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In Defense of Literature?

Gregory Jusdanis, Fiction Agonistes: In Defense of Literature. Stanford UP, 2010.

Is literature dead or dying? What comes after the book? Are people still interested in stories? These are just some of the weighty questions literary scholar Gregory Jusdanis addresses in his Fiction Agonistes, framed as a “defense of literature.” When I mentioned I was reviewing this book this week, several bookish friends immediately asked “does literature need a defense?” According to Jusdanis, it seems it does, and for some fairly compelling reasons.

What he argues is that it is not necessarily individual works which are at risk – those people continue to read. Whether it be Twilight or Shakespeare, there is still a healthy number of readers around. What is at stake, he argues, is the cultural institution of literature, “the way we organize and read” great works. Jusdanis appears to see this largely as a result of media culture – in particular, the way advertising and online cultures relativise texts and destroy our ability to really engage meaningfully with aesthetics.

Rather than stay with this familiar jeremiad, Jusdanis devotes the bulk of the book to what he sees literature as really doing. He displays a wonderfully encyclopedic knowledge of criticism and literature from the ancient Greeks to contemporary postmodern and post-structuralist writers. Some of Jusdanis’s previous research on contemporary Greek writers comes through, along with the more canonical writers like Aristophanes and James Joyce.

Jusdanis puts forth two main points in his defense of literature. One is that art is a semi-autonomous sphere, where reality and unreality, truth and lies, move through an elaborate dance with one another – literature emerges in the gap between artifice and reality. Jusdanis rejects the modernist idea of art as solely autonomous, finding art pour l’art unconvincingly and perhaps self-defeating in the present day. Literature “invites us to interact with our world by letting us step out of it, if only for an exhilarating second.”

Jusdanis also points towards what he sees as a crucial formal feature of literature – parabasis. Parabasis is a term that dates all the way back to the ancient Greeks and is a term used to describe a moment in a text where the characters remove the mask of play and unreality and instead speak to the audience directly. It is its position in the middle of a fiction that allows the parabasis a uniquely powerful position from which to speak, interrupting “the dramatic action and forcing the spectators to laugh at their political leaders and themselves for electing them.” Of course, not at all literature is so political.

Interestingly, though Jusdanis devotes significant attention to the Internet and hypertext, he hardly mentions the capacity of television and film to imaginatively tell stories or to destroy our attention to aesthetics. Arguably both are true at the same time—the banality of reality TV and the intricate and moving stories of shows like The Wire and Mad Men intermingle on television schedules. The critical and popular attention both those shows have received suggest that there is on some level a residual cultural demarcation between meaningful art and tripe.

Similarly, film and television might have made for a better point of comparison for the artifice/reality gap – the CGI addiction Mark Farnsworth alluded to this week certainly suggested that the connection from reality is a tenuous one onscreen much of the time, with plot, dialogue and character steadily disappearing from a certain kind of text.  Critic Fredric Jameson once bemoaned the “peculiar flatness” of what he called postmodern culture, and it is here that literature as Jusdanis describes it has a distinct advantage over film and online texts in its ability to convey multiple-layered voices and meanings.

Still, Jusdanis has laid forth a provocative and interesting reflection on the current state of literature and its place in the world. I frequently found myself nodding along as well as pausing for reflecting on some of his more arcane points. He has an enthusiasm for novels and drama that’s contagious, and some of his descriptions of contemporary Greek writing were intriguing and added an interesting dimension to the otherwise fairly canonical selections.

The book is written in fairly accessible prose for an academic work, though it certainly assumes some knowledge of literary criticism and, more importantly, an interest in the cultural place of literature and thinking about what creative works do when we read them. Fiction Agoniste is definitely not for every reader, but for anyone interested in the art of letters it’s a worthwhile read.

Photo by William Hoiles, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.