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Part III: Is American Fiction a Prop for Neoliberal Ideology?

06/19/2015 03:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2016

Read Part I here, and Part II here.

If we take apart the motivations and rationales and biographies of some of the leading exponents of plastic realism, we find that their official personas match the ideal neoliberal subject being constituted in their works.

Jonathan Franzen's crotchety pronouncements on popular culture and technological developments in his essays, Dave Eggers's self-presentation as creative writing philanthropist who long ago overcame his initial outburst of irony, and Jhumpa Lahiri's bland indifference to any matter affecting the lives of real South Asian immigrants, all offer a seamless continuity between the author and his or her characters, so that we're meant to see one as a reflection of the other.

Whenever there is a gap between the author and his creations, the reader has room for interpretation (which may lead to politically troublesome conclusions), but to eliminate this gap, by way of consistency in the author persona across the board, is to short-circuit the reader's presence and involvement in the text's meaning.

Dissenting models of authorship have little chance of success amidst the hegemony being enforced.

We have already seen how dissidence is domesticated by the avant-garde independent press, directed toward channels running parallel to established formations of professional acceptance and success, but the same tendency operates with regard to the literary energies emanating from other cultures and from minority cultures not yet fully assimilated or deradicalized within the United States.

A recent example of prolific angst in this regard is the response to Salman Rushdie's memoir of his years in hiding, Joseph Anton, where certain reviewers couldn't abide by Rushdie's outsized persona breaking the rules of authorship at every turn, not knowing when to shut up and be like other producers and consumers of fiction.

In neoliberalism, consumers (replacing citizens) are infinitely free but ultimately non-entities--replaceable, substitutable, interchangeable; neoliberal democracy is a democracy of technical means toward material ends, with inviolable paths of transmission. When an author tries to become visible outside the depoliticized channels of creation and reception, he becomes a profound danger to the circuits of privilege, and his presence can no longer be valorized.

The gatekeepers of hegemony reinterpret divergent tendencies in literature from other countries in terms suited to the neoliberal orthodoxy.

There exists a stubborn belief in meritocratic multiculturalism that has little relationship to the actual difficulties of assimilation and recognition faced by less-skilled members of immigrant or ethnic communities.

There is also a perpetual belief in American exceptionalism, in all its various formulations, which is really the ultimate project of today's media empires.

In The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach constructs a paradisial liberal arts college--Westish College in Wisconsin--which substitutes for the ideal American polity under a neoliberal vision. Here, in a tour de force of doctrinal innocence (which buttresses exceptionalism), Harbach's discourse normalizes the production of surplus emotion, the meritocratic origins of extraordinary leadership, the openness of the American dream to every deserving group, the secondariness of intellectuality in every field of endeavor (particularly intellectual fields), and the assimilation of eroticism under neoliberal auspices of work and play.

Successful American writers--or rather, their represented personas--are highly privileged creatures in the global media landscape, as long as they pay back the dues of privilege. Social media has only amplified the singularity of consciousness so that the neoliberal author persona, bending to the will of the marketplace, is the only prescribed model.

Regionalism, localism, and place-oriented eccentricity are everywhere being stamped out under neoliberal political economy, and the same is true in literary culture. A uniform figure of the author--who is in fact utterly mediated and devalued by market considerations--reigns supreme, in whose image authors around the world must be made over.

The avant-garde author, taking cues from David Foster Wallace or George Saunders, wears his own suit of conformity, offering his wares to interested parties, always taking care not to pose a political threat; the existing institutions have made more than enough room for his security and well-being, and it is understood by all that a little linguistic adventurism does not a political radical make. In fact, so shallow is avant-garde writing in the early years of the twenty-first century that it actually buttresses the usual straightforward orientation of plastic realism, the legitimacy of both increased by way of mutual reinforcement.

We might trace this connection in the various imitators of Saunders that have sprung up, how they further domesticate Saunders's already domesticated "innovative" fiction, the publishing industry quite happy to burnish its high-culture credentials in that form of symbiosis.

Jonathan Safran Foer would be a paradigmatic illustration of these converging tendencies, all of which enclose the ideal neoliberal subject within structures of reality that are familiar from the media landscape. The explanation of political events--9/11 and its aftermath, for instance, or since then the economic collapse--is a given, taken directly from official media; one enters this landscape already knowing the beginning and end of the political game, though characters may spend some time in the playground of emotions.

Plastic realism makes it a point to delete areas of divergence between the ambiance of the novels in question and the audience's presuppositions about the lifestyles of the authors; as noted earlier, Lahiri's indifference to marginal immigrants or Franzen's self-presentation as passionate bird-watcher and population control enthusiast are of a piece with the atmosphere of their texts.

What kind of persona gets to be privileged enough to create such culturally successful texts? That seems to be the only concern of book tours and craft panels and award ceremonies. The true subject of plastic realism is really the class distinctions of the privileged minority relative to all others, both domestically and globally, so the new media and the supporting MFA culture are always keen to fortify this point.

Plastic realism, to be clear, addresses only the conditions of its own making, which is true to a large extent of all the major American fiction of the last decade.

At this point we can hazard some conjectures about the future of literary fiction in this country.

In what directions might we speculate plastic realism to proceed? Will there come a point when its framework will become so arbitrary that the structure will collapse? Or can the tendency be extended indefinitely? I suggest that as long as neoliberalism continues as a viable project, this is the only form American--and increasingly other English-language--writing can take.

The structure can be endlessly refined, and the integration of the "writer" as an academic employee will only continue apace, with America setting the example for other countries to follow in terms of creative production.

As plastic realism continues its ascendancy, modernism and postmodernism will both, in retrospect, assume increasing aspects of antiquity--curiosities for their own sake.

The canon will be remade to emphasize the traditional Victorian/moralist tendencies in the literature of the last hundred years, and theorists in literature departments--who after all know which side their bread is buttered on--will pay increasing respect to the barely literate product of the likes of Michael Chabon and Foer.

The line between so-called literary fiction and genre fiction should dramatically collapse in the coming years, as the younger MFA generation fully comes into its own. Already, Jonathan Lethem, Chabon, Foer, Karen Russell, and others borrow from established genres to lend a populist gloss to their fiction, but in order for the author to further project his persona as neoliberal market entrepreneur, this project will only gather speed.

The British or Australian or Canadian--and even, unfortunately, the Indian--novel will come to resemble the American novel more and more.

Technological possibilities will democratize the production and distribution of literary fiction in the direction of greater plasticity, rather than local/regional/unbrokered authenticity; this will be one of the more saddening paradoxes of technological innovation.

Plastic realism already has a deep connection to confessionalist memoir--the dominant literary manifestation of our time--and this connection will only intensify in the service of the constitution of the neoliberal subject, who must forever admit his shortcomings to the all-knowing deterritorialized state/power/collectivity.

To examine oneself in the mirror of plastic reality--not the reality of everyday life--will lead to a certain intensification of pasteurized (or processed) melancholia.

Plastic realism will fail to recognize itself as a dead-end. The end of reading--because the writer will have become a caged functionary in omniscient control of his freedom--will come unannounced, and it will be heralded as the pure victory of democracy.

In short plastic realism is anything but realism of the kind we have known through modern literary history.

It is a variety of postmodern retrogression masquerading as something completely other than its real substance, wearing convenient armatures of dissemblance, because to present itself as the pure artifice that it is, a cloistered conversation in textual harmony only with immediate predecessors, would harm the reputation of the literary industry.

With various degrees of cynicism insiders understand the nature of the project, they get its ideological necessities and discursive constraints, but by now institutional limitations have become so finely tuned that resistance is futile--or actually unimaginable.

This parody of realism likes to imagine itself as being in tune with American reality, but it is actually classless (because the very idea of classes fighting it out in the context of real economic struggle is verboten in this discourse), restricted to textuality, and overtly conscious of its means of presentation (and that of the presentation of the authors animating the writing).

If ever a literary style was more at odds with its self-presentation, then this is it. It cannot even name its own regime, and the incorporation of mainstream criticism within the same matrices of influence and cross-breeding has made it immune to widespread public exposure.

Plastic realism is nostalgic, reactionary, willfully inverted to the extent that its producers succumb to the collectivized impetus for fiction-making, collaborating in the construction of a false identity of the author (amateur charisma) that has little connection to the real conditions of literary production.

Plastic realism is a big lie, even as the liars formulating it have cornered the market on authenticity.

Anis Shivani's recent books include Karachi Raj, The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, and Anatolia and Other Stories. Forthcoming books include Soraya: Sonnets, Literature in an Age of Globalization, and Plastic Realism: The New Style in American Fiction, based on the ideas set forth in this essay.

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