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The Overland line

Over on his blog, Emmett Stinson comments on my article on creative writing courses in the university, ‘Liberated Zone or Pure Commodification?’ There is much to agree with in Stinson’s post, though his defence of creative writing courses is rather tendentious.

Still, there were several points that attracted my attention. In particular, Stinson critiques my argument for an engaged literature. He writes:

Davidson’s piece is ultimately interesting and even-handed, although it runs what currently seems to be Overland’s party line on what literature should be, which is ‘a literature that takes us back into the world – that thinks about the issues that surround and affect us – rather than away from it: a culture of engagement rather than escapism, of reflection rather than consolation’. As I’ve noted elsewhere, an extremely problematic set of assumptions underpins this notion of literature (and more on this below).

It’s not quite clear what the ‘problematic set of assumptions’ is. Later, Stinson expands on the point (which he qualifies with ‘warning, unfounded emotional rant approaching’):

Everyone who is currently holding the position that art needs to take on the real world, engage with real issues, adhere to standard notions of plot and characertisation, or think more about content, repeat after me: ‘I am a complete and total philistine. I have rejected completely the innovations of modernism and have a deep, profound and aesthetically conservative nostalgia for the classics of literature (as I have chosen to define them in my own personal cannon).’

Now between this first quote and the second there are a number of paragraphs, and we can’t be sure that the second directly follows the first. Indeed, the second paragraph directly relates to Batuman’s piece on creative writing programs in the LRB (and may well be fair as an assessment of Batuman’s position). But it seems to be what he is referring to when he writes in the first paragraph, ‘more on this below’. If this is the case, Stinson has made a serious category error. For it appears that he equates taking on the ‘real world’ with realism, a literature of engagement with ‘conservative nostalgia for the classics of literature’, Batuman’s position, with mine (or Overland’s). Stinson’s own interests are in avant-garde writing, and here he defends this movement against the cold dead hand of ‘realism’.

The first irony is that, as Stinson would realize, the modernists were deeply engaged in the ‘real world’ – they are, in fact, paradigmatic of the engaged artist. They were precisely the kinds of people I was gesturing towards when I wrote the Overland ‘party line’. The great surrealist writer Breton was associated with the radical Left, as were Brecht and Picasso. Mayakovsky became the poet laureate of the Russian revolution. Of course the political Left cannot lay sole claim to these modernist avant-gardes – Marinetti, Ezra Pound, Eliot and Yeats were all on the far right – but it’s no surprise that those most interested in breaking the ossified forms of realism were political radicals.

The point is that at times non-realism provides a better handle on the contemporary world than classical realism. Should this surprise us, considering we live in a society of such constant change, of social disintegration on vast tracts of the planet, of technological lurches forward, of impending disasters – climate and otherwise – of famines and droughts, of genocide and war? As Marx wrote in neo-modernist language: ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.’ This is the space with which non-realism engages, though perhaps it is not the only method of approach (though it is the one that I, personally, have chosen).

This category error is unfortunate, as Stinson’s analysis of contemporary culture, if not particularly original, is a useful starting point:

while I agree that the majority of contemporary literature is bland, this is a result of the fact that books are a commodity that must be sold, and are therefore marketed to appeal to the broadest possible audience, while any novel seen as too ‘difficult’ will usually either be ignored or else edited into something that’s more in line with a saleable good (this seems to be more prevalent in the Anglophone world, as the overwhelming mediocrity of Booker and Pulitzer prize shortlists suggests). Totalitarian societies censor great art, but capitalist societies just ignore it. I’ll simply end my critique by noting this: there is no crisis within contemporary literature as such, but there is a crisis in how literature is produced, disseminated and advertised within the marketplace. The failures are systemic failures that cannot be separated from larger economic structures.

So far, so good. Similar arguments have been made by the Frankfurt school: most obviously Adorno and Horkheimer in The Dialectic of Enlightenment and Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man. Frederic Jameson makes a similar point in his theories of postmodernism, though his theory of capitalism is influenced by Lukacs, even if his aesthetic conclusions are somewhat different.

Though Stinson doesn’t explain quite what he means by ‘the majority of contemporary literature is bland’, I suspect we would agree on the details. In a recent Overland editorial, I suggested a brief formulation:

We live in a deeply commodified culture that values style over substance, image over reality, the disposable over the sustainable. McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, The Da Vinci Code and Transformers, Australian Idol and Border Security – these are the faces of mass culture.

I revisited that analysis in the piece on creative writing, though in a different context. The point, it seems to me, is that this commodified culture is one of escapism. I wrote, ‘This is a culture whose primary aim is to take us away from the world, to feed us degraded ideological constructions and images of the lives we secretly yearn for but will never have. It is a culture of distraction and consolation.’ There are many concrete analyses one could here make. We could take the commercial news, which provides little in the way of news, but rather a form of entertainment. We might examine a show like Australian Idol, essentially a big karaoke competition, where we are encouraged to pick a contestant who will be our ‘favourite’. We can be happy when they win, sad when they lose. We might choose Twilight, a novel which reaffirms, as Laura Miller has explained, the ‘traditional feminine fantasy of being delivered from obscurity by a dazzling, powerful man, of needing to do no more to prove or find yourself than win his devotion, of being guarded from all life’s vicissitudes by his boundless strength and wealth’.

The point, I argued, was to build a countercultural movement against this commodified logic. It is apparently here that Stinson and I part company. Why? The secret seems to me to be in Stinson’s analysis of why there is a ‘crisis’ in contemporary culture. Stinson’s analysis has only two essential terms: economics and culture. He writes, ‘there is no crisis within contemporary literature as such, but there is a crisis in how literature is produced, disseminated and advertised within the marketplace. The failures are systemic failures that cannot be separated from larger economic structures.’ The missing term here, is, of course, politics. Personally, I think the crisis of literature has as much to do with the political impasse of the last twenty years, with the dominance of commodity capitalism politically and ideologically, as with its economics. Crudely put, in a situation where people see no alternative, they seek escape. They seek a culture of consolation. The great engaged art movements, whether they were the avant-gardes of the thirties or sixties, or indeed the realists during the fifties like Arthur Miller, were almost always connected with political movements and drew energy and inspiration from them (I hope to write about one such 1960s literary movement in a forthcoming Overland). In that respect, today, more than ever, if you are interested in literature, you also should be interested in radical politics. Indeed, if Overland could be said to maintain a ‘line’, that’s a pretty good summation of it.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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Comments

  1. Hi Rjurik–thanks for reading my blog! There are many things to say, here, but I’ll leave my response to the next issue of Kill Your Darlings, which has an article by me that speaks to precisely these issues…so, see that for my comment.

  2. “The point is that at times non-realism provides a better handle on the contemporary world than classical realism. Should this surprise us, considering we live in a society of such constant change, of social disintegration on vast tracts of the planet, of technological lurches forward, of impending disasters – climate and otherwise – of famines and droughts, of genocide and war?”.

    hasn’t this always been the case? isn’t this changing society just the ‘human world’ as opposed to the ‘contemporary world’? personally, i don’t see all that many differences between the current society you portray and every other human society which has existed and so i don’t understand how non-realism should be more applicable to understanding our current situation than classical realism.

    • I think capitalism has its own temporality, it’s own rhythms, its own dynamics. Schematically:

      The moment of high modernism really corresponds to the period where feudalism still had significant purchase on society, capitalism was entering a time of technological revolution (cars, planes, mechinised production), yet there were threats to that world from various revolutionary movements. In that space, the modernist avant-gardes flourished.

      The post-war world is different yet, with commodity capitalism flattening out historical expereince by wiping feudalism from the map, epscially in Europe, the technological revolution losing its excitement, and the revolutionary movements losing their way (at least in the West). [This analysis is heavily influenced by Perry Anderson's piece on Modernism called, I think, 'Modernity and Revolution'?]

      So I guess I don’t find the idea of ‘human’ art compelling. I think it’s much more socially specific.

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  4. i’m not entirely sure what you mean by ‘human’ art?

    the point i intended to make was that the supposedly ‘changing contemporary society’ you portrayed wasn’t particularly unique. social disintegration, technological change, natural and human-influenced disasters, famine, genocide, war – all of these themes are repeats. these themes were all existing during the moment of high modernism and still exist today. society has changed very little, but the way we view it has changed immensely. take ‘contemporary’ out of the paragraph i quoted you from and i would agree with you.

  5. Sorry, ‘human’ art was poorly worded: I was just responding to your term ‘human world.’

    And you make a fair point – I was very generic in my description of contemporary society. Consider my comment above to be a corrective of sorts.

  6. Pingback: Fiction and politics in the 21C: a reply to Emmett Stinson « Overland literary journal

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