Erudition and the Contemporary Novel

by Stuart Walton

A recent social media controversy generated by a literary editor in New York concerned the degree to which erudition has become a vanishing asset in the world of contemporary fiction. Almost any of the celebrated writers of a century ago — the period of high modernism in Anglo-American and European literature — had more intellectual accomplishment than today's wordsmiths, it was contended. The furious avalanche of objections that ensued demonstrated again that Twitter's reflexes are as instantaneously responsive as those that obey the neurologist's rubber hammer. Numerous contemporary names were brandished in defiance of the postulate, although the original poster felt that some of these – the sci-fi novelists in particular — were only making his case for him. Two principal issues, distinct but related to each other, are highlighted by the fomenting of this debate.

Firstly, a defence of today's writers and their more modest attainments would need to consider the mandates of editors, who are driven more ruthlessly than ever before by perceptions of what the market will swallow. This is equally as true of the theoretically more adventurous independents as it is of the transatlantic behemoths. Editors see erudition as elitist. Anything that confines the potential readership of a book to a certain minimum intellectual level — not a problem with which writers on technical and scientific subjects ever berate themselves — must by definition be exclusionary, too satisfied with displaying its own intellectual credentials to care about its audience.

The problem with this view is that it inevitably involves second-guessing the IQ of the prototypical average reader, itself a cold-blooded financial exercise. There cannot be anybody alive who wants to read work that has been transparently simplified for them, to a level below their own achievements. The condescension of it is excruciating, but it is also an intellectual and creative dead end because, once the upper avenues have been barriered off, those who might have enjoyed the view are left with nowhere else to go.

People, especially those who read regularly, are acquiring new knowledge, new vocabulary, new reaches of cultural reference all the time. Imposing a static level of understanding is the melancholy work of educationalists with a superstitious fear of exclusion. In any debate about what terminology is acceptable, there will always be moments of embarrassment when somebody objects to a particular word that others had happily understood. The recent Twitter debate included people objecting to the word 'erudite' itself as being alienating to the general reader. A few years ago, somebody spoke out in the same forum to describe himself as being reasonably well-read, but had no idea, in the context of the 2015 Leonardo DiCaprio film, what the word 'revenant' meant, his own ignorance standing as legitimate critique instead of the unexpected opportunity to be enlightened.

The second point raised by this passing controversy has more durable cultural significance. If fictional literature is to be more than entertainment only, it must emerge from a critical consciousness that is capable of throwing a light, either directly or obliquely, on a profoundly faulty reality. The simple-minded, guileless recording of what goes on in such a world does no more than become complicit with it, perhaps for its own very clear financial motive, in imitation of the more obviously commercially designed products of the culture industry. The virtue made of transparency in the writing of the 1930s generation of social-realist writers ferments into a vice in an era that assumes nothing more need be said about society.

Sally Rooney's work seems to hark back to the obsessive-compulsive naturalism, the fastidious phenomenology, of the British new-wave writing of the 1960s — Brigid Brophy, the earlier Christine Brooke-Rose perhaps — but without the instinct for formal subversion. The latest novel treats its readers to the most minutely framed observations: 'Slowly the breath left her body and re-entered the room, the breath mingling now with the air of the room, moving through the air of the room and dispersing, droplets and microscopic aerosol particles diffusing through the air of the room and dropping slowly, slowly, towards the floor.' The effect is of a willed alienation, as though, to pay homage to truth, intelligence required only the objectivising of everything to the point where the text becomes a scientifically detached account of a composite reality, noticing the drabbest aspects as well as the emotionally dramatic ones with the same unconcerned neutrality. In passages of email text, where one or other of the female characters is worrying about political and ethical issues, or the patterns of history, the novel clutches at an antidote to its own blankness, pinning its hope on the notion that thought remains alive after all only as a dutiful counterpoint to the banality. As Adorno observed half a century ago, 'Mouthing profundities will no more make a person profound than narrating the metaphysical views of its characters will make a novel metaphysical.'

The short fictions of West Virginia's Scott McClanahan typically take around five pages to narrate some minor unpleasantness in tiny paragraphs, to the sound-effects of a Batman comic ('Shoooooo — it flew through the air almost in slow motion . . . until it started sailing back down and then finally went — SPLAT — against the hood of my car'), before a stunningly unremarkable moral is arrived at. These could be glancing reflections on social estrangement, but seem more like the exhausted brief effusions of a subjectivity hypnotised by its own vacuity, the literary equivalent of the heaps of salvaged trash that were to become the default gallery installation of millennial contemporary art.

Early modernism's attempt to collapse the distance between art and everyday life, which aimed to draw literary production towards unheroic representations of the actual, has today become nothing but a surrender to the actual, which is entrusted with the power to conform literature to its own stultifying procedures, as though the novel were hardly more than a computer printout. Retaining a distantly nagging memory of a literary culture to which it could selectively lay claim, even the more exuberant recent work is ring-fenced by disclaimers. Lucy Ellman's extravagantly uncommercial Ducks, Newburyport was undermined by the publisher's decision to brand its front cover with a bit of press blurb to the effect that ‘Ulysses has nothing on this', the rivalrous prattle of the advertising industry reducing a courageous work to another commodity fighting for its corner of the market. The book's potential readership, many of whom will have read, or made what counts as a valiant attempt to read, Joyce's novel, are to be courted by assuring them that even richer gratifications await them herein, and those who haven't are thereby released at a stroke from the obligation.

The rearguard action that literary writers felt compelled to fight, ever since mass-market melodramatic prose stories, often first disseminated in serialised form, became fashionable, would produce many innovative and signally important works, as well as excursions into the esoteric, empty formalist experiments, and entire libraries of studied melancholia and arid self-scrutiny. They were the intended evidence that literary art is not simply recreational. 'Long after the introduction of writing (and even printing),' the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann noted, 'a concern with purely fictional texts was considered reprehensible.' At worst, what the publishing industry, in a repurposed tautology, now calls 'literary fiction' bears the shame of its determination to escape its own impassivity, while the tripe that fills the bestseller lists celebrates the overdue liberation of the novel from the chains in which all aesthetic philosophy since Kant had tried to restrain it, intellectual refinement being the heaviest fetter of all. Between these poles, literature is undergoing its latest crisis, one that only whey-faced sticklers for relevance imagine is urgent.

Erudition is deeply implicated in a complex understanding of what is the case. It is for this reason that an overly simplistic account of true events is dismissed as a fairy tale. Consciousness, which has been historically damaged, could once use aesthetic means to display its wounds, either by openly exhibiting them or by over-conspicuously trying to hide them. In place of the world into which the hero of the Bildungsroman and the picaresque ventured forth, and from which the autonomous consciousness of the modernist narrator withdrew itself, nonetheless bearing witness to it by hovering only at its unsecured boundaries, arises the barely conscious character pure and simple, hero of its own interior monoblog, a delusional composite of psychological qualities severed from the reality that might have shaped it. Books and their characters are accordingly much simpler, but the fetish for the rudimentary has come at a price. The modern novel, where it has freed the individual from any rootedness in social processes, has turned the untruth of fiction into a lie.