Book Notes: Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism

The full title of the book is Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism, and the author is Rachel Greenwald Smith. I’m sure everybody can guess from the title that I’m wildly enthusiastic about the book. Smith is a very good writer and a talented literary critic. She writes about the way making, reading and thinking about literature changes in the age of neoliberalism. The theoretical part is spot-on. And the evisceration of the deeply obnoxious “affective turn” in literary criticism is priceless.

The actual analysis of the novels, however, is… Let’s say it’s different from what we do in the Hispanic literary criticism. Smith contrasts novels that she decided are bad (or neoliberal) with the ones she thinks are good (or not-so-neoliberal). Problem is, I can argue that the ones she says are neoliberal are actually not and vice versa. We don’t pass this kind of value judgments in my field. We see our job as completely different from what a NYTimes book reviewer does.

But that’s not even the worst part. What really troubles me is that after reading Smith’s very good book I am most certain that I have absolutely no interest in reading any of the novels she analyzes. There’s something wrong in that. Grab any 10 novels in a bookstore completely at random, and I can guarantee I’ll want to read at least a couple. And if you remove any romance or sci-fi books from the mix and only leave what Amazon calls “literary fiction,” chances are, I’d want to read 8 out of 10.

I don’t think Smith chose a bunch of particularly horrid novels to analyze. But there’s something in the way she writes about them that makes me want to do everything to avoid reading them. And that even goes for the ones I already read and enjoyed.

To me, there’s no bigger compliment than somebody telling me they are desperate to read the books I analyze in my scholarship. But that’s how we are trained in my field. We are very strongly discouraged from writing about works of literature we don’t particularly like. And since we are in a non-hegemonic language and literature field in the US (especially in what concerns peninsularists), we are always trying to convince everybody that our field merits interest. I can’t dedicate half a book discussing novels I think are crap. Maybe that’s a bad thing because it comes from a culture of scarcity in my field. Be that as it may, I leave the discussions of the books I hate for my blog.

Smith wrote a really wonderful book. It’s probably the most enjoyable volume of literary criticism I have read in a while. But it’s in a different field, and things are different in it. I’m writing about the neoliberal subjectivity in the Hispanic novel, so Smith’s book is helpful in that regard.