Together with Jan Němec and Ivan Myšková you have written the text of Twelve Paragraphs on Prose, which was published by Respekt magazine before Christmas. Why was it written and why wasn‘t it published by some literary platform?
Just before it was written, there were several reasons we felt a need to call for a discussion. Apart from the more persistent problem areas that we refer to directly in the text, the chief catalyst was a debate at the Academy of Sciences Institute of Czech Literature: Czech literature 2013: initial inventory. We began to analyse the points that had been raised there and the approach of the panelists, and as we didn’t want to leave it as just pub chat, which in this day and age means a few Facebook threads, we decided to express ourselves publicly and to instigate a broader discussion, which has long been lacking with regard to prose. We don’t have the feeling that what we deal with in the twelve paragraphs in any way affects the three of us more than others, and we do not at all feel personally harmed by the literary milieu. That is just stupid. But the literary scene is an element we move in naturally at many levels. We write in it, and we read and work in it, so when something about it looks wrong over the long term, we consider it natural to comment on it. This is a simple “public-spirited” position. So we published the Paragraphs in Respekt so that as many people as possible could respond to them. After all, it is more widely read and more easily available throughout the country than any literary periodical. Besides, it was in the literary supplement.
What were the responses to the text? Kamil Boušek‘s polemics have just come out in Tvar.
There were plenty of responses, but they can’t all be typified, as there is an amazing range of them, from those which consider the Paragraphs to be so obvious and self-evident that there was no point in writing them, through to those which see the text as bold and very controversial. Some welcome it as a stimulus for discussion, others read it as an elitist proclamation, and others still as chip-on-shoulder whining. I think that all in all this testifies to the need for a debate of this kind, because we have no idea who considers what to be standard or scandalous. While the poets passionately discuss among themselves, the prose writers do not reflect too much over each other, they do not create a community and they have no heated debates over texts. The poets take their work far more personally. They understand their views on literature to be an integral part of their poetics. They have this intensive search, which I feel is lacking in prose. The first full coherent text in response came to us, typically, from a poet, Kamil Bouška. I am going to write a response to him, so just in outline here: it is an enthusiastic personal text, a testimony from a quite different genre and project. The Paragraphs do not deal with the innermost being of our work, or with specific poetics at all, so it is not an actual manifesto. It is more an operational situational text. Kamil has misconstrued us on the point of topicality and we do not agree on the poet‘s evaluation.
You have mentioned several times that you were responding to a discussion at the Academy of Sciences Institute of Czech Literature. What disappointed you about it?
Above all the previously published points on prose work, which were unbelievably slipshod. And the panelists did not look like they had much of an idea what could be said about them. It is characteristic of a particular stream of thinking on Czech prose writing, which is accompanied by a constant chip on the shoulder. It was quite a big event, the hall was bursting at the seams, it was being recorded by Vltava radio, and an extract from the debate was published by Host. And instead of these points producing something, the text by Josef Chuchma was written really badly, it was unspecific and superficial and basically universally applicable for any year you care to name. Why does it just broadly slide over the surface like that? Why do people who deal professionally with literature not keep to the basic rules of interpretation? In some ways it reminded me of the essay The Spider Woman and the Poor Fat Fly by Jiří Peňás on women‘s literature, which brought a breath of fresh air to the cultural section a year ago, but instead of this doubtless much needed debate on “women‘s writing” could lead anywhere constructuve, it foundered over the fact that the essay was so badly argued that it contradicted itself and generalized awfully. You could not respond other than by catching out some problem in every paragraph and so condemning it as irrelevant. Although it is average literature, what on earth gives them the right to write such below-average texts about it?
Do you see the same specific features recurring in literature written by women? In what way does women‘s literature enhance the current literary scene?
How can women’s literature enhance the current literary scene? Does that mean there is some normal contemporary literature and beside that there is women’s literature? They are not two differing traditions. To generalize to some extent, you can talk about two different approaches or tendencies, but this generalization is so extreme that it practically loses all meaning. The term “women’s writing” bothers me not because of some touchiness over gender, which I cannot stand, but because nobody knows what it actually means. Take any representative quantity of texts. Compare their topics, composition and motifs. Do a linguistic analysis, and then try to define what is specific about women’s writing. Then it has some sense. But normally this term is just used in slapdash reviewing as an easy label that doesn’t actually mean anything. Only if we succeed in precisely identifying some specific poetics typical of the great majority of women should we call that women’s writing. I just don’t know if that is practical, because it might then happen that a man will meet the criteria of women’s writing with his poetics, while lots of women will miss out. Of course, I don’t deny there is “something” that women tend towards more as they write, but it is awfully difficult to grasp. If Tučková is a “woman author” in her poetics, then in all probability so is Hájíček. If Myšková is a woman author then Soukupová cannot be, and vice versa.
You have already referred to the way prose is reflected critically. How does this differ from poetry criticism?
Reviews are often an open denial of the fact that prose is also a struggle for expression. We have somehow learnt to see it as a popular medium, so it is mainly the plot that is dealt with and whether or not the work is autobiographical, that crops up too in interviews. But what I feel is missing is the search for what makes any given text a literary text. How does the way the book is constructed contribute to the meaning? Does it carry any meaning? Does it copy the subject? Is it a pleasure to read a particular book even if I know how it ends, or if I have already read a spoiler is it just a needless chore to read on? Anyone can dare to do an interview with a prose writer or review a prose work, because commenting on a novel is not that much of an art – after all, every blogger does it, whereas, nobody can manage to review a poetry collection. No “normal“ person reads it or has any idea how to write about it. So we leave this work to those few people who are “able” to do it. As a result, poetry reviews are better and more interesting, when they actually get to be written. Even in Respect, where reviews are generally of a high standard, even though they are not too literary, it will always be Jan Štolba who writes about a poetry collection.
You and your colleagues took quite a strong stance in the Paragraphs in relation to genre literature. Isn‘t classic narrative just one way of conceiving the world and narrative? Is it at all possible to compare this kind of writing with more literary texts?
I think this was really formulated in an unfortunate way. We did not want to set ourselves up against genre literature in general. Besides, the statement that some of these Scandinavian crime thrillers are written in a masterly way was no irony. But that paragraph is aimed at something else. We have long stopped distinguishing between what is highbrow and what is trivial literature. You can’t even really do that because they very much permeate and enhance each other. But then we read and reflect on everything as if it were one stream, which is also not possible. The demands that were once placed on genre literature alone are now being automatically placed on more highbrow literature too. For example, are we to rebuke purely reflexive prose because it doesn’t read like Nesbø? Or that you can’t very easily make head or tail of Ajvaz’s novels? It would be enough when you are reading to submit more to the text, to try in advance to anticipate the fact that some of the peculiarities and reader’s difficulties, or then again the apparent banalities, might be intentional, and that all the elements in the text actually lead somewhere and create something – not to read with the idea that this is Czech prose, we can’t handle this.
Reflections on literature often repeat those assumed problems that Czech literature is supposed to suffer from, but the texts that deal with them are often unanchored and insecure in the terms they use.
Yes, this terminology is unclear. In the Twelve Paragraphs we took issue with the demand for the large novel, as we understand it. Then there was a radio interview in Názory a argumenty on culture in 2013 and the invited guests, Peňás and Chuchma, mentioned our text when they said that the large novel still exists of course, as does the great epic, see Rybí krev. It turned out that by large novel they meant an extensive epic text on a subject that has not previously been dealt with. Well sure, of course the large novel has a rosy and indeed a commercially quite interesting future ahead of it, but by saying that I do not wish to detract from the fact that it is seriously necessary to anchor these undefined, clichéd terms. Otherwise there is no point in using them.
If the Paragraphs helped just to clarify the term “large novel“, i.e. that criticism is actually calling for a certain number of pages, then all well and good.
I get the impression from what you say that a certain amount of ignorance and a latent lack of interest on the part of the specialists poses a certain problem. But who is to provide a credible picture of literature if not them?
I see we are asking the same questions.
Interviewed by Zuzana Kůrová