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the “fictional” people of austerity

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The Guardian leads today with a story about the DWP using “fabricated quotations” from “fictional people” talking “about their positive experiences of the welfare system.” It is the sort of story that raises all sort of interesting issues about what “fiction” is and how it functions in a situation like this. For instance, what do we make of this apology / retraction from the DWP itself:

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It’s a curious phrasing: “… they were illustrative only.” Only as opposed to what? How would one complete the sentence? The most obvious answer is “as opposed to ‘real,'” which leads to a curious collision between realness of the person in question and what wisdom we can take from their example. Or do they mean “as opposed to “evidentiary”? That is, to rephrase it, “These people are not real people but merely examples of how one ought to comport oneself under austerity.”

Further, the changes that the DWP initially made in response to the furore over the fake stories are revelatorily strange in and of themselves. This is from the printed version of the story (more on changes between the print and the evidently revised story available on-line in a minute):

Before the removal of the second version of the leaflet, a spokesman said: “We have temporarily changed the pictures to silhouettes and added a note to make it more clear that these are illustrative examples only. We will test both versions of the factsheet with claimants and external stakeholders to further improve it in the future. This will include working with external organisations.”

That the names can stay, albeit then pinged by explanatory asterisks, but the stock art images have been turned into “silhouettes” is curious too, as if the DWP is probing the limits and lines where a “real (but fake) story” turns into a generic anecdote before turning into, well, simply a non-narrative command. Zac (pictured) says… turns into “Zac” says… on its way to something said without a claimant saying it, what the DWP was trying to say with its fictional sock-puppets all along: We’d like you to thank us for withdrawing your benefits, as it’s for you own good (even if we can’t find any examples of this being the case…) In short, these morphing pseudo-people – who have, in a short period been revised into shadows before disappearing all together – do seem like the appropriate protagonists for austerity policies that have always been buttressed by the anecdotal false-equivalent (the nation is like a household) and the spectral fictional “type” (the welfare queen, the “benefits migrant” etc).

Even the Guardian itself seems a bit confused by the ontological status of these austerity-drunk pseudo-people. Lot’s seems to have been edited from the print version of the story to the one currently posted on-line – almost as if the newspaper had caught a case of revision and re-revision from the DWP itself. In the print version, for instance, this is the third paragraph of the story:

The fictional person called Sarah was quoted as saying that she had lost some of her benefit because she had initially failed to produce a CV. “I didn’t think a CV would help me but my work coach told me that all employers need one. I didn’t have a good reason for not doing it and I was told I’d lose some of my payment,” she said.

But in the version that currently exists on-line, the first line of the paragraph is changed to:

“Sarah” was quoted as saying that she had lost some of her benefit because she had initially failed to produce a CV.

Whether these un- or pseudo- people are “fictional person[s] called” X or Y or they are just names encased in scare-quotes or locked in a rictus grin of clip art compliance, they are the secret sharers, it seems to me, of those letraset (and post-letraset) people that appear in advertisements for new real estate developments who have been an obsession of mine for a long time.

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Just as our speculative economy seems to be populated by these shadowy denizens of luxury flats that are always on the verge of opening, often never literally present in their concrete and glass inventions, perhaps the DWP’s fictional protagonists are an in a eerie sense a spectral “reserve army of labour” haunting the real reserve army. Instead of the idealised “model workers” and “new men” of socialism, we are beginning to live in a world of model victims of precarity – those Zacs and Sarahs who thank the government for withdrawing their dole to teach them a lesson about the value of updating their CVs and who thank the DWP for allowing them “time off” to visit the hospital.

In this sense, the propaganda of the institutions of austerity darkly echoes Brecht’s joke in his poem Die Lösung:

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In this case, rather than electing another “people,” the DWP has gone ahead and composed one out of clip art and generic names.

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August 19, 2015 at 10:31 am

sex in fiction (notes)

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From Michael Hofmann’s rather brilliant piece on Kundera in the new LRB (paywalled, I think). Here, he’s talking about Kundera’s characters and sex.

Kundera has an old – and I would say, a dated – trust in sex. Sex as the expression of or the stand-in for or the earthly (or heavenly) representative of personality or inner life. […] Whoever they are, sex tests them and keeps the score. Do they use rude words or not? Do they prefer darkness or do they like to leave the lights on? Do they shut their eyes or keep them open? Are they thinking of the person they’re with, or of someone else? Kundera is touchingly interested and trusting in what he finds out: they are about the only stage directions you get in his books. Where other observers might contend our species is at its most generic in bed, and any differences we might display there are either faddish or not interesting, that, for example, the way we like to shop is altogether more expressive and revelatory, Kundera takes another view. He deserves the label ‘erotic politician’ more than Jim Morrison ever did.

I’m in the very early stages of trying to write something about the representation of sex in contemporary (and relatively contemporary) novels. One question that I’m asking myself – and asking the works that I will talk about – is a relatively obvious one: how has the representation of sex changed since the arrival of ubiquitous internet pornography. I’m hoping that the answer isn’t as obvious as the question. But Hofmann’s paragraph above expresses perfectly part of what I am thinking – the part that we have left behind.

We no longer believe, or at least have begun to doubt, that sex is personally-revelatory, a pathway to the demonstration of some sort of personal (or interpersonal) quiddity. Perhaps pornography has something to do with this – what at first can seem intriguingly distinct comes to seem something else entirely when it dawns on you that there are hundreds of thousands of these totally unique things. (Every snowflake is different, yes, but the fact that there are so goddamned many of them, each a unique shape of their own, might start to make you wonder whether it matters that each one is different. That is to say, difference become less and less interesting the more that you realise everyone is different, but in an utterly random, meaningless way.)

Fiction, since its modern prose forms arose, has always been tantalised by sex. The romance suppresses it in sublimating it (or maybe it’s the other way around). But maybe now, with everything all out in the open, or at least nearly everything, fiction faces a bit of a problem. And instead of Kundera’s epiphanically-revelatory sexuality, we have the grim grinding of Houellebecq’s (and other’s) characters – grinding aimed at a sort of transcendence, still, but we can’t help but know that the joke, as it was on Emma Bovary, is always on them.

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June 26, 2015 at 9:20 am

Posted in fiction, porn, sex

kundera on the fictional essay

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I sometimes wonder whether we’re not all getting Knausgaard wrong. It’s not the non-impersonality of it that matters, perhaps. It’s the essayism. The fact that he feels free to slip from narrative into essayistic prose more or less at will. Many of the parts that we tend to remember most vividly are from the essayistic portions. Or, to put it another way, imagine what the texts would be like if they left the essayistic material out – if they were straight “memoir.”

But the second question, then, is what the difference is between this “essayism” that I’m describing and “old fashioned” nineteenth-century narration, the sort that we find in Dickens and Eliot for example. If this were the case, then we’ve just slid backwards, back past the innovations of Flaubert and his progeny, into a space of the wisdom-imparting storyteller, and into a realm where the narrative characters simply play out a morality tale as a backdrop to the droning play-by-play of the authorial announcer.

I’ve just, however, come across an interesting reframing of the issue in Milan Kundera’s 1983 interview with the Paris Review. In the course of discussing the polyphonic nature of Hermann Broch’s writing, the interview asks about an “essay” that is inserted into Broch’s The Sleepwalker. 


You have doubts about the way it is incorporated into the novel. Broch relinquishes none of his scientific language, he expresses his views in a straightforward way without hiding behind one of his characters—the way Mann or Musil would do. Isn’t that Broch’s real contribution, his new challenge?


That is true, and he was well aware of his own courage. But there is also a risk: his essay can be read and understood as the ideological key to the novel, as its “Truth,” and that could transform the rest of the novel into a mere illustration of a thought. Then the novel’s equilibrium is upset; the truth of the essay becomes too heavy and the novel’s subtle architecture is in danger of collapsing. A novel that had no intention of expounding a philosophical thesis (Broch loathed that type of novel!) may wind up being read in exactly that way. How does one incorporate an essay into the novel? It is important to have one basic fact in mind: the very essence of reflection changes the minute it is included in the body of a novel. Outside of the novel, one is in the realm of assertions: everyone’s philosopher, politician, concierge—is sure of what he says. The novel, however, is a territory where one does not make assertions; it is a territory of play and of hypotheses. Reflection within the novel is hypothetical by its very essence.

This might be a place to start for an answer about the specific difference of Knausgaard’s writing – and the sort of writing that I am most interested in reading now. Essayistic, in parts, to be sure. But essayistic in a sense that the essay itself turns “fictional” – isn’t the “ideological key” of the novel but rather an utterance on the same level of “truth” as the narration in which it is submerged.

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March 20, 2015 at 11:35 pm

Posted in fiction, form

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

first thoughts on coetzee’s “the childhood of jesus”

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I was asked by students and others several times last week what I made of Coetzee’s new novel. I’ve been a bit annoyed with myself that I haven’t really had any good answers yet, and have been forced to make the same gestures towards “bafflement” that just about all the reviews I’ve read have made. But I’m starting to think that its our bafflement itself that we should be looking into – that there’s more to be made of it than a shoulder-shrug.

Chris Tayler, in his review of the novel in the LRB, gives us a good start at a list of the questions begged but left unanswered in the course of the narrative:

As a reading experience it’s utterly absorbing, with almost painful levels of meta-suspense as you try to work out where the story is aiming to lead you. Questions are as close as Coetzee comes to direct statements, and the novel is richly generative of these. Is the world it depicts an afterlife, a pre-life, a mere stage in an unending transmigration of souls, a realm of ideal images as discussed in Coetzee’s recent essay on Gerald Murnane in the New York Review of Books, or none of the above? How does the Jesus plot fit in with this? How come Inés has access to sausages? Do the deadpan jokes get less frequent or just ascend to a higher sphere?

One of the things that I try to teach my students is to developed a more nuanced take on literary “difficulty.” Most of us, especially when we’re starting out at reading “difficult” books and thus insecure about our ability to understand, let alone intrepret, them, take it on instinct that there always is something to figure out in such works. One acquires a “reader’s guide” to Ulysses, one takes up the challenge of the notes at the end of The Waste Land – one struggles to “solve” the riddles of the poems, to understand the allusions, etc. But what if (so I argue in my first-year seminars) we’re meant in dealing with these texts not so much to penetrate the difficult but to have an experience of difficulty’s opacity itself. (My favourite example is to use in teaching is the beginning of the second section of The Waste Landwhere I think Eliot’s putting us through a sort of routine having to do with the “dissociation of sensibility.” We simply can’t see the image described, and perhaps that’s meant to make us feel our own post-lapsarianness…)

Why does Inés have access to meat – and what is La Residencia in the first place?

It has been a preoccupation of Coetzee’s for quite awhile, to tantalise the reader with the sense that there are answers to questions raised by the text, that there is an interrogate-able reality lurking behind the narrative itself, and thus, when the answers fail to arrive, perhaps to push the reader back into an awareness of her or his own need for answers in the first place. (Think for instance of Disgrace, where the reader is left in the same position as David Lurie himself – completely unable to understand the reasons why his daughter Lucy does what she does [or doesn’t do what she doesn’t do] in the wake of her rape.) In this case, why, in the end, are we bothered by Inés’s access to sausages? Why are we worried about the nature of La Residencia? It feels as though, at the beginning of the work, Simón would have asked them too – but by the end of the novel, he’s lost his appetite for questions of this sort – his appetite for questions about appetite and its fulfilment. In other words, the reader’s persistence in wondering falls out of sync with the characters in the text – it’s we readers who remain new arrivals at Novilla.

Likewise with the question “How does the Jesus plot fit in with this?” Not only is the abstraction inherent in this sort of typology or allegorical sense incompatible with the putative Jesus’s incessant refusal of such abstraction, but the question is exactly the sort that Coetzee’s fiction time and again refuses to solve for us – or stages the struggle and failure to solve on the part of his characters. Again, think of Lurie’s attempts to place is daughter into a discernable “category” of rape victim after their attack, or even more pressingly, the efforts of the administrators of the camp that Michael K ends up in at the end of his novel to deduce the “meaning” of this man who has come into their care and custody.

Michaels means something, and the meaning he has is not private to me. If it were, if the origin of this meaning were no more than a lack in myself, a lack, say, of something to believe in, since we all know how difficult it is to satisfy a hunger for belief with the vision of times to come that the way, to say nothing of the camps, presents us with, if it were a mere craving for meaning that sent me to Michaels and his story, if Michaels himself were no more than what he seems to be (what you seem to be), a skin-and-bones man with a crumpled lip (pardon me, I name only the obvious), then I would have every justification for retiring to the toilets behind the jockey’s changing-rooms and locking myself into the last cubicle and putting a bullet through my head.

With just a shift of a few details and a reduction in intensity, this passage from Michael K could stand as a rendition of what I was feeling when asked last week “what the new novel means” and probably isn’t all that far away from the sort of frustration that the reviewers felt as they worked up their pieces for the magazines, or so I guess…

Coetzee is often – with obvious justification – labelled a “meta-fictional” writer: his works build on and distort previous literary works, or are “about” the act of writing itself. But they are also books that generate – or should generate – a sort of “meta-reading.” Just as the writer is writing about writing, when we read them, we are reading about reading. Or at least that seems to be the point. Were a new (or even the first) messiah to arrive on earth, would we be so concerned with his meaning and relation to precedent, his conformity or lack of conformity to the models that we would impose, that we would fail to listen to him right from the start? With inherited instrumental logics and instinct to abstract categorization, our need to extract reified meanings from things, would we be able to read him at all?

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March 17, 2013 at 12:30 pm

emotional unemployment

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Fredric Jameson in the LRB on Hemingway and Carver: 

This is not to suggest that minimalism finds its realisation in the repudiation of the category of expression as such. On the contrary, the inaugural model of minimalism, Ernest Hemingway, simply opened up another alternative path to expression, one characterised by the radical exclusion of rhetoric and theatricality, for which, however, that very exclusion and its tense silences and omissions were precisely the technique for conveying heightened emotional intensity (particularly in the marital situation). Hemingway’s avatar, Raymond Carver, then learned to mobilise the minimalist technique of ‘leaving out’ in the service of a rather different and more specifically American sense of desolation and depression – of emotional unemployment, so to speak.

Interesting thought: that the outrolling of literary history and influence reveals that the apophatic isn’t just “mentioning by not mentioning” but in the long run is an index of the fact that there was nothing to mention in the first place. Carver takes up a style that is meant to suggest depths by remaining on the surface only to realise that they’re only ever surface. The ineffable shifts from what can’t be said to what’s not there to be said in the first place. Or even that the adoption of minimalism leads fiction into perversely-Pascalian situation: Minimalise, delete your words, and you will believe that there was nothing to delete in the first place. 



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January 10, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Posted in fiction, jameson