Not the End of Literature

Lars Iyer, author of the very well-received novel/memoir/blog extension Spurious has written a very interesting essay that I cannot agree with but nonetheless encourage everyone to read. The subject is the end of literature, and Iyer’s diagnosis is one that I think pertains to perhaps 95% of all literature being published today:

The history of Literature is like a sound in an echo-chamber, growing fainter with each reiteration. Or, to use another metaphor, it could be said that Literature was, after all, a finite resource—like oil, like water—that was tapped and burned away by each explosive new manifestation. If the history of Literature is a history of new ideas about what Literature can be, then we have reached a place where modernism and postmodernism have drunk the well dry. Postmodernism, which was surely just modernism by a more desperate name, brought us to our endgame: everything is available and nothing is surprising. In the past, each great sentence contained a manifesto and every literary life proposed an unorthodoxy, but now all is Xerox, footnote, playacting. Even originality itself no longer has the ability to surprise us. We have witnessed so many stylistic and formal gambits that even something original in all its constituent parts contains the meta-quality of newness, and so, paradoxically, is instantly recognisable.

Iyer then goes on to give readings of three of my favorite authors, authors whom he considers as having made literature out of the death of literature: Enrique Vila-Matas, Thomas Bernhard, and Roberto Bolano. I agree completely that these authors have made much from the idea of negation, particularly in conjunction with literary culture, but I cannot agree with Iyer that their work represents a dead end. As I once tried to explain in an essay on Manuel Puig for The Point, and as I once learned from Thomas Mann, art continues to live by rejuvenating past forms. (Contra Iyer, this is no more a part of the postmodern era than plots and characters are, even though postmodernism highlights the idea of borrowing.) Bolano, Puig, and Vila-Matas (and to a lesser extent Bernhard) did/are doing that, and so did W.G. Sebald, who also belongs on this list. In addition to those pursuing the literature of exhaustion, there are also Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Cesar Aira, Geoff Dyer, and, I am certain, plenty more who are pushing us into new forms.

Iyer is completely right that for the vast majority of the book-buying and -producing public these names and their work will be irrelevant. These are the readers for whom literature remains as dead as ever, and they are the majority. But when was it ever not thus?



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Thanks for the great introduction to Mr. Iyer whom I had never heard of before.

I think a good description for this disappointment with modern and post modern literature is to tally every new work as, “yet another Rube Goldberg machine.”

Humorous as that may be, I believe contemporary writing is not given it’s due respect by both modernists and postmodernists. This is partly indicative of some high standards they have, which should be credited and not dismissed . . . and, as well, not glorified.

I think Iyer may be projecting his own limitations.

Where’s a good place to start with Enrique Vila-Matas? I’m embarrassed to say that I’d never heard of him, after seeing him compared to Bernhard and Bolano.

Neil: There are only 3 in English: Never Any End to Paris, Bartleby & Co., and Montano’s Malady. Never Any End is the earliest of the three and is a good general intro to V-M as a writer, but Bartleby is probably the best and most concise. So either of those two.

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