AUGUST 10, 2014
IN THE COURSE of this essay, I want to examine Geoff Dyer and his relationship with the academic establishment. The aforementioned relationship, I will go on to argue, has heretofore been an uneasy one, but the occurrence of a significant, apparently paradoxical event has provided the ideal research opportunity with which to conduct said examination. As I will reveal, this event — the organization of an academic conference in his honor — lays bare the manifest tensions in his work between a hostility to what he considers deadening academic analysis and a profound desire to get closer to his subject. The organization of my essay is as follows.
I cannot blame you if you have stopped reading by now; Geoff Dyer certainly would have. To Dyer, this kind of prose — with its pathological signposting and life-sucking verbosity — exemplifies all that is wrong with the academic world. In a 2011 New York Times column, he eviscerates a work of criticism for precisely these reasons: the art historian Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, whose long-windedness trickles down from its title.
But it is in 1998’s Out of Sheer Rage that Dyer truly gets his knives out. The book describes his failed attempts to write a scholarly study of D. H. Lawrence. As he drudges through a Longman Critical Reader on the author, he finds himself increasingly angered by its contents: trendy theoretical titles like “Lawrence, Foucault and the Language of Sexuality” and “Radical Indeterminacy: a post-modern Lawrence.” He wonders:
How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it? […] writing like that kills everything it touches. That is the hallmark of academic criticism: it kills everything it touches. Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch.
In Dyer’s mind, the academic conference may be the worst offender of all. He goes on to describe his horror on meeting an academic who specialises in Rainer Maria Rilke:
You don’t teach Rilke, I wanted to say, you kill Rilke! You turn him to dust and then you go off to conferences where dozens of other academic-morticians gather with the express intention of killing Rilke and turning him to dust. Then, as part of the cover-up, the conference papers are published, the dust is embalmed and before you know it literature is a vast graveyard of dust, a dustyard of graves.
What happens, then, when academic-morticians gather with the express intention of killing Geoff Dyer? On July 11, 2014, the Centre for Contemporary Literature at the University of London’s Birkbeck College presented the world’s first academic conference on the writer. The very concept seems absurd. It’s not just what Dyer has said about academia: it’s a matter of sensibility. Dyer’s mind is discursive, rangy, his style breezy and comic. Surely he is best appreciated as a raconteur, a vacation companion, than pickled in intellectual formaldehyde? What’s more, Dyer, like his literary hero John Berger, is profoundly opposed to the idea of specialization. He has described himself as a “literary and scholarly gatecrasher,” barging in uninvited on areas of expertise. His approach is that of D. H. Lawrence, who, intent on writing about Etruscan civilization, became frustrated by the academic book he hoped would help him: “Be damned to all authorities! Must take the imaginative line.”
To have any success, the conference — entitled “Colours of Memory: an International Conference on the Writing of Geoff Dyer”— would have to take this imaginative line. The dust from the conference hall would have to be cleared out. No small task — and, to raise the stakes higher, Dyer himself would be in attendance.
There were promising early signs of how the conference might channel the spirit of Dyer’s works. The call for papers, issued in January, said: “We are open to papers which, like Dyer’s writing, experiment with the established boundaries of the genre.” The conference program detailed an auspicious cross-disciplinary lineup, with speakers not just from English literature, but also from history, art history, and photography. In a particularly Dyeresque touch, the program contained an exhaustive guide to local coffee shops. (“One of Geoff’s favourites I believe!,” it said of Patisserie Valerie — though, in what was surely an oversight, it gave no details of each café’s doughnut selection.) The conference organizer, Bianca Leggett, a teaching fellow at the British campus of Indiana’s Harlaxton College, described her approach as like punk rock: “When people said to punks, ‘We hate you! You’re scum!’ they would reply, ‘Yeah! We’re scum! Bring it on!’
And yet, the doubt. Can a conference really transcend its essential conferenceness? While the program was in the main pleasingly lucid, there remained possible hints of academic prolixity: the abandoned work as a “self-reflexive text”; the “indexical yet subjective nature of photography”; literary fiction as “a textual reflection of Apollonian and Dionysian opposition.” These doubts lingered into the event itself. Down in basement lecture theater B04, it certainly felt like a conference, with its modest attendance (I counted 26 in the first session, though it improved as the day continued) and stock leitmotifs of the conference cycle (the chorus of coughs; the habitual comic twang of a computer error message).
However, when novelist and Vassar professor Amitava Kumar delivered his keynote address, it seemed that all was right with the world. From the outset, it was an impassioned rebuke of academia’s “sterile criticism.” After quoting Dyer’s invective from Out of Sheer Rage, he spurned an academic culture in which “the language of fury” had superseded the language of study; called for a creative criticism that “moves away from solemnity while achieving insight”; and even mocked the overabundance of the “speech mark” gesture, “the lingua franca of all conferences.” This was not mere playing to the gallery. The extract that Kumar read from his own book, A Matter of Rats, confirmed how he and Dyer were of one mind. In this segment, the narrator describes how a passionate poem of his, told from a mother to a son, was included in an anthology for college students. After the poem, a sensitive piece about loneliness and the inexorable strain of familial bonds, students were asked: “Explain with reference to the general status of women in our society.” “Ah,” says the narrator, “the deadening language of academia! The language of understanding instead of the confusion of loss!”
Like a well-chosen opening number, Kumar guaranteed audience goodwill — or at least, we can presume, Geoff Dyer’s goodwill. But how well would the speakers heed this call? An early finish meant that fifty minutes elapsed between the end of Kumar’s speech and the start of the conference proper — enough time for the atmosphere to cool and the conference to revert to type. And revert to type it did. Introducing his paper “Cocaine and the English,” the first speaker, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s English department, said: “I’m going to talk about the euphoric and dysphoric effects of drug use.” His talk, he said, would compare Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi with Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. “I’m going to start with Geoff Dyer,” he continued. (The signposting again.) “In Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, Dyer embraces alterity and the polymorphousness of British identity.” (Why not “variability,” or “the shifting nature of”?)
There was the possibility that this was an elaborate joke, but the tone seemed too earnest for that. It seemed that Amitava Kumar’s keynote was for nothing. It was as if Paul McCartney, after starting with “I Saw Her Standing There,” had launched straight into something from Driving Rain. As Dyer sat in the back of the theater, scribbling in his yellow notepad, one could imagine what was going on in his head.
Next up was Shreepad Joglekar, an Indian photographer and Assistant Professor at Kansas State University. The title of his paper was “Mining the Non-Fiction Work of Art.” Speech marks: what would Amitava Kumar think? But there was no talk, say, of how photography matters as art as never before; in fact, it was largely personal, concerned with his own sense of dislocation. It was the first real evidence that this conference was cut from a different mold. Joglekar, a Mumbaikar in Kansas, tried to make sense of his outsider experience using Dyer’s writings on both photography and memory and the concept of home. Accompanied by his own droll photographs — a solitary mattress in a Kansas field, a tree in Mumbai somewhat pitifully decorated — he spoke of his childhood in ’80s Mumbai and his dreams of American culture, shaped by the coffee culture of Friends and Frasier, the “immaculate and spacious interiors” of Mrs. Doubtfire and Home Alone and the one novel he had read in English, The Fountainhead. It was in the spirit of Dyer, yet firmly stamped with its own personality — auguring well for where the conference could go.
This autobiographical streak was a persistent feature of the papers. From Joglekar on, virtually all of the speakers made connections — some exhaustive, some fleeting — with their own personal experience: as a child growing up in a Suffolk village in the early ’90s; as a young man in the era of “GLC [Greater London Council] festivals and CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] posters”; as a jazz-mad student procrastinating from her dissertation. In the cases of freelance writer James Hilton and journalist Elizabeth Minkel, of The New Yorker and The Millions, these experiences were interwoven with their own discovery of Geoff Dyer’s writings. Overall, these forays into personal experience had varying degrees of success. Though never less than accomplished, it is debateable how far these reached Dyer’s levels of insight.
Anyone who has written about Geoff Dyer will have been tempted to emulate his style, particularly his tendency to digress: “I planned to write about Geoff Dyer but instead I got distracted/stoned/fell asleep.” (Of those who resist this urge, most feel obliged to describe this temptation.) However, the point of works like Out of Sheer Rage and Zona is not just that Dyer chronicles his experiences; it is that, for all of the tangents, we still at the end find ourselves closer to Lawrence, closer to Tarkovsky. Personal reminiscence alone did not necessarily make us closer to Dyer — but it was still welcome in shaping the tone. Amid the ’ism’s and ’otic’s of traditional academic papers, humanity can often be lacking — yet Dyer’s work is all flesh and bone, united by a persona that is profoundly, playfully human.
The flipside of this resolve to keep things human was a reining in of academic excess. Early hiccup aside, each speaker seemed to be observing an unspoken commandment: “Thou shalt not be up thyself.” Jonathan Gibbs, a novelist and PhD student, opened his paper on comedy in Dyer with a syllogism:
“Man is the only animal that laughs.” — William Hazlitt
“Man is the only animal that kills for sport.” — J.A. Froude
“Man is the only animal that laughs at jokes and then analyses them to death.” — Himself
The restraint on display was commendable — but there was also perhaps something slightly oppressive about this united front. Speakers were highly conscious of the smallest potential lurch into obscurity, so they often apologetically moved on as if their parents were telling them to be on their best behavior. Discussing the topic of his first political memory, historian Morgan Daniels, of Queen Mary, University of London, said: “I actually think our first political memory also marks our first awakening to dialectics … but that’s just me.” In a Q&A, when another of the speakers was asked “Can you tell us more about the labor of the negative, to use an old Hegelian term?,” he responded, to general amusement: “No, I can’t.” There’s no doubt that Dyer has his beef with academia — but this level of self-flagellation was not necessary.
There is truth in the picture that Out of Sheer Rage paints, but Dyer knows very well that it’s exaggerated. It’s easy to forget that, just after delivering his diatribe about academia “killing everything it touches,” Dyer goes on to declare this generalization “nonsense”: “Scholars live in their work too […] I withdraw [that claim] unconditionally — but I also want to let it stand, conditionally.” That said, if over-vigilance is an indemnity against any speeches like the ill-prepared lecture on Lawrence and Englishness that a delirious Dyer improvised in Denmark — “shuttling back and forth” between the three words “English,” “man,” and “writer,” “constructing something that was utterly devoid of substance, totally meaningless” — then it was an acceptable price.
At its best, the conference seemed to develop its own logic of Dyer-ness. Musing over one’s own personal discovery of Dyer was a valid form of tribute — but two papers showed defiantly how one could honor the writer while only fitfully mentioning the writer at all. Matt Harle, a PhD student studying abandoned projects, centered his talk around an abortive rock opera called Roggerio, which a friend had tasked him with reviving. He knew little about the writer, except that “he was the son of rock stars, had taken a lot of drugs, was a significant figure on the internet fiction scene and had recently killed himself.” The original text — written, unsurprisingly, in an all-night narcotic haze — was a short treatment, but was a glorious pageant of high folly, involving, among other things, sorceress-psychiatrist called Opiana who makes oxycontin in a witch cauldron and a giant bear-demon called Ursa who stands on street corners selling heroin to children. All this was punctuated with the titles of planned songs that, too, were never written (“Bug Out”; “Hippocratic Oath Up Your Ass”). The revival, naturally, never materialised — but the paper raised questions about the nature of abandoned projects. Are they “textual taxidermy”? Or are they in fact complete works, the set of notes constituting the product? Historian Morgan Daniels, meanwhile, asked the question: “What colour was the 1990s?” Maybe it was green: the rainforest green of environmentalism; the command-prompt green of burgeoning technology. Or maybe it was a mix of grey and orange, like the poster of Trainspotting: the orange of Nickelodeon; the grey of Prime Minister John Major, or the England football team’s Euro ’96 away kit? Both of these plugged into vital Dyer themes: for Harle, the act of not-writing; for Daniels, the photographic evocation of memory. But not only this, they had a bouncy idiosyncrasy, a swaggering playfulness worthy of the conference subject.
The conference subject, indeed, that was sitting at the back of the lecture theater the whole time. But while the speakers riffed on his works, Dyer was non-interventionist. He simply sat with his notepad, increasing the volume of his own writings. His only intercession, strangely appropriately, was a tangential point about Germany’s 7–1 thrashing of Brazil. With the last papers delivered, however, it was Dyer’s turn to make the closing remarks — remarks that would serve as a referendum on the conference’s success. As he rose to the podium, the mood was ambiguous: he was both the event’s raison d’être and its ultimate arbiter. What observations had he been storing up in that yellow notepad of his? Had the conference been a fitting tribute, like Out of Sheer Rage to Lawrence, or was it an enormous folly of Roggerian proportions?
As the applause died down, Dyer pronounced on the proceedings. “I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t enjoyed myself,” he said, flattered if a little baffled. But if there was one thing I have realised, he said, it was this. An expectant pause; audience inhalation. “I’m just an incredibly interesting writer.” Droll, buoyant — the audience let go a collective sigh of relief. “I know I’m speaking to you all when I say that a day isn’t nearly enough.” It was clear he enjoyed the attention, and the rarity of the occasion: “This is the only time that I’ve been in a seminar or anything like that where I have been the leading authority on the subject.” As he spoke, it became apparent how silly it was to fret over Dyer’s response. The most compelling feature of Geoff Dyer’s writings is Geoff Dyer: the amusing raconteur; the idler-intellectual; the chronic self-deprecator with a high estimation of himself. Of course this was what we would get: how could we expect anything else?