Tuesday 30 December 2008

I listened to the discussion about the relationship between mainstream and avant-garde culture (Radio 4, 29th Dec). Hari Kunzru and Tom McCarthy pitched their arguments very well to the middle-brow listener, but it says a lot about the BBC that we're only having this discussion now – when culture is at least 20 years into its 'post-avant-garde' phase – and at 07.47, on the 29th December, when no one's listening except farmers having their first tea break. A few years ago, this discussion would have been allowed to unfold over a half-hour slot at a reasonable hour (on the Late Show, say, chaired by Michael Ignatieff…) rather than used to fill a fallow news period.

In his Foreword to the 2006 edition of Infinite Jest, Dave Eggers puts David Foster Wallace forward as epitomising a kind of literature that speaks to both mainstream and what we used to call 'avant-garde' audiences; in other words, that encompasses accessibility and difficulty. It's a pity the discussion didn't touch on DFW's work, especially as, half an hour before, George Saunders and Jonathan Frantzen had discussed it on the same programme, in carefully crafted literary obituaries. What was needed, at this point, was someone in the chair to point out that DFW was precisely that intersection of mainstream and non-mainstream sensibilities that the discussion between McCarthy, Kunzru and Stewart Home seemed ready to explore. What's needed is a discussion that explores what we mean by 'accessibility' and 'difficulty': whether, by the latter, we still mean 'something one has to read a dozen times to "get"', 'not pandering to received wisdom' and so forth (in which case, why bother?), or whether contemporary artists are working to new paradigms of difficulty. The problem with what is called 'avant-garde' or 'experimental' writing is that it behaves as though the war against received wisdom has already been won, as though the opposition between accessibility and difficulty really did come out in favour of difficulty – ignoring the fact that the best writers have always arbitrated between private and public wisdom, between the world-views of citizen and populace.

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