Monday, December 11, 2006

The theory and practice of literary (mis)reading

As even semi-regular readers of this blog will realise, there are many things with which I strongly disagree. Nonetheless, there is an important distinction to be made between views with which one is at odds but nevertheless respects and those which – by virtue of their ignorance, hypocrisy, poorly-thought-out intellectual foundations or viciousness – are simply to be dismissed.

A good example of the latter is offered at the New Statesman by Ziauddin Sardar. (A mercifully shorter version which still gives you the important bits is also available at the Guardian's comment site.)

Sardar is in a snit about what he dubs ‘Blitcon’ literature, a kind of British literary neoconservatism which, in his opinion, is represented by Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan. (If you're surprised to see these three very different authors lumped together this way, then, no, I assure you, you're not alone. I was dumbfounded too.)

Initially, I must admit to the sense while reading this piece that it was written simply to allow Mr. Sardar to deploy what he must think is this very clever neologism in the hopes that it will sprout vigorous little meme-like wings and make a name for himself in the hothouse world of the chattering classes. And that’s fair enough, I suppose. I mean, real flashes of innovative thinking are rare enough things (including for yours truly), so when what feels like a genuine brainwave comes along, it’s perfectly understandable that you just want to shout it out joyfully to the world.

Sadly, though, in this case, the nifty new word has little substance (and much silliness) backing it up.

Consider, for instance, its intellectual framework, signalled in the introduction, which asserts that famous novelists are now like 'international brands':

Novelists are no longer just novelists - they are also global pundits shaping our opinions on everything from art, life and politics to civilisation as we know it.

And this is new is it, this effort by novelists to have an impact on the world around them and influence opinion? Dickens, Zola, Lawrence and the rest of them were just sort of fiddling about with cute little imaginary worlds, what? When exactly was it that novelists were ‘just novelists’? Wolfe? Vonnegut? Orwell? Sinclair Lewis? Defoe? Swift?

(Hell, even Douglas Adams tried valiantly to shape people’s opinions about nature and technology.)

And then there’s that curious little ‘we’.

It gets better…

What we want from them is clear: insight into the human condition.

You see: there’s that pesky ‘we’ again. I’m not so sure what and how Ziauddin Sardar reads his novels, but I question whether the relationship between writer and reader is really so ‘clear’?

Do people always simply seek ‘insight into the human condition’ from literature? Don’t some of them seek also entertainment and a good story? Indeed, some might wish to expand their intellectual horizons; others, however, merely want to have their existing assumptions confirmed. (I think I may not be going on too much of a limb if I suggest that, judging by his subsequent attack on Rusdie, Amis and McEwan, Sardar is among the latter.)

Some seek humour, some an excuse to cry. Some are bored, while others just want to be able to keep up with what others are reading so they won’t be known as philistines. Some just want to be seen carrying books around.

So, no, I don’t think the reason people read literature is ‘clear’ at all, even though I would agree that one aspect of literature is, of course, an engagement with what it means to be human.

But, weirdly, Sardar here presents an image of passive, hopeful – and largely empty-headed – readers who seek wisdom from those anointed geniuses we call novelists. This perspective serves a useful purpose for Sardar: it grants authors an, ahem, authority (potentially misused) which justifies his obsession with ‘literary neoconservatism’.

The sinister potential of wayward novelists established, we move on to discussing the real world, or at least some version thereof:
From the most favourable conditions in human history, we have generated terror, war and a proliferation of tensions grounded in mutual fear and hatred.

No, Mr. Sardar, ‘we’ have not generated all of this – please, could you be a bit more precise about who is to blame? (Though, as we shall see, this is, for Sardar, a fundamental problem indeed.)

And what’s this about ‘the most favourable conditions in human history’? I assume that as a good leftist (I assume this is where he would locate himself, based on his rhetoric…) Sardar is aware of the massive inequality in wealth, the increasing competition for raw materials and the many irrational and vicious ideologies which characterise the world which we – 'we' as in all of us – share. (Not to mention the fact that ‘tensions grounded in mutual fear and hatred’ seem to be among those things which we could safely describe as characterising more or less all periods of human history.)

OK, so far in this essay we have already encountered a fairly delusional vision of literature, novelists, readers and reality. Not bad for a few hundred words, but at this point in Sardar’s essay, things then turn toward the specific. Specifics – rather than just vague and ponderous abstractions – often make arguments better.

Here...that is not the case.
The British literary landscape is dominated by three writers: Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan. All three have considered the central dilemma of our time: terror. […] In their different styles, their approach and opinions define a coherent position. They are the vanguard of British literary neoconservatives, or, if you like, the "Blitcons".

And there I was thinking that the British literary landscape was dominated by J.K. Rowling, hordes of Helen Fielding clones, violent militaristic thrillers a lá Andy McNab and masses of scenic, tourist-friendly historical kitsch.

Perhaps Sardar means serious literature, even if this kind of distinction would probably go against his apparent disdain for such elitist canon-defining divisions. Were this so, he hasn’t been paying attention, as there have been plenty of writers on the British scene who have mouthed opinions which have been far more to Mr. Sardar’s liking (you know, showing contempt for America, blaming terrorism solely on the West, etc.) Admitting this would undermine his neat vision of the Rushdie-Amis-McEwan troika’s dark hegemony, but it would have had the benefit of more closely matching reality.

Reality, however, doesn’t seem to be Sardar’s main concern, and his essay not only quickly verges off into a rather desperate attempt to identify commonalities among his Gang of Three but it also grants them far more influence than they most likely have. After all, not even another best-selling book, written by Washington insiders and released last week, seems to be having all that much affect on Bush administration policymaking. Considering his disdainful opinion of the literary landscape, it is ironic that it is only from a perspective within the small, incestuous and self-important British literary world that his own arguments would be taken seriously.

But let us pretend to take this seriously for a moment.

The Blitcon project is based on three one-dimensional conceits.

Said conceits are 1) celebrating the absolute supremacy of American culture 2) identifying Islam is the greatest threat to this idea of civilisation and 3) asserting that American ideas of freedom and democracy are not only right, but should be imposed on the rest of the world. (Incidentally, do three, one-dimensional conceits equal a single three-dimensional one? I'm just wondering.)

Though I’m most familiar with Ian McEwan, even a brief consideration of Rushdie’s and Amis’s recent ‘literary soundbites’ suggests that Sardar has presented a terribly narrow (indeed, one-dimensional) characterisation of their views. (And, incidentally, I'm not a particular fan of either man's work.)

In a recent interview with Spiegel, Rushdie responded to a question about the role of Western foreign policy in driving terrorism.

See if you can spot the Islam hatin', American-supremacy-lovin’ neo-con in these words:

I'm no friend of Tony Blair's and I consider the Middle East policies of the United States and the UK fatal. There are always reasons for criticism, also for outrage. But there's one thing we must all be clear about: terrorism is not the pursuit of legitimate goals by some sort of illegitimate means. Whatever the murderers may be trying to achieve, creating a better world certainly isn't one of their goals. Instead they are out to murder innocent people.

Rushdie goes on to cite Lenin’s depiction of terrorism as ‘bourgeois adventurism’ (so, not as something specifically Muslim), identifies at least one important factor in terrorism as human (and particularly male) psychology, and differentiates between terror's role in nationalist causes and it's centrality in movements bent on nihilistic destruction.

As to the greatest threat facing civilisation, Rushdie is rather more ecumenical than Sardar admits:

Rushdie: Fundamentalists of all faiths are the fundamental evil of our time. Almost all my friends are atheists -- I don't feel as though I'm an exception. If you take a look at history, you will find that the understanding of what is good and evil has always existed before the individual religions. The religions were only invented by people afterwards, in order to express this idea. I for one don't need a supreme "sacred" arbiter in order to be a moral being.

SPIEGEL: Perhaps not, but many people seem to need a god. Religions worldwide are experiencing a comeback. Striving for spirituality is more pronounced than ever. Is this a negative development in your opinion?

Rushdie: Yes.

Agree or disagree, but I think it’s difficult to twist this into some kind of anti-Islamic prejudice. (Besides, as Ophelia Benson has pointed out, there just might be a fairly good reason why Mr. Rushdie is a bit sensitive about Islamic fundamentalism. Lest we forget.)

Much the same could be said of Amis. He has certainly expressed hostility and contempt toward violent Muslim extremists bent on causing civilian carnage (but…isn’t that...a good reaction?). However, many of his public comments have, again, suggested that the problem lies in the general - and historically recurring - emergence of ‘death cults’ which seduce young men into joining their fanatical crusades. Amis seems careful to distinguish 'Islam' from 'Islamism'.

Let's consider one of Amis's comments, which is even cited (though it was possibly not carefully read) by Sardar.

Amis said:

So, to repeat, we respect Islam the donor of countless benefits to mankind, and the possessor of a thrilling history. But Islamism? No, we can hardly be asked to respect a creedal wave that calls for our own elimination. More, we regard the Great Leap Backwards as a tragic development in Islam's story, and now in ours. Naturally we respect Islam. But we do not respect Islamism, just as we respect Muhammad and do not respect Muhammad Atta.

Seems clear enough.

He goes on to refer to Donald Rumsfeld as ‘the architect and guarantor of the hideous cataclysm in Iraq’.

Yeah. Very neo-con, that.

Of the three authors in question, though, I think it is Sardar’s efforts to tar Ian McEwan – via his most recent novel, Saturday - with the 'Blitcon' label which is the most desperate and absurd.

Let’s follow the logic, shall we? Hang on tight, it’s a twisty journey!

Sardar starts by accusing Amis of being ‘obsessed with the preservation of the [literary] canon’ based upon his assertion in The War Against Cliché that the only writing which matters is that of ‘talent’. Amis’s alleged ‘obsession’ is transferred through a (terribly visible) sleight of hand to McEwan.

If we are to read McEwan's beliefs and intentions through his fiction, the western canon is the very essence of humanity.

OK, first wrenching-twist-in-logic first, and one which literature students should, I would think, learn in their first class in their first year of study: the author and the narrator are two different things. (Say it with me…now repeat five times.)

, I think it's fair to say, authors put words in the mouths of their characters with which they do not fully agree, or even with which they disagree. I hate to state the breathtakingly obvious, but sometimes the ‘intentions’ of an author are obscured in a text (not least by things such as irony). Sometimes authors use fiction to express the ambiguities and ambivalences of ‘the human condition’ or of the politics of the day.

Can we agree on this? Good.

Now, back to the winding logical road:

His novel Saturday (2005) is set on 15 February 2003, when almost two million people marched in London to protest against the imminent invasion of Iraq. Its neurosurgeon protagonist, Perowne, is a "professional reductionist" who cannot appreciate great literature. In order to cure him, his daughter, Daisy, spoonfeeds him Flaubert, Tolstoy and other "Great Writers". We are supposed to see this as a joke. But the joke evaporates as soon as we realise that Saturday really assigns a mystical dimension to western literature: the poetry of Matthew Arnold not only serves as an antidote to brutish violence, but literally saves the day at the end of the novel. As a corollary, we are forced to conclude, those who have never read War and Peace, for example, are not fully human.
Re-read, if necessary, that last bit carefully. Somewhere between ‘…at the end of the novel.’ and ‘As a corollary…’ there appears a vast and yawning chasm which no sane logic, I think, can possibly leap: since in a novel a certain type of poetry (white, dead, male…) plays a crucial role in defusing a violent situation, the author must be diminishing the humanity of those who in the real world are not well-versed in it.

This we are 'forced' to conclude.


Has Sardar even read Saturday? Would it in any way have seemed realistic that its two lit-obsessed characters (one an old-school literary curmudgeon, the other a precocious - and somewhat precious - student, neither of whom - incidentally - is depicted in an unquestionably positive fashion) started spouting Islamic verse? Would something more aboriginal have been more appropriate? Should McEwan have depicted them responding with something more suitably post-colonial in the context of the tense scene of latent violence they face? And just what does Sardar have against Matthew Arnold anyway??

Beyond McEwan’s apparent interest in quality literature, though, what seems to irk Sardar is McEwan’s subtle critique of the moral certainties of those who opposed the Iraq war, expressed through his protagonist, Henry Perowne.

Indeed, we don’t have to guess where McEwan’s own position lay. He has, quite openly, suggested that Perowne’s internal debates about the war indeed contained elements of his own concerns.

SPIEGEL: In your book, the Iraq war still hasn't happened yet. And the day in which the book takes place, Feb. 15, 2003, is the day in which massive peace demonstrations took place in London. Henry's daughter Daisy is among the protesters and he is full of ire and sarcasm about them. He doubts they can rightfully claim morality for themselves. Do these passages echo your own ambivalent views on the matter?

McEwan: Yes, it does. I never thought that in the run up to the war we were discussing simply the difference between war and peace. We were discussing the difference between war and continued torture and genocide and abuse of human rights by a fascist state. I missed any sense of that complexity in the peace camp. I certainly had the feeling that whatever the strong moral arguments were for deposing Saddam, the Americans would not be good nation-builders. But I had a moral problem with this view among the 2 million protesters that you should leave Saddam in power in a fascist state with 27 million Iraqis under him. The problem is that they felt good about it. I thought they should have opposed the war but also felt bad about it.

Sardar may possibly disagree with this view (in fact, I’m quite sure he would), but it verges on intellectual slander to construe the complex ambivalence which Perowne embodies (and which McEwan states) as expressing the view that ‘American ideas of freedom and democracy are not only right, but should be imposed on the rest of the world.’

Sardar may be interested in reading (or rather in not-reading) McEwan’s book, The Innocent (set in the early Cold War), which presents a not-all-too flattering view of American power. He might, furthermore, not-consider Atonement’s horrifying depiction of war and its subtle questioning of the role of an all-too-idealised historical memory in British identity. He may wish to carry on not-reading McEwan’s excellent (and underrated) book Black Dogs, which, through its characters’ meditations on post-Second World War Europe, is directly concerned with violence and the all-too-human capacity for destruction.

An excerpt:

As they drank from their water bottles, he was struck by the recently concluded war not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust, like spores whose separate identities would remain unknown, and whose totality showed more sadness than any one could ever begin to comprehend; a weight borne in silence by hundreds of thousands, millions, like the woman in black for a husband and two brothers, each grief a particular, intricate, keening love story that might have been otherwise.
[Black Dogs (1992. London, 1998), pp. 164-65]

I may be being particularly stubborn about this, but considering McEwan’s writing on topics such as war and the human potential for horror, I see a distinctive lack of Western triumphalism, anti-Islamic fervor or justification for imperialism.

Finally, keeping in mind the haunting beauty and nearly endless sadness of a passage such as that above, it is all the more infuriating to re-encounter the clanking, self-important prose of Sardar’s conclusion:

The real world is not a fiction. The ideology of mass murder has a history and a context in all its perversity and evil. But the wild imaginings of the Blitcons are not an appropriate guide to the eradication of this horror. Turned to this end, the manipulative power of literary imagination is nothing but spin. And such spin is simply hatred answering, mirroring and matching hatred. Like minds reach across intervening swaths of the world and, in their hatred, embrace each other. That is all Blitcons tell us. But it is hardly enlightening for those of us desperate to find a sustainable path from destruction and slaughter.

There is indeed a lot of spin on offer, but not at the hands of the authors who are maligned here.

Beyond that, I'm not sure that this paragraph tells us anything at all.

Considering not only the blinkered and simplistic view of literature but also his apparent blind spot regarding the causes of destruction and slaughter (e.g., religious and ideological fanaticism of all kinds), I hope I am not alone in finding more value in the insights of writers such as McEwan or Amis than in the ‘wild imaginings’ of Mr. Sardar.


KB Player said...

Good piece. How can the New Statesman, who once published Orwell, allow to come to print such a piece of stupid, shoddy stuff.

J. Carter Wood said...

Thanks. That's a good question. What is even more irksome is that it was not only published there but also in the Guardian.... (not that their own standards have't been slipping of late).