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Archive for January 2015

surface / depth, fiction / autofiction (part 1)

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An interesting parallel, perhaps. This is from Elaine Blair’s review of Rachel Cusk’s Outline in The New Yorker:

The novel is mesmerizing; it marks a sharp break from the conventional style of Cusk’s previous work. The characters in her earlier novels presumably share some of her biography—they age as she does, study or teach literature, raise children, tend to the chores of daily life in London or in provincial towns. But they remain smoothly sealed in their fictional worlds. “Outline” feels different, its world porous and continuous with ours, though not for the reasons we might expect. Cusk has not named her narrator Rachel. She does not put a fine point on the verifiability of the novel’s events. Though the narrator is a writer, the novel does not tell the story of how it came to be written. It is not an expansive account of a life but a short account of two days that the narrator spends teaching a writing seminar in Athens. Indeed, “Outline” proposes an unexpected solution to the weariness with fiction which Anne calls “summing up”: Cusk has her characters literally sum things up, making them speak about past events rather than showing those events as they unfold. To paraphrase Anne, why manipulate characters into situations dramatizing jealousy when they can tell us about their jealousy?

And this is from Jeffrey J. Williams’s piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education called “The New Modesty in Literary Criticism”:

The change has crystallized around “surface reading.” The term comes from Sharon Marcus, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, and Stephen M. Best, an associate professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley. Marcus broached it in her 2007 book Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton University Press), and elaborated on it in the introduction she wrote with Best to a 2009 special issue of the journal Representations on “The Way We Read Now.” (They had been colleagues at Berkeley in the late 1990s and early 2000s.) Surface reading, they suggest, characterizes the work of a rising generation.

A good deal of contemporary criticism has performed “symptomatic reading,” a term that conveys looking for the hidden meaning of a text, using, for example, Marxian, Freudian, or deconstructive interpretation. Fredric Jameson has been one of its most influential practitioners, codifying the approach in his 1981 Political Unconscious to look for “a latent meaning behind a manifest one.” Surface reading instead focuses on “what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts,” as Best and Marcus put it. Thus the critic is no longer like a detective who doesn’t trust the suspect but more the social scientist who describes the manifest statements of a text.

Between Women shows how this works. Marcus examines female friendships in Victorian society, but rather than exposing the secrets underneath normative family life—as much of queer theory, for example, has done—she shows how women’s relations were openly affectionate and sometimes sexual, but not secret, suppressed, or hidden in a closet. Surprisingly, she writes, the companionship among women provided a model for heterosexual marriage. While Marcus gathers her argument from the surface, she casts a wide scholarly net, drawing from Victorian fiction, fashion, domestic treatises, political debates. Marcus calls her approach “just reading.”

So, on the one hand, a new post-fictional stance, or at least one that abandons the rules of the game that fiction writers have long embraced as conducive to the evocation of meaning or significance, however half-lit or opaque. If fiction has long been invested in the distinction between what characters say (to others, to themselves, to us) and what they do – that is to say, fiction has had a long standing investment in what we call irony – Cusk (and others like her) seem to be advocating the abandonment of half of the ironic equation. He says he is in mourning for his wife, but why does he keep staring at his interlocutor’s breasts? She says she doesn’t have a problem with her parents, but why does she keep darting off to take phone calls from her father? 

On the other hand, Williams’s piece on literary criticism likewise evokes scholars and critics giving up on a parallel fundamental move of criticism: the discovery and description of latent meanings that subtend the surface playout of the text. Rather than, like the psychoanalyst who knows that “It’s not about my mother” means no such thing, means the opposite of what it claims, scholars have generally taken an approach grounded in a sense that whatever it is a text thinks it’s up to (or the naive reader believes it’s up to) something else has to be at play. This novel is ostensibly about the relations between men and women, but why are the relations between men so much more pitched, interesting, and troubling than those between the two sexes? The stance described – perhaps a bit roughly – by Williams abandons the ironic relation between surface and depth that criticism of so many schools and guises, both conservative and ‘radical,’ has held as its privileged locus of significance.

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January 7, 2015 at 10:52 am


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Hadn’t before noticed this love letter to her future husband near the start of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth:

[T]he schoolgirls of St Jude’s kept to the tried and tested formula. Though Ryan would never be privy to the conversations of the school’s changing rooms, Clara knew. She knew how the object of her affections was discussed, she kept an ear out, she knew what he amounted to when you got down to it, down amongst the sweat and the training bras and the sharp flick of a wet towel.

‘Ah, Jaysus, you’re not listening. I’m saying, if he was the last man on earth!’

‘I still wouldn’t.’

‘Ah, bollocks, you would!’

‘But listen: the whole bleedin’ world has been hit by the bomb, like in Japan, roight? An’ all the good-lookin’ men, all the rides like your man Nicky Laird, they’re all dead. They’ve all been burnt to a crisp. An’ all that’s left is Ryan Topps and a bunch of cockroaches.’

‘On me life, I’d rather sleep with the cockroaches.’

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January 6, 2015 at 11:09 am

Posted in fiction