An Exercise in Criticism and Reciprocity

In the recent ASAP conference, I put together a round table seeking to practice criticism and reciprocity, based on the event’s theme. Rather than reflecting on this topic, the idea was to practice it with each other as a way of sharing in a collective creative intellectual energy and collegial spirit. I am deeply grateful that three critics, colleagues and friends accepted my invitation: Magali Armillas-Tiseyra, Merve Emre and Min Hyoung Song. I invited each one of them because I deeply respect their work and I truly appreciate them personally.

Magali and I have become very good friends and close collaborators in the past couple of years. In the future, I will write in this blog about our edited book in progress. I think of her as a model and an inspiration in my own wishes to read in decentered and comparative ways. Her book on the “Dictator Novel” is a palpable example of her critical virtues. She is a true citizen of the world and an example on how we can keep connected with our heritages and origin, without being provincial and territorial.

Merve, we all know, is a rock star and I have yet to know her as much in person as I have through social media interactions. But she embodies everything I believe criticism should be, beginning with her dizzying ability to do the most “monkish” (her words) philology, as shown in her superb edition of Ms. Dalloway,  to the sophistication of her scholarly work (just read Paraliterary, a masterpiece monograph if there is one), to the way in which she has raised the quality of critical discourse in trade publications like the New Yorker. If there is a positive future for our critical trade, Merve’s practice provides a path forward.

Finally, as a person whose work is messy, imprudent, proliferating, I profoundly admire Min, who I consider one of the most intelligent, thoughtful and elegant critics in our field. His book The Children of 1965 is a masterclass on writing about race and literature with nuance and intelligence, and many people in the field, including myself, are eagerly awaiting his Climate Lyricism. My conversations with Min are always fun and inspiring, and reading him is for me a constant lesson on how to balance passion, erudition, commitment and care.

Even if we cannot experience the physicality of academic friendship, I wanted this panel to be a tribute to the ways in which I learn from them, and the intellectual and personal friendship I profess towards them.

As four scholars who have a strong commitment to, and love for, the novel, and whose work shares implicit interests, despite our being located at different institutions and regions, we embarked on the following experiment: each one of us proposed a novel that we would like to share with our fellow panelists. With the assistance of my ASAP colleague and friend Darwin Tsen, the novels were randomly assigned to another panelist. Until the day of the presentation. we were aware of the novels discussed, but we did not know who assigned it. Each of us spoke ten minutes about our assigned novel, followed by five minutes with the assigner explaining their reasons for choosing. The assignments were as follows: Merve read Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, assigned by Magalí; Magalí read The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, chosen by Min; Min read Antonio Lobo Antunes’s Until Stones Become Lighter than Water, recommended by me, and I read Ma Jian’s China Dream, selected by Merve.

I will not provide here a full account of the panel, as I would not want to mischaracterize my friends’ perspectives. Instead, I limit myself to report my reading of Ma Jian, my reasons to assign Lobo Antunes, a couple of comments on the two other books, and my after-the-fact takeaways from the conversation. I want to point out that the panel also benefitted greatly from an engaged audience of critics who themselves had different takes on our exercise.

My assigned book was Ma Jian’s China Dream. I am grateful for the assignment because I would probably have avoided reading it. I am usually not a fan of political satires. But China Dream really elicited in me the shared cultural memory of growing in a country ruled by a one-party regime, and the ways in which humor is one of the vehicles for the novel to think about the nature of life in that political system. Ma Jian’s status as a writer is indeed peculiar. He was born in China and writes in Chinese, even though his work is banned in the mainland. He came to fame by writing a fairly brutal story collection, Stick Out Your Tongue, that is deeply critical of the conservative bents of Tibetan Culture, followed by Beijing Coma, a novel on Tiananmen. China Dream is an unsparing criticism of Xi Jinping’s authoritarian nationalism. The novel focuses on a corrupt party official, Ma Daode, who is in charge of the China Dream Bureau, an office in charge of implanting a shared national dream of Chinese future glory into the citizen’s mind, replacing their individual dreams. The narrative is interspersed with flashback to Daode’s memories of the cultural revolution, which plagues the dystopia of the future with the dystopia of the past.

An interesting piece of trivia about the novel is that the cover was designed by Ai Weiwei, a fellow traveler in the fight against persecution. It is also worth noticing that the novel has a five-page afterword, in which Ma Jian unequivocally identifies his novel with Xi Jinpings state project and the absurdities of the legacies of the Cultural Revolution. I am usually adverse to this kind of explanation, and I probably would have skipped it. While the open politics of the novel are completely understandable coming from a persecuted writer, I think such an explanation short-sells the formally exciting work behind Ma Jian’s novelization.

I am a referential reader, and if anything the joy of reading for me is always in the intersection of the novelty of a book with the possibilities of putting in conversation with my own archive. I will just mention in passing that I happened to be watching the complete works of the greatest Chinese filmmaker of this century Jia Zhangke, distributed among the Criterion Channel and MUBI. Like China Dream, Jia is concerned with the rise of former revolutionaries into corrupt local officials and the ways in which authoritarianism seeps the everyday life of China. Although Jia is more elegant than Ma Jian in my opinion, there is a scene in his masterwork film A Touch of Sin that made China Dream click for me. In a vignette in the film, we see a textile worker from Guangdong fall in love with a young woman who works in a “hostess club,” a nightclub set up for party officials and members of the business elite to hold lavish parties and secure sexual pleasure. Ma Jian, opting for an intelligent constructed brashness, sets up a similar scene in a “Red Guard nightclub,” allowing his protagonist to consume alcohol and sex in a brothel themed after the cultural revolution. It is the farce that follows the tragedy, if Ma Jian’s liberal sensibility allows for a bit of a Marxist joke. While A Touch of Sin, confronts us with the dissonance of the worker in love and the woman performs sexual work for the Communist elite, in China Dream the dissonance is internal: the present of pleasure and corruption perpetually undermined by the violent memory of revolutionary love and struggle of the Cultural Revolution.

The shock for me is that China Dream turned out to be very familiar. Growing up in Mexico’s so-called democratic transition I became a reader at a time in which the parodic novels of Eastern European writers like Milan Kundera and Dubravca Ugresic were read in admiration by Mexican intellectuals, as a road map of freedom and resistance against repression. Mexico, which suffered significant but not nearly as intense forms of authoritarianism was able to produce a great writer in this vein, Jorge Ibargüengoitia, but never reached the fine satirical elegance of our Polish, Czech and Yugoslavian contemporaries. In any case, it is interesting and alarming to me to see in Ma Jian a version of this writing. Ma Jian does have an advantage over Kundera and Ugresic’s mordancy. He is more refined in his ability to efficiently target the long durée of Chinese repression precisely because of the ways in which the tragic past of the revolution exists in the novel as a stream of consciousness that never allows the absurdity of the present to fully set. As readers, we are not allowed to stay comfortable in the satire, when we are about to laugh in horror, a voice marked in italics will always come with a memory that is in another tone, poetic and sober. With my readerly experience, the gift I received from whoever chose this book is to reconsider a tradition of the novel that I felt I could no longer appreciate because I believe, perhaps wrongfully, that its liberal ideological inclinations and its faith in the power of direct critic were exhauisted. This is the reason why Kundera’s novels often feel outdated and contrived, or Ibargüengoitia’s comedy is oftentimes better as a historical document than as a living work. Ma Jian may be condemned to datedness. But one does not get persecuted and censored for irrelevant works. It is clear that he writes dangerously and in danger. And that he restores the power of the present, of urgency and of the desire to be a part of the world to the novel, which often cedes those powers to the electronic media that colonize our imaginations.

As for my recommendation, anybody who knows me or who follows me on social media can easily ascertain that cultural recommendation is a very valuable practice for me. I love receiving recommendations for books and films, directly and indirectly, and I think that giving recommendations back is a way to pay it forward. And part of my ethos of recommendation is informed on my personal war on Anglophone (particularly American) provincialism. As someone lucky enough to be a reader in two languages and two traditions of translation, bringing recommendations from one tradition to the other is both very fun, and something I hope can be a gift for someone. Antonio Lobo Antunes is not a rare writer, he is arguably the greatest living novelist in the Portuguese language, perhaps only matched by Mia Couto. He has written 27 novels, of which I have read ten with great love and admiration. But I have read them in Spanish, sometimes side-by-side with the Portuguese originals. Lobo Antunes, a writer in my third language, is closer linguistically to my first than to my second language. Many literary readers in Spanish would be familiar with him, and he has quite the following among a subset of readers committed to Lusophone literature in translation. Often drowned by the cultural visibility of Brazil, and by the deep ignorance of the Portuguse language in the Anglosphere and in world literature, old-world Lusophone literature from Portugal and from Africa (Guinea Bissau, Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique), is one of the most exciting hidden treasures for those readers unacquainted with it.

I love to recommend Lobo Antunes and other Lusophone writers to my friends in this side of the linguistic divide. In fact, I recently sent Magali a book by another magnificent Portuguese writer, Lidia Jorge. But the list of names is interminable: Mia Couto, Pepetela, Ondjaki, Teolinda Gersao, Patricia Chiziane, Abdulaí Silá, not to mention the incredible filmmakers you can watch onthe side: Pedro Costa, Miguel Gomes, Manoel de Oliveira, Rita de Azevedo.  My recommendation of Until Stones Become Lighter than Water is borne out of a linguistic curiosity. It is the first novel by Lobo I have not read in Spanish, because it is not available in the language. This is an anomaly. Every single other novel by him is in print, many of them in mass-printed pocket paperbacks due to their consistent popularity. But this one happened to be published in English first by the Margellos republic. So I decided to buy the Portuguese and the English Editions. I learned Portuguese from a Brazilian teacher, so the specificities of Iberian and African Portuguese make Lobo a bit too challenging in the original, which leads me to move back and forth through the English. The translation is very good, and admirable if one considers the complexity of Lobo’s Portuguese. In any case, the novel also encapsulates many topics that a reader of the contemporary world novel would appreciate. It is in my view one of the missing links of postcolonial narrative: a diminished colonial power that is outsized by its former colonies politically and economically, which caused a lot of damage and death by its stubborn fights to retain them, and which is only now producing a culture that engages the spectres of that experience. Lobo is a master of this reckoning, and I was hoping that whoever got this book, well-versed in postcolonial, ethnic and/or contemporary fiction, would find a jolting experience of reading.

I think the most interesting feature of the exercise is that it did not become (thankfully) a happy exchange of praise for the recommendations. In fact, some of us did not particularly enjoy the recommended book. Min expressed intelligent and deep reservations on Lobo Antunes, particularly on the difficulty and political hopelessness of his plotless narration and his sense of being stuck in the past. He did recognize Lobo’s linguistic talent, even in translation, and I learned from him that another novel by Lobo, The Land at the End of the World was an inspiration for Viet Thanh Nguyen’s fiction. After the fact, I found an interview where Nguyen discusses this. As my comment above should make clear, I also struggled with Ma Jian, a talented but facile satirist who is clearly working against the grain of substantive persecution and in the context of political urgency, but who may be underutilizing the abilities of the novel to capture such political phenomena.

Frankly, I do not know that I would have read the other two books on my own. I am happy I did, but I do have reservations about them. The Glass Hotel is a novel of impeccable structure and very compelling and timely. I did not really like Station Eleven, mostly because I find narratives of extinction uninteresting. Which is, of course, more a bias of mine than a defect of the book itself. The Glass Hotel is different in that Mandel performs writing with more of an investment in her exceptional abilities regarding structure and lyrical prose. Which I really enjoyed. At the same time, it is a novel that has issues with overkill: a little too much plot complexity, a little too obvious in its political messaging, a little too hammer-in-the-head in its worldmaking.

I honestly had avoided reading Cusk because I wanted to be able to read the Outline trilogy together (which is now more of a project for me). Second Place is the kind of book I should really like, because of its reflexive, quasi-essayistic commitment to ideas about art, something I very much enjoy reading. But I think Cusk is not a great practitioner of this form of writing, because the book is very bogged down by what I would presume (and this is echoed by Merve’s approach to it) are bones to pick regarding her own standing as a writer. I may be saying something controversial here, but I think that Sally Rooney’s nonchalance yet pointed articulation of her own struggles in Beautiful World, Where are You felt more persuasive than Cusk’s colder and more studied autofiction. But more significantly, I think that if you read the novels about art by María Gaínza, the conceptual matters flourish more. At the same time, I think Cusk is a brilliantly precise writer, and it feels that the aims of the book are below her abilities. But I have to read more of her work to see if this assertion stands.

In any case, I came out of the panel very convinced about the outcome of the model. It made me realize that in there exercise of reciprocity and friendship, particularly in criticism, a gift to be exchanged is that of mutual discomfort. It is the fact that we were for the most part uncomfortable with the books, rather than affirmed, that the exercise worked better. This model of recommendation is rare, and perhaps even unwelcome in the real world, because we live in a moment in which people are deeply committed to finding affirmations at the representational, identitarian and ethical levels in the culture they consume. This is why we have so much reading about the purportedly progressive and critical politics of the most corporate products in narrative, from Netflix’s half-baked series to the endless churning out of MCU mediocrity. These market niches based on personal preference are a feature of neoliberal reading. But I am well aware that these criticisms can raise reasonably strong objections by people who see political value in the alignment between the aesthetic and the ethical. In any case, precisely because our modes of reading are so committed to the finding of utopia, hope or even just a form of progressive politics encoded in our narratives (something that Min expressed and about which I expressed my disagreement), recommendations and reciprocities can be built in the friendly gift of dis-affirmation, and the troubling productivity of taking ourselves out of our comfort zones.

I also have to note the fact that my recommendation was the outlier. Min clearly knew it was me who recommended his assigned book, whereas I could sincerely not establish who had recommended the other three books. Ma Jian, Mandel and Cusk are well within the obvious geography of fiction in the Anglosphere, and I deliberately sought a book that was outside of this cartography (something that was not in the rules but was my own impulse). Of course my colleagues could have done that too. Magalí, a comparatist if there is one, Merve, who is bound to discretion by her role as an International Man Booker Prize jury member, and Min, who works on a topic as global as climate change, had good reasons to go in the direction of mainstream works, from abiding to the rule of recommending outside our expertise to being able to identify a very recent work, which does not always align itself with the task of discovery.

On the basis of what happened, I think the exercise would be worth revisiting, with either the same colleagues or new ones, with changes in parameters. We could, as Merve suggested in one point, work only in translation. We could change the temporal framework to, say, only novels from a decade of the 19th or the 20th century. I am convinced that a panel on novels of the 1980s or the 1990s would yield fascinating results And I would love to do this panel some time (maybe a future ASAP?) with films rather than books.

My main takeaway is that we need to find more and better ways to incorporate our everyday readerly lives to criticism. The world of criticism, in the Anglosphere and elsewhere, is excessively compartmentalized between the academic and the public, and between the professional and the personal. This is not universally the case (Merve’s praxis provides a great example of how these boundaries can be overriden). But the academic, the public, the professional and even the personal are now categories of social and cultural capital, forms of our location in a literary field that is at the same time very large and very precarious. The four of us are scholars of privilege, afforded tenured positions in research institutions, and thusly encouraged to be timid in our attempts to break away from the constrains of institutionalized criticism.

It is not coincidental that some of the most exciting work and publications in criticism are the product of brilliant critics who had been tossed out of the university world, or confined to its most precarious corners, by the casino-like job market of today. In fact, coming from Latin America, I am always skeptical that the university has to totalize criticism in a way that the university seeks to do in the US (even though it does not in reality achieve it). I believe, even as I have dedicated my life to be a sociologically-oriented critic, that there is a praxis of criticism that exceeds its institutional constraints. All of us critics can read and work together to re-envision what criticism means when its institutions (not only the university, but also the periodical publication, book publishing and others) are in turmoil, and our work has an absurd yet formidable rival in the new world of algorithms and internet commentary and review practices.

You can only fight the world that reduces literary sharing to algorithmic recommendation and start ratings with the qualitative possibilities of a criticism that is never comfortable with itself, that does not follow established patterns and that finds a way to formalize learned unfamiliarity. Nevertheless, I also do not think we have the tools to foresee any truly worthwhile form of criticism to come. I was educated in a world in which critics are at each other’s neck to assert that their form of criticism is the only legitimate one (a fight in which I used to participate enthusiastically) and migrated to an academic space continually invested in so-called “method wars” (which at some level are little more than claims to institutional capital). From that experience, I have arrived to the strong realization that our small and overblown fights hurt our trade. The enemies of criticism are not other critics but the neoliberal agents destroying the humanities, oftentimes armed with the very weapons we use against each other. Which in turn means that banding together in reciprocity and solidarity, and leaving our turf wars behind, may be the only way forward.

The call for a readerly praxis exercised by academic critics, but based in our everyday life by readers, is also an attempt (small and insufficient for sure) to address another problem. I am deeply convinced that a factor in the crisis of the humanities is the misalignment between how alive culture is in the world and the precarity of the critical trade. We have in front of us a constantly booming and diverse book market that has not collapsed due to the ebook or Amazon, a complex and exciting ecosystem of cinema that persists regardless of corporate consolidation and platform fragmentation, a deeply compelling (even if I dislike it) televisual culture and a dizzying arrange of media possibilities and active subcultures that makes it almost impossible to fulfill out duty to be knowledgeable and erudite.

There is an endless number of factors that feed the misalignment between the liveliness of culture and the possibilities of criticism. They include the lack of enrollments in humanities classes, the unacceptable labor conditions of most critics, the sacrifice of whole archives of culture in the name of presentism, the anxiety of being current while in effect we are always behind the curve, the insufficient and often lamentable defenses of the humanities one reads in the press and the political opportunists aggressively pursuing our destruction. We oftentimes are pushed to think so much about our institutional conditions and survival that we stop performing the tasks of cultural criticism. But unless we focus on these tasks more deliberately, against the grain of our current climate, there will be not much to fight for, or to save.

Min, Merve and Magalí represent to me the kinds of critics that embody the criticism that we must save and continue. I hope I do too, but that is not for me to judge. I like to think I am constantly failing in achieving this goal so I can try to do it better. In any case, I believe the panel demonstrated the reason why I admire their criticism so much: because they refuse to be comfortable, because they will raise their ethos as critics when needed, because they think and read and commit themselves above nitty-gritty of the material conditions of our trade. In conceiving and being in the panel, I think that making our reality as readers a more visible part of the trade is a way to infuse our criticism with the passions we often leave in our private cultural experiences. There is, I hope, future debates and dialogues between us, and with others. Inspired by a Twitter photo the novelist Brandon Taylor, I bought a t-shirt that reads “Criticism never sleeps.” The ASAP conference where the panel took place, my last one as a member of the board, demonstrates what it means when “criticism never sleeps” is not a slogan, but an ethos. Thank you to my three dear friends and colleagues for embodying that ethos in such an inspiring way.

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