An Open Convergence: On Fiction 2009—2023

The end of the last decade saw a convergence of different aesthetic trends in fiction, each of which sprang from a discontent with the institutionalization of the novel (and the staidness of the novel’s institutions—the prizes, the august magazines, the creative writing programs, even English Literature as it was taught and canonized by and in schools, colleges, and universities) which had various but disputable effects. Since the nouveau roman, realist fiction had absorbed formerly errant schools and traditions, taming the licks of artistic and political dissent, and corralling minimalism and maximalism into a cozy dialectic.

The hedging that felt endemic to the form typified Zadie Smith’s essay “Two Paths for the Novel,” which might have been the first thing I read that articulated the discontent not with individual novelists but with the perceptible horizons of the form. Sure, Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland was as well-written as everyone said it was, with more acceptable politics than any 9/11 novel that had been published to that point. But was exquisite competence all that we were entitled to expect from fiction?

At first, novels eschewed tidiness. O’Neill’s follow-up to Netherland was The Dog, a rambling, deliberately stilted novel in which the author appeared to have surrendered his right to impose a coherent vision upon the author. Will Self wrote three novels that addressed the technological innovations of the 1970s, the decade in which he grew up. Smith herself produced NW which charted a number of potential paths for its author, including Woolfian free indirect discourse, a restrained version of the realism that had characterized her previous novel, and finally and most significantly, a sequence apparently modelled on the numbered fragments of Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge.

This structure anticipated the reissue of Renata Adler’s two novels Speedboat and Pitch Dark and the growing taste for elliptical narratives which operated by an associative logic: Jenny Offil’s Dept of Speculation and Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9—Fog. Prose was pared back to afford greater space for resonance and speculation, sometimes to avoid density or ostentation. According to Brandon Taylor, this facilitated the drifting of “character vapor” over the novel: “what powers such a novel is interior weather…Pith. Wry observation. An accurate recreation of psychological effects under the duress capital.”[1] Some novels comported themselves to the major technological innovation of the first decade of this century (alas, the iPhone, and the related infrastructure of social media), including Olivia Laing’s Crudo and Patricia Lockwood’s Nobody is Talking About This. At the same time, the election of Donald Trump and the result of the Brexit referendum challenged the complacency of established literary taste and its presumption to offer an authoritative picture of the state of things. In Lockwood’s novel, Trump figures as the dictator; Crudo begins with the firing of Steve Bannon as Chief of Staff. Hari Kunzru and Valeria Luiselli wrote novels that addressed the moral crises occasioned by that administration’s gleeful trashing of decency, protections for women, migrants, and Black communities.

Genuinely lovely and elusive discoveries occurred—Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and John Keene’s Counternarratives among them. But perhaps most interesting of all was an implicit challenge to the model of artistry or rather the figure of the professional (or apprentice) novelist who once lay a little to the outside of the published text, and whose perils may even have been lavishly dramatized in the novels of Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and John Updike, but whose increasingly mundane duties and thoroughly deglamorized responsibilities increasingly seemed more appropriate topics of narration. There is a huge difference between the unnamed author-surrogate of Lerner’s 10:04 (not to mention Adam Gordon as he appears in Leaving the Atocha Station and The Topeka School) and Faye from the Outlinesequence on the one hand and Nathan Zuckerman or Henry Bech on the other. The weight of prestige no longer matters so much. In fact, it’s arguably repellent. Now, we see authors heaving themselves between residencies, speaking engagements, interviews, and classes. The tone of self-congratulation has been thoroughly scrubbed away. After all, there’s usually a mortgage to pay or rent to make.

As if to balance out this heaviness, or to prevent it from becoming indigestible, spontaneity once again became an important unstated value to writers. In contrast to Wordsworth’s ‘overflow of feeling,’ however, this 21st century model of compositional haste reflects a fatigue with the expectations and perhaps even the substance of fiction. In an interview with Bookforum from 2013 [2], Karl-Ove Knausgaard describes the impetus of his massive 6-volume autobiographical saga as a repudiation of fiction—and not just of the idea of fiction as a narration of imagined events, but as a codification of formal and moral perfection:

My writing became more and more minimalist. In the end, I couldn’t write at all. For seven or eight years, I hardly wrote. But then I had a revelation. What if I did the opposite? What if, when a sentence or a scene was bad, I expanded it, and poured in more and more? After I started to do that, I became free in my writing. Fuck quality, fuck perfection, fuck minimalism. My world isn’t minimalist; my world isn’t perfect, so why on earth should my writing be? I then did the same thing with every other rule. Show, don’t tell? What happens if you do tell, really try to tell EVERYTHING, and don’t give a damn about subtext? Something else happens, something you can’t control. No matter how explicitly you describe a person or a scene, there is always a shadow in the text, a kind of tone or sound, and that tone or sound is the important thing.

The principle of My Struggle was to relocate creativity not in the writer’s mind or the polished product but in the draft. Often, the energy of fiction, if it was considered at all, was identified in the tension between form and content. But reading this answer from Knausgaard, you realize that writers hadn’t really been talking this kinetically about writing for quite some time. And hardly anyone had been so open about the risks of their approach: “there is a lot of bad writing in there, and also…the book borrows forms from genre literature. When writing quickly, you’re sometimes in such a hurry that you need to take what you’ve got.”

But his aversion to the tidiness of writing wasn’t exactly unique. In an interview for Vulture with Christian Lorentzen, the principal theorist of 2010s autofiction, Elif Batuman described how she happened upon the brilliantly ingenuous comic style of The Idiot as an initially desperate response to a looming deadline from her publisher. Struggling to impose limits on the flashbacks that were needed to ground the draft of the novel she was working on, Batuman revisited an old document which contained a long-abandoned draft:

You see, when I was younger, the content was embarrassing to me, so I devised a style that was supposed to mitigate it. As an adult, the thing I found most embarrassing was the very style that I thought would mitigate the embarrassing content! And the only parts I really cared about, now, were the immediate visceral descriptions of what it felt like to be in those situations. So revision was a matter of letting the stuff that I felt was embarrassing before just be there by itself . [3]

Unlike Knausgaard, Batuman doesn’t express a total aversion to revision. For her, the liveliness of writing inheres in that layer of the compositional process, stopping short of the final polish that by 2015 had started to look increasingly like a period-specific quality. Part of what makes The Idiot such a treasurable book to encounter and re-encounter is the dramatic archaeology of a stylization which Batuman enacts. The texture isn’t just historically or culturally precise—it’s pinned to an exact point in her writerly development, a moment of innocence and unguardedness that ultimately makes Selin far more than the typical authorial surrogate.

Attempting to recover that adds to the great drama of what is otherwise a studiedly uneventful novel. While the first two-thirds of the novel frequently involves a kind of goofy defamiliarization that feels more redolent of New York School poetry than anything else that had been happening in the literary novel in recent decades (“Ralph! I exclaimed, realizing that he was this guy I knew, Ralph.”[4]), in the final haunting section in Hungary (not including the delicate coda in Turkey), Selin’s confidence in her ability to say what she sees grows just as her uncertainty about what she understands around her escalates. 

This reflects perhaps the major and most positive change to Anglophone literary culture of the last decade: the celebration of translation and the discovery of new writers and new modes of reconciliation between literary Modernism and realism. What has happened to the novel over the last decade has more to do with the changing ideas of literary propriety, and, in particular, the relationship between style and content.


Three recent studies have between them articulated the situation that the novel currently finds itself in. Free Indirect by Timothy Bewes bravely defines the postfiction age, which might seem like an erudite and theoretically ambitious vindication of all the trends that have been trailed for the last ten years or more. Except we can’t have it so easily. Bewes’ intention is not to establish preferences of taste but to sketch out a possible new map of misreading that can help us to apprehend ‘the novel’s inherent paradoxicality.’ [5] So much of Free Indirect involves not the elaboration of his provocative and often quite liberating claims but a kind of Shandyesque doubling back upon his own footsteps and the methodological assumptions that either he or the reader might have brought to such a study. He calls these apparent contradictions ‘degree zero’ points and it is hard for the critical reader to articulate or paraphrase them without appearing to suggest that his argument founders upon these gaps. Instead, it requires us to stumble into them ourselves.

While Free Indirect is tilted toward a negation of fiction’s conventions (namely, the novel), its ultimate effect is to make one think that perhaps fiction has finally exceeded the novel. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the transcendence of the principal narrative innovation of Modernism, namely free indirect discourse, from its merely textual or communicative origins:

To “universalize” (or “infinitize”) the principle of free indirect discourse means to consider it not as a formal technique but as a secret wish or propensity of all discourse. As such, free indirect discourse is writing or speech that relinquishes its authority, its earnestness, as a condition of its utterance. [6]

Bewes doesn’t merely describe the attributes of this kind of writing; he spends much of the book rattling the bars of periodization, sometimes seeking to answer, sometimes seeming to evade the implied question ‘when did this postfictional universe emerge?’ Numerous epochal pivots are announced throughout. J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello is “an event in the history and theory of the novel,” [7] largely because of an early metaphor articulating the abyssal divide between; a moment in Howards End represents “a key event in the evolution of novelistic aesthetics in the twentieth century, both because it makes transparent the centrality of the instantiation relation to the organization of the novel and because, in doing so, it destroys the “balance” that the instantiation relation depends on.” [8]. There is a lengthy celebration of Deleuze’s idea of the sensorimotor collapse as the key development in post-war cinema. Only in the final paragraphs of the book does Bewes return to the question of how these various ruptures have shaped the novel itself, nominating “certain works by modern and contemporary authors” [9] that were published between 1970 to 2014.

But this final claim almost feels gratuitous, especially after a long chapter on Jacques Rancière’s ideas of the regimes in which Bewes finally banishes the specter of periodization. What connects Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat with Outline? And why is James Kelman’s A Chancer so exemplary when Bewes has already discussed How Late It Was, How Late? It can’t be a historicist logic.

Earlier, Bewes invokes Jameson's ubiquitous exhortation “Always historicize!”, only to enumerate its limitations which amount to a fusion of formalism and historicism. Jameson doesn't look much beyond the horizon of the text. Even the social totality that mandates his approach is too abstract for Bewes. Perhaps there's an unspoken plaint against the conversion of Jameson's immensely sophisticated into a kind of critical common sense and the difficulty of imagining a mode of literary criticism that exists without reference to the poles of close reading and historicist excavation. If Bewes' intention is to restore some creativity and suppleness to the critical engagement with fiction, then we really should welcome his project, not least because by the standards of saying something interesting and novel, he succeeds.

Page by page, Free Indirect is invigorating, provocative, absorbing. Readings of novels and non-fictional narratives are strung across the book in such a way that allows them the same potentiating force as the theoretical texts which loom larger. He focuses mostly on moments in which the narrator or one of the characters in the work appears to discover the gulf between novelistic discourse and other modes of expression. There is an obsessional quality to his insistence on the importance of these moments for a putative history of the novel which lies on the other side of this particular argument, unuttered by its author.

In a chapter on Sebald, Bewes allows himself a rare opportunity to examine the narrative dimensions of a novel, which I might have thought would expose more of a given text's congeniality to thought. His reading of Austerlitz attends to the way in which Sebald pieces together a life story by reactivating elements that have been introduced discursively in a torrent of relatively straightforward narration. What we know of Austerlitz himself suddenly becomes secondary to the processes between which he and the narrator situate his story within a broader and more accessible historical narrative.

Such a close attentiveness to the fabric of narration doesn't need to succumb to the predictability of formalism. Elsewhere in the chapter, the more intricate (because more compressed) structure of The Rings of Saturn is reduced to a moment in which the contrails of an aircraft prefigure the abyss of non-communication. That image, like that of the bridge in Elizabeth Costello, feels typical of its immediate narrative context, which has been erected to guard against the onset or the temptations of a totalizing silence. But can it be said to feel new? What arrested my attention on reading The Rings of Saturn for the first time was the knowledge that the narrator was incapacitated after his walking tour but before his narration begins.

To anyone familiar with the novel, this might seem a strange place to pause. After all, over the course of the novel, the narrator reviews (but doesn't re-enact) a grim reel of historical horror over a vacant but gentle and even pretty rural landscape. But this absence of incident coupled with the overshadowing knowledge that some recovery has been achieved only allows the reader to share in the queasiness that visited our narrator during the dog days, when he "seldom felt so carefree," but which "in retrospect" supplied him “with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also…the paralysing horror” induced by “the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.” [10]

If we are left to our own devices, and if our lives are temporarily stripped of event and sociality, are we free to think or are we more exposed to the disconsolate texture of reality which must always stand in stark contrast to what we might choose to imagine? I don't think The Rings of Saturn is a cautionary tale against overthinking, but it comfortably occupies an interstitial space between the features of fictionality (the sequencing of imagined events, the conjuration of other people's thoughts or words) and the life of a reader. To the first-time reader of the novel, this passage signals that he has survived, but it doesn't specify the horrors that he imagines, nor does it assure us of his continuing wellbeing after he completes his narration of the experiences. We participate in something like a speculative wellness check. The novel militates against the distance that readers would be able to preserve from a text that makes similar claims even as it erects more familiar markers, like the groynes which reach out from the East Anglian coast, to remind us that this isn't our experience.

But my experience with The Rings of Saturn doesn't contradict Bewes' argument that “the only kind of connection affirmed by Sebald's texts is an immanent one, forged at the moment of the text's composition, in the pages of the very book we are reading.” [11]. Bewes is describing the blurring of fiction and fact that characterizes a lot of literary fiction now but rather than simply enshrining this reality hunger as a principle or exploring the cultural implications, he thinks more about what fiction looks like from a non-imagined vantage point. And this doesn't mean that the incident has to have actually happened, just that the imagining is made apparent without being represented exactly, which he frames as “a solution arrived at provisionally and in specific circumstances.” [12] This clears us to access “a postfictional universe in which it is no longer possible to distinguish the person writing from the person represented.” [13] 

This blurring is not a new aesthetic experience - think of the second half of Don Quixote. What makes Sebald unique is the chain of narrative association that he strings across this narrow, sombre but fundamentally ambiguous ravine. What is at stake is the writer's ability to isolate and elevate moments of heightened significance; and then the reader's ability to construe something from that significance: “[e]xemplarity...is always under pressure in the novel; exemplary relations never demonstrably exhaust the elements of the work, even while exemplarity ensures a level of semantic stratification without which every novel would be meaningless, unreadable.”  [14] 

By this, Bewes doesn't want us to take the person represented as a mere authorial surrogate. The last thing he cares about is authors' opinions or whatever it is that they think they think. Something occurs in the moment or process of composition that is legible but ultimately resistant to paraphrase. To give us the opportunity to see this historically, he describes what he calls the instantiation relation as fundamental to the organization of the novel—not a form itself, it is nevertheless made possible within form. This relation presumes a kind of unity between the subject of fiction and its sphere of address; it touches upon ideas that are not explicitly articulated in the text itself but without which the text would be illegible. Bewes calls this instantiation which refers to “an idea (a connective relation) whose presence is signalled in the work without being articulated and on the basis of which a claim is made, implicitly or explicitly, for the work’s social significance.” [15]

What has happened recently (how recently is a question that Bewes cleverly though perhaps not consciously avoids stating) is that this logic has collapsed within the novel, under weights and pressures that are historical and even ideological in nature, but which must never be entirely apprehended as such even if they “imply an incipient awareness…that the conditions of speaking and writing, the opportunities and limits of literary expression, have changed irreparably.” [16]

This feels undeniable and needs little hedging from Bewes about whether or not writers of fiction feel this. Indeed, many of them take this as the premise for their work. But is this awareness limited to those concerned with literary expression? Even if it is, why should it be restricted to the shape that fiction takes when it has been published? What’s to stop us from viewing a Substack or an email chain as a mode of fiction? These emergent media have certainly established themselves as discursive layers in the contemporary novel. But why should publication serve as a threshold for the kinds of non-subjective thought whose contours Bewes traces?

Bewes wants us to see the novel not as a form but a logic but this raises the vast question of whether the thought of fiction needs the novel to sustain its inarticulable possibilities. He's happy enough to confirm that "the term applies to films, artworks, and critical and philosophical writing as much as to literature" [17] but then partially retracts the significance of this opening:

Nevertheless, it is contemporary novelistic production that enables us to think most immediately the existence of this logic, a logic that, I will argue, is immanent to the form of the novel and as necessary to it as the logic of instantiation. Postfiction is a name for work—of whatever genre—that helps us to think (and thus think outside) the logic of instantiation. [18]

Why though? What distinguishes the novel as a unit of literary expression? By holding on to this fact - not just the tradition of cultural production as recounted in Ian Watts' The Rise of the Novel, but those novels which Bewes has read and considered important for his study—he cannot help prioritizing the form of the novel over fiction itself. The idea of the novel becomes a stand-in for the whole that is apparently about to disappear over the historical horizon. He’s careful “not to translate the absence of an instantiation relation into the presence of a noninstantiable relation or the presence of an instantiable nonrelation” [19] but it’s hard to confidently affirm that he achieves this.

For someone who is both sceptical of the results but sympathetic to the impulse behind Free Indirect, it is frustrating to be told that none of the book’s claims “can be historically substantiated or verified.” [20] He particularly tries to guard himself against the possibility that there might be texts that at least seem to contradict his argument, yet the biggest challenge is that there is perhaps too much proof. The speculative possibilities of his study are somewhat foreclosed by his confidence that the limits of form can be so readily identified. Maybe they can. Indeed, it becomes rather hard not to see them around every corner of the canon.

This is perhaps why he needs his ruptures and also why they need to be at least partially grounded in some historical experience. For those who can’t go without the comforts of ideological criticism, he proclaims that “in dispensing with the instantiation relation, the contemporary novel makes visible and overcomes the predominant aesthetic ideological of the postindustrial, “neoliberal” world.” [21] Later, he assures us that, while the postfictional novel depends upon discontinuity, it is itself “a continuation of the historical trajectory of the novel” [22] The agonizing over periodicity reflects not so much Bewes' reluctance to affirm that there are characteristics and qualities that are particular to the contemporary novel but his preference for a hazier, more adjustable barrier between the contemporary and its other (which, weirdly, in the Sebald chapter is presented as Bleak House).

Deleuze's conceptualization of the sensorimotor break that occurs in post-war cinema is a little more precise. Indeed, film offers a sterner, more serious alternative to prose:

the sensorimotor break dismantles at least three conceptual relations on which narrative cinema depends: it liberates thought from "action," whether imminent or deferred; it uproots thought from its supposed seat in the brain (a center of [in]determination); and it frees cinema from the task of representing thought, from reference. Thus, thought is no longer implicated in any subject-object relation. The sensorimotor break announces the arrival of a thought that has no obligation of communicability or comprehensibility, for it is a thought that is wholly free of “intent.”  [23]

As a characterization of the changes in post-war cinema, this is unobjectionable. But is the freedom from reference as total as either Deleuze or Bewes suggests? Producers, directors, screenwriters, and cinematographers spent around three decades creatively steering their way around various technical challenges (not least the absence of sound) to establish a version of narrative transportation that could serve audiences and directors alike as a working precedent.  

Bewes reminds us that Deleuze himself heavily qualified this break by reading it across different national cinematic traditions, each of them subject to their own unique historical pressures, each of which were generated by the end of World War II. To Bewes, this disparity only proves that “the “renewal” of the image is…the discovery, by the cinema, of effects and modes of thought that are immanent to it.” [24] Since we’ve already been disarmed of Jameson’s trusty maxim, all that remains is for the deflated cineaste in me to point out that there’s a big difference between, say, Antonioni’s work, which the sensorimotor break plausibly describes, and Wenders’, which is ultimately too romantic to entirely displace the kinds of sensory relationships that Deleuze’s theory relies upon.

Nevertheless, a comparative study of film and the novel is useful, if only because the former has increasingly served writers as an ideal for narrative impersonality and an outlet for creative escape. Alain Resnais’ collaborations with Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet or Béla Tarr’s work with Laszlo Krasznahorkai might be exemplary but they demonstrate one corner of film which depended upon the restlessness of novelists for their own unique effects.

Recent novelists have returned the favour. Deborah Levy cited the movie adaptation of The Swimmer rather than John Cheever’s story; the title of Niven Govinden’s Diary of a Film promises a Deleuzian stream of flickering images and vignettes which the book’s narrative, coiled around its clever intertextual relationship to that respectable avatar of fiction, William Maxwell, as well as its echoes of the peripatetic narratives of Sebald, Cusk, Richard Linklater, and Gus Van Sant, doesn’t deliver; Joanna Walsh’s My Life as a Godard Movie is technically an essay but Walsh fictionalizes herself in her survey of Godard’s oeuvre. From afar, film offers a prospective displacement from the mimetic pressures of the novel and a decentring of narrative authority. But even brought up close it seems too distant and unworkable a model for artists who can’t do without the terminal comforts of continuity. Those gestures at personal narrative form and biographical unity (‘diary of a…’, ‘my life as a…’) ironically don’t usurp the authority of fiction; they simply underscore the vital need for novels to rescue narration from its own unending logic. It’s almost as if the novel can’t do without a subject. Prose fiction, and the novel in particular, simply has too much mud on its boots.  

Bewes would see in that ambivalence evidence for his attention to the dramatic interstices of postfiction but it’s tough to transfer cinema’s discovery of its own immanent thought for a reading of the novel’s history. He admits that “no principle in common underlies the sensorimotor collapse and the free indirect” [25] but I suspect mostly because he wants to avoid the instantiation of this parallel. In any case, he touches back on theorists of the socialized relationality of language, such as the Marxist linguist Valentin Vološinov, whose concept of the ideologeme was similarly useful to Isobel Armstrong in The Radical Aesthetic. There’s something defeatist or perhaps even practical in Vološinov’s formulation which is perhaps why Bewes tilts a little more in the direction of the more familiar voice of Mikhail Bakhtin.

Does the universalization of free indirect discourse stand in for a kind of updated dialogism? It’s tempting to watch this ramify across the emergent forms of media with which the novel is currently engaging but perhaps the porousness of experience, the absorption of one person’s story into another’s structuring, collating worldview is what is truly significant in the contemporary novel. Fiction is nothing if not companionable but if it is harder for everyone involved in the relationship to suspend their disbelief about invented characters and situations, perhaps the task for writers now is to overload their readers with the forms and affects of plausibility.

This might explain why Bewes circumvents High Modernism. A study of contemporary fiction isn’t obliged to mention it but perhaps it should if E.M. Forster is presented in such a pivotal role. It’s hard to imagine a novel that has wrought a deeper rupture in notions of novelistic possibility than Finnegan’s Wake, for instance, but Joyce is only ever mentioned in relation to the fictional Elizabeth Costello’s novel about Molly Bloom. With the exception of James Kelman, the writers whom Bewes cites are stylistically legible and easy to read. Perhaps the great suspensions of perspectival authority that are so fundamental to The Rings of Saturn, the Outline novels, and Elizabeth Costello can only be achieved in supple, wilfully spare, translucent prose.

If the logic of the novel is “a thought that is always emerging,” [26] what are we to do with individual works that seem to constrain the perpetuation of this thought? How does one think through novels that seem to reel back from their own abyssal discoveries? There are some novels that recover confidence in their own enunciative capabilities. Take the following passage from Megan Nolan’s Ordinary Human Failings:

When he tried to recall the anxiety he must surely have felt, there was nothing, only smooth absence. For a while, later, this was the focus of his agony: that he couldn’t recall feeling even slightly bothered about what would in a matter of hours fill him with a degree and quantity of shame which he had never withstood before. The mystery of his missing anxiety plagued him in the aftermath, as though there was some moment of transition he could identify if he looked long enough, between the unfeeling person and the feeling one which followed. How could it be, he thought frantically, how could it be that the same situation hours apart could affect him with such wild difference?

But it was true, and there was no mystery to solve. There was no key moment, no switch flipped. [27]

In this passage, Nolan has Richie articulate the booby-trap of characterization, skirting the cogency of his own interiority half-entranced, half-terrified. His rejection of this mystery doesn’t expel the non-instantiable thought from the narrative encasing him, but it does illustrate how easy it might be for novelists themselves to thematize or, worse still, instantiate Bewes’ claims.

Then there’s this moment from Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive in which the narrative turns pedagogic as the narrator explains to her son the rationale for their family’s journey across the States.

So what does it mean, Ma, to document stuff?

Perhaps I should say that documenting is when you add thing plus light, light minus thing, photograph after photograph; or when you add sound, plus silence, minus sound, minus silence. What you have, in the end, are all the moments that didn’t form part of the actual experience. A sequence of interruption, holes, missing parts, cut out from the moment in which the experience took place. Because experience, plus a document of the experience, is experience minus one. The strange thing is this: if, in the future one day, you add all those documents together again, what you have, all over again, is the experience. Or at least a version of the experience that replaces the lived experience, even if what you originally documented were the moments cut out from it. [28]

Luiselli’s idea of documentation evokes Henri Bergson’s idea of the “aggregate of images” from which the personalized perspective is a delimited subtraction. But ‘the strange thing’ is a similarly mysterious pivot to the non-mysterious, a distant but not reachable point in the future at which the aggregate of documents finally supplants the experience they were meant to capture but only seemed to arrest. There’s the tempting hint here at an infinite artwork, which Luiselli’s narrator admits would represent an absolute turn away from the particularity of the experience in question, which can, eventually, be repeated but only if all the documents are pieced together. This could be the silhouette of the non-subjective thought that Bewes, in his chapters on Deleuze and Rancière, delineates. But in the novel, as Bewes reminds us in his discussion of Elizabeth Costello, these individual ideas sink back into representation.

Bewes’ notion of postfiction “as an evolution in the modes of critical reading” [29] and, moreover, one that has been enabled by recent innovations in fictional discourse, is much more persuasive than his claims about those innovations. Not every novel speaks its anxiety about its own authority and those that do don’t do so in the same way. The relaxed dialogism of Howards End reflects Forster’s two-cheers approach to everything, while Coetzee’s austerity progresses through his oeuvre, with each new work seeming to emerge further in the distance from the last. But novels seek out each other’s company and perhaps the allusiveness that exists within and between them occurs along the plane of conceptuality rather than mere textual resonance. Is that the great thought made possible by the novel and iterated endlessly across its published works? Bewes is much too heterodox in his approach and far less driven to create a self-contained system of reading than, say, Harold Bloom, but without the mediations of formalist or historicist criticism, we’re simply left with the truths presented by other texts.

Ultimately, Bewes can do without neither ideological nor formalist criticism. His approach is as relational as the novel itself. If its logic is simply to unfurl the inexpressible, then what distinguishes it from other forms of socialized communication? Following the grain of Bewes’ argument, it is possible to see the contemporary novel’s interest in emails, posts, and messages as a tactical ploy to recover some of the provisionality that it lost at roughly the same time as the artistry of film refracted into multiple radical possibilities. But Bewes’ implicit need for the threshold of publication, for the novel to be separate from other modes of narration or textuality that depend upon the instantiation relation, invites further enquiry about what a novel is. His study can help but only if we can work with some of the things it strives to suppress. The real achievement of Free Indirect is to restore to the criticism of fiction some of the plasticity of lyric. This is something that novelists and short story writers have been reaching toward and it’s likely that Bewes is ready for new thoughts that might be enabled by as yet unpublished novels.

The bracing optimism of Bewes’ approach ought to be read alongside two studies that attend to the materiality of cultural production. While the authority of literary expression has been temporarily suspended within the work, it hasn’t yet been revoked outside of it. But this doesn’t mean that literary fiction carries as much cultural weight as it used to. Two recent studies, one of which might be described as historical, the other ideological, leave one feeling much gloomier about the potential of the novel. In the preface to Big Fiction, Dan Sinykin seems to share Bewes’ resistance to the tired (and possibly already retired) critical assumptions about how the meaning of fiction is constructed when he declares his intention “to respect the author whose name adorns the front cover by returning her to the milieu from which she sprang.” [30] So far, there’s nothing here that would seem that radical to an American or British critic writing in the generation or two after the great decentring of poststructuralism. But Sinykin’s brisk, genial, and occasionally comical study is far from iconoclastic. He’s as good as his word. Big Fiction is nothing if not respectful of the author’s intelligence. We’re all in on the joke now.

The characters who enjoy the most freedom in Sinykin’s story are the editors, publicists, booksellers, and agents who at first helped to make American letters into a vehicle for cultural prestige and then detected enormous economic opportunities in the industry-eating changes that convulsed the American economy from the 1950s onward to reshape the role of books in public life. The scope of the novel is almost exclusively American, although British authors like Patrick O’Brian play a part, and there is a recognition of the broader global trends that have inaugurated these changes (as signalled by Random House’s eventual takeover by the German conglomerate Bertelsmann in 1998). But against the impersonality of these largely economic forces, Big Fiction reads like a biographical survey, not just a group portrait of the people who shaped the cultural fortunes and aesthetic vitality of published fiction, but a study of those who are able to reinvent themselves because the very structure of the cultural and economic space around them allowed them to. We watch countless industry players from Jane Friedman to Sessalee Hensley progress from entry level jobs in publishers or bookstores to positions of hitherto inconceivable influence. We see Toni Morrison’s transformation from an editor at Knopf into the published allegorist of her situation “at a major house for sixteen years, who fought for black writers in a sea of whiteness, who was more or less accused by other black editors of being a race traitor.” [31]

It's in his sensitivity to the possibilities available for writers of color that Sinykin’s study provides a sobering check against Timothy Bewes’ celebration of the absolute freedom afforded by novels. If we start from the unobjectionable assumption that “publishing runs by tacit consensus” [32], how are we to participate in the emergent thought of the novel? It’s non-subjective, for sure, but can we truly understand it without at least attempting to understand the formation of consensus or the means by which it becomes tacit? Would ignoring these thoughts or their traces help us to finally think the unrepresentable thoughts that novels are preparing us to encounter? When it comes to individual readings, Sinykin hones his own version of the historicist-formalist critical idiom. He contends that novels either allegorize or polemicize the conditions of their production. As the fiction published by conglomerates “came to display…a systematic intelligence, a systematic authorship” [33], their “success came to depend less on simply knowing the right…and more on one’s capacity to accommodate in one’s work the demands of the system.” [34] This isn’t just a matter of an author being told what to do but of authors either anticipating or comporting themselves to industry expectations, usually by folding genre elements into narratives that mount the kinds of social critiques usually expected of literary realism. Illuminating capsules on writers like Renata Adler, Alison Lurie, and Cormac McCarthy demonstrate how conglomeration encoded itself in forms that strove to balance the prestige of literary quality with the urgency and therefore the commercial viability of genre fiction.

He doesn’t spare nonprofit writers like Percival Everett or Karen Tei Yamashita, whose work ironically bends toward the liberal expectations of their publishers. It’s understandably beyond the purview of Sinykin’s study to look beyond the framework of conglomeration but I would have liked a little more reflection on the role that publishing, and literature more generally, now plays in the formation of anti-racist discourse. Some of it is as subtly inflected as Everett’s playful coordination of different fictional genres (in particular, the way that he inverts the generic expectations of literary realism in novels like Wounded and So Much Blue or short stories like ‘The Appropriation of Cultures’); some of it is directly confrontational, as in the various paratextual interventions from individual writers like Viet Thanh Nguyen or the groups demanding accountability from institutions like the Poetry Foundation; some of it can be discerned from the Rushdie-esque manipulation of registers and grammars of historical representation that distinguish novels like The Sympathizer, The Sellout, and We Love You Charlie Freeman.  

But this attests to the immense suggestiveness of Sinykin’s work. Only books by authors from the truly independent, worker-owned W.W. Norton wriggle free from this interpretive lens but this doesn’t mean that their meaning or success can be detached from the circumstances of their publication. There’s an interesting and illuminating little snag though in his description of autofiction, which he traces back to the 1970s and a series of works by prominent women writers including Renata Adler, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Maxine Hong Kingston. The pressure to write autobiographically is the single biggest artistic trend that Sinykin charts in the Trade section of Big Fiction and it’s furtively thrilling to weigh Hardwick’s marmoreal style against the way that Danielle Steel was rocketed to the status of national celebrity.

For Sinykin, “autofiction is the latest name for a long-standing novelistic practice in which the author uses their own life transparently as the source of their story” [35], which feels right but there’s an implicit historical difference between the recent nomenclature and the long-standing practice. Sinykin’s examples collapse together Nabokov’s Pnin, the subject of a particularly fanciful reimagining of the author’s life, and Sheila Heti’s Sheila Heti, who inhabits something akin to the textural equivalent of David Blaine’s Plexiglass box but teasing out the differences might tell us about something more than the expansion of conglomeration. Are Jen Fain or Kate Ennis, the narrator-reporters of Adler’s two novels autobiographical ciphers or convenient surrogates for a string of exercises in style? Adler herself stated that she had been inspired by John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which doesn’t exactly settle the matter but suggests something more “ambitious than.” 

What perhaps distinguishes the present phase of autofiction, which began shortly after the Great Recession of 2008, from the autobiographical novelists of the 1960s and 70s is not just an historical rupture but a rupture within an author’s oeuvre. Novels and novel projects like How Should a Person Be, Leaving the Atocha Station, Outline, and My Struggle were posited either as rejections of an author’s previous ways of doing things or attempts to radicalize the form of the novel by mimicking or incorporating the forms of private documentation into published narration.

It’s possible that the fragmentary and discursive style of these novels seems autobiographical even when the content is not. The feminist autofictions of the 1970s anticipate the innovation of more recently autofictional novels without the degree of self-exposure (at its extreme in works like Megan Boyle’s LIVEBLOG) but also the rejection of the traditional formal markers of artistic distinction—polished style, intricate, psychologically-driven plotting, sophisticated social commentary—and thus of the post-war literary middlebrow. The novel was simply doing what it had always done—forcibly reconciling a contemporary vernacular with the artful refinements of literary language. Perhaps even before Flaubert, the hero of any given novel has always been its own style, its precise calibration of the socialized medium of language into a distinctive if not entirely personal mechanism by which the right words are selected to appropriately render their settings. Whatever purpose or aims its protagonists struggle toward, the true result of the quest can be gauged in the cadences and flourishes of its final words.

The difference now appears to be not just that novels regularly thematize their own contingency but that they presume the disposability of language as a condition for their utterance. Whatever had once seemed embarrassing or bland is now urgent. Perhaps the allegorization of this movement needed the apparatus of conglomerate publishing to resonate. In Outline, the economies of scale and streamlining are represented in the unique font and paragraph-spacing, and not just in the way that Faye’s perspective absorbs the confessional leaks of her interlocutors, or the trilogy’s sidereal glance at contemporary history.

The result was a more sceptical narrative idiom, one that seemed to nurture new critical capabilities. Novels that attempted to present a social problem by characterizing a milieu that typified it seemed drastically anachronistic. And with good reason too. So many novels from the previous decade had attempted to respond to 9/11 and its nation-shaking aftermath but in so doing had only exposed the fragile authority of literary fiction’s presumptions to diagnose a broader state of social, political, or cultural affairs. Writers could achieve more cogent and more honest political statements by attending to the minutiae of their daily lives.

Many of the trends impelling autofiction, the aggregate of preferences and dislikes, came from minatory spaces like alt-lit, various poetry scenes, or the new interpretive communities created by translators. They were eventually harnessed by trade publishers, mediated by new outlets for creativity and curation, like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram. Viewing the successful translation of boomers like Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates into the online vernacular, Sinykin acknowledges that “one effect has been to intensify cultural fantasies about authorial genius and to further elide the industry and its labourers who bring work to print.” [36] But has the traffic all been one way? Is it not true to say that social media has presented a newer, larger, and more porous window onto the counterculture at any given moment (well, maybe not now—thanks Elon!), and, as a consequence, allowed conglomerate publishers to harness and commodify those energies?

The success of Sinykin’s approach is to personalize those energies without romanticizing them in the way that writers have always been. As well as gently nudging us away from the abyss of non-represented thought, he encourages us away from despair about the prospects of the art form. But perhaps to complete our picture of the contemporary novel we need to acknowledge the state of the frame within which it and the backdrop of the publishing industry is enclosed. Anna Kornbluh understands this. Immediacy, or, The Style of Too Late Capitalism, her compressed but impressively detailed survey of contemporary culture’s insistence on immediacy, homes in on a cultural style “which…through the imprint of its efforts and constraints…outreaches what might appear as the merely aesthetic or idiosyncratically individual and, rather, piques social and collective dynamics—like how work is organized, how creativity is exercised, how value is assigned.” [37]

Style is perhaps the single most important register of the changes that have taken place in contemporary fiction and, again, this has something to do with the online realm, which occupies an interstitial space between the composedness of prose and the protean mutability of vernacular speech. Language on social media partakes of both, often affirming the intelligence of the poster inhabiting tight space constraints, while evincing a throwaway quality that inscribes a version of plausible deniability into the sentences, fragmented phrases, or knee-jerk replies by which discourse is instantiated and sustained.

It’s a vehicle for a kind of never-ending conceptual churn although its vocative, non-descriptive qualities mean that, so far as the authority of writing is concerned, no insight is binding, no position fully committed. Instead, its benefits are for a kind of collective authorship, similar to that documented by Dan Sinykin, whereby memes acquire a weird expressive currency (‘this you?’ as a universally recognized abbreviation for hypocrisy, for example), and quote tweets and replies enable a palimpsestic utterance. The illusion is one of near-absolute transparency. Kornbluh argues that we are now deluged with cultural productions that “imagine [themselves] unstyled” [38] and embeds these developments in a different kind of systemic authorship that extends to the financialization of the economy, the consolidation of supply chains, and the advent of streaming technologies. For the most part though, Immediacyorbits the innovations in contemporary fiction, poetry, and autotheory that provide (sometimes inadvertently) a kind of emotional rationale for their intensified modes of production and circulation.

Chief among these is, perhaps predictably by now, autofiction, which Kornbluh argues “functions as the conspicuous self-justifying wing of contemporary literary production’s unprecedent preoccupation with the “auto,” across a variety of sole-proprietor genres ensuing from the industrial restructuring of publishing, journalism, and academic labor.” [39] But Kornbluh slashes the canvas. She’s alive to the broader and cataclysmic crises of scarcity triggered by climate breakdown. Behind all these changes lie the swirling pools of water and uninhabited hinterlands needed for virtual technologies that promise instantaneous access to any number of cultural products or services.

Autofiction can’t possibly represent that landscape. Instead, we get the vacant conference centers, campus offices, and cramped apartments that are the sites of contemporary literary production. What we lose is mediation—the ability of a work to intervene and to interrogate as well as to describe, to facilitate the reader’s speculations as well as reflections, allowing them to pause and sometimes to struggle. “Nothing more than what phenomenally exists can be produced; all that remains is fluid, effulgent, sui generis exchange. Fiction, narrative, impersonality, and collectivity withdraw; reality, voice, personality, and atomism ascend.” [40] Kornbluh is not merely venting her frustration that there’s nothing good to read or teach now. She doesn’t actually think everything is bad, although her torrential, hyper-detailed prose, itself designed to shadow the algorithmic thought patterns conduced by immediatization, might lead one to suspect so. Immediacy is, texturally at least, a litany of bummers.

But aside from her opposition to the endorsements of imaginative downsizing from writers like Knausgaard and Cusk, we find and are encouraged to share in her disappointment that narrative artists just don’t offer much dissent to these changes, and indeed appear to be grateful for them, give or take a few sad face emojis about impending climate breakdown. I was reminded of the no less exhilarating but far more optimistic All That is Solid Melts into Air by Marshall Berman. Reading the two books together, one wonders whether writers have forgotten the relationship of Modernism to modernity, and that what we get from novels that either mimic or absorb the changes in communications and textuality is exactly the kind of unreconstructed realism we all got so upset about over a decade or so ago. Kornbluh wants to remind us that narrative artists can “resist rather than insist upon this logic” of “circulatory flow.” [41]

Some of her targets feel a little convenient. First-person narration is obviously the staple of autofiction but also of the monologue novels of Thomas Bernhard which have influenced so many of the forebears of autofictioneers (including Sebald, Handke, Marias, and Krasznahorkai). Bernhard offers a kind of ironized testimony, closer to the unreliable narration of proto and High Modernism, entailing a highly stylized and frequently ugly performance unravels deeper emotional truths or intellectual discoveries. His work has influenced any number of Anglophone writers, including Cusk, but others such as Patrick Cottrell, Geoff Dyer, Jen Craig, and Donald Antrim. Page by page, the cognitive rhythms arrest, baffle, and constrain the reader’s attention, but they often nestle within a simpler or surprisingly elegant psychological or imaginative conceit. Others of Kornbluh’s examples can be said to offer some form of mediation, whether it’s through a deliberate scumbling of syntax or strategically opaque symbolism (I’m thinking in particular of Milkman and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian).

We might want to know a little more why she’s making these distinctions because it hasn’t always been true that the first person allows for the instant identification that she associates with a collapse in the imaginary order. This might require us to think a little more about the content of the work—is it unique? Does it bear challenging political valences? Does a novel allow us to think? For Kornbluh, and, I think, for Bewes too, the prospect of ideological resistance is staked on the literary quality of a novel. To put it crudely, can narrative art serve as a viable and nourishing alternative to the glossy ephemera that is all too widely available?

They might both tender the same answer. At the very end of Immediacy. Kornbluh finds herself extolling the imaginative dimensionality of free indirect discourse. Her intention may not be to universalize it but one might wonder from reading this passage whether free indirect discourse offered an irruption within the history of third person narration in much the same way that the immediatization of autofiction transformed first person, voiding the inevitability of confession and expediting the identification with the objects of the text:

Fiction composed in the third person (as it has been for the history of the novel) makes a kind of thinking that individuals do not experience in their everyday lives: parallel access to other people’s minds; structures of other times, other places, other sensibilities; and integrated generalities or convoked commons. Free indirect discourse, a marvellous affordance of language only available in written form, mixes perspectives of characters with narrators with implied readers and hypostasized social consensus; it is a type of mediation of ideas that always raises the question, as Roland Barthes and others have observed, “Who is speaking? Unattributed words and ideas belong to no one and therefore to a kind of everyone—that’s what makes them free. Collective intellection of this type is one of fiction’s magical properties.” [42]

At this point, Kornbluh finds herself nudging up against celebrations of the social novel by writers like Forster, Smith, and, gulp, Jonathan Franzen. That word ‘magical’ would seem off-hand in other people’s accounts but here it fairly quakes with significance, representing not just a loosening of hermeneutic rigor but a great relenting from critique into something like wishful thinking. But Immediacy needs its countervailing examples and we get them in the social novels of Black writers like Colson Whitehead, Brandon Taylor, and Diane Evans. She acknowledges the stylistic intelligence of these writers and the agility with which they reconcile emotional honesty with a greater breadth of insight into social relations (as opposed to the free-floating social commentary enabled by various feeds).

It’s at this moment, I suppose, that I wanted a little more mediation from Kornbluh herself. Across a number of cultural forms and critical discourses, you can detect a willed turn back toward formal intricacy and more lyrically complex styles. The oversaturation of various extended universes and endlessly monetizable intellectual properties has fatigued all but the most committed to inhabiting and extending these imagined communities, although, post-pandemic, streaming in its current form appears to have peaked as an economically successful model of distribution. Is it not possible that these new models of distribution converged with developments in taste that demanded more urgency and more responsiveness from artists, even from those who might once have thought they were edging the institutionalized orthodoxies that had inhibited their respective forms?

Kornbluh’s not trying to instrumentalize art. She doesn’t think it can offer us blueprints for revolution or liberation. It can play a part in restore to the public “the middle that actually responds to crisis,” [43] if it’s reach and appeal hasn’t been entirely gutted, not just by the qualitative erosion in works themselves but in the time that people can take to engage with art. When Kornbluh advocates for a productivist model for culture, she almost sounds like the obverse of Jenny Odell, whose How to Do Nothing described a very different break from the culture of circulation (not that Odell theorized it as that). But for all its diagnostic ambitions, Immediacy leaves us surprisingly to ourselves and each other, which is really where the novel properly enters culture and social living.

So much of this is, of course, a conversation happening within literary realism. I’m still waiting for the systems novel to make its long overdue return to the shelves. The return to a thickly textured social imagination doesn’t necessarily mean a straightforward recovery project for realism, although right now, in novels like Lazy City, Close to Home, Such Good Work, Planes, and Great Expectations there has been a recuperation of at least some of the things that seemed to embarrass novelists a decade ago—a longer historical perspective, the confident investigation of other perspectives. On the other hand, there are some things we might be able to do without. If the associative limpidity of extended fragments replaces the intuitive demarcations of chapters (as in The Idiot) or speech marks disappear so that dialogue sinks back into the depiction of consciousness (as in Ordinary Human Failings or K Patrick’s Mrs S.) or splinters out from the text as perhaps it should (as in Preparation for the Next Life), this could be a small price to pay for our eventual re-infatuation with novels, or, better yet, the re-enchantment of the plausibility of fiction.

For a complete list of corresponding footnotes, please see this list.

Jonathan Gharraie is a writer of fiction and criticism living in Derbyshire, England. He is a Contributing Editor for Annulet.