New Italian Epic
New Italian Epic is a definition suggested by the Italian author Wu Ming 1 to describe a body of literary works written in Italy by various authors starting in 1993, at the end of the so called ‘First Republic’. This body of works is described as being formed of novels and other literary texts, which share various stylistic characteristics, thematic constants, and an underlying allegorical nature. They are a particular kind of metahistorical fiction, with peculiar features that derive from the Italian context.
Origin of the definition
The definition was made by Wu Ming 1 in March 2008, during the work on ‘Up Close & Personal’, a seminar on contemporary Italian literature held at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
Over the next few days the author proposed and discussed the expression in debates at other North American colleges, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, within the context of the programme of Comparative Media Studies directed by Henry Jenkins.
From these interventions the author drew the essay New Italian Epic. Memorandum 1993-2008: narrative, oblique gaze, return to the future, published online in the spring of the same year. During the whole of 2008 the expression found a vast echo online, in conferences and conventions, in newspapers, in the specialist press and in radio broadcasts. In Italy, too, Wu Ming 1 put forward the expression ‘New Italian Epic’ [NIE] in English.
In late 2008 Wu Ming put online a version of the Memorandom marked ‘2.0’, or annotated and extended, with replies to some criticisms and closer examination of the more controversial points.
In January 2009 the series Stile Libero of the Einaudi publishing house published a further enriched and updated version of the Memorandum (‘3.0’), entitled New Italian Epic. Literatures, oblique gazes, returns to the future.
The Memorandum was intended as an "open suggestion of comparative reading, an album of notes to be borne in mind, remembered, used" and suggests that attention should be paid to a group of works written in Italy over the past fifteen years (1993–2008), seeking unexpected similarities or, conversely, dissolving connections too often taken for granted
The Memorandum has also been described  as a literary manifesto, by virtue of the fact that it contains a classification. According to the author and other participants in the debate, the term ‘manifesto’ is misleading, because this is a document in the form of a pamphlet that does not herald a movement of authors or prescribe anything, but describes a posteriori a dialogue between already existing books, delineating the characteristics of a series of works that go beyond post-modernism, ‘NIE is only one of the many, good and different things that are happening today in Italian literature’, as the preface to edition 2.0 puts it.
The characteristics of NIE listed in the memorandum are seven in number, preceded by some premisses seen as a conceptual framework. These premisses concern historical and geographical specificities: this part of the memorandum describes in broad brushstrokes the social and cultural context in which the works are born, and to which explicit or allegorical references are made.
The seven characteristics identified by Wu Ming 1 are:
- Refusal of the detached and "coldly ironic tone" that predominates in the postmodern novel. This first characteristic is defined in the memorandum as a ‘conditio sine qua non’.
- ‘Oblique gaze’ or ‘unforeseeable point of view’. Experimentation with unusual and unexpected looks. A gaze that sometimes widens out vertiginously to span the non-human as an integral part of the narrative. Underlying these experiments, according to Wu Ming 1, is an ethical and political motivation.
- Narrative complexity united with a ‘pop’ attitude that often leads to popular success. Many of these novels, are, according to Wu Ming 1, structurally complex and complex in terms of their content, and yet they have become best-sellers. Some examples are Q by Luther Blissett, Romanzo criminale by Giancarlo de Cataldo, L’ottava vibrazione by Carlo Lucarelli and especially Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano.
- Narratives of alternative histories and ‘potential uchronias’. These narratives offer a different possible solution with regard to historical reality.
- Dissimulated linguistic experimentation aimed at subverting ‘from within’ the register of the prose.
- Unidentified narrative objects (UNO). Not only do many of the texts of the body under examination not fall within any predefined literary genre, they widen the confines of the literary to include textual elements that produce ‘disturbing’ effects. Among the books quoted in the memorandum, Asce di guerra by Wu Ming, Sappiano le mie parole di sangue by Babsi Jones and the aforementioned Gomorrah. After Gomorrah's international success, many reviewers cited such acronyms as NIE and UNO in an attempt at describing Saviano's book. Writing about Gomorrah on Hindustan Times, Indian author Indrajit Hazra observed that "unlike Truman Capote's "fact+fiction=faction" and its obsessive hankering for details, the UNO slithers about like a beast, sometimes trodding [sic] the path of hard reportage, sometimes flipping over into personal mutterings, sometimes tripping on philosophical ruminations, sometimes diving into novelistic "voices" and sometimes gearing into social theory. And unlike Hunter S. Thompson's 'gonzo journalism', it's dead serious. The UNO's only purpose is to get us reacting violently on a subject using all the tricks known in the narrating trade. "
- Community and ‘transmedia’. The texts of NIE have the characteristic that they often acts as basic texts for the creation of spin-offs by fan communities. These spin-offs are often present online, and involve various media (films, telefilms, television series, comics, video games, musical compositions, websites).
To this list, with version 2.0 of the memorandum and interventions by other writers and academics, were added thematic constants that may be found in NIE texts, for example the ‘death of the founder’: many books in the ‘nebula’ describe the consequences of the passing of a clan leader or founding father, a figure who represented a world that is now in crisis, or has actually constructed a world but has not prepared his descendents to manage the crisis it falls into. By coincidence, in various books this character was identified with the simple antonomasia ‘the old man’. According to Wu Ming 1, upon this mythologeme NIE constructs a great allegory of the current historical phase.
In the memorandum, the catalogue of NIE characteristics is followed by a reflection on allegory, which flows into an exhortation to imagine the future and the extinction of the human species with an approach that the author defines as ‘ecocentric’, and describes as a ‘systematic recourse’ to the rhetorical figure of the pathetic fallacy, i.e. the attribution to inanimate objects and creatures without consciousness of thoughts and emotions equal to those of human beings.
The debate in the Italian media and in the cultural world
Contributions and interventions by other writers
The appearance of the memorandum has unleashed, from April 2008, a vast discussion amongst writers, as well as among writers and readers. Online or in the pages of some newspapers (such as L'Unità, La Repubblica, Liberazione and Il Manifesto) almost all the authors mentioned by Wu Ming 1 have taken a position on the subject.
In La Repubblica, Carlo Lucarelli has interpreted the memorandum as an invitation to Italian authors to take a greater interest in the dark sides of the country's national history, and has in turn exhorted them to move towards a ‘new frontier that is not only physical (new environments, new worlds to create and explore) and it is not only narrative (new plots, new adventures, different montage techniques, themes and extreme emotions), but also stylistic (new words, new constructions) in [...] mutating novels.
Valerio Evangelisti, in a long article in L'Unità, described the various ways in which it is possible to achieve a poetic outcome that he has called ‘maximalist’. ‘Speaking through systems, historico-geographical frameworks, visions of entire societies, cosmic impulses. One can resort to forms of adventure narrative, as long as the outcome is achieved: making people think, in a realistic or metaphorical way, about the collective perception of an alienated everyday. This is what the authors of the New Italian Epic are trying to do [...]’.
Marcello Fois (prominent novelist of a Sardinian Literary Spring), presenting his own works in France, defined the New Italian Epic as the last development in a trend to recover popular literature, ignoring the diktats and prescriptions of the critics, a tendency begun in the nineties by certain authors (including those brought together in Group 13). According to Fois, the first phase consisted in ‘freeing oneself from the shame of making genre literature, without paying any attention to the critics; the second – more recent – phase concerns subject-matter. People have rid themselves of the shame of talking about the Italy of today. They have referred to the contemporary situation of our country through the historical novel.’
The author of noirs and historian of philosophy Girolamo De Michele has intervented several times, online and in the pages of Liberazione, with articles arguing parallels between noir poetics, the New Italian Epic, Neo-realism and the thoughts of Gilles Deleuze.
Intervening in Il Manifesto, Tommaso Pincio voiced his perplexity about the expression ‘unidentified narrative objects’, at the same time interpreting the NIE memorandum as the signal of a conquered centrality of the novel form in Italian cultural production, after a long period during which critics had viewed it with suspicion.
Later, interventions have been made in various forms and in various media by other writers, including Giuseppe Genna, Michela Murgia, Giulio Angioni, Antonio Scurati, Vanni Santoni, Gregorio Magini and many more.
Critical replies and controversies
Historian and literary critic Alberto Asor Rosa writes on La Repubblica:
"We may question and doubt everything except what is clearly established. And it is established that in recent years Italy has seen an impetuous blossoming of young novelists. What are their directions? What are their common features (provided that they exist)? It is well known that, until a few decades ago, critical reflection and creative research used to grow together and help one another, but nowadays the former (ie literary criticism) has almost vanished [...] When we look around, the only recent attempt at a theoretical-literary systematization of the recent output was New Italian Epic: Literature, Oblique Gaze and the Return to the Future by Wu Ming (Einaudi, 2009), which deserves praise, if only for the fact that it goes deeply into the matter."
In a review of titles published in the computer edition of La Repubblica, the journalist Dario Olivero writes:
«First came Petrolio by Pasolini. The first organic attempt to write a novel about [Italian] darkness: Mattei, ENI, Cefis, the strategy of tension. Now we’ve gotten Saviano, with an impressive acceleration over the past few years. Lucarelli, Siti, De Cataldo, Evangelisti, Wu Ming. Many started out with noir, following the idea of Leonardo Sciascia and the American thriller: using crime as a grid for reality. They have come much further, to the most important cultural current that Italy remembers since the days of Neo-realism.»
Reviewing the book in the daily paper Il Riformista, Luca Mastrantonio writes:
«‘a book which... traces an important vector of contemporary Italian literature. New Italian Epic is a curious cultural hybrid. More like a GMO than a product with denomination of origin... it is an interesting cyberbook of literary theory [...] in this essay you can hear, palpitating, the need to draw mental maps between the books, pair up authors with greater or lesser amounts of judgement, create remarkable points to survey positions and routes in Italian publishing. »
Amongst the detractors is the literary critic Carla Benedetti, columnist in the weekly L’Espresso and lecturer at Pisa University. In January 2009 the Wu Ming collective used a phrase by Benedetti reported in the daily newspaper Libero ("[Il New Italian Epic] is nonsense. It is nothing but self-propaganda") as an endorsement for the publication of New Italian Epic.
After New Italian Epic appeared in bookshops (January 2009), various polemical articles signed by critics appeared in the daily press. In February–March 2009 Wu Ming 1 published online a two-point analysis of the ‘rhetorical strategies’ employed by detractors, entitled: "New Italian Epic: gut reactions".
The debate in the international academic world
The term ‘New Italian Epic’ and the body of works to which it refers were first discussed in March 2008 during ‘Up Close & Personal’, a seminar on contemporary Italian literature organised by McGill University in Montreal, Canada, in which Italianists from all over North America took part.
In October 2008, at the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies of the University of London a round table was held on NIE, in which the writers Wu Ming 1, Vanni Santoni and Gregorio Magini of the group Scrittura Industriale Collettiva took part, along with researchers and academics from various countries (including Monica Jansen, lecturer at Antwerp University and author of the book The Debate on Postmodernism in Italy), who went on to form a research group into NIE. This group, called ‘PolifoNIE’, examined the subject in greater detail for the Biennial Conference of the Society for Italian Studies, at which it organised two sessions. In May 2010, IGRS published the minutes of the London conferences in the form of a monographic issue of the Journal of Romance Studies"Journal of Romance Studies" entitled "Overcoming Postmodernism", which was the first scholarly overview of the New Italian Epic.
The Memorandum on the New Italian Epic has also been included within academic studies in audio-visual and new media, with particular reference to the non-typology of ‘unidentified narrative objects’, applicable to the ‘hybrid’ products emerging from the world of garage media. In March 2009 the PhD programme Planetary Collegium M-Node, along with the School of Media Design and Multimedia Arts of the Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti in Milan organised the symposium ‘New Italian (Media) Epic’, with the presence of Wu Ming 1, Derrick De Kerckhove, Pier Luigi Capucci, Francesco Monico, and many others including film-makers, artists and media theorists. This symposium gave rise to a permanent laboratory.
In November 2009, scholars from many countries met in Warsaw, Poland, at the conference "Fiction, Faction and Reality in Italian Literature after 1990", organized by the Department of Italian Studies of the University of Warsaw. Several panels were devoted to the debate on the New Italian Epic.
In March 2010, a panel entitled "The New Italian Epic between Pulp and political intervention" was held at the 8th annual meeting of the Cultural Studies Association, which took place at the University of California, Berkeley.
- Cf. C. Boscolo, "Scardinare il Postmoderno. Etica e metastoria nel New Italian Epic", www.carmillaonline.com, 29 April 2008
- Cf. The podcast section of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, Cambridge, Massachusetts
- Text of the essay published on the site Carmilla on line, also called "Memorandum on the New Italian Epic".
- For a general overview of the online debate, cf. The section ‘New Italian Epic’ on the site carmillaonline.com; articles on the New Italian Epic have been published in various daily newspapers and literary magazines. The Italian Radio 3 popular programme "Fahrenheit" has dedicated programmes to the discussion on 14 May 2008 and 11 June 2008.
- The author has explained the motive in an interview: ‘in English, because I was addressing a heterogeneous and multinational audience, and also because it gives the idea of minimum detachment necessary to understand what is happening in Italian culture. You have to get out of yourself a bit, from the usual shared perceptive field, and climb onto an elevation (in reality all you need is a little hill) to see the swarm of people, things, information.’ Loop magazine, n.0, December 2008
- Cf. Preface to edition 2.0 of New Italian Epic, September 2008, p.1.
- Cf. The paragraph "La nebulosa" [The Nebula], in New Italian Epic., cit., p. 7 of the version in pdf format.
- Paolo Di Stefano, «Ecco il manifesto della 'Nuova Epica'», Corriere della Sera, 13 May 2008, p.38.
- Cf. note III ("Opere"), New Italian Epic, p. 7 of the version in pdf format; G. Pispisa, "Riflessioni sul New Italian Epic", carmillaonline.com, 1 September 2008; M. Amici, "Il fronte davanti agli occhi", intervention at the conference "The Italian Perspective on Metahistorical Fiction: The New Italian Epic", Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of London, UK, 2 October 2008.
- "The works of the New Italian Epic do not lack humour, but they reject the detached and coldly ironic tone of postmodernist pastiche. This particular form of irony is what is in my view persistently abused: irony as forced currency, screened-off and affect-free, typical of postmodernism in its terminal phase." New Italian Epic 2.0, September 2008, p. 13.
- «The use of "unfamiliar" points of view, if it is motivated and not reduced to a mere trick, is an inescapable taking of an ethical position. We are intoxicated by the use of ‘normal’, prescribed points of view, put in focus for us by the ideology of the ruling class. It is imperative to purify oneself, to try and see the world in different ways, surprising ourselves.» New Italian Epic 2.0, September 2008, p. 14.
- «In NIE there is a great deal of stylistic and linguistic experimentation, but in most cases it is "channeled" into the story, it serves to tell the story better. Some write in verses, some invent languages and idiolects, some fracture syntax, some obsessively use outmoded rhetorical figures [...], some "amputate" certain elements that have been wrongly considered indispensable (such as pronomial particles). All of this, however, corresponds to precise expressive demands, it's pole star is not the "beautiful page", the phrase that shouts to the world: "How well written I am!" Wu Ming 1, interview in Loop magazine, cit.
- «They are books that appear disturbing today, and apparently external or eccentric in relation to the consolidated idea of the novel, but which in future we will probably call "novels" without hesitation. Today there is a reserve about calling Gomorrah a "novel", on the one hand for fear of stripping it of its power of witness and denunciation, on the other because as a novel... it seems not to work, you don’t know where it starts or where it finishes, you don’t know how to take it, it's journalistic and it's literary, but what is journalistic? And what is literary? I think this reserve and this stammering will dissolve over time’, Wu Ming 1, interview in Loop magazine, cit.
- "Journalism and a bit more", Hindustan Times, November 1, 2008
- For example the way the sociologist Claudio Coletta traces and examines the figure of the "Survivor" in the works of NIE:, "Storie di sopravvissuti", in carmillaonline.com, 10 December 2008.
- cf. Wu Ming 1, New Italian Epic 2.0, cit.; Wu Ming 1, "We're Going to Have to Be the Parents", intervention at IGRS, University of London, 2 October 2008.
- C. Lucarelli, "Noi scrittori della nuova epica", La Repubblica, 6 May 2008.
- M.Carlotto, "Legalità d'evasione", Il Manifesto, 13 June 2008.
- V. Evangelisti, "Literary Opera", L'Unità, 6 May 2008.
- With Sergio Atzeni, Giulio Angioni, Massimo Carlotto, Michela Murgia, and others.
- Interview with Marcello Fois by Stefano Palombari, L'Italie à Paris, 24 October 2008.
- Cf. for example G. De Michele, "Neorealismo ed epica. Una risposta ai critici letterari (e agli altri)", carmillaonline.com, 23 June 2008.
- T. Pincio, "Il what if all'italiana", Il Manifesto, 30 August 2008.
- Giulio Angioni,Scrivere, in Il dito alzato, Sellerio, 2012
- Cf. The section "New Italian Epic" at carmillaonline.com, cit., which unites and signals links to interventions that have appeared elsewhere.
- Alberto Asor Rosa, "Ritorno in provincia: le cento Italie dei giovani narratori", La Repubblica, December 15, 2009.
- D. Olivero, "Libri, il romanzo politico: quattro passi nel New Italian Epic", repubblica.it, 18 December 2008.
- L. Mastrantonio, "NIE, il cyberbook sull'epica italiana non pacificata",Il Riformista, 5 February 2009.
- F. Borgonovo, «La rinascita dell'epica italiana? E' solo autopromozione«, Libero, 1 June 2008, p.28.
- Cf. Giap n.5, IXa serie, January 2009
- New Italian Epic: reazioni de panza, carmillaonline, 18 February 2009.
- M. Jansen, Il dibattito sul postmoderno in Italia. In bilico tra dialettica e ambiguità, Cesati, Florence 2002.
- Biennial Conference of the Society for Italian Studies, Royal Holloway University of London.
- Official site of the Centre Aixois d'Études romanes
- Cf. the weblog "New Media Epic"
- Wu Ming 1, "We're Going to Have to Be the Parents", intervention at IGRS, University of London, 2 October 2008.
- The memorandum on the New Italian Epic, edition "2.0", September 2008. Available in Italian and French.
- Archive of the Italian debate on the New Italian Epic, carmillaonline.com, 2008-09.
- AUDIO - Speeches at the conference "New Italian Epic: gli stati generali della narrazione", Cuneo, Italy, November 16, 2008.