- Reviewed by
The Modernist Novel and the Decline of Empire is a nicely written, extremely well-organized and, ultimately, quite convincing book. At its best, it enhances and refines our understanding of how the rising professional fields related to the development of modernist fiction in the early-twentieth century. Building on the important work in this [End Page 200] vein by Leonard Diepeveen, Thomas Strychacz, and Lawrence Rainey, Marx makes some interesting additions to the field.
One of the most fascinating of these is the revelation that some modernist authors thought of themselves as service professionals rather than producers of commodities. As Marx shows in the book's best chapter, "Conrad's Gout," this move marks an important difference between the way modernist authors imagined their work relating to themselves and how their romantic precursors did. Rather than linking the work as product to a creative genius, Marx argues, modernist authors (led by Conrad) reformulated what it meant to be an author. According to this new model, the author is not a creative genius who produces works out of nothing, but an editor or craftsperson who reworks older material (Marx is alive to the Barthesian resonances here). This is a crucial shift away from the romantic ideology of the creative genius in part because it means that writing is a craft that can be learned, a change that ties it to the emergent ethic of the professions as well.
The difficulty of this work needs to be reaffirmed at the same time, however, so the modernists (again led by Conrad) also adapted a discourse of suffering-production. Though the craft of writing well (writing poorly can be, and is, done by just about anyone) can be learned, it is not for everyone, and only those truly committed to it body and soul will succeed: "modernism empowered itself through the language of illness and suffering" (27). In this way, the new modernist author-function helped generate the distance so central to modernist ideology. At the same time, it preserved the author's privileged status as the one who suffers to produce great art. The artist was no longer identical with the work, but remained inextricably linked to it through his or her suffering. In this part of his analysis, Marx is both compelling and interesting; his take on the modernist author-function as service work opens up some very interesting new possibilities, particularly as we come to understand globalization as itself the triumph of a kind of totalizing service economy (see, for example, Arjun Appadurai's 1996 work, Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization).
What's missing here is any link to the discourse of suffering-as-authenticity that was emerging at the turn of the century in reaction against charges that luxury and civilization were making people artificial and soft. Likewise, the argument would have gained in force if Marx had been able to provide some other examples of modernists who saw their work as primarily editorial rather than creative (Pound, of course, springs immediately to mind here, as does Eliot's dedication of The Waste-Land to him as "il miglior fabbro" [the best craftsman]). [End Page 201]
Another compelling aspect of the book is its attention to the ways in which modernist fiction thematized the rise of expert culture even as it partook of it. Marx links this aspect of modernist fiction to its reimagining of localities in the context of a global network rather than a core-periphery model. In doing so, Marx questions the modernist notion of artistic autonomy from a different angle than Lawrence Rainey, for example, has done (Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture ). This allows him to expose modernist authorship as a profession among others, even as he convincingly shows it to be a profession that models and imagines new paradigms for professional management, most notably in the imperial context. This is the essence of the remaining chapters.
Starting again with Conrad in "Sentimental Administration," Marx argues that Conrad established a model for rethinking the imperial encounter by...