Writing in Crisis

I prefer, where truth is important, to write fiction. 
—Virginia Woolf, The Pargiters
[update December 2018]
The embargo period for my dissertation has passed, and so it is now available via the University of New Hampshire Scholar's Repository.

It seems my doctoral dissertation has hit the ProQuest dissertations databases, so now is perhaps a useful time to say a few words about it here. First, the details for finding it, since there doesn't seem to be an openly accessible link: The title is Lessoning Fiction: Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form, and it is Dissertation/thesis number 10786319 and ProQuest document ID 2056936547. (If you don't have access to any of those databases and would like a copy of the manuscript, feel free to email me and I will send you a PDF.)

Here's the abstract:
Writers committed to Modernist ideas of artistic autonomy may find that commitment challenged during times of socio-political crisis. This dissertation explores three writers who developed a similar literary strategy at such times: they pushed fictionality toward and beyond its limits, but ultimately preserved that fictionality, revealing new value in fiction after challenging it. Virginia Woolf, Samuel R. Delany, and J. M. Coetzee shaped their writings at these moments to provide readers with an experience that I argue is congruent with the goals of critical pedagogy as espoused by Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and others. Such a reading experience avoids an authoritarian mode of communication (a writer dictating a message to a passive audience) by requiring any successful reader of the work to be an active interpreter of the texts' forms, contents, and contexts. The pedagogies Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee infuse into such works as The Years, The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals, The Mad Man, Elizabeth Costello, Diary of a Bad Year, and Summertime free those works from being either narrowly aestheticist or quotidian social realism; instead, each asks for an active interpretation, one that supports certain habits of reading that may develop into habits of thinking, and those habits of thinking may then affect habits of being. By pushing against fiction's fictionality, these writers of very different backgrounds, geographies, privileges, situations, tastes, and styles created texts that do the pedagogic work of liberating the reader toward a critical, ethical thinking that less Modernist, less polyphonic, and more traditionally fictional texts do not — even if those texts are more explicitly committed to particular socio-political visions. Monologic, preaching, propagandistic texts may present ethical thought, but they are less likely to stimulate it than the polyphonic pedagogies practiced by Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee in their fiction.
Though I had settled a few years ago on the writers and most of the texts I planned to study, the direction of the dissertation didn't become clear to me until the US election of November 2016. In the days following, countless writers seemed to ask — on social media, in hastily-written essays, in private communication — what value writing, particularly the writing of fiction, serves when it feels like the world is falling apart all around you.

I did not myself share this sense of writing being in crisis, for a few reasons — I've pretty much always thought everything in life is in crisis, and I agree with Corey Robin that Trump is (vulgarly) emblematic of much that has dominated American politics for decades, so while I found his triumph nauseating, it didn't plunge me into a sense of futility any more than growing up with Reagan as president had, or Bill Clinton's assaults on the social safety net, or Newt Gingrich's triumph in the 1990s, or George W. Bush's atrocities, or Obama's fondness for bankers, drones, and deportations.

But the sudden distress among many writers after the election now made me think of writers of the past, ones who had faced social and political crises that threatened their lives. This overlapped with a different sort of uncertainty I was feeling, an uncertainty about the value of my own academic work. Academic writing, particularly for us literary scholars, can feel utterly useless even in the best of times, and as I approached writing the dissertation, I needed some sense of what I was writing this dissertation for (other than, of course, the obvious: to earn a degree).

Given the three writers I wanted to work on, I suddenly felt a new sense of purpose: I could explore what approaches these very different people had taken when the world seemed overwhelming to them. Within such an exploration I might find some sort of insights of use to people now, some models for how to proceed in the face of disaster and apocalypse.

The first approach I took to this exploration is one that is detailed in my Woolf Studies Annual essay, "The Reader Awakes: Pedagogical Form and Utopian Impulse in The Years". Originally, that was going to be the first chapter of the dissertation. Parts of it are in that chapter, but in revising both, they went in somewhat different directions, with different emphases, and so ended up more as cousins than twins. The idea of the pedagogical potential of the novel form is important to both, however, and important to my ideas about artistic autonomy and socio-political crisis. Here, I'll try to boil some of that down and offer a few examples and excerpts from the dissertation.

What puzzles me is that people who had infinitely greater gifts than any of us had — I mean Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge and so on — were unable to influence society. They didn't have anything like the influence they should have had upon 19th century politics. And so we drifted into imperialism and all the other horrors that led to 1914. Would they have had more influence if they had taken an active part in politics? Or would they only have written worse poetry? 
—Virginia Woolf, letter to Benedict Nicolson, 24 August 1940
Questions of art and politics are not academic for writers during moments of crisis. For writers who believe to some extent or another in the autonomy of art from socio-political determinism, the immediate question becomes: If they are not to abandon art and become pamphleteers or activists (as did the Modernist poet George Oppen), how — and why — are they to write?

In the middle of August 1931, while correcting the proofs for The Waves, her most ethereal novel, Virginia Woolf felt unsettled, unsure of herself and her writing. The world and its events pressed in on her. She read newspapers regularly, she was kept up to date on the international financial crisis by her friend John Maynard Keynes, and she and her husband Leonard had long been involved with policy committees of the Labour Party, which for the moment was in power, though Leonard was as aware as anyone that internal and external pressures threatened the party's ability to govern. By the end of August, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald had resigned and formed a coalition government to circumvent Labour's leftists, who adamantly refused to support a 10% cut in unemployment benefits. Woolf wrote in her diary that "the country is in the throes of a crisis. Great events are brewing." 

What was a writer to do? Woolf wondered: "Are we living through a crisis; & am I fiddling?" (Diaries 4: 39).

The fear that creative work is little more than playing a fiddle while the world burns around you is one that has haunted artists at many times and in many places. One strategy for making art in times of crisis is for that art to take a stand, to become committed, proselytizing, didactic: in the 20th century, the novels of Upton Sinclair are one particularly obvious example, but committed art is not always so inelegant. For writers committed to an idea of artistic autonomy, though, adding a political commitment may challenge the freedom of the writing. Woolf felt the peril deeply and expressed it most clearly in an essay she wrote for the Communist Party's Daily Worker, "Why Art Today Follows Politics". It is not one of Woolf's best essays, but it clearly illustrates her struggles and frustrations at the time. Woolf first tries (unconvincingly) to equate writers and visual artists and to say that the art of the past tells us nothing about history and material conditions. She then moves to a discussion of the artist's relationship to the audience in times of crisis, and her position becomes both more personal and more clear. 

Artists, she says, need two things from an audience: money and attention. But neither can be provided under dictatorial circumstances — the artists must be free to create in whatever way their sensitivities lead them. Woolf separates artists out from other people because "it is a fact that the practice of art, far from making the artist out of touch with his kind, rather increases his sensibility. …Perhaps, indeed, he suffers more than the active citizen because he has no obvious duty to discharge." Here and throughout the final third of "Why Art Today Follows Politics", Woolf seems to be speaking of her own situation as she struggles to figure out her place in the contemporary era, to reconcile her anxiety (and even terror) at the state of the world with her work as a novelist. She says that the artist's studio, which used to be a place of peace and refuge, is now "besieged by voices, all disturbing, some for one reason, some for another." The voice of the audience declares it can no longer afford to pay for frivolous things like art; the audience is "so tortured and distracted" that it can no longer find pleasure in art; and meanwhile there is the ceaseless voice pleading for help, time, money, something: "Come down from your ivory tower, leave your studio, it cries, and use your gifts as doctor, as teacher, not as artist." A voice tries to get the artist to be useful to the state or else to shoot guns and fly airplanes. And one last voice "proclaims that the artist is the servant to the politician," — Woolf portrays this voice as especially malevolent: "You shall only practise your art, it says, at our bidding. Paint us pictures, carve us statues that glorify our gospels. Celebrate Fascism; celebrate Communism. Preach what we bid you preach. On no other terms shall you exist" (Essays 6: 77).

The cacophony of all these voices paralyzes the artist, Woolf says. How can anyone remain at peace in such circumstances? "He is forced to take part in politics: he must form himself into societies like the Artists' International Association." Woolf clearly sees this as a last resort, unfortunate, even destructive, but existential: "Two causes of supreme importance to him are in peril. The first is his own survival: the other is the survival of his art" (Essays 6: 77).

I soon found that I had to distinguish between two words that are etymologically, at least, almost indistinguishable: didactic and pedagogical

Woolf tended to link the words "propaganda" and "didactic" (also "preaching"), and while a good case can be made for differences between the words, I usually keep them linked. Didactic texts exhort the reader toward specific stances and actions beyond reading. The writer's great hope for the reader of a didactic novel is that they will close the book and then go out and change the world for the better.  The didactic text is an instrument of activism, even an instruction manual for activism. The propagandistic, preaching text seeks an audience that acquiesces to it. That's not what Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee want to use their novels for, nor the relationship they desire with their readers. Instead, each uses the novel form for purposes that are revealed via rhetoric that is too ambiguous to be called propagandistic. The rhetoric guides and questions, but it does not insist on a single path forward, a single way of thinking. By framing rhetorical choices within the metaphor of pedagogy, we are able to see how these texts address themselves to social and historical crises (and, indeed, sometimes take clear sides on crucial issues of the day) without their falling into the monological, authoritarian, one-way communication of propaganda.

The critically pedagogical text is not didactic because it is destabilized, while the didactic text is stable. "Rhetoric," Wayne Booth claims, "is employed at every moment when one human being intends to produce, through the use of signs or symbols, some effect on another — by words, or facial expressions, or gestures, or any symbolic skill of any kind" (Rhetoric of Rhetoric xi). We must ask, though, what becomes of rhetoric when the effect that it seeks to produce is not only obscure but also dependent on significant choices made by the reader when reading? We can see this destabilizing effect in works by Woolf, Delany, and especially Coetzee, an effect that is significantly different from that of didactic/propagandistic rhetoric, which, as a necessarily stable text, seeks to limit a reader's choices as fully as possible and to avoid whatever ambiguities are avoidable, because the didactic text fears nothing so much as the reader missing the point or thinking wrong thoughts. 

The risk that critically pedagogical writers all allow their readers is the risk of being in conflict with the text itself. It is my contention that Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee each created destabilizing texts first by strengthening the familiar idea of Modernist pedagogy — the text teaching the reader how to read it — and then by pushing fictionality to (and sometimes beyond) its limits, thus creating texts that are pedagogical and often essayistic but not didactic in the sense of propagandistic. The meaningful difference between the pedagogical and the didactic is a difference of power and authority, a difference that also maps onto a distinction between authentic and ersatz ethics.

I get impatient with fiction that doesn't try something that hasn't been tried before, preferably with the medium itself. 
—J. M. Coetzee in a letter to Paul Auster, Here & Now
What links such texts as I have in mind here (e.g. Woolf's The Years; Delany's "Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" and The Mad Man; Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, Diary of a Bad Year, and Summertime) is not their level of fictionality, but the way they turn fictionality and the novel form itself into a tool for a certain pedagogy. These are works that avoid didacticism by foregrounding the reader's role in learning how to navigate the discourses each text puts into play, and they do so with a clear goal of inspiring readers to think about the relationship between writer and reader, text and world, politics and ethics. Each seeks to avoid what Jonathan Lear, in discussing Coetzee, has called "ersatz ethics": preconceived ideas and opinions that the text would simply reaffirm. Ersatz ethics are a particular danger for fiction writers, who may benefit from an aura of intellectual authority. In notes for a lecture on Olive Schreiner, Coetzee said, "Generally, it is not important that writers have good ideas. Rather, it is a matter of seeing a mimesis of intellectual engagement". Such mimesis is anathema to authentic ethics, but at the same time, the rhetorical tools that produce such mimesis may be useful in provoking authentic ethical thought for the reader.

Like familiar literary forms, ersatz ethics encourage conventional thinking and allow the reader/thinker to avoid examing the status quo structures that make conventions possible. Such conventions let us to think of ourselves as holding upstanding, progressive thoughts when in fact we are filling a template, reciting the lines for the role of ethical thinker without, in fact, doing any meaningful ethical thinking at all. (This is not about the conclusions reached. It's about whether there is a process for actual ethical thinking. Your opinions could be excellent ones, but if you espouse them simply because they are espoused by people you like, or because they make you feel good about your righteousness, or because you want to fit in ... then they are opinions reached through other means than through a process of active ethical thinking. Propaganda, even at its most humanitarian, does not seek an audience of ethical thinkers.)

Diary of a Bad Year is a particularly fine example for Lear's ideas about ersatz ethical thought because Coetzee wraps didactic material within a novelistic context that doesn't simply complicate the content of that didactic material or submit it to critique (as in Elizabeth Costello), but that makes both the idea and form of didacticism central to the novel's concerns. The book does not offer the reader any ultimate judgment on the various voices and opinions. Anya may be the most sympathetic character and Alan the least, but such sympathies don't lead to a rubric that would help us evaluate the opinions that fill the top sections of the pages. Unlike with Elizabeth Costello, most of what is discussed in the essays that comprise so much of Diary of a Bad Year is not discussed by the characters directly, so the opinions are simply there on the page, our perception of them affected, certainly, by how we feel about the character of JC, their in-the-text author (and, depending on how we perceive the fiction's distance, how we feel about J.M. Coetzee), but the essays take up such a large part of the book that it is difficult to separate how we feel about JC from how we feel about the essays, as much of our perception of JC is a perception of his voice and opinions atop all of the pages. There are a few pages without diary sections, but none without JC's essays, and so every reader must contend with the dominating authority that the opinions attempt to exert. However, everything about the book (texts and paratexts) serves to confirm an insight Fred Moten stated in an interview: "the authority that we tend to want to invest in authorship is always-already broken and disrupted and incomplete."

Within critical pedagogy, the teacher is not an omniscient bestower of knowledge, but rather a coordinator for the production of knowledge and a facilitator of dialogue. The role of the writer and the role of the teacher are not exact analogues, nor are the roles of reader and student, but both teaching/learning and writing/reading are communicative events in which acts of language and imagination produce knowledge. A novel premised on a liberatory pedagogy is one that seeks to achieve within the writer-text-reader relationship what a liberatory pedagogy of education seeks to achieve within the teacher-classroom-student relationship. As such, the role of the reader must be heightened and cannot be passive. Didacticism, as I use the term, is anathema to critical pedagogy, because such pedagogy is premised on dialogue. This makes the novel an especially useful form for a textual pedagogy, given the dialogism that Bakhtin famously located as the core of the genre.
There is nothing, though, that makes the novel form inherently pedagogic nor anything that makes any individual novel inherently liberatory in its pedagogy. Didacticism is not only not alien to the novel, but for many types of novels and many eras of literary history, didacticism was something of a requirement. (See Guido Mazzoni's Theory of the Novel for some explication of this.)

Both the didactic novel and the novel that seeks a primarily passive reader are texts that convey ideas rather than produce them. The experiments of Modernist aesthetics with the novel form made the form itself less conventional, forcing readers into a more active relationship with texts, since generic expectations and assumptions were no longer necessarily useful. Not only did readers now have to learn anew how to read novels, but learning to read one Modernist work did not guarantee that they would now have the skills to understand and appreciate another, and so they either had to learn how to read each new novel they encountered separately or they had to develop reading strategies for common features of such texts.

Newness is a key idea within Modernism ("Make it new!"), but also to liberatory pedagogy, because liberation cannot be predicated on pre-processed truths and common sense if the assumed truths and common sense are part of an oppressive system. Outside of utopia, all assumptions, and all conventional knowledge, must be open to question. What Freire calls the "banking concept of education" wherein "the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor" (Pedagogy of the Oppressed 72) is also in some ways the model for the traditional relationship between text and reader. Indeed, Freire introduces Chapter 2 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed by linking teaching and narration:
A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students). The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified. Education is suffering from narration sickness. 
The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable. (71)
Freire's complaint about the teacher's narration of reality could easily fit within any number of Woolf's essays about conventional fiction, and the model of the narrating teacher and receiving (passive) students is one that resembles many Modernists' low opinions of the relationship between conventional art and its audiences.

Newness, then, is not about faddishness, nor is it a fetishization of idiosyncracy, but it is instead a key component for avoiding the kind of complacency that leads to oppression. If activists of the imagination are to produce new imaginings (a kind of new knowledge), then what is conventional, familiar, and common-sensical must be re-imagined, it must be made new. Within critical pedagogy, one of the crucial values of imagination is its ability to estrange the familiar. In one of the best manuals for English teachers seeking to practice critical pedagogy, Eleanor Kutz and Hephzibah Roskelly write that "'Making the familiar strange' can help any researcher or learner find new patterns of significance, new meanings in what had previously been taken for granted" (Unquiet Pedagogy 226). Making it new is a fundamental technique of teaching, learning, and imagining.

One pedagogy of liberation for the novel will seek to unsettle the passive traditional relationship between the depository (readers) and the depositor (writer or text) by unsettling the assumed fictionality of the novel. Catherine Gallagher has argued that the novel as we know it, and the English novel in particular, arose alongside — and, indeed, dependent upon — a discourse of fictionality: 
In England, between the time when Defoe insisted that Robinson Crusoe was a real individual (1720) and the time when Henry Fielding urged just as strenuously that his characters were not representations of actual specific people (1742), a discourse of fictionality appeared in and around the novel, specifying new rules for its identification and new modes of nonreference. And it is on the basis of this overt and articulated understanding that the novel may be said to have discovered fiction. What Fielding had that Defoe lacked was not an excuse for fictionality but a use for it as a special way of shaping knowledge through the fabrication of particulars. (355)
Gallagher goes on to argue that the development of the novel through the 19th century and later was, simultaneously, a development of an ever-more-subtle discourse of fictionality. For Modernist writers to render the novel new, they would also have to render fictionality new. In The Rhetoric of Fictionality, Richard Walsh shows that any valid definition of fictionality must attend to contexts and paratexts, which means attending to readers and reception. If we accept Gallagher's account of novels, we must then recognize that in teaching readers new strategies for reading novels, Modernist texts also, unavoidably, teach new strategies for understanding fictionality.

Learning new reading strategies requires the reader to be active, and the kinds of strategies that I identify Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee building their pedagogies to teach are ones that require the reader's attention to move toward the relationship between the text and the world beyond the text (the reader's own world, the world presented by the text, etc.). By unsettling fictionality in the specific ways that they do (and by heightening the reader's awareness that the fictionality of the text cannot be taken for granted), these novels put readers into a position where they must always assess for themselves what they take to be the text's distance or closeness to reality. In doing so, readers must also assess what their own sense of reality is. 

The contexts and paratexts that produce an idea of fictionality are ones that are often so obvious that most texts' status is unquestioned by readers: We assume a book is fictional because, for instance, we found it in the Fiction section of a bookstore and it says "A Novel" on the cover. Fictionality is not, Richard Walsh maintains, an ontological category or a Platonic ideal existing outside the relationship between writer, text, and reader; rather, fictionality is a communicative relationship that produces a different kind of knowledge via fiction than nonfiction does: "The knowledge offered by fiction […] is not primarily specific knowledge of what is (or was), but of how human affairs work, or, more strictly, of how to make sense of them-logically, evaluatively, emotionally. It is knowledge of the ways in which such matters may be brought within the compass of the imagination, and in that sense understood" (The Rhetoric of Fictionality 36). Thus, "The distinction between fiction and nonfiction rests upon the rhetorical use to which a narrative is put, which is to say, the kind of interpretative response it invites in being presented as one or the other" (45). 

With such a frame, we can see why turning a work's fictionality into a problem is valuable for nondidactic writers at moments of socio-political crisis, because such problematizing of fictionality changes the rhetorical use of the narrative and unsettles the easy interpretation of a text as fiction or a novel. When the immediacy of reality overwhelms the writer's desire to bring matters "within the compass of the imagination", the impulse toward didacticism becomes tempting: one wants to speak truth to power, not tell an imaginary story about an imaginary character speaking truth to power.  For a text to have hope of being anything other than a bit of fiddling in a burning world, it must in some way activate the reader within the text/reader relationship. As decades of reader-response theory have shown us, all texts do this to some extent, but committed texts and texts responding to crisis do so with goals beyond entertainment or the contemplation of beauty.

Writers who believe that art is fundamentally apolitical often produce extraordinarily socially sensitive works. And it is an endless embarrassment to us who believe in the fundamentally political nature of all human productions that, simply from the plot reductions of their stories, or even from the expressed sentiments of their poems, measured against whatever notion of "political correctness" they believe in (and, like the rest of us, I believe in mine), writers who express the most "correct" political sentiments can produce the most politically appalling work.  
If we are ever to solve our problems, I believe the opposition between the two—the belief in the fundamentally apolitical nature of the best art and the belief in the fundamentally political nature of all art—needs to be carefully undone. Personally I suspect that more important than which of these positions a particular writer adopts is whether that writer sees his or her own position as opposing the majority opinion around, or whether the writer sees his or her position as merely an extension of what most other intelligent people think.
—Samuel R. Delany, "The 'Gay Writer' / 'Gay Writing' . . . ?", Shorter Views

Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee are not writers typically linked together, but it is my contention that doing reveals significant insights about the writings of each while also providing insights about fiction, aesthetics, and artists' responses to crises in their worlds. Though drawing from different sources within Modernism, these three writers express, to varying degrees, a belief in art's autonomy from political determinism, and the work of each demonstrates a commitment to aesthetic experiment in the face of crisis, a commitment that links them to both Modernism's particular valuing of innovation and critical pedagogy's valuing of new perspectives.

I realize that I have mostly skirted the question of crisis here, and also that I have skipped over any specific readings of the three writers' texts. This is because the readings are long and detailed, and do not excerpt well, and my ideas about crisis are tied quite closely to those readings. (I position the writers thus, with various caveats that I won't bore you with: Woolf as approaching crisis [the rise of fascism and the approach of war], Delany as amidst crisis [the AIDS crisis in New York], and Coetzee as after crisis [apartheid in South Africa].) 

Though the details are too many to discuss here, this excerpt from an overview of the writers' careers in the introduction may be useful:

Woolf wrote relatively traditional novels at the beginning of her career, then began overtly experimenting with the form in Jacob's Room (1922), and continued to experiment through Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), and The Waves (1931), before then turning to what she called the "essay-novel" with a manuscript titled The Pargiters, parts of which would serve as raw material for the novel The Years (1937) and the book-length essay Three Guineas (1938). What began as an experiment in unsettling fictionality ended up not doing so, but what remained was the pedagogy, as both The Years and Three Guineas require much activity from the reader, and activity of a particular sort. Woolf's final novel, Between the Acts (left mostly finished at her death and published posthumously in July 1941), experiments again with narrative, mixing the form of drama into novelistic narrative. Once again Woolf wrote a novel that does not problematize fictionality itself, but she also, and again, created a novel that so deviates from readers' expectations of what a novel is that it contains a pedagogy of reading — though not, it seems to me, a liberatory pedagogy on the scale of The Years and Three Guineas.

Delany began writing various sorts of novels as a teenager, and originally planned to have a career as a literary novelist, but he found he was able to sell science fiction when he was not able to sell his literary work, and his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor, was published when he was twenty years old in 1962. He achieved success in the science fiction field in the 1960s, winning numerous awards for work that was often experimental, but not in a particularly overt way until 1975's Dhalgren, a behemoth that befuddled as many readers as it excited, yet also sold over a million copies within its first ten years.  After Dhalgren, Delany began to experiment more and more with melding fiction and nonfiction, first with faux-nonfictional appendices, then, finally, bringing an overtly nonfictional form into dialogue with overtly fictional narrative in "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" (which, though a section of Flight from Nevèrÿon [1985], is the length of a novel). "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals", is the first and only Nevèrÿon tale to undermine its own fictionality within the text itself (rather than via appendices, epigraphs, etc.) by interspersing apparently nonfictional diaristic writing about New York City in 1983/84 alongside a more typical Nevèrÿon story — one the diaries, amidst other subjects, chronicle being written.

After "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals", the Nevèrÿon stories return to their previous forms and modes. After the final Nevèrÿon book (Return to Nevèrÿon [1987]), Delany struggled to write fiction for a few years, publishing only nonfiction until his major novel of the 1990s, The Mad Man, a pornographic academic novel that is also an exploration of the transmission patterns of HIV. While The Mad Man ends with an appendix reprinting an actual article from the British medical journal The Lancet, for the most part its overall fictionality and novel form are never in question. Much like The Years, though, The Mad Man does offer a pedagogy of subversion/liberation to its reader, a pedagogy deeply connected to the development of the AIDS crisis after "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals", and in many ways The Mad Man can be read as a sequel to Delany's 1980s fiction (not just the Return to Nevèrÿon series, but also Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand). 

The 2007 novel Dark Reflections may be seen as a coda to "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" and The Mad Man in that it tells the story of a black, gay male poet's life in the second half of the 20th century, a man whose experience of the AIDS crisis is very much that of an outsider and observer because, unlike Delany's other characters, he is mostly celibate and not at all involved with any sort of gay community. This allows the book a view of the crisis as not a crisis for the lead character, and goes some way toward making that novel one of Delany's least subversively pedagogical and most accessible texts. (This is not a negative criticism, simply an observation. Indeed, for me Dark Reflections is among Delany's most satisfying novels.)  In a certain sense, Dark Reflections is an inverse of The Mad Man, and the two could be read productively together.

J.M. Coetzee's first book, Dusklands (1974), is a fragmentary mix of genres, but best described as two linked novellas that sometimes employ nonfictional techniques. After that book, his fiction and nonfiction stay separate until Boyhood (1997), first in his ever-more-fictionalized trilogy of memoirs (followed by Youth [2002], which is similar in technique, and Summertime [2009], which is more overtly fictional). With Elizabeth Costello (2003; partially published 1999 as The Lives of Animals) he brings the fictional status overtly into question by posing much of the novel as narratives of lectures given by the title character. He soon followed that with the metafictional Slow Man (2005), in which Elizabeth Costello appears as a character who might be writing the novel she is a part of, and Diary of a Bad Year (2007), which puts fictional frames around — or, literally, beneath — essayistic chapters. Since Summertime, Coetzee's novels have returned to a mode that doesn't unsettle their fictionality, but in their titles and content The Childhood of Jesus (2013) and The Schooldays of Jesus (2016) court allegorical readings. This has led some critics to see Coetzee as becoming more didactic and less fictional, but it seems to me that if we can say that the recent novels evoke a feeling of allegory, it is nonetheless impossible to say with any certainty what they are allegories of or for. Such impossibility makes them much more novelistic than didactic.

Depending on what a critic wants to emphasize, various breaks can be shown in Coetzee's career. Many such breaks adhere around Disgrace, which is perhaps his most formally conventional novel. While Coetzee's fiction has always been experimental to some extent or another, after Disgrace it becomes so experimental that to label it experimental feels obvious, even redundant. However, after Disgrace, Coetzee's utter lack of interest in scene setting and character development leaves many critics without a vocabulary with which to assess and analyze his work. For many readers, even well-read and highly skilled ones, novels either follow traditional conventions or they fail as novels.

Throughout the summer of 1940, Virginia and Leonard Woolf endured numerous air raids while at their country home in Rodmell, Sussex. Then in the fall, bombs destroyed their London home in Mecklenburgh Square. Asked by Americans to write something about "what should be the attitude of women towards war and peace", Virginia Woolf created the essay "Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid", in which she said that though war is male ("The defenders are men, the attackers are men"), if a woman believes this is a fight for freedom, then she might fight on the side of the English. "But there is another way of fighting for freedom without arms; we can fight with the mind. We can make ideas that will help the young Englishman who is fighting up in the sky to defeat the enemy." The difficulty is that men hold all the positions of power in government and society. But women must be willing to think and express themselves. She quotes William Blake: "I will not cease from mental fight," and adds: "Mental fight means thinking against the current, not with it."

To demonstrate thinking against the current, Woolf echoes an idea from Three Guineas: "Let us try to drag up into consciousness the subconscious Hitlerism that holds us down. It is the desire for aggression; the desire to dominate and enslave."

She insists on thinking beyond the immediate moment, even as the bombs fall. The mind needs to create, the imagination needs to continue, and even now, Woolf says, we must think about the world the men in the airplanes will return to once the battle is over. Masculine violence must end, but the desire for it can't be ignored. Young men love glory, they find glory in guns, and if society takes away that glory, then what will such men do? "Therefore if we are to compensate the young man for the loss of his glory and of his gun, we must give him access to the creative feelings. We must make happiness. We must free him from the machine. We must bring him out of his prison into the open air. But what is the use of freeing the young Englishman if the young German and the young Italian remain slaves?"

The sound of guns interrupts her thinking. A German plane lands and the pilot, relieved that the fight is over, is captured by English soldiers, who give him a cigarette and a cup of tea. There may be hope in such shared humanity, Woolf suggests.

But then it is just a quiet summer night, and she must send her fragmentary notes off to America, "to the men and women whose sleep has not yet been broken by machine-gun fire." Perhaps the fragments can be shaped into something useful. Now, though, "in the shadowed half of the world", she must sleep.

Popular posts from this blog

In Tune: Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Roots of American Music by Ben Wynne

Upcoming Publications

Orpheus in the Bronx by Reginald Shepherd

Patriot (Seasons 1 and 2)