The Situation in American Writing: Lars Iyer
In 1939, The Partisan Review sent out a questionnaire to a number of prominent writers, asking them about literature, politics and their identities. While the questionnaire hasn’t been completely forgotten, we felt that these specifically political questions were rarely being asked of our writers. Considering that 2011 was a year of global unrest, we felt that it would be particularly relevant to update The Partisan Review’s questions. (For the curious, here are the original questions.)
Lars Iyer lives and works in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. His first novel, Spurious, was published by Melville House in 2011; it will be followed by a sequel, Dogma, to be published in 2012, and a second sequel, Exodus, in 2013. We spoke to Iyer about Spurious last spring. Our review of the novel is here.
2011 was the year of the Arab Spring. There have also been massive protests in Greece, Spain, Britain, and most recently, the United States. Does literature have a responsibility to respond to popular upheaval?
Literature and responsibility? We usually understand responsibility in terms of the accountability of a free human being: I am responsible if I have chosen my actions, if I am their cause and ground. Much post-Nietzschean thought in the ‘continental’ tradition of philosophy has called into question the model of the human being, as free agent, that this notion of responsibility assumes. The very idea of a free human being has come under scrutiny, and hence the idea that my being responsible for my actions implies my having chosen them. Various European philosophical traditions enrich the conception of responsibility, modelling it on a kind of responsiveness, on a kind of openness.
What might this responsiveness be? There is a strong connection between it and certain practices of writing. Here, we might think of the work of Clarice Lispector. Her The Passion of G.H., in its account of the relationship between a narrator and a cockroach, three feet away, displaces an anthropocentric model of responsibility, and dramatises the ‘difficult joy’ of being responsive to circumstances totally alien, totally other. If this is a model for responsibility, then we might say that literary responsibility involves a careful responsiveness, a careful openness. Indeed, Hélène Cixous, in her To Live the Orange, which is her response to the work of Lispector, allows herself to be interrupted by a phone call reminding the narrator of the plight of women in Iran. ‘The storm of the world rang’; ‘The telephone was crying’: no time now to attend to the approach to the cockroach, or Cixous’s parallel approach to the orange.
“One thing is not to forget the orange. Another to save oneself in the orange. But it’s another thing not to forget Iran.
[...] there is the time for letting things struggling with indifference give themselves to be heard. There is a time for the heart-rending call of an Iran. One doesn’t resound without the other.”
There’s a gap between literary and political responsibility, there must be. But literary responsiveness has ethical and political stakes of its own. Here, it is not a matter of producing particular values or norms, not a matter of producing a morality, but literature can enlarge the scope of what we call ethics and politics.
What does this mean with respect to the Arab Spring, and to the protests in Greece, Spain, Britain and the U.S.? These revolts all ask a question about what is allowed to count as politics, about the political as such. This question is posed by way of what you call a ‘popular resistance’ — by way of the creation of a people, the creation of a commons. And that, for me, is where politics — real politics — begins: in the opening of a space in which we can be political. This is quite different from our ordinary understanding of liberal democracy. Politics is renewed in the streets, the squares, in the open air. I think there is something similar here to the responsiveness we find in the work of Lispector and Cixous.
Do you think of yourself as writing for a definite audience? If so, how would you describe this audience? Would you say that the audience for serious American writing has grown or contracted in the last ten years?
The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer says somewhere that the modern artist is in the same position as the pre-Enlightenment travelling artist, writing not for a community which is already established, but rather in the hope of constituting a community. Constituting a community: that is what I have been trying to do over the past year, giving my assistance to my publisher and ‘building a brand’ in interviews, tweets, readings at bookshops, and writing a manifesto. Social networking was new to me, and at first I found extremely disturbing. Promoting myself to a stitched-together audience of friends and others: what an affront!
I am reminded more and more of my days of trying to get a full-time job in academia. ‘Whoring’, we used to call it. In those days, I had the excuse that I was trying to survive in a mixed-up world. With my current activities of self-promotion, I don’t have that excuse. Of course, I can tell myself that it’s all about promoting the work. I can imagine the novel floating above my labours on its behalf, in perfect disinterest, perfect autonomy. I am busy playing the author – whatever this might mean in a socially-networked world where literature is of diminishing importance – but I can think of the novel itself as still real. But it doesn’t work. My book is about people who want to be philosophers, thinkers, writers; it is about self-promoters in another sense (promoting themselves to themselves, and perhaps to one another).The characters in Spurious act out the parts of philosophers, thinkers, writers, just as I act out the role of a literary author in my ceaseless self-promotion. And just as they never quite convince themselves of their endeavour, nor do I convince myself of mine. Just as they are men out of time, yearning to become the Old European philosophers whose thought was part of a rich cultural tradition even as they are aware that they can never become Old European philosophers, I, too, might be said to be anachronistically yearning to become a literary author when such a role belongs to the past. The time of the Old Europe of the characters has passed. So, too, for me, has the time of literature, and one of the ways this is revealed is in the necessity now of author self-promotion.
I wonder whether the dramatising of the conditions of writing, as Spurious does, must now be part of a genuinely responsive work of fiction. Lispector writes of a cockroach, Cixous of an orange (and the tension between responding to the orange and responding to the women of ‘Iran’). But what happens when the conditions under which even Lispector and Cixous wrote literature have begun to disappear? What happens when we no longer believe in literature, as we might want to believe in it? There is the option of acting out the part of a literary author, to be sure. Of pretending to be Lispector, or pretending to be Cixous. But there is another option — that of presenting this lack of belief in literature in literature itself. Of presenting our pretence as what it is.
This point might be extended to the audience of literature. Might they, too, be accused of acting out their part as an audience? Perhaps, but not entirely. The response to Spurious has been varied. But one thing that many readers have noticed is that the novel is not ‘literary’ — it is reassuringly ‘low’ in much of its humour. Spurious can be enjoyed directly — it is not esoteric, it is not inaccessible. It is not in the least ‘meta-’: foregrounding in an experimental manner the ‘fictivity’ of the textual world, or frustrating conventional expectations about plot and character. There is a small element of formal innovation in Spurious — a bit of adjustment is necessary for the reader — but it was written to be straightforwardly readable. It is not supposed to be ‘literary’. So there are many readers who find it funny in the same way as they do Withnail and I, or other examples of character-driven British comedy. They enjoy its melancholy, its ‘low’ humour, its intellectual slapstick, which places Spurious in the tradition, for example, of the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore characters, Derek and Clive. The novel can pass itself off as a string of sketches, as a comic double act. It’s striking, the number of readers who want me to draw obscene pictures when they ask me to sign their copies of the novel!
But Spurious appeals to other readers for another reason. In its depiction of two failed academics — or rather, two academics who understand themselves to be failures — it dramatises a sense of falling short, of a lack of achievement. I think of something Naipaul says: ‘Writing isn’t a young man’s game. It’s for the mature, the suffering, the wounded — for people who need elucidation’. I want to extend this point to reading, too. For those readers who suffer in the relevant way, who are wounded, Spurious expresses something apposite. These readers laugh at the vehement insults that W. delivers to Lars, and at W.’s self-criticisms, but they feel implicated in these insults and criticisms. They feel towards themselves, in some way, as W. feels both towards Lars and towards himself. For these readers, Spurious affords a masochistic kind of pleasure that is, perhaps, not merely personal. Because the insults and criticisms in question also bear upon the distance between W. and Lars and that Old European culture that they admire, and which makes sense of their intellectual endeavours. A distance which, for me, the reader of literary fiction cannot help but be aware of, insofar as it seems to make literature itself in some way posthumous.
As for the audience for serious American writing — I don’t know anyone who reads it, really. America seems to be everywhere; we are living in an American reality. Which makes me want to read anything but American fiction, however ignorant this sounds. I admit to having very little interest in British fiction, either. It seems to me that everything that is alive in fiction today comes via translation.
Do you place much value on the criticism your work has received? For the past decade we’ve seen a series of cuts to predominant literary magazines and literary supplements, and in response, criticism has moved online. Do you think this move to the non-professional realm has made literary criticism more or less of an isolated cult?
I certainly value the criticism my work has received. The fact that such criticism even exists is impressive to me. Spurious has received many appreciative reviews, including several dozen by readers of all kinds who had to write a short review of the novel in order to vote for it in The Guardian Not the Booker prize. For all that, I must admit, I’d like to see a backlash for Dogma, which is coming out in February. I dream of a detailed take down by Michael Hoffman, as he did for Stefan Zweig a while back, something really cruel … I have a desire to be told off, to be not allowed to get away with it. A desire for the order of the world to be restored, even as I know that it cannot be restored. This, of course, is really the desire for an older literary world, a world of tradition and security from which I feel utterly estranged. It is really a sense of nostalgia and mourning, which is, of course, very much part of Spurious itself. I long for a world in which Spurious itself could not exist, and which would never permit me to posture as a literary author.
You ask me about online criticism. Actually, I think I’ve only ever read online criticism! For a long time, I have avoided the Sunday supplements; although there are exceptions among the individual reviews, on the whole, they exhibit, for me, a kind of ‘common sense’, of what is laudable, worthy, etc. and that alienates me from the things I like. You have to be very strong to resist the appeal of this common sense, I think. Somehow or another — and the internet permits this — you have to find your own path through contemporary culture. You have to dig your own burrow, following various transverse connections between things.
Many years ago, the library used to give me copies of the Times Literary Supplement, which they would otherwise throw away. I kept them in a big box under my bed, and read through them at night. In the end, I found them oppressive. It was the tone. The uniformity of style. The calmness. The sense that every discussed work, every oeuvre, could be woven into the mesh of culture. How unreasonable my view was: the TLS is magnificent, unimpeachable; we should be grateful that it exists — of course we should. But I found the paper oppressive, and still approach it with caution now. A review of Handke’s biography appears — okay, I’ll buy the TLS and read the article. But I’m aware as I read of the necessity of finding a path through the paper. I need to keep getting lost! I’ll read the review, but I won’t read much else in the edition. I won’t leave the TLS lying around in the house. I’ll get rid of it, relieved, and head back to the internet, back to blogs I trust and to online reviews in literary journals. The situation is much worse with the broadsheets — the big name reviewers and reviews, the ‘big beast’ literary writers reviewing one another. I’d never buy The Guardian or The Independent on a Friday, when they do their arts coverage. And I read articles there only if they’re recommended by a trustworthy online source. Get in and get out. Don’t get stuck in the review pages. Don’t internalise the ‘tone’ of these publications. Don’t heed their judgements. Cultivate a kind of educated barbarism instead…
You ask whether online criticism has made literature into a more or less isolated cult. Not really. I think literature itself was already becoming an isolated cult. Bernardo Soares, Pessoa’s heteronym in The Book of Disquiet, writes, ‘I am today an ascetic in my own religion. A cup of coffee, a cigarette, and my dreams can easily replace the sky and its stars, work, love and even the beauty of glory. I have, so to speak, no need of stimulants. My opium I find in my soul’. When it comes to literature, many of us have their own cult, their own religion, their own literary sky and stars. But there is a sadness to this, I think. Our stars are toy stars, like the ones which glow on a child’s bedroom ceiling. We are isolated; we read on separate islands. And reading, for us, is a hobby, a pastime, and little more than that, even if it once meant much more than that.
Nietzsche said God is dead. His fictional persona, Zarathustra, can’t believe the old hermit who still worships God in his forest. Well, for me, literature is dead. And I can’t believe the writers and reviewers, online or offline, who worship literature in their forest…
Have you found it possible to make a living by writing the sort of thing you want to, without other work? Do you think there is a place in our current economic system and climate for literature as a profession?
Making a living by my writing? No! I have a job, and the writing I do is a sideline, a hobby. I use this belittling word on purpose. My literary endeavours bring in no more than pocket money… In some ways, I deserve to be mocked, not because I carry on writing literature without understand its posthumousness, but because I go on regardless of the very real material proof of its posthumousness!
There is something glorious about Kafka’s night-time writing in his room in his parents’ flat. Something wonderful about his obscurity, about the fact that he published so little when his friends published so much. We can read his diaries and letters and think: there’s a man of integrity! That’s what it means, really means, to be a writer! But our impression is dependent on Kafka’s eventual success, and on a culture, his culture, where there was a potential audience for his work all along.
There is, by contrast, something pathetic about my obscurity. The blog, Writers No One Reads, celebrates forgotten writers whose work is barely known in the English-speaking world. But I’m already a Writer No One Reads, whose work didn’t register sufficiently in general culture to be forgotten. I say this without self-pity, rather with a certain amusement. Nevertheless, it is pitiful in some strong sense. I really am wasting my time... Why bother?, I ask myself. But the challenge is to pose that question in the work itself.
How is that possible? It means, for me, the foregrounding a kind of imposture, not only in what the characters say or do, but in the form of the novel, too. For me, my novels mustn’t look like literature in the old sense. I’m not aiming at producing meta-fiction in the manner, say, of ‘60s American ‘high’ postmodernists. Their work, for me, still shows a belief in the novel. It is still supported by the collective fantasy of the novel, of ‘literature’. There was still a crowd before which they performed their hi-jinks. The experimentalists produced tolerable perversions of the still-sacred Novel, and their works could still be taught in the university.
For me, what needs to be exposed, laughed at, is the fiction of literary autonomy, of l’art pour l’art. For me, the literary novel itself is a fiction, existing through a kind of collective fantasy. In our time, the literary novel has to show its efforts to be itself – its sweat, so to speak. The literary novel must show how it hustles for itself, promotes itself. Because it’s become increasingly apparent that there is no ‘itself’, that the collective fantasy which sustained the novel is breaking down.
It might be objected that this breakdown reveals what was always the case: that novel-writing has always involved a performance of novel-writing — an act of belief, a kind of ritual on the part of literary reviewers, literary publishers, etc. This is true. But, still, it is the moment at which this fantasy reveals itself, the moment at which it breaks down, that is crucial. For me, this is what has occurred since the ‘high’ postmodernity of the 1960s, when it has become clear that all the ludism in the world cannot by itself expose the literary imposture. There is a terrible melancholy to this realisation, I think. It opens no new horizon, no fresh world for literature to conquer. Something really has been lost …
This is what, for me, career literary novelists, who understand literature as a profession, never understand. They believe in what they write, and their publishers believe in what they sell, and the reviewers believe in what they review. Good luck to them! The ‘current economic conditions and climate’ will allow them to thrive for a little while yet …
Do you find in retrospect, that your writing reveals any allegiance to any group, class, organization, region, religion, or system of thought, or do you conceive of it as mainly the expression of yourself as an individual?
Is there really a tension between expressing oneself as an individual, and reflecting the group, religion or system of thought to which you belong? The individual is a product; it comes into appearance; it is constituted. What matters is to attend to the process of this constitution, the process of individuation.
Here’s Michel Butor:
“… the writer is not the only author of his work. He is a kind of point of coagulation, a knot in the social and linguistic fabric.”
For me, literary responsibility must take in those forces which constitute us as individuals – political, societal, economic, philosophical, class-based, psychological, physiological and linguistic forces. What we think of as ‘self-expression’ involves all of these. And of course there are other kinds of individual, too — non-human ones, non-sentient ones — which call for some kind of expression. Think of Lispector’s cockroach, or of Cixous’s orange, or of the damp in Spurious … Sometimes I think that the ‘base reality’ of Spurious lies at the level of the damp. The damp is more real than anything.
But, for me, there is something else which calls for literary expression, too. We all know that literature has had, through Romanticism and Modernism, the task of overturning our common-sense reality, of doing something more than faithfully representing that which we take to be real. This task becomes particularly acute when the instabilities in our reality grow so great that they simply cannot be registered by old, secure forms. And the task reaches crisis-point when literature itself, in all its forms, has become inadequate to what is happening around us.
The critic Bahktin argues that a new realm of literature appears towards the close of classical antiquity. Beside the ‘serious’ genres of tragedy, the epic, and history, there emerges a ‘serio-comic’ kind of satire, based on our inability as human beings to know or to contain our fate. This satire lacks any kind of prescriptive authority, because it lacks confidence in the regulative power of societal norms. Unlike the ‘serious’ genres, serio-comic satire is content to describe a fallen and unpredictable world. In our times, I think that the only legitimate literary response to our situation is the serio-comic, where part of the comedy lies in an awareness of the very imposture and ridiculousness of literary writing. But of course, such satire is metasatirical, insofar as it turns upon the means of the satire itself — upon the possibility of a successful literary performance of satire. Such a satire takes itself as its own object. It tears itself apart.
How would you describe the political tendency of American writing, as a whole, since 2001? How do you feel about it yourself?
Over the past ten years, America has been in a state of constant war with a nebulous enemy. This war has extended to fronts throughout the world. Have you considered the question of your opinion on an unending war on terrorism? What do you think the responsibilities of writers in general are, in the midst, of unending war?
I’ll take these questions together, if I may.
Daniel Davis Wood has argued recently that 9/11 demands a break with conventional realism, conventional verisimilitude. Our new reality, Wood claims, demands a new way of acknowledging ‘the irreclaimability of actuality’, and of ‘writ[ing] that irreclaimability into its own aesthetics’. We can understand this in terms of literary responsibility, literary responsiveness: as a continual renegotiation of the contract between fiction and the world. But what happens when literary forms fail? The responsive books of our time are, for me, broken books: books with a kind of auto-immune condition whereby they attack their own literariness.
Why has this occurred? What has happened? This goes beyond the scope of an interview. I would look to David Harvey for a story about neoliberalism. I would look to Frederic Jameson for a story about the weakening of frontiers between ‘high’ and ‘low cultural forms, and about the end of ‘heroic’ art, about the triumph of populism in what he calls ‘postmodernism’. I would draw on Adam Phillips’s account of the hedonism of consumerism.
For me, the crisis to which the broken books of our time respond lies beyond that caused by 9/11 or by terrorism. It is greater than the seemingly permanent ‘state of emergency’, and the vile new euphemisms we have learned — ‘enhanced interrogation’, ‘extraordinary rendition’, ‘black sites’. The civilian dead of invaded countries, the disintegration of order in Iraq, the bully-boy gloating of Bush and his minions, the exculpation of the lackey Blair and his minions, the diminishment of the sense of politics that has resulted from all this: these horrors float on already stormy waters, they take place in the context of a permanent ‘state of emergency’, in which the running of formerly democratic states has been given over to the dictates of the markets.