In New Inquiry recently Anton Steinpilz drew attention to Walter Benn Michaels’ concept of the neoliberal novel. It’s a neat term to describe the fiction of the past fifty years or whatever, fiction that dresses itself up in a variety of wacky outfits but obediently subscribes to a set of structural norms that I’m sure I don’t need to describe to you.
A couple of things came to mind when I was reading Steinpilz’s post, issues he didn’t address when discussing the production and deification of the neoliberal novel: one is the issue of boredom and the other, of gender.
I had an Emperor’s New Clothes moment some years back somewhat before writers like Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer made their appearance on the Big Lit scene. My ENC moment came via a bottle of wine and was about my own habits as much as it became about my opinions on contemporary literature. I was sitting on the verandah of my house drinking the wine and reading. I remember the book as being Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless. That can’t be right, for all sorts of reasons, but the memory seems clear enough, which says a lot about memory. Acker makes sense metaphorically, if not chronologically. All of a sudden I looked at the glass of wine in my hand and thought, I don’t want to do this anymore. This wine doesn’t really want to be my friend. I’m not even enjoying drinking it. It’s like comfort food. And it keeps fucking me over. And actually, I thought to myself in some surprise, more importantly Stephen you’re really, really boring yourself drinking it.
Whatever Kathy Acker was as a writer, she was not a neoliberal novelist. But when you come across someone like Acker, (or insert your own favourite non-neoliberal writer here) that writer can really scramble your notions of what literature could be. Suddenly it’s possible to look at writers like Franzen and Eggers and Safran Foer and Chabon and see something you hadn’t seen before; that the type of novel they inhabit and construct is profoundly and frighteningly boring. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but mostly I think it comes down to the fact that as writers they appear to have very little interest in what the reader might actually be thinking. One has the impression of not so much being written for, as written at. And surely, at some level, this chronic boredom is registering within us. Somewhere in a forgotten corner of your mind, a tiny dispossessed voice is pleading with you to stop, begging you to put The Corrections down right now and never, ever pick it up again because a deeply essential part of yourself is being systematically bored into extinction.
The psychotherapist Donald Winnicott once met with a group of ministers of religion of some kind who asked him how they could know if they were helping people who sought their advice. Winnicott paused, thought for a minute and said, ‘If they are not too boring, you can probably help them a little.’ Winnicott is also famous for his phrase, ‘Madness is the need to be believed.’ What he meant by this is not that conviction is a sign of insanity, but that the relentless and tedious insistence on the truth or significance of a reality can be a reliable indicator of something a little disturbing. Jacques Lacan was fairly sure that James Joyce was psychotic, and that it was Joyce’s writing and his production of himself as a literary name that prevented a major breakdown. Orwell called Joyce ‘a kind of elephantine pedant’ and reading Ulysses or Finnegans Wake can really test your patience. Joyce can be the most boring writer in existence, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that he is the lodestar of modern fiction, the Sugar Daddy for neoliberal novelists.
For me the deadly boredom of the neoliberal novel is almost pathological. I experience a kind of despair reading Franzen or Eggers or Amis or Barnes or Rushdie. I have a sense of my life slowly draining away as though someone has decided that this is all I’m good for, this is all I deserve when it comes to literature. I feel as if I’ve been presented with a kind of a parody of a novel, a triumph of the embalmer’s art, so to speak.
The neoliberal novel seems to me to be something of a male paradigm too, a long history of fiction written by men who believe that the novel is a transcendent and uniquely sophisticated way of categorising human experience, beyond politics, beyond gender, beyond context. In fact, one could be tempted to call the neoliberal novel the male neoliberal novel. The majority of our feted writers are men, but most readers of novels are women. And most readers when asked if the last book they read was by a man or a woman will identify a man.
So are the neoliberal novelists just men writing at women? A couple of years back the novelist Ian McEwan said that, ‘When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.’ It’s a statement which could be re-phrased for him as ‘Without a woman’s ear, I will cease to exist.’ Is the neoliberal novel at least partly an expression of a male desire for a woman’s ear, for yet another idealised and compliant object? Put this way, it sounds like a weird attempt at seduction, the lone male whispering heartfelt truths about life into the solitary shell-like of the female reader.
Women tend to read both men and women writers but predominantly read books by men. If that’s true, why would they do that? There might be many reasons depending on your political point of view, but could women’s readings of men’s literature be in any way a hope that men will finally explain the huge variety of puzzling and destructive male behaviour? The Lacanian psychoanalyst and writer Darian Leader points out that in any family it is generally not the mother who is unpredictable and emotionally volatile and whose behaviour it is difficult to make rational sense of, but the father.
In fact, like a man in the role of seducer, the male neoliberal novelist will often do his best to tell the reader nothing at all about his motives, except of course when he accidentally gives himself away with his particular narrative obsessions. Though to be honest it’s often seemed to me that the contemporary male novelist also has something in common with an archaic right-wing relative, who bails someone up in a corner and breathing heavily and smelling of sherry begins, ‘When I was being rowed down the Zambezi in ’29 …’
Publishers feverish endorsement of male neoliberal fiction looks like a kind of gigantic transnational marketing device masquerading as something that could be potentially subversive. During a lecture in Brisbane I attended a few years back, Jake Chapman, echoing I suppose Tom Wolfe’s essay ‘The Painter’s Dream’, said that he thought that the main intent of contemporary art was merely to lightly traumatise the bourgeoisie. Chapman was out-clevering himself as usual, I think. To me it looks more likely that one of the purposes of contemporary artistic practice and of the neoliberal novel is to tell us what we already know, to pat us on the back for knowing it, and, most importantly, make us pay someone for telling us that we know it. It’s All Good. There really is True Love. There are Bad Guys and you are not one of them. There are Profound Things In Life and they come with a soundtrack and they are not too disturbing. Each one of us is A Star. Now go to bed.
In a memorial to the critic Frank Kermode, Jacqueline Rose wrote:
All fictions participate in the aevum, the third order of being between time and eternity, between nunc movens and nunc stans, which Thomas Aquinas assigned to angels…As this dimension was slowly brought to earth, it allowed men to feel themselves, in moments Augustine termed the moments of the ‘soul’s attentiveness’, outside the limits of human time, to think that they might be ‘able, as it were, to do all that angels can’ – ‘as it were’ the crucial semi-ironic qualifier.
So fiction inherits the world of angels, but it is only through a moment of acute ‘attentiveness’ – a moment of literary criticism we might say – that any of this can be experienced, let alone understood.
I’ve been very attentive to the work of Jacqueline Rose, but really it’s a big call, fiction inheriting the world of the angels, a halfway house between time and eternity. I’m more inclined to think of fiction potentially inhabiting somewhere a bit dirtier, somewhere angels don’t so much fear to tread, as can’t be bothered visiting. But either way an acute attentiveness to the ironic is always going to give our understanding a quality we can’t find elsewhere, break something open in the way we listen to ourselves and each other. And this kind of irony, a structural openness to the Other, is not a notable characteristic of the neoliberal novel.
Is contemporary male neoliberal fiction an artifact we can just do without? If that’s so, what would it mean to write? What would it be like to realise one is ineluctably situated within particular politics, and in one way or another always compromised?
Attempting to write from one’s gendered politicised experience and avoid the kind of creeping mortification characteristic of the neoliberal novelists can be very difficult and risky, partly because it can often feel as if it’s not an entirely sane activity. How can one write under the conditions in which we now live and not experience distress? Rather than situating the writing of literature within triumphal neoliberal narratives, perhaps we could begin to think of it as a political engagement with the work of mourning, a work that has traditionally been marginalised as ‘women’s business.’
In other words, maybe we could think of writing as being akin to singing the blues. I saw the film It Might Get Loud the other night; a documentary about male guitar gods that featured a meeting between The Edge, Jimmy Page and Jack White. Within two minutes several things became very obvious: Jimmy Page and The Edge have absolutely nothing of interest to say and always seem to be congratulating themselves on how profoundly they say it, and Jack White is a smoking blues guitarist. At one point, White plays a vinyl recording of his favourite song, an extraordinary acapella blues by the legendary Son House, ‘Grinnin’ in your face’.
Christ almighty, I thought after hearing it, maybe I’ll just give up writing altogether.
Next time we fire some interplanetary time capsule of neoliberal culture out into the galaxy for the space lizards of Betelgeuse 9 to find, we could, just for fun (or even better, out of humility), dump any mention of contemporary English literature. We could pretend that Literature died a long time ago and that we couldn’t be bothered resurrecting it, or even embalming it, and substitute Son House’s ‘Grinnin’ in your face’ instead. ‘Dear Space Lizards’, a hologram of Martin Amis or Jonathan Franzen could say, ‘I am here on behalf of male English-speaking writers. We argued about which of our innumerable novels you should read. In the end, we realised that nothing we had written in a very long time was a patch on Son House’s song, Grinnin’ in your face. So we’ve substituted that instead. Please turn up the volume. Thank you.’
It might increase our chances of a quick reply too. Perhaps we’d find ourselves monitoring a Wow! Signal one fateful night that says, ‘Send more Son House’. Then at least we’d know that we had really found intelligent life.