TEXT review

More mutation

review by Maria Tumarkin


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Toby Litt
Mutants: Selected Essays
Seagull Books, Kolkata India 2016
ISBN 9780857423337
Hb 297pp USD27.50


‘Gogols of this world will always lose out to Tolstoys’, Toby Litt says on the first page of Mutants. He is a Gogol. Tolstoys are dependable monumentalists, Franzens of this world, let’s say, or Roths. Gogols are ‘in love with the grotesquery of paradoxical revelation’ – theirs is a world of joy-inciting contradictions and semi-tones; more often than not, Gogols write what Litt calls, in another piece, ‘headfuck fiction’: the kind that changes what it’s trying do and how it’s doing it halfway through and then again, and / or the kind that chooses to do many, slyly interconnected things at once. Litt thinks each age celebrates its Tolstoys, and he is fine with his lot.

I was thinking that the whole Tolstoy / Gogol thing was actually far more interesting if we shift the conversation from fiction to essays. How might the Gogolification of essayistic writing – reconceiving, or reclaiming, the essay as ‘a kind of seething, perpetual mutation’ – proceed, and is it what Litt is in fact attempting in this, his first non-fiction collection?

It is hard to say because Mutants brings together his published pieces, forewords, afterwords, public lectures, conference papers, contributions to anthologies and catalogues as well as lectures given to his creative writing students at London’s Birkbeck College. The earliest piece comes from 2000; the latest from 2014. Which is to say that it is hard to catch Litt at it: he instructs, provokes, synthesises, sermonises, but not many pieces in this collection do something interesting or special as pieces of writing. Or rather Litt is a prolific writer (he discusses the term ‘prolific’ and the way it sheds and acquires meanings seemingly yearly) but he is not that interested in the kind of thinking through meaty / knotty stuff that can be done particularly, or particularly well, in essays. Which is a shame. The thing about essayistic writing is that, when practiced in good faith, it is structurally dependent on uncertainty and instability Litt sees as crucial to good writing. Essays worthy of their name are never written backwards from a foregone conclusion. Litt’s attempt at defining Great Literature – (capitals are his) and there are plenty of these definitional jogs up the mountain in the book – as ‘a perfectly accomplished form of bewilderment’ (20), strikes me as perfectly, uncannily suited to the essay as a form. Essayist Charles D’Ambrosio, in an interview with essayist Leslie Jamison, puts it this way:

The essay isn’t a form for know-it-alls, though it’s often used that way… It’s kind of an article of faith for me that if you aren’t taken by surprise in the process of putting words on paper then you’re only writing about what you already know, you’re trucking in conclusions. I need a crisis, I’m courting failure, the possibility of silence, because it’s only at that moment that I actually need to find words, new words hopefully. This is a writing thing, a method, however harebrained, but it’s also personal, a way of being—and they’re related, I think. (D’Ambrosio qtd in Malech 2015)

This is right up Litt’s alley. He is all for risks, for going va banque. ‘A lot more will be learnt in the trying-and-failing than in the listening to reasons why not’ (224), he writes and you sense that he actually means it. Litt is interested in the entanglement of knowingness with knowledge (this brings to mind Stephen Colbert’s inspired ‘truthiness’) and in how knowingness, mistaken, willfully or otherwise, for knowledge, precludes writers from taking risks. His discussion of WG Sebald tries to strip back the knowingness. Before Sebald’s death, Litt thinks the master’s books are ‘academic porn’ (to say that about Sebald, even if in the past tense, takes guts!). In time, with the writer no longer around to produce yet another Sebaldian text, Litt comes to see Sebald’s works and his legendary textual meanderings as the coming together and the coming apart of four distinctive kinds of time. Litt’s essay on Kafka is both rousing and moving, as is his sleek, unpublished take-down of David Shields’s overrated Reality Hunger.

Litt sets his sights on monumentalism (again) in his lecture on Muriel Spark. He loves Spark and considers her to be a great, overlooked writer of our era – the era fooled into worshipping false idols by its ‘giganticist mentality’ (except which era isn’t?). ‘Which novel has fitted in the most, has land-grabbed and colonised the largest area of the contemporary world?’ (28) is the way we tend to identify great, lasting works of literature. Yet – yet? – Litt’s non-fiction, at least the bits and pieces we encounter in Mutants, is marked by its own kind of giganticism. ‘The greatest writers, like the greatest athletes, are capable of great precision at great speed’ (21), he writes. ‘With great writing we travel farther, in each sentence, than seems possible’ (21). And elsewhere: ‘great writing, like great art, is that which has the capacity to fascinate the future’ (18). I do not see giganticism as necessarily a problem. Maybe essays should be trying to set up kiosks over the largest territory imaginable, rather than blossoming in localised, intellectually or experientially, enclaves. Yes? No? I’d love to read Litt on this.

For those of us who teach creative writing and wonder what teaching is doing to our writing and thinking (it’s definitely doing something, that much we know), it is instructive to note that the least interesting (and at times the most infuriatingly solipsistic) pieces in this collection involve Litt addressing his MA students – talking straight about bad writing and great writing, ‘word-processed sentences’, Souls, unique Sensibilities (capitals are his). I suspect Litt is a good teacher (maybe even a great teacher) and he may have changed a fair few of his students’ lives, but what is said behind closed classroom doors should not be republished in an essay collection. Most of us are not David Foster Wallaces and Zadie Smiths and even their stuff is borderline tolerable.

Litt is definitely worth reading. He is never boring. He has thoughts. He knows a great deal, yet – yet? – he is unafraid to say ‘I do not know!’ And even in the schtickiest passages, every time he says something it’s as if everything is on the line for him.


Works cited



Maria Tumarkin is a writer and cultural historian. She holds a PhD in cultural history from the University of Melbourne, where she currently teaches creative writing. She is the author of three acclaimed books of ideas: Traumascapes, Courage and Otherland. Maria’s essays have appeared in The Best Australian Essays (2011, 2012 & 2015), Griffith Review, Meanjin, The Monthly, Kill Your Darlings, Sydney Review of Books and other publications. Her essay, No Skin, was shortlisted for the 2015 Melbourne Prize of Literature.


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Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste