Civic Storytelling Brian Dillon

Scholar Florian Fuchs’s new book argues for short-form writing’s potential to transform a reader’s “lifeworld.”

Civic Storytelling: The Rise of Short Forms and the Agency of Literature, by Florian Fuchs, Zone Books, 319 pages, $29.95

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“I was thinking of writing it in fragments.” And why not? They (we) are all at it, and have been for ages. Essayists, novelists, critics, and creative-writing students: we say this kind of thing to each other all the time now. But ours is an era with an ambivalent attitude to such short-form writing. On the one hand, accumulated shards of poetic prose, more or less isolated on the page—maybe set off from each other by some tasteful typographic device—can seem the only proper formal response to an unformed or shattered reality. On the other hand, the choice may look like a way to obviate questions of skill and sense. What is the shape of your argument or story? Are you capable of sustaining thought beyond a paragraph or two? Have you deliberately given up consistency of voice, or do you write like this because you can’t do otherwise? The great contemporary exponents of the fragment loom too large. “I’d like it to be like Bluets.” Me too, me too.

What do we want from all these fragments? Is lack of extent even a defining quality? Florian Fuchs’s Civic Storytelling is a scholarly exploration of fragments and other literary genres distinguished by their brevity: proverbs, fairy tales, novellas, Joycean epiphanies, and a less easily corralled—and less persuasive—category of recent “postliterary” visual works, such as the videos and texts of Hito Steyerl. There are certain obvious omissions. The essay does not count, seemingly because it is not primarily a narrative form. (You could argue with that one all day, as well as Fuchs’s argument for the inclusion of proverbs and epiphanies as “micronarratives.”) Likewise, the aphorism. The very short short story, as practiced by Lydia Davis or Diane Williams, is probably missing for a couple of reasons. First, Fuchs’s own narrative is chiefly about European (mainly German and French) literature. And second, it’s something more than mere concision that exercises this book. Civic Storytelling argues that some short forms have been especially directed toward the immediate “lifeworld” of the reader. These are types of writing that are not just about the world they join, but are meant to make something happen there. They are part of a long history whose origins Fuchs locates in the classical ars topica.

How to translate this term? In Greek and Roman rhetoric, following Aristotle, one of the ways you prepared an argument was by figuring its various topics as places to be visited in turn. From topos, a place, comes topoi, which also means commonplaces—the points or junctions of a good argument settling into cliché, a set of rhetorical landmarks that any old orator may swing by in hopes of persuading us. Literature is born, says Fuchs, when the ancient ars topica, devoted to moving an audience to action rather than affirming truisms, fall definitely out of use. New forms of knowledge are needed—scientific, experiential—and with them new kinds of writing that can touch the real world in transformative ways. The novel, the preeminent genre from the eighteenth century on, instead invents whole new worlds, envelops readers in its own time and space, rather than prodding them while they remain in their own. (Again, there are things to cavil at here, not least Fuchs’s assertion that short modes, unlike novels or epics, are apprehended in a single sitting, and so are more immediately of our world—I’m not sure reading is like that.)

Against the dominance of the novel are ranged Fuchs’s short forms, pressing on the real present. Proverbs and sayings may have declined as containers for wisdom—according to Immanuel Kant, they compose “the language of the rabble”—but they return in parodic and pointed form in the work of Gustave Flaubert. His Dictionary of Received Ideas, compiled in the last three decades of his life and published posthumously in 1911, is a catechism of cliché whose satirical target is frequently the reader who thinks he or she is in on the joke. “ART. Shortest path to the poorhouse. . . . BOOK. Always too long, regardless of subject. . . . CARBUNCLE. See PIMPLES.” Such laconic skewering of conversational commonplaces is different in kind from the aphorisms, no matter how ironic, amassed by the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche or Oscar Wilde. These latter can’t help but remain in the realm of the textual, while Flaubert wades into the absurdities of everyday speech.

But what of forms that belong only to writing? Do they really traffic with quotidian life in the ways Fuchs wants them to? The novella, he argues, has its origins in the anecdote: it’s more concerned with the description of events than it is with the proper elaboration of character or context. And in length it is “not so great as to compete with the existing reality of the reader.” The novella is reducible, it’s the one about . . . or the one where . . . The genre resembles, according to Michel Foucault, the para-literary form of the lettre de cachet: a written denunciation of an individual, dispatched to a monarch or judge, requesting the miscreant’s arrest or incarceration. In this sense, characters in novellas are people we can imagine gossiping about, or ratting out, as one might Gustav von Aschenbach from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venicelooks unwell and spends a lot of time leering at that boy on the Lido.

If this seems a reductive way to read fiction, one might counter that all good criticism is a form of exaggeration—subtraction may be just as useful. Fuchs’s reductions are mostly justifiable, and ingenious. He is on less certain ground, I think, when it comes to James Joyce’s “epiphanies”: a series of seventy (forty surviving) moments of being, or spots of time, that the writer noted from mundane observations, never published, but reworked throughout his fiction. The act of notation is fascinating, and suits Fuchs’s insistence on the everyday; but the epiphany itself was also a precious, essentially adolescent notion that Joyce had to give up to really say something about his and our “lifeworld.” Frequently the fragment does the opposite of what you hoped: it freezes things instead of putting them in motion.

Brian Dillon’s Affinities: On Art and Fascination is published by New York Review Books. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s 1985 album Hounds of Love, and another on aesthetic education.

Scholar Florian Fuchs’s new book argues for short-form writing’s potential to transform a reader’s “lifeworld.”
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