Helen DeWitt, Hand to Mouth.

Longtime readers of LH will know that I am an acolyte of Helen DeWitt, and to the question with which Lee Konstantinou begins his essay Helen DeWitt, Hand to Mouth, “Is Helen DeWitt a genius?,” I answer an enthusiastic “Yes!” But as Konstantinou says, “At its worst, all our talk of genius becomes indistinguishable from boosterism and marketing speak,” and it’s not that interesting a question. But he has interesting things to say, like:

Once upon a time, when the mainstream publishing field supported serious experimentalists, we might have called DeWitt a postmodernist. Yet it does not seem right to call her a postmodernist or even an experimentalist in a conventional sense. She isn’t writing the sort of metafiction or magical realism one finds on the pages of novels published by McSweeney’s, isn’t drawn to the sort of autofiction that’s all the rage with our literary Smart Set, and isn’t interested in the slightly askew gritty surrealism of authors such as Nell Zink and Ottessa Moshfegh. Many of these writers wear genius as a badge of distinction, as a social identity or personal brand trumpeted by various—fairly predicable—formal special effects.

DeWitt, by contrast, really does think the novel has something to gain from a substantive encounter with, say, information design or probability theory or Attic Greek. That is, DeWitt is experimental less in how she plays with form and more in terms of the subject matter she imports into contemporary fiction. From this vantage point, if we wanted to call DeWitt a genius, the content of her genius might be found in her rigorous failure to comfortably inhabit her own time. […]

As these examples suggest, the opening question of whether or not DeWitt is a genius has sublated in her fiction into a second, far more interesting question, the question of the mediation of art, the question of how our institutions transform—and damage—the work of the artist. And the initial opposition discussed above, between the ordinary person and the genius, has correspondingly transformed into a different opposition, between those who have settled for the world as it is and those who find the world as it is intolerable. It may well be, DeWitt suggests, that we are all geniuses—wanting only for a good research library and the free time to cultivate our tragically wasted talents.

We are left, at last, with a host of new questions. Is art possible under contemporary capitalism? If so, where can we find fulfilled or fully realized forms of art? If not, what structural and social changes would we need to make to make art possible? What might an artist as talented as DeWitt have written in a world made not for profit but for human flourishing? And how many of the rest of us have been likewise thwarted?

These are not questions for fiction to answer—but for us.

Thanks, jack!


  1. We are left, at last, with a host of new questions. Is art possible under contemporary capitalism?

    Er, right.

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