Words at War: Fiction and Critique Forged in Times and Spaces of Violence

War occupies an uneasy place in literature and in the study of literature. Raymond Williams’s well-known observation about Jane Austen captures something of this dynamic: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen chose to ignore the decisive historical events of her time. Where […] are the Napoleonic wars: the real current of history?” (113). In posing this question, Williams makes war both central to, and beside the point of, the novel form. Today, the relationship between war and how war is configured in writing, especially in the novel, is crucial. Understanding the capacity of fiction to convey war is heightened in the face of two decades of post-9/11 wars, and the recent withdrawal of Western military forces from Afghanistan.

In 2010, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes wonders whether Martin Freeman’s John Watson served in “Afghanistan or Iraq?” The seamless modernization of his literary predecessor’s statement, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” creates a symmetry between then and now, yesterday and today, by setting its scene in London, but talking of violence almost 4,000 miles away. How do twenty-first-century critics writing in our own age of war write about nineteenth-century war? What it means to be at war, who is at war, and the significance of the endeavor are profoundly unsettled issues. Today this disquiet takes particular shape because twenty years of literary and cultural criticism has been written while the U.S. and its allies fought the Global War on Terror. In this post, I trace the centrality of war in critical accounts of Victorian literature today by first focusing on critical engagements with war. I then uncover surprising resonances between critics who write directly about war and those who seem to take up other subjects so that I can end with a sketch of those implications for the novel form.

Writing about nineteenth century war, today’s critics write of liberalism, violence as liberalism, liberalism as violence, war and statistics, civil war, civilizing war, uncivil war, perpetual war, forever war, and the forever war.[1] Carolyn Lesjak opens The Afterlife of Enclosure with the uncompromising statement, “The historical record leaves no doubt that the Victorian period, despite claims to the contrary, was an age neither of equipoise nor innocence” (1). Nasser Mufti’s Civilizing War reveals the persistence of Orientalism, bringing together the nineteenth century and twenty-first centuries by focusing on the centrality of civil war to “the politics of empire” (6). In telling this story of persistence, Mufti also tells of change, of how civil war transforms from “a civil affair to an uncivil crisis” as it moves from then to now (7). Nathan Hensley’s Forms of Empire underlines the intimacy between writing and violence by emphasizing the central role of words in making war by showing how the dynamic of war in a time of equipoise, and equipoise in a time of war, forms the writing of the period. His more recent “Drone Form” links nineteenth-century writing about war to a signal development in war fighting today—the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles—to bring into view “the mediation of war in material form” (227). Jed Esty’s “Realism Wars” examines three moments (1880-1900, 1940-60, and the post-Cold War present) to connect tensions around the meaning and practice of realism amid the shift from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana.[2] In their distinctive ways, Mufti, Hensley, and Esty link today and yesterday by writing of war in peacetime and peace amid war.[3]

Criticism on the handling of time in imaginative literature is crucial to understanding how war and writing about war are intertwined. The nature of war and the nature of a particular war can be shaped by the writing about that war. When the pace of writing changes—whether that’s narrative pacing or the interval between an event in war and the publication of writing about that event—what war looks and feels like also changes. Stephanie Markovitz focuses on developments in writing during a time of conflict to show how writing about war in real time emerged during the Crimean War (1853-56).[4] Lily Gurton-Wachter writes of watchwords to pay critical attention to attention as an act of war, in part by calling our attention to the forms of attention that exist outside of governmental strictures. Markovitz and Gurton-Wachter take writing about war and writing in a time of war as their subjects to reveal how developments in warfare and developments in writing remake the handling of time in writing; they also explore how the time it takes for writing to reach readers changes along with readers’ engagement with (or disengagement from) that writing.

War, writing, and spatial relations are also interlaced. Today Western, predominantly white, critics write of war at a distance from war, a reality that underscores both our own safety and the central importance of geography. As Mohsin Hamid writes in Exit West, “Location, location, location, the realtors say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians.” Writing in the early twenty-first century, a time of war at a distance, Mary Favret writes of how a previous era wrote war at a distance. Her prelude begins by looping back and forth between early 2003 and 1787:

As it looks back over two centuries, War at a Distance tells how military conflict on a global scale looked and felt to a population whose armies and navies waged war for decades, but always at a distance […] British Romanticism gives its distinctive voice to the dislocated experience that is modern wartime: the experience of war mediated, of time and times unmoored, of feeling intensified but also adrift. (2)

War at a distance for one group is war at home for another, not just because some go to war while others stay home, but because war is fought at someone’s home. Favret’s book appears as scholars take the measure of the power of novels to measure geography and what that activity means for the boundaries of our own academic fields and disciplines.

Up to this point, we have seen that writers, researchers, and thinkers today are attuned to the resonances between war in the nineteenth century and today, between then and now, and we have seen that thinking through issues of narrative pacing and working through issues of narrative spacing is central to that work.[5] Now I want to consider how critics today who are not openly writing of war, but who write during a time of war, handle issues of time and space. Not only do yesterday and today vibrate on a similar frequency, but I show that the mutual illumination produced by the back and forth between critics writing about war and critics who do not. The light and shadows this illumination casts show some implications for the form of the novel. A period of protracted war produced writing in real time about war, but was also, as Elizabeth Carolyn Miller writes, a period of slow print. Miller’s slow print looks a bit different in Novel Science by Adelene Buckland, which makes clear the dynamic between geology, with its long sweep of time, and realist narrative, with its moment-by-moment unfolding of action. Still other critics consider writing during the Great Acceleration and the Anthropocene in volumes including Anthropocene Reading, Ecological Form, and The Sky of Our Manufacture. This work refreshes critical treatment of narrative pacing: understanding literature and climate crisis together both dramatically stretches out and speeds up previous notions of long and short durations. Speeding up and slowing down, writing in real time, and writing moment-by-moment are ways of handling time within a narrative that resonates with the time in which a narrative is written. Foregrounding the critical function of analogy, Devin Griffiths writes of writing the past, writing to one’s own day, writing about own’s own day by writing about the past, and writing about the past as the past.[6]

The relation between the near to hand and the far away preoccupies critics today even when they are not explicitly writing about war. Accounts of parlours, apartments, houses, blueprints, cities, and suburbs catch the Victorians in close confines, as do accounts of the local, the regional, and the provinces.[7] Yet even those narrow limits are surprisingly roomy as they open onto wide vistas. Focusing closely on the restricted geographies of Victorian lives and writing reveals surprising forms of extension and expansion in at least two ways. Arguments about these circumscribed domains place them in broader contexts. Moreover, explorations of limited areas exist next to, are shaped by, and shape, accounts of larger geographic expanses that include sustained critical engagement with the nation, the state, the sea, oceans, ice, air, and the sky.[8] What is more, studies of these geographies are themselves informed by and inform studies of how Victorians writing about transit, transport, communication, informatics, and networks reorient people’s relationships to distance in the period.[9] In their considerations of Bardic nationalism to Brown Romantics, critics writing about borders redraw and revise the boundaries of literary studies and fields.[10] Reimagining how to do literary criticism in a globalized age and in the face of resurgent nationalism is facilitated by studies of world literature, the worlds of literature, literature in the world, literature in another country, literature moving around the world, literature in translation, and literature that is born translated.[11] This reimagining takes place as critical interest in form waxes through discussions on the affordances of form, the order of forms, bad form, good form, ecological form, the ecology of form, form and explanation, and drone form. It also occurs as critique itself comes in for criticism: writers engage issues of critique running out of steam, the limits of critique, and the possibility that we have never been critical.[12]

The look and feel of narrative realism, especially in the form of the nineteenth-century British novel, is part and parcel of its legacy of war. Born in a time of war and written for acquisitive and extractive middle-class Britons, the novel revealed a rapidly changing Britain to itself, thus manifesting its autoethnographic power.[13] Realism developed an ability to display broad sweeps of space and precise local knowledge. Realism developed an ability to engage events over long stretches of time and to unfurl moment-by-moment activity. Realism demands close attention over extended periods of time even as it offers up alternative, even impatient, forms of attention. Realism stretches into the future; realism looks to the past; realism captures the look and feel of today. The considerable powers of imaginative literature not only allow a reader to recognize the world on the page, but shape the organization of narratives; imaginative literature makes strange the familiar world of the reader and familiarizes the reader with extraordinary events. In its form and shape narrative realism is forged in war, and critical attention to its temporal rhythms and geographic range both highlight its origins in war and register the critic’s own existence in a time of war.

Katherine Voyles (@1977khv) has a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Irvine, and writes in venues including Victorian Literature & Culture, the V21 Collective, and Victorian Review. She also writes publicly on issues of national security and culture, and the cultures of national security.

Notes & references

Header image: Crimean War, Russia: removing the wounded from the Redan. Wood engraving by E.A. Goodall. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

[1] I am influenced here by Nasser Mufti, Nathan Hensley, Elaine Hadley, and Bruce Robbins.

[2] Kori Schake’s Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony came out a year ahead of Esty’s piece. Schake’s book explains why the peaceful transfer of power from one hegemon to another, a rarity in history, occurred between Britain and the U.S. Schake’s book is a marked contrast to Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can American and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?  published the same year, an account of potential violence wrought by a rising China and declining U.S.

[3] To understand the contours of state violence during times of peace its helpful to touch base with Katherine Judith Anderson who writes of martyrdom and torture to show that: “Martyrological novels’ scenes of torture combine the liturgy of the state and subsequent liturgy of the church into a recognizable ritual pattern that gradually immerses readers in the scene, making them feel as if they are present through an insistent emphasis on shocking sensory details.” I am also indebted to Priya Satia for her in-depth exploration of the relationships between arms, munitions and the Industrial Revolution. Her book Empire of Guns takes 1668-1815 as its dates to show “constant war impinged on the grand economic narrative of the time, the industrial revolution” (2).

[4] I refer to books by Nancy Armstrong, Deanna Kreisel, Alex Woloch, Nicholas Dames, Wendy Ann Lee, Megan Ward, Anna Henchman, and Emily Steinlight.

[5] I rely here on Mary L. Dudziak’s War Time, a book that examines how war and time torque each other. I especially appreciate how she frames herself in distinction to Giorgio Agamben’s idea of “the state of exception.” Dudziak writes, “Viewing war as exceptional to normal life, however, leads us to ignore the persistence of war” (4).

[6] I am also grateful to the volume Postmodern Postwar and After edited by Jason Gladstone, Andrew Hoberek, and Daniel Worden for the ways it troubles, illuminates, and explicates issues of literary periodization in relationship to war.

[7] Sharon Marcus’s Apartment Stories, Thad Logan’s The Victorian Parlour, Sarah Bilston’s The Promise of the Suburbs, and Anna Kornbluh’s “The Realist Blueprint” and The Order of Form are my references.

[8] Books and articles by Elizabeth Helsinger, Lauren Goodlad, Siobhan Carroll, Samuel Baker, and Alexandra Neel have impacted my thinking.

[9] In this case I think of books by Christopher Bayly, Jonathan Grossman, Richard Menke, and Megan Ward.

[10] I think here not only of field-shaping books by Katie Trumpener, Manu Samriti Chander, and Eugenia Zuroski, but of new ways of collecting as academics embodied by Bigger 6 and The V21 Collective twitter feeds and ways of new ways of collecting academic communities in conference, social, and virtual conference spaces.

[11] Work by Emily Apter, Rebecca Walkowitz, Pheng Cheah, Priya Joshi, and John Plotz has made possible my thinking here.

[12] I think of writing by Caroline Levine, Ken Puckett, Jesse Rosenthal, Nathan Hensley, Bruno Latour, Rita Felski, Griffiths, Jonathan Kramnick and Anahid Nersessian, Kornbluh, and the volume edited by Hensley and Philip Steer.

[13] James Buzard’s Disorienting Fiction is the authoritative account of the autoenthographic powers of the Victorian novel.

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