Novel Feelings: Rachel Greenwald Smith on Emotion and US Fiction

Here at Central Library we’ve recently received our copy of Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism, the first book by Rachel Greenwald Smith, an assistant professor at St. Louis University. It was published by the prestigious Cambridge University Press this past spring. The title is a mouthful, printed in caps on the funereal all-black jacket, but don’t let that fool you: from what I’ve read so far, this looks to be a compelling and accessible work that explores a fascinating topic: the nature of the feelings that literature evokes, and how those feelings relate to the political and natural climates around us.

Woman_reading,_1930s

(Woman Reading, c. 1930. Seattle Municipal Archives)

The book has a provocative thesis: Greenwald Smith builds an argument against what she calls the “affective hypothesis,” namely the idea that we read fiction because it allows us to identify with the personal experience of other individual human beings — the basic trope of “sympathizing with characters” — a process that makes us more empathetic, and teaches us how to become better individuals ourselves.

(It has been interesting to read parts of Affect and American Lit alongside Robert Silverberg’s 1972 novel Dying Inside, which chronicles the erosion of a telepath’s powers. Protagonist David Selig’s telepathy is an obvious metaphor for fictional creation, but the book finds those powers failing: a midlife crisis novel with a supernatural glow, and one that acknowledges the limits of fiction.)

My first contact with Greenwald Smith’s work was her brilliant essay “Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics.”  In it she presented a portrait of the contemporary fiction scene that feels intuitively right to me: one in which the disruptive postmodern aesthetics of the 1960s and 70s have been fused with the more traditional, linear, character-based forms favored by commercial publishers and many MFA programs.  Avant-garde techniques (once associated with the radical left’s critique of mainstream society) are still deployed by many prominent writers for stylistic or thematic purposes, but fused with more traditional elements, such as intimate characterization and linear narration, to make the work more palatable and marketable.

“Compromise Aesthetics” uses Rachel Kushner as its main example, although one could include any number of current writers under this label, for example Ben Marcus’s recent novel The Flame Alphabet, which adopted the experimental language play of his early work (as a corrosive language virus) in the service of a thriller-like plot. I certainly think of my own fiction writing as these terms, hoping to appeal to adventurous, intellectual readers without alienating others who are strongly drawn to character and narrative. The idea of “compromise aesthetics” could also be helpfully applied to the collapse of the distinction between literary and genre fiction among 21st century writers: I hope that Greenwald Smith will explore this in her new book, an expansion on the ideas laid out in this essay.

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These kinds of compromises seem inevitable in what Greenwald Smith calls the neoliberal era, when market values have seeped into every aspect of our lives, and the individual is encouraged to think of herself as a corporation of one (and a novelist files as a small business on his taxes). Affect and American Lit shows how a novel like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections adopts these economic metaphors for emotional life, so that one of the characters, Gary Lambert, tracks his own feelings as if they were stock indicators.

This brings to mind how the language of economics permeates the writing workshop, as we talk about scenes being “earned,” becoming “invested” in characters, the “payoff” of a climactic scene. Even the notions of “growth” and “development” in characters start to have a Morgan Stanley ring after you’ve spent a while with Greenwald Smith’s book. Literary character, conventionally defined, reflects and reinforces the economic structures around us. In this model the reader also approaches the text as a consumer, seeking pleasure, satisfaction, value, takeaway.

Greenwald Smith persuasively argues that there are other, stranger feelings that literature can evoke in us, feelings that we haven’t yet named, which might help us to re-conceive our relations to each other and the nonhuman parts of the environment around us. She gives a striking example: the grieving protagonist of Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions playing with his dead children’s Legos. The image is emotional, but in an unclear way, and with a undercurrent of queasiness. We don’t quite know how to label this feeling or where to store it. Greenwald Smith seeks out these “impersonal feelings” or “ugly feelings” in a number of contemporary works such as Ben Marcus’s bizarre and disorienting, but also rigorous and logical, story collection The Age of Wire and String.

It strikes me as a hopeful project: this study of mixed modes and genres, and the ways that literature performs emotion in unexpected ways that unsettles us. In this sense Greenwald Smith descends from radical literary thinkers such as Victor Shklovsky and Berthold Brecht. Her ideas are similar to Shklovsky’s concept of “defamiliarization” which has been tossed around in fiction writing circles for a while, but Greenwald Smith looks to restore its political edge: the underlying sense that the world has not been fully documented and understood, that our familial and cultural systems are still mutable, and that written language can still expand to depict emotional states for which we haven’t yet found the names. For truly novel feelings, which “index the possibility of change itself.” To evoke such feelings and perceptions is, I think, the ambition of the fiction writers I most respect. My college days are over, but I kind of wish I could take Greenwald Smith’s class at SLU, because she offers here a rich and invigorating framework to talk about what literature does to us, and where it might go next.

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About eplundgren

Adult Services Provider and coordinator of the STL Scribblers group at Central Library in St. Louis, MO.
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