aladdin’s cave

a review of Colin MacCabe’s Perpetual Carnival and Studio

Studio is subtitled ‘Remembering Chris Marker’, but as Ben Lerner writes in his introduction, ‘how do you memorialize an artist who refused to remain identical to himself?’ Marker wasn’t even called ‘Chris Marker’: born Christian Hippolyte François Georges Bouche-Villeneuve, his place of birth has been disputed (he often claimed to come from Mongolia) and he worked under numerous pseudonyms. And despite his extensive network of contacts, he was also a lifelong recluse, whose ‘ultimate taboo,’ MacCabe tells us, was that ‘he could not appear in public alongside his works.’ Marker—who famously said, ‘my films are enough’—rarely consented to be photographed, a problem for which Studio finds a beautiful solution. Bartos provides ten full-colour snapshots of Marker’s apartment-cum-studio in Paris’s 20th arrondisement—a working environment MacCabe describes as somewhere between ascetic ‘monk’s cell’ and eccentric ‘Aladdin’s cave.’ Bartos’s photos show us a studio without an artist—a space strangely pregnant with expectation, in which ‘Marker will forever be almost right back.’

read the rest in the Times Literary Supplement, March 2018

books in the making

Kasia Boddy and I have edited a special issue of Critical Quarterly, titled ‘Books in the Making’, following on from a symposium we held at Cambridge University in 2016. The issue explores the social and institutional conditions that shape the production, distribution and consumption of literature today, with essays on poetry and creative writing programmes (Loren Glass), taste and editorial selection (Claire Squires), writing, computers and labour (Martin Eve), and the role of charisma in literary reception (Günter Leypoldt). There’s also a ‘collective interview’ with people from across the literary field—writing teachers, agents, publishers, arts administrators, reviewers, academics, translators, festival organizers, book designers, prize judges, memoirists and poets—including James English, Robert Macfarlane, Max Porter, Caryl Phillips, Lee Child, Antonia Hodgson, Lauren Elkin and Laura Miller (and many more!)

read the essays and interview in Critical Quarterly, October 2017

the digital critic: literary culture online

I enjoyed co-editing this essay collection, forthcoming from O/R Books. Publisher’s blurb below:

What do we think of when we think of literary critics? Enlightenment snobs in powdered wigs? Professional experts? Cloistered academics? Through the end of the 20th century, book review columns and literary magazines held onto an evolving but stable critical paradigm, premised on expertise, objectivity, and carefully measured response. And then the Internet happened.

From the editors of Review 31 and 3:AM MagazineThe Digital Critic brings together a diverse group of perspectives—early-adopters, Internet skeptics, bloggers, novelists, editors, and others—to address the future of literature and scholarship in a world of Facebook likes, Twitter wars, and Amazon book reviews. It takes stock of the so-called Literary Internet up to the present moment, and considers the future of criticism: its promise, its threats of decline, and its mutation, perhaps, into something else entirely.

With contributions from Robert Barry, Russell Bennetts, Michael Bhaskar, Louis Bury, Lauren Elkin, Scott Esposito, Marc Farrant, Orit Gat, Thea Hawlin, Ellen Jones, Anna Kiernan, Luke Neima, Will Self, Jonathon Sturgeon, Sara Veale, Laura Waddell, and Joanna Walsh.

Pre-order here

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)