“We disappear, and yet we resurface”
Around the time I began writing book reviews, I read that reviewing was “what lice will do, when they have no more blood to suck.” If so, the only blood I’ve ever tasted is mine. Early on, I already knew that my writing wasn’t entirely about the books “under review” so much as my internal “reading experience” – though that term might be misleading. In suggesting that my reviews reflect something of my “self,” I’m not about to recount my life story, let alone resort to that fashionable form, the “confessional” essay. On the contrary, literary subjectivity isn’t always aligned with autobiography. Right now, I’m writing this in the first person, but I perceive that person as a perfect stranger.
Put simply, I’ve never known who I am. Nor do I feel securely in sync with the world. I intersect with it at an abnormal angle – my link with life is dislocated. Of course, this condition isn’t uncommon. I mention it only to emphasize that an initial alienation led me to literature. Part of me is predisposed to treat reading as, to quote Houellebecq, a practice that pushes “against the world, against life.” At the same time, I don’t see reading as simply a passive escape from reality. As Kafka famously says, books can be “like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of oneself.” Reading is really a dual movement: books allow us to withdraw from the world, while bringing us back toward it. In reading we disappear, and yet we resurface.
The first section of this collection includes reviews of a range of recent writers, from Lars Iyer to Lydia Davis; Gerald Murnane to Gabriel Josipovici. Here I’ll be clear: by writing about these authors rather than others, I’m not projecting a personal canon. I regard reading as an uncertain experience, and not one that lends itself to a normative stance. As a reviewer, all I can do is try to stay true to the texture of that experience. So, these aren’t necessarily the “best” books around; they’re simply the ones that satisfied me. Strange as it sounds, each of these books briefly allowed me to subtract myself from reality. In this respect, when writing reviews, I’m less intent on making prescriptions than on exploring the space left by my subtraction.
One of the threads running through the first part of this book concerns the writer, teacher, and editor Gordon Lish. Currently, critics still link Lish’s name with a tradition of American literary “minimalism.” What’s less well-known is Lish’s longstanding interest in continental philosophy – an influence which led him to formulate, and to teach, certain distinctive ideas about fictive form. I write about Lish’s ideas directly in my review of his startling novel, Peru. Perhaps more usefully, I also track those ideas’ diffusion through the prose styles of Lish’s students – including Sam Lipsyte, Sam Michel, Gary Lutz, and Dawn Raffel. In collecting this cluster of pieces, my hope is that I’ll help a handful of readers to reassess an overlooked aspect of American letters.
When I last spoke with Lish, he described fiction as a “bounded infinity” – an object which seems circumscribed on all sides, but which contains a limitless internal world. For Lish, literary form is a bit like the physics of turbulence; it’s all about how nonlinear patterns produce emergent effects. In their different ways, he and his students create self-sufficient totalities, by manipulating the smallest linguistic units. As Lish says of Diane Williams – a writer I lack the skill to review – “it is the genius of this artist to make her bondage a fabulous abode,” in which “all the rooms she cannot escape” are magically “made lavish.” More broadly, though, this is but one perspective on what might be called fiction’s inner “infinitude.” There are countless others, and one of the purposes of this book is to begin to build a picture of them.
I’ve described my experience of reading as an immersion in a peculiar kind of fictional space. Above all, what fascinates me about that space is the idea that it might be infinite; that the world opened up by a book might exceed that outside it. I get glimpses of this infinity in the linguistic fractals fashioned by Lish’s brilliant student, Jason Schwartz. But I also see it in the South African author Ivan Vladislavić, who has written a Borgesian fable about an unlimited library of unwritten books. I see it, too, in the horizonless “brightly lit background” depicted by the Australian genius Gerald Murnane; in the expansive skies evoked by the American pastoralist Dylan Nice; and in the mythical underworld mapped by Miranda Mellis. Reading these writers, I start to sense that there’s something alive in the background of writing; some inexhaustible source of light and silence.
Are “infinite” fictions simply whirlpools in which one loses oneself, or might they furnish forms of self-reflection? Describing the task of autobiography, Frank Kermode remarks that recollection isn’t really a question of facts, but of “the weather, the private weather, unpredictable as dreams, yet recognizable as a climate.” Similarly, even a trivial book review – and triviality is among the allures of the form – can be a barometer of its writer’s private weather. Whatever we write, we reveal more than we mean to; as Kristeva says, “the speaking subject gives herself away.” I wouldn’t say I give much away in my writing, but some of it still speaks obliquely of secret experiences: depression, religion, unrequited love. Try as I might, I can’t write about books like Stasiuk’s Dukla, or Nice’s Other Kinds, without tacitly taking my existential temperature. Such “weather patterns” aren’t made explicit in these pieces, yet they exist in their atmosphere.
In a way, to write a review is to hide behind what another, better writer has written. Literary criticism has been described as “thinking with an object,” but thinking always transforms its objects into other things. In the course of a review, a book can become a crutch, a mirror, a mask. In my case, the deictic aspect of reviewing – its “aboutness” – lets me pretend that my words refer only to my object, and not to myself. Sometimes, while writing, I briefly believe that I’m not revealed by my speech – that I can’t be caught or found out. That doesn’t last, and, looking back, I’m made aware of the ways I’m laid bare. For instance, I’ve observed that my reviews often concern fiction’s internal worlds, and their capacity to counterbalance the real one. Already though, I recognize that this is less a respectable intellectual interest, more an expression of a personal need for refuge. I’ve tried to rationalize my critical practice, but finally it’s about something basic and frail: art as solace.
I’ve tried to rationalize my critical practice, but finally it’s about something basic and frail: art as solace.
The second section of Infinite Fictions is called “On Theory,” and it contains reviews of various works of criticism and philosophy. These pieces aim to present accessible sketches of critical concepts like deconstruction, “distant reading,” trauma theory, and modernism (among others). Along the way, they also attend to overarching questions about theory’s intellectual history. This history can be seen from the standpoint of a kind of symptomatic psychology (as in Peter Sloterdijk’s “portrait of the theorist as a young man”) or in terms of institutional sociology (as in Martin Woessner’s reception history of Heidegger’s writings). Complementarily, the history of theory can also be understood by studying the internal logic of theoretical concepts – an approach I explore in my reviews of D.N. Rodowick and Tom Eyers, for example.
If my taste in fiction is shaped by my lived experience, can the same be said of my fascination with theory? Clearly, the very idea of theory implies a distinction from everyday life. But, as Sloterdijk shows (a little like Nietzsche does, or Bourdieu), theory’s supposed autonomy is largely illusory. In his classic work Keywords, Raymond Williams defines “theory” as “a scheme of ideas which explains practice.” However, he also cites a seventeenth-century source, which diagnoses “theory and contemplation” as “nothing but waking men’s dreams, and sick men’s phantasies.” This latter aspect comes closer to what interests me. Dreams don’t come from nowhere, and neither do theories; both are produced by processes of condensation and displacement. Ultimately, theory is not isolable from life. Instead, it’s more like an image of life, in all its sickness and inexplicability. Consequently, to ask the question “what is theory?” is also always to ask, “what does theory mean to me?”
Ultimately, theory is not isolable from life. Instead, it’s more like an image of life, in all its sickness and inexplicability. Consequently, to ask the question “what is theory?” is also always to ask, “what does theory mean to me?”
A lot of us know what it’s like to have learned about theory, but what is it like to have lived it? Writing about students’ early exposure to theory, François Cusset coins the term Bildungstheorie – a word which cleverly captures the “mechanism of enchantment” whereby “certain students, particularly those alienated from societal norms,” are “inspired by a word, a motif, or a thematic tendency,” to the extent that it alters their “existential landscape.” Crucially, claims Cusset, this kind of primal encounter comes prior to proper comprehension. Initially, theory conveys not information but inspiration – before it is thought, it is felt. Whether we read Adorno or Agamben, Barthes or Benjamin, our reading begins in an emotive engagement with unknown words, charismatic codes, and foreign tongues. Not knowing, but feeling our way around theory, we acquire an affective investment in its ideas. This is the psychic life of theory – the level at which it is less a technical instrument than a totem or talisman; a charm that we clasp to our hearts.
Maybe the same sort of life lives in reading itself. Renata Adler remarks of her reading that “some of the things that had meant the most to me, I had completely misunderstood.” Elizabeth Hardwick claims that “in reading, I enter a sort of hallucinatory state.” Eve Sedgwick evokes the “speculative, superstitious” reading practices of young children, for whom understanding “seeps in only from the most stretched and ragged edges of competence.” Reading is not the same thing as knowing. Nor, for that matter, is reviewing. I’ve already mentioned the triviality of the form, and I’m aware of the vanity of assembling this kind of collection. I wouldn’t want to present these pieces of writing as anything more than what they are: the scattered, erratic traces of one reader’s life. Nor do they even reflect a directed program of reading. Really, they’re only records of my desperate autodidacticism. The autodidact, observes Bourdieu, can’t help but “betray the arbitrariness of his knowledge” – the chaotic quality of a learning guided by “biographical accidents.” For me, reviewing, like reading, is inseparably linked to this living chaos. So, to conclude, I’ll echo Bourdieu. In the end, if these pieces add up to anything, hopefully it’s enough that they add up to this: “a collection of unstrung pearls, accumulated in the course of an uncharted exploration.”
David Winters’ Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory is published by Zero Books.
About the Contributor
David Winters is a literary critic, and a PhD candidate at Cambridge University, where he is researching the life and work of Gordon Lish. He has written on contemporary fiction, criticism and philosophy for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, the American Reader, the White Review, Bookforum, the New Inquiry and others. He is co-editor in chief at 3:AM Magazine, and can be found online at www.davidwinters.uk.