relative danger

an interview with Gordon Lish

WINTERS: Critics of you and your ‘school’ have dismissed your interest in the sentence as trivial and superficial. But my understanding is that your aesthetic contains a strong moral component.

LISH: Yes. This sounds screwy, but that moral component—or rather, that overlay—is a result of one’s having undergone certain considerations in the course of making the sentence. The maker of the sentence is involved with all of the properties of language that exist in that sentence. And in this respect, there is no difference between the beginning and the end of the sentence. It’s all of a thing, and it is infinitely elastic. You can do anything with it you want. I taught my students to orchestrate a concatenation of sentences, each issuing out of the prior one. I know that you’ve already written about what I call ‘torsion’ and the ‘swerve’—where every sentence is in contest with what has been said. That’s what it is. The moral work occurs when the writer is confronted with all of the pathways that might be illumined by reason of what he has said, and he considers them for their relative depth of engagement; their relative danger. The way in which each one promises or fails to promise to open, deepen, reveal.

Ordinarily, quite the opposite occurs. The safest pathway is chosen. That which seems most in keeping with tradition; with what is conventionally done. But I say that you must refuse and refuse and refuse. It’s really Fiedler’s ‘No! In Thunder’—it’s about saying no always to what is prior. And by saying no to what is prior, you eventuate into a statement that you could not have conceivably arrived at otherwise. Whenever one follows the narrative arrow towards the next recognizable, feasible, sane stroke of discourse, one is captured, trapped in the trap of the trap of what has been said. I say, no! Contrarily, one should try to say what has not been said; what is sayable only by controverting what has been said. And you’re the one who has said it, so you’re controverting yourself. If you keep this behaviour up, you are brought, it seems to me, all the way around to the beginning again. You have created a nimbus, a totality which will be possessed of differences that would not otherwise have come about. All by reason of imposing upon your progress, your ‘narrative’, a refusal rather than an approval.

Now, in saying all this, I’m not calling for an end to the logic of discourse—but what kind of logic? It comes down to this: a new thing can only be done if it comes out of oneself, solely. Is this solipsism? How could it not be? What the hell is wrong with solipsism? What I want when I’m in the presence of a writer is that person’s soul. The more solipsistic the better. People say, ‘don’t you want to communicate?’ No, I don’t want to communicate. I want communion. I want mutuality. I want to enter the being of the other. I want unimprovable illumination.

read the full interview in Critical Quarterly, December 2015

a thousand miles away

a review of Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset

Change is the only constant in West of Sunset: from Scott’s short-lived scripts to the stars’ ageing faces, the whole world seems fated to fade away. Some of O’Nan’s most suggestive passages conjure the feeling of freefall that can accompany uncontrollable change. Scott’s drunken blackouts are represented by sudden accelerations of narrative pace. In one sentence he’s ordering a double gin; in the next he’s “sprawled on someone’s wet lawn”. Like him, we’re left struggling to fill in the blanks. Later, he reflects on the “strangeness” of flying: “stepping through a door in one place, sitting still for a few hours, then stepping out a thousand miles away”. As the novel develops, O’Nan makes sure that we share this sense of disorientation – feeling, with Scott, the ground giving way beneath our feet. Consequently, when he wishes for his time with Sheilah “to last, and this new life, impossibly, to be his”, we feel the poignancy of that “impossibly”.

read the review in The Guardian

unspoken, unseen

an interview for Bomb Magazine

If I can return to the misuse of philosophy in fiction — that is, to novelists who engage in overt philosophical posturing — I suppose my disappointment stems from my feeling that great works of art only murmur their knowledge, whereas the worst ones seem to want to parade it. Back in the seventies, Gordon Lish observed of Stanley Crawford that, reading his work, “one senses the pressure of having read all that’s to be read without trying to give evidence of erudition.” That sense of pressure is what I’m after. That’s why Wittgenstein disliked Tolstoy’s more didactic works; as he wrote in a letter to Norman Malcolm, “when Tolstoy turns his back to the reader, then he seems to me most impressive. His philosophy is most true when it’s latent in the story.” Cora Diamond’s gloss on that letter stresses the sense in which, for Wittgenstein, philosophy should be “contained in the work, but not by being spoken of, not by being told.”

I’d say it’s the same with the question of art and knowledge. Take Gerhard Richter’s painting, Betty (1988). Or Velasquez’s Las Meninas. In each case, the composition is organized in such a way that the perspectival structure forces a deviation of the spectator’s attention. That’s what a lot of the artworks I work on are doing. That’s what, say, Jason Schwartz is doing. Like Richter’s Betty, Schwartz’s work has its back turned. Like her, his language is looking at something I can’t see; it knows something I’ll never know. Confronted with this kind of object, the task is no longer to try to uncover art’s knowledge, but rather to follow its gaze.

read the rest here

centers of gravity

a review of Chad Harbach’s MFA vs NYC

The basic idea behind Harbach’s essay – and of the book after which it is named – is that American fiction now has ‘two centers of gravity: “MFA”, which is dispersed throughout our university towns, and “NYC”, which hews close to Manhattan’s trade publishing industry’. The collection takes stock of this split from the standpoints of various actors – authors, teachers, and other links in writing’s supply chain. And while it sometimes slips into banal self-involvement (e.g., bourgeois Brooklynites exaggerating their money worries) it also achieves, at a composite level, both a distinctive documentary value and a degree of critical reflexivity. Nor does the book reify its ‘two cultures’ into entirely separate spheres. Instead, several essays illustrate how ‘writers move back and forth between the MFA and NYC worlds’, blurring both their cultures and their economies (note, for instance, that NYC agents routinely ‘scout’ MFA cohorts, and MFA teachers get jobs on the back of book deals). While these articles are always partial, perhaps the volume surpasses the sum of its parts: cover to cover, MFA vs NYC implicitly demonstrates the inadequacies of divisive thinking.

read the rest in Critical Quarterly, 57:1

loving literature

a review of Deidre Shauna Lynch’s Loving Literature: A Cultural History


Sometimes it’s expressed; sometimes it’s repressed: either way, emotion is deeply embedded in literary criticism. As I. A. Richards reflected in 1929, critics are constantly torn between instinctive “feelings” and standardized “doctrines” – between “deciding we are too hot or too cold” and “hanging up a thermometer”. Our thermometers have grown increasingly technical since Richards’s day, augmented both by the post-1960s “theory” boom, and by newer developments in brain science and big data. But even when we aspire to scientific dispassion, it is widely assumed that we do what we do because, at bottom, we simply “love literature”. Why else would we do it? Deidre Lynch’s Loving Literature provides a fascinating history of this presupposition. Lynch begins by clearing away the old cliché that literary scholars are cold-bloodedly loveless – the image, to quote Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poets Society, of “armies of academics measuring poetry” without allowing it into their hearts. Instead, Lynch observes, an English professor’s emotional life “is supposed to slop over onto her job; it’s all in a day’s work when it does.” In this sense, literary studies is an “oddly intimate profession”, whose practitioners are routinely expected to love their work – and, indeed, to transmit that love to their students. Lynch’s book excavates this expectation, uncovering its historical origins. At the same time, she emphasizes that love isn’t always a healthy emotion. As she points out, those who love literature sometimes forget “what literary texts themselves say about love’s edginess and complexities”. With novels and poems, much like with people, love can be confusing and painful.

read the rest in the Times Literary Supplement, 20 March 2015

an imagining of an image

the second of my yearly essays on contemporary theory

‘Theory on theory’ is not in itself a project or program. Rather, work in this register represents something less explicitly thematised, yet more pervasive—call it an attitude, or a preoccupation. The seemingly vague psychologism of such terms may be the very source of their value: as John Guillory has observed, the notion of so-called ‘theory’ (understood as a singular noun) belongs less to the determinate reality of theoretical schools and approaches than to ‘the pedagogical imaginary’. When we commonly talk about, say, the ‘theory wars’, or about being for or against (or nowadays ‘after’) something called ‘theory’, we are playing a distinctive kind of language-game—one in which the word ‘theory’ points at an aspect of academia’s psychic life; its tacit self-understanding. As an umbrella term, ‘theory’ resembles what the intellectual historian Peter Gordon calls a ‘normative image’—an implicit mental picture, which constitutes ‘a precondition for concept-formation, although it is not in itself conceptual in form’. Later on, I will look more closely at these non-conceptual and ‘imaginary’ qualities that inhere in our ideas about theory. For now, I will simply note the curious sense in which ‘theory on theory’ connotes an orientation toward an orientation; an imagining of an image.

read the rest in The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory

patterns of anticipation

a review of Jane Unrue’s Love Hotel

The novel’s knowledge of the connection between the seen and the unseen—between what O’Connor calls “the concrete world” and its invisible outside or underside—is best captured by a description of classical statues. “Their gaze was collective,” Unrue writes, “trained upon a destination too distant, formless, timeless for the living person even to envisage.” The passage recalls both the disturbingly “eyeless” taxi driver who transports the narrator to the couple’s estate, and her encounter with a portrait whose “eyes appeared to gaze into the eyes of someone something just behind the painter.” Each of these sights could be said to express what she calls “patterns of anticipation”—where anticipation, much like desire, is largely defined by the absence of information. Of course, describing this absence gets us no closer to an account of what Unrue’s mysterious book is “about.” But maybe it helps us to formulate what it feels like to read it. So, here goes: reading Love Hotel feels like tracing someone’s gaze as they stare at something you can’t see. Or like feeling someone or something moving behind you, and turning to find nothing there. That tracing, that turning, that feeling marks the way art draws us into its mystery: the clocks stop, the world falls away, and suddenly, somehow, something appears.

read the review in The Brooklyn Rail

parallels and recurrences

a review of Jessica Pressman’s Digital Modernism

Pressman’s historical picture is one of subtle parallels and recurrences, rather than dramatic ruptures. This nuanced approach yields numerous insights. Most notably, it helps to deflate the rhetoric of division that has often dominated both academic and public discussions of the digital. As Pressman argues, such debates have been beset by a simplistic tendency to “see difference wherever there’s digitality”, whether in the case of doom-mongering declarations of the death of print (her preferred example is Robert Coover’s 1992 article “The End of Books,” but there are many more) or overstatements of the radical “newness” of new technologies. In this regard, her reading of Ulysses is especially suggestive. Building on Hugh Kenner’s earlier observations, Pressman posits the novel’s “Ithaca” section as a pre-digital instance of a “database aesthetic”. In so doing, she develops a deft critique of the idea that “narrative and database” are necessarily separate entities. As she reminds us, questions about “the relationship between interpretation and information, between reading and data” are among the most pressing issues facing “the humanities in a digital age”.

read the review in Modernism/Modernity

vanishing acts

a review of Cathy Caruth’s Literature in the Ashes of History

Trauma conveys a kind of philosophical force: it puts pressure on the epistemological status—and the evidential value—of recollected and recounted memories. Crucially, for Caruth this pressure is not only epistemological; it is also necessarily ethical. This is because trauma cuts across the personal and the historical. Indeed, Caruth contends that trauma is “not so much a symptom of the unconscious as a symptom of history,” such that “the traumatized carry an impossible history within them.” For her, it follows that this “impossible” quality must be preserved—particularly if we wish to bear “witness” to the histories that our traumas transmit. It is easy to see this idea’s deconstructive colouring. Recalling Derrida’s similar style of ethical thought, Caruth argues that trauma’s aporia ought to be retained; that impossible histories call for appropriately unresolved types of testimony. In short, if we are ever to take stock of trauma, we must remain faithful to its “affront to understanding.”

read the review in the Times Literary Supplement, 14 Nov 2014

metamorphosis of colours

a review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days

In Erpenbeck’s world, everything is connected. Stylistically, this is conveyed through tiny parallels and repetitions—elusive leitmotifs that echo across the protagonist’s alternate lives. Indeed, the book’s basic theme of birth and death indirectly recurs in the minutiae of its imagery. In this way, Erpenbeck deploys the smallest details to recapitulate her ideas. One character considers how the bruises on corpses “change colour in the coffin,” and speculates that “this metamorphosis of colours” might stand in for “the sorts of development of which the person was no longer capable”—the other lives they might have lived.

read the review in The Literary Review, November 2014