Monday, 23 June 2008

Poetry 'V' Novels?

One of the things that periodically frustrates, and even saddens, me as a university teacher is a problem that arises, without fail, when we come to discuss the notion of 'experimentalism' in literature. I know that this is a very broad topic, but, as my teaching work is allocated on a) the proximity and co-extensivity of my period of expertise to and with modernism and b) my ongoing interest in the (dialectical) relationship between 'real' history and 'autonomous' formalism, it is a question that can't help but arise in my classes. Invariably, students are a conservative - with a small 'c' - bunch. As a result of the English curriculum taught in all British secondary schools, their readerly mindset privileges content over form to an almost ridiculous extent, and they come to university with notions about the desirability of accessibility (in a very narrow sense) which would make Karl Radek look like Derek Attridge.* Politically, they are almost all (Blairite) consensus-liberals, for whom a good work is to be judged by its contribution to the maintenance of that consensus. This upkeep happens on a virtually pure level of thematics: if the text advances a superficially 'progressive' argument, it is 'good'. For example, Heart of Darkness is 'good' if the class judges it to critical of colonialism, a judgement which is made entirely through a reading of one or two asides Marlow casts in his time at the Inner Station. There's no attempt to intellect a formal anti-colonialism/ anti-racism in the text, even in the most basic terms (such as a reading of the ambiguity or irony that arises in Conrad's employment of framing devices.) The Waste Land is 'good' when dead men losing their bones in and alleys and references to a disenfranchised European aristocracy can be reconstituted into an unambiguous anti-war rhetoric. Until such clearly-delineated arguments can be salvaged from texts like these, they remain - to most of the students - 'pretentious', 'elitist' and 'unreadable'. If you don't believe me, I have the course evaluation forms to prove it.

So when you want the students to define what 'experimental' writing might be, it tends to come down to thematics as well, however closely linked the content might be to its formal articulation. As soon as Woolf becomes biographically ascertained as a feminist, she becomes appealing: Mrs Dalloway is anti-war (yay!), pro-woman (double yay!), which means that the 'pretentiousness' (boo!) that it initially presented becomes irrelevant. The experiment in Woolf is entirely a matter of the political opinion that a few biographical details allow the students to read into the text. Moving through the 20th century, we have Burroughs, who is 'experimental' because his works depict drug use, and Ballard, whose works are 'experimental' because they portray a reasonable amount of transgressive sexuality and a hefty dose of shopping malls and car lots. The plurality and inclusiveness that seem to be indicated by the thematic decisions a writer makes are seen as attempts to subvert the literary norm. There is virtually no understanding of a politics of form, particularly as it is applied to fiction. My suspicion - which some of my more interested students have confirmed - is that the secondary curriculum insists that the very notion of such a politics is oxymoronic. Secondary schools have been coerced by Blairite pseudo-egalitarians to teach literature only according to an index of 'relevance' that the texts can be seen to produce after the fact. Friends of mine who teach English in schools confess their frustrations at the suggestion that Shakespeare be taught via hip hop lyrics* and that Charlotte Bronte be reduced to Chick Lit avant la lettre.

For what it's worth, I believe this policy more or less represents educational suicide.

Recently, this tendency has begun to manifest itself in novels themselves. The 'Granta Generation', or at least some of its members and affiliates, are the first identifiable genus of writers to have had their academic groundings in post-structuralist thought and continential philosophy tempered by the consensus-reinforcing discourses of 'accessibility' and 'relevance'. Having gone through university reading Borges, Nabokov, Joyce, Beckett and Robbe Grillet, they're aware of the aesthetic and even ontological reasons for employing modernist and (more commonly) post-modernist narrative techniques. They're also more acutely aware of the fact that the people who review their books and evaluate them on the panels of literary prizes have had a similar schooling in the ways of High Modernism, and that these people are likely to place a premium on whether or not their novel makes its obligatory formal concessions. As a result, the big challenge for the Granta school is managing to slip their self-obsessed - how many of their novels don't employ a romantically-differentiated protagonist with an admirably hip appreciation of music, art and literature? - realist works through the mesh of formal demands impressed on them during an English degree's Pyrrhic triumph?

Since around 1980, one big get-out on this front has been Magical Realism, a formal approach that had a genuine political relevance in the turbulent post-1945 history of South America, but has now been softened in order to let authors masquerade their faux-naive whimsy as an authentic challenge to ideological norms. Similarly, a Vonnegutian self-reflexivity has consistently emerged in novels which are, on every other possible count, works of unquestioning realism (hello, Martin Amis). I mean, how many people read London Fields because it foregrounds its own fictionality as opposed to the fact that it presents a vaguely edgy universe of spivs, books, sex and big money? In other words, the forms which were supposed to carry that 'politics of form' have been recuperated by ideology - yes, I know that this is a not a new point - by an ice cream-soft post-modernism in which estrangement devices function as nothing more than cynical acknowledgements that some people genuinely believe that structures in themselves can articulate an ethics. Socially, I've called this bacchanal of mediation the 'literature of caveat' before, but I'd never realised how nice the phrase looked written down.

I wouldn't like anyone to mistake what I'm saying here for an argument that is completely resistant to any fiction which can be read without an enormous amount of mental outlay. I'm one of the biggest Sherlock Holmes geeks I know, I contemplate joining M.R. James fan clubs, I love the visceral readability of Irvine Welsh and John King and David Peace. Furthermore, this isn't against realism per se: Zola was the stimulant that carried me over the finish line of my own A-levels; I love the Brontes, David Storey and James Kelman. I don't think the world would be much fun if all books were like Finnegan's Wake or Watt or Blood and Guts in High School or Project for a Revolution in New York. I'd much rather read Patrick Hamilton that Mark Z Danielewski; I prefer Elizabeth Taylor to Marguerite Duras. What I would say is that my attraction to realism is something that has perhaps developed out of an ongoing exasperation with the disarming of modernist and post-modernist formal technique through its application in a spirit of bad faith. I'd rather have Peace's rush-and-cut Pennine poetics than Yann Martel or even John Banville any day of the week.

This week, I've been reading a lot on contemporary poetics for a mixture of reasons: thesis work, general interest, a need to see how my own poetry fits into the ideological debates and schisms that have characterised the poetry scene in Britain since the 1960s. It was refreshing, given how jaded I feel by the prospects for the novel (I think Party Going by Henry Green is more radical than any English-language novel with a comparable audience from at least the last twenty years), to have my suspicions that the appetite for innovative practice in poetry is still thriving beneath the twin surfaces of sixth from and the Guardian Review confirmed. I mean, I read Prynne and Lee Harwood and the more recent Barque Press stuff and whatever Jacket is currently offering, so I know it exists, but I hadn't read much of the critical debate around it. It's wonderful to see a (relatively well-known) literary avant-garde so hostile to the consensus poetics foisted on us by school - where the primacy of Hughes, Plath, Larkin, Tony Harrison et al goes more or less uncontested - and the liberal media's reluctance to acknowledge the existence of anything more complex than Don Paterson and John Burnside. That this underground poetics has achieved some of its ends without feeling the need to appeal to a base, patronising notion of relevance - and, anyway, we'll leave the rapping to a 'pioneer' like Andrew Motion, a man who perhaps epitomises everything that is sick about English writing today - is particularly edifying.

The energy of the small press/ avant-garde scene has, undoubtedly, been underpinned by the apparent paradox of the marginality of poetry when it is compared to fiction. Even the big names of British poetry - let's say Paterson, Burnside, Paul Muldoon and Hugo Williams - don't sell that many copies. They make a living as poets by touring and reading, and often supplement it by lending their services to the ever-expanding ranks of university creative writing programmes. Poets, unsurprisingly, don't sell film rights (though I wouldn't be surprised if Paterson managed to wangle himself a detail somehow). Our experimental poets, then, are virtually all employed elsewhere, commonly as academics, but frequently in less obvious fields. They work on the margins of the margins, and the need to please mainstream publishers/ TLS reviewers is, to put it mildly, a secondary or tertiary concern for them. By contrast - as Adrian Mole finds out when hawking Lo, the Flat Hills of My Homeland - experimental novels in the modernist continuum (as opposed to the transgressive/ sci-fi stuff in the Stuart Home orbit) are almost entirely suffocated. When something weird that's too unmistakably brilliant to be ignored appears (my argument for this is Sebald, though I know his work is not to everybody's taste), its challenging formal devices are rapidly disseminated into the works of writers who are much, much more concerned about the signings and the film deal than they are with the technical and political niceties of what they're handling. If you don't believe me, go to Waterstones and look for post-Sebaldian novels. You'll recognise them from the blurb's manic insistence of the acuteness of the author's rendering of the 'problems of memory', or some such jargon, which will be tied into a given 'traumatic event'. I can guarantee for starters that none of these works will do justice to Sebald's legacy, particularly because they a) manifest no sense of humour whatsoever and b) trade a genuine historiographical motive for what Karl memorably once described as a sense of the 'vaguely spooky'. Recently, I noticed a novel called The Angel of History, which is a fictionalization of the last days of the life of Walter Benjamin, the philosopher-historiographer whose thought echoes through Sebald's novels. Somehow, a circle is closed and a little part of the soul of fiction is gone with it.

I don't have a conclusion for this - it's more an attempt to get down some thoughts which have had a hornet-like presence in my head for at least the last six or seven years and probably longer. Now and again, I come upon little pieces of writing that ventriloquise the hornets: as my Mum once said upon my rather earnest attempts to explain Saussure or Bakhtin (I forget which), 'I've always thought that but I'd never have put it that way'. You get to a point in your line of work or whatever you want to call it when you've earnt enough stripes for the things that were once piddling or whimsical concerns to become career-defining issues. For me, the hostility to 'difficulty', and the endless bullshit pumped out in the name of realism, is that particular problem. There is more that I could say about this, and will at some other point, but if you've read this far then you deserve a cup of tea or a pint. Thanks for reading, if you were.


* Radek was a leading proponent of Socialist Realism, a particularly odious piece of Bolshevik cultural proscriptivity which (effectively) insisted that working-class intellectual horizons should be set more or less at the already-known and frequently encountered. This thinking bequeaths Big Brother and Road Test my Girlfriend, or whatever that program with that troglodyte from Hollyoakes is called. As with most Stalinist principles, Radek's idea translated exceptionally well into conservative ideology. Attridge is a contemporary literary critic whose specialises in so-called 'difficult' works and linguistics. Thinking about Radek has reminded me of my favourite moment in George Orwell, although I can't remember which book this particular vignette is in. Orwell describes a Left political meeting in the 1930s in which a very middle-class commissar, up from London, was addressing a group of miners. The commissar, presumably revelling in a puffed-up sense of intellectual authority, took the opportunity to denounce the works of Shakespeare for the 'bourgeois ideology' they supposedly contained. Presumably, in the commissar's head at least, the miners should have been reading Gorky or James Barke (though the latter's tendency towards modernist wordplay might have made him persona non grata too). At this point, two of the miners took it upon themselves to stand up and defend Shakespeare (and his politics) in minute textual detail, completely humiliating the speaker in the process.

** Better, surely, to teach hip hop on its own merits rather than as a medium which was potentialised by a 16th century plawright. Which it frankly fucking wasn't. Sorry to lose the measured tone here, but the double-relegation that happens in this case - Shakespeare is presented as being as 'interesting' and 'accessible' as Chuck D, whilst Chuck D's own talents are institutionally authenticated only by their supposed comparability to Shakespeare - is insensitive (maybe 'imbecilic' would be a better term) in so many ways.


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