on Mutants, selected essays by Toby Litt (Seagull Books)
“Literary Fiction is Pin the Tail on the Donkey,” writes Toby Litt, “without being spun round and round, and without the blindfold.” And that’s just for starters. In Litt’s world, you either advocate for the disruptive power of literature or are its misguided adversary. He adds, “Literature makes you realize that you are not an established fact.”
Addressed primarily to aspiring writers, his essays collected in Mutants both derogate conventional prose and point the way to alternatives. He offers the sort of advice you won’t get from editors and literary agents at writing conferences, neither groups of which can meet their interlocking quarterly profit goals if you are too independent of spirit and technique.
Since the appearance of Adventures in Capitalism (stories) in 1996, mainstream reviewers have granted Litt’s twelve books a grudging respect (“a great entertainer, a slick showman”) even as he toys with their hallowed genres, from crime noir to science fiction to chick-lit. His work has been described as “banal and painfully earnest” over here, “occupied more with surface than depth” over there. This is what happens when a writer creatively probes earnestness and depth themselves – an agenda both too harsh and language-oriented for corporate publishing which, as Timothy Aubry applauds in Reading as Therapy (Iowa), wants a book that “indirectly allows readers to feel sympathy for themselves.”
Litt was born in Ampthill, a village in Bedfordshire, England. He begins his book by defining himself as a “Gogol,” forever destined to lose out to Tolstoy. “Gogols are in love with the grotesquery of paradoxical revelation, more than with truth,” he says. “Gogols find themselves cat-mesmerized by contradictory effects, by shimmers, undertones and fluorescences, rather than by the pure matte tones.” Contradiction is Litt’s métier. One doesn’t proceed so much as tumble through Mutants as Litt overturns an opinion to find its companionable alter-view a page or two later. But his north star, his passion for “headfuck fiction,” is a fixed point of reference:
I like fiction that seems to reinvent itself as it goes along – to change not only its rules but also the premises on which those rules are based. This is a fiction that goes beyond metamorphosis and becomes, instead, a kind of seething, perpetual mutation … it is possible to discern that this creature-of-literature had a consistent form – and an indwelling set of premises that weren’t discernible before.
Although his critics may accuse Litt of cynicism and gratuitous novelty, I hear a deep-dwelling idealism welling within Mutants from which its content and style gush. His gesture is encouragement: “There is no experiment without crudity … There is no experiment without uncertainty.” And his encouragement takes the form of uncertainty, leaping from assertion to doubt and back, his sentences bristling with punchy insight. This is language made for its occasion, not decanted from a proven playbook.
His pieces on Muriel Spark, Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka, and J.G. Ballard underscore the qualities of the Gogolesque. By mid-book he is in mid-stride, ticking off the attributes of good writing for the benefit of aspiring writers, his students. Bad writers, he says, have a particular story they want to tell – a preexisting tale, its cement already hardened: “they lack the will to sufficiently betray the material to make it true.” That’s the first of four characteristics of bad writers. Mutants is studded with quotable and teachable lines, such as, “To write competently is to do a few magic tricks for friends and family; to write well is to run away to join the circus.”
A few more:
“Realism is itself the aberration, the Monstrous distortion of human experience … The question is whether we really scare ourselves anymore.”
About Pessoa: “This is quantum writing – writing that has risked total humiliation in order to pass beyond competence.”
“Sensibility is to do with the failure to be X or Y, the failure to be other than one is …. Cease attempting to become what you stand no chance of ever convincingly being.”
But excerpting Litt is truly a disservice to the unanticipated unfurlings of his arguments. In “Souls,” he considers Lawrence and Bellow to force us to consider the notion of “soul,” a term that must be utterly alien to post-irony MFA’ers. Here is Litt, indicted for playing in his prose with mere surfaces, plumbing the relevance of soul in our writing: “What I’m suggesting is that – in writing any sort of fiction – you are working within a form that was created out of the wreck of the Soul, and emerged in order to address the question of the Soul.”
Litt insists that “the paragraph is really dead” just at the moment when poets are putting more and more prose segments into their manuscripts. Truly, Mutants is a book for poets and essayists as much as for prose fictioners. He teaches writers how to "cope with the arrival of the moment," and understands that “the literary expect to be admired as stylists” while “the non-literary to be rewarded for absenting themselves” – the latter performing as suggested by that line in Wallace Stevens’ poem “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” (1954): “The words were spoken as if there was no book.”
When Litt extols Kafka’s work for its “rhapsodies of perpetual clarification,” I’m thinking: poetry.
[Published May 23, 2016. 304 pages, $27.50 hardcover]