Dancing Bears and Wild Ones

Romance, n. Fiction that owes no allegiance to the God of Things as They Are.

–Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary


It is the perennial curse of the academic to confuse institutionalization for enlightenment. They live their professional lives cloistered in specialized environments, pursuing idiosyncratic interests as much for the sake of ingroup prestige and bureaucratic advantage as for ‘passion.’ They are every bit as parochial as the rest of us, and even more prone to believe otherwise, to think their values special, even exceptional.

So when John Mullan, a University College English professor, recently offered his “picture of the state of British literary fiction” in The Guardian, I fully expected to find the same old self-aggrandizing depiction of literary values. What I did not expect was a commemorative portrait, a canvas spangled with images of victory achieved and enemies undone. A celebration of Literature’s institutionalization.

Literary fiction, he begins by way of dubious definition, “is not genre fiction.” Unlike the latter, the former is characterized by a certain self-conscious instability of form, a “formal restiveness, even tricksiness.” Where genre fiction deals in fixed (and apparently moribund) conventions, literary fiction, he wants us to believe, is always ‘challenging’ conventionality, always forcing readers to accommodate new ‘manners of telling.’

The world has changed, Mullan asserts. Where formal innovation was once the province of intellectually incestuous avant garde movements, it has finally found its way to the blessed mainstream. After three short decades, he contends, experimental narratives not only enjoy mass consumption, but pride of place in mass media as well.

What could be the cause of such a happy cultural transformation? Why, people just like Mullan: academics. His picture, it turns out, includes a powerful institutional component: the modern university. On the composition side, he contends that “literary academics were shaping the novel because they were teaching the novelists-to-be.” If you want to write, you go to university, where the authority gradient all but guarantees indoctrination. On the reception side, he notes that “there are more graduates from literature, especially English literature, degrees than ever.” Even as literature professors were educating new writers, they were training new readers as well, creating an audience capable of appreciating things like “formal restiveness.”

The ascendency of literary fiction, in other words, not only vindicates Mullan’s own aesthetic values, it speaks to the efficacy and triumph of his profession as well. Which is why he dares imagine that perhaps literacy is actually winning the battle against what he calls “consumer idiotism.”

English professors, it turns out, are changing the world for the better.

Aren’t they?

Note that Mullan explicitly acknowledges his values are institution specific: he openly admits that a certain amount of specialized training over and above baseline socialization is the primary engine behind the extraordinary growth of British literary fiction. A university education is now required for ‘literary competence,’ on both the composition and the reception side of the narrative coin.

In other words, if you want to be taken seriously in the contemporary literary world, you write for people with literature degrees, which is to say, for people like yourself, which is to say, for people who already share the bulk of your values and attitudes. (Remember Franzen’s first rule of writing: “the reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator”). Literature, in Mullan’s picture, has evolved into what could only be called a spectacular ingroup exercise: thousands of university trained writers writing for millions of university trained readers.

A fixed audience with fixed expectations… Not unlike, um… a genre?

But what about the ‘restiveness’ Mullen calls attention to, the commitment to formal experimentation? Genre is defined by formal intransigence, is it not?

First, we need to get past what I like to call the Myth of the Vulgar Cage, the simplistic conflation of fixed narrative forms with metaphors connoting bondage and blandness. Fixed forms are a necessary condition of all communication, and as such always enable as much as they constrain. This is why narrative forms are far better characterized as speciality channels than cages. If you want to communicate to readers of noir or epic fantasy, then you adopt the formal conventions of noir or epic fantasy. Likewise, if you want to communicate to readers of literary fiction, you… well, adopt the form of literary fiction. You may have a problem with a certain channel (and by implication, the audience it communicates to), but it literally makes no sense to criticize it for being a channel.

And make no mistake: literary fiction has a very distinct form. No matter how ‘tricksy’ it gets, you can generally identify a literary novel by the end of the first sentence, let alone page. Certainly it experiments, but only in ways that do not interfere with its ready identification as belonging to a particular commercial form. The violations, you might say, are almost always local as opposed to global. And to this extent, literary fiction is actually no different than genre fiction: making the old new is as much an evaluative yardstick among genre readers as it is literary readers. The only substantive difference I can perceive is simply the intellectual reputation of the genre at issue. Is a ‘nested narrative structure’ inherently more ‘valuable’ than, say, ‘gay barbarians,’ or is it simply more prestigious to certain people occupying certain privileged institutional positions?

As Wittgenstein notes, the rules that constrain our practices are generally invisible to us; it’s always the ‘other guy’ who seems parochial and constrained. We free, they oppressed. We open, they closed. We critical, they apologetic. And so on. What makes academics particularly hard nuts is the assumption that they have transcended this chauvinistic self-regard by some miracle of intellectual bootstrapping, that they are immune to the petty bigotries that cognitive psychology has shown afflict all human thought all the time. You can find versions of Mullan’s self-congratulatory rationale–what might be called the Myth of Compositional Autonomy–pretty much everywhere in literary discourse, almost always invoked in the thoughtless manner of any other ideological shibboleth. And despite all the pixels and ink spilled about ‘critical thinking,’ nobody but nobody so much as bothers to question it.

It’s not ‘formal experimentation’ in general that distinguishes literary fiction, but the formal experimentation proper to literary fiction–the kinds of experimentation that people like Mullan tend to esteem. Even though gay barbarians actually trouble actual genre readers–even though they make a difference–they just have to be silly simply because they sound silly–to literary ears. Likewise, even though nested narratives do little more than interest (and perhaps annoy) literary readers, they simply have to be serious because they sound serious–to literary ears. The judgment arrives as given and self-evident: which is why those of you indoctrinated into contemporary literary culture likely find what I’m saying preposterous (in which case I urge you to investigate the research on ‘value attribution’ for yourself).

And here we see the peril of the institutionalization that Mullan celebrates: institutions consist of networks of repeated practices, which in turn require competent practitioners, which in turn require fixed standards, which in turn require a stable core of values. Institutions are necessarily conservative: the interests of their members depend upon the promotion their practices as they are. No matter how rhetorically devoted to the cult of Difference you claim to be, as a member of Mullan’s Literary System, your identity, let alone livelihood, depends on conserving the Same.

And so we see the Escher-print contradiction at the heart of Mullan’s picture. He cites formal restiveness because, like myself, he thinks transgression is the defining criterion, the ‘special something,’ that raises Literature above fiction in general. Literature is fiction–any fiction–that somehow breaches the reader–any reader–forcing them to consider themselves and the world in novel ways. He focuses on formal rather than actual restiveness, because he thinks the formal belongs to literary fiction in particular and no one else. It allows him to pretend that Literature belongs to a certain fiction and a certain reader. That it is an institutional product.

He forgets that Literature is as Literature does. It has no essence, no immutable form; it is circumstantial, through and through. And the sad fact is that times have changed. As far as communication goes, we are literally witnessing the greatest revolution in the history of our species. Perhaps we once could assign Literature a home, as Mullan is wont to do. But in this age of intensifying market segmentation and ever more powerful search and preference algorithms, the old literary moves simply do not have the same semantic consequences. Just how does one package transgression for mass consumption? How does one train people to be troubled? Mullan’s ‘best British novelists,’ you could say, are having gay sex in a world where all the churches have become bathhouses.

We live in an e-Harmony world, one bent on eradicating the ‘bad date,’ the risky encounter with a stranger who forces us to reconsider who we are. The contemporary literary writer can no longer ‘experiment with form’ in isolation from its actual social conditions. He or she can no longer hide behind appeals to the Ideal Philistine, the person who would be challenged by their work were they to read it. If you wish to transgress, in ways crass or subtle, you now need to seek your audience. You need to stop ‘writing for yourself,’ or worse, looking at your reader as a friend. You must muster the courage to argue with strangers…

And this is just to say that you need to instrumentalize the ways form can connect you to audiences with competing ideological commitments. You need to experiment with global forms. You need to embrace genre.

In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, “The Season of the Supernatural,” Alexandra Alter considers the small deluge of literary authors entering the world of genre fiction: Justin Cronin writing about vampires, Glen Duncan writing about werewolves, and so on. The problem is that economics, rather than any literary imperative, seems to be the primary rationale for these particular violations of ingroup solidarity.

So let me be blunt: Forget the academic priests. The God of Things as They Are is dead. If social conscience in any way motivates your writing, then you have an obligation to reach out, to begin gaming channels. You risk hypocrisy and irrelevance otherwise.

The curse of the English professor is to ponder Literature until they lose the ability to experience it. Tyrannized by past successes in long dead social environments, they come to conflate the literary with the reliable production of aesthetic and intellectual ‘buzzes,’ and so confuse their rarified entertainment with something more difficult and unruly. If you were to ask Mullan how to make Literature, he would tell to do this or that to words, how to chose your motifs, arrange your representations, tweak your themes. He would teach you how to cater to the expectations of his institution–how to be taken ‘seriously’ by ‘those who matter.’

And so turn your back on the cultural commons in what is the most restive time in human history.

Maybe, as a writer, that’s all you want. To be taken seriously by your fellow clones. To merely entertain, while pretending to ‘disrupt culture.’ But if you want your work to be a truly literary animal, then you need to take a hard look at its new cultural habitat…

And the difference between dancing bears and wild ones.