will Self, Sandro Veronesi, and scores upon scores of others all find new ways of exasperating and savouring this mental chatter: minds crawling through mud in the dark, minds trapped in lattices of light and shade, minds dividing into many voices, minds talking to themselves in second person, minds enthralled in sexual obsession, minds inflaming themselves with every kind of intoxicant, minds searching for oblivion, but not finding it, fearing they may not find it even in death.

[…] I suspect our destiny is to pursue our literary sickness for years to come. It is hard not to congratulate oneself on the quality of one’s unhappiness. “Every word,” Beckett told us “is an unnecessary stain on silence”…

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.