All posts filed under: Literature

Postmodernism: Some Corrections and Clarifications

Before I proceed with a brief discussion of postmodernism and its contribution to the 20th century thought, a clarification: contrary to the common view, the “modernism” part of the word “postmodernism” does not denote “modernity.” Such an interpretation is wrong (and also raises the question of why postmodernism had not happened 200 years earlier). The “modernism” part of the word refers to the dominant literary and artistic movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In other words, postmodernism is not what came after the Renaissance, the industrial revolution, Voltaire and Descartes—it is what came after the cubists, the existentialists, Kafka and Joyce. This correction is important for reasons of formal accuracy—but it is also a reminder that postmodernism was neither the first, nor the most important movement to attack the values of Western civilisation. Mannerism did it in the 1520s, followed by baroque, then the gothics and romantics, and, finally, at the turn of the 20th century, the modernists. The latter rebelled on a truly grand scale, negating and annihilating everything that had …

The Dishonest and Misogynistic Hate Campaign Against J.K. Rowling

When J. K. Rowling first outed herself as a gender-critical feminist, my first thought was: If Rowling can be cancelled, anyone can be cancelled. Not only is she one of the best known and best loved authors in the world (the writer of children’s books, for goodness sake), she also has a personal history that ought to make her un-cancellable. This was the mum who escaped an abusive marriage and lived off benefits, writing the first Harry Potter book in an Edinburgh café while rocking her sleeping baby in a pram. This was the woman who became a billionaire, but then lost her billionaire status by giving away so much money to charity. If anyone was safe, Rowling should have been safe. And it turns out that she was, because despite the best efforts of her critics, she hasn’t yet been truly cancelled. Her latest book, the murder mystery (written under the pen-name Robert Galbraith), was published on Tuesday and, as of Thursday, was number four on Amazon’s bestseller list for all literature and fiction. …

Under the Frog: Why Tibor Fischer’s 1992 Booker-Nominated Novel May Have Found its Moment

In Szeged Hungary, while teaching at the university there, I met a student who read Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog (1992) every single autumn. It was, she said, part of  her annual ritual, and I wasn’t that surprised. A crazy tale of a basketball team in post-war Stalinist Hungary—a time of terror retold with Fischer’s ink-black humour—it’s got something for almost anyone, and it’s rare to find readers happy to sample it just the once. Written following the fall of communism in 1989, a period Fischer covered as a journalist while living in Budapest, it nearly didn’t reach them at all. Under the Frog was rejected by all but two of the UK’s publishers, yet went on to become the first debut novel ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize. It is still Fischer’s most successful—and best known—book. Fischer knew what he was writing about. Under the Frog was based on his Magyar parents, both of them basketball players who, in the wake of the doomed 1956 uprising against the Soviets, fled Hungary for …

Flannery O’Connor and the Ideological War on Literature

On June 15th, Paul Elie—a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and a frequent contributor to upscale magazines—published a 3,800-word essay in the New Yorker bluntly accusing the acclaimed Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) of racism. The essay, which has since gone viral, is ostensibly a review of Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor, a new book by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, an O’Connor scholar at Fordham University. O’Donnell surveys O’Connor’s two novels, numerous short stories and essays, and voluminous correspondence (most of which was published following her untimely death aged 39 of complications from lupus) and concludes that O’Connor was “a walking contradiction when it came to matters of race.” O’Connor’s dark and mordantly humorous fiction was written as the civil rights movement tore through the South dismantling Jim Crow during the 1950s and 1960s, and it frequently mocks Southern whites for their condescension and rudeness toward blacks. However, O’Donnell also argues that “racism” is the correct description of O’Connor’s privately expressed views about black people in …

In Defence of the Humanities

The Australian government’s recent decision to cut funding for university courses in the arts and humanities was greeted with rapturous delight by many commentators I respect. In addition to encouraging students to pursue “job-friendly” subjects such as STEM and nursing, the move was interpreted as a flip-off to the branch of higher education notorious for placing left-wing indoctrination ahead of scholarship. As much as I agree with the latter point, I cannot bring myself to join the celebrations. To the contrary, I find the Australian government’s decision highly unfortunate. That is because I firmly believe that a degree in the humanities is the finest start in life a young person can get. Or, to be more precise, I firmly believe that a degree in the humanities in its pre-1990s form is the finest start in life a young person can get. So, while I don’t wish to defend what the humanities have become, I still think it’s important to defend what the humanities ought to be. I have a humanities degree in one of the …

The Libertarian History of Science Fiction

When mainstream authors like Eric Flint complain that the science fiction establishment, and its gatekeeper the Hugo Awards, has “drift[ed] away from the opinions and tastes of… mass audience[s],” prioritizing progressive messaging over plot development, the response from the Left is uniform: Science fiction is by its very nature progressive. It’s baked into the cake, they say. This is a superficially plausible claim. With its focus on the future, its embrace of the unfamiliar and other-worldly, and its openness to alternative ways of living, it is hard to see how the genre could be anything but progressive. In fact, studies indicate that interest in SF books and movies is strongly correlated with a Big Five personality trait called openness to experience, which psychologists say is highly predictive of liberal values. But openness to experience also correlates with libertarianism and libertarian themes and ideas have exercised far greater influence than progressivism over SF since the genre’s inception. From conservatarian voices like Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, Vernor Vinge, Poul Anderson, and F. Paul Wilson to those of …

Barney Rosset and the Unending Struggle to Read Freely

It is by now a familiar truism that the Internet—and social media, in particular—has awarded the intolerant, the narrow-minded, and the censorious unprecedented power. To this challenge from below, publishers have, by and large, responded with dismaying timidity. Large multinational publishing firms have hastily withdrawn controversial titles and it has become distressingly common to read apologies issued to those vilifying their authors from the blogosphere, along with undertakings to “listen” and “do better” in the future. With these regrettable circumstances in mind, it is worth recalling the life, career, and example of renegade American publisher Barney Rosset. During the 1950s and 1960s, Rosset turned a tiny publishing company named Grove Press into one of America’s most provocative and effective instruments of free expression. He published some of the most controversial books of the 20th century and he never apologized for anything. In 1968, his offices were firebombed by anti-Castro Cuban reserve officers in the American Air Force because he had published excerpts from Che Guevara’s diaries in Grove’s magazine, the Evergreen Review. The same year, …

Decadence and Depravity in Louisville, Kentucky

Fifty years ago today, Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman drunkenly negotiated the pitfalls of Louisville’s Churchill Downs, home of the world-famous Kentucky Derby. At the time, Thompson was a moderately successful writer who had published an acclaimed book a few years earlier about his time among the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. Steadman was a talented young artist from Wales who had traveled to the United States in search of work. For Steadman and Thompson, it would be their first meeting, but it was hardly Thompson’s first derby. He had grown up in Louisville’s Cherokee Park area and was familiar with the whisky gentry who would be in attendance. As a teenager, Thompson’s wit, charm, intellect, and surly insubordination had made him popular among the city’s wealthy young men and women. However, he had never felt fully accepted and, when he was arrested along with a couple of classmates for holding up a car just shy of his graduation, his rich friends abandoned him to his fate—two months in prison. After 10 years of surviving …

The Purpose of Imaginative Fiction

When I learned that the 2020 International Booker Prize was going ahead in spite of London’s lockdown, I rejoiced at the organisers’ resourcefulness and resilience. But then I began reading the posts about this year’s prize on the Booker website and my enthusiasm dwindled. Surveying press responses to publication of the shortlist, the organisers spotlighted the Guardian‘s observation that nominee Marieke Lucas Rijneveld is only 28 years old, “identifies as male and uses the pronouns they/them.” The New York Times, we are told, had noted that four of the six shortlisted nominees are women, and the Sydney Morning Herald had informed its readers that one of these women is a refugee who fled to Australia from Iran. A separate post made mention of “such enormous themes as intellectual freedom, sexual identity, political unrest, and loss.” I find it unfortunate that the literary industry, eager to advertise its diversity credentials, panders to the media’s obsession with secondary considerations such as choice of subject matter and author identity, rather than focusing on essential considerations such as talent …

Seven Reflections on Isolation

From this moment I began to conclude in my mind that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition than it was possible I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world; and with this thought I was going to give thanks to God for bringing me to this place. ~Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe As I read Defoe’s tale as a child, I imagined being stranded on a remote island. This, I believed, would be an unrivaled adventure. It was exciting to think of overcoming the elements, of sheltering, of creating a lean-to that I would improve daily, and of devising ways to harness the land and sea in the search for nutrition and sustenance. The thought of loneliness never entered my mind. I was too young to understand the native man Friday. I certainly didn’t flinch at Crusoe’s insistence on being called Master, for what did I know of the colonial world or of white versus the Other. But a part of me wanted …