Ever since I was a kid in high school I was interested in cultural and intellectual history. What impressed me was the constant ebb and flow of ideas and of thinkers and artists seeking answers to important questions of the time. Each serious work of art was a critique of what came before and the measure of greatness was always the ability to surpass one’s masters and contribute something new and influential.
At no time until the late 19th century was there much of a role for the professional critic, and until the advent of “post-modernism,” that role seems to have been limited to gate-keeping, taste-making, and curating, not to inspiring or dictating the terms of creation.
It is only with the advent of Structuralism that the critics presumed to elevate their status above the artists whose works they studied. I hated all that pseudo-scientific stuff. It totally turned me off to the notion of formal literary study. I studied political economy and history instead.
Then came post-structuralism which morphed into post-modernism (still thirty years behind the artists and writers whose works are said to define the movement) who insisted students read literary theory instead of literature. Their time seems to have passed, but the literary landscape is littered with their intellectual spawn, two or three generations of readers who have no interest in Literature, preferring the kitschy, eroticized derivatives of 19th century genre novels and penny dreadfuls that, at most, have a story to tell, but seldom tell it well.
Perusing the bookstores, as I used to do, before I moved abroad, looking for compelling new works of fiction, I would go through hundreds of titles and first paragraphs, seeking an authoritative voice that would hold my attention through the opening sentence. Rare was the book that could do so. But they all have a gentle lyrical tone and themes that bear the academic stamp, not the sense of lives distilled into works of imagination. When you think that the entire Modernist movement began with a reaction against the academy, we’ve come full circle, haven’t we? And this from people whose main concern was supposed to be the oppression of the masses.
It is as if the idea that the artist should have any authority, apart from his teacher, is simply not to be tolerated. Who is the artist, after all, to presume that he knows what he’s doing? Only the learned PhDs could possibly know that. The entire Western tradition of the artist as critic and the work as critique of the master, and the leapfrogging of the master, was obliterated. No wonder one thinks of the death of literature. It is being strangled by theorists.
In the Orient, where I live now, they have pretty much the same notion of art. Learn from the master, tweak him if you will, but do not dare to surpass him. Your master is your God. Apart from the rare oddball exceptions, such as Haruki Murakami, who is not affiliated with any school, and whose works are a melange of Eastern and Western influences, mostly pop cultural, there is very little artistic ferment or originality to be found.
So, though I may not be worthy of debating the man, on to Lar’s Iyer’s Manifesto.
DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN -
“ONCE UPON A TIME, WRITERS WERE LIKE GODS, AND LIVED IN THE MOUNTAINS. THEY WERE EITHER DESTITUTE HERMITS OR ARISTOCRATIC LUNATICS, AND THEY WROTE ONLY TO COMMUNICATE WITH THE ALREADY DEAD OR THE UNBORN, OR FOR NO ONE AT ALL.”
Really, what a wonderful myth you write. Is that what Homer was? And here I thought he orated everything in the Agora, and his tales were inscribed by others. What about the classical playwrights, were their works not performed while they were alive? Perhaps your tongue is in your cheek, but how are able to yell, in that case?
I may be in agreement with you, though, in that the way Literature is taught in the academies today, or exegeted, as Al Haig might have said, it must seem to come down from the mountain, or out of the minds of madmen, and to one who hasn’t yet lived a life, but merely passed their time in suburban splendor, lulled into facebook oblivion, schooled in the passing fads of theory, surfeited with information, misinformation and propaganda, cosseted, above all, in the cloister, it must surely seem a daunting task to approach, much less surpass, the greatest of one’s literary forebears. All we can envision is cant.
One thing to keep in mind is that many of the greats of the past were not nearly as erudite as we are. They might have had a few books on the shelf, and among them was the Bible. But they knew those books and their wisdom well, from reading them thoroughly many times through, though without the benefit of research libraries, and other texts with which to compare them, they might not have known them as well as scholars know them today.
Is it what we know about Literature and how we are instructed to think about it, that impedes us from creating Literature? Is that what is responsible for the death of Literature?
“And yet… in another sense, by a different standard, Literature is a corpse and cold at that. Intuitively we know this to be the case, we sense, suspect, fear, and acknowledge it. The dream has faded, our faith and awe have fled, our belief in Literature has collapsed. Sometime in the 1960s, the great river of Culture, the Literary Tradition, the Canon of Lofty works began to braid and break into a myriad distributaries, turning sluggish on the plains of the cultural delta. In a culture without verticality, Literature survives as a reference primer on the reality effect, or as a minor degree in the newly privatised university. What was Literature?“
Indeed. When what looks at what people read today, the unexpurgated and unedited memoirs of dysfunctional upbringings, the un-proofed drafts of genre offerings on Kindle, priced from $0.00 to $2.99, how does one approach such readers with the stylish and erudite sort of tome one remembers a teacher droning on about, and of which one read only the Spark notes?
Would it not be better, then, to write as if we know nothing of Literature, to approach the world afresh, to distill our individual experience and exercise our imaginations without reference to works which few will have read. There are simply too many books around to assume even our most cultivated reader might understand our allusions.
“Art was once oppositional, but now it is consumed by the cultural apparatus, and seriousness itself reduces itself into a kind of kitsch for generations X, Y and Z. We have not run out of things to be serious about—our atmosphere boils, our reservoirs of water go dry, our political dynamic dares our ingenuity to permit catastrophe—but the literary means to register tragedy have exhausted themselves. Globalisation has flattened Literature into a million niche markets, and prose has become another product: pleasurable, notable, exquisite, laborious, respected, but always small. No poem will ferment revolution, no novel challenges reality, not anymore.”
Art is still oppositional. The kitschy gothic novels of the day, what are they if not metaphors for the vampire banks, zombie corporations, and mummified political economics that prey upon us now. Are they not the new aristocracy that enslaves us? What does the literary fiction novel, that precious product of the MFA programs, with its lyrical style and not much else, have to say about that?
If the history of Literature is a history of new ideas about what Literature can be, then we have reached a place where modernism and postmodernism have drunk the well dry. Postmodernism, which was surely just modernism by a more desperate name, brought us to our endgame: everything is available and nothing is surprising. In the past, each great sentence contained a manifesto and every literary life proposed an unorthodoxy, but now all is Xerox, footnote, playacting. Even originality itself no longer has the ability to surprise us. We have witnessed so many stylistic and formal gambits that even something original in all its constituent parts contains the meta-quality of newness, and so, paradoxically, is instantly recognisable.
Yes. Modernism, with its worship of originality for the sake of originality is a thing of the past; while post-modernism, with its foundation in academic theory, its reinvention of the past, its metafictional self-consciousness, and its abandonment of most of the elements of Literature which make Literature worth reading, is strangling the life out of Literature.
But as our world changes, so will our experience of it, and the ways in which we express it. People will always hunger for a Literature to which they can relate. I have read that young people today don’t read the early masters of post-modernism anymore because they can’t relate to that world. That is the way of art and literature. What speaks specifically to one generation does not speak to the next. If you plan to write, don’t try to speak to your generation, just speak for yourself, as though you’re telling a story to your grandparents. If you and they can both relate to it, it might have some chance of outliving you.
I grew up reading 19th century Literature. There is very little of it I recognize as part of my world today. Same with visual art and music. I was always much more interested in pre-modern art than in modern art. Now I find I relate best to the modernists, even to some post-modernists. I used to despise popular music, probably because it sounded so callow and amateurish when produced by kids barely older than me, but mature masters of popular forms, particularly of the blues, are a delight to me now, mostly because their playing seems so much more accomplished and lived.
“Who but the most pompous of the third wave of writers can take themselves seriously as an Author? Who could dream of archiving their emails and tweets for a grateful posterity? The seclusion of Blanchot has become impossible, as has the exile of Rimbaud, the youthful death of Radiguet. No one is rejected or ignored anymore, not when everyone is published instantly, without effort or forethought. Authorship has evaporated, replaced by a legion of keystroke labourers, shoulder to shoulder with the admen and app developers.”
That sounds a bit elitist, don’t you think? All kidding aside, cannot one deal with that, perhaps, by including comments in the work? In my novel, as my protagonist spouts his monologues on the CB radio he is verbally assaulted by his audiences, and he says to himself, “How is one supposed to create culture with everyone a critic.” His monologues, furthermore, are catchy but meaningless micro-fictions intended as context for his advertisements for himself. It’s a lot like the experience of blogging.
“The unceasing forward momentum of his prose speaks to a complete intolerance of failure, of compromise, and of a hatred of the strutting imposture of those who do not understand their own failure and compromise. By declaring war on themselves, Bernhard’s frustrated narrators, never able to find time and space in which, finally, to write—in which to imitate their masters, be it Schopenhauer or Novalis, Kleist or Goethe—declare war on a culture in which such imitation has become impossible.”
“Imitate their masters.” Interesting choice of words. As I said before, the tradition, pre-postmodernism, is to surpass the masters, not imitate them or parrot them with cant.
Write about this world, whatever else you’re writing about, a world dominated by dead dreams. Mark the absence of Hope, of Belief, of Commitments, of high-flown Seriousness. Mark the past from which we are broken and the future that will destroy us. Write about a kind of hope that was once possible as Literature, as Politics, as Life, but that is no longer possible for us.
Mark your sense of imposture. You’re not an Author, not in the old sense. You haven’t really written a Book, not a Real Book. You’re part of no tradition, no movement, no vanguard. There’s nothing at stake for you in Literature, not really, for all your demented strutting. In addition, very few people are actually reading: mark that fact, too. No one’s reading, idiot! There are more novelists than readers. There are so many books…
Write only if you have no choice, if the only other way is madness or depression, which is as it was for me.
Mark your gloom. Mark the fact that the end is nigh. The party’s over. The stars are going out, and the black sky is indifferent to you and your stupidities. You’re with Bolaño’s characters at the end of the quest, lost in the Sonora Desert, and at the end of all quests. You’re drawing stupid cartoons to pass the time in the desert. That’s it, the whole of your oeuvre: the drawing of stupid cartoons to pass the time in the desert.
Curious, you have largely summed up the story line of Banana Republican Blues.
Don’t be generous and don’t be kind. Ridicule yourself and what you do. Savage art, like the cannibal you are. Remember, only when the thing is dead, picked at by a million years of crows, gnawed at by jackals, spat upon and forgotten, can we discover that last inviolate bit of bone.
Live your life. Do constructive things. Read the best writing you can find. Take notes. Travel, especially to the low spots. Observe and assimilate. Participate and debate, and above all, practice. Ignore the critics and the theorists, and when a little voice in your head tells you it’s time to write your novel, give up everything else you were doing and, listening only to yourself, sit down and write it from your sub-conscious mind, not from what you think you know. Write the words that percolate up through the keyboard, and follow them wherever they lead you. Then go back and refine and polish until you have a jewel.