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Literature Against Criticism

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Martin Paul Eve

Part III: Legitimation

5. Sincerity and Truth

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  • 1 See, in particular, Underwood, Why Literary Periods Mattered, pp. 81–113; Graff; Franklin E. Court (...)
  • 2 John Hartley, A Short History of Cultural Studies (London: SAGE, 2003), pp. 32–37.

1Although slightly older than the commonly-supposed professionalising Arnoldian origin, the discipline of English studies is relatively young, having come into being as “English language and literature” in 1828 at the University of London (now UCL rather than the federated research university that currently takes the name University of London).1 Over the course of the discipline’s short history, however, a range of aspects has remained ever-present and unsatisfactorily resolved under the heading of ‘value’. As John Hartley traces it, these debates can be subdivided into three phases (simplifying for reasons of comprehensibility). The first is to chart the lineage of Matthew Arnold to F.R. Leavis, in which it was consistently argued that “English Literature was the moral centre of the school curriculum” with “militant opposition to the supposed deadening effects of mass culture” resulting in a canonised high elitism. The second phase comes with Stuart Hall’s Marxist-inflected approach at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (following Richard Hoggart) opening the doors to popular culture. The third phase is concerned with governmentality and the use of culture, seen clearly in the work of Tony Bennett pertaining to discourses of “the creative industries” and other phrases used by the state to recuperate the arts.2

2As was examined in Parts One and Two, these shifts in value structures are charted within various aesthetic, political, and moral contexts in contemporary fiction. As the authority of the academy to canonise on grounds of high aesthetics wanes, the idea of literary fiction is born and works begin to situate themselves within this paradigm. Conversely, as the authority of the academy to canonise on grounds of morality fades, certain strains of work take on the task of moral education and politico-social critique, even amid a relativistic paradigm far from the Victorian didacticism of a previous age.

  • 3 Ramón Saldívar, ‘Speculative Realism and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary American Fiction’, (...)

3Having examined in Part Two the ways in which aesthetic and political critiques of the academy are respectively enacted in a set of very different texts, this third section will now turn to the strategies through which such works legitimate themselves over and above the discipline of literary studies. For this first chapter on this topic, I turn to one of the clearest examples of a work of twenty-first-century metafiction that blurs the boundaries between criticism and fiction, knowing the reading methods of the academy: Percival Everett’s Erasure. Certainly, the author can claim to know a thing or two about academics: Everett is a Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California. In the finest tradition of biting the hand that feeds, though, Erasure offers not only a charged satire of the literary market’s racial pigeon holing, but also an insider critique of the academy. In fact it is hardly controversial to say that the creative writing programmes are key to Everett’s literary identity.3 Playing on this lineage, through an authorial claim to insider knowledge and then through an intricate parody of the academy’s practices, Erasure is a novel that brilliantly demonstrates the type of outflanking of the academy undertaken by much contemporary metafiction of this nature. While I confess that the inclusion of Erasure marks a departure from the concept of works sited solely at distances from the academy, the opportunities it yields for opening a discussion of legitimation techniques will, I hope, excuse this.

  • 4 Dave Gunning, ‘Concentric and Centripetal Narratives of Race: Caryl Phillips’s Dancing in the Dark(...)
  • 5 Saldívar, p. 522.
  • 6 Percival Everett, Erasure (London: Faber, 2003), p. 35.

4Erasure, as with many of Everett’s works, offers the story of a quasi-autobiographical figure (several of his novels feature a character called “Percival Everett”, such as in I Am Not Sidney Poitier [2009]). In this case, Thelonius ‘Monk’ Ellison (transparently fusing Thelonius Monk and Ralph Ellison) is a highly-articulate, educated, avant-garde author struggling to place his most recent inaccessible reworking of Ancient Greek legend with a publisher. One of the core reasons for this is that the market-driven system of literary sales as depicted within the novel always categorises the character’s fictions as ‘African-American writing’, rather than evaluating the work on the basis of aesthetic merit. Faced with a mounting crisis in his home life as his mother succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease and as his sister is murdered because of her work as an abortion clinic doctor, Ellison’s financial situation becomes dire. Around this time, a rival author’s book is enjoying a runaway success. Entitled “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto” — and evidently modelled on Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940)4 as well as Sapphire’s Push (1996) and its subsequent film adaptation5 — the novel is, according to Ellison, every worst “display of watermelon-eating, banjo-playing darkie carvings and a pyramid of Mammy cookie jars”.6 In a fit of anger at the fact that stereotypical representations of illiterate, criminal, sexualised, irresponsible African Americans are the only depictions to achieve commercial success, Ellison writes his own pseudonymous parody of “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto”, initially entitled “My Pafology” but later antagonistically renamed “Fuck”. Predictably, the horrific story (of an irresponsible, sexually violent, uneducated dropout who ends up on a Jerry Springer-like show to be confronted by his four children by four mothers) is praised by the publishers and film rights are secured. The novel then goes on to win a major prize, presenting a dilemma for Ellison, who sits on the jury. At the cliffhanger ending in which the narrator must choose whether or not to reveal himself, Ellison’s personal finances are saved but his parody is lost on the market and his artistic integrity is gravely compromised.

  • 7 Judith Roof, ‘Everett’s Hypernarrator’, Canadian Review of American Studies, 43.2 (2013), 202–15 ( (...)
  • 8 Everett, Erasure, p. 8.

5As much other work has pointed out, Erasure plucks upon metatextual strings. The text relies, as Judith Roof notes, upon the “collapse of a perceived difference between author and narrator”, an aspect that is both promoted by Everett’s own subject position and the explicit depiction of the narrator’s dilemma in accepting a literary prize at the end of the text. Most notably for the topic of this book, however, and as with the previous discussion of House of Leaves, the novel also introduces “other discourses into its narrative in the form of a scholarly paper”.7 The first section of Erasure, for example, is predominantly concerned with the narrator’s arrival in Washington to give a paper to the Nouveau Roman society. This paper, an extract from a ‘novel’, is a work of high Theory, obsessed with aesthetic form above and beyond intelligibility “which treats this critical text by Roland Barthes, S/Z (1970), exactly as it treats its so-called subject text which is Balzac’s Sarrasine (1830)”. As the narrator’s sister remarks: “I just can’t read that stuff you write”.8

  • 9 Ibid., pp. 17, 22.
  • 10 Ibid., pp. 40, 44.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 17.
  • 12 “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to n (...)
  • 13 Ibid., pp. 44–45.

6This is far from the point. Once the actual paper has been given at the conference, it is clear that the literature professors in the audience have taken nothing from Ellison’s academic work. Instead, they anticipate the controversy of his remarks in advance and then react violently despite the fact that, in Ellison’s words, they “hadn’t understood a word of what I had read”.9 To be clear, though, Ellison himself is depicted as disparaging towards his literary-critical work, describing it as “dry, boring, meaningless stuff” that he “only barely took seriously”.10 This derision of literary criticism finds its apogee in the character Davis Gimbel, apparently “the editor of a journal called Frigid Noir”.11 Gimbel is depicted as existing in a “disturbed, certifiable, and agitated postmodern state”, a fact that is also signalled when he jumps out at the narrator while yelling the opening lines to Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.12 Gimbel claims, in the ensuing argument, that the aesthetic and political projects of postmodern literature (which the text only vaguely outlines) were “interrupted”, presumably by a resurgence of mimetic realism. Concurrently, however, the character also states that postmodernism and any other avant-garde form that “opposes or rejects established systems of creation” must remain unfinished (the type of logic of ‘fictions of process’ that I outlined in the preceding chapter). The problem for Gimbel and other postmodernists, according to the narrator, is that he believes himself to be “saying something that makes sense”, when the opposite is true. Finally, Ellison resorts to the real-world, common-sense approach when bombarded with supposed academic nonsense: “[m]an, do you need to get laid”, he says.13

  • 14 Saldívar, p. 525.
  • 15 Ibid., p. 529.
  • 16 Peter Boxall even claims that the “difficult play between inscription and erasure” may be “a const (...)
  • 17 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U (...)

7That said, and as Ramón Saldívar notes, the character Ellison is a postmodern writer who is ashamed of his realist work and the types of certainty that are required to write populist, mimetic fiction.14 For Saldívar, the representation of these two poles, sous rature, “parodies both the modern and postmodern ways of thinking about race”, making the novel both “postracial” and post-postmodern.15 While I will not reiterate the thorny problems of the label postracial, which has a tendency to imply the erasure of continued systemic racism, as Saldívar is well aware, it is questionable whether the aesthetic characteristics of Everett’s novel can be said to advance beyond postmodernism. Consider, for instance, the technique of écriture sous rature that seems central to the novel’s conception of race and after which the text is named.16 Although, in this instance, the take may be sophisticated, the specific strategy originates in Derrida’s infamous 1967 inflection of Heidegger’s technique at the height of poststructuralism in which presence and absence are simultaneously gestured towards.17 To claim that the use of such a method — which was formed within the co-generative emergence of poststructuralism and postmodern fiction — constitutes a novel aesthetic strategy beyond the postmodern seems somewhat far-fetched.

8Furthermore, the technique by which the novel dislocates the sincerity of Ellison’s outer narrative is one of layered relation. The text of the parody novel, “Fuck”, fully interrupts the main flow of Ellison’s story for approximately sixty pages and constitutes the main satirical device of the work. However, as is clear from the history of postmodern, nested narratives, these digressive sub-tales are most often taken as mise-en-abyme; that is, reflections of the master works within which they sit. Erasure’s most subtle move is quietly to alert the reader that the parody within the novel signifies that the narrative within which it is encapsulated is also a parody. In other words, alongside its clear parody of useless academics, Erasure is a text that relies, to some degree, upon the expectations of literary tradition and knowledge of the techniques by which it will be read in order to show that the entire novel is parody. Everett knows that he can signal that Ellison is a parody by nesting a parody within the work. This is part of the way in which the novel plays with the concept of sincerity and legitimation, which I will now outline more thoroughly.

Sincerity

  • 18 See, for instance, Elizabeth Bowen’s remarks on the how the novel ‘lies’, in Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Not (...)
  • 19 Elizabeth Markovits, The Politics of Sincerity: Plato, Frank Speech, and Democratic Judgment (Univ (...)
  • 20 Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 93

9The well-rehearsed argument goes that fiction presents a type of untruth that is nonetheless honest (and perhaps, in some accounts, even more truthful than non-fiction) in its claim to distort.18 Criticism, on the other hand, purports to be truthful and sincere, but is often accused of sophistry. Criticism and fiction are, therefore, involved in a kind of legitimation struggle over the truth. Notions of ‘sincerity’ in fiction, however, are difficult to discuss because there are different views on what, exactly, ‘sincerity’ means. The interpretation I advance here is but one among many definitions. As an opening note, though, it is worth pointing out that the term is clearly closely linked to, but separate from, ‘authenticity’. So what is the difference? Is there a difference? Elizabeth Markovits and others deny that such a divide exists, or at least is of little use for many discussions.19 However, in a distinction first taken seriously in the contemporary era by Lionel Trilling, authenticity is usually thought of as an exact correlation between one’s hidden inner ‘self’ and one’s outer assertion and behaviour; a mode in which “there is no within and without”.20

10Unfortunately, if authenticity is about the erasure of a divide between an individual inner essence and its outer expression, a number of difficulties emerge. For one, this authenticity can only be seen as true if one knows one’s own inner essence. However, does this ‘inner essence’ even exist and what is it? Such questions show that authenticity is actually embroiled in the difficulties of knowing oneself that are inherent in any age after psychoanalysis, although these queries also reach back to the slogan of the Delphic oracle. After all, how can one be true to an ‘inner self’ or ‘essence’ if one cannot wholly know oneself? That said, most people have a belief that they do know how they feel and also possess an internal representation of themselves — a self-image — that could be said to constitute their authentic self.

  • 21 Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. by David Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), s (...)
  • 22 One also has to be careful that this appraisal of consistency is local and specific, though; a typ (...)
  • 23 Trilling, p. 2.

11Sincerity, on the other hand, is seen in antiquity as a “moral excellence” deriving from Book Four of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics wherein a person is deemed sincere if he or she will “avoid falsehood as something base”.21 Sincerity is, in the interpretation that I will advance here, a type of honesty that is not merely concerned with accuracy in one’s statements to others but is rather based upon checking future actions against previous speech and behaviour.22 Although this differs somewhat from Trilling’s definition of sincerity as “a congruence between avowal and actual feeling”, this is unavoidable: the only way in which “actual feeling” can be seen is through action that is verified in a social situation.23 If you say you will do something, do you make every effort truthfully to follow through on it? If you state a belief, do you truly mean it and can this be publicly seen in your subsequent actions?

12Of course, it is possible and frequently necessary to believe someone else is speaking sincerely before one has seen the public proof that he or she will follow through on his or her words — it would be a grim world were it otherwise. We have all developed strategies for dealing with this unknowable future and lack of proof, using, for example, a person’s past record for truthfulness and the persuasiveness of his or her avowal as signifiers; ‘“I love you”, s/he said’. However, any future betrayal of this sincerity will mean that such a belief was misplaced. Sincerity is, therefore, a social phenomenon pertaining to trust that unfolds between a faith in the present performance of avowal (a belief in a person’s words and intentions) and the empirical verification of future action (the proof that they have made good on their words). Sincerity is an ongoing negotiation between trust, public performance, and proof, between the rhetoric of the present and the action of the future.

13As ideas of sincerity and authenticity are not unchanging but differ from culture to culture, a few examples will serve to demonstrate the differentiation between sincerity and authenticity as they currently exist before I return to Everett. Firstly, assuming that authenticity really exists, it is possible to behave authentically, but insincerely. If one’s authentic self is a liar and one makes a promise that is subsequently unfulfilled, one was insincere but authentic. Secondly, in an example that I owe to Orlando Patterson, one can be sincere but inauthentic. Patterson notes that people may be authentically prejudiced but that this does not prohibit them from behaving according to negotiated standards of society, decency, and public self-consistency (sincerity):

  • 24 Orlando Patterson, ‘Our Overrated Inner Self’, The New York Times, 26 December 2006, http://www.ny (...)

I couldn’t care less whether my neighbors and co-workers are authentically sexist, racist or ageist. What matters is that they behave with civility and tolerance, obey the rules of social interaction and are sincere about it. The criteria of sincerity are unambiguous: Will they keep their promises? Will they honor the meanings and understandings we tacitly negotiate? Are their gestures of cordiality offered in conscious good faith?24

14This could lead to a type of sincere inauthenticity. The other permutations (insincere inauthenticity and authentic sincerity) are also possible but I will refrain from laying these out in detail here. The take-away point, however, is that the terms ‘authenticity’ and ‘sincerity’ are linked as they both focus1 on a truth to oneself, but they are also fundamentally distinct in the interpretation I am advancing: only an individual can tell whether they are being authentic (if even they can) but sincerity is a societal, public virtue that can be verified and judged by others. It is also true that the choice of prepositive or postpositive adjectival modifier (authentic/inauthentic/sincere/insincere) in each permutation of this matrix may affect the specific reading that is taken.

Table 1: the sincerity and authenticity matrix

Sincere

Insincere

Authentic

Authentic sincerity
Sincere authenticity

Authentic insincerity
Insincere authenticity
(postmodern fiction?)

Inauthentic

Inauthentic sincerity
Sincere inauthenticity
(realist fiction)

Inauthentic insincerity
Insincere inauthenticity

  • 25 Jürgen Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), p. (...)

15As a final note, Trilling’s thesis is that, when he was writing in the 1970s, contemporary society had become fixated on notions of authenticity at the expense of sincerity. Since that time, however, there has been another reversal back to sincerity (although critics might question whether these shifts are true movements or simply different priorities of classification). This shift back to sincerity from the late-1980s, as Markovits reads it, finds its clearest articulation in Jürgen Habermas’s project of communicative action. Under such a theory, sincerity forms a new cornerstone in the field of so-called discourse ethics. As I intimated earlier, ‘mutual trust’, fostered through sincerity, is a crucial prerequisite to any kind of societal cooperation, in Habermas’s formulation.25

16This shift back towards a focus on sincerity can also be seen in various artforms. Consider, for example, the 1993 film Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray is doomed to repeat the same twenty-four hours over and over until he comes to a more ethical existence. In the film, Murray’s character, Phil Connors, at first behaves insincerely in his attempts to win over Andie MacDowell’s character, Rita; he tries to learn her desires and to feign a set of false coincidences in their interests so that she will sleep with him. As the film progresses and it becomes clear that this will not work — and also that Phil cannot die — he decides to spend his energies ensuring that, for one day, he does nothing but help other people, thereby improving himself. As a result of this, his authentic self is changed and Rita falls in love with him. Once more, this demonstrates Trilling’s thesis that authenticity is privileged. However, Phil is also no longer insincere; he avows, feels and acts without irony. His inner self has been changed so that he has no desire to be insincere any longer. He is a straight-talking, sincere (and now loveable) character. In this way, he becomes authentically sincere and the two are once more linked. What this means for contemporary fiction, however, requires some unpacking.

17To understand the literary turn towards sincerity in the last twenty-five years, it is crucial to trawl back through the history of a certain mode of literary fiction that came to prominence in America in the 1960s and with which this book is prominently concerned: postmodern metafiction. As is seen most prominently in David Foster Wallace’s ‘manifesto’ documents, the primary targets against which the sincerity group act — at least in the sphere of literary fiction, rather than poetry — are a series of, for the most part white, male writers whose writings were the subject of intense academic critical scrutiny from the 1970s onwards, namely: John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Jorge Luis Borges, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, William H. Gass, William Gaddis, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Powers; and, on the other side of the Pond, Umberto Eco and John Fowles.

18For the discussion at hand, the predominant stylistic and thematic characteristics of this subset of postmodern literature can be summarised as: irony; reflexivity and metafiction (fiction about fiction or the act of writing itself); reworkings of history; a playful mode that teases the reader; paranoia; and non-linearity (both of narrative and of the chronologies represented). These authors embrace and extend the project of high modernist experiment with often-lengthy and fragmented works that seek new modes of representation to counter the perceived failings of literary realism, namely that the supposedly objective and linear aspects of the nineteenth-century realist novel are not commensurate with lived experience. The undoing of the linear chronology and categorical moral certitude of the nineteenth-century realist novel finds its climax in the representations of a fragmented, complex, and overlapping body of literature that the postmodernists might claim more accurately represents fractured contemporary life.

  • 26 Markovits, p. 36.
  • 27 Jill Gordon, ‘Against Vlastos on Complex Irony’, The Classical Quarterly, 46.1 (1996), 131–37 (p. (...)

19To understand sincerity in literature, as we shall see shortly with a return to Percival Everett, one of the core components that needs to be analysed is the supposition that the irony of postmodern literature “is parasitic on sincerity”, a claim that Markovits complicates.26 In fact, those contemporary authors seeking new ways of engaging with sincerity in their fiction are not rejecting all aspects of postmodern literature; the complexity, fragmentation, and even the historical subject matter often remain. Instead, the core facet that these authors of the (New) Sincerity reject in their aesthetic is postmodern irony while in their philosophy they retain a postmodern incredulity at the idea of an authentic self. This complicates any narrative of a swing from authenticity to sincerity but is rather focused on the way in which irony, framed as an incongruity, is antithetical to a sincere public ethic.27 It is worth, however, taking a few moments to consider how this might appear in a literary sense; after all, from my above examples, it seems clear what it could mean for a person to behave with differing degrees of sincerity, but it is less obvious what the literary equivalent of this might be. In order to understand this transcription of a behavioural description to the literary realm, it is important to think about two different spheres of ‘action’, both within narrative and without: authorship and intra-textual voice.

  • 28 Adam Kelly, ‘David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction’, in Consider David Fo (...)
  • 29 Currie, p. 1.
  • 30 Kelly, ‘David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction’, p. 143.
  • 31 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations: The German Text, with a Revised English Transla (...)

20To begin with the author’s position with regard to sincerity, I can think of no better example than the one already furnished by Adam Kelly who has perhaps written more on this ‘New Sincerity’ movement than anyone else and whose forthcoming and highly-anticipated American Fiction at the Millennium: Neoliberalism and the New Sincerity promises to strengthen this debate. Kelly notes of Wallace’s short-story ‘Octet’ that it is extremely difficult — or even impossible — for a work of fiction to interrogate the truth of its own performance.28 This is because, for an author of fiction to be sincere, he or she should communicate in some way within a text that he or she is aware of the falsehood inherent to literary representation; fiction should be, at least to some extent, self-aware metafiction. However, as noted in the introduction to this volume, metafiction’s self-knowledge is always inadequate and prompts an infinite regress.29 This leads Kelly to conclude that “in Wallace’s fiction the guarantee of the writer’s sincere intentions cannot finally lie in representation — sincerity is rather the kind of secret that must always break with representation”.30 The first half of this statement — that fiction cannot represent the writer’s sincere intentions — seems uncontentious and forms the basis of the many reading methods that disregard authorial intent, such as those of Roland Barthes, that have their roots in the New Critical movement. The second half, though, is more difficult. In the definition of sincerity that I outlined above, sincerity is always only about a trade-off between belief and representation and its future self-consistency; whether or not the hidden inner state of an ‘authentic’ self is truly represented in that consistency can be seen, as does Patterson, as irrelevant. Like Wittgenstein’s “private object”, it may exist but it “drops out of consideration”.31

  • 32 David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011), pp. 79–80.

21These limitations of fictional representation are well laid out by David Shields who, in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010), appears sceptical of the novel’s future (and instead seems to champion a type of literary-collage-journalism). Instead, Shields signals the interlinked problems of authenticity and sincerity that the novel will never wholly master (and that literary journalism should instead honestly face): “[w]hat does it mean to set another person before the camera, trying to extract something of his or her soul? […] Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”32 The novel never can.

22In this sense, a sincere author can never be represented within the text. This does not mean, however, that nothing can be done because, in at least one reading, the consistency of a text’s ‘truth to itself’ can stand in for this function. This is distinctly not to mean that a text cannot contradict itself; to contain Walt Whitman’s famous multitudes is the prerogative of literature. It is instead to say that fiction must drop any claim to the representation of an author’s inner truth: literature is always an outward performance, a representation. Instead, to be sincere, literature must make good on its function to represent well (to engender belief in the reason for its avowals — even when metaphorical and implausible) and to represent in a manner consistent with its subject (which stands in for future verification of the avowal, even when contended through varying interpretation). Literature that persuades the reader of the necessity of its aesthetic composition is analogous to the individual who convincingly says: ‘I promise’. Whether the promise is borne out is deferred, perhaps indefinitely, into the future.

  • 33 Philip Watts, ‘Rewriting History: Céline and Kurt Vonnegut’, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 93.2 (1 (...)

23There are many instances in literary history that do not hold up to this standard of sincerity or occasions when the understanding of a text’s sincerity has changed. Consider, for instance, the failure of Jane Eyre (1847) that is made clear in the many postcolonial readings of the novel: the disjunct between Charlotte Brontë’s statement that “conventionality is not morality” and the subsequent need for the death of Bertha Mason in the novel that allows Jane to marry. Likewise, in a very different epoch of the novel, the sincerity of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is cast into doubt when his deeply sardonic text can only write its counter-narrative of the Dresden bombing through denigration of the Holocaust and the research work of a Holocaust-denier.33 There are, therefore, problems here of interpretation, ambiguity, reader reception, and authorial intention (or otherwise). That said, sincerity in literature, decoupled from authenticity, is — at least in part — about appropriateness and consistency of representation.

Writing Under Erasure, Sincerity and Legitimation

  • 34 For more on this, see Ben Golder, Foucault and the Politics of Rights (Stanford: Stanford Universi (...)
  • 35 Although this reading may strike some as overly binary and structuralist, this can be eased if one (...)
  • 36 One need only look at the Liberal Democrats’ broken pledge in the United Kingdom regarding univers (...)

24Sincerity, while usually thought to be an ethical virtue, is frequently opposed to strategy, the means by which ethical projects are practically realised.34 Strategy, and particularly rhetorical strategy, consists of making utterances not for the sake of truth, or later verification of intent, but rather for the anticipated practical effect that such words will have upon a particular audience group (speech acts). This is not to say that a person with sincere intentions cannot use strategic rhetoric to achieve a practical end. It does seem, though, that the purity of the sincerity is somewhat compromised by such strategic thinking. This implies two important aspects for a reading of sincerity in Everett’s novel. Firstly, sincerity is only possible as a concept because it can be contested and misconstrued as strategy.35 If there were no possibility of sincerity actually being strategy, we would be more akin to Swift’s Hounyhyms, the horse-like race who have no word for ‘lie’. Strategy, likewise, can only function when an audience group believes that the rhetoric is sincere and will be fulfilled in verification at a later stage. Because sincerity is based upon a track record of truth and verification, the falsehood of strategy deprecates the symbolic worth of a speaker’s future utterances. While, then, sincerity earnestly asks for an investment of trust in the present to be paid off in the future, thereby accumulating faith, strategy dishonestly spends the future reputational capital of sincerity to serve the fulfilment of its goals in the present (which may be either virtuous or malign). This is not to say that sincerity itself cannot be a strategy; far from it. Most contemporary politics of transparency (sincerity) are predicated upon the knowledge that appearing (or actually being) sincere is a good strategy for winning power.36 In the terms of the above matrix, this is a kind of sincere inauthenticity. Secondly, strategy relies on a believed foreknowledge, or anticipation, of reception. If one cannot anticipate how one’s discourse will be understood, it is impossible to manipulate rhetoric to serve a strategic end. In fact, this is the most dangerous situation because the surface effects of discursive utterances cannot accurately be predicted under every condition and so may backfire entirely. Fiction is placed very strangely with regard to this type of scenario if it aims to coerce interpretation, as was seen above in the discussion of Roberto Bolaño. For now, though, let us consider Erasure.

  • 37 Saldívar.
  • 38 Everett, Erasure, p. 3.

25Erasure is a novel that is at once sincere and strategic in various measures. For one, on the side of sincerity, its aesthetic, formalist decisions are congruent with its conflicted subject matter. To effect a dual parody centred around a non-binary, deconstructionist take on race — one side parodying eloquent, literary black struggle and the other denigrating stereotypically white-perceived black stereotype — Everett needs to deploy irony. While irony is typically thought of as the parasitic opposite of sincerity and is usually considered more applicable to strategy, in this instance Everett seeks to depict a gross social irony and so, therefore, his ironic aesthetic is verifiably congruent with the object of representation. In other words, this irony is sincere. This irony that is core to the novel lies in the tension between a supposed post-racial line within the text, as in Saldívar’s argument, and the fact that this can only be represented, within the novel, by a hyper-focalisation upon issues of race.37 Indeed, if one takes the line that Erasure is a text that seeks to move beyond identity determination by race (“the society in which I live tells me I am black”)38 then the largest irony of the novel is that it is read, in almost every piece of critical work upon it, as being concerned with race; the novel deploys quasi-deconstructionist techniques in which it is impossible to extricate an absence of race identity from thought about and speech on the subject of race identity.

  • 39 Donna J. Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twe (...)

26This is a problem that is inherent within many identity-based movements and centres around the problem of strategic essentialism. Stemming from the fusion of Western Marxism and French Nietzschianism that fed into the anti-humanist schools that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, subjects were relativized. Most prominently in the thought of Althusser and Foucault, ‘the human’ becomes not an atemporal unchanging subject, but a historically conditional (discursive) formation. This thinking then leads, in a theoretical lineage, to movements that relativize other more specific sub-identity formations: ‘woman’ (gender), ‘black’ (race), ‘English’ (nation). For instance, in her well-known ‘Cyborg Manifesto’, Donna Haraway writes that “[t] here is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices”.39 Such a situation creates a problem within environments of inequality. Even if it is known that the underlying identity formation is socially constructed and therefore flawed, to reject the category of, say, ‘female’ leads, perhaps pre-emptively, to a form of post-feminism in which there is no available discourse through which to redress remaining manifest inequalities.

  • 40 Sara Danius, Stefan Jonsson and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty (...)
  • 41 Razmig Keucheyan, The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today (New York: Verso, 2013), p. 2 (...)

27This problem led Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak to formulate the contentious notion of “strategic essentialism”, which she later disowned.40 This pragmatic move is well summarised by Razmig Keucheyan who defines it thus: “[t]he concept of strategic essentialism maintains that the provisional fixing of an essence known to be artificial can in some instances be strategically useful. Alternatively put, anti-essentialism can only be theoretical”.41 This is the dilemma that ideas of post-race face: strategy vs. sincerity. Postcolonialism works by removing the grim mask of imperial universality from the specific to reveal identities as constructed or even assigned. While such identities are used and assigned, though, the legacy of inequality persists. Erasure continues to stage this dilemma of an environment free of racial identity while, at the same time, doing so by strongly re-inscribing a discursive focus on race as a real and practical identity aspect.

  • 42 Everett, Erasure, p. 22.

28Where academics sit within this discourse is difficult to place, but the parodic depiction of the university — even while the text fights over a critical terrain landmarked by subjectivity, identity, and race — pitches the novel into competition with the academy. The two narratives of the text (Ellison vs. Van Go) are supposed, in some senses, to be polar opposites. However, as already noted, the form of nested narratives implies a correlation and mapping between the two literary spaces, rather than pure opposition. This can be seen in the parallels between the discourse of the academics within the outer narrative and the discourse of the parodically ‘stereotypical’ black characters within the inner. After Ellison has given his paper at the Nouveau Roman society, Gimbel throws a bundle of keys at him and yells “[y]ou bastard!” and then “moved towards” the narrator “as if to fight”.42 This hardly seems so far from the ‘ghetto’ characters seen later in the novel:

“I’m gone kick you in the ass, you don’t shut up”.
“Fuck you”, he say.
“Fuck you”, I say.
“Fuck you”, he say.
“Fuck you”, I say.

29On its own, this would merely be another instance of the way in which the outer narrator, Ellison, as a proxy for Everett, disparages academia. However, Erasure is not a text wherein any narrator can directly substitute for, or speak on behalf of, the author. Ellison is also a parody, even if not to the same extent as Van Go. The question, for the evaluation of academics here, then becomes one of double negation and the nature of perspectivized caricature in the novel. This is a matter of double negation because, when a parody is effected within a novel by a character that is, itself, a parody, it is unclear whether the end result is a parody or whether the effect of the parody is thereby lessened (negated). The answer to this is undoubtedly complex and bound up with any reader’s phenomenological experience of reading the text. For instance, the realisation that Ellison is also a parody may come too late for a reader to even consider the nested layers of parody and the logical negation that this might entail. Building on this, however, it is unclear whether Everett’s parody is working on such a nested paradigm of negation. Put otherwise: is Erasure a novel wherein a negative of a negative becomes a positive?

30This does not seem to be the case in any straightforward way. Instead, it seems clear that the novel’s central parody of white-mass-market black stereotyping is meant. The outer narrative is harder to place, though. Everett is, himself, an academic and bound up in the structures that he parodies. He is also a recipient of many literary awards and honours, an aspect finally parodied in the novel as an incestuous community of experts re-validating themselves. Among others, Everett has received the PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, the Academy Award in Literature from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction, the New American Writing Award, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, an honorary Doctorate in 2008 from the College of Santa Fe, the 2010 Believer Book Award and the Dos Passos Prize in 2010. Although hypocritical, this actually gives credence to the argument that there is a degree of sincerity present in the political critique of the outer narrative of Erasure, boosted by the aesthetic critique of the congruence of ironic form with ironic subject.

  • 43 James F. English, ‘Winning the Culture Game: Prizes, Awards, and the Rules of Art’, New Literary H (...)

31This argument is bolstered when James English’s analysis of literary prize culture is added to the equation. In English’s argument, using Bourdieu’s notions of interchangeable forms of capital, literary prizes are bodies that award material, social, and symbolic capital (money, support, and prestige) to authors who are legitimated by the prize’s judges’ cultural capital (knowledge and judgemental skills) and its sponsors’ material capital (their money). In turn authors bestow symbolic capital back on prizes (whether they accept or scandalously refuse) through their own now-validated cultural capital.43 In this compelling model of the regulation of symbolic exchange, the most important fact to realise is that such a system is normative because the valorisation process is cyclical. Authors produce work, good authors are judged worthy of prizes (sometimes by judges who are academics, although always after the fact of publication, as in Chapter One), good authors accept or reject literary prizes, good prizes are affiliated with good authors (sometimes regardless of whether they accept or reject the honour), prizes award money and prestige to authors (giving them income to work), and then authors produce work. Now, this is not to say that literary prizes cannot make awards to truly experimental work but rather to reiterate that they tend towards the reproduction and legitimation of forms that are already valued, especially in a market context. As with my remarks on the role of academics in canonisation earlier, prizes have the easier job of judging work that has already been published. To return to a previous example, Eimar McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing won multiple prizes after its publication. That book, though, went unpublished for nine years as no publisher foresaw its merit.

32This symbolic economy of self-replication and conservatism is exactly the scenario that Erasure depicts with respect to Black American literary culture. The populist nature of the award ceremony, as it is shown in Everett’s novel, sees the inner book (“Fuck”) validated by the characters in the outer narrative (Erasure). The economies are connected, though. Everett is an academic who writes an academic character who ends up complicity ensnared in potentially awarding the prize to his own parody book that was a product of his anger at the system. What was meant as an act of symbolic refusal and scandal once more serves only to re-enforce the economy that it attempted to denigrate and against which its anger was directed. The attempts of academics to escape this system always seem bound to end in complicity.

33At this point, any attempts to locate Everett’s novel at the poles of sincerity/strategy or parody/critique break down. In the multiple layerings of intentionality we find a clear example of the core strategies of methodological inflections of deconstruction; never binaries, but overlayed erasures. Even this reading, though, can be taken to a higher plane. In giving his novel the title Erasure, Everett signals, in advance, that he is aware of the interpretative strategies that the academy will deploy to read his work. The title, though, is ambiguous. It can, in one instance, be seen as an instruction: read this book through the lens of a Derridean legacy. In the other, it outflanks the reader who does so: the text knows what such a reading will entail and has laid a trail for the reader.

34In this way, Erasure becomes a novel that centres on race, while framing itself as a text of a ‘post-racial’ climate even as it knowingly demonstrates the falsity of such a cultural supposition. Erasure is an extremely clever puppeteer of the academic reader, exploiting postmodern ambiguity (and the concerns of high Theory) to portray accurately the contradictions in the present legacies and continuations of racial discrimination. It is also a text that uses its superiority and knowingness over an academic discourse community to its own advantage: the novel legitimates itself through a foreknowledge of reading techniques, an outflanking of definitive interpretation, and a collapse of the outer academic/critical (truth-claiming) discourse and inner-fictional spaces. This is not a nihilistic plurality, as was said of the earlier works of Pynchon. It is, rather, a game of regressions, of metafictions where the text can only be read by backing away from pluralities and seeking meaning in the fact that the singular topography of the novel contains multiple hermeneutic responses, even while the fiction disparages such an attitude. In this blurring of the creative and critical spaces, however, the claims for sincere truth-telling spill over into the fiction. In the critique of the critical space enacted by the creative, a legitimation claim is raised that centres on the monopolization of discourse that can speak the truth. It is a ‘regime of truth’, as Foucault might put it.

35In this way, Erasure is a text that brilliantly highlights the problems of legitimation against academia faced by much contemporary metafiction. On the one hand, if art is to have a critical societal role, it must supplant criticism in staking ethical claims. In the case of Everett’s novel, the text would have to ‘say something’ about race and authorship (sincere but didactic ethics as opposed to strategic and apolitical aesthetics). If university English remains the most prominent space where such strategies of meaning-making in fiction are validated, however, and if the didactic function that was explored in the preceding chapter on Bolaño holds, then the contest for legitimation arises. Fiction is usually perceived as the more viable market force in such a contest; the mass-market paperback of George Orwell as societal critique while universities are converted into factories to defer employment and incur debt. On the other hand, ‘serious’ fiction finds itself bound to the academy as the foremost, but not the only, training school for reading literary fiction. Such fiction, it would seem, wants to have its cake and to eat it. It wants readers who are perceptive and, most likely, trained in a background of literary Theory. It then wants such readers to lose their academic trappings. It wants them to climb the ladder and then to discard it. Even while they dangle the toys of childhood in front of a reader, such works seem to say that it is time to grow up. Time to leave school. In their desire for an erasure of the academy, we might term such works “academic fictions”.

Notes

1 See, in particular, Underwood, Why Literary Periods Mattered, pp. 81–113; Graff; Franklin E. Court, Institutionalizing English Literature: Culture and Politics of Literary Study, 1750–1900 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992).

2 John Hartley, A Short History of Cultural Studies (London: SAGE, 2003), pp. 32–37.

3 Ramón Saldívar, ‘Speculative Realism and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary American Fiction’, in A Companion to American Literary Studies, ed. by Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine (Hoboken: Wiley, 2011), pp. 517–31 (p. 518), http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/9781444343809.ch32; see also, of course, McGurl.

4 Dave Gunning, ‘Concentric and Centripetal Narratives of Race: Caryl Phillips’s Dancing in the Dark and Percival Everett’s Erasure’, in Caryl Phillips: Writing in the Key of Life, ed. by Bénédicte Ledent and Daria Tunca (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2012), pp. 359–74 (p. 362).

5 Saldívar, p. 522.

6 Percival Everett, Erasure (London: Faber, 2003), p. 35.

7 Judith Roof, ‘Everett’s Hypernarrator’, Canadian Review of American Studies, 43.2 (2013), 202–15 (p. 212).

8 Everett, Erasure, p. 8.

9 Ibid., pp. 17, 22.

10 Ibid., pp. 40, 44.

11 Ibid., p. 17.

12 “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now”. There is also another oblique reference to “an incredibly dense novel from a well-known, reclusive writer of dense novels”, probably referring to Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997). Ibid., pp. 42, 259.

13 Ibid., pp. 44–45.

14 Saldívar, p. 525.

15 Ibid., p. 529.

16 Peter Boxall even claims that the “difficult play between inscription and erasure” may be “a constituent element of realism itself”. Boxall, The Value of the Novel, p. 61.

17 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), passim.

18 See, for instance, Elizabeth Bowen’s remarks on the how the novel ‘lies’, in Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Notes on Writing a Novel’, in The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, ed. by Hermione Lee (London: Virago, 1986), pp. 35–48.

19 Elizabeth Markovits, The Politics of Sincerity: Plato, Frank Speech, and Democratic Judgment (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008), p. 21.

20 Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 93.

21 Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. by David Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), sec. 1127b, 1–5; note, though, that Plato’s concept of parrhesia, later explored extensively by Michel Foucault, could also be seen as intimately related to notions of ‘sincerity’. See Markovits.

22 One also has to be careful that this appraisal of consistency is local and specific, though; a type of appraisal that Markovits calls ‘trustworthiness’. Markovits, p. 204.

23 Trilling, p. 2.

24 Orlando Patterson, ‘Our Overrated Inner Self’, The New York Times, 26 December 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/26/opinion/26patterson.html.

25 Jürgen Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), p. 136; Markovits, p. 20.

26 Markovits, p. 36.

27 Jill Gordon, ‘Against Vlastos on Complex Irony’, The Classical Quarterly, 46.1 (1996), 131–37 (p. 90); Markovits, p. 90.

28 Adam Kelly, ‘David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction’, in Consider David Foster Wallace, ed. by David Hering (Los Angeles: Sideshow Media Group, 2010), pp. 131–46 (p. 143).

29 Currie, p. 1.

30 Kelly, ‘David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction’, p. 143.

31 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations: The German Text, with a Revised English Translation (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), sec. 293.

32 David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011), pp. 79–80.

33 Philip Watts, ‘Rewriting History: Céline and Kurt Vonnegut’, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 93.2 (1994), 265–78.

34 For more on this, see Ben Golder, Foucault and the Politics of Rights (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).

35 Although this reading may strike some as overly binary and structuralist, this can be eased if one considers a spectrum of strategies, truths, and motivations, as I will now go on to discuss.

36 One need only look at the Liberal Democrats’ broken pledge in the United Kingdom regarding university tuition fees and the subsequent demolition of their future election chances.

37 Saldívar.

38 Everett, Erasure, p. 3.

39 Donna J. Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, by Donna J. Haraway (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149–81 (p. 155).

40 Sara Danius, Stefan Jonsson and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’, boundary 2, 20.2 (1993), 24–50, http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/303357.

41 Razmig Keucheyan, The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today (New York: Verso, 2013), p. 203.

42 Everett, Erasure, p. 22.

43 James F. English, ‘Winning the Culture Game: Prizes, Awards, and the Rules of Art’, New Literary History, 33.1 (2002), 109–35.

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