In the summer of 1959, a headstrong but lovesick English graduate took a trip to the hometown of his favourite writers, to mark the end of his degree and to help him forget his sorrows. En route to Dublin via the Welsh Coast he hitched a lift with the owner of an upscale holiday resort, who offered him a job for the summer, an offer he took up after walking in the footsteps of Joyce, Beckett and O’Brien.
Travelling People, which BS Johnson wrote in fits and starts over the next two years, is the story of a young man who takes a job at a Welsh holiday resort. It has the brisk outlines of a familiar English comedy, but presented with an incongruous trickery more in keeping with Johnson’s Irish heroes. Plenty of direct experience made it into the novel (Johnson even incorporated letters that he had written that summer) but names were changed and elements added to provide excitement, perhaps even as wish-fulfilment. Henry has a passionate affair and gets a first in his degree, while Johnson wasn’t so fortunate; the heart attack that afflicts the owner, with whom Johnson fell out, never happened. But the translation of experience is uneasy: rogue autobiographical elements – Johnson’s romantic hysteria, his odd superstitions – crop up without explanation.
Published after a string of rejections to muted applause, with some copies returned in the belief that the typographical experimentation was a printing error, Johnson was nevertheless pleased with what he saw as the novel’s ingenuity, even claiming that in some respects it had improved on Joyce’s Ulysses. But behind the bravado lay a nagging dissatisfaction. He began to feel embarrassed by the fictional additions, to believe that the novel would have been better if it had been more honest, if he hadn’t compromised the truth for the sake of a good story. Increasingly Johnson dismissed it as an apprentice work, and was later reluctant to have it republished. Never again would he be so blasé with the facts of his life. The six novels that followed would be the work of a writer at war with the imagination.
Though the border between fact and fiction has always been contested territory, few have agonised over the perimeter as much as BS Johnson. His tragically short, restlessly creative and deeply frustrated life is in part a story about the peculiar path – full of paradox, pitfalls and blind alleys – that the dogged pursuit of a novel without fiction can lead.
A self-proclaimed member of ‘the aven’t garde’, Johnson has been heralded by those who crave a lineage of British experimentalism as a one-man vanguard, who continued the modernist project while his parochial peers returned to the forms of a bygone age. In truth he was a stranger and more idiosyncratic figure, whose talents lay in conventional rather than conceptual writing, in comedy or social realism rather than the theoretically stormy tradition of the anti-novel. Old-fashioned in his outlook and stubbornly literal-minded, Johnson was something of an anachronism himself, proclaiming as radical techniques that had long become commonplace.
In hindsight, his puritanical campaign appears a distinctly British strain of postmodern metafiction, a corollary to the currents in conceptual art, a seismographic response to the collapse of British fictions in the end times of British power, or perhaps just an anomaly. Steadfast though his beliefs were, at times they appeared to stem as much from egoism and insecurity as ideological conviction. Decrying the work of his peers out of hand left him a solitary firebrand, a martyr for what many regarded as an otiose cause.
But while Johnson’s prescriptions for the novel were met with disdain during his lifetime, they are currently receiving a sympathetic second hearing. Today’s anxiety-prone literary culture is far more receptive; a new generation of naysayers, among them David Shields, Sheila Heti and Karl Ove Knausgaard, are challenging the relationship between fiction and the novel. Johnson’s antecedence appears to have gone unnoticed, but whether they know it or not, today’s revolutionaries are following in his footsteps. His quixotic mission to banish ‘lies’ from his work should stand as a cautionary tale.
Johnson’s second novel, Albert Angelo, is an episodic collage of the experiences of a lonesome supply teacher living in a run-down corner of Islington, composed of vignettes of his unruly classes, solitary wanderings and drinking sessions. Describing it as ‘a collage made up of the fragments of my own life’, Johnson filled the novel with details of his living situation, his relationships, the job that he resented, and extracts from essays by his students. Albert, however, is an aspiring architect, not a writer, and before long a plot begins to take shape.
Just as a denouement looms, however, the narrative is interrupted by a sparsely punctuated tirade, in which Johnson exclaims ‘OH FUCK ALL THIS LYING!’ He admits that he is tired of the pretence of talking about ‘Albert’ – ‘I’m trying to say something not tell a story telling stories is telling lies and I want to tell the truth about my experience about my truth’. Advising that readers should ‘go elsewhere for their lies’, Johnson then corrects the details that he had fudged – the location of his parents’ house, the car that he drives, the name of his ex-girlfriend, which was Muriel, not Jenny.
This Johnson saw as his major breakthrough, the moment he realised that conveying ‘truth’ through fiction was a ‘logical impossibility’, and that the only option was to abandon it entirely. Now, apparently only personal experience was permissible – Johnson intended to write ‘nothing else but what happens to me’. It was a strikingly limited formulation, which even the diatribe itself cannot be said to conform to, asking us to believe that the novel was written straight through without planning or editing.
Johnson set out to realise this prescription in a new novel, Trawl, an account of his time abroad a trawler in the North Sea. ‘I … always with I’ Trawl’s interior monologue begins, going on to recount extensively from Johnson’s life story, without an alter ego to get in the way. Muriel is called Gwen this time, a response to an angry letter Johnson had received from her mother, but otherwise candour – about one’s bodily processes and sexual experiences, one’s inadequacies and failings – has become critical to Johnson’s method. Throughout he seems intent on correcting previous ‘lies’ – noting that he got a 2.2, and that he is ‘ignorant of architecture’.
But despite all the insistence on ‘truth’, Trawl remains deeply contrived. Though in the present tense, the novel was written a year later than the events it describes, so while Johnson described it as ‘a representation of the inside of my mind but at one stage removed; the closest one can come in writing’, it isn’t likely to be close at all. Johnson discusses the journey’s psychological purpose and symbolic resonance, but neglects to mention the primary motive– to give him material for a novel. Of an encounter with a prostitute, he writes, ‘It is not as though anyone else will ever know about this,’even though he knew the account would be published.
There is also a reason fiction with all its subterfuge is so popular: the truth isn’t always that interesting. Trawl has undoubted longueurs – self-indulgent stretches about his adolescence, the inordinate coverage of sexual betrayal. Trawling through memories in his cabin while the trawler men toil up on deck is a pertinent symbol of how limited Johnson’s scope now was. And it appears that his asceticism might expand to even include imagery – he dismisses the metaphor of the trawler as ‘balls’ at one point. After all, isn’t metaphor just another form of deception?
Such fundamentalism was a concern for Johnson’s publisher, Fred Warburg, who warned Johnson that if the novel didn’t sell he would have to write a ‘brilliant bunch of lies which we shall describe as fiction’, even if he considered it a ‘vulgar pandering to an ill-informed public’. Undeterred, Johnson began work on another ‘truth-telling’ novel: an account of a trip he had taken to Nottingham to cover a football match. Johnson alleges that he didn’t think twice about where he was going until he arrived, when he was overcome with emotion; he had often visited the city to see a friend, Tony Tillinghast, who had recently died of cancer.
The Unfortunates was to be an account of Johnson going about his duties as a journalist while memories of Tony drifted through his mind. But the composition again took place a year later; Johnson actually made a second trip, and spent time studying their correspondence, as well as recordings that he had made of their last conversations. The problem of veracity again presents itself – how could he remember the order in which thoughts went through his mind? His solution was to release an unbound book, with chapters presented in a box so that the reader could shuffle them into any order. He was persuaded to label the first and last chapters to make it more reader-friendly, but the rest would replicate the unpredictable order in which thoughts occur, and in a sense give greater fidelity.
The completed novel, however, cannot be recombined as seamlessly as Johnson claimed. Both the events of the day and the manner in which the memories unfold imply a reading order. The novel is easily recuperable into a linear narrative, and so has just as much fakery, perhaps, in its disguise, even more. The desire for ‘truth’ presents other problems. As Johnson restricts himself to personal experience, we learn little about Tony’s life. He exists as a spectral presence, while a vivid picture is presented of Johnson himself, who, true to form, is preoccupied by his love life – by familiar betrayals (Muriel is called Wendy this time), as well as the relationship with his wife, Virginia, who had just given birth to their first child.
In an effort to bolster his finances, Johnson began to write and direct short films. One in particular, Paradigm, which baffled the few people who saw it, is very revealing. A man is pictured speaking what appears to be gibberish. Over the course of a few minutes he visibly ages and grows morose, until he falls into silence. Johnson described it as ‘a paradigm of one view of the writer’s condition: the older you get, the less you have to say and the more difficulty you have in saying it’. The strange speech was in fact contorted passages from Johnson’s novels.
Fear of running out of material, along with financial insecurity, may explain the direction Johnson took in House Mother Normal. The idea was to construct a novel where an event was viewed from multiple perspectives; Johnson chose the setting of a care home, as it would allow him to feature a variety of mental states. The completed novel has eight monologues from different inmates, in descending order of lucidity, with the typography becoming more scattered and irregular, followed by one from the house mother. Indeed until the final pages, Johnson’s literary austerity seems to have vanished. The house mother explains that it had all been fiction: ‘Thus you see I too am the puppet or concoction of a writer (you always knew there was a writer behind it all? Ah, there’s no fooling you readers!)’. Apparently fiction is now permissible if you draw attention to it.
Changing the rules did little to help Johnson’s fortunes. Warburg offered him a reduced amount for the novel, leading to an acrimonious parting of ways. Johnson lashed out in his next novel, Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, the last to be published during his lifetime. The protagonist is a dissatisfied young man working in a factory in Hammersmith, just as Johnson had before university. Christie though develops a radical double-entry book-keeping system to alleviate his discontent, leading him to poison London’s water supply. While Johnson again toys with invention, the novel is perhaps his most vehement rebuke. In his notes he describes his plan as ‘deliberately annoying the reader in order to punish him for daring to like rubbish!’, and throughout his mocking voice is present – ‘I am told one has to put incidents like that in; for the suspense you know.’
Before the novel even gets off the ground he seems to tire of it, admitting that he ‘is not going to bother’ with certain elements, that he ‘is going to pack this in soon’. He expresses contempt for the whole enterprise: ‘Oh I could go on and on for pages and pages… But why? All is chaos and unexplainable.’ Johnson then appears as ‘the author’ to discuss the novel with Christie. They agree that there is no reason to continue, and Christie tells Johnson that ‘you shouldn’t be bloody writing novels about it, you should be out there bloody doing something about it.’
This more pronounced disenchantment also had political causes. Johnson had forged his introverted aesthetic in a time of what he considered great political optimism. But Labour’s defeat in 1970 came as a major blow: in the novel, the ‘debit’ that provokes Christie’s final retribution is ‘socialism not given a chance’. Johnson’s response was to become politically active – helping to write speeches, pamphlets and short films. But the strictures that he had created for his novels were ill-suited to a time of political urgency. The result was that he began to lose faith in literature altogether.
Beset by grief at the death of his mother, Johnson embarked on plans to memorialise her with a trilogy, with the first part, See The Old Lady Decently, covering her life up until Johnson’s birth. Not only would this be drawing on painful subject matter, but Johnson had no experience of huge swathes of her life, and the years that he did know about had already featured in previous novels. As a result the first and only volume proved almost impossible to pull off. All he had to work with are a few photographs, birth certificates and letters, and he laments throughout, ‘How little I have to go on!’
Johnson did try to respond to the political situation: he wanted his mother’s life to parallel the history of Britain, with her decline mirroring that of the socialist dream. But his creed, coupled with what feels like artistic exhaustion, means that the correspondence amounts to little. Intermittent sections comprised of dates and facts are included, without being worked into the narrative. Writing to a close friend about completing the project, he admitted: ‘I suspect my contribution to the novel form will be at an end.’
Everything appears to have got on top of Johnson in his final few months. Publishers had reservations about his strange, fragmented new novel. His aesthetic ideas had led him to such contortions, and to deny so much of the craft he was a practitioner of that there seemed little future for his career. Money was an ongoing problem, and he appeared to be worn out from years of lack of recognition. He was drinking more, friends saw that he was depressed, sometimes paranoid, and his marriage was faltering, with Virginia and the children moving out. He died at home, aged 40, the frailties, doubt and turmoil with which he had forged his novels having become too much.
Four decades on and the fortunes of anti-fiction are very different. In the ranks of its practitioners are some of the most fêted contemporary writers. The scepticism, contempt and exhaustion with invention, however, are strikingly familiar, as are the prescriptions for what should stand in its place. Fiction once again is conceived of as an unnecessary hindrance to writing about one’s true subject matter: one’s self.
Sheila Heti, struggling with her second novel, began to find it ‘tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story’. It seemed ‘silly’ when what she wanted to do was write a book that ‘came from the world’. Her solution was to assemble a novel from the material of the lives of her and her friends, using their names, their personalities, even recording and transcribing their conversations.
Karl Ove Knausgaard tried for years to write a ‘regular, realistic but fictional work’ dealing with the death of his father, but ‘it was impossible because I didn’t believe it. It was my father I wanted to write about, not an imaginary father.’ His breakthrough came when suddenly ‘I started just writing it as it was: the truth, no artifice, no cleverness. Reality’. Writing night and day, allegedly without editing, he produced six volumes in three years, a freeform confessional outpouring that runs to some 3,600 pages. ‘The idea’ he says, ‘was to get as close as possible to my life.’
David Shields, the self-proclaimed spokesman and theorist of the new anti-fictionalists, describes this as the liberation of the sensations and thoughts of writers. No longer are they stifled by the constraints of fiction, forced to ‘creep through the cracks of narrative’. A career teaching and writing literature has led Shields to grow weary of ‘the never-never lands of the imagination’ – he now polemicises for writing that possesses ‘as thin a membrane as possible between art and life’. Reality Hunger, his exhilarating, copyright-flouting cut and paste manifesto was a rallying cry for artists of all kinds who are ‘breaking larger and larger chunks of “reality” into their work’.
As in Johnson’s seven novels, the thickness of the membrane, the dimensions of the chunk, varies. Heti’s How Should a Person Be? depends on indeterminacy for its effect – she insists that her novel is ‘from life’ in its depiction of a disenchanted writer called Sheila, but that it should not be read as gospel. Rather like on reality TV, scenes may have been modified for entertainment purposes. The intent is to enliven the novel with the tantalising proximity between art and life; it’s also a sleight of hand which allows her to exploit what she and Knausgaard call the ‘danger’ of writing about their lives without giving up a get-out clause. In contrast, Knausgaard’s brazen rejection of one in My Struggle has caused great controversy, with his unadulterated truth-telling provoking legal action from family members. Flirting with real life, or embracing it completely, can have publicity benefits. The buzz about these novels has been generated as much by their alleged candour as by their literary merit. In a culture enraptured by celebrity gossip, it makes for a good elevator pitch, and a good by-line.
In Frédéric Beigbeder’s A French Novel, praised by fellow enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq for its ‘honesty’, a narrator of the same name describes a night of the soul spent in a police cell after being caught snorting cocaine off a car bonnet, an incident for which the novelist was dragged through the French tabloids in real life. Once again, unflinching self-exposure goes hand in hand with the refutation of fiction. Humiliation, shame, ugliness, failure – these are the watchwords of this crop of writers, their books a performance or projection of the worst version of themselves. ‘My favourite books are candid beyond candid,’ says Shields. These days it’s ‘nearly impossible’ to tell a story that isn’t ‘predictable’ – his solution is to ‘write yourself naked’. Beigbeder’s prison cell isolation is used as a conceit to exorcise family history, which Beigbeder claims he had previously only dared smuggle into his work under the camouflage of fiction. Retaining playful imaginative touches, the novel nevertheless marks a break from his previous work in abandoning alter-ego Marc Maronnier. The result once again is an essayistic, wayward confessional.
More conventionally novelistic in style and structure, Ben Lerner’s work has nevertheless garnered praise from the anti-fictionalists. A paper trail of glowing reviews connects Lerner to Shields to Heti to Knausgaard and so on, illuminating a network of writers with shared concerns. His debut, Leaving the Atocha Station, is a sparky iteration of the ‘disaffected young man’ tributary of the European novel, but one that draws heavily from his own life, even containing sections from poetry and essays that he has published. As Lerner’s oeuvre develops it is beginning to resemble a refracted biography: his debut about an aspiring writer, an intervening short story, ‘The Golden Vanity’, featuring a debut novelist described only as ‘the author’, and a forthcoming second novel, 10.04, that concerns a writer struggling with a follow-up after the unexpected success of his debut. The effect is of a double exposed photograph, where two overlapping figures create a blur.
Lerner’s calculatedly unpleasant writer-protagonist, Adam Gordon, is gripped by the same malaise as those of Heti and Knausgaard – a debilitating loss of faith in literature. The narrator of Laurent Binet’s meta-historical novel HhHH shares this affliction as well, but Binet has no interest in preserving a paper-thin distinction between fact and fiction – he insists that he and his narrator are ‘identical’. Binet’s novel, an investigation into the assassination of high-ranking Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, is charged with polemical vigour against the ‘puerile ridiculous nature of novelistic invention’, and comes with disclaimers that it is ‘as close to the truth as possible’. In contrast to his cohorts, Binet resists the introspective urge, the zeitgeist of self-absorption, but is led reluctantly back to himself.
Gutting the novel of fiction is intended by the most agonistic of these writers as a provocation, a testing of the capaciousness of the form – but some, in their disenchantment, are giving up the ghost entirely. Sarah Manguso, who has worked on novels but never published one, describes her shocking, astringent books as memoir. In both – The Two Kinds of Decay, about her fight with a rare auto-immune disease, and The Guardians, reflections spurred by a friend’s suicide – Manguso takes pot shots at the notion of ‘making up stories’, at the contrivances and conceits of narrative form, the ‘artificial scaffolding of plot’.
Abandoning the novel is a logical development. Above all, the target of this truth-telling is the well-made literary novel. Anti-fiction is an attempt to short-circuit the form, to overwhelm its strictures with the messy, mundane, awkward reality of the writer’s life, with their direct, unvarnished thoughts and feelings. In words that could summarise Johnson’s artistic development, Shields argues that ‘as a work gets more autobiographical, more intimate, more confessional, it breaks into fragments’, that ‘reality-based art’ by its nature ‘splinters and explodes’ the confines of the novel. Such an effect is discernible in all of these works: Manguso’s terse unadorned sections, Binet’s numbered fragments, Heti’s scrapbook-style assemblage, the disorderly layers of meditation and memory created by Knausgaard.
Candid forms of non-fiction – memoirs, diaries, essays, letters – provide the seeds for these innovations. In the midst of Knausgaard’s ‘crisis’, where he found himself inundated with fictionality and could stand it no longer, these were ‘the only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning’, as they ‘did not deal with narrative… but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality’. Shields too, whose parallel disillusionment is described in his beguiling, fractured bibliomemoir How Literature Saved My Life, likewise found that he could not bring himself to read novels, only confessional non-fiction: ‘I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless.’
Geoff Dyer, another advocate of Lerner’s, is an outlying but influential figure in this groundswell. Dyer expressed similar misgivings about the novel and a preference for stylistically direct forms in one of his earliest and most celebrated books, Out of Sheer Rage, the comic account of a hysterical Dyer-like writer failing to write a book about DH Lawrence (that itself is a response to Lawrence’s work). ‘Increasingly’ he writes, ‘the process of novelisation goes hand in hand with a strait-jacketing of the material’s expressive potential.’ He proposes instead the ‘novelistic essay’, which allows the writer’s personality and concerns to be unconstrained by plot and characters.
The collective aspiration is for writing to be somehow unprocessed or unmediated rather than elegant or well-made. But as is apparent from Johnson’s struggles, ‘reality’ is a vanishing point for the writer, a mirage perpetually off in the distance, and so the adoption of a new style is just that. Rather than getting closer to reality, a trade-off is actually made between the immediacy of slip-shod informality, whether affected or authentic, and the ability of literary prose to convey and make vivid. For being ‘from life’ does not guarantee verisimilitude – in Heti’s work, scenes can feel contrived and characters like cardboard cut-outs, while Binet’s account is often hampered by hackneyed prose and B-movie theatrics.
The startling banality of Knausgaard’s mega-memoir is not, as it is often characterised, because of the selection of incidents – none would be out of place in the work of other epic chroniclers of bourgeois ennui – it is the way they are written: plainly, swiftly, without intricacy or subtlety. Hastily composed, his work’s force relies on the relentless flow of functionally descriptive prose. But does this really bring us closer to the real? In the attempt to leave literary language behind, Knausgaard often ends up stripping his work of its ability to evoke, and by grasping for the nearest word he often ends up employing the kind of clichéd formulations that most novelists wouldn’t go near. Similarly, while intermittently coruscating, the essayistic passages aren’t consistently enlightening or original – the impetus is for quantity not quality.
Shields insists that ‘seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored and unprofessional’ writing is an essential adaptation to ‘more technologically sophisticated and thus more visceral forms’. But as compelling an agitator as he is, when Shields practices what he preaches the results are lacklustre. How Literature Saved My Life is hardly a convincing endorsement of his prescriptions. Immediate it may be, but it’s also haphazard, insubstantial and chronically self-absorbed– all the things about social media and the blogosphere from which literature is a welcome respite. Glimmers of emotive writing are stifled by a hyperactive collage of doodles, quotations and half-baked odds and ends. Shields’ thinking about aesthetics too rarely develops past the sound bite – indeed one chapter is just a list of his favourite books.
With the ‘real’ perpetually off on the horizon, anti-fiction becomes characterised by exasperation, contortion, sometimes by contradiction. Shields ties himself in knots by proclaiming both the primacy of personal experience and a postmodern affinity for appropriation, as ‘reality cannot be copyrighted’. But if the self is unstable and non-fiction indistinguishable, why be concerned about veracity? Though Binet intends to be scrupulous about deception, there is plenty in his work that he is unaware of, or unable to excise: on-the-hoof narration, the use of the present tense when he couldn’t be writing, a simpleminded faith in historical texts. And as he reaches his finale, the last stand of the heroic assassins, he is forced to abandon his own rules, resorting to invention to render their last moments with sufficient vitality. Despite Knausgaard’s avowed disgust at the use of a ‘fabricated character in a fabricated plot’ and his intention to write only ‘truth’, his work contains impossibly detailed accounts of his life, in scenes that are not far from those found in the novels he found himself unable to read.
Likewise, Manguso laments the smoothing out that narrative forms enact, seeing it as an affront to the tragedy of her friend’s suicide, or an insincere representation of her own battle with illness. But her books, just like Heti’s ‘novel from life’, coalesce into familiar shapes, providing recuperation and satisfactions in all the right places. And while she berates ‘stories’, Manguso uses devices that are just as phoney as plots or characters. The protean voice of her account is a construction – the performance of an unreliable narrator.
A prevailing sense of failure lurks just below the surface, in spite of the bold innovations in style and the insurrectionists’ calls for revolution. ‘Lying’ creeps back in however much it is denounced, literary convention is critiqued but left in place. Binet confesses that he is ‘corrupted by literature’ and cannot help but fictionalise; Manguso admits that however hard she tries not to make things up, ‘I fail every time’. Reaching the end of his sixth volume Knausgaard claimed that it marked the end of his career, that is was his ‘literary suicide’. In recent months though, he has revealed that he is working on a new novel – a work of fiction in the vein of Borges and Calvino.
Though failure also infected his every attempt, Johnson was adamant that rendering ‘truth’ was possible – it was only in his final few years that his belief seemed to waver, and his rhetoric falter. Today, while the distrust of ‘making up stories’ is just as pronounced, the belief in its eradication is far weaker. His descendants are caught in a trap: reluctant to write fiction, but unable to escape it.
Such a state is at odds with the polemic of Shields, who again proclaims anti-fiction as an evolutionary leap for writers, a ‘make it new’ akin to the transformations of modernism. Shields portrays this as a response to an ‘unbearably artificial world’, what JG Ballard described decades earlier when he wrote that ‘we live in a world ruled by fictions’. But Ballard’s response to a world of spectacle was ‘to invent the reality’. The loss of faith in the imagination seems to call for a different diagnosis, one that accounts for the failure that grips every attempt to present ‘reality’.
In the course of My Struggle, Knausgaard repeatedly describes an overpowering sensation that the world ‘could no longer move in unpredicted directions, that nothing new or surprising could happen’. He perceives an encroaching ‘sameness that was spreading through the world and making everything smaller’, in his everyday life – the ‘prefabricated nature of our days’ that run on ‘rails of routine’ – as well as politically – the spread of ‘liberal democracy’ and the rule of money rendering the world ‘homogenous’. ‘In our century, even our dreams are the same,’ he claims, and this has a direct impact on his literary abilities. Writing of how he ‘lost faith in literature’, he concludes: ‘The feeling that the future does not exist, that it is only more of the same, means that all utopias are meaningless. Literature has always been related to utopia, so when the utopia loses meaning, so does literature.’
Though he ‘wanted to open the world by writing’, this affliction left him merely able to ‘to affirm what existed, affirm the state of things as they are, in other words, revel in the world outside instead of searching for a way out’. Knausgaard is paraphrasing the philosopher Ernst Bloch, who argued that aesthetics were integral to social and political transformation. In contrast to the argument made by Shields, that writing which ‘simply allows us to escape existence’ is a ‘staggering waste of time’, Bloch believed that artistic invention was supremely important, not merely as consolation or distraction, but in allowing us momentarily to break out of the present. Invention contained a utopian impulse; art was a collective process of expanding our reality.
Bloch found this quality, which he called ‘anticipatory illumination’, encapsulated in the work of Bertolt Brecht. For Brecht, by simply trying to mimic the familiar surface of the world realism presented it as immutable, lulling theatre-goers into a torpor of knowingness, making them think to themselves: ‘Yes, I’ve felt that way too. That’s the way I am. That’s life. That’s the way it will always be.’ Brecht instead tried to make theatre that would make strange, shock, confuse, demonstrate that the world was malleable. Art, he felt, should not merely be a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.
In such politically unimaginative times, where our course feels fixed and unchangeable, don’t we need wild imagination, new ways of looking at and thinking about the world? The rejection of imagination instead feels like a capitulation to the status quo, offering only an affirmation of the ‘reality’ of our current situation. The use of ‘raw’ material seems driven by the same impulse – a reluctance to undertake the effort of transforming the world, instead just presenting things ‘as they are’.
Attacking the strictures of the cookie-cutter novel by targeting its fictional content is a kind of pseudo-revolution, concurring with our moment in history, for flushing out fiction still leaves the old edifices of narrative intact. The resignation to an imperfect form that occurs is an unsettling echo of our response to the world system – despite our discontent with its failings, we are unable to conceive of how to change it for the better, and so begrudgingly leave it in place.
Tellingly, this rejection of imagination tends to result in the retreat of the writer to the confines of their own experience, rather than reaching out, engaging and empathising with the world around them. Binet resists this impulse, but it leads him to the conclusion that he is unable to write about lives that he has not lived: ‘How could I convey even the tiniest ideas of what those three men lived through?’ Even at their most satirical, these novels all end up as a symptom rather than a critique of this atomised, politically impotent state, with the line between a novel about self-absorption and a self-absorbed novel becoming trampled.
A narrowing of scope is also discernible in contemporary criticism, where reading and thinking about literature is being cast as a way back into oneself, rather than a way to look out at the world. Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed are just the cusp of a wave of books that relegate the practice to a form of memoir, sometimes even a form of self-help guide. Criticism seemingly sells only if it’s written or marketed with a catchy, personal angle.
Dyer is the pre-eminent writer of this kind of criticism. While he takes on a broad range of subjects – writing about jazz, photography, John Berger, Andrei Tarkovsky, DH Lawrence – the gravitational pull is always back towards his own life and experience. Dyer’s credo, that the objective, omniscient veneer of criticism is a fallacy, is undoubtedly correct, but his alternative is very limited Zona, his moment-by-moment account of watching Tarkovsky’s Stalker, takes as its model Roland Barthes’ S/Z, but replaces rigorous semiological dissection with Dyer’s trademark associative musings. The result is a book that tells us plenty about the critic (or the Dyer persona) – about trips to Burning Man and trips on acid, about the choc ices he used to eat with his father – but little about film or its relationship with the world. As entertaining as his books are, Dyer’s introspective approach forges a narrow path for criticism to follow, and indeed in less nimble hands, it seems more like a dead-end.
So often in his writing Dyer will pull the same meta-manoeuvre – providing some slapdash analysis before excusing it, dangling an idea before turning it into a joke – ‘I apologise for this explanation – one part Harold Bloom and one part ill-digested psychoanalysis – but you take the point.’ Sometimes he’ll use the same joke about the book as a whole – ‘Do you think I would be spending my time summarising the action of a film almost devoid of action… if I was capable of writing anything else?’ It’s a good routine that brings some candour, immediacy and light-heartedness to criticism, but it doesn’t get a laugh every time. After a while you begin to think: wouldn’t it be better to read something that the writer didn’t have to apologise for?