Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory
Zero Books, paperback, 222 pages,
Infinite Fictions begins with the usual apology and embarrassment presented by critics for assembling their pieces in collections; however, the time has come to absolve all reviewers and journalists of this minor infraction. Good criticism is, on the whole, inferior to good poetry, fiction, history etc. but it is still worth reading in itself. True, as David Winters states in his introduction, the form is trivial, but those who are interested will always read it; those who aren’t, won’t. One caveat to that being that this particular book is of little use to the common reader – it’s an inside job.
A literary critic, rather than a reviewer, Winters has found a voice in both established literary outlets, such as the Los Angeles Review of Books and the TLS, as well as the emerging cultural powerhouses of new media like The New Inquiry and 3:AM, where he is co-editor in chief. This book collects pieces from these and other publications from 2011-2014 and display his passion not just for literature but its relationship to continental philosophy: a theme he closely explores through examination of the work and ideas of the novelist Gordon Lish (who once held the surely now-defunct title of literary editor at Esquire) and his influence on the work of several of Lish’s students.
Winters, as a scholar, makes full use of the terminology of his trade, sometimes to overwhelming effect: ‘we cannot comprehend Lish’s contribution to literature without an awareness that composition cuts across ontology not only aesthetics’. That strikes one as a dead sentence, even when put in context, though presumably those familiar with Lish’s work may glean greater meaning from it. However, like all good self-confessed autodidacts, Winters is usually lighter with his touch and can sandwich easy colloquialisms – ‘Hard luck for them’ – between terms like ‘escalatory logic’ and pleasing chunks of knowledge, such as a description of the Greek goddess/concept heimarmene.
Besides such intellectual vaudeville, those readers for whom it is a stretch to remember the finer points of structuralism or deconstruction will find Winters on hand with succinct capsule descriptions. He is also a skilful emulator of the writer under scrutiny, which is a difficult technique to pull off without playing the ham. Consider the following:
‘Such a story starts with a sentence setting an initial condition. The second sentence reconfigures the first, curving or swerving back into it. The next sentence swerves hard still, and so on, always with the aim of raising the stakes, tightening the tautness.’
This perfectly captures the ‘stylistic tactics’ (quoted subsequently by Winters) employed in the short stories of Sam Lipsyte (a Lish protégé). Perhaps I’m reading an intention that wasn’t there, but criticism doesn’t get more exiting than this.
As theorists and theory emerge in all of the fiction reviews in the first half of the book, the collection is weighted towards lit. crit. and familiar arguments surface throughout – not without new perspectives – most prominently the death of literature and whether that demise hasn’t been exaggerated. One interesting discussion of this is contained in the essay on Dogma by Lars Iyer, whose writing ‘seems to suggest that failing to live up to literature may be a means of overcoming it’; as well as ‘something laughably less than literature – but maybe, therefore, something more.’ Well, maybe, but if literature is dead why bother overcoming it? Which is a glib response, but ‘literature is hard to have done with’ doesn’t seem cut it either.
Similarly, on Terry Eagleton’s The Event of Literature and the death, or decline, of literary criticism: ‘to treat literary criticism as a subfield of cultural studies is to miss the specificity of literary experience.’ This is a salient point but equally, and at the grave risk of sounding like a Leavisite, it should not be treated as a subfield of philosophy either. In order to meet their own imprecise, vatic ends, philosophers – one thinks of Theodor Adorno in particular – are always wanting to ‘have done with’ literature. We must impress upon them that to talk about the death of literature, the death of literary theory, is as pointless as talking about the death of fish and chips. Theory is thinking, it is discourse; that is its value and importance, it is never an end in itself.
Whereas literature is, of course, an end in itself – or, as Marvin Mudrick put it, ‘Books are not life but then what is?’ Perhaps, with all this in mind, we can see why the ‘non-literature’ of Iyer and others sits quite comfortably alongside more traditional literature, and this review, however slight its argument, loops along its own circle; like one of Winters’ infinite fictions, with its own ‘inner “infinitude”’.