The EngLit gaze

Many years ago, I went through a phase of writing down all my dreams.  I quickly got much better at remembering them, to the point where writing down a night’s dreams could take an hour or more and was becoming quite a chore.   And then a weird thing happened: I began to dream about writing down my dreams.   After a long and complicated dream, I would write it down, feel relieved that the chore was done, and then wake to find that not only did I have to write down the initial dream, but the bit about writing it down as well.   The act of writing about the dreams, I realised, had changed the character of the dreams themselves, and I abandoned the  project.

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In this short article, I included the following quote from a book review by Rachel Cusk:

How does the novel become new again? One way is by its movement into fields of life not yet documented.

I’ve not read any of Rachel Cusk’s books, or anything by Jonathan Lethem who she was reviewing, but when I read this I was immediately struck by her notion that the purpose of a novel was to ‘document’ areas of life.  It seemed to me an odd word and an odd conception of the function of fiction, and yet I felt I’d seen the same idea expressed in various ways many times before.  And the more I thought about it, the more it struck me what a recent conception of literature that is.  As I said in the article, it’s difficult to imagine that Shakespeare was trying to document anything, for instance.

Since writing the article, I’ve asked myself another question.  Document for whom?   Who is that looks at novels and works of literature as documentary records of their times?  And the answer, it seemed to me, was academic students of literature.   Of course if you study Shakespeare, or Jane Austen, or Virginia Woolf as an academic exercise, you inevitably read their work as, in part, a record of the times in which they were written, whether or not written with that intention.

EngLit as an academic subject is relatively recent, but many writers now, and particularly writers who aspire to write literature, have themselves studied it.   Even if they haven’t studied it, writers who want to be admired and taken seriously are surely aware of its gaze, aware that in the long run, literature academics are often the ones who determine which works continue to be read and contine to be seen as important.   And perhaps that makes ambitious writers crave the  approval of that particular set of eyes? ‘If those people want to read works of literature as documentary records,’ they perhaps at some level think, ‘then documentary records are what we must write.’

Or it might equally be: ‘If stylistic innovation is what impresses them, then stylistic innovation is what I’ll give them’.   My point here isn’t so much about the specific notion of literature as contemporary record, as about the way in which (as with my dreams) external observation of a process alters the character of the process itself.   Literary academics enjoy intertextuality, for instance (the way one text refers to, and plays with, other texts), and I’ve certainly come across works of fiction that played with intertextuality in such an arch and knowing way that it reminded me of a child trying to impress grown ups.

My hunch is, though, that in the long-run, the great books – the ones that students of literature end up finding interesting in the future – actually won’t turn out to be the ones that played too much to that particular gallery.   After all, whether intentionally or not, any book is a document of its times and any book includes resonances, shadows and borrowings from other works, so, with or without self-conscious gallery-playing, there will always be things for the literary studies people to explore.  And the great books of the past were written without having to consider that particular gaze.

“An academic-led literature is a gentrified suburb,” wrote the Australian poet, Les Murray, and I’m inclined to agree with him.   Gentrified suburbs tend to be pretty and nice to live in, but, with their self-consciousness, their inhibitions, their niggling social anxiety, no one would call them the most exciting places on Earth.

2 thoughts on “The EngLit gaze”

  1. Towards the end of my degree I started to feel more and more that how much we appreciate art and admire the creators has more to do with how much debate surrounded it, rather than any certifiable or comparative value.

    Your post reminded me or a recent news article about Don McClean’s American Pie. Famously the lyrics to the song are open to a myriad of conflicting interpretations and have resulted in several books, many articles and countless debates surrounding the true meaning. McClean, who has always remained tight-lipped about the song (often stating that ‘It means I’ll never have to work again’) is finally releasing his original notes for the song, shedding light on what the lyrics are about.

    What I found interesting though was that firstly the ‘true’ meaning of the song (if you take a true meaning to be that of the artist- one might argue that the meaning is true for whoever holds it) then all those who had debated the song would perhaps be rather dismayed by the news. Don McClean was about to ruin all the fun!

    Also, I felt all the talk of what the lyrics were supposed to be documenting has slightly missed the point of why people were even talking about it in the first place- mainly because it is, by most peoples tastes, a catchy song to listen to. Had Don McClean written all those lyrics but the melody had be insufferably awful and the chorus has not been nearly so easy to sing along to, would anybody even care to talk about the meaning in the first place?

  2. Yes, and the other thing that struck me about the whole American Pie story is the idea that the lyrics were some kind of code which could simply be translated into ordinary everyday statements. If it were really the case that the ‘message’ could be spelled out in that way, then what would have been the point of making them so obscure in the first place? Of course McClean might just have been playing a game, or he may not have really meant anything much at all, but, assuming he meant to communicate something with those lyrics, presumably the words he chose were the best ones he could find. I’ve sometimes had people ask me what one or other of my books or stories were about and, though I do attempt an answer, what I want to say is that they themselves are the best way of saying what they are about.

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