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alors l’angleterre, part 1.1

with 71 comments

One of the strangest things about England is that, despite the fact that its the birthplace and ancestral home of the political form that we identify with the interests of the middle class, it has lacked, for a good long while, a proper bourgeoisie. I mean to say, specifically in this case, that it lacks a class that thinks properly bourgeois thoughts, the thoughts of a class torn between accumulation and consumption.

It’s topcoats and overalls, socio-psychologically speaking, all the way down.

Of course as there’s a deep and complex relationship between bourgeois subjectivity and the novel form (no surprise, really, there – this is not new, neither in its historicity nor its formal immanence), so it really is no wonder that, well, the English have under-performed on this front over the past hundred years or so, with few exceptions.

Bourgeois subjectivity. That sounds awful doesn’t it? I think what I mean, to be a little more serious than I have been is, yes, bourgeois subjectivity but more specifically a sense of the personal contingency of class, that class-position can change – and, in particular, can change for reasons that are both your doing and definitely not your doing. I want to eat this or fuck this or write this but if  I do I might fall… or maybe rise. Rigidity of social forms (and I’m not so much making an argument about reliative social mobility so much as relative perceived social mobility) is incompatible with the type of subjectivity I am trying to describe. The sense that things can change breeds hope and fear, mystification and ambition, false consciousness, interiority, “narcissism,” and an ambiguously-important sense that all of this is just a show, unreal.

I am amazed at how deeply the English believe in the reality of class. Trust me, this is both a bad and good thing. Americans tend to live in a fantasy of mobility and egalitarian meritocracy, yes, but the English seem to believe, down deep, that they are actually better or worse than other people, like for real, down deep, because of the conditions of their birth.

So, here begins a list of reasons why, for the last 100 years, the wholly-formed denizens of this nation*, with the sole exception of Virginia Woolf, and despite market-dominance for the two centuries before 1900, haven’t been able to write truly persuasive prose fiction, that is to say novels persuasive enough to stay on the world’s shelf and reread, well, willingly. I’ll have more reasons for you very soon.

Obviously, of course all this presumes (and perhaps indicts, though obviously I have mixed feelings about this) the fact that the novel is a bourgeois form. I think it’s also fairly obvious that it is, even though the wonderful thing about genres and forms are that they are reappropriable, redeployable, can be detourned and all the rest. But there are different ways of failing to make the cut. And it’s also interesting to think that the English once possessed a bourgeois sensibility (one is almost tempted to say a modern sensibility, in a longview sort of way), and then somehow lost it.

But let’s not, for now, have an argument about the politics of the form. Let’s just figure out why the English can’t write them and go from there. Americans can, South Africans can, Australians and Canadians can, the Irish can, but Brits – keep calm and carry on, I guess.

* Obviously it’s a bit weird to exclude non-ethnically English writers. In this case, since they have access to a different set of ideological matrices though, I think it’s fair. Go look at the Booker List. Colonials, colonials, recent arrivals, and Iris Murdoch? Ian McEwan? We all might have a novel or two that we’ve liked from this place, sure, but really, I think you know what I mean. Someone will say Ballard, inevitably, but seriously, something’s gone wrong in the land of Defoe and Fielding, Austen and Eliot, Dickens and Woolf.

(There, less narcissistic… You all were right… This feels much better…. But as you might imagine, this is going to end-around toward “narcissism,” eventually… And fuck, I screwed up the elision in the title first time around. The English can’t write novels, but sons of Anglo-Canada can’t write in French, it’s still true…)

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 17, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Posted in england, novel

71 Responses

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  1. What’s so great about the novel-form? I’m not simply being obtuse, just wondering if you have some kind of historical justification for its continued relevance, or if there’s anything at all that the Brits might have gotten better at during the time that our bougy novellists died a death. Or not.

    You do somewhat snobbishly skip over the genre question here. If you included novels that had fantastical animals, monsters, crime (particularly about and written by women), inventions and so on, the ‘decline’ of the British novel would look very different. But can novels only be about ‘the thoughts of a class torn between accumulation and consumption’? Then you are just going to have self-pitying bollocks about female neurosis and male impotence, aintcha! Personally I think things have only gotten better if the whittering classes stop automatically assuming they have something interesting to say.

    infinite thought

    April 17, 2009 at 10:54 pm

  2. I just can’t find any genre novels (maybe with one or two exceptions) that I like. It may be that I’m horrendously bourgeois.

    But are you saying it’s because England, as a society, is too good for the novel? Like, that the wittering classes have been properly put in their place, way down at the bottom of one of the decom’d coal mines? Cuz I see them running around, all over the place, I just can’t see them doing any good work.


    April 17, 2009 at 10:57 pm

  3. We could also talk about the class derivation of philosophy, including left philosophy, right? Those boys, with few exceptions, come from really good families. In fact, better families than the wider-middle that I’m talking about here for the novel. And that’s just to take the French – let’s not even get started on over here.


    April 17, 2009 at 11:00 pm

  4. They’re everywhere, of course, but I’d rather they were being objectively evil out there than writing novels about their inner pain, or what have you.

    In a really, really perverse way I do indeed probably think that England is too good for the novel, at least that kind of neurotic/impotent sort. I think it’s probably neater to be interested in cross-media, long-term historical parallels (like, oh I dunno, Dickens and The Wire, to take one rather too obvious example), rather than fetishise ‘The Novel’ per se. Unless you can convince me that it plays some ongoingly important role – I am extremely up for being convinced, of course!

    infinite thought

    April 17, 2009 at 11:04 pm

  5. Tell me all about the ongoingly important role of philosophy.


    April 17, 2009 at 11:06 pm

  6. And yes the England-too-good for the novel is perverse. Where, then, is the English Wire if that’s what we’re supposed to be talking about?


    April 17, 2009 at 11:07 pm

  7. English prose fiction since WW2 has been very patchy indeed. Apart from Woolf, before WW2 there is DH Lawrence, a, despite his current unfashionabilty )mainly in lieu of political considerations), truly incredible writer, his poetry included. There’s the amazing (and largely unread) Ronald Firbank – true heir to Austen, Wilde and the decadents: uber camp, sinister, a superb wit vibrating with phantasmagoric violence. EM Forster is still relevant and influential.
    Also Henry Green and I. Compton Burnett (both Firbankian heirs, a lineage that includes Waugh and the current Alan Hollinghurst and the largely unknown American James McCourt, whose novels are utterly delightful) – crossing the pre and post war worlds – are wonderfully innovative and underrated writers, modernists and heirs to a fecund English literary tradtion.

    Iris Murdoch is a wonderful, yet very uneven, writer, with at least three novels that look likely to last (well, to me anyway). Her novels follow a line directly from Dickens (yet obviously not as good, she failed to write a “great novel”, whereas Dickens wrote, like, 10?)

    Current writers like Peter Ackroyd are doing good work, so is the aforementioned Hollinghurst. But it is true that English fiction since the war has failed to surpass Woolf, Lawrence and Forster, the three, in my view, greatest 20th C English novelists, with Firbank a quirky, and indespensable fourth additon to a heterodox canon. Other, particularly female, writers are rarely mentioned in histories of the 20th C english novel: Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen, Penelope Fitzgerald, as well as Compton Burnett I mentioned before: all excelent writers. No living English novelist is of the stature of Americans like Roth, Delillo or Pynchon, the Portugese Saramago, Latin American Garcia-Marquez. Amis, McEwan, Rushdie etc. I find rather boring, and overrated, especially in light of their foreign contemporaries. I have never liked Ballard, though admittedly Ive not read that deeply in his (large) oevre. What I find distrssing is the lack of a figure in the mould of Gore Vidal; learned, cosmopolitan, political, witty. I think Will Self is rather good actually – some excellent novels and journalism as well as an established presence in popular culture. The Greatest Writers of the 20th C – Joyce, Woolf, Proust and Lawrence and Faulkner- have exhausted what a nvoel can do, brought it to the outerlimits of form and meaning.

    The large literary canon of English letters creates a forbidding presence, shadowing and crushing new writers, maybe? My own view is that English High Culture is pretty well dead – there are only two or so first rate composers – Birstwistle and Ades-, no one in musical theatre to compare with Sondheim, no playwrites since Pinter’s passing; nothing radically new, innovative or even that well crafted (conceptually and artistically) in the visual arts (Britart – snoozefest). British cinema has produced maybe five truly great figures, with only two havinf international impact. Red Riding and Boy A are the two by far greatest pieces of TV this decade in the UK, but other dramas have failed miserably when compared with Dennis Potter and american contempraries.

    My hopes for a rich cultural England (I’m a 22 year old recent, [2008] (unemployed!) Eng Lit grad) is to feed off of the illustrious dead (which, quite frankly is more than enough to satisfy) and gain new kicks from abroad. Rather depressing really.


    April 17, 2009 at 11:09 pm

  8. Rather depressing really.

    Yes, I was being polemical and a little silly, and you’ve fleshed out the detail of what I am saying, but I find it a little depressing too. And I’m going to slowly try to say why this is the case.


    April 17, 2009 at 11:12 pm

  9. Tell me all about the ongoingly important role of philosophy.

    Well, there’s certainly nothing good about academic philosophy, but then I’m not interested in defending disciplines or particular forms of writing in themselves. Certainly, modes of thought, critique, argumentation and the interaction of mind/world, counter-intuition, concepts of materialism/idealism etc. are all rather important, to my mind. But it wouldn’t take a professional philosopher to tell you that! I wanted to know what was specific about the novel – I’ve got no interest in defending philosophy as a discipline.

    I think there are tons of really interesting British cultural product, lots of genre fiction among them. I just want to know what the novel is that’s so important.

    infinite thought

    April 17, 2009 at 11:13 pm

  10. I’ve read some of the genre fiction. It’s not all that good. Like the guy you had lunch with the other day – can’t make it past a couple of pages. I wish I could come up with a more complex response, but it just feels like stuff for somewhat bright children to me, but only somewhat bright. It (to my mind) is sort of display and minor conceptualizing, but lack reflexivity and complexity.

    What’s important about reflexivity and complexity? Hmmm… Well, I think there’s something about the relationship between the individual, the everyday life of the individual, and her/his relationship to the social whole (economics, language, norms, ideals, whatever) that the novel is still the best form to use. I believe that something like The Wire is a hybrid form, and it’s hard for anyone to praise it without praising in terms of its very novel-ness.

    You’ve read lots of literary fiction. You’ve written on Beckett, no? Beckett had a trust fund, didn’t he? Was he a member of the “wittering classes” or not? I think you’re sort of proving my point, you’re being blunt about something that requires a more subtle response.


    April 17, 2009 at 11:24 pm

  11. (I am the Anonymous long comment above)

    My point was that there are other lineages present in English fiction that rarely get studied in the acadamy. i’d be mightily suprised in Firbank is being studied as an heir to Austen, or if he is even rated highly by lit academics. Moorcock, a genre writer, is as good as Ackroyd, and heavily influenced by Firbank. I was being overly pessimistic about the state of High Culture, i suppose, and I share IT’s curiosity as to why the novel is seen as so important. I’m rather ambivalent – I love novels, contempory and old, and do care that good ones are being written ( and read) yet at the same time question why novels are seen as the the apogee of literature. and gay lit is thriving, both over and undergroug, and has been for 30 years.


    April 17, 2009 at 11:26 pm

  12. Gay lit, Adam, I think is a subgenre that fits differently under the rubric of “genre fiction” than other things. This requires an argument that I’m not ready to make, but it would be one that’s highly respectful of gay lit – this I assure you.

    I share both of your curiosity about why the novel is so important, that I also assure you of, but I am also very willing to take for granted that it is, as I love them so much, when done well.

    But I do have a hard time getting seriously invested in British High Culture product. I must say that. Novels, movies, better TV, Art – but you know more about music than I do, so I defer to you about that.


    April 17, 2009 at 11:32 pm

  13. An example of a truly working class writer, no money or privliedged upbringing: DH Lawrence.


    April 17, 2009 at 11:33 pm

  14. Beckett wasn’t English.

    I’m not, of course, saying bougy people can’t occasionally write something interesting. But the good ones know when to shut up. (Hang on…you’ve changed your post quite a lot, it’s a bit like trying to punch a silverfish in the mouth, not fair! )

    Ok: What would it take, do you think, to restore the English bourgeoisie to an appropriately novellistic sensibility? What are the conditions under which this could happen? Would we really want it to?

    infinite thought

    April 17, 2009 at 11:33 pm

  15. Adam,

    Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. Lawrence should have been in there. Maybe I’ll write a post about Lawrence and one about Woolf. Would be interesting in the context of this point that I’m trying to make.




    April 17, 2009 at 11:35 pm

  16. Oh, and I most definitely agree: Beckett wasn’t English. So, um, why do you read literary fiction but not English literary fiction, with the exception of Ballard (who might also merit a post – what am I lining myself up for?)


    April 17, 2009 at 11:36 pm

  17. Oh by the way, Adam, I am starting to worry that you’re a graduate of my, um, place of work. How close to, hmmm, the British Museum is it?


    April 17, 2009 at 11:38 pm

  18. Um, I’d imagine tons of the English bourgeoisie (have we decided whether they exist or not yet?!) have done or are doing psychoanalysis. Probably not as many as in Buenos Aires or Paris, who knows, but if it’s not them going, then who is? There are apparently, something like 5000 psychoanalysts in Britain, almost all private. It would be great if they were somehow creating an army of Lacanian bougy novellists to explain complexity and reflexivity to the rest of us, but I somehow doubt it.

    I read fiction whenever I can; doesn’t mean I have a concept of ‘The Novel’ at work when I do. That’s what I was asking you to provide…

    infinite thought

    April 17, 2009 at 11:49 pm

  19. 5000? There are 5000 analysts in certain postcodes of NYC. That’s so funny that you said that, and that way.


    April 17, 2009 at 11:52 pm

  20. Very few analysts are, um, Lacanian. From what I understand you have to fly to like Montreal to get that sort of treatment, whatever it’d be.


    April 17, 2009 at 11:53 pm

  21. Nothing to worry about – I graduated form the University of Sheffield. Though, I will be working in a university very near the british museum come september.

    In terms of *bougy* novelists Alan Hollinghurst is a prime example of a someoen who writes about upper, middle and working classes in complex (and revealing) ways, from a gay pespective yet also in a paradigm that sheds light on how much “literary” fiction follows gay lineages.


    April 17, 2009 at 11:55 pm

  22. Well, gosh, maybe you’re right. No wonder this country’s gone to the dogs, if only we had more blokes with couches, we’d have been churning out the Great English Novel just like the way we used to make coal or Dysons!

    But seriously, nothing against analysis, but do you really think repression is the problem here? A kind of psychic national literary blockage?…Release the hounds!

    infinite thought

    April 18, 2009 at 12:03 am

  23. yes.


    April 18, 2009 at 12:04 am

  24. But repression is so damn useful! We wouldn’t get anything done at all without it.

    infinite thought

    April 18, 2009 at 12:10 am

  25. that’s my point. you don’t really get anything serious done!


    April 18, 2009 at 12:11 am

  26. I think its to do with what we think a great novel is, what it contains. I think that, in terms of “literary” fiction, Eng lit fairs badly next to the best foreign writers, as i said before. But if we change the judging criterior, and look at novels that extends other lineages, including genre forms, then the literary culture is a lot more healthy. This relates to Deleuze and gutarri’s conception of “minor literature” a la Kafka. I will also say it has something to do with the decline in satire, especially when satire is, nowadays, unfortunately seen as Private eye.


    April 18, 2009 at 12:13 am

  27. We shall see!

    infinite thought

    April 18, 2009 at 12:13 am

  28. Another point: there are really two forms, to my mind, that the novel can be spit into that might clarify things. The traditional novel descending from Don Quiote to Fielding to Austen, Eliot to Hardy to James and the modernists: Woolf, Lawrence, Forster. These tend to be “realist” and inhabit discernible social realities, encompassing class, gender, politics and the rest.

    The other form is “prose romance”, which terds to be intense, fanstatic, highly symbolic and subjective, descending from Sidney’s Ardadia, to the Gothic novelists, Louis Stevenson and I think the Brontes (esp. Wuthering Heights), and also, Dickens whose novles offer a hybdrid of “romance” and “novel” proper. These writers have inluenced the modernist novelists (who also tend towards hybridity), andu also more neglected figures like GK Chesterton and Firbank. (There are also lots of other things in the mix, esp with Alejo Carpentier’s Latin American magic realism’s influence in postwar fiction). I would place Iris Murdoch work as being romance rather than in the “serious definitive novel” categroy., even though her novels occupy a classic bourgeois social world.


    April 18, 2009 at 12:43 am

  29. That’s rather good Adam! I hope we interact in the near future. You’re not attending an MA program near the BM are you?


    April 18, 2009 at 12:48 am

  30. thank you! Unfortunatley, though I would love to do an MA, I cant, at present afford to. No, I will be starting a “proper” job in a University of London library off russell square.


    April 18, 2009 at 12:57 am

    • Adam (not Kotsko),

      Well, then, you’ll definitely see me there, as I’m around the big library near RS all the time. Of course, you won’t know it’s me tho. Hmmm….


      April 18, 2009 at 10:10 pm

  31. ‘it has lacked, for a good long while, a proper bourgeoisie. I mean to say, specifically in this case, that it lacks a class that thinks properly bourgeois thoughts, the thoughts of a class torn between accumulation and consumption’

    Dear Ads,
    I really must acquaint you with something. It’s called the Daily Mail. It’s horrible but give it a try. You might also like to have a skim of the Sunday Times Style section. Or indeed the Guardian Weekend magazine.
    I defy you to check these out and tell me this country does not have issues with ‘accumulation and consumption’

    You’re a Coetzee fan and a Joyce fan. Both excoriate the English as bourgeois materialists (Coetzee in Youth and Joyce in… his essay on Defoe I think, and elsewhere). You might also try putting it to almost any member of the French academy that the English have no bourgeoisie. Just make sure you’re sitting comfortably and have time to spare when you do.

    ‘the novel is a bourgeois form’

    This claim has some traction in regard to the 18C, 19C. I would argue that the reason you can align ‘the bourgeoisie’ with ‘the novel’ fairly unproblematically in this period is that that was roughly the 200 years in which the bourgeoisie came into being – the emergence of a middle class, wealthy enough to consume, but not ‘landed’ enough to never worry about a decline into the horrors of working class poverty – this tension is the social dynamic driving many of the major novels in this period – eg Dickens, caught between prosperity and the nightmarish abyss yawning in his subconscious which tumbles him back to the workhouse.
    But this is in no sense the *only* manifestation of the novel form in that period or now. There are so many alternative currents I can hardly list them all now. (Mary Shelley! Maria Edgeworth! Sterne!)
    I would take issue with your total write-off of all native British writers from the 20C. But there is some truth in the charge and the explanation, for me, is that it’s imperial hangover. Or put another way, the 20C narrative for Britain has been one of decline, with a corresponding crisis of cultural energy. For the US and the former colonies, it’s been the opposite. The 20C was their century, so its most crucial stories have been told by writers from those territories. Does that make sense?

    ‘I am amazed at how deeply the English believe in the reality of class. Trust me, this is both a bad and good thing. Americans tend to live in a fantasy of mobility and egalitarian meritocracy, yes, but the English seem to believe, down deep, that they are actually better or worse than other people, like for real, down deep, because of the conditions of their birth.’
    I’ve lived in the US and GB. I think the majority of Americans are in a state of enormous self-delusion about class. They believe there is no American class system. I would argue that there absolutely is an American class system, and that it is even more rigid than that in operation in Britain, despite the remaining vestiges of feudal pageantry in this country: the titled aristocracy, monarchy etc. Post WWII, bright young working class children had grammar schools and free higher education to enable them to compete with the Establishment products of the big ‘public’ (ie private) schools. Genuine social mobility resulted. Unfortunately the almighty ‘logic’ of the market place has been running British politics since the 80s, and this is all being rolled back… I think the the next 15-20 years will only see class differences continue to widen, the social psychopathology only become worse, unless private education is brought to an end, and a real investment is made in quality comprehensive secondary education.

    Sorry, long post.

    Sam D

    April 18, 2009 at 1:18 pm

  32. Coincidentally, I’m writing in Adam’s future place of work, Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. Orwell might be an example of a top-flight novelist and native Briton. I wouldn’t take 1984 or Animal Farm with me to a desert island, but if you had to give someone a 20C reading list of say, twenty titles, wouldn’t they be under consideration? And the latter is an example of how quickly your concept of the bourgeois novel can be problematized. It’s as much a Voltairean conte as it is a novel (or a fairy story as Orwell had it).

    Sam D

    April 18, 2009 at 1:48 pm

  33. Certainly much less take-up of psychoanalysis in this country than in the US. But if you want it Lacanian, you don’t need to go to Montreal:

    Sam D

    April 18, 2009 at 1:56 pm

  34. Oh, long thread.

    I’m inclined to agree with you that “the novel” indexes bourgeois society–what I’m not sure about, though, is that we can establish such an account by reference to the author’s class status, or even the kinds of subjectivity that a novel features. It’s true that the kind of reflexive individual characterology that begins in the 18th century and comes to a head in the extension of free indirect discourse in James, Flaubert, Woolf is a product of bourgeois culture. But so many of the great modernist writers–whose example continues to be the only way to keep the novel alive–were anti-bourgeois in some significant (though usually unsavory) way. This goes for Woolf, I’d say. It certainly goes for Djuna Barnes, Faulkner, Ralph Ellison. Take your pick.

    But here’s my question: do you think the US novel is any healthier? I’d say no. There are a few undeniably great US authors, but only a few, and the great mass of the stuff getting published in the US is formulaic dross, pure and simple, however much we’re responsible for inaugurating the purest bourgeois society to date. I think it’s a sign of the deterioration of the novel that people point to Coetzee as an example of people working at the top of the game in English. Like I said, he’s a good writer. He’s in no way the equal of Faulkner or Toni Morrison or whoever you think is really great. The current frenzy over Roberto Bolano is further confirmation.

    And: Is it really repression that’s the problem? This seem hard to swallow. Could we find a human being more repressed than Henry James? Not that I can speak to Britain or Britons, but I’d say it’s the opposite–and this is one of the places where Zizek is actually useful. It’s derepression, repressive sublimation–and a series of historical events we can call late capitalism– that’s caused the emptying out of the horizon of a certain strain of the novel. I don’t know that there’s much life left in the bildungsroman, for instance, as it indexes forms of subjectivity that no longer really exist. But whatever, there were lots of types of novel that got ditched before the formal consolidation of the 19th cent. Look at poetry, for instance, which has a long and venerable tradition of adapting to different historical moments, even if it’s never really been a mass form like the novel.

    Lastly, it’s worth mentioning re: genre that the novel, as you well know, was once the equivalent of genre fiction.


    April 18, 2009 at 5:04 pm

  35. Or , let me put it in the form of a prescription:

    It’s a time for epics. Some of the epics will be poetry, some will be “novels,” some will be film or conceptual art. . . They will be at least as reflective and complex as financial derivatives.


    April 18, 2009 at 5:10 pm

  36. Repressed financial derivatives are the new epic novel.

    infinite thought

    April 18, 2009 at 5:33 pm

  37. Hey, financial derivatives were invented in a novel. J.R., to be precise. By a ten year old, using a dirty handkerchief to muffle his voice and sound older on the telephone. Plus, it is the great novel about trying and failing to write the great novel.

    No reader of J.R. is a bit surprised by any aspect of financialization – neither its rise nor its fall. There is no fictitious pyramid of money and J.R. is its prophet.


    April 18, 2009 at 6:27 pm

  38. Well, maybe that exaggerates. The LBO, the junk bond mania, and the naughties private equity company mania – those were J.R.’s specialties. But he lived before computers were readily available and would probably have preferred baseball trading cards to a calculator.

    This discussion seems to me to be looking for the wrong kind of novel form in England. Myself, there’s a tradition of eccentric cosmographers – Powys Glastonbury Romance, De la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget, Fowles A Maggot, Carter’s New Eve – which seems to me to be the great English invention. And of course Malcolm Lowry at the center of it. Iain Sinclair senses it, knows its roots – in the dialogues of Landor, for instance. It takes into its orbit books like J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine. If I were in a structuralist mood, I’d build a binary of the eccentric vs. the ecstatic, here.


    April 18, 2009 at 6:46 pm

  39. Not wanting to sound cranky, but I can’t help thinking that the hostility to ‘genre’ skews this a great deal. So, no J.G Ballard (absurdly – whatever his occasional defeciencies as a novelist post-70s, as a thinker of the last 50 years he’s practically without rival – certainly more important than Gore fucking Vidal); no Michael Moorcock, no Mervyn Peake, certainly no-one like M John Harrison or China Mieville…

    …but even taking this rigidly literary tack, if we must, there’s the English adherents to the nouveau roman like B.S Johnson or Ann Quin; there’s James Kelman and Alasdair Gray (or is Scotland properly ‘bourgeois’? Certainly it had a more serious Enlightenment than England); Iain Sinclair (his best book by a long chalk, Downriver, is a Modernist novel) – and in terms of people who experiment with the form, there’s Stewart Home, who I admit to having little time for, but nonetheless – and David Peace’s high modernist/pulp/politics collision is far, far more interesting to me than any contemporary fiction being written anywhere. (also, good call on Angela Carter).

    Note that out of the above list, Johnson, Quin, Gray Home, Carter and Kelman are not middle class.


    April 18, 2009 at 11:03 pm

  40. Sam,

    Yes, I know, you’re right. Funny thing – you caught me with this at the end of a week in which I actually bought the Daily Mail everyday, little sociological tourism, middle britaining. I still think there’s something a bit off about it, about the middle classes here. I was being a bit polemical and flip about the whole thing, but really, there’s a lack of belief in / endorsement of mobility that seems worthy of note.

    I do understand that I’m being a bit contrarian, more than a bit, in saying this, and that there’d be lots of people who’d sit and explain to me for hours on end about how wrong I am about the “nation of shopkeepers.” (But they again, that’s just it. Maybe the place is so overwhelmed with a kind of petty bourgeois basepoint sensibility that…)

    It does make sense what you’re saying about decline, but there are also great stories to be told about places in decline. (Ulysses, for instance – the first thing to get about the Dublin thing is that it’s not a properly modern place, that it’s a place that was once moderately important but whose population has – if I recall correctly – been passed by Belfast and even Cork in 1904….) And lots and lots of the good writing done in this century has been done in static or backsliding places. So, sure, that’s a part of it, but not determinative I don’t think.

    I would argue that there absolutely is an American class system, and that it is even more rigid than that in operation in Britain, despite the remaining vestiges of feudal pageantry in this country: the titled aristocracy, monarchy etc. Post WWII, bright young working class children had grammar schools and free higher education to enable them to compete with the Establishment products of the big ‘public’ (ie private) schools. Genuine social mobility resulted.

    This is really complicated, of course. As I said in the post, I am talking about the sort of psycho-ideological instantiation of class, rather than about the realities of class mobility. And I admitted, of course of course, that Americans are deluded about class. The point that I was trying to make is that, despite what we always think about consciousness-raising and demystification, to believe in class is a double-edged sword.

    Let me put it this way. Sure, Americans accrue advantages and disadvantages in terms of confidence given the way they grew up. The rich are on balance more confident than the poor, obviously. But there’s a way, I think, that there’s another side to this in the US, a sense that it’s not really true, a sense that haunts both sides of the class equation. Here, it seems to me a bit different. I actually think that there’s a tendency for, say, those who come from little but who have done well, to be haunted by their class origins in a way that’d not be the case in the US. To see the situation of birth as a sort of, dunno, intellectual deformity, something that permanently marks and limits. Americans do this too, but not quite as thickly.
    So much to say about this. Maybe this hints at what I was thinking.

    Let me just put it this way: if the US had the class consciousness of Britain, I have a feeling it’d likely be the USSA by now. But, then again, it wouldn’t be America if it had the class consciousness of Britain. Complicated scenario, no? Either way, neither place has done all that well, I don’t think, and in parallel but different ways.

    private education is brought to an end

    Christ, yes. Here’s one place that I could start looking at what I’m talking about. Private education is hugely important as a class stabilizer in the US, but NOWHERE NEAR the same sort of thing as it is here. Christ. I wish I could start telling the stories that I’ve picked up in my limited time here, but that would be, as they say, bad form….

    Orwell is complicated. I’m reading one of the bios right this minute, in pursuit of something like this issue. I still can’t figure out what to make of him, and since he is where I started into the whole idea of being in this business, I’d like to but, you know, may never. There will be posts galore on Orwell in the near future. I’m actually thinking after I finish stupid academic manuscript A and perhaps better academic manuscript B I may well write a book about Orwell, book C. I am in the right place to do something like that, in a very serious way, so why not.

    But trust me, leaving Orwell off the list was intentional, considered, and not unambivalent.

    And yes, I know about Leader!

    Christ, Sam, thanks for the comments!


    April 18, 2009 at 11:10 pm

  41. Jasper,

    is that we can establish such an account by reference to the author’s class status

    Very much agreed.

    free indirect discourse in James, Flaubert, Woolf is a product of bourgeois culture

    Yes! And so very complicated. Sorry to be promissory, but I have a post lined up that probably should be a paper not a post on class and free indirect discourse. I’ve sort of made my living talking about FID. I introduce it to all the undergrads, the grads too in some cases. It’s something (ha, like the question of Orwell) that you can stare into endlessly without coming to a solid conclusion about it. But, yes, it’s a product of bourgeois culture.

    It may be (shhhh) that the secret backlogic of my post is that no one can really write a decent novel unless they’ve parried with the question of the FID. Thus the genre issue (more on that too, maybe, in a minute….) and everything else, as the genre writers I’ve read don’t read as if they get that central little problem vibrating at the heart of the form. (It’d be like writing poetry without ever having imagined free verse, or poems that don’t rhyme – I think it’s that serious… when I read genre fiction, it reads just like that, that’s the closest approximation I can come up with…. Like opening up a hot new chapbook and finding Longfellow approximations…)

    But so many of the great modernist writers–whose example continues to be the only way to keep the novel alive–were anti-bourgeois in some significant (though usually unsavory) way. This goes for Woolf, I’d say. It certainly goes for Djuna Barnes, Faulkner, Ralph Ellison. Take your pick.

    Yes. But they were negotiating with the problem via a bourgeois form…. That’s just what makes them interesting!

    I believe the US novel is slightly healthier, yes. I’d really rather not get down to list comparison, especially not this late at night. I liked DFW an awful lot, thought he was on to something big, perhaps too big, perhaps that was the problem. But there are others as well. But others too.

    Ah, good with the Zizek etc. You’re so right! But I’d actually say that it’s a rhythm of repression and derepression, sublimation and desublimation, that makes the thing tick. Needs both sides. Total desublimation ends the form, yes, but the form cannot start without a kick of desublimation. Something like that.

    I don’t know that there’s much life left in the bildungsroman, for instance, as it indexes forms of subjectivity that no longer really exist.

    Now that’s not true, is it? I hope not. You can’t go home again, you are different from your parents but the same, I’m not sure the form is over. If it’s over, we haven’t yet gotten the point. I’m not writing one (have no fear) but I am not sure that that’s true. Would that subjectivity had come so far as to escape that form. We’d need different forms of social and more importantly familial organization to have that happen. But people are still writing them, and they’re occasionally almost good.

    Ok here’s the important thing:

    It’s a time for epics. Some of the epics will be poetry, some will be “novels,” some will be film or conceptual art. . . They will be at least as reflective and complex as financial derivatives.

    What do you mean by “epic” – as lots of people have meant lots of things by that word.

    And what would it mean for them to be in anyway like “derivatives”? Haven’t works of art always been, in a sense, like derivatives – that is to say, mimetic, but at a speculative distance?

    And (without getting into it here) my native sense is that art and theorization should get simpler rather than more complex. Especially because our goals are simple, not complex. Why should art take up the complexity of these shitty things?

    I’d love to hear what you think about all this….


    April 18, 2009 at 11:47 pm

  42. Roger,

    Yes, yes, I’ve always meant to read JR. Your mention should move it a bit closer to the top of the queue.

    I think derivatives were really invented by the Dutch and the English in the early 17th cent, or the Japanese, or by Thales as a side project while he was inventing mathematics. But who’s counting?


    April 18, 2009 at 11:52 pm

  43. Roger,

    Christ, you should get into a structuralist mood and write all that up. Sounds productive, forward-moving. Which Lowry, do you think? I’ve always counted him as Canadian, but that’s just narcissism I’m sure.


    Maybe the post (paper? book?) on Orwell should be a post or whatever on Orwell and Balllard. Because the problem is quite the same with both. We wind up in a place where, hmmm, I am forced into a reflexive defense of formalism, a kind of retrograde Adornoism that I don’t really want to take up, but perhaps can’t help but take up.

    I believe, somehow, deeply in the form. Peace and Sinclair and Ballard and the others you mention don’t measure up. I believe in the politics of the form, if complexly, ambivalently. There’s a bleak sort of hope in it.


    April 19, 2009 at 12:05 am

  44. Ads,

    You believe in the politics of the form, and yet. . . the politics are bourgeois? One does indeed sense a moment of Adornian (that is, guilt-ridden) despair coming.


    April 19, 2009 at 12:09 am

  45. I am, btw, reading GB84 right now. It is an interesting bit of imaginative reportage, like filling in the gaps in things by making them up. I like it, and I am happy to read it, which is an increasingly rare occurance. But whatever it is, it is not a novel. It is badly written. Sorry to be promisory, I am always promisory, but perhaps once I’ve finished it I will write a post about all of this.


    April 19, 2009 at 12:11 am

  46. Yes, but ‘measure up’ to whom? On what grounds? If we’re comparing Orwell or Ballard to Joyce or Woolf, then I see your point, although I’m tempted to think ‘well, who needs the form’. But if we’re comparing Ann Quin and James Kelman to Gore Vidal and J.M Coetzee and favouring the latter, then I fear we can never agree on this issue…


    April 19, 2009 at 12:12 am

    • Owen,

      “Who needs the form.” Sure, that’s fine. In my case, a lot of the story that each novel tells is what it means / costs / takes to write a novel in a given condition and about a given topic. So, yeah, I have a Lukacsian / Adornoite / Jamesonian sensibility about these things – what can I say. But not sure why I should go into it, if “you fear we can never agree on this issue” if I favor one set or the other. Long odds to write into!

      What’s a little strange about your formulation is that I’m not sure how you get the figures on one side or the other in your either / or. Quin and Coetzee are formalists, Vidal and Kelman less so. But what happened to the temptation to disregard form? Is Quin legible after you do? Or are you making argument purely from class origin – because that’s certainly not what I’m doing in this post.

      …. and if you are doing that, it makes your initial choice of Orwell and Ballard (Eton and Shanghai, imperial service) over Joyce (one long class collapse, due to an improvident father) and Woolf (yes, money) sorta odd.

      I’m confused how you’re measuring things up, in other words.


      April 19, 2009 at 4:50 pm

  47. Ads,

    Don’t get me wrong. I have my own attachments to the politics of the novel form as well (I’m also sort of obsessed by FID, though probably less of an expert than you). But I believe that forms are historical. For instance, I believe in the politics of the form of 19th century painting from life–the red thread that runs from Courbet to Cezanne–and I’m committed to the politics of the form of Elizabethan drama as well. But I’m also quite certain that as a broad, active artistic tradition these things are very dead (which doesn’t mean that, occasionally, people won’t come along like Jeff Wall and Gerhard Richter who, with respect to 19th century painting, can revivify them, in different contexts: the same holds for the bildungsroman).

    I agree that the family structure and the structure of subjectivity at the heart of the bildungsroman is still alive and well, but there’s a different psychic structure operating–Jameson is getting at something real when he talks about a shift to psychic structures that can’t accumulate a past, lose their sense of experiential continuity, though he exaggerates, as every theorist does. . .

    I’m late, so I’ll have to leave epic until tomorrow. I liked DFW quite a bit as well. I felt he was sort of ruined though by being the brightest kid in a not very bright class. American fiction didn’t expect much from him–it doesn’t take much to write a “genius” novel these days–and so he gave American fiction what it deserved.


    April 19, 2009 at 1:18 am

  48. Different anon than the one observed around these parts lately — I’m in my second year at a, well, not to be an ass, but, a very good university in the states, in a sort-of great books program where we’re given fairly free rein as to what texts and topics we treat — I felt rather proud of myself last year after “discovering” this FID stuff, though at that time I had no knowledge of the term, in Henry James — it’s a bit of a revelation to see others as interested in it as I am. Ads I might shoot you an email sometime about your FID work, as it would no doubt be very helpful for my current projects.

    I side more toward Jasper’s view of forms as historically dependent — there was a discussion of this in a Marxist context a few days back — but I don’t see the novel’s time as passed. At least, not in itself, but because no one seems genuinely interested in exploring its relevance, which I’ll touch on a bit later. Granted my knowledge of the contemporary scene is somewhat limited, but here’s my perception, maybe someone with more authority can correct it. There are writers out there interested in exploring form and its relation to the current social clime, but for the most part these writers fall into that avant-garde fetishism of the experimental and the clever, to the expense of analysis, personality, poignancy, etc. The other camp really legitimately gives a damn about people and the world but could care less about “revivify”ing the existing forms or creating new ones. Certainly this split has always existed in one form or another, but my impression is it’s only gotten wider in the past few decades. If the novel as a form is pronounced dead we need to be prepared to explain why, and the answer that jumps out to me is this very polarization, itself brought about by.. I dunno, the changing relationship of the writer to the world as a result of spectacle? The increasing segmentation of the population as a result of mass communication, population growth, and cultural identity crisis? An increased focus on either selling out to write professionally, or getting published by a respected academic press in order to gain tenure? Now I’m venturing into unfounded territory, I’ll stop with all that…


    April 19, 2009 at 5:47 am

    • other anon,

      Yeah, I had a similar experience with the FID when I was an undergrad, though I was also taught by some really good teachers. In a sense, I’m still working out the issues that I came up with way back then, or at least I will be through this summer – that makes about, hmm, more than a decade on this issue. Jesus. But sure, write me any time you like about it – it’s something I’m persistently interested in.

      I do think the “two camps” split is workable, but a bit rough nowadays. I mean, even though that we’d probably drop into the realist camp (say Franzen etc…) are still a bit formally inclined etc. But sure. And a lot of it has to do with MFA programs, what magazines there are that publish fiction, how the money works etc.


      April 19, 2009 at 6:26 pm

  49. I forgot to add something: I heard this writer read at my campus earlier this year, her book has some really fascinating narrative work if you have room on your reading lists:


    April 19, 2009 at 5:53 am

  50. In terms of style, in my view, Ballard is a rather weak writer. He does have some impressive ideas but im afraid his reach is not has wide as Vidal – an intensly metamorphic writer: he invented modern gay lit, the revitalised the satirical burlesque and modern historical novel, is a writer of screenplays – Ben-Hur and the magnificent Suddenly Last Summer. He’s not a “Modernist” but his writing on a pure sentence bt sentence level surpasses David fucking Peace by a million miles.

    Writers like Peake and Moorcock are very underrated esp. Gloriana and the Firbankian Dancers at the end of time and of course, Gormenghast. The thing is, no one in terms of experimentalism has gone beyond Joyce. Literary Modernism is just as quaint and nostaligic now as Victorian realism or Richardson’s epistolary Clarissa – just because you reference 70s and 80s pop culture, and attempt to integrate these things foramlly, doesnt make you an innovator (and I do admire and like Peace’s novels – i just think it was revealin that he said pop music infl;uences him more than other novels – i suggest he read Don Quoite, then Clarissa, and fianlly Finnegan’s Wake, unless he has already).

    The novel has always developed in phases and it waould be wrong to priviledge one “type” over any other. Iris Murdoch is conventially a realist in the tradion of Dickens and Tolstoy, but to mind, integrates philosophical ideas and concepts much more profoundly and successfully than Ballard.


    April 19, 2009 at 2:55 pm

  51. Continuing. . .

    As for epic, I don’t know, lots of ways it could go: I’m imagining something that takes the life of the collective as its protagonist, something lateral, relentlessly exteriorizing and objectifying, global, perhaps a bit didactic, documentary perhaps, something that does not assume character or even narrative as the sine qua non of the form–I suspect the best of this will incorporate “genre”. . . The derivative claim is partly a joke, and Joshua/Jane has better stuff to say on this than me, but a derivative is the free indirect discourse of the bourgeoisie–it is owned, of course, as everything is owned, but it comes from elsewhere, it speaks of elsewhere inside the brackets of its own assignation. It unifies the bourgeoisie through their competitions, and it ties the proletariat to the bourgeoisie. What would it mean to appropriate this kind of synthetic abstraction to the end of a proletarian collectivity? To imagine forms and devices of lateral, spatial synthesis that contain time inside of them?

    Your thoughts about a novel composed of aggregrated minor characters are apposite here. Have you ever read Midwinter Day by Bernadette Mayer or Descent of Alette by Alice Notley? These are good examples for me. Or Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless. Yes to The Wire. Or Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead if she had continued writing as well as she wrote in Ceremony. I suppose a book like The Savage Detectives is, in its outlines, what I’m talking about, but the actual stuffing doesn’t quite live up to it. Unexpectedly, Gravity’s Rainbow still remains to be assimilated. Iain Sinclair gets it, I think, but loses the thread often enough. Or maybe Sans Soleil if Chris Marker were a better writer, ditto the works of Allan Sekula. . .


    April 19, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    • Jasper,

      The derivative thing vis a vis FID is super interesting. I worry that it’s a bit too interesting though. I mean, doesn’t any mimetic object do the same. I have a picture on my wall of the Brooklyn Bridge. I own said picture (was a birthday gift, a lovely one). But of course it “comes from elsewhere” in the same sense as a derivative, it “speaks of elsewhere inside the brackets of its own assignation.” That is to say, it shows Brooklyn within the brackets of its frame.

      Or a dollar bill. Or any fiction. Or language in general. Lots of things, in the sense you describe, are derivative, are like a financial derivative. A souvenir. Anything that is held but which holds itself apart from the stage where it’s value is determined.

      I do see why one would make this half-joke though, and it is an interesting one. Gonna keep thinking about that for awhile.

      Anyway, the epical thing is still pretty impressionistic, but it’s interesting too! Yes! Aggregate fiction seems potentially epical in the sense you’re starting to describe. (The thing that I’m working on now suddenly seems – wow, all of a sudden – like a performance of the inability of the novel and novelistic subjectivity to come to terms with the epical and the aggregate…. Weird! That is what I’m doing! Of course, DeLillio’s been doing this, sorta, for years and years. The “aggregate” in a sense is exactly the question that he’s after….)

      The list of suggestions is very helpful. Here’s one question though: How, very specifically, if the Savage Detectives is potentially epical / aggregate (I agree, at least I see what you’re saying) is then, say, Dickens’s Bleak House the same? (It might be – it might not be a bad thing for it to be called that, in a certain limited sense…)

      (You know, I’m finding all of this really fun and edifying. I think all of us should write a collective, aggregate, derivativized epical something together? I might be half serious about this….)


      April 19, 2009 at 6:41 pm

  52. News on Twitter at least is that JG Ballard died today.

    infinite thought

    April 19, 2009 at 6:21 pm

  53. Ouch. But it was coming, if it’s true.


    April 19, 2009 at 6:23 pm

  54. Jasper, if you are looking for epics in the English novel, I’d suggest J.G. Farrell’s Singapore Grip, a sort of reply – although perhaps an unconscious one – to Gravity’s Rainbow. In my opinion, one of the great novels of WWII. Farrell’s whole colonial trilogy is an amazing achievement.


    April 19, 2009 at 6:38 pm

  55. Yes, it’s impressionistic. I don’t know that I can do better, sadly, though someone should. And there’s a continuum, to be sure. Bleak House has a great deal of what I’m describing–: maybe what I want is Bleak House without its debt to the continual workhorse (workhouse?) of the novel, the quest for self-knowledge. . .

    As for FID, it’s a question of whether you privilege the attributing frame or not, whether you see capital as system or as actors. One needs both–there’s a danger of a kind of liquidationist stance toward subjectivity–but there’s often too much emphasis on the latter, especially in current fiction. I’m interested in those moments of psychic blending, where it’s unclear to whom the thought or description or claim belongs. Woolf is excellent at this, but she always comes down, in the end, on the side of self-ownership, self-possession. This is where she is, precisely, bourgeois, whatever her appeal to an older, residual set of aristocratic values. I think we could do better. I’m going to write a diss chapter about, partly, FID in Ashbery and in Guy Debord’s films and collaborations with Asger Jorn. I’ll get back to you in 2015.

    Yes, the epic will be a 7,000 count comment stream to a blogpost like the one above. Now all we need is Anon to come back and start talking some shit, reveal a few personal details from your life, reference world-historical events, and we’re off. Yes, Anon as the protagonist, but which anon. . .He knows you from Alcoholics Anonymous, of course.

    I know: too clever. I didn’t say I was actually capable of writing the thing, did I?


    April 19, 2009 at 7:32 pm

  56. Jasper,

    Innarestinger and innarestinger. You should maybe check out my piece on Ulysses – I think you might find it really interesting as I’m pointing to a moment where MAYBE (it’s undecidable, in the end) JJ doesn’t come down on the side of self-ownership. Or something. The piece is shortish.

    Woolf does all sorts of stuff with it. Very complicated, and I know just what you mean. Lots to say about the end of Dalloway, the way it opens onto dispersal… but it’s a corrupt dispersal. The answers to the questions that she’s asking, Clarissa, have to be no. But then…. Anyway, yeah, I’m going to be adding a chapter on VW, finally, this summer.

    Do get back to me in 2015! Or anytime you like!

    Yeah, Bleak House is super interesting to think about. Bleak House minus one-side of the novel, plus a few other things, and we’re in a strange, new place.


    April 19, 2009 at 8:55 pm

  57. Long thread. J.G. is sorely missed already. And I’m not going to contribute to the most erudite conversation except by adding the words Jeff Noon and Falling Out of Cars.


    April 20, 2009 at 9:21 am

  58. […] that in mind, join in the fray over at Ads Without Products on the future of the English novel, which, rather stubbornly, AWP […]

  59. Two more recommendations on epic: a friend reminds me that what I’m descibing in my prescription is Kevin Davies’s latest book, The Golden Age of Paraphernalia, and in particular the long poem “Lateral Argument,” Also, the ever excellent Anne Boyer has the thread over at, in her series “the two thousands.” Probably not simple enough for your taste. . .

    The same friend concludes that this thread killed JG Ballard. I am deeply sorry for this, and will repent by writing a genre novel. He was an excellent writer. Perhaps we can’t hold him up to the standards of the the best modernist novels, but we can say, for sure, that his brand of science fiction created the conditions of possibility one of the best (and sometimes most annoying) artists of the postwar era, Robert Smithson.


    April 20, 2009 at 4:18 pm

  60. Genre fiction is where you generally have to go these days to find the Novel of Ideas. Which is better than the Novel of No Ideas (see most Brit fiction written during my lifetime), but the split between the two is regrettable. It may even have been engineered by Huxley himself – Brave New World certainly seeded a significant genre. Iris Murdoch perhaps owes something to Antic Hay, although someone else will have to demonstrate the connection.


    April 20, 2009 at 8:43 pm

  61. Ads, maybe you could define your notion of ‘bourgeois’ more clearly. (In your own time of course. Might want to deal with this baby first.) We all seem to be using it in the anglophone sense of middle class, where Marx would call that the petit bourgeoisie, reserving bourgeoisie for the class at the top of the heap with all the capital.

    (Can’t think of many novels about that class, ie, basically the rich… In Search of Lost Time, Brideshead Revisited, A Dance to the Music of Time, The Great Gatsby, American Psycho. Interesting that time comes up twice in that list, time in the long sense — contemplating time in the abstract is the privilege of, well, the privileged, unconcerned by the contingencies and difficulties of the everyday. Brideshead and Gatsby are really hybrids of bourgeois / petit-bourgeois consciousness, depicting an elite milieu and a would-be interloper, someone trying to realize the ultimate petit bourgeois dream of ascending to the aristocracy…)

    I think bourgeois and middle class are two seriously unstable categories, real faux amis… In some ways it stretches them to breaking point when they’re used to yoke together social groupings from late-18C France, mid-century Germany, contemporary British society, it conceals so many enormous differences of ideology, outlook. It fascinates me how readily and glibly people will deploy the phrase middle class in current debates. It’s always used pejoratively for a start. Everyone hates the midddle class, even (especially) the middle class. You often see formulations like ‘fucking middle-class Guardian readers’ or ‘fucking middle class Daily Mail readers’, used to imply that two (very different) sets of political positions are each somehow inherently middle-class. The ‘middle class’ is pretty heterogenous politically — and culturally.

    Someone needs to come along and change the terms of debate, pull off some Rortian redescription, find a new political taxonomy/nomenclature (I’d throw the left-right opposition in there for reworking too). Maybe this redescription will be achieved by the same theory/person/movement which will fill the need for something positive, something for all the negative critiques of capital to rally around – thinking here about k-punk’s observations on the essentially unproductive (because teleologically atomized) body of G20 protest.

    Sam D

    April 21, 2009 at 11:22 am

  62. Jasper,

    I don’t see how any form of ‘authored’ modern epic can be written – or rather succeed in the attempt to be epic. I can see the many potential forms it could take were someone to sit down and consciously attempt one. It could be typed, published and labelled as ‘epic’ by writer, publisher and press. I just don’t believe it would acquire the communal resonance of true epic. Thinking here of Zizek’s point that late capital proliferates cultural micro-differences, a profusion of consumer niches.

    … Except in genre. Epic overlaps with myth right? Isn’t the constant telling and retelling of stories like Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Star Trek, etc late capital’s mythopeia? As they’re told and retold they acquire that palimpsestic depth of myth, they slough off the biographical specificity of the author-as-lone-Romantic-creative-genius, they become the aesthetic artefacts of a wider culture and society, they become its epic sagas.

    Sam D

    April 21, 2009 at 11:42 am

  63. ‘The bourgeois novel is the greatest enemy of truth and honesty that was ever invented. It’s a vast, sentimentalizing structure that reassures the reader, and at every point, offers the comfort of secure moral frameworks and recognizable characters. This whole notion was advanced by Mary McCarthy and many others years ago, that the main function of the novel was to carry out a kind of moral criticism of life. But the writer has no business making moral judgments or trying to set himself up as a one-man or one-woman magistrate’s court. I think it’s far better, as Burroughs did and I’ve tried to do in my small way, to tell the truth.’ – JG Ballard

    infinite thought

    April 21, 2009 at 4:09 pm

  64. Inf, what are the grounds on which moral judgments are distinguished from “truth”? And no answering about set theory or truth-sequences, as this isn’t what Ballard means at all, smile.

    By which I mean, I hate the bourgeois novel as much as the next theory-blogger (and think DFW is unreadable, to boot), and I am not trying to defend it. And am a Ballard fan. But this particular analysis is founded on bromides from Writing Workshop 101, yeah? I don’t judge my characters, I just stay true to them, blar blar. That is exactly the defensive rationale that every bourgeois novelist uses!

    So anyway, to repeat my perfectly sincere query, what is this “truth” that a novelist can produce that remains independent of “judgment”? What distinguished Ballard from, say, Updike is not that; it’s that they have different truths and different judgments, I should say.


    April 21, 2009 at 5:06 pm

  65. Erm, sorry, let me try to put that better. Some thoughts, not syllogistic, and based in part on extensive experience observing and teaching fiction writing
    1) Preferring “truth” to “moral judgment” is an utter commonplace of the very bourgeois fiction that Ballard claims to oppose via the same preference. It is on par with “show don’t tell.”
    2) Nobody has any clear account of what this “truth” is in novels. Most commonly it means something like admitting that all characters are imperfect and ambiguous, being willing to show characters in poor light, and adhering to a model of psychological realism which sets a logic for the unfolding of a character’s fate.
    3) The most compelling approach to “truth” in the novel is probably Jameson’s account of “the real of history” in Political Unconscious and it is exactly what can’t be inserted via choosing to do so, as both Ballard and the bourgeois novelists would have us do.
    4) The entirely foreseeable outcome of the prohibition on “moral judgment” for the bourgeois novelist is that the ambient moral assumptions of his/her milieu — i.e. ideology — asserts itself as both truth and passive moral judgment in the novel.
    5) Moral judgment, I might suggest as an addendum, might be quite desirable, exactly as a hedge against the false neutrality of ideology that poses itself as truth. At least it can be chosen, even if it can never be true.


    April 21, 2009 at 5:29 pm

  66. jane,

    You’re absolutely right that Ballard contradicts himself – there is clearly an ethical imperative behind his scorn for the bourgeois novel’s pretense to the moral high ground; but of course he is taking the moral high ground himself in making this move (towards ‘truth’ rather than received conventional wisdom)

    But — I don’t think he’s unaware (if you read the source interview) of what he’s doing rhetorically, I think he’s being deliberately belligerent.

    And —

    Is the battle between the bourgeois novel and anti-bourgeois novel *really* over truth? Truth understood as content, a collection of reliable, authentic ethical statements/descriptions of the world.

    I think the division is less over ‘truth’ (and its content) and more over the general direction in which the truth is to be found. To put it another way, the affective inflection that marks out ‘the true’ from uncritical acceptance of ideology/convention.

    At some point in the 20C, consolation, comfort, uplift, affirmation, ceased in certain (highly influential) quarters to be seen as legitimate or possible ends for the novel — if poetry becomes impossible after Auschwitz, then surely so does the novel? — instead the narcotizing, sedative effects of a material comfort unprecedented in human history became the enemy.

    So perhaps what truly leads a novel to be categorized as bourgeois is that it presumes to be able to console, to reassure, to comfort, to reaffirm (and note the unavoidably conservative dynamic behind these verbs)

    The anti-bourgeois novel identifies itself by seeking to disconcert, to disturb, to discomfort. It’s a protest form:

    “When critics look at both your work and Burroughs’, they often point to the severity and even a sense of dissociation. Sometimes they even call your works antisocial. Do you see any truth in that?”

    case study: early Ian McEwan is anti-bourgeois; late McEwan – Atonement, Saturday = bourgeois.

    Sam D

    April 21, 2009 at 10:23 pm

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