Read this fun hatchet job on John D’Agata’s essay anthologies in the ATLANTIC.
I remember noticing how he mis-quotes the opening of “Once More to Lake.” Other factual glitches made me go, huh? But I chalked it up to some experiment, or alienation devices. After all, he’s got the authority of Graywolf Press and Iowa Workshop behind him. I like being a forgiving reader, even if it means occasionally being played for a sucker.
I identify this upswelling of discourse against playing with fact and fiction, against the “post-fact” landscape, as an effort from the conservative or soft left wing of the humanities against, not so much Trumpism, but against work of critical theory over the last couple of generations.
William Deresiewicz himself couldn’t care less about this conflict. He’s condemned the elite university systems in toto, and I say hear hear to that. But his position here, as I see it, is classically liberal. Postmodernism is an empty signifier; these days I only hear it from old white heterosexual men, like the ones in the comments, too busy defending what little cultural authority they have left to seriously investigate what’s really going on here.
I suppose that is why I’m writing this post. I can’t stand bad (ie liberal) arguments for positions I agree with.
And I take this review as a quarrel within a liberal framework of cultural studies.
See, I’m into playing with the boundary between factual and creative writing. The most interesting of the mainstream writers, like Anne Carson or Laszlo Krasznahorkai, have been writing short story essays and essayistic short stories. Vollmann’s novels are more thoroughly researched than one of D’Agata’s intercalary texts in his anthologies. Blanchfield’s PROXIES is after the same risk of inaccuracy, but in a much more responsible way.
Blanchot misquotes Holderlin in his famous essay. Did he do it on purpose? Was he lazily relying on his memory? Whatever the case, it’s a re-inscription that we have to work with.
Remember that the hard line between facts and fiction is a recent development, a bourgeois development, in the history of writing. We can go way back to the Jewish mystical writers, taking down knowledge from the angelic library in the higher realm in their mystical trances in Catalonia. They freely mixed quotation from the standard medieval literature but also made up other sources without differentiating them. It was a perfectly acceptable idea for centuries that truth can emerge via fictional writing.
Granted, John D’Agata is no Moses de Leon.
The problem as I see it is that D’Agata and many contemporary writers and artists like him go about this respectable tradition the wrong way. (I haven’t read the AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FACT project, but everything I hear about it makes it sound like total bullshit.) They do it within the framework of authorship and private property. The old mystics and the classical novelists often elided their own authorship, because it gave their texts more power, in a way. The new guys are just “appropriation artists.” Kenneth Goldsmith’s stuff only seems interesting to the extent of how offensive it can be; maybe CAPITAL is good.
I was struck by Deresiewicz’s hostility toward the more modern and experimental pieces D’Agata picks. Gimmicky? the great Barthelme? The texts that do the most to break out of the conventional form of the essay are “formless, monotonous, self-indulgent, and dull”? D’Agata probably didn’t pick the best examples, going for a personal journey approach, which I kinda admired.
Deresiewicz has a conservative definition of the essay as a genre that fundamentally holds an argument and conclusion. I’m more sympathetic to the definition in the QUARTERLY CONVERSATION’S review; the essay as a representation of the rhythm of thinking. I’d merely define it as the representation of ideas, and they can be conclusive, suggestive, disjunctive, discontinuous, totally scatter-brained.
Why this hostility to the promiscuity that’s been going down in avant-garde writing for the last half century? The boundaries between poetry and prose, between the fiction and the essay, are bourgeois constructs meant to repress the inherent multiplicity of writing — not literature, writing.
“The multiplicity of writing” is the title of a short chapter in Raymond Williams’s amazing book MARXISM AND LITERATURE, and I can’t get over some of its insights. The novel/short-story and the essay are by definition hybrid genres. They can sustain any number of pre-existing prose forms: letters, Socratic dialog, history, biography, Romance, and so on. They do have something fundamentally in common in their mechanical workings, and Williams calls it the “Series.” The Series is specifically a series of conceptual propositions:
what really happened; what might (could) have happened; what really happens; what might happen; what essentially (typically) happened/happens. (148)
You can re-formulate this to talk about existence, what really existed, what could have existed, etc.
When was the last time any critics or theorists talked about the series? I think Williams’s analysis, and his old-school Marxism, deserve a comeback in these times.
Moreover, fiction and nonfiction as fields of writing each hold a paradox in their secret hearts. Nonfiction is conventionally subjective, but we expect it to be factual. Fiction is objective, that is, an objective world created by its author, but we value it for the truth it can reach.
The range of actual writing similarly surpasses any reduction of ‘creative imagination’ to the ‘subjective’, with its dependent propositions: ‘literature’ as ‘internal’ or ‘inner’ truth; other forms of writing as ‘external’ truth. These depend, ultimately, on the characteristic bourgeois separation of ‘individual’ and ‘society’ and on the older idealist separation of ‘mind’ and ‘world’, The range of writing, in most forms, crosses these artificial categories again and again.
So I post this partly as an effort to do better, as W.D. calls for at the very end of the review.
But this is also a basic plea, the same plea that under-girds this whole blog.
Please, folks, don’t hang up modernism just yet!