25 May 2006


Reading Blonde’s, Joe’s and Michael’s posts.

I think B’s discussion of speed is useful for beginning to articulate some of the problems posed by Joe and Michael, specifically the problem(s) of agency and/or desire, which is another way of saying the difficulties that fiction has in the realm of politics. When Michael writes that fiction “respond[s] to the culture in which we live as we live in it,” and Joe writes that he wants his writing to function in the world (what he calls “purpose,”) I’m hearing a similar argument, that writing should work immediately in the world, make it a better place etc. I’m not sure anyone will argue with this desire: I believe we all want a better world, and we all hope that writing is way to achieve this. And innovative writing, because it breaks the rules of realism and realistic narrative, might be the ‘best’ type of writing to do this.

But we can’t forget Blonde’s post, and Virilio’s idea of speed, or Dromology, what Blanchot calls Impatience (“It is impatience which makes the goal inaccessible by substituting for it the proximity of an intermediary figure. It is impatience that destroys the way toward the goal by preventing us from recognizing in the intermediary the figure of the immediate” [Space of Literature 80]). The problem with the desire of wanting our writing to work immediately in the world is complex, but for this post, can be broken down into two points. First of all, the desire of the writer plays an almost non-existent role in how her writing will be received. If it played a larger role, we’d all be rich, famous AND important (in whatever order you chose). Writers simply don’t have much say in how their writing will be received. The second problem is the problem of impatience, with the word “immediately.” I don’t think immediacy is the answer. I don’t think we can expect our writing to immediately affect the world. If writing has any culture work, it will be in the future, in vague and hidden (obscene) ways, in hard to discern, important, subtle ways. This is why, on one hand, I can welcome Michael’s naïve writer, but on the other, I’m afraid the naive solutions, because they may be immediate, will be superficial, fading into history like Upton Sinclair. This is also why I mistrust Joe’s desire (or actually maybe his solution) for a socially responsible writing, as imaginative writing primarily used as immediate political activism seems to me to be fairly ineffective intervention. I just don’t see where it works, and in the case of writing by women in the later part of this century, I feel that the attempt to privilege “engaged’ writing has led to a serious regression, both on the aesthetic and political levels. Not to mention the almost total erasure of non-realistic women writers. But that’s probably another post.



blonde said...

yep on blanchot...almost included that in my speed post. and what you say about the problematic position for non-realistic (haha great phrasing) women writers is right on the money...

Joe Amato said...


Thanks for your comments, and I like what you say.

I’m not sure I was arguing for a socially responsible writing -- I think rather I was arguing for what I could name only as a socially responsible relation between writers and readers. I don’t believe -- and here is the more gnarly aspect of what I was saying -- that innovative writing is always the best medium for growing such a thing (apologies for the shift to a more organic metaphor).

Along these lines, I don’t think I was suggesting, either, that our perceptions or imaginings regarding the function of writing (or whatever) at the present time will of necessity tell us what the actual short- or long-term functions might be. The durations attendant to writing are, as you suggest, ultimately beyond our ken. I was instead proposing that such a discussion might help improve said relation or relations (above) -- including the relation between writer and writer. An easy parallel would be the crit that all art students have to prepare prior to showing their work. I think it’s a valuable heuristic (at the very least) and I’m thinking that even more mature artists (along with the public, that is) might benefit from sustained discussion of our aims.

But to the meat of your post, as to what effect writers have on the reception of their writing: first, not all writers are created equally in this regard. Some writers I’ve met are damn good at getting their work published, and distributed, and noticed. I think this constitutes an effect, if not the long-term, more perverse effect to which you gesture.

But I’m not so much interested in developing a Schmoozing for Dummies manual as I am in the often arcane practices that support the publishing of xyz, which practices create specific kinds of writerly subject positions, predisposed to availing themselves of the goodies. Davis’s post on the Viswanathan affair provides a neat summary of what I mean. (Whatever else, the young woman seemed an awfully quick study.) Exposing such networks, such affiliations, such pedigrees is not something that academe -- better, that academics have proved esp. prone to. So my move there would be along institutional lines. I would want to know how we intend or propose to work the institutions to our advantage -- and to some greater good? (Note question mark!) And to talk in such terms, while doubtless regarded crass in some circles (like talking paychecks), has at least the advantage of taking us out of the occasionally solipsistic pose one finds in both mainstream and innovative writing communities (apologies for persisting with this dualism).

A related book that comes immediately to mind, and one with which you may be familiar, is Libbie Rifkin’s Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde (U of Wisconsin P, 2000). While this book is not without its problems (like all books), it’s a refreshing departure from reception studies that fail to link structural conditions with (albeit a career-centered) agency.

And of course I take your point as to the relative neglect of so many writers -- Gayl Jones comes immediately to mind -- whose work has been derogated as not sufficiently toeing the representational line. That would be the last thing I’d want to see happen.



Michael Mejia said...

Upton who? Yes, Jeffrey’s point on the quickly fading efficacy of such engaged writing, naïve or no, is well taken, and I wasn’t intending to assert any permanence or predictability of the effects of that naïve writing, unless they were to take the spectacular form of, say, a passenger jet being driven into the WTC, though one could say that the efficacy of this text, too (one that I read differently than was intended by its naïve writers), has dissipated since the 24-hour images faded from our television screens. Rather, I meant to imply that the naïve writer’s work may have a peculiar (if temporally local) efficacy because of at least four pressures: 1) his narrative is (he thinks) the only one he can tell, 2) it must be told, 3) the manner of that telling (in its artful artlessness) uses the only language he has to communicate it, and 4) he succeeds in telling despite working against significant cultural resistance. However incorrect any or all of these assumptions may be for that writer, the desperation created by this confluence of perceived pressures, I think, can provide extra fuel for his/her spectacle.

However, I’d also say that my comments about writing responding to the culture in which we live as we live in it were not also intended to imply that such writing should, would, or could have an immediate effect, utopian or otherwise. That that writing could be undertaken immediately, respond immediately to the immediate culture, in the languages of the culture (or imminent languages derived from it), is possible, perhaps desirable (though that’s not always my mode) for reasons that are not always political. And these responses to culture can be published immediately thanks to blogs like this one (though that also is generally not my mode). But I’m finally less concerned (or try to tell myself I am as I read a review) about the effects of any of this writing (politically, financially, aesthetically) because, as Jeffrey points out, our work, dare I say our art, is, once published, out of (our) control. One solution to the lack of immediate effect of any specific writer, of course, is publishers like those represented here who consistently introduce accidents into the terrifying flow of information, perhaps slowing the roll of the conventional, the nostalgic, the totalitarian visionary at some point in the future. But it’s a project that requires continuity to have any effect at all.

Virilio’s formulation (in GROUND ZERO) of Blanchot’s “intermediary figure” is the “imposture of proximity,” virtual achievement, virtual enhancement, virtual victory, enabled/displayed by “simulators of proximity (TV, the Web, mobile phones)” to whose virtual images we surrender because of a suicidal faith in Progress. And I suppose it’s this application of impatience toward which my thoughts on responding to the culture in which we live as we live in it (or are about to) are directed. That is, I am concerned, finally, with the production of an accident of some sort inspired by the culture in which I live. How it is read or misread, how it benefits me financially etc. is TBD (mostly) by others. I’m suspicious of predictions and control—the business of those agents of states, media, corporations who mostly provide the content (and spy on our uses) of the simulators of proximity. Uncertainty and terror is, yes, where we live, and our accidents, if we place them somewhere visible, can remind some one of this, I think to their benefit, because it promotes introspection and investigation, it slows things down, works against “the miniaturization of action,” Virilio’s term for automation. But I wouldn’t say that anonymous benefit is what I think about as I’m constructing the accident. In the process of construction, I share at least pressure number 2 with the naïve author.

Finally, regarding Joe’s comments above, I’m very interested in hearing more from him or others about the relation and responsibilities between writer and reader and writer and writer he posits in paras. 2 and 3.



Joe Amato said...


One thing I can offer with some certainty: in an important sense, much of what I’m looking for is already going on -- behind closed doors, or doors that are only cracked open. When we review books for publication -- which most in these regions probably do -- we’re passing judgment. And we’re doing so on the basis of a number of assumptions not only as to what constitutes “good” writing, but on the basis of (often tacit) presuppositions as to what needs to be published, and by which press, and why. Moreover, our readers’ reports aren’t always made available to writers, and even when they are -- and aside from the strictures of scholarly discourse -- they’re not always composed against a recognizable critical datum. I often don’t know why, finally, reader A says “accept” and reader B says “reject,” but were readers A and B to talk things over, and were I a fly on the wall, I’d probably learn a lot more about my writing, or about the reception of my writing, than by reading the reports.

One problem is that outside readers tend to fall back on locutions that are nothing if not a kind of code (a euphemistic code, at that). But the problem cuts much more deeply than this, and I see it as part of a general cultural drift. Interestingly, reader anonymity only aggravates the problem, esp. if the work reviewed is invested in pushing boundaries. Readers can offer up just about any old opine, and not be held accountable for same. So instead of encouraging candor, anonymity is just as likely these days to give license to moribund ideas.

When we review applications for a job in creative writing -- which many in these regions probably do -- we’re passing judgment. And we’re doing so, in part, on the basis of institutional conditions that not only prefigure our efforts, but overdetermine the entire process. In my experience, conversations among search committee members are often chock-full of assertions and comments that, were they to make the light of public day, would probably cast the entire enterprise in an Orwellian light. But what comes out of search committees, formally and officially and by and large, are documents that bear the mark of cya through and through.

We could also have a look at the kinds of documents generated for promotion and tenure -- much of which material is often not available to the candidate (depends on the institution). All manner of judgment is entailed in such practices. What the candidate generally sees, instead -- or hears -- is a bureaucratic fantasia: the refined product of analysis and evidence, innuendo and hearsay, and of course, cya.

Now I understand there are reasons for why we do things as we do. We can talk about this, and why and how I think we should be altering our practices. But that’s another discussion for another time. For now, I want to emphasize that we pass judgment all the time as working (academic) professionals, but are rarely held accountable for same -- except perhaps when we grade our students (who are not, I might observe, held accountable for evaluating us). Further, there is no shared sense that we need be held accountable in the terms I am suggesting.

Permit me to cite one more commonplace example: when my friends and I go to the movies, we generally take some delight in critiquing what we’ve just seen. Typical, yes? Now, most people I know indulge in this activity to varying degrees, and sometimes it amounts to little more than a thumbs up/down. But whatever it amounts to, I take these bits and bytes of on-the-fly critical thinking as essential, positively essential, to a healthy cultural-intellectual (entertainment!) environment.

But try, just try, to get poets to pass public judgment on a poetry reading. I’m not talking about backstabbing one’s friends -- I’m talking about a (communal, public) space in which people try to articulate, in good faith, what’s working, and why, and whether in fact that’s a good thing.

And sure, we have review organs -- like ABR, with which I was affiliated until recently (through the July/August issue, which you might want to keep an eye out for, plug plug) -- but there is often little interpretive consistency at stake in writing a review. In general, reviewers need not, and rarely do, situate their judgments in terms of overarching imperatives -- e.g., “this is what’s important, and this is why it’s important, hence...” -- though I suspect such, what, critical prerogatives are always (always) at work in our more reflective disquisitions. (Publishing realities play a role here, of course.)

So I’m thinking that we’re all very weak-kneed -- publicly, yes, but also conceptually (ethically?) -- when it comes to laying the groundwork for our value judgments (mea culpa). I’m not suggesting, either, that there need be a single groundwork, or one built around consensus. But I think we’ve been seduced into believing that contingencies of value -- a valuable corrective to eternal verities and the like -- obviate the need to try to pin down with some consistency what we value, and why (while recognizing, as Clem Greenberg might have cautioned us, that we ought not to “discipline” art by subjecting an artwork to a theory that denies its more idiosyncratic proportions).

Given the massive amount of stuff coming at us digitally, I would think this collective lapse constitutes a Big Mistake.

Trying to formalize such critique isn’t everyone’s job, of course -- and I don’t expect to see the likes of Greenberg again anytime soon (though Danto and Schjeldahl and Perloff and others are pretty damn good, each in their way).
Probably the closest published version of the problem I’m butchering is James Elkins What Happened to Art Criticism? (Prickly Paradigm, 2003).

Sorry for going on, thanks for listening.