Best of the Web

Katy Waldman on Naoise Dolan

At the New Yorker, Katy Waldman begins a sort-of-takedown of the Irish novelist Naoise Dolan with some searching questions about self-consciousness in contemporary fiction:

These self-conscious times have furnished us with a new fallacy. Call it the reflexivity trap. This is the implicit, and sometimes explicit, idea that professing awareness of a fault absolves you of that fault — that lip service equals resistance. The problem with such signalling is that it rarely resolves the anxieties that seem to prompt it. Mocking your emotions, or expressing doubt or shame about them, doesn’t negate those emotions; castigating yourself for hypocrisy, cowardice, or racism won’t necessarily make you less hypocritical, cowardly, or racist. As the cracks in our systems become increasingly visible, the reflexivity trap casts self-awareness as a finish line, not a starting point. To the extent that this discourages further action, oblivion might be preferable.

There are plenty of reasons to think about the trap and its offshoots, which include performative allyship and self-protective irony. I’ll confine myself to books: reflexivity traps are springing all across literature. Aesthetic and commercial incentives drive authors toward the ‘authentic’, and a newly legible form of authenticity, under (forgive me) late capitalism, is a kind of pained complicity. The most trustworthy speakers strike us as perceptive but self-critical. Often, they are darkly funny. Desperate to undercut themselves before the reader can, they don’t prescribe or argue or even exercise much agency but, rather, turn inward, holding up a disenchanted mirror to what they think and feel. The result, viewed uncharitably, is a crop of protagonists who are to be congratulated for spending enough time contemplating themselves that they can correctly diagnose their own flaws.