Last night I attended a lecture given by Alan Pauls [sp], author of an impressive oeuvre that ranges from novels (El pasado – translated into English as The Past – and Wasabi among them) to criticism (El factor Borges leaps to mind, as does the genre-bending La vida descalzo) blurring, as many good writers do, the lines between the two. I’m in the midst of reading El pasado now, so there will be more on that later… although I will say that there were a number of interesting points of convergence between the novel and Pauls’ comments on the nature of the present. The former is haunted by the ex-lover of its protagonist, who appears to him – or sends notes, photographs, trinkets in her place – time and again as he tries to make a life for himself without her. The latter characterized the present – that moment once menacing and redundant, saturated by past and future and belonging to neither.
Pauls spoke about the present: the ecstatic, supersaturated present of live television and play-by-play cellphone conversations; he spoke about the present as the tense par excellence of hysteria, a “Frankenstein, of sorts” sewn together (“badly”) from remnants of other times. And then he spoke about the fiction of the present, or some of it, at least, picking up where Josefina Ludmer [sp] left off in her reading of contemporary Argentine fiction and of the autoficción (a close relative, if not identical twin, of Autofiction [en]) that she argues should not be read as literature, but as a market-driven gesture that “constructs [a/the] present” (“fabricar presente”). Both seem to agree that a large swath of the work being done now is a hollow performance geared toward the expectations of the market, that in many ways literature has exhausted its potential, and has ended up as just another spectacle, another commodity. I repeat – neither claims that this is a pervasive trend. But both do argue its presence.
As much as both of these theories have to offer, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a less literal reading to be made of the engagement of some contemporary literature with the logic of the global market. Yes, of course: there are bad writers. And there are writers out there who understand how to make (good) money by writing books that neither challenge nor elevate the reader (and no, I won’t try to call it literature, either). There are, however, also writers who appear to be doing these things but are in fact writing about the world in which they are writing. To my mind at least, these works bear the oft-eulogized autonomy of literature into the present by commenting on the economic forces that threaten to encroach on the creative fields. I am thinking of José Manuel Prieto [en/sp], whose recent novel Rex [en] blurs the line between center and periphery by subjecting literary authority to the schizophrenic logic of late capitalism, and of César Aira [en], whose engagement with the literary marketplace is so efficient that it actually becomes a form of subversion.
Where does contagion end and commentary begin? (Or the other way around, if you prefer.) In a world in which horizontal, rhizomatic connections continue to supplant hierarchical systems, these categories beg to be reconsidered, reconfigured. If memory serves, the novel was once criticised as a perversion of literary language. Perhaps these new works of non-literature are worth a second glance, as well.