The work of literature in the age of Netflix


The Girlfriend and I are at different points in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, having both finished vol. 4 of Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I’m sure we are hardly the only couple to both be making our way through these two Major International Literary Events, which are so often paired. In some ways, this phenomenon is puzzling, because what binds the two — memoiristic detail — is hardly unique to either of them, and in any case Ferrante’s focus on her friend Lila is radically different from Karl Ove’s obsessive fixation on Karl Ove.

Why are Knausgaard and Ferrante both such literary darlings, at this particular historical moment? I propose that the reason is precisely the fact that both have produced series, and the series-form is the signature form of our age. I’m not thinking only of the ways that young-adult fiction, most notably Harry Potter, has shaped the reading habits of those who are now adults (in addition to the adults who read them while already being adults) — though this is obviously hugely important, insofar as it took the series-form, once the redoubt of sci-fi and fantasy nerds, and mainstreamed it. No, even more than that, I’m thinking of the High Quality Cable Dramas that are virtually replacing the novel for many knowledge workers today (and here I must shamefully include myself to some extent).

We are used to investing time in exposition for TV shows, but only if they eventually “get good” and can therefore promise us an ever-expanding reward of ongoing entertainment immersion for our efforts. Literary fiction is a poor fit from this perspective, because no sooner have you become immersed than you are finished and have to start totally from scratch. Even in mainstream movies, the one-off format is becoming intolerable, as “franchises” dominate the scene — so how should we be expected to put up with such a poor ROI on a more labor-intensive format?

The giveaway is that people talk about the two canonical Literary Events in the same way as series. “You have to be patient with the first [book/season], it only really gets good 3/4 of the way through” — am I talking about Ferrante or Boardwalk Empire? Similarly with the loyalty: I’m not sure I’ve met any reader of Knausgaard who isn’t in it for the long haul, despite the widely acknowledged drop-off in quality in vols. 3 and 4.

In an era where TV feels like literature, we want our literature to feel like TV.

What it’s like to be reading Knausgaard

I once read an essay to the effect that one shouldn’t read Proust because one wants to have read Proust, but only if one want to be reading Proust. The same, it seems to me, applies to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s massive My Struggle. After Brad and The Girlfriend both recommended it highly, I finally started reading it this summer vacation and am about halfway through volume 1.

It is strangely addictive — I read 50 pages in the first sitting. And I do mean “strangely,” because on the surface it seems meandering and completely plotless. Nevertheless, it creates the impression of a seamless flow. There is an “always already” quality to his storytelling technique, as though he assumes you already somehow know what’s going on. In one case, Karl Ove was gathering wood because “they” would be there soon, and I paused to flip back through and see if I’d missed who “they” were. It turns out I had not — “they” were his grandparents, who had never been mentioned previously in any connection, much less that of their imminent arrival. It’s a small detail, but somehow indicative of his technique — he’s going for full immersion.

And what makes it so fully immersive, at least in the early sections where he is primarily discussing his childhood, is his utter non-judgmentalism of his past self. He occupies the childhood attitude, with its bizarre and cruel struggles for status, its confused conservatism. I don’t think I would be able to write about my childhood like that, without a “what was I thinking?” kind of tone — and I doubt others of a more positive bent would be able to write without a “oh what fun we had” kind of tone.

Beneath the naturalistic surface, too, I perceive an unobtrustive but well-crafted structure. Every so often, I have to pause and ask, “Wait, how exactly did we get here?” The answer isn’t always obvious, but it can always be constructed — and the seemingly baggy stream-of-consciousness narrative suddenly snaps into alignment. He says at one point that literature is purely about imposing form, a claim that seems jarring in context, but retrospectively helps to make sense of what has gone before.

And of course, there are the fun moments, the minor observations. A couple random ones from my segment last night:

After the age of twenty I had hardly ever dreamed about anything that had a bearing on my life. It was as though in dreams I had not grown up, I was still a child surrounded by the same people and places I had been surrounded by in childhood. And even though the events that occurred there were new every night, the feeling they left me with was always the same. The constant feeling of humiliation.

I also finally came across a section that both Brad and The Girlfriend singled out as particularly “relatable” for me. He has just made coffee and poured it into his mug:
I went into the street with the cup in my hand. A slight feeling of unease arose within me at seeing it out here, the cup belonged indoors, not outdoors; outdoors, there was something naked and exposed about it, and as I crossed the street I decided to buy a coffee at the 7-Eleven the following morning, and use their cup, made of cardboard, designed for outdoor use, from then on.

What about you, readers? Have you finally broken down and started reading the Literary Sensation of Our Generation?

The uncomfortable origins of ‘Afrofuturism’

The term ‘Afrofuturism’ was coined by Mark Dery in his article ‘Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose’. I finally got round to reading the piece recently; as you might infer, it’s not my area of expertise, so it’s more than possible that someone has made these observations better than me, before me. But I thought it was worth writing about: firstly because I was so taken aback by how uncomfortable it was to read, as a white person who’s minimally aware of the many perils that beset the work of white people like me writing about black culture; and secondly because after a throwaway comment I made on Twitter, Mark Dery took it upon himself to sealion me, and demand that I explain in detail my critique of his work:


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I’m doubtful as to the sincerity of this demand – the Panopticon is, after all, a tool of discipline rather than reflection. But as a scholar of Žižek, one thing I’ve learned is that sometimes the most ethical thing to do is simply to take a person at their word.

‘Black to the Future’ opens with a conundrum: ‘Why do so few African Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounter with the Other – the stranger in a strange land – would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists?’ Why is it that African Americans are not producing the sort of culture that Mark Dery, a white guy, thinks they should be producing? Dery does at least realise that if there’s an answer to this question he can’t figure it out on his own, and so the bulk of the article consists of interviews with Samuel Delany, Greg Tate and Tricia Rose. Most of the words are not Dery’s own. It’s not clear how closely the text itself hews to the original interviews, but on the account that Dery himself gives, the bulk of the analysis the article contains is Delany’s, Tate’s and Rose’s. They’re fascinating, smart, insightful interviewees, with a lot to say about the relationship between black culture and science fiction. Dery? Not so much.

For someone who is so sure about his competence to assess the contributions of African American science fiction, Dery is remarkably unreflective about his own position in relation to the people he is interviewing. African American culture which engages with technological, sci-fi and futuristic imagery and concepts is a ‘largely unexplored psychogeography’ towards whose exploration Dery himself is taking ‘a first, faltering step’. That’s right: Dery, a white guy, is positioning himself as bold explorer into a largely unknown region populated by people of colour. A voyage into the heart of darkness, if you will. This ‘largely unexplored’ region is so unknown, so previously unthought, that Dery must appoint as his native guides an author and literary critic (Delany), a musician, producer and cultural critic (Tate) and a Professor of Africana Studies who is ‘currently at work on a book on rap music and the politics of black cultural practice’ (Rose).

Dery is right, however, that his first steps into this region are faltering. His unfailingly gracious interviewees spent a truly remarkable amount of time gently correcting the assumptions which underlie the questions he asks them. It’s excruciating:

Dery: One thing that intrigued me about your brief essay [on cyberpunk] is that you made no mention of the orbital Rastafarians in Gibson’s Neuromancer. I find that curious.
Delany: Why should I have mentioned them?
Dery: For me, a white reader, the Rastas … are intriguing in that they hold forth the promise of a holistic relationship with technology.
Delany: You’ll forgive me if, as a black reader, I didn’t leap up to proclaim this passing presentation of a powerless and wholly nonoppositional set of black dropouts, by a Virginia-born white writer, as the coming of the black millennium in science fiction; but maybe that’s just a black thang…Your question is indicative of precisely what I was speaking about in the essay you cited: the interpretive idiocies that arise as soon as a book is lifted out of its genre and cut loose from the tradition that precedes and produces it.

Dery: Why, then, would black youth be alienated by SF signifiers for high technology?
Delany: The immediate answer is simply that the sign language is more complicated than you’re giving it credit for.

Dery: Wasn’t there an elitist, if not crypto-right, slant to [science fiction] literature from the very beginning?
Delany: Once again, that sounds to me like a simple historical misunderstanding about the history and tradition of science fiction … I’m not even sure what you could be referring to.

Dery: Why has there been so little overtly gay SF?
Delany: There is, of course, a whole bibliography full of gay science fiction … And there is a considerable gay fandom …. There is at least on annual gay science fiction convention … And the gay programming that regularly, today, turns up in other science fiction conventions is almost always among the most crowded, standing-room only event.

Dery: Why hasn’t the African-American community made more use, either as writers or readers, of science fiction?
Tate: I don’t know that that’s necessarily true.

Dery: I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an inherent dichotomy in hip-hop between a displaced people’s need to reaffirm a common history and the quintessentially American emphasis on forward motion, effected through technological progress. Don’t these contradictory impulses threaten to tear hip-hop apart?
Tate: No, because you can be backward-looking and forward thinking at the same time.

It’s clear that Dery simply hasn’t done the work required to be a good interviewer. He asks his interviewees about areas of culture in which, as they make clear to him, they have no interest or expertise. Many of his questions draw not on Dery’s own observations but on work that has been done by other people. The article ends with the final interview: Dery writes no summary, and makes no attempt to sketch out a map of the terrain in whose exploration he describes himself as a pioneer. What’s interesting about the article, one of Dery’s best known works and the reason why his name is so omnipresent in discussions of Afrofuturism – a phenomenon which he both names and claims to have discovered – is precisely how little work he does. A great deal of intellectual labour is visible in the essay, but almost all of it is undertaken by Delany, Tate and Rose, who not only tolerate Dery’s ill-informed and – let’s be honest – occasionally racist questions, but offer smart and insightful accounts of the areas in which they are, after all, experts.

There’s so much in here that I want to reflect on, to digest, and to be formed by intellectually. But I can’t cite this work on the part of Delany, Tate and Rose without citing Dery himself. What’s worst about ‘Black to the Future’ is that Dery has found a way to identify an area of black culture, declare it unknown territory, and, by appropriating the labour of black creators of both culture and critical reflection on that culture, has ensured that this terrain has come to bear the name that he chose for it.

My review of Red Plenty

My review of Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty is up at The New Inquiry. It begins, perhaps counterintuitively, with a comparison with David Foster Wallace.

This review represents my effort to make sure that the true Red Plenty addicts — the ones who aren’t satisfied with the Crooked Timber event (which doesn’t yet seem to have its own separate link?) — can get their sick, Soviet fix.

Thoughts on Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds

Rather than review Sergio Chejfec’s novel My Two Worlds, I want to reflect instead on who should read it.

Parks and long walks separate me from time and install me in a different dimension, an alternate one , obviously compatible with the true one, shall we say, or in any case, with the regular one, isolated and at times autonomous as it may be. (75-76)

First & foremost, they should be walkers, for whom each step taken is also one lost — a taking that makes no lasting claim & a loss that is never so final. Their destinations are familiar for their being so incomprehensibly foreign — for every recognition and remembrance they find, of which they try to take hold, proves eventually too heavy with significance, and slips the grip of its proper naming.

Generally, when I walk I look down. The ground is one of the most revealing indicators of the present condition; it is more eloquent in its damages, its deterioration, its unevenness, and irregularities of all sorts. I’m referring to urban as well as rural ground, difficult or congenial. And I’m specifically referring to the ground of paths, to ground altered by humans in general, because ground in the abstract, the ground of the world, speaks different, near-incomprehensible languages. (29)

Second & just as important, these readers should be sitters, who in arresting their forward motion detain, that is, somehow confine, the expansiveness of the moment — who, in those moments of cornering knowledge find themselves seized by a certain unknowing.

But what amazed me was that even though I could see them all on the far side of the fountain, beyond my companion and myself, I heard them as if their voices came from behind us, from where we were actually seated. Perhaps this was another effect of the place or, more precisely, of the mist created by the jets of water, which dissolved present time and distorted space; or it could have been a consequence of the symmetry. The present: until that afternoon I had rarely noticed the confused , and at times inconsistent, meaning of this word, to which we should add the sense of ambiguity it often possess. . . . (59-60) Continue reading “Thoughts on Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds

Intoxication Without the Sex: Thoughts on Lars Iyer’s Dogma

As you no doubt already know, the heroes of Lars Iyer’s debut novel Spurious recently returned for another round. Too bad for poor W., Dogma goes the way of a downward spiral. Ah, I’m sorry, I’m supposed to alert the unsuspecting reader of spoilers, aren’t I, and then tuck them under the fold. If you fear further insensitivity, rest easy, it won’t happen again. For indeed, what strikes me as interesting about Dogma is that there is remarkably little else for a reviewer to release prematurely.

This is, for those who keep score of such things, of a piece with Iyer’s much discussed literary manifesto declaring the end of literature. Or certainly our response to its demise. Do we, for example, dare look for who has bloodied hands, since we may not have cleaned all well under our own fingernails? Might we eat the corpse, and attempt to find nourishment from the decaying heap at out feet? Or is it better to leave the dead for the dead, and find something else entirely to occupy our attention? However we choose, there is no avoiding the fact that something has been lost. How, then, to appreciate the abyss without falling in it is the question. Continue reading “Intoxication Without the Sex: Thoughts on Lars Iyer’s Dogma

Lars and W. Do America: A review of Lars Iyer’s Dogma

Few writers have captured the despair and self-loathing that necessarily accompany the academic life as perfectly as Lars Iyer, and surely fewer have done it so humorously. Spurious established the tone for the trilogy, immersing us in the abusive relationship between W. and Lars, in W.’s continually thwarted desires to somehow become worthy of philosopy, and in the sheer squalor of Lars’s existence. The infamous “damp” infecting Lars’s apartment resonated with the wisdom of the ancient Israelites, for whom mildew was a matter to be handled by the religious authorities.

By now, it’s practically required by law to compare Iyer’s work to Beckett and Bernhard, and while those comparisons are surely accurate, there is also something new and intriguing in Iyer’s framing. Continue reading “Lars and W. Do America: A review of Lars Iyer’s Dogma

Review of Lars Iyer’s Spurious

While reading Lars Iyer’s recently released novel Spurious I had the curious feeling that he had somehow hacked my Gmail account and read the by-now-countless conversations I’ve had with my closest friends. My suspicion is, considering you lot keep coming around here, where posts untold were first given life in and left germs all over our respective chat archives, that if given the chance you’ll find Iyer cribbing from your conversations as well.

As with Beckett and Bernhard before him, nobody will be fooled by the apparent simplicity of Spurious. Two men, both reasonably intelligent academics, talk. And that is it, really. They talk on trains, on the phone, at the pub. There is talk of action, but no action as such. Well, no, that’s not quite true, is it? Talking is an action, too, after all. It may be more dull than, say, sex (one hopes), and more slow than a high-speed chase, but conversation, the simple being-with somebody else, is perhaps a more primal act than we, who are often bored with those with whom we have to spend time, might wish to believe. The main characters of Spurious, W. & Lars (the first-person narrator), are bound together in this primal act. They are, in fact, in talking, and I dare say only in talking, each other’s Messiah (149)—i.e., the (one) “to come” that “has come.” Fitting, perhaps, that the Messiah of a world such as ours should be so gloriously pitiful. Continue reading “Review of Lars Iyer’s Spurious

Sprawl – by Danielle Dutton

“Dear Mrs. Baxter, Welcome. Your earnest and expensive skepticism is otherworldly. For this reason, I advise you to take two or three sheets of paper and make a journal of anything remarkable that occurs in the next few days. Idle romances, typographical reproductions, eye- and ear-witness testimony, the reality of our special community—I recommend all these pleasures to you now. You’ll need to keep track. You’ll have to be strong, Mrs. Baxter. Everything is different, but over time, to a certain extent, nothing really changes. Such is the critical authenticity of our every historical moment. Focus on apprehensible objects and their previously unapprehended relationship to other objects around your house or this place (your body to fish, glass to a quality of mind). It’s a good deal of fun. Yours, etc.” (16-17)

These are not the opening words of Danielle Dutton’s magnificent recent novel Sprawl (Siglio Press, 2010), but they do most clearly articulate both the approach she takes and all that she appears to regard as being at stake. Sprawl is, as I take it, its narrator’s own first-person “journal of anything remarkable that occurs in the next few days.” We shouldn’t get too hung up about whether she is literally keeping a journal. The important part is that the novel presents us with a woman’s “earnest and expensive skepticism”—her inner state of mind & being, as it were, that come as a result & cost of being a part of the world. And her world is costly indeed, for it is that of the suburbs. Continue reading Sprawl – by Danielle Dutton”