What does it mean for a work of literature to be “against criticism”?

Oct 20, 2016

What does it mean for a work of literature to be “against criticism”? After all, it is a sure fact that the market
conditions for the reception of much literary fiction are fostered within the walls of university English departments. Many others have also charted the ways in which contemporary fiction seems to “write back” to the academy or how the American creative writing programmes influenced a whole generation of novelists. Doesn’t this show that literary works and university English just get along?

In Literature Against Criticism I argue that many works of contemporary fiction are in conflict with university English. Indeed, I demonstrate 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. These primarily centre around metafictional moments in contemporary novels and can be schematised through the lenses of critique, legitimation, and discipline. Fundamentally, it is a book about contemporary literary fiction’s contribution to the ongoing displacement of cultural authority away from university English.

To understand this, we have to consider what we mean by “metafiction” and the historical emergence of the form. Metafiction is usually defined as “fiction that signals its own fictionality” or “self-aware fiction”. Metafictional elements of novels usually are strongest in periods of backlash against realistic or naturalistic techniques and texts in which the author makes an appearance, for example, are at the more gimmicky end of such a spectrum. However, a better way of thinking about metafiction is to consider it as a blurring of the boundary between literature and criticism. I consider this to be a form of critique; a way of questioning the possibilities for the subjects of which literature can speak… from inside literature. The question that then arises is: if literature can consider itself from within its own form, what role is there for an external practice of literary criticism?

Curiously, I found this type of critical novelistic practice to be located in texts that are far from the university. I was anxious not to write about campus novels; this has been done to death in several excellent studies. Instead, I was interested in finding the niche, microscopic moments within works of contemporary fiction where the practices of university English seemed to seep into the novels. Moments of “incursion” and overlap, rather than novels set in the university.

This is more than a form of “theory spotting”, though. It often seems to determine the very interpretative paths available to readers. Take, for example, the novels of Sarah Waters (spoiler alert!) These novels are often considered to be the instantiation of a Foucauldian historiography that re-inscribes ideas of lesbian sexuality, the prison, and mediums/spirituality atop a familiar Victorian frame. However, as I show, most of her novels cloak their antagonists using class; a distinctly un-Foucauldian but Marxist trope. The duplicity of Ruth Vigers in Affinity, for example, would never have remained hidden from the reader for so long were it not for the fact that she is called Vigers in one context (because she is a servant) and Ruth in another. Waters knows that the academy is likely to take the Foucauldian line, though, and uses this to her advantage to cloak her plot twists even while the reader must eventually concede that, had s/he considered class earlier, the novel would not have been able to pull off its tricks. The text seems to discipline valid literary critical approaches in this way.

Overall, in a limited and competitive field of authority for critique (even if some have argued that this era of critique is waning), many forms of fiction seem to compete with the university for the right to speak. In this book I set out my hypotheses about why this might be the case, about why some literature might be against criticism.


Literature Against Criticism can be read for free here.