beyond the attention space

a review of Amy Hungerford’s Making Literature Now

Hungerford’s attack on the ‘sainted posthumous reputation’ of David Foster Wallace illuminates a broader problem faced by scholars of contemporary fiction. From a different perspective, this problem has long been familiar to publishers, who know that most contemporary novels achieve prominence less through spontaneous cultural uptake than through bidding wars, big advances, and, as a result, big marketing budgets. This wasn’t entirely untrue of Wallace himself who, as Hungerford notes, first acquired celebrity status by way of an ‘agent, an editor, a particular reviewer, and two publishers … powerful enough in the market to set the literary press in motion for a book they got behind’. The problem, in other words, concerns the contingency of cultural visibility. Or, even if Wallace’s widespread review coverage, TV appearances, and national book tours simply reflected his work’s intrinsic value, then the problem concerns what the sociologist Randall Collins has termed the ‘attention space’ – a zone of focalized interest which, it seems, only a handful of cultural figures can simultaneously inhabit. Studying contemporary fiction means living and working alongside that space, and being instinctively drawn to it. But what might we see if we look beyond it?

read the rest in The Cambridge Quarterly, March 2017

infinite fictions: recent reviews

I’ve done little to promote Infinite Fictions—partly for reasons of silence, exile, cunning, etc, but mostly because I’ve been focusing on my PhD—so it’s been great to see the book getting some good reviews. Two, in particular, are less reviews than thought-provoking essays in their own right: Evan Lavender-Smith’s, in the Denver Quarterly, and Dan Green’s, at The Reading Experience. Lavender-Smith, author of Avatar and From Old Notebooks, is among my favourite contemporary writers. Green’s piece has been reprinted in his excellent book on critics and criticism, which I thoroughly recommend.

post-critical reading

a review of Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique

“Why is it”, Felski asks near the start of her book, “that critics are so quick off the mark to interrogate, unmask, expose, subvert, unravel, demystify, take issue, and take umbrage?” Why, in other words, do we so frequently presuppose that literary texts must be skeptically questioned, that their appearances are deceptive, and that they mean something more, or other, than what they say? A Marxist critic might “interrogate” a novel to tease out its ideological function; the way it projects, perhaps unwittingly, imaginary solutions to social contradictions. A feminist critic might unmask its reinforcement of (or, conversely, resistance to) patriarchal norms; and a postcolonial critic might expose its awareness of colonial oppression, even if that awareness exists only between the lines, as a “dead silence” (to recall Edward Said’s influential reading of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park). For Felski, the family resemblance between such differently motivated approaches lies in their common ethos of “critique”—a distrustful, disenchanted, and sometimes condemnatory stance, fixated on literature’s relation to “overbearing and oppressive social forces”, convinced of the “radicalism” of revealing such relations, and intolerant of alternative aims, insisting that “whatever is not critical must therefore be uncritical”. On this account, “critique” has less to do with the intellectual content of particular critical theories than with their varying investments in an implicit conception of the critic’s role. Although Felski doesn’t use the term, her real subject is what the sociologist Neil Gross would call an “intellectual self-concept”; a story which intellectuals tell themselves about themselves.

read the rest in the Times Literary Supplement, 13 July 2016

theory and the creative writing classroom

an essay on Gordon Lish, pedagogy, and literary theory

Lish’s teaching was inseparable from his intellectual formation, including his extensive reading of philosophers and literary critics. But Lish was less an authentic philosopher than an eclectic bricoleur. Eschewing exclusive commitment to any single tradition, he combined the concepts and terminology of often dissimilar thinkers—from Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, and Julia Kristeva to his close friends Harold Bloom and Denis Donoghue—while also maintaining an interest in earlier influences, including analytic philosophy and the New Criticism. Moreover, Lish’s engagement with theory was every bit as revisionary as his editing of Carver and others. As he readily admits, “if I read a philosopher, and he’s not interested in what I’m interested in, I’ll revise what he’s said… bend it and change it, to make it come out my way”. In the classroom, Lish revised theoretical concepts into provisional models for literary composition. True to the spirit of the program era, his teaching prioritized practical over propositional knowledge, converting conceptual “knowing that” into the creative know-how of craft.

read the essay in Contemporary Literature, 57:1 (Spring 2016)

simply to persist

a review of Noy Holland’s Bird

Holland’s writing accumulates a series of recurring objects, weaving an implicit order from apparent chaos. The novel is full of these tiny likenesses; symmetries and similarities that encircle Bird as she moves through the day, collapsing past and present into a timeless, miraculous pattern. “The mind’s true business,” the critic Denis Donoghue once remarked, is not so much to “think” as simply to persist; like the rest of the body, its ultimate purpose is “to keep going.” Holland belongs to a tradition of modernist writers who have tried to capture that motion; to make language move like the mind does, obeying the same unfathomable urge. Bird only describes an ordinary mind on an ordinary day, but it articulates a common truth: like Bird herself, we all hoard objects—a memory, a nickname, a bloody tissue, a tooth—which move us in ways we cannot control or explain. Holland follows that motion in all its mystery, observing the mind “moved by the fact of its moving, spinning itself out again.” Long one of our finest writers, now one of our finest novelists, she goes further than most fiction goes, but where our minds go every day, every moment. And, as she goes, she shows us the stars that guide our migration.

read the review in The Brooklyn Rail

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