Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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"I don't think this really is a puzzle. These kinds of experimental "fictions" are, in my view, precisely trying to undermine the reflexive association of fiction with story, although perhaps not completely enough that we would want to categorize it as something other than fiction. To this extent, "fiction" becomes simply a literary identifying mark, an acknowledgment of the tradition of prose writing from which it emerges, but no longer very helpfully describes what a work so designated does in terms of storytelling alone. But perhaps at this point as well such a work no longer lends itself very usefully to the kind of analysis a philosopher might want to do of the more ordinary understanding of the term."

Or, simpler, these sorts of experimental pieces are "anti-fiction": that is, they deliberately subvert the traditional structures and restrictions of fiction.

The important point here is that "anti-fiction" only exists in the wake of fiction -- it only has meaning to the extent that it can be counterpointed to traditional fiction. A piece where characters address the reader and debate their eventual fate (I just made that up but I'm sure there's pieces like that out there) only has meaning to the extent that the reader can counterpoint it to more familiar characterizations in other narratives. It's effect depends on our familiarity with other effects.

Compare progressivism in music, for instance.

Adam Kotsko

"Postmodern" philosophy would probably be another example of what doug's talking about.


Thanks very much for the post, Daniel. I have been an avid reader of yours for a couple months and have been meaning on several occasions to respond to one or another interesting post of yours. Don't know why I never got around to it. (Guess I like you stuff so much I wanted to make sure to do it right.)

I'll just make a quick clarification to my 'grandfather-clause' point. I switched too quickly to 'father-clause' to make the analytically dubious 'anxiety of influence' joke about wanting to kill fathers. The more humble point - the only one to which I would want to commit - is that something is going to be fiction if it is lineally descended from something that is clearly fiction. In other words, we take genealogy seriously. I take it this is more or less your point about 'acknowledgement of tradition'. So we are in agreement.

And let me add another quick thought about the philosophy vs. literary criticism opposition you set up. You write:

"Part of the problem with approaching fiction from the vantage point of philosophy is that it excludes certain considerations that would otherwise help to explain what we in fact do enounter in reading fiction or poetry. (Although of course if these considerations were taken into account, the result would be literary criticism and not philosophy."

In part this is too harsh. Philosophers may bury their heads in the sand, refusing too consider factors that would mar their elegant abstractions. But that is considered, in house, to be rather a grave sin (although, like many sins, often committed.) On the other hand, I am not as offended as many other philosophers would be by your hint that if 'philosophy of literature' were done at all decently, it would naturally turn into literary criticism. I think that's probably right, but it needs qualification and a little explanation.

The short, incomplete explanation by analogy: in philosophy of science, no one would try to analyze the essence of 'science' while tabling evaluative considerations of good and bad science; and no one would think you could really do good work without getting a quantity of good science under your fingernails. I think the same is true of philosophy of literature, and that a lot of work either fails, or fails to be as good as it could be, through a failure to acknowledge this squarely. You can't table the evaluative questions, and you have to really get the good stuff under your fingernails. You have to include a substantial element of actual, practical criticism to do good philosophy of literature. Such is my suspicion. But that isn't quite the same as saying that philosophy of literature - if it were actually done right - would cease to be philosophy and become literary criticism. It amounts more to saying that the subject matter is inherently impure, so its successful practitioners will not be philosophical purists.

A version of the same lesson cuts the other way. A lot of literary critics sort of wander into philosophy, while generalizing about their subject matter. And there is nothing wrong with stepping back and generalizing. But these folks make a hash of it due to a failure to take seriously the fact that they are now under some obligation to switch gears and sharpen up their abstractions. This is part and parcel with my long-winded critiques of 'theory'. Not suitable material for the comments box.

Dan Green

John: Thanks for your comment. As I hope my post indicates, I am also an interested reader of your blog.

I honestly didn't mean the statement you quote to sound harsh. Perhaps I shouldn't have used the word "problem." I really only wanted to suggest a difference of emphasis (an appropriate one) between philosophy (even "philosophy of literature") and literary criticism. You're probably right that the boundary can become obscure--although in my view literary critics wandering into philosophy are more likely to make a hash of it than philosophers going the other way--but there is a boundary, I think. Thus most philosophers run the risk of losing sight of particulars and most literary critics don't know how to "sharpen up their abstractions." But it's an occupational hazard.

To identify as fiction writing that is "lineally descended from something that is clearly fiction" seems to me a perfectly satisfactory way of doing the genealogy. But it only makes the analytic account of "fiction" harder to do.

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