Friday, July 27, 2012

What do we mean by 'literary'?

In the week when this year's Booker judging panel chooses a wideranging longlist, biased towards the off-beat but nevertheless embracing the apparently traditional farce of Michael Frayn's Skios, Daniel Green alerts me on Facebook to an article on The New Inquiry blog in which Rob Horning denounces the term 'literary'. It might seem from this last that Horning is taking a similar liberal approach to that of the Booker judges, but - although I find the real thrust of his argument hard to tease out  - his position seems, on the contrary, partisan.

He doesn't like the term 'literary', he begins by saying. My initial reaction is to agree (although I often find myself using the term). My reasons are these: while 'literary' can refer to a wide range of kinds of writing, from plain if heightened realism and the well-turned familiar to the wildly experimental and dissonantly innovative, it is too often taken as conjuring up the latter, against which there is a general prejudice. Any use of the term can cause people to assume with no other foundation, and often wrongly, that a book will be too difficult, or unenjoyable, or elitist, and put them off. 'Literary', in consequence, is too often used nowadays as a term of denigration. Secondly, this usage of the term is arbitrary, since forms that are unfamiliar when they first appear - non-linear narrative, for instance - can become familiar (and thus lose their 'difficulty') over time.

Initially, Horning appears to be saying exactly this last. He says that although we think the term defines 'particular formal characteristics', it doesn't really, since what is considered literary changes over time. But here his argument takes a different course, and his article turns out to be based on the assumption that, far from being used as a term of denigration, 'the literary' is a term still embraced as a positive accolade.

The reason for changes in notions of what is literary, he says, is that the literary is a matter of fashion. And the fashions are dictated (not by external factors in society, as I'd contend) but by a 'gate-keeping' literary community intent on 'asserting social power'. It's used, he declares, as 'an alibi for the status aspirations of the people who use it, who want to control its meaning'. 'The literary is what literary people say it is, which is what makes them literary people.'

It's the snobbery of the literary he's objecting to. There's something in this, of course: I remember feeling as child that maybe I could never be the writer I wanted to be, as those novels considered literary - ie given acclaim by reviewers - were set in worlds about which I knew nothing (except from books), middle-class drawing rooms peopled by doctors and lawyers or Bohemian artists. And when my novel The Birth Machine was first published it was hard to get it taken seriously as literature/art rather than propaganda because of its subject matter. It's certainly true that there are changing prejudices around what we consider literary. But it's the use of the term we are apparently talking about, and Horning seems at this point to overlook the fact that 'literary' has in recent years become a term of abuse, that publishers and agents are drawing their hands away from novels in any danger of being considered 'literary' as from hot bricks, and authors have been turning to familiar genres as the only way of surviving. I'm not sure that professing a 'literary' identity has recently given authors much power, social or literary.

Not that Horning purports to be talking about authors. 'The literary never really refers to books but to readers', he says. The point is that 'literary works flatter audiences... lets them pat themselves on the back by rejecting pleasure'. Well, there can't be many readers wanting to be flattered and patted on the back this way if publishers' enthrallment to the market is anything to go by, or if there are, the industry is mistaken and neglecting them sadly. And here we come up against a glaring inconsistency in Horning's argument. To Horning, it seems, 'the literary' does after all mean a specific 'formal characteristic' that is apparently unchanging. He began by asserting that the literary is not the same as the good, that 'any overlap may be entirely coincidental', but here he joins the ranks of those who use the term as an insult and equates the literary with the bad: 'The literary,' he says, 'never lets you forget how literary you are by reading it', implying not only that it always has a certain self-consciousness of tone but that this tone is directed towards nothing but flattering the reader's vanity (and so the author is implicated after all). This doggedly overlooks the possibility that prose designed to defamiliarise can have worthier aims: to draw readers' attention to certain truths about language, story-telling or life (see, for instance, my reading group discussion of Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat). But then Horning has covered that base: 'Such goals are nonsensical, impossible,' he asserts, but in any case, since the literary is a matter merely of fashion decreed by an elite interested only in their own status, literary fiction is unfit to point to the truth. As a result, he says, literary books are never a force for social change and are only ever transient in significance.

Well, I don't know where George Orwell's novels, for instance, or nineteenth-century literary classics come into this. The example he chooses to prove his point is John Updike's Couples. I thoroughly enjoyed his hatchet-job on Updike's overblown prose, but can't agree that the fact that this is how it now seems is simply the result of 'the need for evolving sumptuary laws of culture to fix people in what seems to be their place' rather than wider changes in our social attitudes and consequent changes in the way we use language.

It turns out, though, that Horning isn't ignoring the current state of the market and its effect on so-called literary fiction, but for him it's another illustration of the way that literary fiction is lost up its own upturned nose: those he sees as claiming the badge of the literary he sees also as using the current marketing situation for 'just another mystification of the capitalist value form that orients production not toward generating more material wealth but generating distinction. It justifies poverty amid plenty on the basis of effort directed at shadows — in this case the alleged superiority of some socially coded type of language use'. For me this comes too close to blaming the victim, and his savage description of what he calls the newest literary moves towards endorsement of popular prejudiced and narrow conceptions of the literary: 'arid avant-gardism, formal difficulty for its own sake, genre experimentation, or really anything that the right readers can tell themselves is powerful and new and thus enjoy their own perceptiveness'.

Towards the end of the article, however, there's a change of tone, and Horning becomes almost wistful:  'I used to think you could salvage the term literary by ignoring its marketing usage and reserving it at least personally for those unique artifacts that appear perfect in themselves.' And he ends with what I take as self-irony: 'The reader who purports to be beyond the literary may be the most literary of all, claiming the perfectly camouflaged cultural capital whose value therefore can’t be questioned.' Which makes it all the more mystifying to me that he has expended so much effort in attacking a straw man.

3 comments:

Rohit Singh Jain said...

Enjoyed reading the post, :)

Ellie said...

Thanks Elizabeth - really enjoyed this and wrote this in response. http://litmaglondon.wordpress.com/2012/07/30/what-is-literary-rob-hornings-essay-in-the-new-inquiry-magazines-poetry/

Elizabeth Baines said...

Very good point about literary magazines, Ellie.