I see that Geoff Dyer has a new book out. I’m sure it’s brilliantly written, devilishly witty, and as shallow as a mirror. He sums up, for me, the literature of today. The most critically lauded writers of our day are writers of stylish non-fiction. Or of fiction that looks like non-fiction, that presents itself as the author’s rambling musings. You see, the author is too charmingly laid-back to structure his work around anything. He’s too busy being a flaneur, or in Dyer’s updating of the concept, a slacker.
I have recently read two other authors of this type: Tom McCarthy, and the American Ben Lerner. And there are many others who half-fit, who echo this orthodoxy. The style has deeply influenced most of the critically lauded writers of our day, especially male ones.
What essentially defines them? They are cool. Cool meaning more than fashionable: meaning detached, unimpressed, ironic. They give the impression that strong opinions and emotions are to be avoided. Or at least held in quotation marks; for such opinions and emotions distract one from the urgent task of attending to the detail of the world. But they would quickly ironize the idea of the ‘urgency’ of this ‘task’.
The enemy is earnestness. Or perhaps we should say, higher earnestness. For it is fine to be earnest about something little and quirky, like the history of traffic lights or the supposedly sublime genius of Roger Federer. But one must not display earnestness in the traditional domain of the human soul. One must be dispassionate on two fronts: the meaning of life (to be either religious or atheist is embarrassing), and sex. It must not be admitted that sex is connected to that boring square matter of love, and stable relationships. For the clever gadfly author must not admit to vulnerability, dependence, need. He is therefore inhumanly cool. Though he flags up his humble humanity in various ways, and often plays the role of bumbling idiot, this is a distraction, a ruse. At root he writes to establish his separateness from the masses of humanity who suffer boringly difficult passions, who know existential anxiety. This whole style can be labeled Inhumanly Cool, which can be intensified as it is acronymized: IC.
Back to sex briefly. The defining scene in Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 is a sex scene with a difference. The narrator is seeking to help out his best friend, a woman who wants to have a baby, using his sperm. Having tried more remote methods of impregantion, they finally resort to the old-fashioned method. And so we have a sex scene in which the author rises above the normal motivation, for even lust is too earnest when you think about it; it is linked to the fatal earnestness of love. This scene displays the real fetish of the IC brigade: ambiguity, complexity, wit.
Geoff Dyer’s favoured brand of IC is travel, especially the literary or artistic pilgrimage. But guess what – unlike some ordinary earnest journalist he daringly finds the experience amusingly underwhelming! He visits D.H. Lawrence’s haunts in New Mexico, and daringly debunks the romance. In his latest book he visits Gauguin’s grave in Tahiti and guess what – he wittily describes how underwhelming it is. In other words, he wants to highlight his detachment from the lure of romantic primitivism. Of course, this might involve some preliminary posturing as a devotee of these earnestly modern artists. A dose of faux-earnestness is an important ingredient of the ironic stew. Sometimes the narrator has a romantic adventure, keeping the reader guessing as to whether this has any basis in reality – prurient reader! Be content with a shimmering surface!
Look I like clever witty prose. But I get itchy when it’s assumed to be deep. And, maybe because he throws in a few quotations from Adorno, plenty of critics find Dyer deep. (Journalists love Dyer because his style is just broadsheet arts journalism on stilts: he’s what they aspire to.)
The core IC writers live in a bubble – and of course they know this and cleverly analyse it – of arts grants, screenplays, gallery openings. You could call it the Brooklyn bubble, because its London version is in thrall to its sleeker version. They are, to a man, friends of Zadie Smith.
But IC has leaked out from this bubble and infected just about all non-fiction writing. We are suffering a golden age of Fine Writing. Style utterly elbows aside content. A sleek brigade of miniaturist-memoirists can describe anything, in gorgeous, surprising, compelling prose – the sensation of eating crisps, the history of the colour pink, porn, being bored in art gallery, whittling wood, taming a badger, cooking a feast, flying first class. Or rather, they can describe anything except what it feels like to be a human being. For, in the age of IC, only a certain limited style of human existence is displayed and celebrated.
I partly blame Martin Amis, the undisputed hero of male British writers who grew up in the 80s – until they got wind of Amis’ own hero, Nabokov. According to these writers, style is a sort of alternative form of morality. If you can make prose dance on the page, then you belong to an elite that hovers above the normal humdrum concerns of humanity. It’s as an aesthetic phenomenon that the world is justified, as Nietzsche said. IC writers seem to believe this. They seem to believe that the function of literature is not to represent the struggles of existence, or to tell stories about human beings, but to demonstrate that prose can hover over life, be cool.
It’s a form of escapism. Because in reality none of us is that cool. We are stressed, needy, muddled folk with difficult passions that unsettle us, like the search for love, purpose, meaning. Why can’t some well-written literature acknowledge this? In real life there is a huge role for earnestness, sincerity, moral struggle – uncool stuff like that. These writers offer a fantasy, in which the most awkward and weighty aspects of existence are photoshopped out. There’s a timidity here, a fear of admitting themes that are difficult to handle neatly and coolly. Look how in control I am of my prose, they say. Infer from this my control of my existence.