Nobody who is anybody writes fiction in third-person anymore. ‘Novels’ – if that’s the correct designation – are told in first-person by people very much like their authors. A narrator of one such recent text, who shares a name with her author, carries across Sydney a manuscript bearing the same title as the novel in which it appears (Panthers and the Museum of Fire) while meditating on her surroundings. Such narrators are everywhere – overrepresented in New York or London perhaps, they are also in France, sometimes on holiday in Greece, or hooking up under the palace of culture in Bulgaria, or perhaps, and most infamously, sitting at the table in Norway, writing, writing, writing.  

Fictionality is therefore apparently in decline. So much so that even when fictional works do employ the customary impedimenta of fictionality (omniscient third-person, scenic form, dialogue, free indirect discourse, etc.), these are illuminated by an illicit autofictional glow. A recent novel that does employ the third person is a case in point. It is, for one thing, about a writer sharing very many personal details with the writer of the novel: two consonants have been strategically struck out of the first name, ‘Pola’ becoming ‘Mona’, such that the reader is invited to identify the protagonist of Pola Oloixarac’s Mona (2021) as something like an authorial alter ego. The novel is not autofiction, but at the same time it would not be possible without the existence of autofiction. Mona – a Latin American writer lauded, like Oloixarac herself, for novels of ideas – is praised for her masculine-coded fusing of ‘politics and literature’, a commitment, according to another character, ‘“painfully rare” in her generation’. This, the narrator reports, ‘was an implicit snub of what other critics were calling “micropolitics” and “autofiction”’. 

How to account for this prevalence of the auto-, anti-, or simply postfictional? A number of answers, all of them too easy, suggest themselves (it’s probably got something to do with the internet, identity politics, ‘post-truth’, blah blah), but perhaps part of the difficulty stems from the naturalisation of fictionality. Fiction has not always existed; depending on who you ask, it’s either a relatively recent invention of the past two hundred years or a variable narrative technology. Either way, the category of ‘fictionality’ is so useful that we tend to project it into the past without thinking too much about it. As a result, fiction suddenly seems as transhistorical as narrative itself. But one hallmark of early novels, in a variety of languages and traditions, is their partial fictionality – even, in many cases, the outright disavowal of their fictionality. Many early English novels declared themselves to be ‘true histories’ – or better yet, ‘secret histories’ – and their alleged relation to the real was the very point of reading them. Today we tend to refer to one such text from 1719 as a ‘novel’ called ‘Robinson Crusoe’ that is ‘by’ an author named Daniel Defoe. However, its original titlepage declared it to be: 

The LIFE and Strange Surprizing ADVENTURES of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, where-in all the Men perished but himself. WITH An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by PYRATES. Written by Himself.   

To be sure, this is something more than a title – it is equal parts summary and advertisement – but the point of it was to stress the facticity of the text to follow. The stranger, the better. What’s more, such titlepages would often have only the barest relation to the text they announced. For instance, the title page for Defoe’s much better and more twisted novel of 1724, The Fortunate Mistress, better known today by the title Roxana, promises ‘a History of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of Mademoiselle de Beleau, Afterwards call’d The Countess de Wintselsheim, in Germany, Being the Person known by the Name of the Lady Roxana in the Time of King Charles II’. Roxana – real name, Susan – is never known by the name ‘Mademoiselle de Beleau’ and never lives in Germany. But she tells the story herself. Hence, despite these inaccuracies, the purpose of such titles was to establish a close relation between the authority of the first-person and the events of the text. 

Such devices are by no means unique to the English history of fictionality either. Think of the elaborate conceit of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605, 1615), which breaks off a few chapters in because its narrator’s source text abruptly ends. Luckily enough, however, that narrator (not identical with Cervantes) finds an account of the exploits of the knight in a market, written by an Arab historian, which the narrator then has translated, and upon which the rest of the story is based. These layers of textuality constitute the ‘novel’ we now know as Don Quixote, which is divided into two parts; a five-year gap separated the two volumes, and in the second volume the characters themselves are now famous because so many people they encounter have read part one. Textual layering of this kind makes the relation to the real crucial to the novel. 

Some scholars thus refer to this narrative mode not as fictionality but as pseudofactuality. For instance, arguably the most famous Chinese novel, known in English as The Story of the Stone or The Dream of the Red Chamber (circa 1760), by Cao Xueqin, doesn’t understand itself as fictional per se. In fact it opens in the ‘Land of Illusion’ where a grand archway bears the following couplet: ‘Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; / Real becomes not-real when the unreal’s real’ – an indistinction between reality and fiction that Cao’s novel goes on to thematise. Early on one minor character, Jia Rui, is caught in an attempted liaison and blackmailed; the anxiety of this experience leaves him bedridden for months. One day, however, he is given an enchanted mirror which is promised to cure him so long as he does not look into the front of it. As a rule, one should be very careful with enchanted mirrors; Jia is not. He defies the advice and gazes into the mirror, which shows him his beloved, whereupon:  

his ravished soul floated into the mirror after her. There they performed the act of love together, after which she saw him out again. But when he found himself once more back in his bed he stared and cried out in horror: for the mirror, of its own accord, had turned itself round in his hand and the same grinning skull faced him that he had seen before. He could feel the sweat trickling all over his body and lower down in the bed a little pool of semen that he had just ejaculated. 

The mirror shortly flies out of the room of its own volition, at which point a disembodied voice chastises Jia’s family: ‘Who told him to look in the front? It is you who are to blame, for confusing the unreal with the real!’ Jia is a little like Don Quixote in this respect; the difference is that Quixote’s cursed mirror was a book. But neither Cao’s novel nor Cervantes’s nor Defoe’s is really fictional, at least in the modern sense. Fiction requires no spurious pretext, no elaborate conceit, and it entails no danger of confusing the real and the unreal. 

It would therefore seem that fictionality has had a relatively short life, because that indistinction between the real and the unreal is back. Indeed, like the autofictional protagonists of so-called ‘theory novels’ who are his descendants, Don Quixote was anxious about his reputation and downwardly mobile, a member of a decaying class without a clear purpose who had read too many books. Because he is the emblematic proto-modern, even proto-postmodern, subject, the invocation of the Quixote leads all too easily to familiar forms of explanation: Emergent modernity! World-historical transformation! Convulsions in the mode of production! The blurry project of postfiction undoubtedly has something to do with the changing social forms of capital, although it is not clear exactly what or to what degree this is so. Capitalism has had several rebrands in recent times, with a whole alphabet of modified capitalisms – cognitive, platform, zombie – jostling for prominence. Some theorists even speak – however tortuously – not of capitalism, but of techno- or neo-feudalism, the return of an archaic mode of production with the je ne sais quoi of technics (Quixote capitalism, perhaps), or even just of ‘something worse’ which ‘killed capitalism’. So, then, if fictionality is dead too, what killed it? Was it the same thing that killed capitalism? Is this even an appropriate mode of inquiry? 

These, broadly, are the questions asked – albeit very differently – by two new works of literary criticism that offer theoretical accounts of the present crisis. Timothy Bewes, in his National Book Critics Circle Award-winning book Free Indirect (2022), calls ours a ‘postfictional age’. Anna Kornbluh, on the other hand, contends that postfictional conceits are symptoms of a widespread desire for ‘immediacy’ in contemporary culture, such that literary style tends towards closeness, intimacy, and the first-person. Her new book, Immediacy (2024), proposes a master category for cultural life today. Immediacy is, in the words of the book’s subtitle, ‘The Style of Too Late Capitalism’.  

For reasons that will become clear, Bewes is less specific about what this ‘postfictional age’ is. Kornbluh, however, is quite explicit that postfictionality is one form immediacy takes – it may be understood in relation to changes in psychic life and in the mode of production. The book is therefore not only about literature: Kornbluh’s opening image of immediacy aesthetics is the ‘immersive’ Van Gogh exhibitions proliferating around the world. Such exhibitions solicit the desire not just to view a work of art, but to merge with it – as if mere painting were no longer powerful enough to stimulate the viewer’s burnt-out sensorium; many of them include a guided yoga session that Kornbluh dubs ‘vanGoghga’. Immersion in turn dissolves medium itself, such that the ‘work of art becomes indistinguishable from its installation and the corporeality of its spectators’. Other examples abound, but this experience of ‘total engagement’ is the paradigm of immediacy aesthetics. What unites the cultural production of contemporary life is the pursuit of sheer presence and phenomenal immersion over abstraction, reflection, and defamiliarisation: these are the components of mediation, immediacy’s opposite.  

Despite its totalising ambitions, Immediacy is quite concise, more a diagnostic survey than an exhaustive study, and early on Kornbluh expresses the hope that it will provide ‘inspiration to further analysis, of music or fashion or more’. However, Kornbluh is a literary scholar – specialising in the Victorian novel and literary theory, especially Marxist and psychoanalytic – and the three central chapters of the book reflect these interests, dealing respectively with narrative arts (literature and cinema/television) and contemporary theory. Although the book is about contemporary culture, it is really an intervention into practices of immediacy in writing of different kinds: literary, visual, theoretical.  

The chapter on literature begins with an epigraph from Karl Ove Knausgaard, emblematic figure of autofiction: ‘Fictional writing’, he declares in volume 2 of My Struggle, ‘has no value’. For Kornbluh, this statement is more telling than Knausgaard himself realises. A ‘crisis’ of the value of fictionality bespeaks a crisis of the production of actual value. The contraction of productivity over the past fifty years has led to a ‘compensatory expansion’ of circulation, leading to the valorisation of capital through the distribution rather than the production of commodities. To be sure, this is a phenomenon of the imperial core: the analysis is clearly periodised with reference to the oil embargo of 1973 and the long-term decline of US global dominance. In the history of capitalism, conditions of expanded circulation have obtained before – the mercantilist seventeenth century and the expansion of finance in the nineteenth are two other cases that Kornbluh adapts from Giovanni Arrighi – but there is something distinctive for Kornbluh about the present moment of ‘speculative privatisation’. The contemporary priority of circulation within global capitalism therefore ‘conditions immediacy as cultural style’, and it is a style that ‘immanentizes presence, eclipses relay, and negates mediation’. All barriers must be overcome to accelerate circulation; anything that stands in the way will be liquidated, including the apparatus of fictionality. 

If it seems a little vulgar to connect something like the aesthetics of antifictionality to rumblings in the economic infrastructure, then Kornbluh is unapologetic: for her, mediation is the work of drawing connections between isolated phenomena, defamiliarizing familiar experiences and accounting speculatively for their deeper causation. The title of her book openly recalls Fredric Jameson’s epochal study Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), but it also tries to update it. In chapters simply titled ‘Culture’, ‘Ideology’, ‘Video’, and so on, Jameson argued that postmodernism’s various forms of appearance expressed a crisis of historical imagination and experience, namely, the domination of ‘our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural languages … by categories of space rather than by categories of time’. If a ‘waning of affect’ and of historicity marked late capitalism, then ‘too late capitalism’ names a crisis of futurity (in ‘Writing’, ‘Video’ and ‘Antitheory’, as Kornbluh’s chapters have it). Too late capitalism represents the foregone conclusion of imminent planetary collapse, a temporality of permanent crisis in which the ‘overmuchness of lateness arrests itself’. In this sense, immediacy knows something about our predicament: if there is no distance between the collective human subject and the crisis that is already here, there would seem to be nothing emancipatory about the mediations of fiction, cinema, theory, or anything else.  

But is the answer really to double down? Mediation, for Kornbluh (as for Jameson before her), is nothing less than the essential labour of critical thought, the theoretical operation capable of describing a ‘cultural logic’ (that is, a relation between phenomena at different levels of reality: for instance, postmodernism is the organisation of culture that corresponds to, interacts with, and is co-constitutive of late capitalism). In Kornbluh’s words, mediation consists of:  

the active process of relating – making sense and making meaning by inlaying into medium; making middles that merge extremes; making available in language and image and rhythm the supervalent abstractions otherwise unavailable to our sensuous perception – like ‘justice’ or ‘value’. Now, this middling falters … 

This, properly speaking, is the task of critique. One can see Kornbluh practising it here too: that chain of clauses, studded with alliterative repetitions and surprising nominalisations (‘this middling’), models the connective mode of thought that it describes. And it is exactly this modality of connection-making that is assaulted by the language of immediacy, a language which is also ventriloquised – less effectively – in the text: many paragraphs end with a hashtag (#NoFilter) or some meme slogan (‘Get in, loser’), as if to evoke immediacy’s viral infiltration of our very cognitive equipment.  

Mediation takes many forms: theorists do it; works of art do it. Fictionality is one form of mediation because the invention of persons who could exist and could do the things done in fiction straddles the universal and the particular; it offers a hypothetical field of enquiry and reflection. Among other things, fiction affords ‘narrative, impersonality, and collectivity’; in place of these possibilities afforded by fictionality, ‘reality, voice, personality, and atomism ascend’. In this light, Knausgaard’s refusal of fictionality looks like a manifesto for the aesthetics of immediacy. 

For Kornbluh, the waning of fictionality is evident in a range of writers, from J. M. Coetzee to Chris Kraus to Tao Lin. Though all these writers produce very different work, Kornbluh’s intention is not to study them in much depth. Rather, she is interested in exposing the ‘unifying logic’ of immediacy at work in all of them. In literature, immediacy takes the form of autofiction, ‘first personalism’, the explosion of memoir – whose ‘experimental’ quality Kornbluh connects with the ‘personal essay boom’ and the renewed investment in the fragment as form, the ‘twittering archipelagization of prose’. In the realm of video, meanwhile, what better image for immediacy is there than the opening sequence of the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems (2019) – the title itself promising an unmediated object – which moves from an open mine in Ethiopia into the very colon of its antihero. This sequence ‘consolidates immediacy as video style’, but Kornbluh is alert to other features, including the despecification of medium across the ambiguous videoworld of streaming, whose ‘flow’ produces formal homogeneity. This in turn is linked to the ‘cinematography of immanence’, from Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone camera work to the now ubiquitous televisual turn to the audience (spanning the rise of the streaming era, from 2013’s House of Cards onwards), an ‘interpellation’ that is the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt turned inside out, the fourth wall smashed in service not of alienation but rather of ‘intimacies of confession and collusion’, horrifyingly naturalised by Zoom calls and ‘device integration’. Even more dystopic is the popularity of what Kornbluh calls the trope of ‘looping’ in shows such as Russian Doll (2019) that centre on the repetition of scenarios, form becoming content as the ‘technological medium’ of streaming is transferred into the narrative template itself: a loop going round and round and round, only occasionally nudging the viewer to check whether they are still conscious. 

Above all, though, it is the disintegration of genre that marks immediacy aesthetics. Genre-bending writing, ‘autofiction’ and ‘autotheory’ both, is symptomatic of its own conditions of production. Once infamously celebrated as ‘reality hunger’, the abolition of the fictional apparatus of character and plot, or of disciplinary boundaries, merely aestheticises the circulation-intensive economy, revealing the dismaying fact that ‘[p]rofessions without experts leave individuals flailing to auto-actualize alone in the society that does not exist’. So goes the contemporary autofictional novel, or autotheoretical monograph, overheated and involuted at once, repeatedly presenting nothing so much as its own presence. Kornbluh’s point is that immediacy erodes rather than enriches the capacity of narrative art (literature and video) to think. Kornbluh clearly regards the embrace by theorists of immediacy as a betrayal of the historic mission of theory, which is supposed to rise above the seductions of the ‘merely evident’, providing the medium in which ‘ideas themselves negate their own delimiting determinations’.  

Looking over the field of contemporary theory can indeed be a dispiriting sight. There is hyper-empricism, in the form of ‘post-critique’ and its fidelity to the text as it ‘is’, its valorisation of ‘just’ reading or – as Bewes once put it – ‘reading with the grain’. There is autotheory, the kind of theory that emerges from and completely absorbs itself in the subjectivity of the author – but, in a marked break from earlier variants like écriture féminine, does not attempt to base any theoretical abstraction upon it. Autotheory is, for Kornbluh, really antitheory, marrying lyrical intensity to an absolutised subjectivity that expresses itself by way of seductive but shallow theoretical fragments. Such work is an ‘evanescent plenum that preempts criticism’. The nadir of this kind of autotheory, according to Kornbluh, is McKenzie Wark’s Reverse Cowgirl (2020), in which Wark enjoins her reader to fuck her book: ‘Take your cock, press it against one end of the ass that is this book. Slide it in, out, in, out, until somebody cums’. (One thinks of Jia Rui, alone in his bed, clutching his cursed mirror.) So far from being a weapon in the hands of the proletariat, as Marx once put it, theory becomes here little more than an instrument for self-stimulation – a dildo in the hands of the bourgeoisie – abandoning all aspirations toward ‘linguistic or conceptual sense’. In this respect autotheory collaborates with capital in the ‘capture … of psychic life’; Kornbluh argues very compellingly that the praise of interdisciplinarity, the tags of ‘experimental writing’ and ‘genre bending’ that attach to a text of memoir-slash-autotheory like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015), actually index the collapse of the institutions of thought. What is an experimental writer if not a casual academic in the humanities, ready to teach a bit of philosophy, a bit of creative writing, a bit of gender studies – a bit of whatever’s going, really. 

While Wark is condemned for ‘consonating’ with the regime of neoliberal privatisation, ‘consonance’ is not quite an account of historical causation. As always, the danger of this mode of analysis – which looks for logics – is that any collection of phenomena will, from a high enough level of abstraction, look the same, or at least a bit similar. Such a mode of analysis in its weakest forms is not mediation proper but ‘homology’, a concept developed by the Marxist theorist Lucien Goldmann, according to which the structural features of cultural and social forms can be shown to be, at a far enough remove, identical (in Goldmann’s classic case study, the philosophy, religion and literature of seventeenth-century France). But ‘homology’ in cultural theory is itself a kind of homology, having its provenance in the natural sciences, where it names the structural similarity between apparently unrelated phenomena, such as the bones in the fin of a whale and those in a human hand. In his own major statement on method, The Political Unconscious (1983), Jameson argued that, as a model of culture, homology is too ‘simplistic and mechanical’ for thinking difference and relation across cultural forms. The function of mediation proper, for Jameson, is not to spot identities, but rather to find an initial basis for comparison by establishing a shared language in which they can be analysed – and, as necessary, distinguished. ‘Mediation’, he wrote, ‘undertakes to establish this initial identity, against which then – but only then – local identification or differentiation can be registered’. 

Reading Kornbluh’s book, however, it is not always clear that the second part of this procedure of mediation is completed. The account of immediacy is secured, as I have noted, by way of Marxism and psychoanalysis, but there is a residual homology here, at the theoretical foundation of the book. Kornbluh associates Lacan’s tripartite model of psychic experience – the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real – with elements of political economic reality; thus, immediacy as a problem of circulation-intensive or too-late capitalism is now rewritten as a problem of an overemphasis on the imaginary rather than the symbolic. But when Kornbluh offers her book as a ‘formalized solicitation of the symbolic’, instead of the immediacy of the imaginary, one must wonder: is the Lacanian ‘symbolic’ really the same thing as ‘mediation’?  

I don’t think Kornbluh thinks that it is. My point, rather, is that there is a very fine line between good and bad mediations. If homology is weak because it merely notices superficial similarities, it must also be recognised – as Sianne Ngai recently reflected, on the fortieth anniversary of The Political Unconscious – that ‘in the end, mediations are similarities’, and when it comes to dialectical thought the proof, as Hegel knew, is in the pudding. If Kornbluh doesn’t always perform the second part of Jameson’s transcoding operation – the discussion of local differences – it is only because the book doesn’t spend very long with many of its key examples. It is only unfortunate that such an otherwise convincing plea for the necessity of mediation does not fully undertake its signature move.  

Kornbluh is aware of these risks: towards the end, she writes that ‘the very point of proposing a totalizing category like immediacy is to delimit the dominant formation so that alternatives come into the light’. In the conclusion she does just that, pointing to alternatives to immediacy aesthetics including the massive depopulated aerial landscapes of the photographer Edward Burtysnsky. Burtynsky’s images ‘activate the symbolic’ because they are compositionally dense and because they represent the global system of value extraction as more-than-human (against this scale and scope, this abstraction, Kornbluh posits Kim Kardashian’s book of Insta posts, Selfish). Abstractions also liberate – to reprise a slogan from Kornbluh’s previous book, The Order of Forms (2019). Proximity and intensity, to be properly understood, require the ‘capacitating abstraction’ of theoretical reflection, not merely rushing personalism, ‘concretude, expressivism, nihilism’.  

The key claim of The Order of Forms was that literary realism is not as, well, realistic as it is often made out to be, and that it possesses a ‘little-recognized faculty for abstraction’ in its thinking of space, place and social forms. It was an effort to defamiliarise Victorian realism – but in Immediacy the opposite theoretical move is carried out, as a more conservative vision of literary realism is offered in contrast to the bleary impressions of autofiction. There are clues early on that this is afoot. In her description of what is lost in the antiformalism of autofiction, Kornbluh essentially outlines a Victorian novel: ‘Sustained narration with distant perspective, multiple characters, evental plotting, quoted dialogue, and long paragraphs all come under pressure to reduce, instantify, sharpen’. Unfortunately, then, the narrative and theoretical exemplars of mediation that she selects at the end of this book also represent this same tendency to reinscribe a normative realism as a weapon against immediacy: TV shows like Queen Sugar and Succession, and fiction writers including Colson Whitehead, Diana Evans, and Brandon Taylor, who all write fiction in a recognisably realist mode. And in the domain of theory, she cites three scholars thinking against the grain of antimediation: the Victorianist Caroline Levine; Ngai, whose work ranges widely but draws many of its key case studies from the realist tradition; and Jameson, for whom realism has always been a central concern. 

There must be other ways of thinking about – and through – this immediacy. There must be other ways of thinking about how and why the novel thinks. Kornbluh is right not to give up on certain trad aspects of the novel because they do allow for modes of thought that are impossible to attain otherwise. There’s a reason that every new book is sold as an allegedly ‘astonishing’ account of ‘how we live now’, in a commodified reflection of the novel’s capacity to make you think in and through the agency of other people, invented and otherwise. Its function is not merely to invite the reader to overidentify with its narrator. The novel is unrivalled when it comes to eliciting ‘collective intellection’, and third-person fiction offers a ‘kind of thinking that individuals do not experience in their everyday lives’. There is something downright emancipatory about free indirect discourse, a ‘marvellous affordance of language only available in written form’. After all, those free-floating words, hovering somewhere between narrator and characters, ‘belong to no one and therefore to a kind of everyone – that’s what makes them free’.  

As its title suggests, Timothy Bewes’s book Free Indirect: The Novel in a Postfictional Age takes the openness of free indirect discourse – that language both addressed and belonging to ‘a kind of everyone’ – as the starting point for his theory of postfictionality, or perhaps of ‘the novel today’, though even that phrase is problematic on Bewes’s own terms. What, after all, is the novel?  

It is a basic question of the kind that is not asked enough in literary studies anymore, and asking it takes Free Indirect to some remarkable places in the outer realms of literary theory. For Bewes – as for the great underground thinker Mikhail Bakhtin – the novel is not really a form or a genre, but rather a ‘logic’ within literature that destroys form and obliterates genre along with any subjectivity from which that discourse might issue. So, when Bakhtin speaks of ‘novelisation’, he refers not to the ‘rise of the novel’, but rather to a kind of permanent revolution of form, language, and subjectivity. The novel is ‘simply a mode of thought of which it alone is capable’, in Bewes’s gloss. Free Indirect is an attempt to describe this mode of thought – all the while recognising that such a task may be impossible, as novelistic thought belongs, strictly speaking, to the novel, not to theory. If this sounds a little bonkers, that’s because it is, for the book is committed to theorising an object that it takes to be untheorisable. The paradoxes – and possibilities – arising from this situation make for an exciting, if often disorienting, ride. 

Bewes’s study is thus a very different kind of book to Kornbluh’s. Where Kornbluh sought to defend the practice of mediation as the narrative and theoretical art of drawing relations, Bewes heralds the distinctive practice of the postfictional novel as that of breaking all such relations. If the novel, Bewes remarks, ‘thinks in relations’, then what is distinctive about postfiction is that it abolishes all relationality. Despite this, Kornbluh and Bewes have much in common, chiefly a methodological foundation in Marxism as a mode of thought (Jameson looms as large in Free Indirect as he does in Immediacy). In fact, Bewes identifies a single passage from Jameson’s Marxism and Form (1971), a vigorous defence of Georg Lukács (the Marxist literary theorist often remembered as a hysterical defender of realism or, at worst, a compliant stooge of Stalin), as the starting point for the book: 

The peculiarity of the structure of historical materialism lies in its denial of the autonomy of thought itself, in its insistence, itself a thought, on the way in which pure thought functions as a disguised mode of social behavior, in its uncomfortable reminder of the material and historical reality of spirit. … It … refuses us in the very moment in which we imagine ourselves to be refusing it.  

This is the crucial point for Bewes: even this denial of the autonomy of thought is itself a thought. It cannot be anything else. If thought is subject to a fundamental heteronomy, the thought that this is so must issue from somewhere, or belong to somebody or something; or, phrased another way, it must exist in a form independent of any subject who can think it. This form of thought is nonsubjective: it ‘cannot be ours’, Bewes concludes. It must exist somewhere, out there, between the subject and the object of ‘our’ thought. It is, in other words, ‘free indirect’.  

If Kornbluh’s book is an attempt to take Jameson further, beyond postmodernity, by offering an object lesson in emancipatory abstraction to ‘mediate us out of this place’ of too late capitalism, then Bewes is trying to get beyond Jameson himself: that is, beyond the very paradigm of mediation, of critique as the making of connections. Unspooling out of Jameson’s observation, Bewes’s book is also directed at two key ‘slogans’ he sees as governing – and constraining – contemporary novel theory: ‘Only Connect’, the epigraph to E. M. Forster’s Howards End; and ‘Always historicize!’ – the infamous opening serve of Jameson’s Political Unconscious. The contemporary novel is doing something qualitatively different to the type of mediation that Kornbluh sees as its distinctive relation to the world. The most interesting fiction today – Bewes’s central example is Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (2003) – is essentially concerned with neither its own inner integrity (pace Forster) nor its external relationality (pace Jameson). Postfiction abolishes the field of relationality itself. It does so by thinking to the very edge of what a novel is; and in thinking so, it produces a ‘noninstrumental, nonsubjectively inhabitable, nontransferable and therefore nonideological thought specific to the novel’. Offering a catalogue of mainly Anglophone writers (many of whom Kornbluh also discusses), Bewes writes that such ‘free indirect’ thought is nevertheless ‘enigmatic, little-studied, in fact barely noticed’, and even, he admits, ‘technically untheorizable’. But, all the same, the task he sets himself is to think this mode of thinking the unthinkable. 

In proposing a theory of an untheorisable mode of disconnection, Bewes draws a great deal from Bakhtin, but he also returns, in a major way, to Lukács: these pioneering theorists of the novel grasped at – but did not fully account for – the way that the novel always accesses what Lukács called ‘the fundamental dissonance of existence’. This dissonance can never be fully captured by theoretical abstraction; Lukács is only able to get at it because ‘the theorist’, Bewes writes, ‘is not Lukács but the novel itself’ – his ‘theory of the novel’ is a theory of which the novel is the subject rather than the object. For this reason, the young Lukács is Bewes’s most important interlocutor throughout Free Indirect, because he showed that novels can think in ways that theorists cannot. 

This is a claim with which it is logically impossible to disagree: positing a domain of thought proper to and accessible only by the novel itself requires no assent from the human subject, the theorist. Bewes’s project is to imagine a literature that ‘would neither affirm nor regret’ Lukács’s fundamental dissonance. The ‘free indirect’ is the speculative end of this quest: it is an emergent property of contemporary fiction that evacuates all subjectivity. And Bewes is quite clear: the ‘universalisation’ of free indirect discourse is not a matter of the way thought is represented in the novel. It’s not simply that thought, self-consciousness, or reflection is an important ‘theme’ of contemporary postfiction (though this is also true). Instead, it is an issue of how the novel itself thinks.  

For this reason, the rise of ‘formally ambiguous modes of writing’ that dispense with the structures of fictionality are not – as they are for Kornbluh – a symptom of a collapse of symbolic efficiency and the expansion of circulatory valorisation. No, the contemporary novel is marked most of all by its insistent attempts to destroy all internal and external forms of relation. Bewes cites Bakhtin’s comment that the achievement of novelistic discourse – as opposed to the petrified world of the epic – was to establish a ‘zone of maximally close contact between the represented object and contemporary reality in all its inconclusiveness’. Postfictionality vindicates Bakhtin: the zone of contact is growing ever larger. Unlike Kornbluh, however, Bewes is not sounding the alarm about this kind of immediacy and its thinning of mediation; postfictionality has ‘ontological implications’ that point ‘beyond the practice of literature’, but these are not consequences of capital’s arrogation of our psychic lives. To think so is to bring the wrong questions to this problem.  

Most literary theory is committed to the fundamental premise that literary works are ‘instantiated’ in relation to some supervening structure – say, a mode of production – that it is the task of theory, in Kornbluh’s account, to make visible. Bewes calls this the ‘instantiation relation’. Because novel theory relies upon the idea that the novel is an ‘object of analysis’ – clearly bounded with respect to the historical and social world, and distinct from other modes of thought and writing, and, above all else ‘a relationship of mutuality and complementarity between fiction and the world’ – it has no purchase on postfictionality as such. But how and when was the ‘instantiation relation’ sundered?  

The book opens with this very question: ‘What kind of shift has taken place when a register of narrative certainty gives way to one of crisis and disorientation, in which the authenticity not only of the account but also of the experience falls into doubt?’ Unusually, however, the argument unfolds through the continuous annihilation of the tools one might use to answer this question. Speaking the unspeakable is impossible; so, too, is it impossible to offer individual literary works as proof of the destruction of the very possibility of exemplarity, as Bewes does. Midway through, in a brief discussion of a novel by Jesse Ball, Bewes recognises this: ‘The unfortunate implication of the central argument of this book’, he laments, ‘is that any textual example falls short of its realization to the very degree that it may be invoked in support of it’. But he promptly lets himself out the back door: ‘However, this is the predicament of all works of theory’.  

True enough, for this predicament marks the ‘always insistent pressure to substitute the recognition of already existing ideas for thought’, as Bewes wrote in ‘Reading with the Grain’, whose arguments prefigure Free Indirect. The paradoxes attending Bewes’s impossible effort to think the novel’s thought become especially acute whenever he confronts, even momentarily, the historicity of his argument. He has a cautious, halting relation to periodisation – one of the indispensable tools of theory for Kornbluh – and there are a number of moments when he struggles, precisely because of the paradox of the instantiation relation, to delimit the very ‘postfictional age’ that is his ostensible object. Again, the question he begins with is: ‘What kind of shift has taken place…?’ which presupposes the occurrence of a shift of some sort – historical, social, spatiotemporal, something, and then he ramifies this argument by noting, a page later, that this question ‘has a special significance in the literature of our own era’, because there is ‘no historical period in which the question of thought comes more directly into focus’. As we’ve seen, this is not really the concern of the book, which deals with the thought of the novel, rather than thought about the novel. Thus Bewes’s arguments are not to be secured by reference to historical or social developments either.  

The book is to some extent framed with respect to the publication of Elizabeth Costello, an ‘event in the history and theory of the novel’, but Bewes is adamant that the ‘free indirect’ mode of novelistic thought does not begin in 2003. Coetzee’s novel is rather an event in Alain Badiou’s specific sense: the eruption of the qualitatively new is possible so long as one follows through on its consequences and maintains commitment to it. Free Indirect could be considered Bewes’s attempt to maintain fidelity to the evental postfictionality of Coetzee’s novel. Thus the ‘postfictional universe’ is less a ‘new idea than a new order of legibility, of thinkability’. But at the same time, a new order implies a crisis, a break, and Bewes’s assertion that ‘the conditions of speaking and writing have changed irreparably’ obliges one to speculate as to when and how this happened. Such are the rich and at times frustrating problematics of the ‘instantiation relation’.  

In fact, it proves difficult to think about what Bewes calls the ‘logic of disconnection’ in the contemporary novel without staging the covert return of a ‘cultural logic’. Do texts like Coetzee’s not express the ‘cultural logic’ of the collapse of the ‘instantiation relation’? Bewes argues quite strenuously that they do not, but he recognises that there is a problem: ‘How can the very analysis of the “instantiation relation” escape the instantiation relation?’ The answer to this objection is that just because two novels (one by W.G. Sebald, one by Coetzee) may each be read as speaking of the lack of an instantiation relation, we’re not required ‘to accept that it is the same absence, or that the historical situation is the same in each case’, or – and this is the moment at which the reader’s hat is blown off – ‘even that there is a historical situation to speak of’. As with much of the book, this is almost apodictic: the end of the instantiation relation would entail – no, even presuppose – the (possible) absence of a determinate historical situation to which the work might correspond.  

This problem of history is brought into focus when Bewes tries to specify the quality of postfictionality later in the book: postfictional writing is ‘best conceived as a continuation of the historical trajectory of the novel, not a break with it’, and yet, as we have seen, Bewes insists equally on the difference of postfiction from the fiction that came before it. To some extent this hesitancy around the question of historical causation is inherited from Gilles Deleuze and his notion of a ‘sensorimotor break’, which provides the conceptual armature for the free indirect. After this break, ‘what Deleuze’s seer sees is, in a sense, nothing. Nothing, that is, but seeing itself’ – just as the reader of postfiction experiences only the thought of the novel itself. But for Deleuze, as for Bewes, the question of when and how such a break occurred is obscure. If the ‘sensorimotor break takes place’, Bewes writes, paraphrasing Deleuze, ‘it is because it had already taken place long ago’. This is not a properly historical argument, of course, and Deleuze has been criticised for it. Jacques Rancière, for example, argued that the decisive break actually happened around 1800, with the birth of romanticism and the emergence of what Rancière calls the ‘aesthetic regime’. Under the aesthetic regime – unlike the ‘ethical’ and the ‘representative’ regimes that preceded it – art can be about anything at all, take any form, and issue from anyone. It becomes, in short, ‘an autonomous form of life’. A break of the kind that Deleuze theorises would then only be a later development of this ‘original scene of aesthetics,’ as Rancière dubbed it. 

The issue with Rancière’s ‘aesthetic regime’ is that it is barely a regime at all. If the aesthetic regime names a situation in which anything and everything can be made into art, then it is also not a regime to the same extent that it is one, and thus there would seem to be ‘no exit’ from it: it is the ‘regime of the nonregime’. In the last two chapters of Free Indirect, Bewes usefully restages this debate, moving beyond this impasse by reconciling Rancière and Deleuze: his theory of the free indirect preserves the logic of Deleuze’s ‘break’, while also turning out to be the concealed heart of Rancière’s project. Symptomatically, Rancière becomes a great theorist of the free indirect precisely because of his scrupulous commitment to not talking about it. Of course, it cannot be fully thought, spoken, or theorised. Rancière’s commitment to naming aesthetic forms occurs ‘always under the auspices of a secret decommissioning of the name’. Hence the free indirect – with its abolition of the instantiation relation – appears in Rancière’s work precisely because it is totally absent from it. ‘How better to do justice to the unrepresentable than by refusing to acknowledge it?’ How, indeed, could it be otherwise?  

This is abstract and enervating to the same degree that it is speculative and invigorating; after all, Bewes is trying to go somewhere new. He is also frank about the limits of his own project. Indeed, his frankness is one of his most appealing qualities as a critic – his book The Event of Postcolonial Shame begins with a Beckettian meditation on his own appearance (‘I have just reached the age of forty… Physically I am of average height and build. I have a growing paunch and an incipient stoop…’), culminating in the rhetorical question: ‘What better reason to write, asks Gilles Deleuze, than the shame of being a man?’ This frankness is present throughout Free Indirect too. ‘What’, he wonders aloud, ‘is the virtue of introducing into the realm of concepts a formlessness that must escape even the form that is “formlessness” itself[?]’, and this is a feeling that his readers might well share. In its weakest moments, the book feels like an argument or even a celebration of formlessness, ‘absolute heterogeneity’, even mystification – in short, the very thing Kornbluh warned us about: confusion. 

After all, merely refusing a historical account of the free indirect does not dissolve the claims of historicity. To paraphrase Jameson, history may well refuse you in the very moment that you imagine yourself to be refusing it. When Bewes develops a critique of the concept of a ‘cultural logic’, he quotes Jameson’s argument that periodising history with a speculative ‘cultural dominant’ is necessary for understanding it, lest the critic be returned to a ‘view of present history as sheer heterogeneity’. This paradigm is not the only one available to literary theory. However, I think that in Free Indirect some unstated periodisation of literary history creeps back in. Early on, for instance, Bewes wonders why it is that the traditional structures of novelistic form are in crisis. A symptom of this might be the way that writing itself has become thematised in so much contemporary fiction, with so many protagonists having moments of ‘perception or reflection [that] are perpetually doubled, subverted, by an awareness of their literary or formal quality’. Bewes quotes a relatively contemporary postfictional novel, Teju Cole’s Open City (2011), in which the narrator self-consciously experiences his own reaction at repeatedly forgetting his PIN ‘as though I had become a minor character in a Jane Austen novel’. Later he quotes Sebald, this time in interview, contrasting his own work to that of Austen in much the same way. 

Indeed, the very title of the book refers to the literary technique that, literary historians tend to argue, Austen perfected; Frances Ferguson has even called it ‘the novel’s one and only formal contribution to literature’. Thus, Austen has been made to stand for fictionality itself. When used as a foil in the manner above, her work stands for the conflation of fictionality with realism and realism with the novel – and not just any novel, but a very particular type of novel. It is not accidental, for instance, that Cole’s narrator imagines himself to be like a ‘minor character’ in an Austen novel. Austen’s handling of minor characters – her construction of ensembles of characters with relative degrees of ‘protagonicity’ – is one of her other major contributions to literature, the perfection of a template for scenic form that continues to grip the main tradition of the Anglophone novel (and the global forms of the novel influenced by it) to such a degree that the very word ‘novel’ signifies those essential properties of Austen’s work: realistic description; scenic presentation; access to the interiority and psychology of persons; and, above all, an omniscient narrator in command of free indirect discourse. Secondary characters do not merely ‘reflect’ the depth of central characters. Rather, Austen’s innovation, as Alex Woloch puts it in his study of minor characters, was to conceive of a novelistic form in which ‘Elizabeth, Darcy, and all the secondary characters fit into one unified, although asymmetric field, which is the controlling structure and final representation of the novel’. Austen’s novels are prototypical of such a character system; that system, in Woloch’s words, also constitutes a ‘a textual structure homologous to the social structure of capitalism’.  

Bah! Homology! The return of the repressed! Yes – but to the extent that Bewes implicitly presupposes Austen as an emblem of ‘the novel’, his attempts to move beyond the ‘instantiation relation’ actually return his argument, however surreptitiously, to the much more vulgar territory of homological thinking, precisely because it does not engage in a more thoroughgoing attempt at periodisation and historical situatedness. What’s more, the use of Austen as a foil leads to a kind of presentism. While it is indeed true that Austen has been a dominating presence in the last two centuries of English and European novelistic production, it is also true that there is a longer history of fictionality that is obscured when Austen is taken as the absolute horizon of novelistic practice. 

For there have been many novels that are not, or are not quite, fictional. And many of the works we regard as ‘novels’ are not novels in the modern sense, only there exists no better word for them: Cao Xueqin did not write fiction; nor, exactly, did Cervantes or Defoe, or so many others from the history of what is now called the novel. But the mature form of the novel, and the generic realism through which its fictionality is expressed, makes possible the thinking of precursor forms. As Marx put it, long ago, ‘Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape. The bourgeois economy thus supplies the key to the ancient, etc.’ – but always, he was careful to note, with an ‘essential difference’: not only is it too easy to imagine the advanced form as being the end point, with all precursors necessarily tending towards it, but so too is it easy to overlook the contradictions of the higher form itself, which contains the ‘partly unconquered remnants’ of past forms within it, more or less altered. In the same way, the emergence of the postfictional novel transforms the ‘prefictional’ novel for us today. Bewes’s description at the outset of a postfictional novel as a specimen of ‘formally ambiguous’ writing, in which characters are aware of the ‘literary or formal quality’ of their own perceptions, could well describe the moment early on in Don Quixote where our hero, addressing his squire, Sancho Panza, happily declares that his behaviour is determined by its eventual inclusion in some future book about his life: ‘The wise man whose task it will be to write the history of my deeds must have thought it would be a good idea if I took some appellative title as did the knights of the past’. 

Why must fictionality be associated only with realism, and only with the novel? Or realism with the novel and with fictionality, or any combination of these three terms? Asking this question makes the comparison of Kornbluh and Bewes look a little like the old Lukács against the young: while the older Lukács held fast to the idea that only the realist novel could mediate the social totality, his younger self ended the Theory of the Novel with a vision beyond ‘the novel’ itself. ‘Dostoevsky did not write novels’, he proclaimed; his writing ‘belongs to the new world’ (though that world may come to be ‘crushed by the sterile power of the merely existent’), but it will be the task of critics to determine whether he is ‘merely a beginning or already a completion’. The point is not that the literary achievements of postfictionality are contained within the ‘prefictional’ field, nor to empty the category of fictionality of its content. Rather, it is that this enlarged historical perspective allows us to see a certain symmetry (call it ‘homology’ if you dare) between the postfictional writing of the present and the prefictional writing of the past, while opening up the future of a form that can survive after fiction precisely because it emerged before it. 

Works Cited

  • Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, University of Texas Press, 1981. 
  • Timothy Bewes, ‘Reading with the Grain’, Differences, 2010. 
  • –. The Event of Postcolonial Shame, Princeton University Press, 2011. 
  • –. ‘The Novel as a Challenge to the Concept of Literature’, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, 2023. 
  • Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone Volume I, translated by David Hawkes, Penguin Classics, 1977. 
  • Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, Penguin Classics, 2003.  
  • –. Roxana, Penguin Classics, 1987. 
  • Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, translated by Edith Grossman, Vintage Classics, 2005. 
  • Frances Ferguson, ‘Jane Austen, Emma and the Impact of Form’, MLQ, 2000. 
  • Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature, Princeton University Press, 1971. 
  • –. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Routledge Classics, 2005. 
  • –. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, 1991. 
  • Anna Kornbluh, The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism and Social Space, University of Chicago Press, 2019. 
  • Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature, MIT Press, 1971. 
  • Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, translated by Martin Nicolaus, Penguin Classics, 1973. 
  • Evgeny Morozov, ‘Critique of Techno-Feudal Reason’, New Left Review, 2022. 
  • Sianne Ngai, ‘Ambiguous Lever’, PMLA, 2022. 
  • Julie Orlemanski, ‘Who Has Fiction?’, New Literary History, 2019. 
  • Nicholas Paige, Before Fiction: The Ancien Régime of the Novel, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.  
  • Jacques Rancière, ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes’ in Dissensus, translated by Steven Corcoran, Bloomsbury, 2014. 
  • Alex Woloch, The One vs. the Many:The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel, Stanford University Press, 2003.