Critique of Literature I

by rsbakker

So where is the Great Defence of literary values? Where are the unconquerable arguments against spectacle and conventionality?

Let’s begin with the second first: conventionality.

Alterity, alterity, alterity. The power of literature lay in its ability to make strange, to alter contexts in such a way as to force the reader to confront their own assumptions. Thus the fetish for originality, and the resulting devaluation of conventionality. Only by breaking the rules, the assumption is, can writers force readers to confront the rules that constrain them. Thus the conception of literature as part and parcel of the Enlightenment project: only by making norms explicit can we free ourselves from what Kant famously called ‘tutelary natures,’ the tyranny of traditional normative contexts. Literature, therefore, is a critical enterprise. Experimentalism equals the overthrow of social and representational norms. Non-literary fiction, conversely, must be an apologetic enterprise. Conventionality equals the blind repetition of social and representational norms.

So far so good. The devil, however, lies in the details.

No one would deny that conventionality is the condition of communication, but for whatever reason, literary types are generally reluctant to probe what this entails.

It means, for instance, that defection from conventions can only be a matter of degree. Defect outright, and you become the proud author of noise. Since human brains happen to be primed to foist sense on abject ambiguity, you can actually get away with producing nonsense in certain circles. Not all noise is equal. This means that defection can itself become conventional. It also means that distinct convention-sets (French versus English, horror versus SF) connect you to distinct populations of communicators. The more you defect from a given set, the less you communicate to a given population.

So what perils could we expect to bedevil a literary institution? It’s simply a given that literary institutions would concoct self-aggrandizing rationales for their practice. As Disciple would say, that’s just par for the human course.

The most obvious, specific peril would be that defections from conventionality would harden into a higher-order conventionality, one all the more insidious–and therefore pernicious–because of the way we are prone to essentialize extrinsic attributes. The problem, in other words, is that we would take resemblance to forms that generated literary effects in past populations of readers as the primary criterion for what counts as literature now, regardless of whether any literary effects are created. One population’s critique is another’s apologia.

Another obvious peril, it seems to me, would be exotericism, the gradual whittling down of the population communicated to. Defection doesn’t simply challenge readers, it alienates them. With every rule you choose to follow or not to follow you are either connecting or disconnecting yourself from certain populations of readers. Since humans have a hardwired appreciation of narrative conventionality, mucking with these norms is tantamount to turning your back on the greater human community, and appealing to those who happen to share your acquired tastes.

I think it obvious that modern literary culture suffers from both pseudo-experimentalism and exotericism. Contemporary literary writers practice what might be called Naive Anti-conventionalism. I literally think they live in little, self-congratulatory bubbles, ones where they spend their time blindly repeating moribund meta-conventions, entertaining the educated classes, apologizing, yet remain utterly convinced their work is critical.

It’s a kind of cultural tragedy when you think about it.

Literature requires that writers self-consciously play both sides of the convention game. Catering is unavoidable: the question is always one of who you want to cater to. If your work reflects your values and attitudes, and you choose conventions that connect you to populations that already share the bulk of your values and attitudes, then there is literally nothing literary about your work. You are an entertainer, plain and simple–and there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as you don’t pretend to be anything else.