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This Space of Writing
By Stephen Mitchelmore
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Stephen Mitchelmore
All rights reserved.
Something Less (or More) than Literature
An Introduction by Lars Iyer
Ten years ago, on his blog This Space, Stephen Mitchelmore quoted Adam Phillips's celebration of the marginality of poetry in Britain: "It's freeing people actually to be able to work their own way. People are only going to be poets now if they really want to be. There's no money in it and very little glamour."
But it is not just poetry that is marginal in Britain; literature itself now occupies that position – shut out by multinational publishing conglomerates, by the near-disappearance of maverick publishers and magazines in which to showcase innovative work, and by a secure and complacent press. But then, as Phillips says, being shut out might be liberating too.
Granted, there remains a whole infrastructure to help the literary writer make sense of their endeavour: reviews, profiles and interviews in the broadsheets and, for the fortunate, lucrative publishing deals and well-attended launches. Not only that, new courses of study in creative writing are increasingly popular, leading to teaching positions and visiting professorships; there is a proliferation of literary festivals and literary prizes; and authors' rooms are photographed for the newspaper. And, in a time of the declining prestige of literature and the decimation of the earnings of writers, who would begrudge authors the chance to meet admirers at literary festivals, or to find reassurance in their profiles and interviews, or to backslap writer-comrades in the review pages and to be backslapped in their turn? Who would be so churlish as to deny that teaching creative writing is a great way to get by in these difficult times?
Yet this supportive infrastructure, which continues to makes sense of literary writing, tends to reward a certain kind of book – if it is not a money-spinner, written for marketers' projections of the common reader, then it must appeal to the judging panels of literary prizes, the contemporary arbiters of "good taste". Prize panels typically favour ostensibly "serious" and "profound" books, and are suspicious of what they suspect to be "pretension" – the heavy hand is in; the light touch, out. Hence the triumph of clunky middlebrow narratives, as technically accomplished as they are paranoiacally uptight, guarding themselves from doubt, from openness through writerly accomplishment and through the cynicism and irony that are the mainstay of our times. This quintessentially British literary "good taste" is one of Steve's great bugbears, being sure of itself to the point of smugness, and hardly so much as aware of the existence of other literary traditions, of literary works in translation, and of its own homegrown radicals.
It is therefore only by proceeding in the opposite direction to the literary market that the writer might discover an element of freedom. The problem is that such freedom is difficult, subjecting the author to the uncertainty so effectively disposed of by "good taste". The abandonment of the middlebrow gold standard of literary work is to be exposed to the predicament that has faced every genuine writer since Romanticism, who must work without the safeguard of a tradition and therefore without a model of what literary writing should look like. "Last year's words belong to last year's language / And next year's words await another voice" (T.S. Eliot). And it is not enough to shake off a whole order of good literary habits and good literary manners to find "another voice". The real challenge is to transform the freedom from established norms and traditional securities into a freedom to "make it new".
In Whatever Happened to Modernism? – a book that is a touchstone for Steve, and the subject of one of his richest essays (included below) – writer and critic Gabriel Josipovici assembles a counter-history of literary figures for whom received ways of writing were inadequate to their needs, figures who felt called to write but had to struggle to discover how they might respond to this call. Told backwards, with the emphasis on what they achieved subsequently, the careers of Kafka, Proust or Mann – writers so important to Steve – can seem all too monumental. As Josipovici reminds us, however, these figures lived their writing forwards, experiencing "the daily struggle, the daily uncertainty, the daily need for artistic and human choices in a world where there are no longer any guidelines for such choices", negotiating, in their own way, the dilemma bestowed upon us by the infinite freedom to write that characterises our time.
But there is, I think, a difference between the great modernists and us. In our time, the prestige of literary writing has declined. The old elitist culture of high modernism, with its valiant vanguards taking a stand against bourgeois taste, seems ridiculous now. Literature can no longer be heroically oppositional when no one much cares about the battle. The reign of "good taste", championed by broadsheet review sections and prize-giving panels, is so triumphant that it appears entirely natural. Indeed, we may be understood to live at the end of literary history, coming after a time in which literary writing might be something you fight over, might have real stakes, might actually matter. The literary writer is a diminished figure, her struggle against the middlebrow and against the market now judged as the hangover of old snobbery. Literary heroism is out of date.
* * *
Samuel Beckett – another of Steve's touchstone writers – when asked why he wrote, answered, "Bon qu'à ça": "It's all I'm good for", or, "Because I'm good for nothing else". The vocation of writing – once sublime, once glorious, the legitimate heir to religion as the most dignified search for meaning – has degraded into a gratuitous compulsion, an imperative that is emptied of its content and objective. As Jeff Fort notes, Beckett's Bon qu'à ça "speaks of exclusivity ... but precisely in the mode of abjection and default", an abjection that is also comic, Fort continues, "precisely because we know what extraordinarily high stakes have been invested in the thing called literature, and in particular, what Beckett himself invested in it, which was virtually everything he had".
And when Maurice Blanchot – another constant reference for Steve – was asked "Why do you write?", this is how he replied:
I will borrow from Dr Martin Luther when, at Worms, he declared his unshakability: Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. May God help me. Which I translate modestly: In the space of writing – writing, not writing – here I sit bent over, I cannot do otherwise and I await no help from the beneficent powers.
Blanchot's writer is no Luther, sure in his faith and his mission. Rather, unsupported by the old grandiosity of literature and by the reassurances of tradition, Blanchot's writer is humble, almost derisory. Once again, there is comic bathos to Blanchot's pronouncement, when we reflect that his investment in literature was at least as great as Beckett's.
And yet, not even Beckett and Blanchot may do as models for the literary writer now. Because, for Beckett and Blanchot, there is a joy in the response to the push or draw of writing, even a kind of hope. To tell stories (of a kind), to posit worlds (denuded worlds) in which events happen, to write criticism (in Blanchot's case) which shows the author drawn into the uncanny and anonymous space of writing, is, for them, a kind of ecstasy. It is the ground of hope. "If he is 'good for nothing but' writing, it may also be that nothing is quite so good as writing", Fort observes of Beckett.
In one of his earliest posts at This Space, Steve writes:
There is one reason that keeps me writing: hope. The hope that I might be able to write what I need to say because it could not be said in any other way.
That said, I am not writing.
There is also the hope of reading, which is much the same: to find, at last, the narrative that allows me to breathe and to step forward actually; not vicariously through a character or the author's experience, but actually to step forward. The metaphor is the only means.
That said, I am not reading either.
What kind of hope is this, when the literary vocation has now shrunk, not merely to an empty compulsion, but to something that is, in the British context, even more risible than it was in Beckett's and Blanchot's France? For Beckett and Blanchot, there was at least still some prestige in the idea of literary writing. At least no superegoic voice was telling them to "come off it" in that all-too-British manner of deflating what is taken to be pretension.
One aspect of Steve's freedom lies in the "no" he delivers to a smug and parochial literary culture. But the other, higher aspect lies in the "yes" of his hope, which releases him to search for words adequate to the needs of his criticism.
* * *
Steve's writing on This Space, from which this collection draws, has attended, from the start, to the predicament of the contemporary literary writer – the writer for whom literature is in some way a problem. Such a writer is stranded in what Maurice Blanchot calls "L'Espace littéraire", the "space of literature", a zone of dispossession and destitution, charged with strangeness and volatility. Indeed, this phrase of Blanchot – the title of one of his most famous books – could also be translated as The Remove of Literature, or even, more freely, as Literature's Default. It is significant that for the title of the present book, Steve drops Blanchot's word, "literature" altogether, as though the notion of literature itself were too prestigious, too imposing, for the uncertain and obscure practice to which he would attest.
There is another telling Blanchotian resonance in the title of Steve's blog. Combine it with the name of his Tumblr, and you have the phrase, "this space of resonance", used by Blanchot in a programmatic essay, "What is the Purpose of Criticism?" The critic, Blanchot argues, lets a kind of "nothingness" resonate in the literary work; the review is the "space of resonance" which shows how literary meaning is interrupted or sidelined – whether by uncertainties in the act of narration or by the outbreak of uncontrollable, transpersonal affects. For Blanchot, literary criticism can show us how literary works both posit structures of meaning – carefully rendered characters with which to identify and empathise, codified emotions, psychological depth, social expansiveness, detailed and convincing environments – and destabilise such structures. In this way, criticism responds to an element of literary works that is easily forgotten, especially when fiction is understood through the lens of realism. By letting the "nothingness" of the work resound, criticism shows us what lies beyond the shaping of meaningful events and the evocation of psychological depth. The apparent modesty of literary criticism – its secondariness with respect to its object; the fact that it remains occasional – does not, then, prevent it from becoming part of the unfolding of the literary work itself. The Blanchotian critic watches over what Steve has called "something less (or more) than literature" by attending to the condition of such writing, that is, to both the possibility and the impossibility of its meaning, holding these apart and tracing their interplay.
Steve has been watching over "this space of writing" since he began blogging at Spike Magazine's Splinters in 2000. Indeed, Steve has a good claim on having been the first ever literary blogger – certainly he is one of the few who has continued to publish for so long. After a period of contributing to the collective blog, In Writing, in which he developed a longer, more ruminative blogging style, Steve started his own, solo-authored blog, on which he has published an extended review-essay every month or so for more than ten years.
Part of the impressiveness of this tenacity lies in the lowliness of its medium. I once introduced Steve to an editor for a well-known publishing firm, telling her about This Space and its followers. "So you're a blog-o-naut", she snorted, terribly amused, before she excused herself to speak to somebody more important. Of course, times have changed. There is now a respectability to online criticism, even a kind of professionalism. But that is itself a problem – online magazines can become little more than review conveyor belts, doing nothing to exploit the potential of the form. However, in solo, long-distance blogging, you still have a chance of being, like Phillips's poet, answerable only to yourself and those readers who follow you.
This Space of Writing collects forty-four essays of varied length, culled from many more essays at the blog, and mostly focused on contemporary publications (including translations) of a very diverse range. Each essay was originally a dated blogpost, title in red, text in black, with photographs and other illustrations (some of which are reproduced below) breaking up the text, and followed by several (usually not particularly enlightening, and sometimes plain abusive) comments. There are hyperlinks, of course, and, at the bottom of the page, links to other literary blogs. But the essays are the thing: each one intense and demanding to be reread, often including what appears to be, but is never simply, personal anecdote, and characteristically touched with a rather dry humour.
* * *
What are the protocols of a typical Mitchelmore essay? His review of Richard Ford's Lay of the Land does not stop, as so many reviews of Ford do, by praising vivid characterisation and fine phrasing. Ford is certainly adept at creating a convincing and enjoyable "illusion of meaning", giving us characters to empathise with, psychological depth and social expansiveness, but for Steve, Ford's novels are more than "a report from the real world reflected through the craft of fiction", since they contemplate the problem of fiction-writing itself – the relation to life and the world that the act of narration entails.
Ford's Lay of the Land is part of a sequence of novels narrated by Frank Bascombe, whose writing career has stalled after the death of his young son. Bascombe gave up teaching creative writing on the ground that "the lie of literature and the liberal arts" is the spurious search for "transcendent themes in life". Bascombe, on Steve's account, means to stay with this world, to keep immanent. Yet the "desperate stoicism" of his narration, his "voice beyond defeat", bespeaks a great uncertainty. The drift of the narrative, restlessly recounting one inconsequential event after another, seems, as it proceeds, to answer only to an empty necessity to speak – a hope to step forward in writing, which never quite secures the means to do so. In this way, Bascombe's voice is thrown back on itself, on its enabling conditions, becoming a meditation on the difficulties of the act of narration itself, on the impossibility of shaping real life into story. Steve argues that what Ford shows above all in his novels is that "the nature of existence will remain unclear and will never be resolved into coherence". Immanence is broken, without, for all that, opening on a larger transcendence.
Alas, as Steve argues, Ford does not have the nerve to carry through this aesthetic vision, shoehorning "event glamour" into the final pages of The Lay of the Land. There is a terrorist attack, a narrative climax that is supposed to wrap everything up and make sense of what has gone before. Ford cannot resist the temptation, as Steve says, "to fabricate meaning, to provide a telos for the interminable". This is what makes his work so warmly received in the mainstream press – we want our fiction to make sense, to confirm the order of our world. But what Steve shows is that Bascombe's voice ultimately prevents this reassurance, since it gives presence to the empty and powerless insistence of what cannot be contained by coherent narrative. Thus, Steve reads Ford against his critics and against himself, affirming an openness in the Bascombe novels that makes them much more than fine examples of literary realism.
These themes arise again in Steve's provocative account of David Foster Wallace's suicide. Foster Wallace's human tragedy, Steve suggests, is the result of a failed literary ambition – a thwarted hope "that everything could be contained in a book, unified by narrative", that "a novel might become the world, exceeding the limits of the self". For Steve, Foster Wallace's 1088-page Infinite Jest was an attempt at just such a novel, a novel to make sense of the flux of the world. And his next attempt, The Pale King, destroyed its author, who died of his failure to write a book that could be the world.
Excerpted from This Space of Writing by Stephen Mitchelmore. Copyright © 2014 Stephen Mitchelmore. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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