Thursday, March 10, 2005

Literary fiction and imagination

The other day I mentioned the temerity of the muscians who named their project "Edie Sedgwick," casually appropriating the identity of someone defenseless to protect it and theoretically misleading those who see the name in print or in the marketplace. This band would systematically efface the memory of the woman named Edie Sedgwick as those words grew to be more and more associated with their music. Now, that growth will never happen because they play pop music; they have no chance of being especially popular or memorable in our culture and they almost surely they won't even constitute a footnote on the pathetic yet paradigmatic story of the talentless Warhol "superstar" who first (and best) epitomized his famous dictum about our "fifteen minutes of fame." I regretted mentioning them in the first place, and didn't think I have cause to mention them again, except that I started reading J. M. Coetzee's novel, Elizabeth Costello, a purported work of fiction in which he embeds lectures he may have delivered in his own name and attributes them to the titular character, and in which a real-life novelist named Paul West, who I once had as an creative-writing instructor at Penn State, appears. I thought West wasn't an especially good instructor (I wasn't an especially good student, either) and I thought he was a bit creepy as well, and when I read that he was depicted in Elizabeth Costello as a novelist whose works were --wittingly or unwittingly -- doing evil in the world, I wanted to revel in it.

But there's more interesting things going on in the novel, even if you haven't met Paul West personally and haven't been elliptically insulted by him. The reason why Coetzee seems to be playing all these metafictional games and muddying up distinctions between realism and outright reality is because he seems to wondering what the point of fiction writing is, and whether fiction writers have any special claims to a better understanding of humanity or morality, whether they have any business lecturing scholars about anything at all, or in fact, lecturing anyone about anything. It's a novel of ideas that is against ideas, a quintessential "self-consuming artifact." Novelists, Coetzee demonstrates, can so easily elude responsibility for anything they say by simply recontextualizing it, introducing situational ironies, rendering the speaker's voice unreliable in some fundamental way. This is why he brings up West, whose novel about Nazis evokes horrors, makes his readers relive them, but the author appears to abstain from assuming responsibility for the horrors he reiterates. Is he doing something evil in exercising readers' imaginations in this way? Coetzee has his novelist character think to herself that maybe people shouldn't just write whatever they want, and that maybe people aren't necessarily improved in any way by reading "literary fiction" like West's just because it's literary.

This resonates with me, because it's like my complaints recently about imagination being overrated, or the modern fallacy that anything imaginative is inherently good. Imagination in precapitalist eras was the source of malignant demons and acute, debilitating self-regard, the source of hypochondria and dementia and quixotic delusion. It didn't make you "unique" or manifest what an individual you could be. We celebrate imagination now because it helps capitalism thrive; it allows people to accept imaginative pleasures in place of more substantial ones; it helps us replace people with goods. Literary fiction isn't exempt from the problems of commercial genre fiction, it doesn't transcend those books. Literary fiction is a genre, nothing more, and it's defining feature may be that it works the imagination more strenuously, makes one more susceptible to making one's own market-appropriate fantasias, to working with authors, those culture-industry manques, and becoming unduly invested in these imaginary worlds. I certainly don't want the fiction I read to be easy, but I'm kidding myself if I think its difficulty improves me morally or makes me immune to contemporary ideology. That would be like if I believed doing the Friday crossword puzzle in the New York Times constituted real cultural work. Literary fiction is just a harder puzzle, but the puzzles are still just distractions, preoccupations, time-killers. Literary fiction soaks up the imaginative energy that could be used for other purposes -- but alas, just don't ask me what those purposes might be.


  1. I think your generalization on literary fiction is too far-reaching. I like to think that many works of fiction I have engaged in have challenged and been a catayst in my moral and philiosophical growth. For example Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oë had a tremendous impact on me, much as the reading of Foucault's Discipline and Punish. the novel can allow an individual insight into the mindset/perspective of other(s) which is of great moral value.

    So is the book worth reading? I've heard very conflicting reports on Mr. Coetzee.