“By ‘exhaustion’ I don’t mean anything so tired as the subject of physical, moral, or intellectual decadence, only the used-upness of certain forms or the felt exhaustion of certain possibilities–by no means necessarily a cause for despair.”- John Barth, “The Literature of Exhaustion”
“And as in the original John Barth essay, exhaustion is not meant as a term of despair, but as a call for people (and that means all of us, writers, editors, publishers, critics, readers, gatekeepers, whatever) to think a little more seriously about what we want science fiction to be. ”- Paul Kincaid, “What Rough Beast, part 2“
Exhaustion has been on my mind a lot lately. It has been present personally as I try to improve my health, work, and just live my life. I have felt a little exhausted in terms of writing, somewhat paradoxically as I have a queue of reviews and stories and chapters to write. And I have been thinking a lot about literary exhaustion, particularly the problems of SF as “exhausted” that Paul Kincaid recently put forth and “fantasy” as often conservative (and thus limited and unlikely to innovate), which I think falls under the rubric of “exhausted.” Both of these ideas posit a profound dysfunction within each genre rooted in the “used-upness” of conventions and their potential to relate something fresh to the reader. This week I want to consider the idea of exhaustion as a way to think more usefully and critically about these problems, which I believe are actually inevitable opportunities for writers and readers to invigorate the stories they create and engage.
Paul Kincaid has noted that he borrowed the term “exhaustion” from an essay of John Barth’s entitled, unsurprisingly, “The Literature of Exhaustion“. I had not read it before, but after reading it I realized that there is a lot more to this idea of “exhaustion.” I agree with both Kincaid and Barth that we should not despair (although I find some of that emotion in Kincaid’s various discussions), but I think we need to go beyond that assertion, as Barth attempts to do in his piece, and understand the potential for “exhaustion” to be inspiration, to be recognized as a moment of change that comes often but that is rarely seized.
Kincaid uses the idea of exhaustion to criticize some recent short science fiction offerings in “Best Of” anthologies, and from there elaborate a broader thesis on a troubling dynamic he sees in SF literature, which he characterizes as a loss of vision, an inability to grapple with the future. What struck me as I read “The Widening Gyre” and some of his later responses and interviews was that the idea of “exhaustion,” as a jumping-off point for discussion, seemed to hew to the idea of an intentionally-created vacuum, to a cultivated lack or omission. But what Barth is discussing in his essay is not lassitude or weakness; rather, he is examining how some artists deal with the end of possibilities for an art form that frequently arise in the practice and reception of that form. Barth himself refers to his subject initially as “‘the literature of exhausted possibility.'” The distinction here is important; Barth is not arguing that “the literature” has lost its way or no longer has anything to say, but that authors and readers have gotten what they could out of many of its ideas and that it is time to move on.
Barth is not saying that a genre or field becomes exhausted, but that the participants in them have exhausted the currently-accepted range of meanings and narrative parameters. The “genre” isn’t tired or moribund; writers and readers have instead drained its potential to communicate deeply. Tropes, techniques, assumptions have been wrung out; they still have use (particularly as commodities), but not in innovative or interrogative ways. People have found their way through the mazes of written words and the journey has become rote or mere distracting because the corridors are now pretty well-mapped. “A labyrinth, after all, is a place in which, ideally all the possibilities of choice . . . are embodied, and — barring special dispensations like Theseus’ — must be exhausted before one reaches the heart.”
The exhaustion emerges because we are always retelling stories and remixing symbols and concepts, and inevitably the prevailing array of combinations lose their potential to shock or edify readers and writers. The discovery and realization of that exhaustion is unavoidable, and often serves as a catalyst to try something else. It is a signal that we need to think of new ways to tell these old stories, to rework what makes them effective for a new generation or cohort of writers and readers. It is a wake-up call that we need to find “the best next thing” as Barth put it in another essay entitled “The Literature of Replenishment.” We have taken most of the potency from those forms and metaphors and must now figure out how to alter and refashion them so that they resonate again. That requires play and experimentation, resistance and reconfiguration, gambles and missteps, all in the service of restoring stories so that we can tell them again.
As Barth noted, the work of writers such as Borges reminds us that the writing and reading of literature is an ongoing process of “rehears[ing] its possibilities to exhaustion”. There’s a great paragraph in Barth’s essay where he outlines what Borges’ writing tells us about the recurrence and contingency of exhaustion, of the need to sometimes disturb the reader, make them go in circles, show them the regressive aspects of literature. The use of elements such as nested stories are not just tricks of metafiction to alienate the reader, but implorations to reflect on the dilemmas and revelations of fiction. Such techniques, ideally, ask the reader to stop for a moment and ruminate over just what fiction is doing for them and to them. In a sense, these are requests to examine the level of exhaustion present in one’s readings (and perhaps writings as well).
When stories no longer resonate or challenging ideas stop coming through them, it is time to do something different, something risky in response. Some fictions are intentionally designed to stimulate readers to think about the presence of exhaustion, to make it manifest so that it can be used to push ahead to something more powerful. Barth was hopeful that some avant-garde and “postmodern” techniques might accomplish this objective, but he also thought that this moment of exhaustion has happened often in the past and was part of the artistic cycle of literature (of all art, really). There is no one technique that will replenish a literary genre or field, and it is only through supporting and engaging the experimental, the strange, and the obtuse that some measure of replenishment may occur.
But here’s the thing: the replenishment that Barth is calling for is not a re-creation or a retrenchment, but a moving forward. To frame this with regards to fantastic literature, I think his formulation would not chide SF for failing to produce graspable futures, but rather would ask “to what uses can the future be put for the participants in the genre?” or instead of pointing to relatively conservative veins coursing through the substrata of heroic fantasy would strive to mine through them to see what riches might yet lie in the stories they cover up. Finding that stories or tropes are spent is a chance to implement techniques that shake up expectations and ask questions, to probe current forms and practices and discover what variations speak to readers and writers. Exhaustion can either be embraced and reproduced, or fought with wit and gambles.
Exhaustion is an ever-present aspect of the artistic process. It may be that this disdain for the future that Kincaid highlights is part of the process of recovering meaning for the genre. Perhaps that revelation that the “future is something to be approached wearily because we have already imagined it and rubbed away anything that was bright and new” has a firm basis in our relation to the world around us, and the ways genre productions have envisioned the future can’t give us the thoughtfulness or sense of wonder that they supposedly gave us in the past. Of course, even if there is a spirited response to this that results in some new Golden Age of SF, it’s only a matter of time before those productions become exhausted themselves. It may also be that the conservatism and simplifications of many fantasy novels will be overwhelmed by a new wave of critical, playful, sensitive stories that show how staid and limited they are, but that, too, will eventually be appropriated or drained of meaning and power. So we have to take these moments where we identify exhaustion and seize them, write and read fearlessly, and shout at each other about what works and what doesn’t. We have to take advantage of this exhaustion and mercilessly taunt it, and perhaps ourselves to some extent, to find the ideas and words that will energize our imaginations and give us ways to look at the world and ourselves with renewed vision.