29 December 2006

the death of metafiction
& other malicious rumors

I received an email from Marc Lowe this morning pointing me to a strong essay by Michael Boyden in ebr about American Oulipo writer Harry Mathews. Marc directed me particularly to the following provocative paragraph, which he asked me to post here so that those interested might engage with it:

In the conclusion to her chapter on postmodern fictions for the seventh volume of The Cambridge History of American Literature [1999], Wendy Steiner argues that the 1990s have signalled the end of the experimentalist period of esoteric metafiction in American prose writing. Whereas outside the U.S. such writings continue not only to be produced but also to be appreciated, Steiner claims that in America critical taste "has moved on" (Steiner 529). As a possible reason for this turn away from self-reflexive fiction, she notes the fact that several of the most renowned American experimenters, notably Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Robert Coover, John Hawkes, and William Gass, have passed their creative peak. A more compelling factor, however, would have been the so-called "culture wars" in the American academy which seem to have undermined the cultural validity and vitality of postmodern "high" fiction. According to Steiner, the controversies in the universities have resulted in the gradual erosion of the boundaries between "art" and "reality" (530). Further, the development of new media as well as dramatic changes in the marketing of books have made such distinctions between "high" and "low," or "popular" and "serious," even more precarious. More and more, apparently, novelists are moving away from elitist game playing and instead are drawing inspiration from mass culture and the lives of "ordinary people" (brackets in Steiner's text, 535).

Marc responds elsewhere in part:

Note that, as it says here, metafictional, or "self-reflexive fiction," is still popular in other countries, primarily Europe (and also Japan to some extent, particularly in the form of autobiographical fiction -- i.e. shishosetsu, or "I-novel"-inspired work). . . . To say that American "critical taste" has "moved on" to stories about the lives of Joe the mechanic and Jane the doctor says nothing so much as that American readers have gone from lazy to lazier.

While Steiner's comments were composed more than eight years ago, and may therefore be granted a certain by-default out-of-dateness, they nonetheless strike me, even for 1999, in equal parts preposterous and as strong evidence for her apparently parochial reading habits. (Much the same, by the way, could be said for Fredric Jameson's pronouncements about postmodern fiction, which are based exclusively—and, for an unflagging Marxist, ironically—on a small sample of texts produced by mainstream corporate presses.) I want to say, rather, that all experimental fiction—from Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy to this past year's The Open Curtain (Brian Evenson) and The Exquisite (Laird Hunt) and on to next year's Parabola: A Novel in 21 Inersections (Chiasmus) by new-comer Lily Hoang—is to some extent metafictional: to some extent, that is, self-consciously about its own processes, about the nature of language, about the structuality of structure, about its own (and hence the world's) uses of narrativity, and hardly "esoteric" or "elitist," hardly cut off from "reality," but rather deliberately challenging, difficult, against the narratological grain, profoundly political, oppositional to the status quo on the page or off by its very being .

Still, I'd very much like to hear from others on this, especially with regard to Steiner's comments about those so-called "culture wars" ongoing in the American academy.


jdeshell said...

Geeze, where to begin here? With late 20th early 21st century criticism? With Wendy Steiner? With some of the vocabulary (“high culture,” “low culture,” “elitist,” “culture”)? With Steiner’s assertion that “high” postmodernism (“high” in what sense?) is gone daddy gone? And is THAT her photograph? So many questions, so little time.

Ok. On the one hand, what else is she going to say? She’s a critic, an academic, mainstream critic, who, judging by her examples (all men, and all of a certain generation) possesses only the barest inkling of contemporary postmodern American fiction (probably what she learned in graduate school). The sad part is that she’s probably articulating, whether knowingly agreed upon or tacitly accepted, the ‘truth’ (what everyone knows, and by everyone I mean other mainstream academic critics) about contemporary postmodern American fiction. In other words, I’m guessing that there was no voice in the CRITICAL establishment (if there is such a thing) who challenged her.

One of the difficulties in doing what we do is that we do it alone. Which is ok. This allows (demands) that we be our own critics. But a question that could be asked is that where did relevant literary criticism of the late 20th early 21st century go? Almost all interesting, provocative, fill in your positive adjective here specifically ignores postmodern American fiction. We have fiction writers writing on and reviewing other fiction writers, but we have very few critics writing on contemporary fiction writers. Poetry does have their big gun critics, it seems to me (Perloff et al), but fiction writers don’t. Where are the Klinkowitz’s, the Ihab Hassan’s, the Brian McHale’s, the Ellen Freidman’s, the Surfictions’ of 2006? This is not to say that we are inarticulate, silent, or even outside the academy (far from it, see R.M. Berry below). But it is to say we haven’t been granted the academic or cultural capital that neutral, disinterested criticism (criticism not written by one who also writes what she is criticizing) can grant. Their loss. To paraphrase Gloria Swanson, “Fiction IS big, it’s criticism that’s gotten smaller.” My guess as to why would be competition (I might be thinking of a Berube argument if anyone can help me). But that might be another post.

Wendy Steiner is an interesting, and I think representative case. I’ve read her since grad school. Her first book, the Colors of Rhetoric, was on the synchronicity between painting and writing, and her second, The Scandal of Pleasure, was about the culture wars in academia. I liked the second book a lot when I read it, and it elaborates many of the brief arguments Marc Lowe points out in Lance’s post. Her latest book, Venus in Exile, is also pretty interesting, in that it postulates that 20th century modernist experimentation can be characterized as primarily sublime (in her reading of Kant), and that a return to organic, feminist, ETHICAL beauty is called for in the 21st century. So she has an agenda, an agenda that’s seems radically different from her Scandal of Pleasure book: she wants to return literature and art to its ethical dimension. This is the part that seems all too familiar among lit crits in the academy: she wants literature to (immediately) function ethically in the world. And if it doesn’t, or if its ethical function is problematic, then it ain’t no good. And so 21st century fiction that challenges or problematizes functionality is useless, decadent, unimportant. It is important to note that if this were ANY other century but our own, there would be someone, somewhere studying this. This is sad. The list of underappreciated or critically ignored fiction writers of the last 2-3 decades is criminal (the more egregious examples include Hauser, Molinaro, Caponegro, Tillman, you can make your own list). So, in some sense, we have no choice but to do it (criticism) ourselves. Is this healthy? To be our own critics? Do we have another choice? I don’t know. Does this make us elitist by default? Is elitism a bad thing?

For all the problems she brings with her, her argument is not entirely unconvincing. With a critical ideology that insists that literature is just another text, should we be surprised when it’s treated like, well, just another text?

I don’t know.

Davis Schneiderman said...

Too much to comment on here the day before the end of the year, but a deconstruction of her (?) picture should be the first order of business for someone else. Talk about self-fashioning...

As to Jeffrey's point about the danger of being our own critics--would we be happier of Lionel Trilling signed on? I don't know, but there seems to be some real value in having informed critics (a la Larry McCaffery--but more of you!) who understand this new (and yes, at times cyberized) production with more than the cursory grad school attentions.

Of course, I've been teaching postmodernism for some years, often to be told by any and all (and sometimes myself) that it is dead and buried. Yet, neither of two other available alternatives: new aesthetics or neo-marxisms (Hardt and Negri...?) seem to cover what is happening now in innovative prose.

This culture war stuff becomes more distant with each year, and I imagine that there are academics who came of age from the mid-90s on who have only a passing sense of what the big deal was. To them, these divides between high and low culture are the stuff of 100 years ago, not 30.

Still, there is no doubt that experimental American fiction has been in bed with pop culture since its inception. If we want to look at the 60 and 70s--Mickey Rooney, if I recall correctly, makes an appearance in _Gravity's Rainbow_.

The problem remains, as I've mentioned before, distribution. These books are immensely readable--we just need to get them into the hands of readers. This will entail new forms, and perhaps the book will change forms completely, and, as we have discussed in detail, the author may also morph. It's Ovid 21st century baby!

I'm about to use Federman's _Take it Or Leave It_ for an adult book group in the Chicago North Shore area. Have these people ever read, (let alone have heard of) Moinous? Heck no. But my money says they'll dig it, or at least have fun trying.

In haste,