The cancellation of literature

An impressive proportion of shrinking review space has recently been devoted to the latest novel from millennial Irish author Sally Rooney. A preview of her last, Normal People, nearly put me to sleep, but a quote from her newest, Beautiful World, Where Are You, hits home: ‘We are standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something.’ I needn’t share the angst of her narrator – a successful young author not unlike herself – to relate. It’s obligatory for today’s lit-fic to reflect on its own impotence. Bearing witness. What else should a writer’s vocation entail?

The idea of the writer as observer – once advanced by the likes of Margaret Atwood and Susan Sontag – is now assumed. So what does it mean that, today, more people than ever before are writing? If not immortal prose or bestsellers strewn with Marxist allusions like Rooney’s, then disposable self-published memoirs, family histories, amateur thrillers, travelogues, cookbooks, fanfic and blog posts [picture winking emoticon]. Can we call all these authors observers?

According to Marxist writer Guy Debord (1931–1994): ‘All that once directly lived has become mere representation.’ The commodity has colonised social life, images (from mass media, ads and pop culture) mediate human relations, and ‘passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity’. Debord thought that art and creation should liberate from the spectacle and its capitalist context; that the price put on art is what destroys the integrity of the art object. Anarchist poet Hakim Bey echoes him: ‘The Spectacle… is above all empty. It fuels itself by the constant Moloch-like gulping-down of everyone’s creative powers and ideas.’

The thing is, being a spectator (vs. authentic being) differs in essence from observing (or noticing). Spectator derives from a noun, observer from a verb. The latter, whether as, say, perceptive witness or thoughtful critic, participates; a spectator is simply impressed, like cookie dough or wet cement, or like the reader as consumer, who craves relatable characters or clever plot twists and misses all deeper meaning.

In an essay that takes Beautiful World, Where Are You as its point of departure, writer and cultural commentator Stephen Marche observes a transition re the basis of literary style: ‘The literature of the voice is dying. The literature of the pose has arrived.’ Of course he’s not just talking about literature. And of course this hasn’t happened overnight. Debord bore witness in the ’60s. But what does Marche mean?

Voice is unique. (Hence Centrelink pressures callers to opt in for voice recognition, typical of our government’s MO: present something with scope for gross misuse as a choice, but make refusal too inconvenient, if not intolerable.) A pose, however, can be adopted by any number of wannabes. It identifies no more than group affinity: a stance, subculture, policy or strategy. You can strike a pose by sharing on Facebook, tweeting or retweeting etc. when you’ve identified your market or audience. A pose can be dropped like a hot potato, changed as fast as a hat. An example is cancel culture, a current iteration of political correctness. Take author Charles Eisenstein, denounced by his publisher for anti-Semitism. Forget his Jewish lineage: he sins by invoking the Holocaust with a lone quote from Goebbels and citing persecution of Jews during the Black Death in an essay on the scapegoating of the unvaxxed in the US (a policy adopted by Victoria’s premier). How to debate moral and ethical questions without historical context? Eisenstein responds: ‘If anything insults the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, it is to bandy about weaponized charges of antisemitism to accomplish other ends. To do so cheapens the label of antisemite by lumping real antisemites in with people who are not.’

As investigative journalist George Monbiot writes in the Guardian:

The Nazis embraced astrology, pagan festivals, organic farming, forest conservation, ecological education and nature worship. […] We should be aware of this history, but without indulging… the idea that because the Nazis promoted new age beliefs, alternative medicine and ecological protection, anyone who does so is a Nazi.

Eisenstein has also been denounced by former colleagues anxious to present the sanctioned pose, even if it requires a dramatic about-face. In comparable vein, Rooney has been accused of racism because of things some of her characters say.

But Marche isn’t just talking about literature, and hits his stride once he observes ‘a rupture in political language. A politics of the Pose is replacing a politics of the Voice.’ After a few cheap shots at boomers (Marche identifies as an Xer), he notes that most millennials don’t believe democracy is essential, yet neglects to mention context. While our government in Oz is nominally a democracy, the current authoritarian trend has been gaining momentum for some time. According to journalist Margaret Simons: ‘In a state of emergency, democracies become, to some extent, autocracies’, but in a liberal (not Liberal) democracy, extraordinary powers are terminated with the restoration of normalcy. Uh, would anyone care to define what this ‘normal’ might look like? How will we know when or if we’ve restored it?

In conclusion, Marche interprets the ‘something’ to which Rooney’s narrator bears witness, in the last lighted room before the darkness. ‘All writers today, of all generations, exist in resistance. […] Sinking down into impotent cruelty, we avoid by whatever means available, the deepest darkness: Perhaps we are no longer meaningful to one other.’ (Does he mean ‘one another’?)

It seems to me that writers who’ve enjoyed major publication, even without (as for Marche) much acclaim, are taking the long-foretold death of literature harder than anyone else. If it’s dying, that’s on readers and writers. What’s happened is a function of capitalism. Here’s a quote from Rooney that speaks to his plight:

I was by no means innocent of the slow supplanting drift by which the means to our most cherished and noble ends become the ends themselves — so that, for instance, writing something to change the world becomes writing something that matters to you becomes publishing something halfway decent becomes writing something publishable; or, to give another arbitrary example, finding everlasting love becomes finding somewhat lasting love becomes finding a reasonable mix of tolerance and lust becomes finding a sensible social teammate.

The principle also applies to politics, science, religion and medicine – fields inextricably implicated in corporate ends – even if Rooney’s uncontroversial examples seem distant from, say, government restriction of freedoms with promises to return them conditionally… redefining the meaning of freedom in the process.

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