Mythology and cliché in literary discussions

(Paper for Contemporary Argentina: Reading the Last Decade, The University of Edinburgh, 26th March 2010). Original title: Mitología y cliché en las discusiones literarias.
Translation by J. C. Kelly (all rights reserved)

   Instead of making a list of writers and tracing unlikely maps of generations and affinities from recent Argentinean literature, I’d rather expose some of the ideas that have dominated cultural criticism for at least the last thirty years and have determined the success or downfall of many writers or literary projects. Many of these ideas have become clichés in literary discussions: they are repeated mechanically; they circulate like received wisdom in culture supplements and magazines; they are never criticized or examined up close, but instead are accepted and adopted with suspicious unanimity, like the new common sense of the era, or the codeword of members-only access to certain aesthetic groups.

   I shall limit myself to discussing just one of these ideas, one which to me seems crucial and which, to a certain extent, forces people to take sides: whoever decides to believe in it also believes in a number of other related ideas that characterize a certain attitude towards literature. I am talking about the idea of diminishing returns, or the supposed exhaustion of the novel that has a plot and characters. This idea, expressed in a variety of forms in many funerals for the novel, is elaborated at length in an article by César Aira entitled La nueva escritura[1] (New Writing). Here I should make it clear that my discussion of his article does not indicate any judgement of Aira’s work as a writer. I am purely interested in pointing out that the line of argument developed by Aira has come to dominate Argentinean criticism[2] and has served not only as a theoretical foundation for the type of novels he writes, but also as an automatic recourse for his many followers. I quote here from the first two paragraphs from his article:


As I see it, the vanguards appeared when artists had become fully professionalized and it was necessary to begin afresh. […]

    Effectively, and here I’m only referring to the art of the novel, once the “professional” novel already exists, in a perfection which could not be bettered within its given parameters—the novel of Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy and Manzoni—the situation runs the risk of stagnation. Some will say that if the only risk is that of novelists continuing to write like Balzac, we are willing to run that risk, and happily so. However, it is optimistic to speak of a mere “risk”, since in fact, the situation has already stagnated, and thousands of novelists have continued to write novels like Balzac’s throughout the course of the twentieth century: there has been an endless torrent of mundane novels, written for entertainment or ideological purposes, which are referred to as commercial fiction.

   An initial observation: Is it not curious, and somewhat contradictory, that the names of Balzac, Dickens, and Tolstoy are at first mentioned with admiration, and then all subsequent attempts made in this vein throughout the twentieth century are blithely dismissed as “commercial fiction”? Were Balzac and Dickens not also “commercial fiction” in their day? Doesn’t wiping one’s hands of the problem by dismissing such works under this insidious label just discount an entire branch of literature far too quickly? Is the ideological novel also “commercial fiction”? I shall return to these points later on; for now, let us consider the key point of Aira’s theory. Quoting Aira again:

   To go just a little bit further, as did Proust, requires an enormous effort, the sacrifice of an entire life. The law of diminishing returns comes into play, by which the innovator covers almost all the distance with his or her initial gesture, and an increasingly smaller space is left for their successors, one in which it becomes harder to continue being innovatory.

   Once the professional novelist is established, there are two alternatives, both equally gloomy: continue to write the novels of yesteryear in modern-day scenarios, or make a heroic attempt at pushing the boundaries. Within a few years, this latter option is revealed as a dead end: Balzac wrote fifty novels and still had time to live, Flaubert wrote five, bleeding himself dry, Joyce two, Proust just one. And it was a task which took over his life, which absorbed him in a sort of super-human professionalism.

   The selection of novelists is clearly a contrived one: the names have been carefully chosen to exemplify this diminishing succession and to propose the theory of terminal exhaustion. But It would suffice, for example, to change the last name in the series, Proust, for that of Henry James (who died round about the same time) in order to see things quite differently. James, who considered himself a descendant of Balzac and who was doubtless also an innovator in the form and process of the novel, was effectively even more prolific than Balzac[3] (yet he also had time to attend many dinner parties!). With respect to Proust, it is well known that far from his work “taking over his life”, the reality was that he spent his whole life in a state of contemplation, like a perpetual dilettante, without achieving a bare minimum of artistic discipline (something he considerably regretted[4]). Indeed, it is no coincidence that his novel was called In search of lost time. Written entirely in the last ten or twelve years of his life, it seems hard to associate Proust with any sort of “super-human professionalism”. He is an almost perfect counter example to the alleged “professionalization” of the writer.

   It is stranger still that Aira stops at this point, as if nothing else had happened in the history and art of the novel throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, as if with Proust the novel had reached its point of stagnation, and all that was to happen afterwards, outwith the vanguards, could be dismissed as attempts at the “Balzacian” novel. On the ideological plane, one which formalists always mysteriously pass over, and which Aira also tries to dispose of as part of the torrent of “commercial fiction”, notable innovations were made: one only has to think of D.H. Lawrence and Céline, of Nabokov and Henry Miller, of Kafka, of Camus, of Ballard and Philip Dick, who without feeling the need to escape from a form dismissed as “conventional”—the novel with a plot and characters—expanded the literary battle field, creating new points of view and worlds stranger and more innovative than those which resulted from eliminating the letter E, or by omitting full stops. What place is left in Aira’s binary classification for such innovations? And even from a purely formal standpoint, where would writers such as Lawrence Durrell, José Lezama Lima and Alejo Carpentier, Witold Gombrowicz, Italo Calvino, and Julio Cortázar stand?

   By merely considering these names or by glancing at the continuation of history, it becomes clear that there were many writers who were not necessarily heroic, nor in possession of a “super-human professionalism”, yet who nonetheless continued to make progress. But by doing just this, by paying attention to all innovations (not merely purely formal ones) the dead-end theory would most certainly collapse and alongside it the notion of the providential arrival of the vanguards to kickstart creativity once more.

   What is also highly debatable is the supposed law of diminishing returns, according to which “the innovator covers almost all the distance with their initial gesture, and an increasingly smaller space is left for his/her successors, one in which it becomes harder to keep innovating”.

   This law is largely dependent on the type of innovation introduced. There are innovations which, on account of their triviality, are exhausted by their very mention, or the first time they are put into practice, (for example, writing an entire novel as an exquisite corpse, or the “innovation” of replacing the epistolary novel by a novel of emails). There are others which, as Aira affirms, bear the seal of the author who introduced them, and which to a certain extent are off limits for their followers (for example the characteristic “displaced” use of adjectives in Borges). Yet there are also innovations which, far from closing off areas, open up new ones and stand the test of time, even becoming naturally incorporated into the practice of writing to the extent that at some point, they cease to draw attention to themselves. The (formal) innovation of free indirect speech introduced to the modern novel in English by Henry James and Jane Austen is another tool that is today used by all writers, and it stopped being perceived as a device someone used one day for the first time a long time ago. The same holds true for the ideological plane: the innovative representation of the conscience, of evil, and of duplicity in writers such as Camus, Céline and Nabokov, or the raw and “uninhibited” treatment of sex in D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, paved the way for the representation of a “contemporary” sensitivity which has lasted and has, without being noticed, become the norm.

   Yet to distinguish between innovations opens up a field of discussion that the formalists would prefer to avoid: how to separate trivial innovations from interesting ones, the superficial from the profound, the naive from the brilliant. César Aira, for example, prefers to believe that “everything new is good”, and in Argentinean criticism, the adjective “experimental” is always invested with overtones of admiration: experiments can never be trivial, absurd, or rehashes of those from one hundred years ago. In our literature no experiment can go wrong.


   However, even when the theory of diminishing returns can no longer stand up, there is some truth in the idea that from a certain point in history, the novel, the art of the novel, faced a further challenge. As the novel became conscious of its form, of itself as art and rhetoric, and as a set of techniques (which, to a certain point, can now be conceptually separated), the demand for creativity with respect to these formal aspects appeared. In The Art of Fiction, Henry James talks of an era in which American writers wrote novels as if they were baking cakes, in a “natural”, naive way, as if any other way was impossible[5]. It is precisely the modern novel which also concerns itself with rhetoric although there is doubtless a great distance between recognizing this added difficulty and turning one’s back on the game altogether. To take an example from the world of sport: although it is getting harder and harder to return serves, professional tennis players prefer to improve their return rather than just giving it up and playing table tennis instead. In an article in 1994, I wrote about the second demand for originality from the former standpoint[6]:

   [...] literature is also a form of knowledge, and this forces us to bear in mind a long history of permanent invention, variation, and the exhaustion of resources, effects, theories, rhetorical devices and genres. But why suppose that this history has reached its end? What is required is to distinguish in the tide of work what really “has been said” from what remains to be said. As a manifesto, it would be to write against all that has been written.

   It is clear that “to write against all that has been written” is growing more and more difficult with the passing of time, not only for the immediate reason that the area explored increases, extending what has been covered, but also because at the same time literature’s self-consciousness grows more acute, in a way that means formal mechanisms and successive rhetorical devices are quickly worn out. Thus, each new work of our time has to confront the second demand of originality on the plane of formality: to establish its own rhetoric. 

   This growing difficulty of writing also has a tempting escape route: abandonment to the “everything has been said” school of thought.

   It is here, I think, that the essential bifurcation lies, from which two possible attitudes to the problem arise. We can see in Aira’s article, the consequences of abandonment. Quoting Aira again:

  Professionalism implies specialization. For this reason the vanguards return over and over again, in different variations, to Lautréamont’s famous phrase. “Poetry should be made by all, not by one.” To me it seems that the error lies in interpreting this phrase in a purely quantitatively democratic manner, or an interpretation of utopian good intentions. Perhaps the contrary is true: when poetry becomes something which everyone can do, the poet will once again be a man like all the others, he will be freed from all the psychological misery we have referred to as talent, style, mission, work, and other tortures.

   It would no longer be worth it then, to attempt great works and all that would remain would be the “liberating” return to amateur literature or to repeat, one hundred years later, the procedures of the ancient vanguards, or rather, to limit oneself to a circumstantial literature. But perhaps the most curious thing here is the inversion by which desertion becomes an act of intellectual superiority: the abandonment of what has become “too difficult” becomes, by the art of Leibnizian magic, in the best possible world, the point from which all other attempts to continue making advances are dismissed as “conservative”. Talent, style, mission, work, would be, from now on, “psychological miseries” which can be happily abandoned. Aira’s followers have taken these ideas too seriously, adopting the mantra of “First publish, then correct”, “If Aira exists, everything is possible”, and the formula that writing “badly” is right and writing “well” is wrong.

   What is left for the future once this abandonment has been consummated? According to Aira, only the procedures involved in constructing the work of art. Quoting Aira once more:

From my own personal point of view, I have always maintained that the tool of the vanguards is procedure. […] In this way, when understood as creators of procedures, the vanguards are still relevant and have populated the century with treasure maps waiting to be explored. Constructivism, automatic writing, ready-made, twelve-tone technique, cut-up, chance, indeterminism. The great artists of the twentieth century are not those who make the works, but those who invent procedures by which works can make themselves, or not as the case might be. Why do we need works? Who wants another novel, another painting, another symphony? As if there weren’t enough already!

   And so it is no longer the work that is important but the procedures by which it is made. The new work that should be attempted is the invention of procedures. But what has happened here (and Aira does not seem to realize this) is that the same problem has only been shifted to the next step. If, as Aira believes, the law of diminishing returns applies to works, why should the law not hold with respect to processes? The creation of procedures is exposed to the same class of difficulties as the creation of works themselves. Exhaustion is not a problem of the novel, it is a problem of creation in general, of works and procedures. And effectively, procedures can also be repetitive, monotonous, saying the same thing over and over again until they are played out. In fact, this is what has happened to one which has prevailed for many years in Argentinean literature, the preferred choice of Aira and his followers. It is the tiresome trick of bringing the narration to a certain point whereby a particular meaning is created, and then veering off, interrupting the continuity of this meaning to make it clear that the path of the “traditional” novel is being rejected. It is the old trick of creating expectations regarding a theme or a character, creating a trail of suspense, then abruptly abandoning it in order to make this point. It is entirely programmatic, and concerns the abandonment of faith in the idea of plot, identity or causality of the character, loss of belief in the idea of the novel as a totality, etcetera. However it is always the same: the same sort of effect is always sought and the same praiseworthy reflection can always be heard from the critics.

   Moreover, by separating procedure from the work itself, Aira succumbs to the same sort of danger he highlights with respect to professionalism. In his own words:

Professionalism jeopardizes the historicity of art; in all cases it imprisons the historical inside the content, leaving form stagnant. That is to say, it breaks the form-content dialectic that makes art artistic.

  Yet his attempt to separate the formal, and focus solely on procedure, is this not also breaking that dialectic?


   Later on an interesting contradiction arises: Aira claims, on the one hand, as part of his disdain for works:

   A work will always have the value of an example, and one example is much the same as the next, hardly varying in its persuasive power.

   However, in the following paragraph, he contradicts himself (and moreover, he contradicts all he has been claiming until this point in the article) by pointing out to what extent a work, an “example”, can be unique:

  The question is whether one work of art is a particular case of an art or genre in general. If we were to say ‘I have read many novels, Don Quixote, for example’, we would suspect that justice was not being done to that work. We separate it from History in order to put it on the shelves of a museum, or of a supermarket. Don Quixote is not a novel amongst others, but a unique, unrepeatable, and that is also to say, historical, phenomenon, from which the definition of the word “novel” is derived. In art, examples are not examples, because they are highly individual inventions which are not governed by any generality.

   This is precisely the alternative route: to make from each work, from each “example”, the unique possibility of a theory. The example must have the richness, individuality, complexity and completeness necessary to rule out its abstraction and reduction in order to be repeated by theory. To write novels which challenge the definition of the word ‘novel’. This is the big question, the great problem of contemporary literature. It is an approach that grows increasingly difficult, but that seems more interesting as a challenge than giving up tennis for table tennis.

   I shall end by quoting a fragment from a recent interview[7] with César Aira:

   For a while, about twenty years ago, I wouldn’t open my mouth except to talk about Procedures: I said the job of the artist was not to create works but to create procedures by which those works created themselves, that “poetry should be practised by all, not by one”, and a number of other things in that vein, which sounded good but didn’t make much sense. I suppose I said it to make myself seem interesting. I certainly never put any of that into practice. I continued writing my novels, like the ones I continue to write, without any procedure and without the hope that they will one day write themselves. I don’t feel guilty of fraud, because the blame doesn’t only lie with me. As writers, we are constantly asked for theories, and we give in to the temptation and let them have their way, out of politeness, as part of a game, or so that they do not label us as barbarians. At least in my case, to invent a theory is just as imaginative or as irresponsible as inventing the plot of a novel. I don’t think I have done anyone any harm, and perhaps I have even stumbled upon a useful truth. Nor am I so sure of the superiority of procedure over the end result. In theory, it sounds good, but in practice, I get the impression that this “procedure orientated” art which is now in fashion, runs the risk of navel-gazing or narcissism, of ending up turning inwards on itself in a pointless infatuation. I’m not sure that I’ve always managed to escape this danger.

   Perhaps this marks the end of a parabola. These things “which sound good but don’t make much sense” were the ideological shield of a whole generation of writers, beginning with the Babel group, and the principal repertoire of a cultural criticism which has prevailed in Argentina for over thirty years now. These ideas which Aira and others put forward “to make themselves interesting”, paved the way for the confrontation of aesthetic groups between the supposed vanguards and the horrible “conservatives”, and defined the ins and outs of literary evaluation for a number of generations. What is now to become of the thousands of papers written in favour of those clichés, the conference proceedings and the deeply serious doctoral theses? Will any critic dare to say that it was all just another of Aira’s jokes?


-Aira, César, La nueva escritura, La Jornada, Nº 162, 12th April 1998, México.

-Aira, César, Retrato del escritor genial en pose de distraído, interview by Damia Gallardo, Originally in “Quimera”,  February 2009; reproduced in “Diario Perfil”, Sunday 10th May 2009, Year III, No. 0363.

-Aira, César, El misterioso señor Aira, interview by Pablo Duarte, originally in “LETRAS LIBRES”, November 2009; reproduced in ADN La Nación, Saturday 28th November 2009.

-Gianera, Pablo, Instrucciones de uso, ADN La Nación, Saturday 28th November 2009.

-Pauls, Alan, En el cuarto de las herramientas, Radar Página 12, Sunday 13th June 2004.

-Casas, Fabián, Tarde en la noche, viendo a Cortázar, Ensayo Bonsai, Emecé, 2007.

-Tabarovsky, Damián, Literatura de izquierda, Beatriz Viterbo, 2004.

-Martínez Guillermo, Literatura y racionalidad, La Nación, 1994.

-Martínez Guillermo, “Un ejercicio de esgrima”, in La fórmula de la inmortalidad, Planeta, 2005.

[1] La nueva escritura, La Jornada, Nº 162, 12th April 1998, Mexico.
[2]Yo me he vuelto un favorito de la academia. Lo he pensado mucho: ¿por qué se escriben tantas tesis sobre mí cuando no se escriben tantas sobre escritores mucho mejores que yo? Yo sé por qué pasa. Yo les estoy sirviendo en bandeja de plata lo que necesitan.” César Aira, in an interview for Letras libres, November 28th, 2009.
[3] When his complete works were assembled in the New York edition, he wanted there to be twenty-four volumes, just like Balzac, and grudgingly extended the collection by an extra volume, leaving many of his stories out.
[4] “I who have abandoned myself to laziness and dissipation, to illness, treatment and obsessions, began my labour believing myself close to death, without knowing anything of my trade.” En busca de Marcel Proust, André Maurois, Vergara, Buenos Aires, 2005, p. 121.
[5] “Throughout the period to which I have made reference, there was a comfortable and jovial feeling that a novel is a novel, just like a pudding is a pudding, and that the only thing left to do with it is gulp it down.” El arte de la ficción en El futuro de la novela, Henry James, Taurus, Madrid, 1975, p. 16.
[6] Literatura y racionalidad, La Nación, 1994.
[7] Originally published in “Quimera”,  February 2009; reproduced in “Diario Perfil”, Sunday 10th May 2009, Year III, No. 0363.

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