By Jeff Bursey
Guided by a mutual acquaintance, several years ago I began intermittently reading Stephen Mitchelmore’s blog, “This Space.” At that time he was one of the few people online who wrote at length on authors we had in common or who seemed of interest to me, and he did so with intelligence, passion and a gravity more commonly associated with print journals. This Space of Writing (2015), a collection of over forty of those blog posts, reaffirms the high quality of his writing and allows for an immersive experience in, primarily, Modernist writing and themes as found in the dead (Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust) and the living (J.M. Coetzee, Gabriel Josipovici, Karl Ove Knausgaard), and theorized about by one theorist above others (Maurice Blanchot).
Mitchelmore argues for the worthiness of this and that book or figure from within the context of contemporary literary England, writing in sentences devoid of academic language. That is, he writes against the conservatism and insular nature of a pre-Brexit culture that views with disdain much that comes from the Continent and is eternally suspicious of authors who refuse to provide pat conclusions and comforting plot arcs. About Tao Lin’s “gleefully titled” Eeeee Eee Eeee he says, in a remark on which there are variations in several essays, that “there is no… movement in [it], and no resolution either. It remains instead with emptiness and disjunction. This is why it should be welcomed.”
Lars Iyer’s introduction to the collection talks about the yawning divide between literary writers like Kafka and Proust and the manufacturers of novels that “must appeal to the judging panels of literary prizes… Hence the triumph of clunky middlebrow narratives, as technically accomplished as they are paranoiacally uptight, guarding themselves from doubt.” This divide is reflected in the community of book reviewers: “This quintessentially British literary ‘good taste’ is one of Steve’s great bugbears, being sure of itself to the point of smugness, and hardly so much as aware of the existence of other literary traditions, of literary works in translation, and of its own homegrown radicals.” Readers expecting enthusiastic appraisals of Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, A.S. Byatt, Hilary Mantel, and Ian McEwan will be disappointed.
From the first essay, “The sea closes up, and so does the land,” a consideration of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land, it becomes clear that Mitchelmore approaches writing on books after intense consideration. When we read in the first paragraph that there is a positive consensus about Ford’s book, the casual remark “it seems there’s nothing to add” allows for the possibility of a reversal or counterargument. “The reviews take it for granted”—these opening words of the second paragraph plainly state that Mitchelmore’s opinion of the Frank Bascombe trilogy, of which The Lay of the Land is the last volume, is not at one with the universal response. Germane quotations from the novel and critical reviews, together with a sharp use of an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, results in an analysis of the book that supplies reasons for its failure, while also crediting its virtues.
Mitchelmore ruminates about whatever book is at hand, and it soon becomes evident that his writing on David Shields’ Reality Hunger (2010) or Peter Handke’s novels is not a type of highbrow advertisement, but an engagement on a personal level that draws from private considerations. The last essay, “Fear of Reading,” describes in a non-pitying style the effects of a serious accident that left him with the “legacy of traumatic brain injury.” He thinks that the incident changed his writing style. I venture to guess it deepened what reading means to him, and either complicated or simplified how he approaches the art of writing. As he has difficulties with “concentration and short-term memory” the sheer act of reading, which many of us take for granted, requires more effort.
As life can alter in an instant, I don’t find it peculiar that Mitchelmore finds certain approaches in books more to his taste than others. Every good critic, it seems to me, acts as an advocate; but this can also mean behaving like a prosecutor. In “The Munro Doctrine” he writes that some of the sentences in Alice Munro’s “Axis” come off as “peculiarly North American… witty, wistful, above all knowing.” Since the essay is near the end of the book, by now a reader will know that certainty isn’t a good thing in his view. Specifically “that narration is imperial in nature, demanding that writers colonise minds as an empire colonises the world and calls it freedom.” It is sometimes true that fiction in The New Yorker, where “Axis” appeared, presents us with one grand metaphor or a strained epiphany, not to spark a profound reading moment, but to reveal something that comes off looking like profundity. Such control has its fans. “The ideology of power infects the reception of literature too, so that mastery is the guarantee of literary value.” Whatever one may think of Mitchelmore on Munro, that colonizing remark is hard to shake, and opens up a new way to look at her writing and those who favour it (Jonathan Franzen springs to mind).
In contrast to that kind of control (and choosing one example from many), consider what Mitchelmore thinks about Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18 (2008), where the lead character is described in this way: “Bjorn Hansen seems to have realised that he has cultivated experience in order to make life lifelike according to the definitions of this discourse. Did he abandon his family merely because it was a decisive event? It seems so.” The novel offers plenty of situations but few answers. The ending “changes nothing” in Hansen’s life, for his efforts at devising a life look like motions gone through in the hopes they’ll elicit something. This isn’t what might be called a positive message—look again at the names referred to in the opening, and add in Jonathan Littell, Milan Kundera, and W.G. Sebald; they aren’t going to be part of a cheerleading squad—but it is true for those who incline to pessimism, who see no pattern in their life, admit no discipline, don’t have a purpose, and take each day as evidence of minor chaos that speaks to the larger existence of cosmic injustice or indifference.
The authors who recur most—touchstones, to use Matthew Arnold’s term—appear either as the subject of separate reviews (key ones are on David Foster Wallace, David Shields, Thomas Bernhard, Gabriel Josipovici, Franz Kafka, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, and on bio-fiction) or are put into service to echo aspects of the work of others (Dante, Joyce, Sartre). For the most part Mitchelmore spends time on books he thinks worthwhile, and since he’s not answerable to any editor (at least until this book came together) he is rarely in the company of a book he doesn’t have respect for. He argues quite a bit with the premises of Shields’ Reality Hunger because it, among other faults, is a work of “stunted ambition,” but it is also a place where “the work speak[s] for itself.” More to his taste is volume one of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which “might be a masterpiece,” and What Ever Happened to Modernism? (2010), Josipovici’s “manifesto” on English fiction and Continental thought that caused some disruption in the English literary world and earned him condemnation from many writers (mostly the kind Iyer refers to above). In such essays the passion for thinking, for a philosophical view of the world, for art as art, flowers most noticeably.
Mitchelmore’s interest in and demands on fiction may not match what others find fascinating or require of the books they read. This might seem to hardly matter, but critics who promote the works of others in an energetic fashion, and with intelligence, stand out. An obvious risk to anyone whose stance is contrary to what’s said in the mainstream press is that if you are seen to hew close to any particular author, school, or ism, then your bias is going to expose you to attack. Claire Lowdon, in her review of This Space of Writing (Times Literary Supplement, March 25, 2016) reminds us of the class difference between blogging and those who perform what she calls “hacking” (she’s quoting Mitchelmore’s term ironically)—presenting books as one more consumer product. Lowdon declares: “The only significant difference is that as a solo blogger—in contrast to a critic writing for someone else’s newspaper or journal or, indeed, blog—you have no editor and, in a sense, no target audience.” To my pedantic mind that’s two differences. Lowdon is Assistant Editor at the literary journal Areté, and editors can be blind when it comes to their own prose. (Maybe her TLS editor had skipped out.) Among a host of minor complaints, Lowden has two major ones: “Mitchelmore exclusively values books that acknowledge that there are some things language can’t convey. He also needs novels to be ‘aware of what they cannot contain.’” Lowdon is dead on. To which, and to quote her again, “So what?” A blogger isn’t pressed by deadlines or forced to consider books that, one, may not be to his or her taste, and two, that need to be reviewed within a year or less of their publication as most journals refuse to consider older books. (Writers and publishers complain about chain bookstores that send back books that don’t sell within a short span of time. They could also complain about review outlets that only pay attention to the new or the nearly new and have no time for slightly older books that don’t get a fair chance at exposure.)
I’m bringing up Lowden’s criticism of This Space of Writing because it serves two functions that open a window on the purpose behind Mitchelmore’s book, as far as I can glean it. But also, it must be said, out of shared sympathetic understanding. These features can help readers decide if this collection is for them.
First, Lowdon unwittingly provides an example of what Iyer talks about in his introduction with respect to those who are “paranoiacally uptight, guarding themselves from doubt,” a doubt that Mitchelmore finds necessary, rich, and invigorating. In “A World Without Feeling” he uses a remark by the novelist Lee Rourke—“Unless the reader is hoodwinked into thinking the novel can deliver ‘real’ emotion”—as a springboard to consider the pull of narrative, the precipitate of sentiment in even the most astringent fiction, and what, with Beckett, Kafka, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook in mind, passivity and lack of emotion would look like when set within covers. This line of thought isn’t for everyone and doesn’t have to be. What Mitchelmore has done is say that, in his mind, this kind of writing is good, this other kind not so good, and this kind simply bad. His judgments will bother some people, but we go through our day exercising discrimination according to our tastes. He’s simply unapologetic about it.
The second way Lowdon’s review practically underwrites the requirement for a book such as This Space in Writing is in how it shows that the people supporting a critical orthodoxy—and the TLS is orthodox in many respects—regard themselves as persecuted and endangered by those who occupy an alternative position. Invoking clapped-out class differentiation in the tumultuous book-reviewing world, where there is less and less of a reason to look upon certain organs as authorities, reveals a lot but doesn’t say much that is progressive. There’s no need for anyone to look aghast at those who prefer writing that’s offbeat or unusual, that’s doubt-ridden and indeterminate, and who believe that those books, and those authors, offer not Truth but a truer picture of humanity as they see it. (Lowdon’s own realist-satirical first novel, Left of the Bang , is compared on its jacket copy to William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair . How much more of a clue did the TLS need to see that there was a mismatch between reviewer and subject?) Lowdon is angry, and negative reviews written in that spirit—and this is said with some familiarity and sympathy—are the hardest to get right (by which I mean in tone and without going overboard). If this book can antagonize her in such a way, then it may do the same to others.
Upsetting complacency is beneficial. While it’s true that, as with most collections, there are weak essays that could have been removed without loss, that doesn’t diminish the fact that even when we argue with Stephen Mitchelmore’s conclusions then we are on that open space he has created for discussion. This Space of Writing will introduce the subjects of his essays to readers who may or may not have heard of their names, and it does so with style, some brio, and from a valuable perspective.
This Space of Writing by Stephen Mitchelmore | Zero Books | 278 pages | $34.95 | paper | ISBN 978-1782799801