The embalmer’s art

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.

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.

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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  1. “Joyce can be the most boring writer in existence”

    I get how you might justifiably characterise Joyce as somebody who wrote at you, and not for you* but I think I’m going to need you to define boring in this context.

    (*Not that I necessarily would want writers to write for me either. Now that would be my idea of boring.)

  2. Bugger. I thought that was the least problematic part of the piece.
    I’m not equating Joyce with Franzen et al. I wrote that Joyce “can be”, not Joyce “is.” But I think Joyce has become a kind of bellwether for literary types who strive for qualities in their writing that I find profoundly tedious. There’s an attention to the “well crafted sentence” – all that ‘kill your darlings’ stuff – to the appearance of things with a content which goes along the lines I described neoliberal fiction goes, and which Steinpilz also described. I think it was Elif Batuman who wrote something about contemporary writers being able to turn out a better sentence than Stendahl but unlike him unable to write something worth reading. I don’t want to underplay the gender aspect of this either. Fiction has largely been an artifact constructed by men, so if you’re a woman and you dissent I imagine you’d get short shrift. The only solution would be to write like successful men; narcissistic, repetitive, without literary dissent.
    On the wall near one of my desks is the famous photo of Marilyn reading Ulysses. I like it for all kinds of reasons, not least of which because it has been subject to all sorts of ridicule, a woman reading Joyce etc. If it were say, Rock Hudson reading Joyce the narrative would have been different. Anyway, Marilyn said she read Ulysses to “chase the blues away”. I was kind of referencing this when I thought of writing as something like singing the blues. If I really have to define ‘boring’ then I’d say ‘Can you imagine Eggers, Franzen etc etc etc singing the blues? No of course not. Franzen is 80’s big hair rock. Eggers is Belle and Sebastian. But you can imagine Joyce singing the blues. Sometimes.

    • Or maybe I could say that ‘boring’ in this context is analogous to listening to ABC Classic FM. Why the fuck do they keep playing Brahms and Beethoven? Do the words ‘John Cage’ mean anything?

      • If Joyce being boring falls in the same category as Brahms and Beethoven being boring, I think I’m okay with that. I’m personally very much in Mailyn’s camp about the old geezer.

        (Or, to put it another way, I couldn’t fathom having a glass of wine moment involving James Joyce. Whereas I literally had one involving with Ian McEwan. But I think that lineage you suggest, the idea that an impoverished understanding of high modernism may be the working model of the neoliberal novel probably needs exploring.)

        • Ok, cool. I’ll give you a pith helmet and a machete and let you go off then. Give me a yell if you find anything too weird or run out of wine.

  3. Joyce versus Son House; literature agin the blues? Different art forms, I would have thought, so not a fair fight. Both smokin’ guns though. We know about the portrait of the guitarist as a young man, but what about the self-taught sliding history of Eddie House’s youth?

    So Stephen, in putting the case for Joyce in respect of women’s experience (and possibly as some sort of template for women’s writing in the C20 (Cixous, who, like you, saw male writing as being boring, seemed to think so.)), I would point to his rewriting of his then neo-liberal short story “Clay”, and how he stages non-art as art in the Anna Livia Plurabelle sequence of Finnegan’s Wake in order to give his washerwomen bluesy voices as they sing seductive siren songs about their labour and very existence.

    A far cry from sitting on some veranda sipping wine, ears stopped with the wadding of the sort of literature you describe, unhearing the songs of today’s sirens.

    Though I must confess, I’m ambivalent toward Joyce too – and opposed to much of the literature you describe.

    • Well, funny you say that: Anna Livia Plurabelle is my favourite part of Joyce. You can have the rest.
      It;’s not a fair fight because the blues and Big Lit are different art forms.. It’s because Son House knows exactly what he is doing. Big Lit novelists haven’t the foggiest.
      I wasn’t sipping the wine mate. I was chugging it. Which is probably the right way to read Kathy Acker, who was something of a blues siren herself at times, and would have appreciated my chugging.

      • Some points:

        ***The verandah wine sipper was intended as a shot at the archetype – they who read Franzen and Co.

        ***Son House knowing what he was doing and Big Lit novelists writing unknowingly seems too much of a generalisation.

        ***If your talking language, in pop and some blues, lyrics are often nonsense, enabling the music to carry the emotion (like listening to the music of a langauge you don’t know); which is why, perhaps, if you have to struggle with wordiness, Big Lit novels can seem boring.

        Simply some more thoughts on yet another provocative post.

  4. 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.

    Well, for what it’s worth, this woman got to about page 200 before that little voice won.

    I found this piece really interesting, Stephen. I’m not sure I agree with all of it, though. For instance, I don’t think women read male novelists because they’re hoping it will explain all the puzzling/destructive/etc things men do. I think the explanation is actually far more dull – I think women read male novelists because male novelists are default. Also, male novelists are Important and Respected and punctuate the literary landscape and literature’s history far more often and with more force than female novelists. If you want to be a literary woman, you must read the Greats, which are mostly men. And surely the place of the male novelist parallels their social/economic positioning, which, although perhaps this is a crude reading, would also account for their dominance in this category of ‘neoliberal novel’.

    That concept of the ‘neoliberal novel’ is interesting in itself. I haven’t come across it before. I’m not sure what else to say at this stage, though. Perhaps I’ll come back when I’ve thought about it some more.

  5. Hi Stephanie
    I think there are many reasons why women read male novelists, and of course the fact that male novelists are default is the most obvious one. But I am just speculating about other reasons, because it’s something of a puzzle to me. After all, once you get over having to read The Canon you’re free to go anywhere. So if you’re a woman having gotten over the Greats, and you’re still predominantly reading male novelists, why would you? There could be many reasons, and I’m proposing one which intrigues me a bit, that may not have been proposed before.

    • For sure. But I think often it takes conscious reflection to realise that you’re reading 3 men to 1 woman, and a conscious decision to change that.

  6. Oh yes, of course. I’m just asking why. It seems like the narratives of male dominated Big Lit are really really subversive, if intelligent literary-minded women and men suddenly go ‘Oh shit’ I don’t read any women writers, how did that happen?’ How did we all sign up for that?

  7. At last a piece that explains to me why I simply don’t bother with contemporary fiction any more (I don’t even look at the reviews). Just the idea of it is deeply boring. Of course everyone seems to want to be a novelist (everyone wants to be a poet too but there’s no money in it . . .).

    • Yeah, funny how when you try and describe how you’ve tried to explain something to yourself, you can sometimes find that you’ve explained something for someone else as well. Glad to be of service. Overland: explaining your boredom since 1954.

  8. Not reading can be laziness too – or getting too old for the game.

    Hope that never happens to me.

  9. Interesting post Stephen. I have yet to read Franzen and probably want to be honest for the very reasons you mention. Whilst Eggers writing itself is not that memorable from an aesthetic p.o.v I think there is something worthwhile with the books he’s published that people identify with.

    I think out of all the names you mention he strives for something more authentic then the others. Maybe it’s the fact that he does write stories from real life people that is his big appeal. these more connectedness or something.

    I don’t know. There’s much more to think about with this post that i’ll let sit this late at night.

    • If the stats are right then the people reading Franzen and co are women. In a comment above Stephanie said that she thought that was because male writing is just the default. Of course that’s true, but it’s not enough of an explanation. Not in these times. I still think there’s something abut the male voice and the female ear. I mean culturally that’s what happens around us anyway; men talk and women listen. I understand (I think) why men love to hear themselves talk, but women listening is another matter entirely.

  10. yeah stephen. i agree with that and think stephanie point is spot on. i think it’s important to look at the subject matter which those authors are writing about to get a better understanding of their appeal.

    whilst i’m not suggesting by any means that Eggers is writing from a radical p.o.v there’s something in the choice of his subject matter- not to mention his 826 writing projects- that puts him in a slightly different context to Franzen and Safran Foer who seem to be more self-promotional.

    I think if we are going to go with the notion of the neoliberal novel as genre or a style we perhaps need to be more definitive in the content which entails. although this reductiveness and pigeonholing of novels is perhaps a problem in itself.

    just some more food for thought. keep the post coming. i enjoy musing on them.

  11. Stephen, I’m one of those that would appreciate some explanation, re: that the so-called neoliberal novel “obediently subscribes to a set of structural norms that I’m sure I don’t need to describe to you”. And these norms are?… I’m wanting to know what they are, in and of itself, but also I’m wondering how common they are across the genre of novels throughout the history of novel writing, in that isn’t eh novel about the individual character in the world, and thus always was already not so concerned with the (dynamics and injustices of) larger-scale social structures etc…. ?? Given I don’t read much fiction / nor novels, I’m really asking as a stranger to this type of literature….
    And, doesn’t much culture end up mythologising wholeness and togetherness — ie, “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”… I would not have thought the moniker of ‘neo-liberal’ was needed for this. Maybe just happy-endings, or ‘closure’.

    • You’re “one of those”? There are others? I guess there are lot of reasons why I didn’t go into definitions, explicitly anyway. 1st, Steinpilz did it (a bit, but enough) in his post and 2nd, I’m not an essayist but a doodler and explicating such things is beyond my meagre vocabulary.
      But I guess I could say several things about neoliberal literature; It is incredibly decontextualised. It never makes apparent the conditions under which it is produced, which I think is extremely problematic. Not its political and economic conditions, or its literary conditions and imperatives and not its ontological base. I’ve said a zillion times at OL that literature as we know it just seems to ignore the basic political realities of where we live – on a devastated planet with mindboggling amounts of suffering caused by an economics and set of political priorities that provilege a lot of behaviours and psychological states that make Dante’s Inferno look like a stroll down Swanston St.
      A few weeks ago while waiting to use the photocopier in my local library I picked up a novel by a successful British novelist. Her name was Scarlett something. Anyway the book was lavishly praised and so on by literary hacks. I read the first page, in which the first two paragraphs are crammed with plot-driven minutiae; that the first person protagonist lives in an English seaside town, that it is February, that it is cold, that her house is falling down, that she has a cool boyfriend who does a groovy kind of volunteer work, that she though she writes literary reviews she only reviews the very best books and only to pay the rent, that she talks by texting with best friends, that she has an overdraft, that she lives on the edge, that she has a wise and helpful editor who values her talent, that the book she is currently reviewing may well be Very Significant To The Plot Of The Novel, and that Something Very Very Bad is about to happen. I’m not sure what to call this kind of writing. It’s like a Hollywood trailer. I felt almost ill reading it.
      The gender politics of the Novel can’t be ignored either. I thought more people might pick up on this in the comments. Another OL blogger thought that she read male writers because they are the default. Of course this is true, but that’s not enough of an explanation to describe why women who are the main readers of novels continue to read men. I don’t get it. Its the 21st century and regardless of the hegemonic domains of publishers there are a lot of women writers around and a lot more who can be rediscovered. I don’t understand why most of us, men and women, read Jonathan Franzen or Dave Eggers than say, Herta Muller or Sylvia Townsend Warner, a writer I really like but who has been forgotten and nobody reads anymore. Or the Australian writer Eve Langley’s novel The Pea Pickers. Who reads that?
      The ontological base of the neoliberal novel is another thing altogether. In the NY Review of Books recently an academic and writer Tim Parks got stuck into the novel and novelists and made this intriguing statement: “We are in thrall to the narrative of selves, that do not really exist in the way we imagine, a fabrication in which most novel-writing connives.”
      I think this a a very interesting claim, and something I’d like to follow up in another OL blog soon. Individuals in novels are always concrete objects. Their ontological status is never questioned. The politics of what makes a self is never questioned. The novel is founded upon a an ontological and existential status of the self that rarely gets looked at. It’s very, very bizarre. There a few writers who try to address this, W.G. Sebald for one, but generally its not part of the worldview of novelists. Neoliberalism thrives on the idea of a decontextualised self, that thinks that it is entirely governed from the inside by mood states. That’s how things are marketed and propagandised.
      And finally there is the marketing of novels. These days literary novels are to be distinguished by their polished prose, the margins of which are littered with the ghosts of all the darlings that have been ritually slaughtered. In fact it’s so polished that the pages look like they’ve been treated with Mr Sheen. British and American novelists, and increasingly Australians are experts at this, and frankly it sucks. Where are all the unpolished writers who actually have something to say? Novelists are largely a conservative bunch, and publishers even more so. For writers, getting a novel accepted and published could be seen as a sign of failure, not a sign of one’s literary success. It could mean that the writer just got successfuly Disney-fied, made suitable for a Hollywood trailer.

  12. So mainstream publishing interests, and the polished prose that authors generate to get their novels published, are boring, suck, or worse actually accelerate the mythos of decontextualised self… so doesn’t this just mean that you or someone else should start publishing, or at least pointing to, all the “the unpolished writers who actually have something to say”?? This is like the majoritarian vs minoritarian literature/science/politics that Deleuze and others have marked out… The major way is to have a centralised, pushed out canon of what’s hot and what’s not. The minor way is not to play second fiddle to the major way, but to actually do the whole thing is a completely different way, without the power centre… in other words, to use some of your words, to play in a wide open space (that only looks marginal from the margin-produced power centre)… if complaining against the majoritarian is a sling-shot into the minoritarian then I’m all for it!… but we do have to release the trigger.

    • Oh I agree. And its my intention. But my resources are limited at the moment. Mostly because I’d prefer it to be a group enterprise, something collective, not a solo operation.

  13. Why on earth does it matter who women are reading? Why must this too be reduced to a political act? Do you suggest that women should only listen to female artists? Or purchase art by female painters? And what about the things that actually influence reading choices, such as the calibre of writing, or style, or genre? I read books that spark my interest and it matters not to me that they were written by a male or a female. You really are the strangest man. And why bag on writers who are writing what interests them and what many, many people enjoy reading? If you don’t like modern novels then don’t read them. Judging from your posts and the way you bang on about the same amazing authors again and again, you must have only read books written by about 10 different people and you clearly have very specific tastes. Nothing wrong with that, but you sure do seem to enjoy bagging most everything else outside of your very narrow window. And here’s a thought, in between drinks, why don’t you write the novel that you think we should all be reading? You could even use a female alias and then give us girls the green light to go out and read it.

  14. Hi and thanks.
    I don’t things like reading and writing are ‘reduced’ to political acts. They just are political acts. I’m not denying the enjoyment that people get out of writers I think are rather odd. I’m asking a few questions about what might be going on when we read, given that its women who read and men who write. I ask out of curiosity.
    Enjoy whoever you want in whatever way you want. But I don’t agree that reading and writing are politics-free zones. You seem to have read a few of my blogs judging by your comments, but really you don’t have to bother if they upset you.

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