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02/16/2009

Comments

LML

I'm with you until the final paragraph, and maybe it's mainly a problem of phrasing, but:

"Experimental fiction that seeks to be perceived as irrevocably 'other' implicitly does regard the history of fiction as without notable predecessors and its writer does suggest he/she can "do better" than Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, et al."

Leaving aside the question of whether writers are in control of how they are perceived: the very best experimental writers--Kafka, Joyce, Beckett, and Borges, say--seem fully "other" to me, still. It's true that they generate this "otherness," in part, via dialogue with the texts that preceded them, but it's generally a highly idiosyncratic re-reading of literary history, isn't it, that produces innovative greatness? My own feeling is that great literature seems not "merely idiosyncratic," but profoundly idiosyncratic.

Also, it's possible to want to improve on or enlarge the tradition--it's even possible to attempt to "do better" than anyone who has preceded you--without feeling that you "are without notable predecessors." And my reading of literary history is that this amount of ego is generally what's required to produce great work.

Chris

I think I agree with LML here. Some very innovative (and very instructive) writers do seem to start at a kind of Literature Year Zero that countenances -- perhaps deliberately, perhaps not -- no antecedents. The need, moreover, to "fit" innovation into a historical scheme is my main problem with a critic like James Wood (far more so than his desire for "lifeness" on the page, the desire to see into the mind of the characters): his twentieth century is strangely empty of writers like Burroughs, Celine, and others who are neither assimilable nor clearly allied with a tradition.

EC

Nice post, Dan. In my experience the writers with the most incomplete sense of literary history have been the ones who write more or less mainstream "literary fiction." I never got an MFA myself but I know my share of writers, I've been in a number of workshops, plus I've taught or been a student in departments that had creative writing programs, etc. The trend I've noticed among this population is to be deeply concerned with what's "in" at the moment and to structure their reading lists according to the most talked-about and reviewed books of any particular year, along with books that have won major prizes such as the Booker (not that all of these are necessarily bad) or otherwise to be filling in their knowledge of contemporary authors they enjoy (reading, say, all of Richard Ford or Mary Gaitskill). They also devote a lot of attention to the major literary journals. They'll always say, of course, that they also "love" to read a "classic" novel now and then, "classic" to them meaning anything from Hemingway to Jane Austen. Likewise they might spice things up now and then with a work in translation. The few younger editors and agents I've known have been the same, but of course they are basically drawn from the same pool.

Luther Blissett

I guess my problem is that any newness in literature can only be justified in terms of providing some new aesthetic experience. Of course, newness is always a quality defined in relationship to oldness, but I think experimental writers who insist on their connections with the past do so more to promote their ethos ("I'm a trustworthy person with knowledge of the past") than to define the new experiences they are offering in their work. (Robbe-Grillet here seems to be rewriting Eliot's essay on tradition: the new artist chooses his ancestors, etc.)

There's nothing Homer didn't do besides offer the experiences that other artists could offer. So Robbe-Grillet can only justify writing anything -- a new epic or a deconstructed detective novel -- by arguing that his work offers me something I cannot get from reading Homer. As such, every artist, experimental or not, must insist on the newness of his/her work. Otherwise, why shouldn't I just reread Homer? (Actually, rereading Homer now for my sophomore English class, I don't know why I should ever read anything new. I'm beginning to prefer the good over the new.)

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