Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"The blue of the sky is what best expresses the sky's emptiness"

Part of the fun and annoyance of blogging is that it is a distraction from one's primary work. The deadlined review, the in-depth critical essay, the twenty-eighth fucking draft of the novel are each set aside in order to follow a sudden urge to comment, the futile wish to redirect the juggernaut of communal misconception. Of course, blogging soon usurps all. In an ironic comment on one's literary hopes, each form pales and becomes the Platonic ideal of literary creativity: the invisible review, the paradigm-displacing essay, the elemental expression of being. The blogger is here at one with his critics who see online writing as a form of vanity publishing parasitical on the real thing, even if before, as the reviews and essays progressed away from their objects, and as the novel shed its inspiration, he wondered: where is the real thing?

For critics of literary blogging, its location is very clear. It is the work engirdled by the divine authority of commerce; it is the book floating on puffy clouds of cash borne aloft on great thermals of bookchat. The immanent qualities of the work are strictly irrelevant. No amount of writing, no matter how good, no matter where it appears, is likely to disperse the dense blanket obscuring the sky.

However, there are occasional arrows into the blue. The Existence Machine, for example, asks a very simple question: what is a novel? Simple, yet infinitely troubling, as the examples and commentary provided demonstrate. (The Reading Experience provides a useful response). We place such cultural and artistic weight on this term novel that it has developed formal pillars to maintain its shape and to enable recognition. These pillars are what we call genre. Yet freedom from shape is precisely what gives the novel its unique capacity. As I've pointed out before, Robinson Crusoe was not marketed as a novel. Daniel Defoe maintained it was a true story as told by a shipwrecked sailor. It was only later - in England at least - that the form consolidated and was recognised as such. This is not to say a novel must proceed as a fact-based account but to emphasise the motive for the novel is to make known what has previously been hidden; at least to approach it; if nothing else then to make its physical absence felt. As Thomas Bernhard says (and enacts) in his memoir: "What matters is whether we want to lie or to tell the truth and write the truth, even though it never can be the truth and never is the truth."

Truth is not a genre.

As reported two years ago, for Gabriel Josipovici, "genre is like a family":
[Y]ou take it for granted. You feel comfortable there. Things are familiar and comforting. But confidence in a genre can wane in the same way that a family can come to seem deadening. He cited an example from Dr Johnson, who criticised Milton for responding to the death of a friend by writing a pastoral elegy. The generic form was false, not natural.
The pastoral elegy is false in this instance because it is a means of deadening the impact of death, of burying the subject in an elegantly-carved, death-shaped coffin whilst maintaining the opposite as an alibi for existence. "When there is leisure for fiction," Johnson said "there is little grief". Grief is not a genre.

"Leisure" here might well now be changed to "a market". When books are written to order and in order to exploit a market, there is no grief but in those for whom writing remains a weapon against the habit of falsity. For the majority of readers of course, the less grief the better. For them, devouring kitsch-and-sing dramas offers the comfort of an imaginary family to which its online scribbles can make only more comfortable. Add to them the number of units shifted from the 3-for-2 stall and you have a powerful land army giving the impression that fictionland is thriving when, in fact, the herd of happy-clappy amateurs, trolls and time-wasters has a scorched-earth policy; everything becomes a pastoral elegy. The impression is provided by those with vested conservative interests.

In a piece by another interested party, Boyd Tonkin asks how the economic crisis will affect serious writing and, in doing so, wonders if 'e-literature' might provide an alternative route to print. He misrepresents online critics but does ask Tom McCarthy - someone more sympathetic to the virtual arbiters - to comment: "The internet has produced some excellent criticism and debate around literature, but I've yet to see any good 'primary' writing on there." This is also my experience, yet it might be because we need to redefine what we mean by "primary". Spurious, for example, has provided a broken template for a possible redefinition.

When we ask What is a novel? or What is "primary"?, the questions beg the generic answer, an answer that comes too soon. The question does not go back far enough. Instead, we should ask: what does it mean to write?

1 comment:

  1. Who is this "we"? Is there some corporate entity out there, like run by literary critics? And why would the internet produce anything? It is just another vehicle, just another bullhorn.

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