Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Reviewing the reviewer: Delia Falconer on James Wood

Novelist, essayist and reviewer Delia Falconer has a generous, incisive and, er, critical review of US uber-critic James Wood's How Fiction Works in last month's Australian Literary Review here.

In light of the recent !!death of literary criticism!! meme circulating through the internets Falconer's review questions the work that 'the real' does for Wood and the seemingly static and heavyhanded grasp this ground has in mapping modernities that are experienced as fragmented, discontinuous, or as proliferating mises en abyme (the period formerly known as post-modern):

While another critic might see the impulse towards jam-packed, baroquely hyperreal novels as a legitimate and thoughtful, albeit varyingly skilful, response to our postmodern world (a mimetic reflection of the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication, say, or an attempt to "wake up" a form whose traditional gestures are now the cliched staples of Hollywood cinema), Wood could only read this new "genre" as a kind of perversity or, worse, a showing off. (He has chastised DeLillo elsewhere for turning the novelist into "a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry".)

This episode exposed a fundamental weakness of Wood's criticism: the fetish status it accords to the "real". It is clear, reading Wood's wider oeuvre, that he has a deep-rooted impatience with books that go outside a certain psychological verisimilitude; nor does he care for writing that usurps the critic's job by incorporating elements of commentary into a more self-conscious narration. Instead Wood places the naturalistic realist writing of Anton Chekhov and Gustave Flaubert at the centre of his pantheon; writing in which the authorial presence never breaks the tranquil surface of the book.

Falconer's seems to be a Walter Benjamin rather than Georg Lukacs based reading of the dialetic between cultural (literary in this case) form and historical change. Lukacs mourned the victory of modernist form over 'life' in his writings on the historical novel, and was antipathetic to Brecht's estrangement techniques. Benjamin sought to align historical experience with cultural forms that were responsive to changes in technology and modernity. Wood would appear more on the side of Lukacs than Benjamin in Falconer's estimation.

One question arising out of this death of literary criticism meme is whether or not literary criticism should seek to model its evaluative criteria on the affectiveness of the reading experience in promoting a moral-emotional thinking that rings with truth, or seek to model these criteria more on how effectively the form mediates such content whereby both form and content are affectively and sociologically alive to the milieux of the novel's circulation. Falconer and indeed James Ley, I would suggest, tend toward the second method.

Pavlov's Cat has praised Ley as one of the best practitioners of the art of fiction reviewing at the moment. Falconer's often more meta-critical reviews operate in a different space to Ley's although both inflect their criticism and reviews through a Benjamin-esque knowledge of the historical instantiations of forms of novelistic realism. As Peter Osborne in The Politics of Time argues,

In Benjamin . . . we have the beginnings of an account of the temporalization of history as cultural form. This enables us to concretize our previous depiction of historical time (the temporalization of history by the anticipation of a timeless end, a historical death), in terms of a series of culturally specific representations of ends constituting history in a variety of different ways - as ethics (Levinas), tradition (Gadamer), chronology (historicism) or modernity(Heidegger and Benjamin), respectively. Furthermore, insofar as these forms are themselves the products of historically specific practices, they are possible objects of transformative practice. We are thus able to begin to give a more concrete meaning to the idea of a politics of time. A politics of time is a politics which takes the temporal structures of social practices as the specific objects of its transformative (or preservative) intent.

Ley's ABR essay on the politics of guilt in Andrew McGahan's fiction uses Leavisite and New Critical close-reading techniques to turn the finely grained registering of the emotional imprint of McGahan's novels on the reader toward a consideration of how this affective-moral level of the novels is re-figured by the narrative forms in which it is presented:

The essence of McGahan’s art is narrative. His recent novels have turned towards genre in part because of his skill at shaping them at a macro level; they seem familiar because they are so solidly and traditionally constructed. Significantly, the move toward genre is also a move toward self-consciousness: the moment of recognition when a narrative is exposed as a purposeful, self-contained structure with its own internal logic that works to shut out conflicting viewpoints. The Irish writer Colm Tóibín once remarked upon the similarity between his nation’s history and a work of sentimental fiction, ‘full of love stories with ill-fated lovers dying with a smile’. There are times, he argued, when ‘the crucial moments in Irish history seem more like a nineteenth-century novel in which the individual, tragic hero is broken by the society he lives in’. The point of his observation is that once this generic quality has been recognised, it opens up the possibility of transcendence: it becomes possible to understand history in other, more realistic and nuanced ways; it becomes possible to see how history is not like a sentimental fiction. This is part of the motivation behind The White Earth’s attempt to incorporate some of the prominent themes in recent Australian history within the overarching framework of a gothic narrative. The novel wants to make us aware of these ideas’ generic qualities, the manner in which certain ways of perceiving are perpetuated, and how this influences the shape of contemporary public debate.

This is an insightful and elegantly expressed argument about the politics of literary form. Ley manoeuvres his close-reading of the emotional tenor of McGahan's oeuvre into an argument about the politics of narrative genre. This is less self-consciously theoretically informed than Falconer's reviews, and the argument here insinuates itself more because of a voice that moves at a slower pace over less texts (one effect of close-reading)which buttresses the assuredness of any judgements. I like both reviewers for different reasons. Ley for the intimacy of the voice, Falconer for the movement between a theoretical and close-reading focus.

Anyone who witnessed Peter Fitzsimmon's contribution to the ABC First Tuesday Book Club last night and was reminded of the debates about the historical-ness of historical fiction that Kate Grenville's The Secret River roused would find essays by both Ley and Falconer on this subject instructive. [Falconer's essay 'Historical novels' is in Eureka Street 13.2 (March 2003) and reprinted in the Black Ink. Best Australian Essays 2003 anthology. Ley's is here: "When the Past isn't Past: a Role for Fiction in Australia's History Wars" .]

However, Ley's voice doesn't always persuade by insinuation. Sometimes the snark must be let loose. Here's a choice cut - harsh but fair - from early in the same piece on McGahan's fiction:
Writing politicised literature can be a treacherous business. It is not the first task of a work of prose fiction to act as a vehicle for a narrow political message. Novels that attempt this are regularly disfigured by their sense of moral self-importance. Elliot Perlman’s Three Dollars (1998), for example, is so distorted by its politics that it develops, absurdly, into a kind of anti-Bildungsroman, in which a naïve young man discovers that he is right about everything. There is a strong tendency in a work that takes sides in some specific political controversy for it to leach the humanity from those characters who represent the unfavoured viewpoint, and to paint them as fools and knaves. Even the best-intentioned narrative inevitably warps reality to conform to its agenda to some extent, but when this is crudely done it stifles the dissonance that is the lifeblood of fiction. The novel shrinks into itself, starts to believe in the imperviousness of its own rhetoric, and ends up being effective only if it tells you exactly what you want to hear. This renders its fictional qualities redundant: Perlman wrote a novel, but everything he had to say might have been adequately expressed in a terse letter to the editor of The Age.


But the point, though sharp, is well made: Perlman's novel (love the personification of the text here by Ley) is disabled by the politics of its form. My critical readings of Three Dollars run along a similar track to Ley's although I spend a lot more time unpacking the anti-Bildungsroman structure of the text.

My main criticism of Perlman's debut novel is that its adoption of a social liberal and Liberal-Leavisite moral-aesthetic position on the ascendance of neoliberal governmentalities is a nostalgic, and thereby reactionary, response to what it mis-diagnoses as classical liberalism. While there are some wonderful moments in the novel, not least the parody of bureaucratic managerialism and the infiltration of the lanaguage of finance capital - all ordinaries - into everyday life, it is its politics of form, and thereby of time, that blunt any claim it has to critical force. And this formal failure is also one of cultural-historical form: the neoliberal reality that we live with, and that Perlman's novel responds to, can't simply be fought back from the ramparts of civilised heroism, as this monstrous ideology is not purely out there, perpetrated by fascist corporations, immoral merchants and their philistine lackeys.
The new liberalism is how we conduct ourselves; it is part of our freedom - it is formative and forming. It is the dominant mode of Bildungs. Novelists who grapple, formally, with this 'reality' are therefore closer to the truth than those that abject our own complicities in this formation.

Falconer and Ley, I think, help us to better see this changing reality and truth. And even Perlman too through the effort and courage to attempt a literary fictional critique of economic rationalism.

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