In a recent article on Slate, Mark O’connell reviews Jonathan Lethem’s book about The Talking Heads as an example of the “critic as memoirist.” He talks about the line Lethem blurs between being genuinely critical and autobiographical. I haven’t yet read the book but I will as soon as it’s available on the Nook.
This article got me thinking about other stylistic border-crossings. Take, for example, fiction-as-theory. There are many novels I can think of that perform some sort of critical function. In fact, one might argue that that’s what good literature does. There are a few, though, that seem to contribute to established fields of academic/critical thought in ways that traditional straight academic writing does not or cannot. Among them is Lethem’s Chronic City, which gives us a narrator named Insteadman who lives in a strange version on New York City that takes on a feeling of the virtual. Little, it turns out, in Insteadman’s world is authentic, including him. He is a former child actor living off of royalties and doing occasional voiceovers and commentaries for Criterion. I won’t go into great detail here about the plot, but Lethem takes what feels like a realistic setting and gradually reveals that everything is in some way virtual, and artifact of a publicity machine or, in some cases, digitally fabricated. It is a novel about virtual reality that almost entirely avoids the digitally virtual. He mixes fictional and real television shows, movies and directors and interrogates postmodern culture in ways I have rarely, if ever, seen established academics do. Another obvious example is David Foster Wallace, particularly in Infinite Jest, with its impossible movies, fictional critics, and long theoretical asides and footnotes. That novel is as much as contribution to film studies as anything written in the mid-nineties. Other novels that come to mind are Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, K.W. Jeter’s Noir, Maybe some of Robert Coover’s A Night at the Movies, or, You Must Remember This (in particular the title story), even Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.
So, critic-as-memoirist, fiction-as-theory. I am thinking about these categories because I have been struggling to refine/refind my voice as a creative and academic writer. A decade of graduate school has trained me to write (and, to some extent, think) in a particular way, to the exclusion of other types of writing (and thinking). I have spent the last year plus not only writing academic articles (because, after all, I want a job and I want to contribute to a field and all that), but also some fiction and other types of writing, trying to find something that might accomplish both objectives: contribute to the field and, well, be readable and maybe entertaining. I am not the first to point out that academic writing is often dry, obtuse, impenetrable, bad. Sometimes there are good reasons for this, but it is not necessarily necessary.
Good work can come from the interstices between genres. Theory-as-memoir? Film-review-as-theory? Criticism-as-autobiography? Podcast-as-literature? Poetry-as-academic-writing? Youtube-video-as-tenure-file? Suicide-note-as-fiction?