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Literature Against Criticism

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Martin Paul Eve

Part I: Introduction

1. Authors, Institutions, and Markets

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1For those working in university English departments in the early twenty-first century, these words will probably sound all too familiar: “[t]his man possesses great eloquence. See that he is denied justice for some time and arrange for all his grandiose speeches to be recorded”. Yet, despite the plausibility of the scenario, this passage is not a sadistic diktat issued from a university administrator to an unsuspecting humanities underling, perhaps enforcing lecture capture or a similar contemporary technology. It comes instead, in rough translation, from a Ninth-or Tenth-Dynasty Ancient Egyptian story called the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant. Briefly summarised, this narrative recounts the plight of a peasant who, having been robbed, pleads his case before the high steward and proves to be so articulate that the case is referred to the king. The king’s response is that the steward should continue to deny the peasant’s petitions in order that the latter’s increasingly eloquent speeches on the theme of injustice can be transcribed and recorded. The king orders this delay of justice because he wishes the speeches to be compiled into a literary text for his own future entertainment. At the conclusion, the peasant is eventually given justice (after having his speeches read back to him) and the text is delivered to the king.

  • 1 Most notably, Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (Lond (...)
  • 2 In this work, I choose not to define the terms ‘modernism’ or ‘postmodernism’ in toto outright. Th (...)

2We know of the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant from a papyrus fragment, now held in the British Museum in London, where the formal legend on the display proclaims that the story represents “a questioning of social and divine justice”. For my purposes in this book, however, which will go on to explore the ways in which certain novels play with the institutional authority of university English, this ancient text has two more significant features. Firstly, in a historicist mode, the text demonstrates metafictional tropes well before the first millennium. The text knowingly plays with its own constitution, depicting acts of inscription from phonos (speech) to logos (written text). Indeed, the self-referential framework at play in this text demonstrates that metafiction is a conceit as old as literature itself, as others have already suggested.1 Even if I haven’t begun here with the more well-known and likely contemporaneous Epic of Gilgamesh, the historical placement of the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant within the First Intermediate Period gives a starting point for metafiction that defies more recent attempts to situate the form most prominently within a postmodern movement harking back to romanticism.2 Secondly, in a broader sense, the story focuses on a self-educated and eloquent subject from an outsider class. In the social strata of its time, peasants were not supposed to demonstrate learning through fluent and coherent speech (eloquence). This tale, then, stages a set of complex interactions between class and education, learning and refined talent but also, through its metafictional nature, between what we might see as social/literary ‘genre’ (codified social/literary/class expectations) and canon (birth right).

Fig. 1 The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant. © The Trustees of the British Museum

  • 3 Catherine Packham, ‘Cicero’s Ears, or Eloquence in the Age of Politeness: Oratory, Moderation, and (...)

3The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant is important for me because it historically refracts the interlocking aspects of a twentieth-and twenty-first-century fictional practice with which I will grapple in this book: games of hierarchical power and legitimation played out before backdrops of institutional monopolies on knowledge, all within a self-aware literary domain. This intersection of knowledge, power, and self-awareness can be seen in this particular first instance of the eloquent peasant when the reader of the tale is thrown by the disjunction between the two clauses. One might expect the sentence “this man possesses great eloquence” to be followed by a sentence of praise, of reward. After all, across history it has been common to see eloquence as a virtue. For, as Catherine Packham has deftly traced, eloquence has been core to a quest for the power of the sublime from Cicero through to David Hume, with the ancients and the moderns perhaps differing on whether human nature should seek such power.3

4In more recent days, however, it has become increasingly true that those deemed learned within formalised spaces such as the academy have usually gained their positions of authority through repeated combined performances of eloquence and education: demonstrably satisfying tests, appraisals, accreditations, ‘excellence frameworks’, and other exercises, usually within strictly codified and prescribed linguistic formulations of academic discourse. In the contemporary academy, the ability to express new knowledge within pre-defined norms of expression (deemed eloquent because the form must efficiently but clearly communicate) is a virtue.

  • 4 The inversion of order is, of course, temporary. Like Bakhtin’s famous carnival, the tale ends wit (...)

5However, despite the fact that eloquence is valued by the king in the ancient tale, there is an unexpected relationship at play in the story’s matrix of knowledge, power, aesthetics, and value. This is how the tale derives its startling force: the eloquent peasant is disciplined, engendering an unexpected causal relationship between virtue and chastisement, a situation about which those in the contemporary academic humanities may feel empathetic. In a similar way to many of the fictions that will be examined throughout this book, this tale’s shock factor is possible because the text anticipates its readers’ expectations and normative value judgements surrounding the charged encounter between class/social situation and eloquence. This expectation is set because the tale takes the parable form of a moral panic about class transgression through non-institutional knowledge and eloquence. Concerned as this text is with justice and class, the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant clearly establishes a social and literary generic terrain that is familiar to most readers, even if this set of expectations changes over time. The tale then acts to at least temporarily subvert those literary and social expectations, all framed within a didactic parable of justice and power.4

  • 5 Stanley Fish, ‘Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics’, in Is There a Text in This Class?: (...)

6In the crafting of literature, or any kind of rhetoric, there are certain prerequisite factors if authors wish to play this type of game with audience expectations. One must know roughly the identity of one’s readers and what that audience group are likely to think, sometimes across heterogeneous discourse communities. In its historical context, the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant is a story designed for educated readers, perhaps akin to the early reader-response work of Stanley Fish who speaks of “informed readers”.5 After all, there was no widespread mass literacy in the First Intermediate Period. Although, therefore, it is likely that the tale was communicated in oral form, there is a doubled self-referentiality at work here. On the one hand, the original ‘reader’ of the tale must have been educated and would probably have been of an upper class, while the contemporary reader of the story may experience the greatest disquiet if he or she identifies with the peasant. On the other hand, though, the content of the story itself has an anti-intellectual bent, a disciplining function designed to keep the eloquent peasants — suppressed by hereditary class-based educational structures rather than any meritocratic system — in their place. I am no ancient historian and the reading here is a contemporary take on a classic. The analogy, though, is striking in the context of my work here: for this is a book about the sometimes hostile reactions to practices within university English that continue to run through a strain of twenty-first-century fiction. As with the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, I will argue that the works to which I refer in this volume have a disciplining function, although they are not, now, primarily concerned with institutional royalty in opposition to the commoner. Instead, ironically given the prophecies of much of the anti-humanism and anti-intentionality that dominated post-structuralist literary studies in the 1980s and 1990s, the texts studied in this book inscribe their authors as royalty and academic readers as their peasants. They toy, I will argue, with university English’s traditional hierarchies of authority and legitimation while reversing the monopoly on literary-critical speech that academic English has attempted to claim.

  • 6 Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 43.
  • 7 Peter Boxall, The Value of the Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 11.

7This is a book about the way in which a specific sub-form of contemporary fiction interacts with the academy, the story of which is a fascinating power game played between two symbiotic (but heterogeneous) cultural institutions: the university and the novel. Fundamentally, it is a book about contemporary literary fiction’s contribution to the ongoing displacement of cultural authority away from university English. In this work I argue for the prominence of a series of novelistic techniques that, whether deliberate or not on the part of the author, function to outmanoeuvre, contain, and determine academic reading practices. This desire to discipline university English through the manipulation and restriction of possible hermeneutic paths is, I contend, a result firstly of the fact that the metafictional paradigm of the high-postmodern era has pitched critical and creative discourses into a type of productive competition with one another. Such tensions and overlaps (or ‘turf wars’) have only increased in light of the ongoing breakdown of coherent theoretical definitions of ‘literature’ as distinct from ‘criticism’. As the literary works that I cover here then “train their readers in a hermeneutic of suspicion”, as Rita Felski puts it, following Paul Ricœur, they also discipline the academy in order to legitimate themselves over and above their critical counterparts from which they do not consider themselves formally discrete.6 I argue here, then, taking up a challenge issued by Peter Boxall — that such novels exhibit a “resistance to evaluation” — that the “world-making power of prose fiction” in the contemporary era relies upon the ability of the novel to “reject or suspend the forms of community that it helps to create”.7 It is the project of this book to ensure that the fact that these rejected or suspended communities are so often academic communities does not go unremarked upon.

  • 8 Alan Liu, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (Chicago: University of (...)
  • 9 Ibid., p. 2.

8Secondly, I argue that this disciplinary function is situated amid larger ongoing shifts of legitimation. Indeed, I will go on to show that literature and university English now often find themselves fighting each other within the new world of information-dominated knowledge work described by Alan Liu. For the environment within which university English and the novel now co-exist is one in which “the academy can no longer claim supreme jurisdiction over knowledge”, as Liu puts it. It is, though, also an environment in which “the future of the literary” is difficult to foresee in the light of the prominent ahistoricist paradigms of the knowledge economy.8 In a world that values the constant replacement of the old in the name of innovation, what room is there for tradition to be balanced against the individual talent? For Liu, then, an investigation of the aesthetic value in new paradigms of managerial creation is a “vital task” for “both literature and literary studies”, if these practices are to survive in any form.9 However, here I remain more cynical that such a battle will be fought as allies and chart an alternative narrative in which contemporary literary studies and literature are instead both ‘digging in’ to protect themselves, trying to reclaim the increasingly scarce conventional authority of their forms, even though it may be too late. Taken together, this set of literary practices betrays what I will come to refer to as an ‘anxiety of academia’ within the space of literary production.

  • 10 Ian Hunter, ‘The Time of Theory’, Postcolonial Studies, 10.1 (2007), 5–22 (p. 8), http://dx.doi.or (...)

9This trope of ‘anxiety’ is taken not only from the most obvious referent, Harold Bloom’s ‘anxieties of influence’, in which there is an ambivalent relationship between a text and those texts that influenced it, but also from Ian Hunter’s riposte to Jonathan Culler. Hunter asks of Theory and critique: “in what historical or institutional circumstances do people learn to become disdainful of certain knowledges as ‘common sense’, and to become anxious about themselves for ‘taking things for granted’?”10 I suggest that this anxiety of the self, a kind of competitive desire to be the ‘most critical’, is playing out between the institutions of the Anglo-American university and the novel in the historical circumstances of the early twenty-first century.

  • 11 Mortimer R. Proctor, The English University Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957) (...)
  • 12 Terry Eagleton, ‘The Silences of David Lodge’, New Left Review, 1.172 (1988), 93–102; although, as (...)
  • 13 Widely attributed to Joe Haldeman.

10This investigation of fiction and the university does not quite take the form that readers might pre-suppose, though. To dispel any misconceptions from the outset, it is worth stating up front that this volume is not as concerned with campus novels or ‘university fiction’ as an initial appraiser might infer from the above summary. While it is hardly surprising that academics are interested in fiction that represents the university and that we might expect the challenges of legitimation to play out in such texts, this type of novel has already been expertly documented and remarked upon by Mortimer R. Proctor, John Lyons, Ian Carter, Janice Rossen, Kenneth Womack, Péter Székely, Elaine Showalter, and others.11 Of course, there are many extant and well-known readings of the campus novel. For instance, Terry Eagleton suggests that a particularly English fascination with the campus novel stems from the fact that it can offer a recuperative setting far-enough dislocated from middle-class existence to an institutional space that is both deviant and other while remaining safe, known, and farcical.12 We also know, though, that the strong influence on contemporary US literary production of professionalised writing training via MFA programmes makes it likely that most authors would have ready firsthand knowledge of a campus background to draw upon (to which I will return later). Indeed, the best joke I have heard on this theme in recent days is that “bad books on writing tell you to ‘WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW’, a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery”.13 Rather, then, than re-work the classic formula of complicit laughter at Lucky Jim or to take the counter-stance of denouncing the campus novel as inherently conservative, in this book I examine novels that are at once interlinked with the academy and the practices of university English even while, at the same time, these texts are often not engaged in direct representation of the university. These parameters of exclusion and method in my selection of texts are more thoroughly explored in Chapter Two.

  • 14 See, Umberto Eco, ‘Overinterpreting Texts’, in Interpretation and Overinterpretation, ed. by Stefa (...)
  • 15 For instance, this novel accuses the over-interpreting reader of having one’s ‘hands in your pants (...)

11Instead, one of the primary ways in which this competitive interaction with the academy is manifest in the works that I cover here, I argue, is through a specific anticipation of an academic discourse-community as an idealised reader-community (with some more words on my echoing of Umberto Eco’s famous formulations to follow). That is, as with the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant’s anticipation of its educated audience demographic, much contemporary ‘literary fiction’ is aware of the conditions under which it will be read within the university’s literary studies departments and therefore finds itself already one step ahead of its readers. While this paradigm of idealised/model readers harks back to problems of the “hermeneutic cycle” that have been central to debates about critical interpretation for many decades now (and are cyclical in their mutual production of idealised text and idealised readers), the specifically evolved form of academic interaction that I chart here can be seen as a new emergence, or at least a newly realised instantiation of existing practices.14 In the novels of Sarah Waters that I explore in the penultimate chapter of this study, for instance, the very narrative path relies on a constriction of interpretation that functions differently when read by academics versed in the work of Michel Foucault. This certainly constitutes a new technique that is different from the paradoxical anti-hermeneutic jibes of, say, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), which may nonetheless mock academic or symptomatic reading practices as onanistic.15 In this way, this book argues that the academy is woven both more broadly and more deeply into the fabric of the contemporary literary fiction scene than might be supposed were an investigation limited to works that focus on depictions of the university.

  • 16 Judith Ryan, The Novel After Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
  • 17 For example, see the section entitled ‘Ideology in popular entertainment’ and its antecedent entry (...)
  • 18 For more on this, see Ronan McDonald, The Death of the Critic (London: Continuum, 2007).

12In detailing the range of specific thematic uses that such engagements with the academy can serve, it is my contention that some types of fiction now play this game and deploy knowledge of academic discourses and practices as a specific literary and market strategy. While this shares some affinities with the type of “writing back” to the academy that Judith Ryan perceives in the post-Theory novel — and some of the instances studied in this volume do pertain to the deliberate injection of literary-critical and theoretical jargon into texts — I want here to voice a broader hypothesis about the role that this might play in terms of literary legitimation and authority.16 Whether one considers it in David Mitchell’s satire of over-privileged undergraduate life at Cambridge in The Bone Clocks (2014), in the high-academic aphoristic style of one of Zadie Smith’s sub-narratives in NW (2012), or in any of the works discussed in more detail in this volume, toying with academic discourse and reading practices is now a deliberate textual strategy that is used to claim a ‘literary’ quality for a work.17 The tacit inscription of the social conventions of English studies into a set of literary conventions is a legitimation strategy for fiction in the era of mass higher education that can be seen as a type of metafictional, generic, and market practice. It is metafictional because this process of interpellating specific ‘academic’ readerly communities must involve and signal a degree of explicit textual self-awareness. It is a generic practice because we can describe the paradigm in a number of works, as will this book, and because we can then chart how new works might fit this prescription. It is a market practice because, I will argue, the structures of value and accreditation in the academy are now pitched into a type of competition with fiction because of the collapse of viable gatekeeping and canonisation mechanisms. Finally, it is a practice that is particularly relevant in the era of mass higher education because broadened access to training in techniques of critical and close reading destabilises the authority of the academy and of literary fiction.18

13These three areas of investigation — metafiction, genre, and markets — form the overlapping points of interaction that are explored throughout this book in its engagement with contemporary fiction. These investigations are centred around the institutional form of the university and framed through the lenses of critique, legitimation, and discipline.

Genre, Canons, and Markets

  • 19 Amy Hungerford, Making Literature Now (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), p. 10.

14Works of contemporary fiction are ‘legitimated’ through the overlay of diverse structures of value, from multiple sources (some market, some institution-based), atop the material processes of literary production. For some authors, selling millions of copies will serve as a legitimation of their writing. For others, appearing alongside prominent authors in a literary quarterly, in order to “generate cultural and actual capital” as Amy Hungerford puts it, might suffice.19 For some, simply appearing in print will be enough. Even just from an authorial perspective, there are, indeed, multiple sources from which literary value can be generated. What, though, is the specific role of the university in the ascription of literary value?

15Certainly, the aspects within the novels that I will read here pertain to the university and around university English. This is not, I will hypothesise, because these works have a straightforward desire to belittle academics; this is not a book exclusively about parody, pastiche, or satire, although these elements play a role in the broader function that I posit for such fiction. It is rather because, in one of the narratives that I will trace, university English and other disciplines of literary study form one of the contexts for literary publication and reception. To see a response from fiction to such an environment is unsurprising, especially given the rise of mass higher education and creative writing programmes. A more specific framing of this context, however, is that university English can be seen as the weaker relation of the market gatekeeping system for literary fiction, of which publishers form the stronger, obverse side. This weakness contributes towards the oft-touted ‘legitimation crisis’ in university English.

  • 20 Mark Algee-Hewitt and Mark McGurl, Between Canon and Corpus: Six Perspectives on 20th-Century Nove (...)
  • 21 Ibid., p. 13.
  • 22 Ibid., p. 18.
  • 23 Modern Library Board’s List of 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century, the Modern Library Reader’s Li (...)

16To understand this observation it is necessary to backtrack to the ongoing influence of the ‘canon wars’ of the 1980s and 1990s in which traditionalist aesthetic formalists attempted to preserve and defend an overwhelmingly white, male canon against the protestations of Marxist, feminist, and postcolonial schools (among others that might now be said to include critical disability studies), who viewed such a canon as a reflection of socio-historic, rather than aesthetic, conditions. This dilemma over value persists, as has been recently demonstrated by Mark Algee-Hewitt and Mark McGurl in a meta-analysis of various claimed literary canons.20 Algee-Hewitt and McGurl conduct two separate computational/quantitative analyses in their pamphlet, a product of Stanford’s ‘literary lab’. After initially appraising a more traditional set of corpora, these social, structural inequalities remain manifest: only 15% of authors algorithmically selected for inclusion were women while a mere 5% were non-white.21 To this end, the authors then conducted a second analysis with additional corpora contributed by some members of the editorial board of the journal MELUS (Multi Ethnic Literature of the United States), members of the Postcolonial Studies Association, and the editorial board of the Feminist Press (although this revised model still yielded only 10% non-white and 17% female).22 For the purposes of the current discussion of contemporary fiction, however, what is perhaps most relevant are the principles of value selection that pervade Algee-Hewitt and McGurl’s corpora. For their analysis they chose to use four corpora that are publisher/reader selected and only one corpus created by an academic.23 This is telling and indicative of a broader structural trend. Namely, that the processes that shape value in the literary sphere, even in this appraisal, are mostly based on the market, with academic aesthetic judgement forming only a weaker correlative portion of the gatekeeping system.

  • 24 Robert Eaglestone, ‘Contemporary Fiction in the Academy: Towards a Manifesto’, Textual Practice, 2 (...)

17My claim that academic value-judgements are the weaker relation of publisher filtering systems is most clear when one considers the processes of market gatekeeping and canon formation for twenty-firstcentury literary fiction. These questions have been raised most pointedly in recent times not only by James F. English but also by Robert Eaglestone, who writes of the problematic fact that “it is taken as axiomatic that ‘serious’ or ‘literary’ fiction is a genre of its own (‘Booker’ fiction)”, a genre that is key to academic study.24 Furthermore, Eaglestone notes of the publishing market that:

  • 25 Eaglestone, p. 1096.

in the main agents, and trade publishers are very unhelpful and resistant to academics. They do not see the point of us, which is odd as we sell many, many thousands of copies of their books to our students (nearly a captive audience, in fact) and more importantly we create the intellectual and cultural infrastructure within in [sic] which their business grows. (“I studied her in college so I downloaded the new one straight away”.) Yet this, too, reveals that one issue in contemporary fiction is what we might call the “contemporary history of the book”: the ways in which the business of publishing helps to shape and control contemporary fiction.25

18While I do not attempt in this work to conduct an empirical investigation into this claimed resistance of publishers (as, say, a series of interviews might), I do want to chart a range of complex resistances to and intersections with the academy that are explicit and implicit in much contemporary fiction. I will suggest that these form a new way of considering the relationship between academics, publishers, and authors of such works that centres on a reconfiguration of institutional authority.

  • 26 Franco Moretti, ‘The Slaughterhouse of Literature’, MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly, 61.1 (2000), 2 (...)
  • 27 David Henry Sterry, ‘Self-Publishing Literary Fiction: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Cari Noga R (...)
  • 28 Felski, p. 170. Felski does attribute “last, but not least, the passions and predilections of ours (...)

19Part of this reconfiguration can be voiced through a concern, following Eaglestone, but one that is also linked to Franco Moretti’s observations on canon limitation in ‘The Slaughterhouse of Literature’.26 My concern is this: the books that academics working on contemporary novels will consider part of the canon of literary fiction must have already been published and, therefore, pre-filtered. But this is not necessarily the way in which the dissemination of contemporary fiction works or will work in the future. In the realms of science/speculative fiction and other genre forms, the self-publishing movement has gained a great deal of momentum, facilitated by the near-zero dissemination cost (although not labour-cost) per-copy in the digital environment. Yet, as nearly all sources agree, self-publishing in that ‘special’ yet small genre of prize-winning ‘literary fiction’, to which Eaglestone alludes, remains extremely difficult.27 As Felski notes, “the works that we study and teach […] could never come to our attention without the work of countless helpers: publishers, advertisers, critics, prize committees, reviews, word-of-mouth recommendations, syllabi, textbooks and anthologies, changing tastes and scholarly vocabularies”.28

  • 29 As my colleague Joe Brooker has said to me many times in informal conversations, attempts to forma (...)

20This accounts for at least some of the reasons why publishers might be disdainful towards academics, if Eaglestone’s assertion that such disdain exists is, in fact, true. Yes, academics select (value) a subset of a publisher’s list for promotion through teaching and research, thereby creating an environment in which such writing can flourish. However, it is only a subset. Publishing remains a business fraught with financial risk in which cross-subsidy must be judiciously applied between works that will sell and those that will flop with no sure-fire predictive technique for determining a novel’s reception. The value judgements made by academics to canonise works is not undertaken in advance of publication, which would mitigate this risk to some extent. Instead, academics expect publishers to take the risk of publication and only then will the academy’s blessing be bestowed, once this pre-filtering mechanism has been completed. Canons comprise books, not manuscripts. It may also be the case that the role of a commissioning editor is very different to the role of a literary critic. In this case, the academy’s labour of value conferral is working in a different space to those of editorial staff and is of no use whatsoever to those gatekeepers at publishing houses who must anticipate the shape of an unknown and potentially unknowable literary market, venturing their own capital, only for academics to reward it after the fact.29 Academic value judgements may confer a cultural prestige on works but this is at least one step removed from the economic realities and difficulties faced by publishing houses.

  • 30 See Hungerford, Making Literature Now, pp. 142–43 for another take on literary ‘overproduction’, a (...)
  • 31 Again, see English, The Economy of Prestige Prizes.
  • 32 See, for example Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (London (...)

21In addition to a difference in type of labour, this problem also comes from a shortage of labour in the academy concomitant to the volume of material that must be read (a difference of degree). Let alone an academic career alongside administrative responsibilities, a human lifespan is too short to read all the fiction that is now published in the world, not even to speak of work that was rejected by publishers. This bodes poorly for practices of an idealised unfiltered, unaided canon-formation to be core activities in the academy. As Geoffrey Bilder has suggested at many conferences with respect to the related reading space of academic research material, university professors have developed sophisticated ‘reading-avoidance techniques’ to lighten their load. In many types of non-fiction publication, this consists of going first to the index and the bibliography to situate the work and to ascertain whether it must be read. It also involves reading short-form reviews of texts. Most crucially (but also problematically for economic reasons), it can involve using the name of the journal, or the name of the publisher, as a shorthand to denote quality. In the world of fiction, the same can apply. In more extreme cases, such as that voiced recently by Hungerford, a form of “critical not-reading” emerges that could be premised on authorial-biographical or textual misogyny.30 More typically, that a work has already been published by a reputable press is a prerequisite for a time investment by an academic, with an even more limited subset of works now prioritised through the literary-prize industry.31 This, though, as before, explains why publishers might be frosty towards academics, particularly if those academics then claim that they ripen the commercial environment for sales of literary fiction. In some cases, publishers take the risks, academics claim the value. A broader and more controversial solution that is posed to this dilemma is to use computational, large-scale corpus-analysis techniques to ‘read’ at distance, even if this might radically change the value structures of the canonisation process and even if there are substantial technological and legal hurdles to conducting such an approach on contemporary fiction.32

22There are several reasons why such proposed digital solutions are controversial. When dealing with computational reading methods, it is easy to encounter an aesthetic/teleological opposition to stylometry (the quantitative measurement of stylistic features of texts) from some quarters. Indeed, among the most common questions that are asked by non-stylometrists about its processes are: ‘so what?’; ‘why should I care?’; and ‘what does this actually tell us that we didn’t already know?’. In other words, when confronted with mathematical and computational processes for studying texts, the frequent response is to ask what it tells us about a work. The obvious retort is that it tells us neither more nor less than any other study of an aesthetic object; a work of literature. For the study of aesthetics is answerable to nothing except itself at some point in the chain; it is a human pursuit to understand how literary works achieve their affects and sometimes effects.

  • 33 Ted Underwood, ‘@ martin_eve Playing Devil’s Advocate, obviously. But I think the skepticism is pe (...)
  • 34 For reasons of space I am here conflating a set of diverse computational practices, but the point (...)

23Yet, as Ted Underwood put it to me in a statement that has haunted my thinking ever since, this challenge of purpose and teleology can be “understood as an aesthetic problem”. For literary criticism traditionally makes “fragments of individual experience work to illuminate a big picture” while stylometry takes unexperienced quantitative data to do the same, which feels like an “aesthetic loss”.33 In other words, there is something not-like-reading about stylometry and computational ‘reading’ that disconcerts people outside of its practices, compounded by a fear held by many that the fundable future of humanities research might compel them into this space against their wishes. Indeed, ‘distant reading’ /computational ‘reading’ is actually a non-consumptive use, to use the phrase from American copyright law.34 It is not actually a form of reading; it is a set of utilitarian techniques for evaluating large scale corpora. At the same time, though, the common curse uttered by academics working on fiction is that they have already ‘lost the ability to read for pleasure’. Indeed, traditional literary criticism always coerces texts into new narrative forms conducive to argument, its practitioners reading to seek case studies suited for exegetic purpose. But we still call this reading.

24I wonder, too, whether there is an aesthetic antagonism to literary criticism, as it has existed since the New Criticism and poststructuralist anti-intentional criticism, in computational reading practices. Of course, there have always been archival, biographical, and other more seemingly material literary-critical practices. But one of the legacies of the New Criticism was to turn power to readers, away from authors. The poststructuralist ‘Death of the Author’ extensions of such New Critical anti-intentionalist practices — even if their practitioners might not have wished them to be billed as such as ‘extension’ — only strengthened such readerly-centric approaches. It was empowering as a reader to be told that there was nothing outside of the text and that readers could interpret on this basis without a master-author figure undermining such readings.

25The features that can be discerned through stylometry and other computational approaches are, though, a disempowerment of the general and academic reader to some extent. Most readers are not likely to notice statistically significant deviations in part-of-speech usage, nor differences in the most-frequently used words within a text. In a way, then, stylometry seems to bring back an authorial subconscious and to read this in a way that counters the aesthetic sense of actual, human reading. It is a type of ‘reading against the reader’ as other paradigms were ‘reading against the author’. The challenge is to connect such findings with the aesthetic experience; to argue why the measurement of linguistic style matters by showing how it connects with the experience of reading.

26The other strange aspect that strikes me here, though, is that this ‘reading against the reader’ is still a facet of much traditional literary criticism. The best literary criticism shocks the reader into a previously unknown and fresh perspective. The best work forces us to see texts in new lights, to bring the shock of the new to the familiar and to critically deform and reform those literary pieces that we thought we knew so well. And this is also a type of ‘reading against the reader’, for it shows how shallow my own readings were whenever I feel that satisfying jolt of what was previously unseen. It appears to me, however, that the shocks of the new of stylometry do not bring this satisfaction, for the reasons that Underwood has already pointed out: there is nothing with which I can connect them in my experience of reading.

27In such a light, computational approaches to valorising corpora of texts differ significantly from more general reading. They do not solve the problem of value judgements in a way that feels commensurate with traditional reading practices, even if they do allow for a more comprehensive literary history. Yet, even with digital methods put aside, the comparative lack of academic engagement with the conditions of possibility for the publication of contemporary fiction — even if it is probably true that the values of the academy do affect publishers’ selection criteria in other ways that will become evident throughout this book — can help us to account for the hostility of some contemporary literary fiction towards the university. For, if academics are willing to outsource the assessment of quality fiction to publishers and play no role in its pre-selection for publication (even if the situation for literary prizes is somewhat different), then it is clear that the task of critique of those conditions of production might be situated within fiction, not within the academy. This forms one of the initial pre-contexts of my argument: university English has only the most tenuous connections to value-conferral and may be a necessary but insufficient condition of possibility for the publication of ‘literary fiction’.

Metafiction as Critique

  • 35 Charles Altieri, Postmodernisms Now: Essays on Contemporaneity in the Arts, Literature and Philoso (...)

28The second pre-context that I want to broach here is that many of the fictions that are closely read in this book — from Tom McCarthy through Roberto Bolaño up to Sarah Waters — possess traits that can be termed ‘metafictional’. It is, however, no coincidence that such traits should be prevalent in a study of contemporary fiction’s interactions with the academy. This is more than simply a hangover of the fact that contemporary fiction still sits within the shadow of the postmodern aesthetics that dominated the Anglo-American literary scene from the 1960s to the 1990s, even if many, such as Charles Altieri, do now find such forms to be fading or even embarrassing.35 Rather, it is because metafiction has been defined, by several prominent commentators, in terms of an elision of literary-creative and academic-critical practice.

29In truth, Mark Currie is right to point out, in his introduction to the literally titled collection on the form, Metafiction (1995), that there are problems with the standard definitions of this mode. It is now a well-known fact that the term metafiction arose during the height of the postmodern literary phase in the 1960s and was first ascribed to William Gass. The word is used to describe fiction that is ‘self-aware’, fiction that knows it is fiction, fiction that draws attention, through various stylistic conceits, to itself as a work of fiction. Major studies of the form include Robert Scholes’s The Fabulators (1967) and his article ‘Metafiction’ in the Iowa Review (1970); Robert Alter’s Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre (1975); Linda Hutcheon’s Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox (1984); and Patricia Waugh’s Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (1984). Each of these works has contributed towards the contemporary understanding that we hold of the term metafiction. From Alter’s dialectical framing of Don Quixote (1605–1615) as the first realist novel, set in negational opposition to reality, the logical unfurling that fiction must be, always to some degree, about fiction itself began to emerge.

  • 36 Mark Currie, ‘Introduction’, in Metafiction, ed. by Mark Currie (London: Longman, 1995), p. 1.
  • 37 Ibid., p. 3.
  • 38 Ibid., pp. 17–18.
  • 39 Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. by Alan Bass (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981), p. 70.
  • 40 Ramsey Selden, ‘Introduction’, in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, ed. by Ramsey Selde (...)
  • 41 Umberto Eco, ‘Reply’, in Interpretation and Overinterpretation, ed. by Stefan Collini (Cambridge: (...)

30These standard definitions neglect, though, in Currie’s argument, the facts that “the idea of self-consciousness is strangely inconsistent with most postmodern literary theories which would attribute neither selfhood nor consciousness to an author” and that “[i] t is not enough that metafiction knows that it is fiction; it must also know that it is metafiction if its self-knowledge is adequate”, thus prompting an infinite regress.36 Currie moves instead, following Robert Scholes, to re-situate metafiction as a critical discourse that “dramatises the boundary between fiction and criticism” within a loose definition of ‘criticism’.37 Currie’s argument has merit and his subsequent discussion of the history of twentieth-century literary studies manages convincingly to situate the respective projects of Jacques Derrida and Foucault alongside the metafictive turn, for “[t]he postmodern context is not one divided neatly between fictional texts and their critical readings, but a monistic world of representations in which the boundaries between art and life, language and metalanguage, and fiction and criticism are under philosophical attack”.38 This is itself an extension of Derrida’s well-known rejection of the “formal specificity of the literary work”.39 As Raman Selden has put it, Derrida’s anti-foundationalist writings are a challenge to disciplinarity that “relentlessly transgress and reject the binary oppositions which govern the protocols of academic discourses” and, in so doing, eradicate “the conventional boundaries between literary and non-literary texts”.40 Likewise, Eco has claimed that although “according to a current opinion” he has “written some texts that can be labelled as scientific (or academic or theoretical), and some others that can be defined as creative”, he does “not believe in such a straightforward distinction”.41

  • 42 Boxall, The Value of the Novel, p. 5.
  • 43 Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory (London: Verso, 1976), (...)
  • 44 Tony Bennett, Formalism and Marxism (London: Routledge, 1979), p. 167.
  • 45 Louis Hay, ‘Does “Text” Exist?’, Studies in Bibliography, 41 (1988), 64–76 (p. 73).
  • 46 Louis Hay, ‘Genetic Criticism: Origins and Perspective’, in Genetic Criticism: Texts and Avant-Tex (...)
  • 47 McDonald, p. 81.
  • 48 For more on this, see the excellent Celia Britton, ‘Structuralist and Poststructuralist Psychoanal (...)

31This thinking of a slippage between literary and critical texts has permeated a range of approaches, not just those centred around deconstruction. If, as Boxall notes, “the distinction between creative and critical writing is becoming harder to sustain”, then perhaps the fundamental recurring question for the discipline of English resurfaces: what is the object of literary studies?42 What is special about a ‘literary’ text? This debate has even spilled over into other ideological areas of literary studies. Various schools of post-Althusserian Marxist literary criticism, as just one instance, have grappled with this question and the relationship of literature to ideology and production. The early work of Terry Eagleton, as another example, extended Pierre Machery’s and Etienne Balibar’s thinking to triangulate literature at the intersection of various ideologies (such as the authorial ideology) and productive modes (such as the literary mode of production).43 For Tony Bennett, though, even this did not break free of the thinking that ‘literature’ is its own eternal category, somehow delineated from other types of production. What instead is needed, to Bennett’s mind, is an analysis of how literature changes in its re-production and reception over time.44 Such thinking led, in parallel, to the development of the genetic criticism movement in France, devoted to studying the plurality of avant-textes that underpin any supposed final object of study. As Louis Hay put it, “[n]ot The Text, but texts”.45 Such work on the genesis of texts and the mechanics of writing, though, once again lowers the fences between criticism and literature, manifesting a “deep relation between writing and reading” in which “literature and criticism [are both] really only breathing in the air of modern times”.46 As just one other example, this link between reading and writing and blurring of a distinct critical sphere was certainly also pronounced in the surge of author-critics (Woolf, Eliot, Lawrence, Pound, etc.) in the modernist period.47 In any case, what is clear here is that debates over the bounding of literature (if such a coherent, isolated category can even exist) are important and central to its study and have been ongoing for some time.48 Much postmodern metafiction, though, is an attack upon this isolation, staging an incursion or intercession into the critical space and erasing literature as a distinct category set apart from criticism.

  • 49 David James, Modernist Futures: Innovation and Inheritance in the Contemporary Novel (New York: Ca (...)
  • 50 Jane Flax, ‘Soul Service: Foucault’s “Care of the Self” as Politics and Ethics’, in The Mourning A (...)
  • 51 In historical terms, I feel it might be more accurate to say that postmodern metafiction and its s (...)

32There is, however, a troubling aspect to this definition. If metafiction is a mode that elides the difference between criticism and the novel, pitching university English against fiction in a battle for the space of legitimated critical speech, then it is also notable that the form (metafiction) has consistently been held up as trivial or, in its postmodern form, “politically abortive” and “self-indulgent”.49 That said, for every corresponding action there is a reaction, and the assault on metafiction correlates to equal attacks on postmodern and poststructuralist Theory, which have been frequently decried as sophistic and nihilistic; an “association of postmodernism and amorality”, as Jane Flax puts it.50 It could be, then, that metafiction (and particularly postmodern metafiction) aligns only with specific types of critical discourse (high Theory/poststructuralism etc.) and so simply suffers the same ethical attacks.51

  • 52 Flax, p. 80.

33This co-joined critique remains problematic, though, because if metafiction is a mode that erases, or at least blurs, the boundaries between the critical reading practices of the academy and the reflexivity of fiction, an assault upon metafiction, mounted by the academy, becomes a partially reflexive self-attack.52 To put this differently: if there is any truth in the affinity or overlap between (if not the exact identity of) fiction and criticism that postmodern metafiction stages, then in accusing metafiction of amorality, many of the academy’s own critical practices are also moved into the combat zone. Certainly, specific types of formalist critical practice do not seem to be the target here (despite formalism sharing metafiction’s own concern with a critical analysis of aesthetics). It is, perversely, the schools of Theory (Marxist, postcolonial, feminist, critical disability, and deconstructivist) that would usually deem themselves more ethically sound than formalism that seem to be grouped with metafiction in such attacks, thus opening old debates and wounds.

  • 53 This could also certainly be linked to the problems of self-representation and understanding that (...)
  • 54 Such debates have many implications for the teaching of literature, for they imply that if literat (...)
  • 55 Peter Steiner, ‘Russian Formalism’, in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, ed. by Ramsey (...)
  • 56 Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (Ne (...)

34An initial observation on the breadth of the assault on metafiction is worthwhile: I would argue that it is not viable to mount an attack upon postmodernist, metafictive literature on the grounds of amorality without first providing a clear rationale for the ways in which criticism of the period can be clearly delineated from the literature under critique, beyond the fact that the subject of its representation is reflexive. It is clear, after all, that reflexivity is not sufficient: the academy believes that it can study itself without falling prey to political abortion or navel gazing, as the numerous instances of writing about the contemporary university reveal.53 Be it, then, in David Foster Wallace’s footnote techniques or in the constant disambiguating regress of Tristram Shandy (1759–1767), to critique metafictional practices as trivializing requires an aesthetic theory that positions critical discourse within a communicative framework of rationality against literature.54 Put otherwise: to criticise metafiction requires academic/critical discourse to lay a unique claim to an enlightenment function of communication and to sit entirely separately from the artwork that it criticizes. Critical practice would have to stake a monopolising claim for truth, which is certainly difficult given liberal humanist takes on the ethical/moral/didactic function of literature. While we might trace this type of binary disjunction back to the early mechanistic Russian Formalism of Viktor Shklovsky, this is not how most accounts of postmodern metafiction, poststructuralist Theory, or even any formalist criticism that believes its own writing should have aesthetic value would frame it.55 Paul de Man put this well when he posited that the “kind of truth” to which philosophy aspires is a literary one and that “philosophy turns out to be an endless reflection on its own destruction at the hands of literature”, demonstrating the collapse of this distinction during the deconstructivist phase of Theory in the 1970s.56 I might only add that it also works in reverse and that criticism continually aspires to inscribe a philosophical truth inside literature.

  • 57 This itself can be taken as an extrapolation from Patricia Waugh’s famous argument that, to some d (...)
  • 58 The primary assumption of critics seems to be that art that reflects purely upon itself is too nar (...)

35There are other ways in which it is possible to push back against these assaults; ways that are important for thinking about a co-incidence of critical and creative thought within the fictions that I contend have universities as their institutional contexts. By opening this book with some brief, broad, but specifically framed, historical remarks on metafiction, I aim to show that, in the vast temporal range over which the form can be observed from before Ancient Egypt to the present day, metafiction is ubiquitous and inextricable from the act of writing fiction.57 As a result of this apparent perpetual affiliation to writing, it becomes imperative to historicize both metafiction’s production and reception if the term and its critique are to have any meaning. For a first set of rhetorical questions, then, we might ask: is it true that a correlation can be seen between perceived nihilism of a text and the strength and/or frequency of its metafictional devices? Does not, for instance, the Gospel of John in the Bible, held by many Christian people to be among the most ethical of texts, open with meta-textual remarks upon “the Word”? How many metafictional devices does a text have to have, or what proportion of a text must be devoted to such stylistic conceits, before it becomes politically abortive? How are critics who promote this line certain that it is a text’s metafiction that causes the nihilism and not other factors?58 What is so wrong with the ludic mode that leads to such attacks? For many adults enjoy watching or playing professional sports; those childhood pastimes that are now grown up. While, I will here demonstrate a different kind of problematic relationship between aesthetics and power, the interaction of self-referential writing with commitment to issues of class (e.g. Sarah Waters), gender (e.g. Angela Carter) and race (e.g. Percival Everett) also seems to show a turn away from readings of metafiction as nihilistic and/or purely playful. As with any categorical label that can mean everything, without some delineating facet, such taxonomies mean little.

  • 59 The best source that I have read for more on the influence of Kant on Foucualt is Colin Koopman, G (...)

36There is, however, a different way of thinking about the self-referentiality of metafiction that complements its position as a discourse that straddles critical and creative thought: metafiction as critique. Critique, as a philosophical term most clearly refracted through Immanuel Kant and Michel Foucault in this volume, refers to an analysis of a phenomenon’s conditions of possibility. For instance, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) was designed to uncover and schematise a delineation of a posteriori experience from a ‘pure’, a priori internal reason. Importantly, though, Kant’s critique recognised the fact that it must do so from within the epistemic possibilities that it was charting. By contrast, Foucault’s critical histories are toolkits that render our understanding of the present possible only by grasping multiple converging and discontinuous histories from within the contingent present: the historical conditions of possibility. In terms of the a priori: as Kant is to epistemology, Foucault is to history.59

37This leads me to think that there might be a more radical way in which we can consider metafiction. Metafiction is, in fact, aesthetic critique. Metafiction is art that, from within art itself, questions the contemporary conditions of aesthetic and critical possibility for art and fiction. It is not the sole art form that undertakes this endeavour; self-referentiality and a fusion of criticism and aesthetics can be seen in forms of visual art and film. It is, as my opening analysis showed, hardly a new phenomenon. It is only nihilistic and self-absorbed in as much as critique and fiction are nihilistic and self-absorbed, tempered as they are by immanence, and concerned, as they must be, with their own conditions of possibility.

38This is why, I will hypothesize in this book, the types of work that interact critically with the university often have prevalent metafictional traits. If metafiction is about encoding a critical affinity within literary texts, then it is a mode that is well-suited to compete with the academy in the re-centring of literary-critical authority within the markets that I detailed above. We should expect to see, in such a limited space, conflicts of legitimation, often played out through metafictional devices, where literary texts jostle with the academy for the authority to comment upon fiction. For it is not clear, as the saying goes, whether this town is (or will remain) big enough for the both of criticism and critical-metafiction. This represents, in some ways, a synthesis of critical and creative labour so that they play with, or against, each other in the same symbolic economies of power.

  • 60 Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg, ‘Engaging the Humanities’, Profession (2004), 42–62 (p. (...)
  • 61 Felski, p. 4.
  • 62 N. Katherine Hayles, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis (Chicago: Universi (...)
  • 63 Bruno Latour, ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’, Cr (...)

39As a note, though: although I claim in this volume that metafiction and the presence of the university is reflected in a paradigm of critique, in some ways this book may be charting the closing of a ‘critical’ era. That is to say that this book may be positioned at the juncture where ‘critique’ will be viewed as a historical phenomenon of the study of English and not a contemporary practice. For increasingly (although the trend dates back to at least 2004 when Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg suggested that it was time that we “critiqued the mantra of critique”60) there is a doubt in the discipline that ‘critique’ may be the most valuable tool of the future. For the first part, the term has become so diffuse as to be near meaningless. Critique is, certainly, a term used loosely in literary studies to refer to a variety of practices: “a spirit of skeptical questioning”, as Felski details it, “or outright condemnation, an emphasis on its precarious position vis-à-vis overbearing and oppressive social forces, the claim to be engaged in some kind of radical intellectual and/or political work, and the assumption that whatever is not critical must therefore be uncritical”.61 Meanwhile, N. Katherine Hayles has noted that “after more than two decades of symptomatic reading [...] many scholars are not finding it a productive practice, perhaps because (like many deconstructive readings) its results have become to seem formulaic”.62 Amid such diversity of practice and with so many value judgements contributing to each of these sub-practices, it is not surprising that ‘critique’ has been moved into the ‘critical’ sights. In more philosophically specific terms, though, Bruno Latour has noted that the mode of critique descended from Kantian philosophy may be “running out of steam”. In his prominent article on this topic, Latour criticises much French philosophy/Theory for its anti-foundational and anti-realist modes, using the example of climate-change deniers citing science studies to demonstrate how critique is increasingly turned back against its claimed radical purposes.63 All of this is to say that, although I believe I am writing about the contemporary, it may turn out that I am writing a history.

40However, to summarise the second pre-context for my argument: metafiction has evolved as a form that highlights the artificiality of ‘literature’ as a coherent category against ‘criticism’. Metafiction might also be seen as a form of critique, examining the conditions of possibility for aesthetic practice. In this way, metafictional texts begin to jostle with university English — which is already facing a challenge to its own authority as per my first pre-context — for the legitimate right to critical speech.

Academic Reading Practices

  • 64 Roman Jakobson and Krystyna Pomorska, Dialogues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. (...)
  • 65 For more on this, see Graff, whose work recurs throughout this book.

41The final pre-context that must be addressed before going further is what it might mean to say that a novel ‘has an academic audience in mind’ or that a work of fiction has knowledge of ‘academic reading practices’. This is in some cases fairly straightforward but in others more difficult. I certainly do not wish to re-pitch a regressive battle between ‘common readers’ and academics, as exemplified in the structuralism of some Prague School epistemologies.64 It is also true that there is no single homogeneous and internally consistent method of reading, teaching, or researching literature within the academy. From squabbles among scholars, historians, critics, generalists, philologists, New Critics, poststructuralists, and digital humanists it is clear that the history of the discipline of English comprises a diverse range of techniques and practices.65 That said, the most basic type of interaction that I would call ‘academic’ for contemporary fiction is the deployment of specific literary-critical/theoretical terms that originated in the space of professionalised university English. The seepage of this discourse beyond the ivory tower is a historical product of the rise of mass higher education, the popularity/rise of English as a discipline, and the influence of creative writing programmes.

  • 66 Adam Kelly, ‘Beginning with Postmodernism’, Twentieth Century Literature, 57.3/4 (2011), 391–422 ( (...)

42On this last point, as I and others have previously noted elsewhere, much American metafictional writing from the 1960s onwards was born within and was co-productive of the context of Theory-saturated writing programmes. To reiterate briefly those previous observations, consider Adam Kelly’s argument, building on the important work of Mark McGurl, that “post-war American fiction is inseparable from its institutional contexts” and that, therefore, the “academic context of the post-1960s English program, with its increasing incorporation of theory into the teaching of literature, may be just as materially relevant as the expansion of the creative writing program during that period”.66 While writers of a post-1960s generation were co-productive of such a Theory-intensive mode, subsequent authors, such as many of those appearing in this volume, write immanently to academic theoretical concerns, thereby further complicating a firm delineation between the critical and creative spheres. That said, there are geographical specificities to this argument that cannot be dismissed; the US creative writing programmes simply did not boom in the same way at the same time elsewhere, particularly in Europe (although we see a surge in the popularity of such programmes in the UK at the time of writing). Concomitantly, however, the theoretical paradigms that most strongly influenced literary studies in the global North over this period were broad in their reach. To restate this: the entanglement of a strand of contemporary fiction with Anglo-American institutional contexts must be seen through the context of writing programmes in the US but also through literary studies and Theory programmes elsewhere worldwide, of which many writers were graduates. It is more to the latter contexts than to the creative writing programmes that this book is devoted.

  • 67 Günter Leypoldt, ‘Singularity and the Literary Market’, New Literary History, 45.1 (2014), 71–88 ( (...)
  • 68 Michèle Lamont, How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment (Cambridge, MA (...)

43With the proliferation of access to a previously elevated space of social and cultural authority — the university — has come a shift in authorial practices. Certainly, a contemporary author of literary fiction can rely on an audience containing a sizable proportion of humanities graduates. This differs from earlier periods. For, around the turn of the twentieth century, as Günter Leypoldt has framed it, a mass readership was emerging, but not one that was entangled with or versed in a professional context of criticism: “by extending the domain of short-lived, low-prestige literary commodities, the emergence of a mass readership raised the practice space of professional writers and artists to a level of sacredness that had formerly been monopolized by more traditional forms of (religious, political) authority”.67 We might also add to Leypoldt’s account that the professionalisation of literary criticism had not occurred at this time, before I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, Russian Formalism, and many others. To reformulate this: before the era of high modernism, in Leypoldt’s history, mass readership with relative scarcity of published material (at least by twenty-first-century standards) and the even sparser canonisation of highbrow writing led to a consecration of a minority through a type of sacred enclave. As the turn to academic valuing of avant-gardism took hold in the twentieth century, followed by the rise of mass higher education, literary fiction, as it came to be called, had to seek ever more ways to elevate itself compared to a professionalized academy and a reading populace that was versed in these ways of literary criticism. The adoption of the academy’s own terminology is one such strategy for literary fiction that now contributes to what Michelle Lamont, Rita Felski, and many others have framed as the “legitimation crisis” of English, a core feature of which is an oscillation between professionalization/insulation and deprofessionalization/populism with the commensurate disciplinary de-centerings of evaluative criteria that this entails.68

  • 69 Stephanie Merritt, ‘She’ s Young, Black, British — and the First Publishing Sensation of the Mille (...)

44This type of cross-fertilisation of Theory, the target referents of which will be especially apparent to those in the academic humanities but that may be lost on readers outside those spaces, is nowhere so clear as in Zadie Smith’s novel, On Beauty (2005). Smith is a graduate of King’s College, Cambridge, where she read English Literature,69 and this work is equipped with a powerful arsenal of critiques of higher education with which it can discomfort the academic reader. Superficially, and like many other ‘campus’ -type novels, On Beauty finds comic relief in its academics; the pathetic anti-hero Howard Belsey (whose name lends the novel its Forsterian through-pun of Howards End [1910]) is petty, unproductive, malicious, hypocritical, unfaithful, privileged, socially awkward, ridiculous, and, above-all, pretentious. In such a mode, it would seem clear that Smith’s critique is of academia, the well-trodden path of legitimating fiction by issuing ad hominem ‘prejoinders’ to yet-unmade critical points.

  • 70 Elaine Scarry, ‘On Beauty and Being Just’ (presented at the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Yale (...)
  • 71 Alexander Dick and Christina Lupton, ‘On Lecturing and Being Beautiful: Zadie Smith, Elaine Scarry (...)

45Yet Smith’s novel showcases so much more self-awareness and literary-critical theoretical knowledge than this reading would credit. Its link to the academy is not superficial parody but is in fact woven into the narrative fabric of the text. For one, its title is derived from Elaine Scarry’s well-known essay, ‘On Beauty and Being Just’. This essay piece is concerned, as are the events within Smith’s novel, with the ways in which the lived, emotional experience of ‘beauty’ has been steadily devalued by the reading practices of the university and a culture of increasing scientism in the study of aesthetics. This is, itself, situated within a longer lineage of the question of whether beauty and truth are synonymous. For Scarry, “beauty and truth are allied”, which is not, she asserts, “a claim that the two are identical”.70 As Alexander Dick and Christina Lupton put it, “[t]he underlying aims of On Beauty and Being Just are first to unveil and then to counteract the institutional prohibitions that deprive intellectuals of an enriching language of beauty and render works of art and literature powerless as a moral resource in university life”, an aim that intersects with the themes of Smith’s novel.71 On Beauty, then, cannot be read as anything but, in some senses, metafictional. It is a book that encodes a critique of the way in which the university studies aesthetics, within its own aesthetic form. The cyclicality/paradox is clear, though: those most likely to read the text in the objectifying fashion of scientistic literary studies that Scarry criticizes will turn up this ethical critique through the inter-textual reference, even while discrediting the mode that produced such a reading.

  • 72 Eco, ‘Overinterpreting Texts’, p. 64.
  • 73 Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Bloomington: Indiana (...)
  • 74 Ibid., p. 11.

46In some ways, as I have already hinted, it is clear that the framework that I am constructing here shares an affinity with Eco’s work on semiotics and the construction of the ideal or model reader. In various pieces and with a range of modifications, Eco essentially contends that “a text is a device conceived in order to produce its model reader”.72 The author, for Eco, must “foresee a model of the possible reader (hereafter Model Reader) supposedly able to deal interpretatively with the expressions in the same way as the author deals generatively with them”.73 Every text “is a syntactic-semantico-pragmatic device whose foreseen interpretation is part of its generative process”.74 While I do not here hold with Eco’s characterisation of some texts as open and others as closed, I do think that the textual strategies that I detail throughout this volume are designed to interpellate and pre-empt/foresee a specific model reader who has informed access to academico-theoretical tropes through membership of an academic discourse community. This foresight, I contend, is used specifically to condition those readers down particular interpretative pathways.

  • 75 Nicholas Dames, ‘The Theory Generation’, n+1, 14 (2012), https://nplusonemag.com/issue-14/reviews/ (...)
  • 76 Vincent B. Leitch, Literary Criticism in the 21st Century: Theory Renaissance (London: Bloomsbury, (...)
  • 77 In at least some of the senses set out by Wolfgang Iser, ‘The Reality of Fiction: A Functionalist (...)
  • 78 Howard Becker, Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You’re Doing It (Chicag (...)

47This kind of ‘Theory spotting’ among the cadre of novelists that Nicholas Dames calls the “Theory generation” is the easy type of interaction to spot.75 Nonetheless, some of the work in this book will necessarily take this as a starting point, if never the terminus. The more complex interrelated forms that are explored in this book are literary strategies of critique, legitimation (including a type of “market vanguardism”, to appropriate Vincent Leitch’s terminology), and discipline.76 As with my initial reading of the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, it is the intersection of hermeneutics with a textual functionalism that here draws my attention.77 In other words, as per the second introductory chapter below, the type of text with which I am most concerned here is not the novel that merely explicitly encodes its knowledge of the academy at the thematic level through narrative statements. It is the text that also functionally deploys such strategies for its narrative path in an interrelation of narratorial, metanarratorial, and formal components in the service of critique, legitimation, and discipline. These novels possess an awareness of what Harold Becker styles as the “tricks of the trade” of literary studies.78

48This forms the final pre-context for my argument in this book: that certain forms of metafiction, which are jostling with the academy for the legitimate right to critique, pre-empt academic reading techniques and thereby subvert the practices of university English. Taken together, these three areas of canon, metafiction, and academic reading practices form the background contexts to the narrative that I will more thoroughly plot throughout this work: namely that, in the contest for critique, specific works of metafiction seek legitimation over and above university English (and, in particular, criticism) and discipline the academy in order to achieve this. The question that I will now answer in the next chapter is: which works?

Notes

1 Most notably, Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (London: Methuen, 1984), pp. 18–19 suggests that much fiction can be understood as falling on a spectrum of metafictive practice.

2 In this work, I choose not to define the terms ‘modernism’ or ‘postmodernism’ in toto outright. This is not only because it is tedious to encounter every work that undertakes this task, but more importantly because it is impossible and always selective. I instead opt here to make clear the aspect of (post) modernism to which I am referring at a given moment, be it epistemology vs. ontology à la Brian McHale, ludic play, temporal distortion or any of the other characteristics frequently assigned under these taxonomies.

3 Catherine Packham, ‘Cicero’s Ears, or Eloquence in the Age of Politeness: Oratory, Moderation, and the Sublime in Enlightenment Scotland’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 46.4 (2013), 499–512, http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/ecs. 2013.0043.

4 The inversion of order is, of course, temporary. Like Bakhtin’s famous carnival, the tale ends with order restored and the normative moral precepts and expectations emerge only strengthened by the momentary misrule.

5 Stanley Fish, ‘Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics’, in Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 21–67 (p. 48).

6 Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 43.

7 Peter Boxall, The Value of the Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 11.

8 Alan Liu, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 3, 21.

9 Ibid., p. 2.

10 Ian Hunter, ‘The Time of Theory’, Postcolonial Studies, 10.1 (2007), 5–22 (p. 8), http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13688790601153123. It also strikes me that many of the anxieties in this space are actually competitive also against the natural/empirical sciences. Hunter and Felski do not go far enough, for my liking, in looking at how the contemporary sciences actually share many of the conditions of negative knowledge. Falsifiability and a desire to militate against false appearance through intersubjectivity are critical to the natural sciences. Of course, both the human, natural and empirical sciences may derive their critical stances from earlier philosophy; its roots can be found in Ancient Greece, not just in the more recent Kantian approaches. But the continuation of the mode feels more like a transformation of natural and empirical scientific practice in another legitimation problem: that of the two cultures.

11 Mortimer R. Proctor, The English University Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957); John Lyons, The College Novel in America (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962); Ian Carter, Ancient Cultures of Conceit: British University Fiction in the Post-War Years (London: Routledge, 1990); Janice Rossen, The University on Modern Fiction: When Power Is Academic (London: Macmillan, 1993); Kenneth Womack, Postwar Academic Fiction: Satire, Ethics, Community (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); Péter Székely, ‘The Academic Novel in the Age of Postmodernity: The Anglo-American Metafictional Academic Novel’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, Eötvös Loránd University, 2009), http://doktori.btk. elte. hu/lit/szekelypeter/thesis. pdf; Elaine Showalter, Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

12 Terry Eagleton, ‘The Silences of David Lodge’, New Left Review, 1.172 (1988), 93–102; although, as Merritt Moseley points out, even comedic novels about academics do not have to be, by definition, satiric. Merritt Moseley, ‘Introductory: Definitions and Justifications’, in The Academic Novel: New and Classic Essays, ed. by Merritt Moseley (Chester: Chester Academic Press, 2007), pp. 3–19.

13 Widely attributed to Joe Haldeman.

14 See, Umberto Eco, ‘Overinterpreting Texts’, in Interpretation and Overinterpretation, ed. by Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 45–66 (p. 64).

15 For instance, this novel accuses the over-interpreting reader of having one’s ‘hands in your pants’, linking over-interpretation to masturbation. This is not a specific technique, though; it is a generalised critique of over-interpretation and an attempt to forestall all meaning even while the text overloads its symbolic register to an extraordinary degree. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (London: Vintage, 1995), pp. 695–96.

16 Judith Ryan, The Novel After Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

17 For example, see the section entitled ‘Ideology in popular entertainment’ and its antecedent entry. Zadie Smith, NW (London: Penguin, 2013), p. 213.

18 For more on this, see Ronan McDonald, The Death of the Critic (London: Continuum, 2007).

19 Amy Hungerford, Making Literature Now (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), p. 10.

20 Mark Algee-Hewitt and Mark McGurl, Between Canon and Corpus: Six Perspectives on 20th-Century Novels, Pamphlets of the Stanford Literary Lab (Stanford: Stanford Literary Lab, 2015), https://litlab.stanford.edu/LiteraryLabPamphlet8. pdf.

21 Ibid., p. 13.

22 Ibid., p. 18.

23 Modern Library Board’s List of 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century, the Modern Library Reader’s List of 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century, the Radcliffe’s Rival List of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century, Larry McCafery’s List of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century and the Yearly Best-selling Works of the 20th Century.

24 Robert Eaglestone, ‘Contemporary Fiction in the Academy: Towards a Manifesto’, Textual Practice, 27.7 (2013), 1089–101 (p. 1097), http://dx.doi.org /10.1080/09502 36X. 2013.840113; see also James F. English, The Economy of Prestige Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

25 Eaglestone, p. 1096.

26 Franco Moretti, ‘The Slaughterhouse of Literature’, MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly, 61.1 (2000), 207–27.

27 David Henry Sterry, ‘Self-Publishing Literary Fiction: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Cari Noga Reveals All to the Book Doctors’, Huffington Post, 20 August 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-henry-sterry/selfpublishing-literaryf_b_5695364. html.

28 Felski, p. 170. Felski does attribute “last, but not least, the passions and predilections of ourselves and our students” but I feel that these are subsidiary to the market discoverability factors.

29 As my colleague Joe Brooker has said to me many times in informal conversations, attempts to formalise literary value are built on foundations of sand. It’s an area where perhaps the most we can say with certainty is that ‘different people like different things’.

30 See Hungerford, Making Literature Now, pp. 142–43 for another take on literary ‘overproduction’, as she terms it. I am not wholly sure what Hungerford means by ‘overproduction’ here. For what use case is the literature being over-produced? What would be the optimal level of production? Certainly there is more than academics can read, but can this truly be said to be ‘over-production’?

31 Again, see English, The Economy of Prestige Prizes.

32 See, for example Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (London: Verso, 2007); Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013); Matthew L. Jockers, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013); Stephen Ramsay, Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011).

33 Ted Underwood, ‘@ martin_eve Playing Devil’s Advocate, obviously. But I think the skepticism is perhaps best understood as an aesthetic problem. One of the +’, @ Ted_Underwood, 2016, https://twitter.com /Ted_Underwood/status/756135378742943744; Ted Underwood, ‘@ martin_eve things lit crit does well is make fragments of individual experience work to illuminate a big picture. When we use evidence +’, @ Ted_Underwood, 2016, https://twitter.com /Ted_Underwood/status/756135767806648320; Ted Underwood, ‘@ martin_eve That isn’t “experienced,” I think ppl feel that as an *aesthetic* loss. It’s not what they *say,* but I think it’s felt.’, @ Ted _ Underwood, 2016, https://twitter.com/Ted_Underwood/status/756136113115242496.

34 For reasons of space I am here conflating a set of diverse computational practices, but the point still holds.

35 Charles Altieri, Postmodernisms Now: Essays on Contemporaneity in the Arts, Literature and Philosophy (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), p. 1.

36 Mark Currie, ‘Introduction’, in Metafiction, ed. by Mark Currie (London: Longman, 1995), p. 1.

37 Ibid., p. 3.

38 Ibid., pp. 17–18.

39 Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. by Alan Bass (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981), p. 70.

40 Ramsey Selden, ‘Introduction’, in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, ed. by Ramsey Selden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 1–10 (p. 7).

41 Umberto Eco, ‘Reply’, in Interpretation and Overinterpretation, ed. by Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 139–51 (p. 140).

42 Boxall, The Value of the Novel, p. 5.

43 Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory (London: Verso, 1976), pp. 44–63. Eagleton’s later work turns away from the category of literature as a homogeneous object of study.

44 Tony Bennett, Formalism and Marxism (London: Routledge, 1979), p. 167.

45 Louis Hay, ‘Does “Text” Exist?’, Studies in Bibliography, 41 (1988), 64–76 (p. 73).

46 Louis Hay, ‘Genetic Criticism: Origins and Perspective’, in Genetic Criticism: Texts and Avant-Textes, ed. by Jed Deppman, Daniel Ferrer, and Michael Groden (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), pp. 17–27 (p. 22).

47 McDonald, p. 81.

48 For more on this, see the excellent Celia Britton, ‘Structuralist and Poststructuralist Psychoanalytic and Marxist Theories’, in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, ed. by Ramsey Selden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 197–252 to which much of the above discussion is indebted.

49 David James, Modernist Futures: Innovation and Inheritance in the Contemporary Novel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 10; Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), p. ix.

50 Jane Flax, ‘Soul Service: Foucault’s “Care of the Self” as Politics and Ethics’, in The Mourning After: Attending the Wake of Postmodernism, ed. by Neil Brooks and Josh Toth (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007), pp. 79–98 (p. 80).

51 In historical terms, I feel it might be more accurate to say that postmodern metafiction and its subsequent progeny arise as the logical extension of an ongoing response to a series of ethical dilemmas of representation (the realist novel) to which the form poses itself as a partial, incomplete solution.

52 Flax, p. 80.

53 This could also certainly be linked to the problems of self-representation and understanding that Foucault covers in his anti-humanistic discussion of the empirico-transcendental doublet. The problem that Foucault identifies is how finite beings, such as humans, can consider aspects that are transcendental and, therefore, infinite in scope. Self-reflection is an aspect that must be deemed transcendental to some degree, rather than empirical, because it is impossible to ever wholly objectify self-measurement from within the measuring construct of the self. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Routledge, 2007), pp. 347–51.

54 Such debates have many implications for the teaching of literature, for they imply that if literature does not communicate, it must stand alone. These question the role that communicative exegesis can play. Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 148–52.

55 Peter Steiner, ‘Russian Formalism’, in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, ed. by Ramsey Selden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 11–29 (p. 18).

56 Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 115.

57 This itself can be taken as an extrapolation from Patricia Waugh’s famous argument that, to some degree, all contemporary fiction is on a metafictional spectrum. Waugh, pp. 18–19.

58 The primary assumption of critics seems to be that art that reflects purely upon itself is too narcissistic, uncommitted, and detached from representation of anything other than itself to gain any ethical purchase.

59 The best source that I have read for more on the influence of Kant on Foucualt is Colin Koopman, Genealogy as Critique: Foucault and the Problems of Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), from which this statement derives.

60 Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg, ‘Engaging the Humanities’, Profession (2004), 42–62 (p. 45).

61 Felski, p. 4.

62 N. Katherine Hayles, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), p. 59.

63 Bruno Latour, ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’, Critical Inquiry, 30.2 (2004), 225–48.

64 Roman Jakobson and Krystyna Pomorska, Dialogues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 116ff; Lubomír Doležel, ‘Structuralism of the Prague School’, in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, ed. by Ramsey Selden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 33–57 (pp. 38–39).

65 For more on this, see Graff, whose work recurs throughout this book.

66 Adam Kelly, ‘Beginning with Postmodernism’, Twentieth Century Literature, 57.3/4 (2011), 391–422 (p. 396); see also J.J. Williams, ‘The Rise of the Academic Novel’, American Literary History, 24.3 (2012), 561–89, http://dx.doi.org /10.1093/alh/ajs038; Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Martin Paul Eve, Pynchon and Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Foucault and Adorno (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 1–2.

67 Günter Leypoldt, ‘Singularity and the Literary Market’, New Literary History, 45.1 (2014), 71–88 (p. 79), http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/nlh. 2014.0000.

68 Michèle Lamont, How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), pp. 70–79; Felski, p. 14.

69 Stephanie Merritt, ‘She’ s Young, Black, British — and the First Publishing Sensation of the Millennium’, The Guardian, 16 January 2000, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/jan/16/fiction.zadiesmith.

70 Elaine Scarry, ‘On Beauty and Being Just’ (presented at the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Yale University, 1998), p. 38, http://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_documents/a-to-z/s/scarry00.pdf; indeed, others such as Seamus Heaney forcefully made this point: ‘I rise to rise to the occasion/And not disgrace my art or nation/With verse that sings the old equation/Of beauty and truth\.’ Seamus Heaney, ‘Anniversary Verse’ (1982), The Harvard Advocate,http://theharvardadvocate.com/article/376/tribute-to-seamus-heaney.

71 Alexander Dick and Christina Lupton, ‘On Lecturing and Being Beautiful: Zadie Smith, Elaine Scarry, and the Liberal Aesthetic’, ESC: English Studies in Canada, 39.2 (2013), 115–37 (p. 117), http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/esc.2013.0032.

72 Eco, ‘Overinterpreting Texts’, p. 64.

73 Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), p. 7.

74 Ibid., p. 11.

75 Nicholas Dames, ‘The Theory Generation’, n+1, 14 (2012), https://nplusonemag.com/issue-14/reviews/the-theory-generation.

76 Vincent B. Leitch, Literary Criticism in the 21st Century: Theory Renaissance (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 25.

77 In at least some of the senses set out by Wolfgang Iser, ‘The Reality of Fiction: A Functionalist Approach to Literature’, New Literary History, 7.1 (1975), 7–38, http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/468276.

78 Howard Becker, Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You’re Doing It (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998).

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