In the summer of this year (2010), a critic of some standing (and with over 25 books under his belt) suddenly seemed to cause a silly season media storm for saying in his latest book what he’d said in all his previous ones, and what he’d dedicated a lifetime to articulating. The academic in question is Gabriel Josipovici, the controversial book was What Ever Happened to Modernism?. In it, Josipovici argued that modernism wasn’t confined to the period of Official Modernism at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, that literary art always needs honestly to face modernism’s perennial questions, and that many of today’s most vaunted writers of literary fiction are woefully overrated. I couldn’t agree more strongly with Josipovici in his overall analysis. The media was less convinced. What it particularly seemed to find galling was that an “unknown” academic had the nerve to tell writers how they should write, and implicitly accuse literary journalists of not realising that their novel-writing emperors were inadvertently wandering around without any pants. What, they growled, did a dusty academic really know about fiction?
The question is idiotic, of course. Critics of all forms of art don’t have to be practitioners to have useful things to say; indeed, if that was the case, none of us would be allowed to respond to anything. Whatever your view of, say, Brian Sewell, I think we can all agree that he probably can’t paint as well as Rubens! The bile directed at Josipovici was yet more idiotic because, firstly, he was not in any way unknown — countless books, a longstanding contributor for the TLS, JQ etc, and a regular reviewer in the Irish papers to boot. Secondly, and arguably more important, he too is a writer of fiction! Josipovici, it turns out, is a practitioner of some considerable note, with 13 or so books of fiction published over the last few decades. What we have here, then, is precisely the kind of critic the media so often call for: one who really knows what he is talking about, and from the inside.
It is true, however, that Josipivoci is, as a novelist, comparatively unsung (he did win the Somerset Maugham Awards back in 1975). This is a real shame. Whilst his critical work is peerless, it feeds into and comes out of his work as a practitioner. A subject close to Josipovici’s heart is that of authority. In short, artists from the dawn of time worked as craftsfolk within a tradition. When tradition began to splinter — and it is ever-splintering, so choose your own moment of Fall — artists had to ask themselves: who/what gives me the authority to speak, to write, to paint. Rabelais and Sterne asked this of themselves when, no longer community storytellers, they knew that the printed book would see their words take wings and reach a much wider audience than ever before: but what of their responsibility to their ‘audience’, now unknown, now so detached from direct contact with them? A connection had been broken in this brave new world. TS Eliot felt the same lack of connection to a world in pieces after WW1. Why should someone listen to Prufrock’s woes?
Art without authority forces the question of the responsibility for art back onto the artist. Why am I saying this? To whom? What right do I have? These questions can’t be answered archly. These aren’t the ingredients for postmodern insouciance. But they are the questions that serious literary artists have to know hang in the air as they write. Of course, heavy questions don’t always need earnest answers. Josipovici is a delighfully light, funny and engaging fiction writer. A comedian in the fullest sense: intelligent, knowing, sly. As he punctures others’ pomposity, he also laughs at himself. His critical bombshell, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, landed earlier this year, but it followed last year’s novellas After & Making Mistakes (published together in one beautiful volume by Carcanet Press) and is followed this autumn by two more books. Hearts Wings and Other Stories collects together a lifetime’s worth of short fiction; Only Joking (CB Editions) shows the author at his comic best.
So, Josipovici the critic is someone I’d say you really must read if you want to think carefully about what writing fiction means, but Josipovici the novelist is someone you must read to know what delightful, considered, modern writing actually is.