Robert Scholes began to defect in the sixties. He was a young critic, and his faith was waning. Scholes was more skeptical each day of the American critical establishment, increasingly uneasy with “literature as an institution.” 1 Academics had such a narrow view of literature: they made a big fuss about novels, but they turned their noses at other forms of prose. “Something,” Scholes argued with Robert Kellogg, needed to “be done about our veneration of the novel as a literary form.” 2 The novel wasn’t sacrosanct: in fact, it was “only one of a number of narrative possibilities.” 3 It was time for critics to look harder, to study the workings of narrative across disparate mediums. So long as you had a story and a storyteller, the two men argued, you had a narrative worthy of analysis. The time had come to open the curricular gates.
It was 1966 when Scholes walked away from the novel. He was 37 then, still bouncing between schools, only a budding rebel, not yet a turncoat. Still he clung to concepts like meaning and narrative, and still he analyzed novels according to questions of story, structure, and personage. This, too, would change. Scholes was dipping his toes in structuralism; soon, he was a full-fledged semiotician. In 1970, he arrived at Brown and turned to the text. 4
Scholes rose quickly at Brown, and in 1974 he founded the school’s Semiotics program, the first such department in the country. 5 His students examined texts, not novels. They studied language at the level of signifier (an expressive device) and signified (the content or image of such a device), embracing the distance and instability between the two. They brushed aside questions of authorial intention and meaning, and they tossed away syllabi of high literature, embracing a curriculum that spanned wide forms of media.
Scholes saw the discipline of English at a generational turning point, split between two ideals. There were those who preferred “the literary, structured according to the hierarchical concept of canon,” and there were those who preferred “the textual, disseminated around the more egalitarian notion of text.” 6 Scholes was a strident textualist. Literariness, he felt, was more important than literature. “At the heart of my belief,” he explained, “is the conviction that no text is so trivial as to be outside the bounds of humanistic study.” 7
Scholes’s dictum turned gospel in Brown’s Semiotics department, and it came to embody the pedagogical theses of a number of similar programs across the country. It bled, with textualism more generally, into other aspects of the humanities, intertwining with an overdue revision of the literary canon. Over time, however, the political logic of these interventions grew blurry, and what began as a radical reimagining of the university withered into a tepid revision of the curriculum.
The battle between ‘literature’ and ‘text’ remains deeply relevant today. The enlarged literary tent rightfully dismantled old hierarchies, but its critical methods risked reifying the trivial and the banal. Today, textualist principles trace into both the style and content of contemporary writing, leaving a checkered legacy in their wake. The program’s long shadow falls upon movements like Alt-Lit, whose writers renounce differentiation and discernment, contorting the tenets of an egalitarian movement to justify an old brand of aesthetic indolence. This isn’t what the department renegades had in mind: where, then, did it all go off the rails?
Scholes knew there were limits to the new approach. “Am I pushing my interpretation too far?” he worried in 1982. It was a prescient concern, but he decided against it: “If you go in the right direction,” he wrote, “there is no such thing as too far.” 8
The New Semioticians
Scholes, for all of his uneasiness about the novel, lives on in a bestseller. By another name, Scholes appears as the enigmatic professor of Semiotics in The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides’s cheeky account of Brown University in the early 1980s. Scholes’s alter ego, Michael Zipperstein, is laconic and soft-spoken, prone to gazing out the window when his students bore him. A cult figure at Brown, he’s recognizable by his fisherman’s sweaters and his “guru’s dome and beard.” For years he was a New Critic, but on an evening in Paris in the 1960s, he met the inimitable Roland Barthes and was “converted, over cassoulet, to the new faith.” A changed man, he now preaches the gospel of deconstruction to his black-clad students.
One of those students, Madeleine Hanna, has her doubts about the revolution. Why, wonders Madeleine, The Marriage Plot’s protagonist, do the semioticians want “a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing, to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions”? Why hoist so much “lingering rage onto literature”? Unmoved by the deconstruction noise on campus, Madeleine remains “partial to that increasingly eclipsed entity: the writer.” She loves authors—why must they die?—and she misses novels.
But by the late 1970s, novels were on notice. There were many professors like Zipperstein, and many students like Madeleine (Eugenides was likely one of them). Scholes’s department came first, but the same cassoulet was on the menu at Johns Hopkins and Yale. At Yale, deconstructionists like Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller embraced parallel pedagogical arguments, lobbing their own grenade at the literary tradition with an influential anthology called Deconstruction and Criticism. Watching from the sidelines was Harold Bloom, the staunch canonist, increasingly embittered by the “purple-haired semioticians” and self-righteous “deconstructionists” overtaking the campus. 9 Bloom was fast outnumbered: a new critical movement was taking shape, one which was ambitious, progressive, and rigorous. Its proponents proposed a rescue of sorts, a last minute resuscitation to be performed by a set of concerned physicians. There, laid pliant on the operating table, was their aging, tottering patient: English.
On the Brown campus, Doctor Scholes cut an imposing presence. In period photos, he wears black upon black, his bald head complemented by a grey beard, his dark eyes framed by thick-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses. He carries books but no briefcase, walks quickly across the quad, and speaks in a flat, toneless voice. Yet there’s an intensity in his words, a zealot’s determination in his remarks. He addresses you from the other side.
Scholes wanted literature freed from its canonical bounds, reconfigured to “designate a certain body of repeatable or recoverable acts of communication.” 10 Borrowing terms from the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, he proposed in Semiotics and Interpretation that a “‘literary work’ is simply one in which literariness is dominant” (meaning, in other words, that stylistic deviations were employed, and that straightforward “communication” had begun to turn “duplicitous”). 11 “Literariness,” he argued, could be “found in all sorts of utterances, some of which are not especially literary.” 12
This was a polemic put gently, for the category of the ‘not especially literary’ is broad. Semiotics and Interpretation is a slim, technical volume; in later works, Scholes made his point more clearly and more forcefully. His career-encompassing The Rise and Fall of English summarized both his curricular and cultural aspirations, outlining the convictions with which he founded Brown’s Semiotics department and later carried to his presidencies of the Modern Language Association and the Semiotic Society of America. In Rise and Fall, Scholes would challenge the “centrality of literature,” proposing we reimagine “the English teacher as an instructor of textuality.” 13
Two parallel phenomena—one political, and one theoretical—motivated Scholes’s project. On the one hand, Scholes joined the necessary critique of a constricting and exclusionary literary canon. He wanted English to be more than the “embodiment of cultural ideals” which were white, Protestant, and elite. 14 He worried centuries of criticism had transmuted the religious canon into literature, and he scorned the “priests and theologians of English.” 15 It was time, he felt, to secularize and democratize the curriculum, to broaden a stodgy and patrician field.
On the other hand, Scholes rode an increasingly popular wave of French semiotic and deconstructive theory. Roland Barthes contended that all text was a “tissue of signs,” 16 enjoining critics to forgo the “myth of [the writer’s] pure creativity” 17 and instead focus upon the “the fabric of signifiers which constitute the work.” 18 He proclaimed, famously—and much to Madeleine Hanna’s chagrin—that “the birth of the reader must be requited by the death of the Author.” 19 Jacques Derrida, in tandem, argued that language comprised an “infinite number of sign-substitutions,” and refused to declare any “center or origin” in a text. 20 Scholes’s critical definitions came steeped in this tradition. He wrote of signs ‘weaved’ together (perhaps stitched to Barthes’s ‘fabric’), defining a ‘text’ as any “cluster of signs” that could be “connected by an act of reading.” 21 This broad category, he believed, would mark the basis of a new curriculum.
Politics and pedagogy came to rhyme. In the emergent logic of deconstruction, Scholes and the new semioticians found the theoretical basis for a curricular shift they felt morally and politically overdue. Marrying a voguish mode of aesthetic analysis with an egalitarian ideal, they shaped a new critical movement. It was time, Scholes argued, for “the old field of English” to be “reconstructed as a discipline of textuality.” 22
The textualists saw real political urgency in this process. “Text,” Scholes wrote, “aligned with the extension of democratic social, economic, and political processes.” The “canon,” on the other hand, aligned “with the maintenance or recovery of more hierarchical structures.” 23 Who would want to be on that side?
But many did sit canon-side. Scholes and the Yale School weren’t writing in a vacuum: in the early 1980s, amid the ‘cultural literacy’ movement led by men like E.D. Hirsch Jr. and Allan Bloom, the ideas of ‘literature,’ generally, and of ‘canon,’ specifically, began to take on a distinctly conservative bent. 24 Bloom wasn’t interested in those democratic social processes—in fact, he wasn’t much interested in democracy at all. 25 So what if the intellectual table had only so many seats: at the end of the day, Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, “the community of those who seek the truth […] includes only a few.” 26 These were fighting words, and by the late 1980s, a full-fledged culture war had erupted. Soon the Reagan administration itself borrowed from Hirsch’s writings to devise its nationwide curriculum. 27
The Reaganites’ new, apparently strident attachment to the humanities was contradictory on its face: as the critic John Guillory observed, it was the dominance of the free market which helped precipitate the liberal arts’ decline in the first place. 28 Yet Bloom’s Closing became a bestseller on the right, and an increasingly fierce battle waged between the proponents of Great Books (which, to many, sounded like White Books, Old Books, and Male Books) and the new practitioners of Cultural Studies and Media Studies. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Montaigne, and Molière—did it matter how white these faces were? It was during an interview about Bloom’s ascent that Saul Bellow uttered his infamous canonist sneer: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” 29 Bellow never lived that one down, but he wasn’t alone in his parochialism. Each day, observed Stuart Hall, the leading proponent of Cultural Studies, a “hierarchical traditional culture” was being “blown apart by world migration, by fragmentation, by the rise of the margins.” 30 As the decolonization movement nudged academia toward “the displacement of European models of culture,” power structures long fixed came up for fresh debate. 31 Comments like Bellow’s marked the reactionary yawps of a fractious re-alignment.
This was the side of the canon, in other words. Cultural Studies and Semiotics were two different programs, but they worked in parallel opposition to old hierarchies, relied upon kindred critical principles, and inspired similar disdain from the dyspeptic scholars Bloom (both Chicago’s Allan and Yale’s unrelated Harold). Both programs resisted delineations of ‘high’ and ‘low,’ emphasizing the democratic nature of the humanities. The gates were opening: as Scholes “select[ed] what our students will read,” he could now turn to “the whole domain of textuality.” 32
Bumper Sticker Bibliographies
That domain was grand. Now practitioners could study “the literary elements” of many fields: poems and books, yes, but also cartoons, commercials, television shows, and bumper stickers. “Even tax forms,” Scholes insisted, are “kinds of texts.” 33 It was all part of the transition from “literature, narrowly defined, to textuality—a looser, broader concept.” 34
Eager to model his methods, Scholes demonstrated, in both Semiotics and Interpretation and The Rise and Fall of English, a number of critical deconstructions of such ‘trivial’ texts. The results could be strained. In Rise and Fall, Scholes examines a bumper sticker which reads “God is coming, and Is She Pissed!” He marvels at the sticker’s author “reducing the divine wrath to the level of urine,” and outlines some obvious definitions (“‘Pissed’ is short for ‘pissed off,’ which is colloquial for ‘angry’”). 35 Honing in on the sticker’s “eschatological statement,” he indulges some reaching hypotheticals: “Is there a contrast between this liquid and the fires of hell?” 36 Elsewhere, Scholes preached restraint: readers were “free to find […] meaning,” he wrote, but not “to make” it. 37 But here the flaming piss of hell invites a natural question: where, in the semiotician’s quest for second-order complexity, did that line lie?
Earlier models of the semiotic method were far less speculative. In 1957, Roland Barthes, keeper of the cassoulet himself, tried out that “science coextensive with linguistics, which is semiology,” as he examined the manner in which myths work upon contemporary language and culture. 38 In his study, Barthes turned to some of the same minutia which would later fascinate Scholes, finding that schoolbook language lessons, magazine covers, and the ready-made clichés of everyday speech could all embody myth. One of Barthes’s famous examples was the phrase ‘common sense’—no throwaway remark, he argued, but rather an expression which curtails debate, a rhetorical maneuver designed to halt inquiry in its tracks. Those two words signified “truth when it stops on the arbitrary order of him who speaks it,” gesturing to a set of values apparently so inarguable that they required no explanation. 39 Who doubts common sense? Other myths served the same semiotic function, invoking without naming a “universal order which has fixated once and for all.” 40 Myth defended the status quo, disempowering the rhetoric of change.
Here, as Barthes revealed myth’s flattening quality, was semiotics tooled for political criticism. Myth wasn’t, of course, all that one might read from a text: it was merely one of many possible frameworks to be gleaned from a semiotic reading. But Barthes warned the powerful new science should be used sparingly, for “it knows only one operation: reading, or deciphering.” 41 As an archaeologist of meaning, he took to language with a scalpel, not a scythe.
It isn’t clear that Scholes always worked so carefully. In another case study, Scholes deconstructs a sticker reading “If you don’t like my driving, call 1-800-EAT-SHIT.” He again begins with tedious summary, explaining how exchange codes and 800 numbers work. He insists that “intertextual knowledge of the standard invitation to report bad driving is required for a strong, rich reading of the sign,” and belabors an explanation of the familiar ‘how-is-my-driving’ sticker format. 42 Reading Scholes, one sometimes feels like a weary traveler in a foreign country, listening as the obvious workings of the everyday are explained in slow-spoken present tense. In his efforts to extricate meaning from banal sources, he offers insights that are themselves often rather banal. Worse, some of his “extratextual” observations bloat into such generality that they defy useful application. “Consider the place of the text in this world,” he writes of ‘God Is Pissed’: a sticker on “a sixties car” containing “a feminist text” soon “leads to guesses about the owner—possibly wrong ones.” 43 Naturally—and yet it’s difficult to think of a text in the world, or a person in the world, that isn’t potentially subject to guesses either right or wrong.
Scholes often encourages a kind of critical excavation, a process grounded in the conviction that if you stare at any simple concept long enough, some aesthetic or intellectual meaning might be identified within it. That principle isn’t necessarily faulty, nor is it new—with pop culture origins, it traces back to the Frankfurt School. 44 But sometimes the semiotic excavator bumps into bedrock. When Scholes proselytizes the literary merit of bumper stickers, he builds towers without a foundation, presenting readings that are taller above ground than below. It’s worth questioning how much is accomplished in the etymological analysis of area codes, in the indulging of so many ‘possibly wrong’ guesses. Curriculums can be zero-sum games: the presence of one text on a syllabus often precludes that of another. In defending their curricular inclusion, Scholes’s stickers are made to work exceptionally hard.
Semiotics, Barthes cautioned, is effective “at the level of forms, not contents; its field is limited.” 45 Where Barthes pulls back the curtain of meaning, Scholes climbs onto the stage and begins speaking new parts. He models worthy thought experiments, but his readings often bear little relation to the texts they endeavor to explain. In true deconstructive fashion, the ‘meaning’ Scholes identifies—using methods he foresaw as the basis of the study of English—arises from the reader, not the writer. Would this let the writer, freed of semiotic responsibility, off the hook?
It’s not hard to guess what Madeleine, and her author Eugenides, might have answered. Eugenides, who graduated from Brown in 1982, staked a position as far from Semiotics as an English student could muster, majoring in the department’s honors program, which covered “the entire English literary tradition” beginning with Beowulf. He was drawn to the “old-fashioned goals or traits of novels,” to the very “power of storytelling” in which “the postmodernists don’t all believe.” 46 Madeleine’s qualms appear to ventriloquize many of Eugenides’s own.
Both student and author lost that fight: Semiotics swept Brown quickly, and it never lost ground. It was seemingly overnight, one professor emeritus recalls, that throngs of students smoking cigarettes and talking about ‘signifiers’ and ‘signifieds’ came to dominate English classrooms. Not everyone was enamored of the new clique, and questions arose whether Eugenides’s “lit-crit elite” embraced Semiotics 211 (or, in real life, Semiotics 66) for reasons more aesthetic than intellectual. Eugenides’s narrator describes the young semioticians as “upper-middle-class kids who wore Doc Martens and anarchist symbols.” They sought rebellion, and “Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution.”
But was the revolution only skin deep? As early as 1983, the critic Terry Eagleton began to warn of deconstruction’s “utterly conservative” attributes. 47 Barthes’s linguistically precise and politically incisive criticism had mutated into something far murkier. Now deconstruction, elusive by nature, relativist to its core, began to invite accusations of political evasion. There was no small irony in this, for so many of the field’s practitioners saw themselves as radicals. Scholes, after all, was fighting the “essentially conservative […] process of canonization.” 48 Fingers pointed in every direction, with both tradition and intervention derided as regressive: who, exactly, were the real conservatives?
Eagleton had a clear answer, and he gladly laid blow after blow upon the deconstructionists. Here were theorists, he wrote, so “[m]ischievously radical in respect of everyone else’s opinions,” so happy to “unmask the most solemn declarations as mere disheveled plays of signs,” but entirely resistant to any affirmative notions of truth, certainty, or meaning. 49 Here were theorists who brushed away “famines, revolutions, soccer matches and sherry trifle as yet more undecidable ‘text.’” 50 For a Marxist critic like Eagleton, this slipperiness vaporized any political possibility: more than intellectually frustrating, deconstruction was positively counterrevolutionary. Its apparent radicalism was “as injurious as blank ammunition.” 51
Frederic Jameson, another Marxist critic, surveyed the fruits of deconstruction eight years later. “The former work of art,” he observed, “has now turned out to be a text.” 52 Was there a touch of disappointment in his voice? All around us now were “texts infused with the forms, categories, and contents” of the once-derided “culture industry.” 53 Jameson was no polemicist—he “reject[ed] moralizing condemnations of the postmodern and of its essential triviality”—but his criticisms were still biting. 54 Much of the new art, he wrote, not only “replicate[s] the logic of late capitalism” but even “reinforces and intensifies it.” 55 Politically-engaged writers and critics who hoped to “intervene in history” were out of luck, for these slippery new forms had “effectively abolishe[d] any practical sense of the future.” 56
The parallel critiques of Jameson and Eagleton do some damage to the binary model of literature (canon, hierarchical, conservative) against text (universal, wide-ranging, democratic). Scholes’s marrying of political ideal and critical movement loses legitimacy if that critical movement comes attached to its own jaded, apolitical relativism. As the methods of deconstruction came under attack, so did its curricula and its scholars. Eagleton worried aloud about a “new generation of literary students and theorists” who were “fascinated by sexuality but bored by social class, enthused by popular culture but ignorant of labor history.” 57
Those fears proved pertinent. Department renegades could only rock the boat so much: syllabi have diversified over the past forty years, but any parallel democratization in matriculation has been anemic. Many students have good reason to avoid talk of social class, for introspection risks revealing some ugly truths. Still Brown and Yale admit more students from the economic 1% than the bottom 60%, and their post-structuralist cousin Johns Hopkins is barely better. 58 Still race and wealth play a part in nearly every aspect of the college admission process. 59 Still fiercely jealous of their endowments, few elite schools demonstrate any serious interest in curtailing legacy admissions, which all but ingrain the socioeconomic stratification of the student body. Resistant to structural change, universities settled for pedagogical change. It was “much easier,” Guillory notes, “to make the canon representative than the university.” 60
The new tools ended up in the same old hands. At Brown, Semiotics quickly began to garner a reputation as a refuge for the privileged. Writing for the Boston Globe, the author Paul Greenberg noted the irony of the discipline designed for “‘interrogating the ideological assumptions of bourgeois pleasure’” turning into a “bourgeois pleasure all its own.” 61 Greenberg quoted the novelist Samantha Gillison, who remembered 1980s Semiotics as a “self-contained puzzle for super-smart, super-rich kids.” Little had changed by 2013, when the writer Sabrina Imbler penned their own report on the program, referencing a campus-wide assumption that “income level” helped determine Semiotics’ enrollees. Imbler highlighted the department’s “infamous […] tendency to play fast and loose with lexicography,” noting seminar cipher such as “originary,” “reaestheticizes,” and “structuration.” 62 In defense of the jargon, a faculty member blamed “theory so dense and difficult to communicate that we have to create our own words.” Scholes had always wanted “theory as the disciplinary core” of his new program. 63 But with classrooms of pricey students speaking department dialect, had the new discipline of textuality only reinforced the problem it was designed to solve?
Everything Is Copy
The elitist evolution of Semiotics is an unfortunate irony, but it would be unfair to hold the discipline responsible for the inequities of the university system at large. Tossed through the clerestory windows of the ivory tower, egalitarian goals rarely reach the ground in one piece. The deconstructionists, like adherents of twelve-step programs the world over, accepted the things they could not change, and changed the things they could. “Unable to break the structures of state power,” Eagleton observed, “post-structuralism found it possible instead to subvert the structures of language.” 64
It’s this linguistic turn—and the semioticians’ subsequent impact upon methods of reading and writing—which is most germane for criticism, and whose cultural resonance is worth examining today. The principles of Deconstruction and Semiotics trace into contemporary theory, but they also bleed into creative forms. The formal logic of both the ‘decentered’ text and an abundant ‘literariness’ reveals itself regularly in novelistic and essayistic writing today.
Rudely contrary to Scholes’s ideals, the principles of deconstructive textualism can be twisted to justify navel-gazing, to enable an uncritical and apolitical solipsism. Eagleton, in his concerns about students who prefer “sexuality” and “popular culture,” hints toward this issue. The premise that everything is text—and that all text is literary—is sometimes confused with the principle that everything said, uttered, or experienced, is literary grist, material worth recounting. In these moments, the raw data of the self—what Ben Lerner has termed the “undifferentiated mass of experience”—is abandoned upon the page, unchecked by interrogation or organization. 65
But those processes are important. “The writer,” Italo Calvino once wrote, “tears himself to pieces in order to liberate his neighbor.” 66 That aphorism might serve as a rubric for evaluating the confessional, minutia-focused writing prevalent since the personal essay boom of the early 2000s. Both parts of Calvino’s refrain need to be fulfilled: there must be that ‘tearing,’ a true introspection and self-examination, and there must also be that gesture towards another’s liberation, the fundamental generosity in the work of any one human writing for another.
The tenets of textualism can derail this process, permitting the accumulation of detail and event without reflection or differentiation. They can also hinder a writer’s means of ordering and organization. Post-structuralism, so preoccupied with simultaneity, bored by any textual center or origin, resists delineations of past, present, or future. 67 Given the choice between time and space, Jameson argues, the textualists and the postmodernists chose space, embracing a “weakening of historicity.” 68 That carried artistic consequences. If, Jameson wonders, “the subject has lost its capacity […] to organize its past and future into coherent experience,” how could “the cultural productions of such a subject result in anything but ‘heaps of fragments’”? 69 Without temporality to unify and to organize, writers and their readers are condemned to “the randomly heterogeneous,” literary prisoners of the “fragmentary and the aleatory.” 70
Writers of Modern Life
Those are apt adjectives for the Alt-Lit movement, which over two decades has taken the political and aesthetic logic of textualism and run with it. First formed by a loose coterie of online writers, Alternative Literature was initially defined by its opposition to the literary mainstream. 71 Its authors tended towards the autobiographical and the aberrant, their internet origins shaping both the form and content of their work. There were no publishers involved, so there would be no word counts, no restrictions on imagery, and no bowdlerizing; the audience comprised fellow bloggers, so stories would take place in the worlds of Myspace, Tumblr, and AIM. This was writing by those online, of those online, for those online. It’s worth underscoring, in this context, that the internet—with its constant interplay of origin and reference, its inherent anonymity, its destabilization of authorship, and its center-less structure—might well be considered society’s grandest experiment in textuality.
Alt-Lit’s oppositional quality faded, and in recent years its members have influenced and joined the literary mainstream. The movement’s writers continue to avoid the trappings of literary style, preferring spare, vernacular, blog-like prose, which they often justify using the same egalitarian refrains as the textualists (nothing makes the narrator of Sean Thor Conroe’s 2022 debut, Fuccboi, angrier than ideas of the “literary” and “literature”). 72
Alt-Lit’s critical darling—and easily its most successful practitioner—is the novelist Tao Lin. Lin’s second novel, Richard Yates, typifies the genre’s style, enshrining the fragmentary and the aleatory. In Yates, an autobiographical account of a twenty two year-old’s romance with a sixteen year-old, Lin strives to include nearly every trivial utterance and gesture between his two protagonists. Allergic to aesthetic deviation and indifferent to differentiation, Lin writes like a Stasi spy conducting his nightly surveillance:
Wednesday night Haley Joel Osmont sat on his bed playing drums with his hands on his thighs. He stood and moved things. He sat on his bed. He looked at his cell phone. He walked into the bathroom and closed the door. He looked at his head and face from different angles in the mirror. He photographed himself a few times with his cell phone. He looked at the photos. He sent one to Dakota Fanning. He went to Penn Station.
The very vagueness of Lin’s descriptions (Haley “moved things”; later an aunt “said something”) seems almost to taunt a reader. What things? What did the aunt say? All this is lost to the haze of narrative indifference: details are important enough to warrant inclusion, but too inconsequential to merit elaboration. It’s not hard to guess at Lin’s intention (linguistic mimesis, anhedonia’s bored shrug made literal), but after two hundred pages, the experiment can feel stale. Lin’s prose style is similarly listless: nearly all of Yates is penned in the simple past, with few adjectives and fewer adverbs. No character’s countenance is ever described more elaborately than as a “sad,” “neutral,” or “angry facial expression,” a formal choice which Lin makes more than thirty times. Often the novel embodies a problem James Wood identified in the work of the ‘hysterical realists.’ “The existence of vitality,” Wood observed, “is mistaken for the drama of vitality.” 73
Still, Yates is instructive, because the novel doesn’t fail so much as realize a flawed goal. Lin is here to record experience, not to organize or interrogate it. His novel exemplifies Alt-Lit’s house style, refreshing a textualist principle: now no detail is so trivial as to be outside the bounds of narrative. The deconstructive dictum is drawn out to its extreme: no narrative center, no organizing temporality, no hierarchy of contents (differentiation), and no hierarchy of forms (style). People say things, wearing facial expressions.
The textualist permission slip for unexamined, undifferentiated experience goes beyond Alt-Lit. Essays and memoirs—any writings of the self—risk falling into the same trap. There’s a pop culture case study in the writer Caroline Calloway, who won a $375,000 advance from Flatiron to produce a book based on her ‘essayistic’ Instagram captions, which chronicled her travels, romances, and crises. 74 Every moment, Calloway seemed to feel, was significant enough to record, with little need for retrospection or analysis. Her captions were, depending on your point of view, either raw and visceral ‘visual memoirs,’ or “disjointed,” “myopic,” and “uninteresting” ramblings. 75 Calloway, according to her co-writer Natalie Beach, specialized in “memoir without the act of remembering”—recitation, in other words, without interpretation or interrogation. 76 Some balked at Calloway’s confidence: why pretend these diaristic posts were literary? But a textualist might flip the question on its head: why shouldn’t they be literary?
Calloway might seem a far cry from Semiotics, but the rationale for her literary project came straight from the academy. Her captions, Beach once argued, “collaps[ed] the distance between writer and reader and critic.” 77 Beach smiled at this remark later, but the theoretical influence is striking: deconstructive textualism works to remove that very divide, focusing on the ‘tissue of signs’ at play; it disregards who writes the text, who reads the text, and the medium the text takes. Calloway’s project wanted—needed—that “‘textualist’ euphoria which,” the critic Christopher Norris once observed, “merges [writing] and commentary in an endless exchange of productive signification.” 78 Then could something be read from nothing.
The Nick of Time
The textualist euphoria may have opened the door to a lot of banal, solipsistic writing, but some authors still chronicle the quotidian exceptionally well. Skilled practitioners of the form—writers like Annie Ernaux, Emmanuel Carrère, Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner, and Karl Ove Knausgård—regularly tear themselves apart and regularly liberate their neighbors. The power of their work often has to do with that winnowing, organizing, and ordering of experience—which is to say it has to do with time. “Personal identity,” Jameson writes, “is itself the effect of a certain temporal unification of past and future with one’s present.” 79 That’s an apt description of the literary projects of writers like Ernaux and Knausgård, who—while linked to Lin and Conroe by the umbrella genre of autofiction—write from the literary obverse of the Alt-Lit coin. 80
Ernaux, whether in exacting character studies like A Woman’s Story or wide-ranging meditations like The Years, examines the braid of personal experience and collective history which shapes our identities at any given moment. What interests her is time itself, “the time that has coursed through her, the world she recorded merely by living.” The Years focuses on the fragile, unsteady relationship between ‘personal’ and ‘historical’ time, which Ernaux illustrates by “assembl[ing] these multiple images of herself, separate and discordant,” then “thread[ing] them together with the story of her existence.” Discrete images and remembrances accumulate, and Ernaux’s sketches gain color, her characters becoming whole. Yet each individual is framed against the backdrop of the collective, small beneath the specter of history and social change.
This history acts upon Ernaux’s protagonists, but it never envelops them. People, Ernaux suggests, are never wholly ‘products of their time’: history may brush, scratch, and scuff its subjects, but it does not determine their interior lives. Ernaux endeavors “to make the fresco of forty-five years coincide with the search for a self outside of History,” and this is precisely what The Years accomplishes. The slim volume reveals a writer acutely concerned with the progression of time, who orders experience and privileges historicity, endlessly searching for the connective tissue between our present selves and the past which becomes us.
Knausgård is similarly interested in the generative powers of the past. So interested, even, that his six-volume My Struggle series relies upon the audacious premise that every memory and recollection he details, from infancy through adulthood, remains contained within, and might even still act upon, the author hunched at his desk today. This is temporal unification at its most extreme: past perpetually acting upon present, present perpetually acting upon past. A poignant interlude in Book One demonstrates the technique: Knausgård finds his brother, Yngve, on the porch of their grandmother’s house, sitting with “a glass of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other.” From this image, Knausgård interrupts his narrative’s forward progress for twenty-four pages, flickering through a series of memories which reveal an admiring younger brother slowly recognizing his idol's imperfection. Eventually, Knausgård shows the two men resigned to the studied indifference of so many adult siblings: today they "rarely looked each other in the eye.” In these pages the synchronic stalls, shot through by the diachronic, as recollection halts the narrative's advance. “All of this,” Knausgård writes at the end of his sojourn, “existed inside me as we stood there on the veranda.” 81 The effect, as the chapter resumes, is mesmeric. One way of reading My Struggle is as an attempt to convey this history—all that which existed inside a man. Knausgård’s memories, like Ernaux’s, comprise active ingredients of the narrative present: they make up a life organized and refined, experience sorted and structured. Temporality is central to each writer’s literary project—and though detail abounds, no breath is ever aleatory. 82
The writer’s task, argued James Baldwin, is “to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.” 83 Baldwin agreed with Baudelaire, who contended the writer must “order the mass of raw material […] involuntarily accumulated.” 84 Jameson’s notion of ‘organization’ echoes the same point, as does Coleridge’s neologism of the writer’s “esemplastic power,” that ability to unify discrete ideas and experiences into one whole. There are hierarchies in these remarks, distinctions between writing which is literal, mere record, and writing which is literary, an attempt to wrangle the raw material of being into precarious coherence. But maybe some hierarchies are worth keeping. 85
What the Alt-Literati and everything-goes essayists often lack is this act of interpretation, this ordering too easily skipped. Raw data is not narrative, and the literariness in every text does not make every text literary. The text without center or origin is an exciting theoretical experiment, but it’s difficult for a work without unity to achieve what William Gass once termed that ‘exquisite consciousness’ of life itself. 86 What we get more often is the sheer accumulation of experience, the stacking of sensation without the interrogation of it. For the reader trudging through, that can feel more like arrogance than artistry.
Does blame for all this lie at the cigarette-laden steps of the Semiotics department? Not exactly: intellectual history is rarely so causal, and few novelists will turn to Scholes in their acknowledgements. But a writer need not major in Semiotics to embrace the ideas which originated in the field. The textualists’ core principles—the abundance of literariness, the narrative power of the trivial, the dead author, the boundless excavation of meaning, the rejection of hierarchies of content or style—have become prominent, canonized in their own right. They’ve left an impact on the way books are written and read, and they’ve shifted what we expect from a narrative. Meanwhile, the class hierarchies of the university have remained largely unchecked. The more important half of the revolution – the democratization of English, its tall wooden doors finally flung open – has so far proved chimeric. Perhaps, as Scholes once worried, there is a such thing as too far.
Next from this Volume
in conversation with Nolan Kelly in conversation with Nolan Kelly
“I think the hardest thing as an artist is to find form for your questions.”