back to

Today's avant-garde literature is deeply influenced by conceptual art


At The New Republic, Shaj Mathew writes about a slew of celebrated contemporary fiction writers from around the world whose work is influenced by conceptual art. Examining books by Sophie Calle, W. G. Sebald, Michel Houellebecq, Sheila Heti, and Enrique Vila-Matas, Mathew argues that the most innovative and interesting literature today takes inspiration not from the literary field, but from the art word.

In addition to the insertion of actual art within the novel, many of these reality-fictions feature scenes in museums or at contemporary art exhibitions. The opening scene of Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station takes place at the Prado, where the narrator finds the reluctance of the museum guards to close in on an erratic visitor more moving than the actual paintings. Sheila Heti spends three days at Art Basel in How Should a Person Be?, and Michel Houellebecq lampoons the contemporary art world in The Map and the Territory. Siri Hustvedt’s novel What I Loved begins with the discovery of a painting, while her most recent effort, The Blazing World, lays bare the systemic bias against women in the art world. Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence literally became a museum in Istanbul.

The art world has seeped into the literary world in other ways. Most art fairs, including Frieze London and Frieze New York, feature talks by writers in their programs. Hustvedt, the author of a well-received book of art criticism as well, has lectured at the Prado and the Met. And in an interview published this spring (also in BOMB), the novelist Tom McCarthy described how falling in with a crowd of visual artists in his twenties gave him a more sophisticated understanding of literature’s possibilities: “These people generally had a much more dynamic engagement with literature than most ‘literary’ people … and their work seemed to be actively addressing the whole legacy of literary modernism (in the same way that Bruce Nauman works through questions posed by Beckett, for example, or Cage with Joyce). … [T]he art world—to a large extent—provides the arena in which literature can be vigorously addressed, transformed, and expanded.”

This literary coalescence around visual art seems increasingly less coincidental and more and more the entire point. The avant-garde writers of today aspire to be conceptual artists, and have their novels considered conceptual art. This may be literature’s Duchampian moment. Welcome to the readymade novel.

Image: Sophie Calle, via