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.

4 thoughts on “Book Notes: Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism”

  1. This reminds me of something related, how most loglines for novels and short stories make me roll my eyes and actually deter me from reading. For example:

    As alien ships descend upon Mars, Hermione must find her lost brother or else her people’s way of life will be gone for good.

    I love science fiction, so it’s not the genre, as it would be for Clarissa. It’s that the stakes are so stupidly dramatic and so abstract, that no one can possibly give a shit. I don’t care about Hermione or her brotrher or their way of life — I haven’t started reading the book yet, so I don’t know or care about any of these characters, and for all I know they are all boring mopey tools whose way of life should be obliterated by the cooler aliens. Also, the parts of logline are too over the top (aliens! way of life disappearing!) to be meaningfully connected to one another within one sentence. The character most definitely isn’t doing what she’s doing to save the way of life, but rather for personal stakes that are small, concrete, and much more relatable. For example, why does she need to locate her brother? Maybe because she needs him to give her a kidney. Maybe because his son whom she’d been raising is about to die. Maybe because the bastard stole the family jewelry which she planned to use to buy herself a new prosthetic leg to be able to keep her construction job. Those are real stakes. Maybe the leg comes from alien tech through the black market? All those are more likely to get me to read than the vague and melodramatic “her people’s way of life will be gone for good.” Blech.

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    1. That’s exactly, exactly what I’m talking about.

      “This novel avoids any kind of a meaningful plot structure, has a completely fragmented narrative with a lot of linguistic experimentation, and precludes any sort of emotional response or identification on the part of the readers. And that’s great because it’s so anti-neoliberal!!!”

      It might be anti-neoliberal or whatever but who on Earth wants to read an unemotional, plotless brick of a novel with a fragmented narrative and tons of linguistic experimentation?

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      1. // “This novel avoids any kind of a meaningful plot structure, has a completely fragmented narrative with a lot of linguistic experimentation, and precludes any sort of emotional response or identification on the part of the readers. And that’s great because it’s so anti-neoliberal!!!”

        Does it mean that old classical realistic novels, usually the only genre I can read for fun, are all pro-neoliberal?

        Now I want to read Smith’s book and your new one too. 🙂 Or is it an article ” about the neoliberal subjectivity in the Hispanic novel”? It sounds fascinating.

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        1. No, of course not. Neoliberal novels can only exist in the age of neoliberalism. She offers a great discussion of the death of the traditional liberal novel and the rise of the neoliberal novel. For instance, she says that an individual pitted against an uncomprehending, monolithic society that tries to crush that individuality is a theme that’s dead because it’s old liberal. Neoliberal novel, she says, has protagonists who manage relationships with others as a way to advance. And readers now use literature to self-improve and become more marketable.

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