And So, Ad Infinitum | Review of David Winters’ Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory — Jeff Bursey
As with any collection of essays or reviews, there are aspects to argue against and agree with, which is a sure indicator that Winters sparks interest. —Jeff Bursey
Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory
Paper, 210 pp., $22.95
Readers of new writing increasingly get a fair sense of what is out there, and how it’s viewed, by going to Internet journals or blogs run by reputable, trusted figures, and less and less from the review sections of newspapers that appear dedicated to safe choices. Occasionally an individual’s contributions to book reviewing warrant publication, as was the case last year, with Dzanc bringing out John Domini’s zesty collection that showcased familiar (Gilbert Sorrentino, John Barth) and less familiar authors (Lance Olsen, Dawn Raffel), drawn from over three decades of critical thought. It’s the work of a mature writer who is also a novelist.
David Winters is co-editor in chief of 3:AM Magazine, an Internet journal relied on for news about literary matters, and he is, according to his website, also “…a literary critic, currently based at Cambridge University, where I’m researching Gordon Lish’s influence on American fiction from 1960 to the present. Alongside modern and contemporary literature, I’m also interested in continental philosophy and metaphilosophy, the history of concepts, and the sociology of ideas and intellectuals.” A current book title containing the word infinite brings to mind not endless expanses but defined territories, either because the use of the word here has to be ironic or not serious, or because a contrarian approach rises up inside or is expected to be found in the pages. The three-part division of Winters’ book—“Introduction,” “On Literature,” and “On Theory”—indicates that theory, apart from its, well, apartness or maybe alien(n)ation (so to say) from literature, is an equally circumscribed and vast fiction. Hence, immense space can be conceived, but that thought often crumbles into thoughts of the continent lived on, the country inhabited, the city that hosts the seat of higher learning where metaphilosophy can be studied, or the neighbourhood lived in. In Infinite Fictions, tension exists from the outset.
A banker once asked a group to help define his occupation. “What do you call a parasite that lives on parasites?” Metaparasite sprang to mind. David Markson, in Reader’s Block, wrote: “Horseflies that keep the horse from plowing, Chekhov called critics.” A review of any fellow reviewer’s collection could contain this old verse: “Big fleas have little fleas,/Upon their backs to bite ’em,/And little fleas have lesser fleas,/And so, ad infinitum.” Despite the personal nature of a large amount of literary criticism—at times the confessional tone topples over into the ridiculous—it’s useful to keep in mind that Infinite Fictions is the object in the world that’s under consideration, though imbued with some of its subject’s nature—critics don’t have, or else aren’t granted, the same elasticity with regards to creating personas as fiction writers—but while it may be impossible to divorce one’s own obsessions from the obsessions of the subject, it is also, to a degree, impractical. A literary work of any meaning—and “literary” means anything that uses words, from flyers to a high-flyer like Foucault—engages with its contemporaries, its predecessors, and future writings not yet dreamed of. Or, to speak with, against, alongside, and over fellow fleas.
Terry Eagleton’s The Event of Literature and D.N. Rodowick’s Elegy for Theory frame the section “On Theory.” This is neat bookending in the sounds, in the event closed off by a lament for the dead genre, and the seeming capitulation of theory to literature. From Eagleton’s work, as quoted, mediated, and commandeered by Winters—don’t hold that word against him, or rather, hold it against most reviewers who try, in Domini’s words, to “honor my elders,” since inhabitation of a text is at times irresistible in order to winkle something out of it and make it a fixture in the armature of personal thought—the report arrives that literary theory had its best days in the 1970s and 1980s, and its energies, approaches, and concepts, unsurprisingly, have been subsumed by cultures small and large and integrated into general discourse (such as the way your eye just passed over the word discourse without a mental blink). Eagleton “attempts to retrieve some of literature’s strangeness and singularity” by calling on theory; “…Eagleton makes a persuasive case for returning to what could be called ‘pure’ literary theory… To theorize in this sense is to reassert the centrality of close literary analysis, recovering literature as a determinate object of study, distinct from broader conceptions of ‘culture.’” Free of humility, Eagleton’s view retains its savior complex, that theory is again able and ready, even from its recumbent position, to help literature go wild.
Discussing Rodowick’s book, which “excavate[s] the fossil record of theory, rather than adding another two cents to the increasingly tired arguments ‘for’ or ‘against’ it,” Winters writes that “academic disciplines… [are] increasingly keen to deny theory’s lasting effects; thus, theory is rather ritualistically declared ‘dead,’ and we assume that we’re safely ‘after theory.’” He sees hope in Elegy for Theory: “…perhaps [theory’s] historical closure leaves it newly illuminated, in ways which weren’t possible when it was pressingly present.” (Oppressively omnipresent might be another way to put it.) In this review Winters seems more comfortable, and he is more persuaded, than in his review of Eagleton—whose work he ends by judging as somewhat “diffuse” (129)—hence his writing picks up a bit and the sentences flow better.
At certain times in this section bias overcomes the usually even-handed treatment of the book at hand. Winters’s review of Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels, an insider’s look at Oulipo by one of its two American members (inexplicably, Harry Mathews goes unmentioned), is slightly condescending to the efforts of this group—encapsulated in “even if, like me, you remain unconvinced by the Oulipo, an outsider looking in” (140)—that may be understandable on its own (not everyone likes restrictions and games). However, when explaining the content of Martin Woessner’s Heidegger in America—a “‘reception history’” on how the philosopher’s ideas permeated the thinking of U.S. academic institutions—Winters stays mum on Heidegger’s Nazism, though Woessner doesn’t, and the omission looks selective.
Generally, however, throughout this section of the book Winters appears knowledgeable about a variety of theoretical approaches, and writes with confidence. His appraisals of Franco Moretti and Cathy Caruth are good introductions to the ideas of both, and he has some interesting things to say about Robert Musil when examining Robert Musil and the NonModern by Mark Freed.
Winters is not a writer one quotes for the loveliness of his phrasing. There are no witty expressions and few surprising word choices, or viewpoints that catch one off guard, though there is the occasional alliteration. His sentences lack a firm enough individualistic rhythm, and this may be due to frequent quotations from others, such as when he quotes Derek Attridge using one word, “singularity.” Like environmentalists spike trees with metal, Winters deploys quotations and critics as a defence and bulwark for his opinions. In “On Theory” that habit of thinking or writing choice fits in with the topics, but “On Literature” covers 21 fiction writers who possess styles that leave the quotations from Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu, and others jutting out in ungainly ways.
“On Literature” opens with a review of Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s A Brief History of Yes and closes with a review of Andrzej Stasiuk’s Dukla. It is worth quoting lines from the first paragraphs of each to demonstrate that, as in “On Theory,” Winters has chosen carefully his frame works.
Writing about the work of Micheline Aharonian Marcom is likely to leave one searching for words. Each of her books has been newly, bravely bewildering, in ways that are almost beyond paraphrase. That is, these texts assert such stylistic strength that they seem to resist the language of criticism, or any language other than their own. How can prose so poetically self-reliant, so set apart from our ‘ordinary’ discourse, be faithfully described, let alone criticized, from outside? Confronted with this kind of writing, any critical review—any act of writing about—could run the risk of redundancy.
I won’t say anything about Andrzej Stasiuk, and I’ll try not to say much about myself. About Poland, I’ll say nothing. This text doesn’t need to be contextualized. Equally though, Dukla shouldn’t be subjected to a ‘close’ reading. Perhaps the words on the page aren’t worth as much as we think. What matters is the way that a work presents itself. The experience it evokes; the constellation of images it conveys.
This is not simply something linguistic. Literary language is not what makes literature literature…. Books aren’t what we as readers believe them to be. There’s something beneath the words that we read. With Dukla, one way of saying this is that language is ‘backlit.’ The book is lit up by something shining behind it.
It is unclear what that “shining” background comprises and difficult to condense poetic prose in fresh words. A looming deadline and a waiting editor, as well as the irrepressible urge to provide a partial (in more than one sense) description of what a book does to the mind, in the hope that not too much damage will be done in the rendering, often combine to push scruples out the window. Winters spends several pages on two books he is reluctant to trap, as Domini put its, in “a kind of shrink-wrap that risks suffocating the artwork under consideration.” As a professor of mine liked to say, we must eff the ineffable; it’s a compulsion.
In the review of Dawn Raffel’s In the Year of Long Division Winters offers a view of publishing as well as one of many encomiums to the Great White Wizard whose shadow stretches across this section of Infinite Fictions:
Between 1977 and 1995, the American publishing industry witnessed a burst of avant-garde activity whose cultural impact has yet to be adequately assessed. The years in question correspond to the legendary (and controversial) career of Gordon Lish as senior editor for fiction at Alfred A. Knopf. For nearly two decades Lish was uniquely placed to, as he put it, “indulge my fantasies at the expense of a large corporation.” … From Diane Williams to Gary Lutz, Rudy Wilson to Jason Schwartz, Lish championed writers who challenged fundamental conventions of style and form.
Raffel “is an author associated with what some have called the ‘School of Lish.’ Yet this crude category does a disservice to what are often… strikingly singular writers and works.” Crude it may be, but the generality is enforced by Winters’s frequent evocations of his acquaintance and references to Lish’s literary invention, consecution, which Winters makes clear, while reviewing Lish’s Peru, can be defined as “less a methodology than a metaphysic; a miraculating agent; an instance of spirit or pneuma submerged in the world.” From potential savior and midwife (a mix of Eagleton and Ezra Pound)—in the mini-history above the authors are subordinate to their discoverer—to the mind behind “a miraculating agent”—if readers are not persuaded by this near-hagiography of Lish, then that will affect their opinions on Winters’s collection.
As with most review collections, there are ones that are successful and ones that are not. The virtues of Ivan Vladislavić’s The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories excite Winters as he explores a text that “…is brought into being by the tension between being written and unwritten, where neither ever overwhelms the other. In this way the work doesn’t work out, isn’t resolved into a work, but rather results, inevitably, from a field of forces…,” and his admiration leaps off the page in an infectious way. “Fictive forms preserved in infinite space,” says Winters of Vladislavić’s novel; it’s a remark that also evokes his own book.
Kjersti Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am, a novel that deserves to be much better known, is a well-told sad story about the predicament of its lead character, Mathea. Her state, as well as the calm tenor of the prose, encourages Winters to enter more emotional terrain. Mathea “longs to lose herself in a benignly entropic universe, obeying her mind’s inward pull toward dissolution and death. But an opposite impulse calls her to cling to her life’s specificity, searching for any attributes that make her unique…” This neatly captures the yo-yoing Mathea feels, and is respectful of her movement from one thought to another.
Some reviews fail to convince. Winters declares: “Marcom is not preoccupied with plot; her writing reads more like an open inquiry into her chosen emotion… Hence narrative convention is overturned by something closer to the lived experience of loss: rather like in life, a relationship’s end retrospectively alters its memory.” This review first appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, a home for unconventional works reviewed by unconventional writers for unconventional readers. (Regrettably, there is no clear indication exactly when and where reviews originally appeared nor is there an index.) After reading the preceding paragraphs Winters provides on the risks Marcom takes, it’s unclear what review reader would be so wedded to “narrative convention” or find Marcom so radical.
Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends, and another Lish protégé, is the subject of a review that founders on a misunderstanding. Isabel tells Ned she’s “‘depressed’” and that she likes “‘melancholy,’” and it becomes clear that she treats these two terms as if they are the same. Instead of interrogating this word choice (it could be appropriate for the character) or outlining the differences, Winters leaves untouched psychology and neurological advances on the make-up of depression, turning to a literary theorist for instruction: “In this, [Isabel’s] condition recalls Julia Kristeva’s description of ‘melancholia.’” Summarizing more of Kristeva on this matter, Winters says that in her view “there’s clearly an ambiguity at the core of depression. In their inarticulate plight, perhaps depressives are like failed artists, blocked writers. But by accessing an inner world of poetic expression, each is also an artist in the making… One way of recovering,” Winters continues, “from melancholia is to craft an ‘independent symbolic object’—a work of art.” He has adopted Schutt’s interchangeable use of depression and melancholy. It’s a flawed review that never recovers.
As with any collection of essays or reviews, there are aspects to argue against and agree with, which is a sure indicator that Winters sparks interest.
“Introduction” speaks about the reasons behind this book’s existence, and Winters’s experience as a reviewer. On the cusp of inviting the world to dive into a collection of his writing, he is less sure of himself than is illustrated in the attitudes and knowledge found in the pages ahead. Speaking on how reviewing can contain aspects of oneself, he make the good point (though few will agree with it) that “literary subjectivity isn’t always aligned with autobiography. Right now, I’m writing this in the first person, but I perceive that person as a perfect stranger.” It’s doubtful that “perfect” is any more accurate than “stranger,” unless Winters’s personality changes so uncontrollably it’s beyond his grasp. He elaborates: “Put simply, I’ve never known who I am. Nor do I feel securely in sync with the world. I intersect with it at an abnormal angle—my link with life is dislocated. Of course, this condition isn’t uncommon. I mention it only to emphasize that an initial alienation led me to literature.” If something isn’t uncommon then it’s not abnormal; it can be odd, eccentric, idiosyncratic, and even normal. Not to speak harshly or dismissively, but he must have his pose, as do other reviewers (though see above regarding the restrictions). “I wouldn’t say I give much away in my writing, but some of it still speaks obliquely of secret experiences: depression, religion, unrequited love.” He’s left most of his life outside the reviews, then—or to quote him, “About Poland, I’ll say nothing.” Yet if he’s a perfect stranger who doesn’t know himself, how does he know this, and what trust can be placed in his ideas? In one review he states that “personae in books are merely arrangements of surfaces, much like us.” Why, then has he assembled this book written by other David Winters, and what value does it have? He can’t be speaking from any position of grounded authority, although the reviews themselves carry a greater assurance.
The key to this work may rest in this line from the introduction: “I’ve tried to rationalize my critical practice, but finally it’s about something basic and frail: art as solace.” (Theory has a special place in his world: it is a “totem or talisman; a charm that we clasp to our hearts.”) Solace is a comfort one offers to others, in a positive way, as if to say, “Since art (or religion, or sex, or Pop-Tarts) has been a balm, for me, then maybe it can be the same for you.” This may be the impulse behind the collection. However, considering the role Lish played in getting people published—that is, in making commodities of artists’ utterances—and in furthering the careers of other writers who have gone on to earn money through publishing and/or teaching, it’s unusual that Winters regards books solely as artistic creations. He’s aware that part of a reviewer’s task is to bring notice of novels, poems, essays and such to readers so they’ll purchase them, and many are delighted when their words are placed on a book jacket. (His expression recalls a totally contrary belief voiced by Gilbert Sorrentino in The Moon in Its Flight: “Art cannot rescue anybody from anything.”) Hence (a word Winters frequently uses), the question of whether he has a blind spot here is an open one.
In the introduction’s closing paragraph, Winters talks about the “triviality” of reviews, and about “the vanity of assembling this kind of collection…. Really, they’re only records of my desperate autodidacticism.” In contrast, the last line quotes Bourdieu (a touchstone in this book) referring to “‘a collection of unstrung pearls…’” Wealth and trivia; there’s one more tension. The reviews themselves have little of this nervous throat-clearing, and show, more fully, that David Winters wants to be included in conversations around ideas, letters, and figures that are heard throughout the republic of letters. There’s no need for modesty, real or false, and no need to apologize. “In a way, to write a review is to hide behind what another, better writer has written.” Or to jump on the back of others—like a flea—and draw sustenance and courage from them.
Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the forthcoming picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.