Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Haun Saussy reviews L’Idée de littérature

Alexandre Gefen. L’Idée de littérature: De l’art pour l’art aux écritures d’intervention. Paris: Corti, 2020. 400 pp.

Review by Haun Saussy

28 April 2021

The restlessly curious and prolific French literary critic Alexandre Gefen has produced an account, as the title has it, of “the idea of literature: from ‘art for art’s sake’ to writings that intervene.” Rich in examples, not exempt from polemical verve, the book should be read as a piece of intervention in conceptual history, the historical sections of which look forward to the treatment of contemporary writing practices in France—the subject of another of Gefen’s recent books, Réparer le monde: la littérature française face au XXIe siècle (Repairing the World: French Literature Faces the Twenty-First Century).

The story Gefen tells has a four-century background: the slow rise and abrupt fall of a domain of letters, heralded and regulated by an ideal of autonomy. Modern societies are permeated with writing. In this sea of scribbling, some documents claim a special status and demand to be attended to in terms of a canon of taste, not of truth, utility, or fungibility: what readers come to know in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as literature. Purity, beauty, technique, disinterestedness, and absence of external purposes or constraints come to characterize this domain. It is, as Gefen points out in the manner of Pierre Bourdieu, as much a matter of social differentiation as of reception and judgment: authors and critics seek to settle matters of concern to them on their own, by applying criteria specific to their own field and rejecting those asserted by monarchs, churchmen, moralists, and other watchdogs. Such differentiation was not exclusive to writers, for at about the same time, physicians, lawyers, scientists, and other professionals formed distinct bodies with domains of competence and rules of practice. But the littérateurs arguably took their claims farther than any of the other specialized groups, as was symbolized by Gustave Flaubert’s “book about nothing” (Madame Bovary), Charles Baudelaire’s boast to have found “the beauty in evil,” and Stéphane Mallarmé’s conjecture that “the world is made to end up in a beautiful book.” Well into the twentieth century this doctrine of literary autonomy persisted, supported on the one hand by textbooks (the commented anthologies that are the backbone of French classroom practice) and on the other by noted literary scandals: Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Jean Genet, and many others who broke every rule except that of style. At its fullest realization, says Gefen, the program of autonomy yields “a literature rooted in the order of subjectivity (and thus made autonomous from the requirement of universality) but distinguished by its form, focused on its own interrogations, and understandable solely by a discipline of its own making (stylistics) or ones adjacent to its own field (linguistics and its offshoots, semiology or narratology)” (p. 30).

Against or despite this model, new modes of writing have arisen in recent years that pay little heed to those definitional properties of the literary. Boundaries dissolve between fiction and memoir, resulting in autofiction, or between work and work (fanfiction); writers make themselves known not through the university or recognized periodicals but through informal workshops, poetry slams, and social-media activism; “as digital reproducibility and datafication further erode the remnants of aura already lost to cultural democratization, intervention and performance take the place of the models of exposition and representation in art and literature, where they proclaim the capacity of reading and writing to change the individual and the world” (p. 36).

Reading back from this situation, Gefen depicts “the idea of literature” not as a timeless category but as a “parenthesis” enabled by a particular confluence of circumstances, circumstances that no longer apply, and he seeks to describe the new, porous, possibly heteronomous modes of literary exchange in terms that will be adequate to the present. Ours is a moment of postliterature. Among the signs of the postliterary are the attributions of the Nobel Prize to writers who, Gefen claims, cannot be located in the tradition of art for art’s sake: Svetlana Alexievich (2015) and Bob Dylan (2016). Both are mediators of nonliterary voices and seek neither originality nor the approval of professors of literature. Those as yet unfamiliar with French postliterary writing will appreciate the brief characterizations of work by Maylis de Kerangal, Virginie Despentes, François Bon, Philippe Vasset, and many others.

As readers will have gathered from Gefen’s Benjaminian terminology, the pivot of the book’s argument is not what gets written but what gets recognized and canonized as literature; a change in that term’s definition creates the possibility of including and excluding, rating and emulating, differently. Gefen’s context imposes starkness––autonomy or not autonomy, in or out of the canon, because in France a system of national education exists which prescribes authors and endorses anthologies. Being in or out there is not just a matter of personal taste. The issue may look different from another vantage point. Poets, novelists, and philosophers have long written reportage; but what wins readers and translators for Anton Chekhov’s Sakhalin diaries, for example, in a literary system is their belonging to Chekhov, not to the geography and prison system of Tsarist Russia. Gefen sees the recognition given to Alexievich as testimony to a new literature that aspires to transcribe without distortion the real lives of people, writing only minimally touched by the writer. This is not quite true. The Soviet canon of Russian authors demonstrably shapes Alexievich’s decisions about what to include in her interviews and how to frame them.[1] Dylan’s neofolk melodies belong to a stream of poetry channeled by Walker Percy, Johann Gottfried Herder, Milman Parry, Alan Lomax, and Zora Neale Hurston. And to hinge the fate of literature on its autonomy sounds like a concession to the thesis that was to be overturned. Elsewhere, in traditional China for example, a strong conception of the literary coexisted with an idea of its imbrication in the cosmic and social order, with self-determination a minor (though not inconceivable) option. The Franco-French context should open out into a longer, broader critical history of the conditions that have made something like literature possible or not.

A brief review cannot do justice to the learning, care, and attention that went into making this book. To worried voices warning of “the end of literature as we know it,” it responds, like Echo: “. . . as we know it.”


[1] See Olga V. Solovieva, “Chernobyl, the Unheard Prayer: Svetlana Alexievich and the Little Voices of Fukushima,” boundary 2 45, no. 4 (2018): 203–221.