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Literary Fiction and Intellectualism

March 13, 2015 at 10:06 pm (Uncategorized)

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When one researches the precise definition of literary fiction, often you see it defined, especially among non-academics, as work that is obscure and intellectual, something more abstract and requiring a certain amount of effort.

As someone with a not insignificant background in philosophy, who has also read David Foster Wallace, David Markson and other authors who incorporate copious amounts of intellectual messages into their work, I have a somewhat different perspective. Wittgenstein’s Mistress, although initially quite engaging, grated on me after awhile for a whole different reason. The rapid shifting references from the protagonist, which in the first 30 pages seemed like candy to an ex-academic like myself, by page 100 seemed not unlike the first year graduate student that drops every reference he can without really digging into it in an effort to show everyone how much he truly belongs in the academy. It sounds smart, even intimidating, to the person that isn’t already acquainted with the references. For example, when the narrator remembers a quote and tries to recall if it was said by Heidegger or Kierkegaard, being familiar with both, I understand what’s going on. It’s widely known among Heideggerians that the description of Angst in Being and Time is pretty much ripping off Kierkegaard in a secularized way. Before we can really see this fleshed out with the character, it’s off to the next reference. If you already know it, it’s too surface and obvious but if you don’t, it’s too obscure.

I’ve had the same problem with David Foster Wallace. I once read a fairly lengthy interview with him in which he hopped from philosopher to philosopher. One thing about studying philosophy is that it makes you a careful reader. You really read line by line, look for the argument being presented and ask if it makes sense to you. So, when someone raises the issue of whether Heidegger or Wittgenstein is the true destroyer of language and then jumps onto a different point entirely, as if their audience will know exactly what they mean and it requires no elaboration, it comes across more pseudo-intellectual than intellectual to me.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on them. Still, it seems that it’s this sort of writing that leads to the “faking it” phenomenon. I once met a fellow writer in my city that, no matter what book you referenced, would nod knowingly as if it were her favorite author. The thing is, I read a lot about a lot of different things. I read everything from Denis Johnson to Plato to obscure texts on German law to books on the social psychology of language. I’m just really curious that way. After awhile, it became apparent that she was simply pretending to know every author I mentioned. I think that because authors like Markson and DFW are often cited as exemplars of literary fiction, it encourages this sort of phenomenon. You get what I like to call “The New Yorker Effect,” where people know that it’s something literary people are supposed to like and therefore accept or reject it purely on the basis.

That’s where, I think, it’s important to distinguish between literature and literary fiction. When we talk about literary fiction, we’re really speaking of something more contemporary. It’s the sort of thing that’s taught and published by academics, that’s published by literary journals and so forth. It’s a classification but it contains the underlying implication that it is somehow on a par with, say, Dante or Shakespeare or Dostoevsky. Still, for many of the contemporary authors you find shelved in the literary fiction section of your local independent bookstore, that remains to be seen.

There is also a sharp distinction to be made between, say, the existential concepts we find embedded in Kafka or Camus’ work and the name (and even concept) dropping in Wittgenstein’s Mistress. The difference is that in a work like The Trial, to the thoughtful reader, it will become apparent. Indeed, the argument can be made that existential literature is another way of doing philosophy. (And philosophy and literature engage with one another historically. Hegel’s magnum opus, Phenomenology of Spirit, was in many ways a nod to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.) With Wittgenstein’s Mistress, we’re seeing a certain deconstruction of plot going on. Really, we’re peeking into the isolated inner world of a very well educated, very detached individual and in that sense, the “plot” isn’t just slow, it’s a depiction of state of mind, which I suppose is my gripe about all the concept-dropping. Perhaps it’s intended to be aphoristic, but it lacks the punch of aphorisms, or the multiple levels of meaning one finds in them, where one can have a surface understanding but the more studious reader can glean a deeper meaning. At the same time, it isn’t all that faithful to the thinking of the mad logician archetype, who takes us much deeper into her occasionally idiosyncratic interpretation of the ideas she is consumed by.

This, I think, is where the accusations of deliberate obscurity and absence of plot come in. In a work like that, and there’s a decent amount of literary fiction out there that does this, there’s a large extent to which the medium is the message.  There’s nothing wrong with that, there’s nothing wrong with conveying a state of mind and deviating from traditional plot in order to do it in a new way that will jar the reader out of his or her complacency. However, writers have to be careful to not run afoul of the same problems that you find in conceptual art, where it’s not clear if the artist is being wildly creative or trying to cover up their own creative stagnation by slapping on a theme that may or may not really be inherent in the piece itself. For this reason, it’s crucial to connect the disparate references and allusions to the over-arching concept in a piece. Danto’s art world public be damned, some of us need a reason besides literary reputation to get behind a work.