Writing Manuals for the Masses: The Rise of the Literary Advice Industry from Quill to Keyboard

Written by prof. Jan Baetens.

Writing Manuals for the Masses: The Rise of the Literary Advice Industry from Quill to Keyboard (New Directions in Book History) by Anneleen Masschelein and Dirk de Geest, eds.
London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2020

Open access: download the book here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-3-030-53614-5

Writing is a solitary business, slow and extremely time-consuming, without any guarantee of success, symbolic or financial. Nevertheless, nearly everybody dreams of becoming a writer, even a published and successful one. But how to get there?

Talent is not an option. It may help, but it will never be sufficient. Money is not a solution either. Success is like love: you can only sell it, not buy it. Moreover, in technologically enhanced societies financial thresholds are low: online self-publishing costs close to nothing, while talent and genius are old-fashioned concepts which our participatory but highly meritocratic culture has replaced by commitment and hard work. Yes, you can… become a writer. But once again, how to get there?

Luckily, there exists something like writing advice, and during the twentieth century literary counseling has turned into big business.

Writing Manuals for the Masses is not the first book on this practice, which is as old as literature itself, but it is certainly the one that addresses this type of counseling from so many different perspectives and with such a sharp eye on the purposes, needs, and desires of all stakeholders (those in need of advice, those offering it, and all those who function as matchmakers between the two previous groups). The book gives an excellent historical overview of the many ways in which literary advice has grown and evolved, “from quill to keyboard” as the subtitle nicely puts it. But the book is doing much more. It also discusses specific contents (what beginning or aspiring writers are supposed to do), specific techniques (how are literary counselors packaging their advice), and specific contexts (how to study literary advice as a market). In addition, it also tackles the highly sensitive problem of the deeply rooted suspicion toward literary advice, if not the violent rejection of it.

The key question of the book is not that of the raison d’être of literary advice (a false question, it suffices to notice that it exists, while everybody who has ever tried to write knows how necessary it is to feel a hand on one’s shoulder), but that of its incredible explosion since the early twentieth century (and there are no signs that the success of literary advice will not continue to boom in the decades to come).  What are the reasons behind this success? Is it the democratization of culture? The universal pressure to get one’s own 15 minutes of fame? The links between the subfield of literary advice and the larger field of the self-help business? Or why not the effectiveness of these manuals?

Perhaps we should also ask these questions in more negative terms: who is to blame for the success of literary advice? The refusal of formal education to include it in the classic curricula? The collapse of the traditional gatekeeping system and the vanished prestige of traditional officers of taste? The aristocratic skepticism of established writers dismissing amateur writing?

Writing Manuals for the Masses asks all these questions, without emphasizing specific answers. The book is an inspiring mapping of the field of literary advice, which we must now give a place near the very center of literary writing as a cultural practice.

The Way of All Flesh

Written by Prof. Jan Baetens

I have no idea whether Yukio Mishima is (still) a key figure in queer and LGBTQ studies, but his lesser known 1963 novel The School of Flesh would be a good starting point of a broad and stimulating cultural analysis (original title: Nikutai no gakkō; I read the book in French, for as far as I know there exists no English translation, unless of course one considers the US/UK release of Benoît Jacquot’s movie adaptation a case of intermedial and interlinguistic translation).

However, like all great works, the novel is not only of interest for one specific perspective or target group. The School of Flesh can also be read from other angles, such as for instance the reflection on the permanently shifting models of what the words “modern”, “contemporary” or “fashionable” may mean in specific yet simultaneously very diverse communities. Mishima highlights the fundamentally relative character of these references while at the same time bringing to the fore the no less fundamentally stable structure of some underlying cultural tropes.

However, like all great works, the novel is not only of interest for one specific perspective or target group. The School of Flesh can also be read from other angles, such as for instance the reflection on the permanently shifting models of what the words “modern”, “contemporary” or “fashionable” may mean in specific yet simultaneously very diverse communities. Mishima highlights the fundamentally relative character of these references while at the same time bringing to the fore the no less fundamentally stable structure of some underlying cultural tropes.

At first sight, this love story between an “older” upper class fashion retailer (she is in her late thirties) and a young and wild (he is twenty-one) but poor and lower middle-class student exclusively interested in “money” and “getting rich” (when they meet he works as a barkeeper/prostitute in a gay night club), is also a superb case study in the ephemerality of cultural canons –and I am taking here the position of a 2021 Belgian reader, intrigued by the way in which Mishima describes cultural change in Tokyo in the early sixties. Published in 1963, that is only some years after the great Ozu movies observing the destruction of traditional Japanese family structures due to the American occupation, Mishima’s novel foregrounds the French craze, all cultural referents of modern life having turned French: the luxury industry (special perfumes by Patou), cuisine (precooked French fries), fashion (the turning point in the book is a show with the latest creations of Yves Saint-Laurent, himself present behind and before the curtains and ridiculed by Mishima as a narcissistic pussy), and above all French literature. The reading of French literature is a must. Business men are scorned for speaking English (as we know, Mishima was extremely nationalist) and not-reading books, that is French books. The female protagonist has strong opinions on Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, the half-savage half-dropout student has less books then clothes (and all he reads are economy textbooks).

Mishima analysis is sharp: fashion, cuisine, luxury, and linguistic snootiness (Belgians visiting Tokyo share the same astonishment caused by the great number of French words in the public domain), are still there, and what happened in Tokyo has now become a universal phenomenon in almost all parts of the world. But what about the item that the novel presents as the heart of the matter, namely the prestige of French writing? For today’s readers of The School of Flesh, the literary references of the novel’s world will have become quite exotic (did you ever read Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter? or did you ever feel guilty for not being well read in recent French writing?), and that fading away of literature as the pillar of art and culture is of course not a detail in a book obsessed with the clash between traditional and modern, that is Japanese and Western ways of life. Mishima’s treatment of French literature is complex and ambivalent: French writing is at the same presented as an instrument against Americanization and a tool in the hands of those eager to abandon traditional Japanese culture. Yet as the very acme of culture, it also represents a kind of indirect survival of traditional Japanese culture, and its disappearance from the field of French culture, soon to be reduced to luxury and life style items, also hints at the devastation of “real” culture.

However, the changing status of French “signs”, which both aggressively emerge (food, fashion, logos, icons) and ineluctably withdraw from the center of culture (to be on the page does no longer suppose the reading of the latest French works, as shown by the attitude of all those wanting to make money), is only one layer of Mishima’s cultural work. Underneath, his novel also displays the ruthless return and stability of the mechanism of social distinction and the social comedy and agency through the manipulation of cultural signs. Today, Mishima would undoubtedly have used other cultural frameworks, but the vital link of “school” and “flesh” would definitely return. Culture is a something that has to be learned and whose learning does not come for free, while the mastery of signs and codes is something that is not just used for “Bildung” but also and perhaps even chiefly for sex.

“The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality” by Merve Emre

Written by Prof. Anneleen Masschelein.

It is always great to read a piece of research that you would have wanted to write yourself: thoroughly researched, fascinating and funny. The Personality Brokers is such a book. The book starts off as a personal quest as well as an archival research into the origins of the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a personality test frequently used by human resources and professional coaching. Personality type is characterized by a combination of four letters, determined along four axes: the world you prefer (Extravert versus Introvert), how you take in information (Sensing versus Intuiting), how you make decisions (Thinking or Feeling) and how you structure your life (Judging and Perceiving) (nowadays, there is a fifth axis, determining how confident you are).

The test is based on a questionnaire in which every question has to be answered in quick succession of one another. The MBTI normally has to be administered by a trained professional, but there are plenty of free online versions to be found as well. (https://www.16personalities.com/) Considering the widespread use and popularity of this and other personality tests and assessment in the twenty-first century, it’s not a surprise that the book is a bestseller, garnering excellent reviews (except from people within the MBTI brand community who don’t like the critical tone) in both literary and economic journals. Once you’ve finished the book, you cannot help but marvel at how a test – which became so successful as to evolve into a verb (typing), which brings it on a par with google – was created in the first half of the twentieth century by Katharine Cook Myers, a housewife who meticulously observed her daughter, Isabel, in order to perfect her education system. Katharine not only monitored her daughter, but also counseled her friends and neighbors on educational matters. When she discovered the writings of psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung in the 1930s, she was able to perfect her system into the first version of the MBTI chart, even though she never had any formal psychological training. Later in life, Katharine passed on her creation on to her daughter Isabel Myers-Briggs. Unlike her mother, Isabel was not happy to be just a stay-at-home mum and after a failed career as a detective writer, she devoted herself to the test and eventually found employment within the burgeoning field of human resources. She mostly worked on a correspondence basis, selling her test to small and large businesses to help with the hiring process. It didn’t take long however for her to gather some odd customers as well. The government for example wanted to use the test to train spies in the Cold War fifties era while universities were looking for statistically valid personality tests to screen students in the sixties.

The story of MBTI is an endearing story of two single-minded women who pursue their passion, against all odds and facing great resistance from the (male) establishment. At the same time, it also sheds light on some of the most intriguing aspects of the twentieth century: the interrelation of the rise of psychology and the war; self-improvement and self-care as a replacement for religion in post-War American society; the drive towards categorization and quantification of personality; and ultimately the exploitation of human resources in late capitalism.

One of the most interesting episodes is Isabel’s employment by the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor of the CIA. That the war greatly increased the demand of ways to assess the personalities of soldiers and spies is a well-established fact (it also greatly stimulated psychotherapy and group therapy), but that a government agency bought home-developed tests with no psychological credentials behind them is remarkable. Later on, the test proved to be a challenge for early psychometrics. In a funny chapter, the middle-aged Isabel goes to Berkeley’s Institute of Personality Assessment and Research to join a team of researchers holed up in a San Francisco frat house, for weeks of incessant testing, not just of students, but also of some of the most distinguished creative minds, among whom Truman Capote.

The narrative of strained relationships with the university and different teams of psychologists who weren’t able to either statistically validate or to definitively discredit the Myers-Briggs test, offers telling insights in how psychology, even today, is never a fully scientific (in the quantitative sense) discipline. That the lack of scientific evidence has not hindered the test’s popularity in late-twentieth’s century capitalism is an understatement: the test’s belated and enduring success can be attributed to its simplicity, to the drive for self-knowledge and human capital and to the shrewd business model behind the institute that safeguards Katharine and Isabel’s invention. Although Emre, following Adorno, is very critical of the essentialist and categorizing drive behind MBTI, she is also deeply fascinated by the test’s enduring appeal. She manages to combine the details that she unearths to a compelling insight into our age’s compulsive focus on the self, also described by sociologists like Eva Ilouz. Focusing on the mother-daughter duo as unlikely heroines, and following their dogged determination and weird encounters, the book reads like a novel that is impossible to turn down.

Blowing in the Books

Written by Prof. Jan Baetens

Visitors of the « Galerie Bortier » near the Central Station in Brussels (a must see for all those interested in 19th Century arcade culture) will have noticed the Crypte Tonique, a modern antiquarian bookshop specialized in popular culture (please notice the allusion to Superman in the name of the company, which means something like “tonic vault”) and managed by Philippe Capart, equally active as publisher, historian, critic and curator.

Brussels: entrance of the Galerie Bortier
La Crypte Tonique: Manager Philippe Capart

One of his recent initiative is the “blowbook”, a new type of small-sized visual narrative books that “reinvent” a special type of books launched by Dutch cartoonist Alfred Mazure during the Second World War, at a moment of great paper shortage. Yet blowbooks (and there are currently already four of them) are much more than just “little books”.

Blowbooks: the current collection

The format is part of a larger policy trying to remediate two problems of current comics publishing: first the neglect of all formats that not fit into the binary model of either the album or the magazine; second, the often dissuasive price of recent publications, which make them no longer available to their intended audience.

Blowbooks are an answer to these problems, more specifically an answer in print (it is well known that graphic narrative is a field that does not easily move from print to screen) as well an answer that relies on the combination of all criteria that play a role in the making, distributing, selling, and reading of this kind of works:

  • Size: 7,5 x 11,5 cm (the size of a packet of cigarettes or a standard 52 cards deck) and more than 200 pages
  • Layout: one panel per page
  • Material quality of the object: first class printing and binding and particular focus on the work’s cover and opening and ending pages (generally just “filled” with technical information)
  • A new marketing tool: the books are not sold in bookshops or newsstands but in vending machines in the public space (like the first Penguins, by the way).
  • A special prize: five euros.
  • An attractive mix of reissues of classic small format books and new, often highly experimental works.
Vending machine in the Galerie Bortier
Penguin’s original “book-o-mat”

Blowbooks are just great. Buy them. Read them. Share them. Swap them. Keep them (if you manage to get them back from your friends of course).

Violence and Comics

By Nicoletta Mandolini


Representing Acts of Violence in Comics

Eds Nina Mickwitz, Ian Horton and Ian Hague

New York: Routledge

ISBN: 978-1-138-48453-5

Hardback: 120.00 £

Ebook: 22.50 £

There was a time, approximately around the beginning of the second half of the Twentieth Century, when comics were considered as a mere tool for entertainment. Back then, the academic debate on the use of violence in comics was mainly focused on the dangers of displaying gruesome acts by means of such a popular medium, accessed by such a young readership. This resulted in the demonization of graphic narratives, which was followed by important acts of censorship (think, for example, at the strict regulations imposed by the Comics Code Authority in the U.S. during the 1950s). Now that comics’ dignity as an art form has been recognised by critics and academics, the debate has switched and scholars have started asking themselves other, equally important, questions. How can comics contribute to the political act of denouncing the horrors of war? When it comes to sexual and gendered violence, how can comics represent the phenomenon without re-victimising the abused? How does the combination of text and images facilitate the reception of narratives aimed at sensibilising the reader on anti-violence stances?

Representing Acts of Violence in Comics (Routledge 2019), edited by Nina Mickwitz, Ian Horton and Ian Hague, is one of the first scholarly books to address these issues. Paired with its companion volume, Contexts of Violence in Comics (Routledge 2019), the publication stems from a conference organised on the topic of graphic narratives and violence by the Comics UK Forum in 2014 (https://comicsforum.org/comics-forum-archives/comics-forum-2014/). If Contexts of Violence in Comics focuses on critical points such as the issues of history and memory, war and peace, urban conflict, law, justice and censorship, by giving relevance to specific historical and geo-cultural contexts (the Spanish civil war, the Second World War as seen through the lens of French comics, the Lebanese civil war, the Swedish comics market and the Second World War, the use of comics by the American defence industry), Representing Acts of Violence in Comics aims at analysing the narratological and stylistic techniques employed for depicting abuse in graphic narratives.

The editors’ decision to divide the volume in four different sections testifies of the interest in prioritising a medium specific and thematic approach. The first section, entitled Depiction because of the authors’ declared interest in the formal characteristics of the texts, includes contributions on graphic narratives such as Keiji Nakazawa’s manga Barefoot Gen (John Miers), the underground comix anthology magazine Slow Death (Laurike un t’ Veld) and on the representation of biblical violence in Robert Crumb’s The Book of Genesis, Siku’s Manga Bible and the series The Goddamned (Zonne Domoney-Lyttle). The second part, Embodiment, gathers two chapters that look at the body (considered both object of the representation and subject engaged in the physical act of reading) as a crucial component in the representation of violence: Laura A. Pearson’s analysis of Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’ Red: A Haida Manga and Ester Szép’s reading of Joe Sacco’s The Great War. The third unit, Humor, looks at irony as a strategy used to portray different kinds of abuse in the British comics Beano (Christopher J. Thompson) and in graphic memoirs centred on episodes of sexual or domestic violence (Nicola Streeten). This last essay functions as a trait d’union with the last and most conspicuous section of the book, dedicated to Gendered and Sexual Violence, with chapters by Maggie Gray on Alan Moore’s The Ballad of Halo Jones, Joseph Willis on The Last Man and The Walking Dead, Jamie Brassett and Richard Raynold on the figure of Marvel’s supervillain Killgrave/The Purple Man.

As this brief summary shows, the analysis is conducted through a close reading that, in some cases, leads to important reflections on graphic narrative’s ability to overcome the problems of representability of abuse and its traumas. Szép’s affective investigation of Joe Sacco’s work, for example, identifies in the performative and, together, material dimension of the reading experience imposed by The Great War’s giant publishing format the possibility to reduce at a minimum the risks of approaching images of violence as a remote spectacle. Another valuable contribution is given by Gray on the ethically controversial matter of representing gendered violence. Supported by her analysis of Moore’s comics strips, she states the imperative, for feminist portrayals interested in describing gender hierarchies without confirming stereotypes or dichotomies, of showing “the dystopian reality of what is, while sketching utopian possibilities of what could be” (155). Graphic narratives, according to Gray, can be considered a powerful tool for such an enterprise.

The table of contents also demonstrates the editors’ effort to diversify the analysis by including studies on different types of violence (direct and indirect abuse, war violence, colonial violence, environmental violence, sexual and gender violence) as they are represented in different typologies of graphic narratives (graphic novels, mainstream comics, independent comics and even research-based comics). Notwithstanding this visible effort, Representing Acts of Violence in Comics mainly focuses on Anglophone texts (the only exception being the Japanese manga Barfoot Gen). This decision, which contradicts Contexts of Violence in Comics’ attempt to follow a global perspective, deprives the volume of a crucial aspect and risks to corrupt the work’s integrity. In presenting their book as a general investigation on violence and comics, without specifying the Anglophone-centric perspective from which the analysis of most contributors clearly stems, the editors somehow confirm the problematic tendency to impose the analysis of cultural products published in English (the language that, not by coincidence, is culturally hegemonic at present) as universal. Far from being a marginal issue, the awareness of power relationships (even in the realm of languages and culture) is an imperative when it comes to every discussion on violence and its representations.comics-4056840_960_720




Back to Neorealism, and beyond?

By Jan Baetens

Franceso Pitassio

Neorealist Film Culture, 1945-1954. Rome, Open Cinema

Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press (Film Culture in Transition series), 2019

PitassioSince the scholarly production on Neorealism continues to be superabundant (and this in more than one language), the new book by Francesco Pitassio may not immediately be distinguished by all those interested in the field, but one can be sure that the outstanding qualities of this book will soon turn it into a real classic, both in the specific domain of Neorealist cinema and in the broader domain of film and cultural studies in general. Pitassio’s study is indeed much more than a new take on Neorealism; it is also a landmark reflection on the theoretical and methodological questions that define film history. In this regard, its stakes and insights are of interest to all those working on film as cultural form, just as, for instance, the book by Antoine de Baecque on cinephilia as a form of film culture, which partially covers similar ground (cf. La cinéphilie. Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture, 1944-1968, Fayard, 2013).

Pitassio’s book is neither a story of Neorealism as a specific style of filmmaking nor a close-reading of some of its well-known masterpieces (by De Sica, Rosselini or Visconti). Instead, the author focuses on a much wider approach that examines Neorealism in light of a large set of cultural-historical traditions, practices, and constraints, that deeply affect a type of cinema often described in terms of absolute novelty and lack of antecedents. Pitassio challenges this narrow (narrowly aesthetic as well as narrowly ideological) and traditionally auteurist notion of Neorealism in order to ask completely new questions and open new windows to overlooked historical contexts and productions. At the same time, this broader contextualization of Neorealism is also a way of reopening a certain number of questions that are too easily, that is, uncritically taken for granted in film studies.

The starting point is Pittasio’s refusal to limit Neorealism to a set of themes, stylistic features, works, and directors, and the decision to consider it a way of reinventing new forms of culture in a period of crisis, when the classic distinctions between old and new, center and periphery, established and innovative are no longer valid and where all those involved in cinema at all possible levels (funding, production, distribution, but also reviewing and actual moviegoing) can no longer rely on existing structures and habits.

After the introduction on Neorealism as “transitional culture”, Pitassio develops his study along four axes: first that of the tension between national, international and transnational culture (Neorealism still has the reputation of being “typically Italian”, but a closer look at this filmic culture displays a permanent interaction between Italian and non-Italian elements); second that of the clash between a very realistic representation of the present (which starts in 1943, when Italy breaks the pact with Germany and the country is occupied by the Nazis) and the complete absence of the twenty years of Fascism that precede the mythical rebirth of the nation; third, the overwhelming presence of non-Neorealist visual styles and images within Neorealism (as shown for instance by the permanent interaction with the photonovel, allegedly very different from all things Neorealist); and fourth the generally ignored copresence of amateurs and professionals in Neorealist films (a way of filmmaking often pitched as voluntarily antiprofessional as a guarantee of supreme authenticity).

On all these points, which Pitassio describes as crossroads, the book radically challenges our traditional ways of thinking on Neorealism. At the same time, the author also returns to a large number of general concepts, such as for instance “realism”, “popular culture” or “nationalism”, in order to give a critical survey of the existing scholarship as well as its usefulness or not for the study of this type of cinema and cinema and culture in general. The advantages of this approach are exceptional: on the one hand, it helps bring to the fore numerous works and authors whose importance has never been acknowledged; on the other hand, it progressively builds a more complex, more nuanced and above all more open reading of Neorealism, which ceases to be the absolute novelty it still is for many of us but which at the same time also appears an extremely fascinating way of dealing with already existing styles and practices, as demonstrated by the brilliant analyses of, among many other discoveries one can make in this book, the role of Modernist documentary styles or the influence of 19th century visual and literary melodrama in the mass-media marketing of these movies with the help of decidedly non-Neorealist posters.

Abstract Narratives, and No End

By Jan Baetens

Four wattsébastien conard

fo(u)r watt

het balanseer, 2019, limited edition (10 euros)


“Abstract comics” are a vital strand of contemporary avant-garde comics, nowadays well-represented and largely accepted in various countries and traditions. Yet rather than trying to define what abstracts comics are, where they come from, or where they are going to, it is necessary to start reading them. The publication of fo(u)r watt, an attractive joint project of publisher Het Balanseer (by far the most daring of independent literary publishers in Flanders: http://hetbalanseer.be/) and Sébastien Conard (whose creative work hovers between visual art and comics) is a good opportunity to do so.

Based on a string of four quotations from Samuel Beckett’s Watt (written in 1942-1944, published in 1953), fo(u)r watt is a work that demonstrates the formal and imaginative power of a type of visual narrative in print that does not need the alibi of a precomposed scenario to display a wide range of stories, characters, and places -the three inevitably intertwined aspects or dimensions of any narrative whatsoever. The sequential arrangement of the drawings in this book follows the fundamental structure of the diptych as suggested by its first images: the whole string of drawings unfolds between the four quotations by Beckett, which one finds in the beginning (1 sentence), in the middle (2 sentences, each of them on of the pages of the central double spread) and in the end (1 sentence), the covers of the book being deprived of visual images (they just contain “printed matter, which rapidly morphs into a visual sign as well, given the mirror effect between front and back cover: a chronology is thus established by purely formal means, but this chronology is not unilinear, since one is encouraged to read from A to Z and then back again from Z to A).

The images of fo(u)r watt do not “illustrate” Beckett’s text. Neither are they “abstract” in the traditional sense of the word: it is possible to identify as well as to name some of its components (a keyhole or a railroad track, for instance). But the lack of a directly visible narrative or thematic link between these images invites the reader to disclose another and perhaps more important layer of their meaning: the way in which they present a fictional world by taking their inspiration from the material properties of the book itself. The two pane window is not a “symbol” of the book; corollarily, the keyhole and the railroad track are not symbols of the reader’s focusing on the unknown territory and her or his trajectory from one page to another, respectively: they are nothing more or nothing less than the fictional transfer of it. However, this transfer is also something to be read in two ways: from the underlying material to the emerging fictional equivalent, but also from the latter to the former – and “resistance” of some drawings to nicely tie in with this type of reading scheme is also there to prevent us from opting for one type of reading at the expense of the other one.

The essential structure of the book exceeds the debate on the meaning of the drawings themselves. What matters is the dynamics created by the visual montage, which obeys a movement of fort-da. fo(u)r watt emerges as a fan-like or accordion-like structure, which can be opened and closed at will, but whose manipulation reveals –and each movement brings this structure more prominently to the fore– an endless spiral. The very last image, which reframes the initial representation of the diptych, shows the interplay between circle and point, the circle being broken, the point being elsewhere than in the center of the circle: a nice way as well to add a critical counterpoint to the initial quotation, which states that “all is said”.

Four watt 2

Between Utopia and Dystopia

By Jan Baetens

La Maison d’ailleurs (“The House of Elsewhere”) is a Swiss museum exclusively devoted to the world of science-fiction (http://www.ailleurs.ch/en/). It currently hosts a major exhibition, Mondes Imparfaits/Imperfect Worlds, on the famous Belgian comics series, The Obscure cities, by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.[1]

Mondes ImparfaitsThis major event (17 November 2019 – 25 October 2020), which offers a wonderful survey of the artwork of the series (gradually morphed into a transmedial universe that also blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality), is built around a reflection on the tension between utopia and dystopia.

In the lavishly illustrated catalog that serves as the companion volume to the show,[2] the Obscure cities world is framed from three different perspectives, which allow for a broad contextualization of the series’ themes and visual world. Part One is an essay by François Rosset (University of Lausanne) on the notion of utopia, which is approached from a historical as well as thematic point of view. It presents the major landmarks of the genre in various media, while addressing topics such as travelogues, paradise, or frontiers. Part Two, logically devoted to dystopia, contains a study by Marc Atallah (director of the Museum and equally Professor at Lausanne). It also presents its subject with the help of key examples borrowed from several media, mainly literature and cinema, and discusses issues such as alienation and surveillance. The Third Part of the Book is an in-depth conversation with the makers of the series, François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, who bring together the reflection on their own work and their ideas on utopia and dystopia, more particularly on the way in which the Obscure Cities help question social, artistic, philosophical, and human aspects of an imagined but highly recognizable world.

Imperfect Worlds is not only a great book for the quality of these texts, it is also a richly illustrated and beautifully printed volume that will prove the starting point of many new explorations into the world of science fiction, which as we know is totally part of our own world.

[1] The complete series is now available, for close-reading as well as for binge-reading, in four superb boxes, published with Casterman, see: https://www.casterman.com/Bande-dessinee/Collections-series/albums/les-cites-obscures

[2] Mondes imparfaits. Autour des Cités obscures de Schuiten et Peeters, Yverdon/Brussels : Maison d’ailleurs/Les Impressions nouvelles, ISBN : 9782874497308, 128 pages, hardback, 28,50 euros. ISBN : 9782874497308.

A New Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

By Jan Baetens


Jeffrey Lieber

Flintstone Modernism Or The Crisis in Postwar American Culture

Flintstone Modernism

Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018


I was very jealous of this book’s title, which immediately caught my eye (the dust cover, available in three colors, is no less intriguing) and now, after reading it, I am even more than jealous of the author since Flintstone Modernism is a great read and a brilliant example of the holistic approach of art and history that represents, for me, the best of cultural studies.

Lieber’s book opens with Hannah Arendt’s The Crisis in Culture (1960), the crisis being that of the gap between a lost tradition and an uncertain present as well as our difficulties of building a new future inspired by this past. It ends with deeply moving reflections on Louis Kahn, the visionary architect whose work of the 1950s and 60s is now seen, but only now and certainly not during his lifetime, as the most stimulating illustration of such a bridge between a faraway past and a present aimed at lasting forever.

Yet Flintstone Modernism is not about Arendt and Kahn, but more generally about the paradoxical cultural crisis in postwar America during the two decades after WW2 (there will be other crises to come after these years, but that is not the scope of the book), when the US, as the new world power, tries to give new meaning to a no longer viable European modernism, associated with a functionalist and ideological agenda that was considered outdated as well as incompatible with US values. Lieber’s book analyzes different answers to this fundamental cultural problem, which he frames in terms of the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns (in the 17th Century, this quarrel was between those who considered the models of Ancient Greece and Rome, rediscovered in the Renaissance, as eternal and impossible to surpass and those who stressed instead the inventions and achievements of modern culture). During the postwar period, the US attempts to go in directions other than the European models of the 1920s and 30s. However, common to all these attempts is that the Ancient, which has to be reinvented in Modern times, is no longer that of a totally destroyed and morally bankrupt Europe (and even less of the new evil that was the Soviet Union), but that of the ancient roots of European civilization, namely Egypt, Greece and Rome. More specifically, it appears that the newness to which the US feels attracted cannot be separated from the dream of greatness and monumentality exemplified by the three Ancient cultures, with their Pyramids, their Parthenon and their Forum.

The most original part of Lieber’s book is, however, not his critical stance towards what he calls “Flintstone Modernism” (the popular Flintstones TV series of the early series being such a –funny but also sharp– corporate and petty-bourgeois mix of the Ancients and the Moderns), but his decision to match the analysis of architecture, a typical representative of high art, with an analysis of popular culture, mainly the magazine press (Time, Fortune, shelter and lifestyle magazines) and the immensely popular “sand and sandal” peplums of the period (it will be the same type of movies, think of the infamous 1963 Elizabeth Taylor vehicle Cleopatra, that will play a decisive role in the bankruptcy of the Hollywood studio system in the early sixties). This comparison is dramatically instructive, for Hollywood and Fortune show us much more directly what is at stake in the great social debates of the era than the successive styles and fashions of skyscrapers and corporate or private buildings, which Lieber also reads in light of shelter magazines and big screen escapism. Besides, the comparison also demonstrates the honesty and seriousness of pop (pulp?) culture as well as its major impact on society at large.

Flintstone Modernism is definitely a book on architecture, but it is also a wonderful contribution to the cultural studies take on art and history (and, in that sense, very different from both art history and cultural history). A must-read, I say, and I do hope a future classic.

What a difference the book makes!

By Jan Baetens

le fait diversFrédérique Toudoire-Surlapierre

Le Fait divers et ses fictions

Paris : éd. de Minuit, 2019, 192 p.

ISBN : 9782707345448
18.00 €

There is no real English translation for the French word « fait divers », which refers to the smaller news items, often purely anecdotal and without any special interest –except for the  public that has always devoured them (another French term is “les chiens écrasés”, the crushed dogs being also the traffic victims, of course). These news briefs often have a strongly melodramatic or sensational content (celebs’ divorces, kidnappings, bank robberies, murders) and their ubiquity is generally condemned as a symptom of depoliticizing and streamlining of a mind-numbed audience.

The book by Frédérique Toudoire-Surlapierre questions these prejudices, not by rereading the news brief from a new perspective, but by examining what happens –not in the text but in the mind of the readers– when serious literature takes such news items as its starting point. This general interrogation emerges in a special context, that of the alleged fading-out of literature as a socially relevant cultural practice (why go on reading literature?) and that of the book as a living host medium (why read texts in print if there are screens?). That contemporary literature frequently turns toward the “fait divers” could be seen as a an attempt to reestablish a dialogue with the audience, no longer interested in literature but still fascinated by the news brief. But this is not at all the author’s purpose, who claims instead that the merger of serious literature (be it fictional, autofictional or nonfictional) and the “fait divers” tells us something vital on the present status of literary writing, while also highlighting a key function that no other type of cultural practice can accomplish better than literary texts. On the one hand, the spread of “news literature” demonstrates a shift in the relationship between literature and social commitment: writers are no longer “engagés” (engaged, devoted to a specific cause and putting their texts at the service of this cause; today, this would be considered mere propaganda), but “impliqués” (which does not mean “implicated”, but “involved”, being part of what one is describing or commenting and doing it in a sense that goes with certain obligations). On the other hand, if literature does not change the content matter of the news item, it invites –and in many cases encourages, if not forces– the reader to change his or her mind, since its special take on the news brief confronts the audience with a case of “cognitive dissonance” (Leon Festinger), in other words a way of thinking that diverges from the public opinion. Contrary to other forms of social communication, literature has the right, and perhaps also the duty, to go against the grain and to challenge the doxa or general beliefs, often in shocking and scandalizing ways.

Using a variegated corpus of crime-based news items as rewritten in modern and contemporary literary texts (from Proust to Duras, from Genet to Giono, from Foucault to Bon, among many others), Le Fait divers et ses fictions offers a convincing demonstration of its double basic claim: first, the reinvention of literature as a socially relevant practice in an era of information overload and screen culture; second, the special link between literature and the more general issue of social belief and common opinions as well as the critical role of literature in the mechanisms that make us question the apparently unquestionable.