The White Review Anthology Edited by Jacques Testard & Ben Eastham review
How to write in the wake of Literature, now that Literature is over
We’re a long way from the wise men of the mountains, but we must make something of being terminally imprisoned alongside Literature’s cold corpse
The White Review Anthology
Edited by Jacques Testard & Ben Eastham
The White Review
Since its first issue appeared in 2011, The White Review has quickly become one of the most highly-regarded outlets for innovative, daring writing in all its many forms. This anthology of 21 pieces comes as its founding editors, Jacques Testard and Ben Eastham, step down, marking the end of one period in the magazine’s history and the beginning of another.
The anthology opens with Lars Iyer’s Nude In Your Hot Tub, Facing The Abyss, a witty redux of Maurice Blanchot’s Grand Theory of Literature; that it is essentially dead. “Once upon a time, writers were like gods, and lived in the mountains,” Iyer writes. These writers were either “destitute hermits or aristocratic lunatics”, and they spoke of gods and devils, the dead and the unborn. Their forms were capitalised: Drama, Poetry, Tragedy, Philosophy. Iyer, like Blanchot, traces their fall all the way through to today, when writers are paralysed by an inherited idea of literature which is both “preposterous and obsolete”. The task facing today’s writer is to figure out how to write in the wake of Literature, now that Literature is over. Iyer’s advice: use an unliterary plainness, resist masterpieces, write about this world (“a world dominated by dead dreams”), mark your imposture. A manifesto for a time after manifestos, Iyer is being knowingly ridiculous. But then, what choice does he have? How else can we communicate the truth?
Putting such a powerful and demanding piece of writing first in an anthology like this, it becomes almost inevitable that the following pieces will exist in its shadow. They cannot but be read through its lens. Claire-Louise Bennett’s The Lady of the House, with its strange ambient foreboding emerging between the lines of perfectly ordinary prose, is a memorable case in point. So too the oppressive, and yet hilarious, epistolary narration of Evan Lavender-Smith’s A Vicious Cycle. Both are manifestations of a single mind and voice, not quite stream of consciousness, but rather knowingly constructed; laden with irony and humour, attempting to communicate something which is beyond their power to say.
There are more traditional contributions, particular in the essay category. Lauren Elkin expertly delineates some of the knottier thickets of contemporary feminisms; Alexander Christie-Miller writes with some heart about Turkish falconers; Rosanna McLoughlin skewers the corporate art world and its spectacular commercial fairs. These are all dense, detailed, and clear pieces of criticism and reportage, and their presence next to stories about migrant samurai and mystical stags in housing estates invigorates both sides of the essay/fiction divide.
The structure of the anthology, with fiction and essay alternating throughout, invites consideration of what journey is taking place in the transition from one to the other-what borderline is crossed in the process, what marks each territory as distinct from the other? Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams are the most forthright in asking this question. In their story, labelled as fiction, two young writers oscillate between thinking about Adorno’s Minima Moralia and their own poverties: “she thought about an idea for a story, or maybe not maybe an essay but more fictional and why not a kind of fictive criticism?”
Soobramanien and Williams use a unique narrative strategy to write a questioning, searching piece of fiction which does all the work an essay or a piece of criticism might do. But this story, like this anthology, is not saying simply that the line is blurred, or that really there’s no line at all. For what then would be the purpose of the distinction? Why would the category be printed at the bottom of every page? Perhaps the aim is to remind the reader at all times of the varied approaches the writers take towards the truth, and to heighten our sensitivity to the shortcuts and liberties taken by them in asking for us to have faith in that truth.
Perhaps it is also designed to generate an energy from this migration-back and forth, back and forth; real, fake, true, imagined – which is plural and permissive without being necessarily progressive. If we remember Lars Iyer’s opening manifesto, and believe it, then there is simply nowhere left for this kind of writing to go. For all its contortions and feints, there’s very little, beyond itself, of which it can sincerely and meaningfully speak. We’re a long way from the wise men of the mountains, but we must make something of being terminally imprisoned alongside Literature’s cold corpse. We have to keep ourselves warm, hopping from one foot to the other. “There is an intensity of movement,” as Anne Carson’s chorus of Gertrude Steins says in the final lines of the anthology. “Combined with not seeming to be getting anywhere.” There may be nothing more to say, but why let that stop you?