The urge to diagnose the present cultural moment—in art, music, or literature—is always fraught for a critic. Especially during a time when it appears the culture is at an impasse—when the cultural objects we produce appear unable to provide, in some form, that unexpected epiphany, or the fleeting, emancipatory feeling of freedom from Ixion’s wheel. There is a pressing need to address this situation which has chiefly been brought about by what I’m calling craftism.
If I myself remain a little wary of the term it’s because something feels fraudulent in speaking about “craft.” As Zadie Smith noted in her 2008 lecture “That Crafty Feeling,” talk of craft carries about it “a whiff of snake oil.” “Craft,” in Smith’s words, is at once “too grand and foreign a word” to describe what should be intuitive to a writer. But craftism is not just craft. If craft is a writer’s fundamental heartbeat, then craftisim is hypertension. That’s why it’s pernicious.
A definition of craftism might be: a focus on style over substance, a fetishization of sentences themselves, a striving to put words in just the right order, rewriting and rewriting until the prose is perfectly crafted. And it’s had deleterious consequences for contemporary writers and literary production.
In the last year, some critics have made alternative (and not necessarily incompatible) diagnoses of Anglo-American writing. In his review of the Philip Roth biography in Bookforum, Christian Lorentzen announced that, “More than realism or its rivals, the dominant literary style in America is careerism.” Shortly thereafter, writing in Literary Hub, Stephen Marche claimed to see a shift in sensibility from the “writing of the voice” to what he called the “writing of the pose”: “The writing of the pose is the literary product of the MFA system and of Instagram in equal measure—it brings writing into the ordinary grueling business of the curation of the self which dominates advanced capitalist culture today.”
While the codification of the principles of craftism are somewhat recent, the elevation of the craft of writing as an independent aesthetic can be traced back to Gustave Flaubert and other early modern writers who strove to always use le mot juste. Later, Hemingway famously called attention to the writing process in his memoir A Movable Feast, singling out the sentence: “All you have to do is write one true sentence… and then go on from there.” The idea is that when you write a sufficient number of these sentences you will have a story that rings with honesty, or a certain aesthetic purity. The implicit idea was that substance might accumulate as a consequence of these “true” sentences—it did for Hemingway (most of the time).
Gordon Lish, who taught at Yale University during the 1970s and at Columbia in the ‘80s and ‘90s, propounded the idea of the “attack sentence” or “provoking sentence,” which was supposed to hook readers and drag them into the story. Over several decades he exhorted eager students to utilize his concept of “consecution,” which involves the repetition or recycling of plot elements and motifs through a text. Christine Schutt, one of Lish’s students provides a good definition of consecution:
Each sentence is extruded from the previous sentence; look behind when you are writing, not ahead… Query the preceding sentence for what might most profitably be used in composing the next sentence… The sentence that follows is always in response to the sentence that came before.
More recently, George Saunders started a Substack to help writers craft their storytelling ability focusing on the sentence. In his inaugural installment of the newsletter, he listed that one of its objectives was to help writers “begin to think about sentences differently—become more alert to them, begin to see them as the place where originality begins in fiction.”
It is, however, Garielle Lutz, another student of Lish, who provides, in her essay for The Believer “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” the most elegant argument for the primacy of the sentence in fiction. She notes that the sentence is “the one true theater of endeavor, as the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy.” She favors books in which she can find on any page and “in every paragraph sentences that had been worked and reworked until their forms and contours and their organizations of sound had about them an air of having been foreordained—as if this combination of words could not be improved upon and had finished readying itself for infinity.” This is heady stuff, full of fire and brimstone. From this position Lutz goes on to say that:
The aim of the literary artist, I believe, is to initiate the process by which the words in a sentence no longer remain strangers to each other but begin to acknowledge one another’s existence and do more than tolerate each other’s presence in the phrasing: the words have to lean on each other, rub elbows, rub off on each other, feel each other up.
The idea of a sentence “readying itself for infinity” is a beatific, almost religious aspiration. But here’s the rub: the thing about sentences is that their construction is not necessary, and there is nothing a writer can do to make them necessary. What I mean is that the order of the words, and the words themselves, are contingent. One word can be replaced by another—that’s what a thesaurus is for. Any of the many examples Lutz shares in her essay could have been written otherwise, probably was written otherwise by the author until the words settled on the page and stayed, until most everyone involved agreed, yes, that’s the best way to say that, even while someone might have felt a previous alternative said it “better.”
In the final analysis, subjectivity determines what remains on the page, not the logic or inevitability of the words coming together. No matter what we may like to think, there are no inevitable sentences. The formidable stylist Donald Barthelme noted, wryly, in his one-long-sentence story “The Sentence”: “The sentence itself is a man-made object, not the one we wanted of course, but still a construction of man, a structure to be treasured for its weakness, as opposed to the strength of stones.”
In her essay, written in 2008, Lutz provides examples from contemporary writers (Barry Hannah, Christine Schutt, Diane Williams, Sam Lipsyte, Ben Marcus, Don DeLillo, among others). Had the piece been written six years later, I wonder if Lutz would have given examples from Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which won the Pulitzer Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Given the book’s success—its straddling the elusive, economically rewarding line of literary and mass-cult fiction ($15 million in sales)—I’ll use it as a brief object lesson in craftism.
All the Light We Cannot See takes place during World War II and interweaves the lives of a blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, who works with her uncle, a French resistance radio broadcaster; and a German boy, Werner Pfenning, a Nazi, who, along with a team of assassins, hunts down resistance radio broadcasters and kills them. There is also a silly subplot worthy of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark involving Marie-Laure’s father who works in the natural history museum and is guarding a precious, but perhaps cursed gemstone to keep it from falling into Nazi hands.
Ten years in the making, the novel is bounteous and fastidious, and yet the lapidary “readying itself for infinity” writing in All the Light We Cannot See is both the apotheosis and the reductico ad absurdum of craftism. Throughout the novel, Doerr’s pyrotechnic prose effortlessly creates scenes of great beauty. His perfect sentences rush along, breathlessly carrying the reader along. Here is an example of the after effects of a bombing:
Flames scamper up walls. Parked automobiles catch fire, as do curtains and lampshades and sofas and mattresses and most of the twenty thousand volumes in the public library. The fires pool and strut; they flow up the sides of the ramparts like tides; they splash into alleys, over rooftops, through a carpark. Smoke chases dust; ash chases smoke.
Four of the most delectable sentences you’ll taste today. The metaphors are masterful: “Flames scamper,” “fires pool and strut” and “splash.” His use of polysyndeton (the repetition of conjunctions) to enumerate the objects the fire eats is brilliant, and the use of epanalepsis (beginning a clause with a word that ends the next clause) in the last sentence show us we are reading a highly crafted work. The entire book is written in this burning pace.
But in his obsession with craft, Doerr has relieved himself from the writerly responsibility to say something true about his characters. Neither of his protagonists exhibit any interiority—they exist merely as beautifully painted marionettes whose strings Doerr pulls to move the plot along. The closest the Nazi Warner comes to showing us an emotion is when he reflects on the bad choices and murderous path he has followed: “It seems to Werner that in the space between whatever has happened already and whatever is to come hovers an invisible borderland, the known on one side and the unknown on the other.” Another beautiful sentence but as far as self-examination goes, it is uninformative and banal and purports to tell us what we already know about every situation: there is what we know, and there is what we don’t know. Doerr’s craftism can’t penetrate the inner mind of Werner, or Marie-Laure, or anyone: throughout the entire novel we only meet characters without character.
Doerr’s newest book Cloud Cuckoo Land exhibits the same matchless level of craftism. Open to any page, search any paragraph, and in this novel, too, you’ll find the kind of sentences prized by Lutz: “Snow flows past the windows. Minerals of panic glitter in the air.” But not much else.
In many ways, craftism has done to literature what Frederick Winslow Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management did to the factory floor. Taylor’s principles broke down, atomized and rationalized, the act of labor into its constituent parts so motion could be standardized and efficiency in the manufacture of commodities increased. Craftism has helped bring about the standardization of the production of literature (particularly in MFA programs) by popularizing a set of processes and techniques which have, by and large, set the specifications that a piece needs to meet in order to be accepted by agents, editors, and publishers.
For writers, what is perhaps more harmful is that craftism all too easily presents itself as a substitution for reading literature. Why bother to put in all that time reading and absorbing the great works in the Western canon, learning how to write by osmosis, when you can follow the precepts set down by experts? This lack of familiarity with the cannon has not gone unnoticed. As Elif Batuman has observed, “Contemporary fiction seldom refers to any of the literary developments of the past 20, 50 or a hundred years. It rarely refers to other books at all.” Which may explain why many contemporary novels read as if they were created in a “knowledge vacuum.”
The focus on craft stands in opposition to the “shudder,” a concept introduced by Theodor Adorno to describe the experience of connecting with a work of art. Adorno defines the shudder as a “primordial sensation,” “as if goose bumps were the first aesthetic image.” It produces a spontaneous feeling of being overwhelmed, of “being touched by the other” for a few moments during which the “I” becomes aware of the possibility of letting self-preservation fall away. But to experience that feeling of “being touched” there has to be something that speaks to you. In his “literary manifesto for a new social novel,” written more than three decades ago, Tom Wolfe notes:
It was realism that created the ‘absorbing’ or ‘gripping’ quality that is peculiar to the novel, the quality that makes the reader feel that he has been pulled not only into the setting of the story but also into the minds and central nervous systems of the characters.
The quality that allows you to be “gripped” is the voice to which, as Marche points out, every aspect of literature “is subservient” It is this voice that craftism throttles, resulting in the demise, or at least the diminished possibility, of the shudder in contemporary fiction.
In fact, the rise of craftism has advanced with a shift away from the ideas of plot, character, setting, and theme altogether. John Hawkes, one of the forefathers of craftism, said in a 1965 interview: “I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme…” Rachel Cusk has commented that she considers the latter “fake and embarrassing” and “utterly ridiculous.” A sentiment shared by Karl Ove Knausgaard, who wrote in My Struggle: “Just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous.”
Among a coterie of writers, craft and the perfecting of sentences have largely replaced the necessity of imagining and creating novels of ambition and substance. The result has been the kinds of investigations into interiority that lead nowhere. As editor and writer John Merrick has noted, “Our novels and films are filled with the solipsistic tales of middle-class strivers recounting their attempts to be good bourgeois subjects—with the occasional knowing nod towards Marx thrown in if we’re lucky.” Or, as journalist Ben Judah recently tweeted, “beautifully crafted but challengeless stories of modern interiority.” Examples can be seen in such recent, highly crafted (and praised) novels as: Emily Hall’s The Long Cut (an artist tasks herself with discovering “what her work is” and spends the entire narrative in a state of probing, and often witty, Bernhardian existential crisis trying to figure it out); Jordan Castro’s The Novelist (a self-conscious but charming meditation, also aping Bernhard, in which the protagonist examines the possibility of writing his own Woodcutters); Sheila Heti’s Pure Color (a flawlessly crafted work that considers the world a “first draft” and oscillates between parable and novel and, sadly, succeeds at neither); and Rachel Cusk’s Second Place (recounted to the mysterious Jeffers, a tedious, burnished meditation on art, and possibly love, or desire, or property, in which some characters have names and some only initials and scattered throughout are a sufficient number of exclamation points for her next trilogy). These highly crafted works of the imagination demonstrate a strong sense of commitment to the art of literature, but they only engage the larger culture tangentially, if at all.
Last year—under the headline “What forms of art, activism, and literature can speak authentically today?”—Bookforum asked a group of contributors which books they’d like to read now. Most interpreted the question broadly, several commenting on the current state of fiction. Julian Lucas asked (and answered) a question of his own: “When did American literary fiction lose the plot? It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that nothing ever happens in contemporary novels, but a certain scale of entanglement has gone missing… The biggest reason may be a narrowing sense of writerly vocation.” And Rachel Kushner admitted, “In truth I mostly revisit works of fiction I already love”; she noted that she’s “not the only one,” mentioning that Martin Amis rereads Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov, while her choices are Margaret Duras and Marcel Proust.
This is not to say that, broadly, engaging fiction is not being written today. A novel such as Raven Leilani‘s Luster (a Black woman enters into mélange with a white man and his wife and their adopted Black daughter) and Bud Smith’s Teenager (a high school couple kills the parents of the girl whose father was abusing her and take off on chaotic cross-country journey that ends in more murder) are unevenly written, but grip us because they work within the realist tradition of plot, setting, theme. Moreover, the authors create sympathetic protagonists who play out the drama of their lives in the world in which they find themselves—which is our everyday world. The sentences in these books are not all perfect. And in the imperfections a certain air rushes in. A syntactic mobility more akin to consciousness, truer to thought, truer to life.