Lee Rourke, Tom McCarthy, and something about prizes for hookers?

by rsbakker

Daily Aphorism: Confusing critical for pompous is the refuge of the ignorant. Confusing critical for ignorant is the refuge of the pompous. All that distinguishes a pompous fool from an ignorant one, you see, is their favourite brand of confusion.

The brain sorts far more than it ponders. This fact dominates so very much of culture. Nothing goes untouched. Nothing comes away unscathed.

My argument has been fairly simple all along. The more you cater to in-group expectations with your writing, the less you challenge, and the more you entertain. Now you may think you have all kinds of critical things to say, bemoaning this or that horrific cultural fact, but unless you are actually putting yourself into contact with dissenting audiences, you are doing little more than reaffirming well-known verities–apologizing.

How do you reach out to dissenting audiences? You write commercial genre fiction. In other words, you instrumentalize the social function of generic conventions. This is not to be confused with gaming the formal functions of generic conventions, something which has itself become a boiler-plate convention of literary writing. When you game the formal functions of genre you are interested in the what: in the kinds of micrological semantic effects various expectations produce when played against one another. When you game the social function of generic conventions you are interested in who: you recognize that genres–like all conventions–are communicative modes (as opposed to platonic cages), specialty channels that put you into contact with certain kinds of readers.

Enter Lee Rourke and Tom McCarthy and their recent ‘conversation’ in last Saturday’s The Guardian (for the full text of the interview see http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/sep/18/tom-mccarthy-lee-rourke-conversation), where they discuss McCarthy’s aims in his recently released C, which has been shortlisted for the Man Booker.

I knew I was in for a treat when I read this:

TmcC: I don’t know if C is controversial. It certainly rejects the default mode dominating mainstream fiction and most culture in general: this kind of sentimental humanism. If you don’t kowtow to that you’re going to upset a few people.

In other words, “I don’t know it’s controversial, but that said, it is controversial.” And it continues…

LR: People get a little anxious when someone comes along and tips the apple cart, for sure. But is this refusal to respect that order a cultural refusal or a political refusal?

At this point I found myself becoming very interested in the term “people.” Exactly who were they referring to?

TMcC: It’s a politics of culture. The question is: what is culture for? Is it a vanity mirror for liberal society to see itself reflected back in the way it wants to see itself? Or is it something else, something more disruptive? I think culture should disrupt; it should be troublesome. If it’s a mirror, it should be the cracked one that Joyce talks about; or Lewis Carroll’s one that opens up on huge abysses; or the mirror in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, where you look in to it and you don’t see yourself reflected back, instead you see the void – you see death at work, “like bees in a hive of glass”. Fucking great line.

Okay. This is the Literary Dogma. Of course, ‘culture,’ whatever the hell it is, has myriad functions, (healing and deceiving among them) but I think McCarthy would concede as much and deflate his claim accordingly, say something like, “culture, at its best, should be critical.” We always overgeneralize when we speak on the fly.

LR: True. I’ve always responded best to art that disrupts culture at that level, not just our responses to art within culture.

TMcC: I’m just doing what I think the novel should do, and trying to achieve the things the novels I most admire achieved. I don’t necessarily want to be contrarian, it’s just that in order to do what needs to be done you need to reject a certain set of assumptions, certain models of subjectivity – for example, the contemporary cult of the individual, the absolute authentic self who is measured through his or her absolutely authentic feeling.

“I don’t necessarily want to be contrarian”? A little bit of tendentiousness here. Otherwise, for me, this is where he takes a gigantic leap into the Trite. Why? Because I’ve been institutionalized, for one, bludgeoned with rhetoric about the ‘decentred subject’ so many times that I find myself mystified that people can still pretend its shiny and new. Because I’ve been converted, for another. If these guys want to be genuinely radical, as well as culturally relevant, then they need switch canons, begin looking into what the sciences of the mind and brain are showing us, as well as their crazy ass happening-as-we-speak social repercussions.

The question I have is this: given that C has all the structural and ideological hallmarks of a novel written by a literary specialist for those with some specialized literary training, how can it be anything other than pseudo-critical? Books choose their readers as much as otherwise, and confirmation is almost always the name of the game. How many Christians go into a bookstore thinking, “I want to read something that turns my belief system upside down”? How many post-modernists? Nobody actively seeks disconfirmation, and this book literally reeks of a very particular system of assumptions: it makes a pole of the first page and hoists its flag, beckoning the likeminded, and warning away those with dissenting views.

Even if C, thanks to all the press it’s receiving, becomes wildly popular, how many readers are going to find themselves challenged as opposed to gratified? Gratified that they caught so many cultural references. Gratified that they have read something shortlisted for a Booker. Gratified they can reference the book at the next seminar or the next intellectually posh dinner party.

And how many of them are going to say, “Yeah… We’re not quite the subjects we think we are. You see, Serge…” Not a one, because this is the Dogma of that tribe. It goes without saying.

In fact C reeks of in-group self-congratulation as much as this ‘conversation’ does. It is literally filled with ‘peacock references,’ names dropped not so much to advance an argument or an aesthetic as to declare erudition, and more importantly, belonging to a certain, very special tribe.

And you know what? I actually don’t have any problem with that. This is simply what humans do, sing little me-me-ditties beneath what is audible. I’m doing as much right now, and I’m sure you can hear them far better than me.

And it isn’t even the hypocrisy that burns me. As an act cultural subversion, my guess is that C is actually an F. Nothing is disrupted. Everything remains the same. And Tom McCarthy, for all his brilliance and penetration, remains yet another potentially critical wheel that does not turn, another ‘literary’ figure who writes primarily, if not exclusively, to the likeminded–to people like Lee Rourke, whose chin must be bruised for all that avid nodding.

No. What really troubles me is the way this hypocrisy has been institutionalized. So long as you treat ‘culture’ as a what, which is to say, as a abstract construct, a formalism, then you can congratulate yourself for all the myriad ways in which your abstractions disrupt those abstractions. But as soon as you treat ‘culture’ as a who, which is to say, as a cartoon we use to generalize over millions of living, breathing people, the notion of ‘disruption’ becomes pretty ridiculous pretty quick. All it takes is one simple question: “Who is disrupted?” and the illusion of criticality is dispelled. One little question.

The conceit is so weak. And yet somehow we’ve managed to raise a veritable landfill of illusory subversion upon it. ‘Literature,’ we call it.

 Says a lot about the power of vanity, if you think about it.

As well as why I’m probably doomed to fail.