A Portrait of the Critic as a Miraculating Agent
Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory
(Zero Books, 2015)
There’s no author’s note in David Winters’s collection of reviews, Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory, and, actually, it’s pretty difficult to find out anything about Winters apart from the quick squib on the back of the book: he’s a Cambridge–based literary critic, and a co-editor-in-chief of 3:AM Magazine. True, the book lists a website, but I didn’t see that at first, and so I found, on searching the Internet for “David Winters,” that there have been a whole slew of famous David Winterses. But even after you sift through the footballer David Winters and the choreographer David Winters and the fictional character David Winters (once played by Christopher Plummer, who also did a great Nabokov in a little known film adaptation of Nabokov’s essay about “The Metamorphosis”), and make your way to David Winters’s website, the one you could have gone to directly, what you find there is basically the same as what you found on the back of his first book, which, for the record, is a tome full of measured wisdom, and to read it is to immerse yourself in a mind that has dunked itself in just about everything but permitted none of it to overwhelm him.
So David Winters is something of a mystery—and part of the mystery is his age. There’s a picture of him on that website, and he’s clearly a young guy, and the mystery of actually seeing him after you read through his incredibly diverse reviews—of recent offerings from little known but important authors ranging from Gabriel Josipovici to Micheline Aharonian Marcom to Ivan Vladislavić to Kjersti Skomsvold to Miranda Mellis (and drawing, in the process, on a whole bevy of canonical authors and theorists)—is imagining how it’s possible that someone this young has read this much. I don’t mean to get snooty, and this isn’t going to be one of those reviews in which a mid-career writer surveys the work of a younger writer and offers a pat-on-the-head kind of notice. No, the mystery here is more of the awe-inspiring sort. It’s only too easy, these days, to fall into a funk over the state of books in the world, but the range of work addressed in Infinite Fictions offers no small measure of reassurance to the faith-challenged, myself included, and Winters’s deeply thoughtful criticism is an excellent reminder that even a generation or two hence there will be witnesses around to remind us that literature matters. Indeed, this initial salvo reads like an early effort from what Alfred Kazin once called “the critic who can set up standards for his age.”
Here’s a rather broad proclamation: inside every collection of essays there’s a hidden narrative that tells the story of the author’s intellectual evolution from the earliest piece to the latest. This turns out to be true even of a collection of reviews, though the narrative here may be a bit more buried, mediated by the utilitarian nature of the review form. Winters seems partly aware of this, as evidenced by his commentary on a passage on “homo theoreticus” from Peter Sloterdijk’s The Art of Philosophy: Wisdom as a Practice (2012). “Surely,” Winters writes, “some of us will see ourselves—and laugh at ourselves—in what Sloterdijk calls his ‘portrait of the theoretician as a young man.’”
I think I’ve made it clear that I think highly of Winters and his book—if not, I implore you to go buy it: now, go!—and so if I level a complaint please understand that I do so on the theory that praise alone is neither interesting nor useful.
I said earlier that Winters is not overwhelmed by what he’s read. That may not be wholly true. Winters’s literary inspiration—with whom he has served a kind of intellectual apprenticeship—is Gordon Lish, and Winters writes not only about Lish himself, he gravitates toward Lish’s stable of students: Sam Lipsyte, Christine Schutt, Gary Lutz, and a number of others. This is no accident: Winters’s website reveals that he is currently “researching Gordon Lish’s influence on American fiction,” and one hopes that a Lish-based volume is in the offing.
Winters’s interest in Lish is broad and deep, but a theme that emerges in Infinite Fictions is the Lishian “consecution,” which is defined a number of times in these essays, but discussed most deeply in Winters’s review of Lish’s own Peru (1986). Consecution is a “metaphysic; a miraculating agent, an instance of spirit or pneuma submerged in the world,” and accounts for the “perpetual swerving, rhyming, and recursion” of Lish’s prose. That’s perhaps a bit obtuse, and my gentle complaint about these essays—again perhaps a function of the review form—is that Winters describes consecution so often that I sort of started to wish that he’d consecute a little, that he would write consecutorily. For the most part, his voice remains a bit impersonal, mysterious. As with the quote above, even when Winters wants to refer to himself, he hides behind the first person plural. The result is that this is not the kind of book you want to try to suck down in a single draught; rather, you should keep it lying around, to be read sporadically but consistently, perhaps in consultation as Winters’s reviews set you to seeking out the many authors described here that, to your shame, you’ve never heard of.
But it’s wrong, again, to say that Winters never consecutes. Consider this passage from late in a review of Gary Lutz’s Divorcer (2011):
I can’t say for sure whether anything I’ve said should really be said of [the book]. I want to say more, but can’t, or shouldn’t, about the book’s sorrow—about the frail beauty of bodies badly lived in, of lives intolerably embodied, and of words that sadly fail to span the gaps they’re spun across.
Is that some swerving and recursion I’m sensing? Lish, I think, would approve, and the story these essays tell is that Winters has found—has evolved—the perfect voice with which to describe, and emulate, his mentor.
ContributorJ. C. Hallman
J.C. HALLMAN's most recent book is B & ME: A True Story of Literary Arousal, a work of "creative criticism." He sort of lives in New York City.