Drilling deep
Not so much a bloggy week as a giggy one

Slipstreaming Eagleton and selling your soul

To Goldsmiths yesterday evening, for a lecture by the literary and cultural critic Terry Eagleton. Apart from knowing his name in connection with swathes of literary theory, combatively expressed, which I haven't read (I haven't read much of anyone else's literary theory, it has to be said) I didn't really know what to expect. In the event it was the kind of talk you wish you could have recorded, to go over more than once, spreading out the densely-argued points, gathering together arguments that ranged over an astonishingly wide area, and seeing whether it really is as persuasive as it seemed at the time. I suspect much of it would be, and it was also funny.

I still find that most literary criticism, however interesting it is in and of itself, and be it Formalist, or New, or Structuralist, or whatever, says very little to me about what I, as a novelist, spend my time thinking about. But one thing Eagleton said really rang a bell. He was talking about how literary criticism as anyone over forty remembers it - "the minute dissection of discourse" - is dying on its feet. Other, cultural concerns about gender, or sex, or colonialism - fascinating and legitimate in themselves - have taken over as the focus of literary study. He linked this with Walter Benjamin's analysis that in late capitalist societies like ours, when markets have evolved for everything else we can make or do or own, including art, finally human experience itself is commoditised: made into something that can be bought or sold or destroyed or controlled. For this to happen, said Benjamin writing (and dying) as a Jew under Nazism, will be the death of memory and mourning, and therefore of our authentic, subjective, individual human nature and experience.

Studies of the cultural discourse in literature can't alone recapture that subjective individuality, said Eagleton, can't pin down the affective process of reading, can't explain how reading makes us feel what we feel when we read. Only recapturing the detailed processes of language - tone, metaphor, pitch, syntax, rhythm and so on - can enable us to understand and hold onto the mechanisms of transmitting true experience. So, here was the once-upon-a-time enfant terrible of Structuralism - that bogey-man of everyone who still wants to discuss whether Jane should have married Rochester -  saying two things that go straight to the heart of me as a writer.

One: that close reading still matters, because all creative writing is close writing. What we do, word by word, how we chose, discard, speak aloud or brood over individual sentences and paragraphs, is how we transmit the experience we're trying to evoke, whether it's running for a bus or flying a spaceship or giving birth. It's no good trying to write grand ideas and meta-narratives, tragedy or comedy or simply the recognisable textures of everyday life, if they can't be transmitted; if the signals, as it were, are anything less than exquisitely clear.

And Two: that the obsession with the un-invented roots of fiction, the 'real' authenticity, about which I've grumbled in Rogues and Vagabonds  and No Place for the Muffins is, indeed, not a simple matter of 'I need the publicity', or 'Why shouldn't I thank everyone who's helped?', understandable though both those motivations are. You could argue (but I probably only do in my own most combative moments) that talking publicly about which of your 'real' experiences went into the novel, or acknowledging all the incredibly helpful neighbours/family/guinea pigs who went into the making of this book, is actually taking part in the commoditising of experience. By offering your 'real' experience to back up the infinitely more detailed and true evocation of human experience that you've spent a year or more inventing, you're playing the market, offering your personal humanness for sale, instead of your art. The stage we've reached so far is the celebrity culture, the reality TV show, and the misery memoir, which are clearly three commodities in the 'real experience' market. It seems that fiction writers are expected to join in. But what will we do, once we've sold our personal, subjective experience? No matter that once that's happened no one will read our fiction for what fiction does best: creating an authentic, detailed discourse of the human experience that no mere autobiography can hope to match. It'll be too late then to find that we've commoditised our souls.

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