Beckett with a Smiley Face

This appeared in the New Statesman 4-10 March 2016: 16.

Beckett with a Smiley Face

danfoxpretentiousness

Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness: Why It Matters is as provocative and witty as its title. Taking his cue from Brian Eno (whose career he describes as “a successful experiment in pretension”), Fox, an art critic, sets about reclaiming the P-word. Indeed, the whole book is a gloss on Eno’s contention that “pretending is the most important thing we do” because it enables us to discover “what it would be like to be otherwise”. It is a self-help manual for those, brought up on David Bowie, who doubt that there is a self to help.

More often than not, the accusation of pretentiousness is levelled at people who get ideas above their station. It cuts them down to size. Fox turns this on its head by celebrating the aspiration to a life less ordinary. In the current cultural climate, it is downright subversive.

The author’s subject is the slippage from pretending — what is done at the kids’ table – to pretension, which “goes on over the wine and cheese course with the grown-ups”. How does an activity that is considered crucial to the healthy development of children become contemptible in adults? In a “back-of-an-envelope history of acting”, Fox asks where this stigma originates, exploring Plato’s mistrust of actors but also the adoption of classical rhetoric by politicians and lawyers, whereby the “history of pretence” became bound up with the “history of power”. Finally, the evolution towards a naturalistic style of acting accompanied the rise of individualism and the Romantic quest for “the truth of one’s inner self”. Pretending was now beyond the pale.

Authenticity raises the issue of authentication – the “legitimacy we confer, or not, on a performance”. It is “a matter of authority, of who gets to pass judgement on whether or not you are ‘being yourself'”. Fox notes that the modern artist’s mission is to seek “creative freedom” but fails to point out that this autonomy can also be the source of his or her lack of legitimacy. He describes the “gap between expectation and actuality” – which derives from this creative freedom – as “a productive necessity rather than a flaw”. Failure is the process “by which the arts move forward”. This is Beckett with a smiley face.

The rest of Fox’s argument covers class: accents, politics, gentrification and inverted snobbery. Unlike pretending, pretension “carries with it the sting of class betrayal, especially in the UK, where class is a neurosis as much as a set of social conditions”. The accusation of pretentiousness is “a form of social control”, designed to keep people in their place and protect the status quo.

Pretentiousness achieves a pleasing congruence between style and substance. After all, the essay – experimental by definition, not content with being itself – is arguably the most pretentious genre still in currency. Dan Fox’s shape-shifting work displays many of its hallmarks. It opens with a few etymological considerations and then unfolds organically, one idea leading to another, exemplifying Brian Dillon’s description of the essay as “a way of writing oneself into the unknown”.

There are downsides to this narrative drift. The author’s ruminations lead him, on occasion, to retread ground. In certain passages, the book feels freighted with too many examples. On the other hand, discussing the notion of authenticity without mentioning Kierkegaard or Heidegger seems remiss (although that probably says more about my pedantry than any shortcomings on the author’s part).

Nonetheless, the breadth of reference is staggering – taking in history, cinema, drama, politics, literature, sociology and music. It reflects the “magpie cultural education” that “pop’s intellectual permissiveness” once provided. Without giving in to nostalgia, Fox harks back to more progressive times when culture was not the preserve of the privileged. From this vantage point, his essay ties in with the writings of Mark Fisher (whom he quotes), Owen Hatherley and Simon Reynolds.

The final, autobiographical chapter is the strongest and most moving. It charts the author’s journey from Wheatley, a village in Oxfordshire where he grew up in the late 1980s, to New York City, where he now co-edits the contemporary art magazine frieze. It is a celebration of overreaching ambition; a paean to “dreaming big in small cities” at a point when pop music (which “never asked anyone for permission to be pretentious”) acted as a gateway to a wider world of culture. Music connects the young author to Manhattan and Berlin, even though he has “barely been an hour down the motorway to London”. On day trips to Oxford, he feels the presence of Andy Warhol in a student’s striped T-shirt or Nico in a local branch of Chelsea Girl.

Fox ends by fast-forwarding to his present life in New York. Near his apartment, there is “an Essex Street, a Ludlow Street, a Norfolk Street, and a Suffolk Street”. He wonders what these British toponyms would have conjured up, had he grown up “on the Lower East Side rather than in the English countryside”. Having read this book in Paris, I find myself longing for Wheatley. Life, as Rimbaud never quite said, is elsewhere.

In Fox’s interpretation, pretentiousness is culturally – rather than socially – aspirational. It is “permission for the imagination”, allowing us to transfigure our mundane surroundings and soar above what Keats called “busy common-sense”.
danfox

On 8 March 2016, this review was posted on the New Statesman‘s website under the title “When Did Pretentiousness Become Such a Dirty Word?”

It was prefaced thus: Dan Fox’s new book sets out to reclaim the P-word with an impressively broad-ranging study of art, literature and culture.

Unspeakable Trajectory

Samuel Beckett, Dream of Fair to Middling Women

The experience of my reader shall be between the phrases, in the silence, communicated by the intervals, not the terms, of the statement, between the flowers that cannot coexist, the antithetical (nothing so simple as antithetical) seasons of words, his experience shall be the menace, the miracle, the memory, of an unspeakable trajectory.

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.

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”.