WHO, THESE DAYS, is the queen of the genres? This is a question we’ve been asking for centuries; in 1798, Friedrich Schlegel defined Romantic poetry as “a progressive, universal poetry” and claimed that
[i]t alone can become, like the epic, a mirror of the whole circumambient world, an image of the age. And it can also — more than any other form — hover at the midpoint between the portrayed and the portrayer, free of all real and ideal self-interest, on the wings of poetic reflection, and can raise that reflection again and again to a higher power, can multiply it in an endless succession of mirrors. […] It alone is infinite, just as it alone is free; and it recognizes as its first commandment that the will of the poet can tolerate no law above itself.
The romantic kind of poetry is the only one that is more than a kind, that is, as it were, poetry itself: for in a sense all poetry is or should be romantic.
Ever since Schlegel first floated the idea of a kind of literature “that is more than a kind,” and that was uniquely suited to provide “an image of the age” — that could contain, treat, annotate, react to, and converse with everything and anything in heaven or in earth — a lot of our most energetic literary history has been the history of searching for a literary form that's truly good enough. If literature is to be our most profound, fullest expression of what life is — and, really, who can ask for less, once the Romantics put this option on the table? — then, to be adequate, a work of literature must be omnivorous, ubiquitous, eternally awake. A literary work that's good enough to pass the Schlegel test would have to resonate at every frequency, extend along every dimension life can move in, and know how to talk back in every language you can talk at it. A literary form that's good enough is any form that wouldn't fuck this up before you even started: a form that is sufficient not just for something, but for everything.
For a while — for some people — the search for such a sufficient form ended with the modern novel. For the great early twentieth century critic Mikhail Bakhtin, the novel was literature's apotheosis and apocalypse:
The utter inadequacy of literary theory is exposed when it is forced to deal with the novel. [...] The novel parodies other genres (precisely in their role as genres); it exposes the conventionality of their forms and their language; it squeezes out some genres and incorporates others into its own peculiar structure, reformulating and re-accentuating them.
But the ultimate adequacy of the novel has turned out a temporary, fragile thing — too fragile for the ravages of the twenty-first century, with its sprawling globalized cities and loosely defined wars and endless Internet. After having bulked itself up with the mega-novels of modernism (Joyce’s Ulysses, Musil’s Man Without Qualities, Pynchon's Gravity’s Rainbow) in order to face the challenge of the last century, fiction now seems content to be just one form among many, and not the be-all and end-all.
Against Expression — a recent anthology summating the vast tide of recent writers practicing “conceptual poetics,” a literature that explores the aesthetic pot...read more