So, for the purposes of this discussion, let us grant a fairly straightforward (if potentially underexamined) definition of avant-garde writing as that which tells unconventional stories in unconventional ways, and quickly follow up that definition with a question: Why teach avant-garde writing? After all, a good case could be made that an aspiring author must learn the rules of his or her craft before attempting to break them. That is, a writer should be required to understand the grammar, syntax, and aesthetico-sociohistorical context of the literary conversation of which she or he is a part before trying to add to it, disrupt it, or begin a new one. Failing that, the avant-garde runs the very real risk of becoming little more than an excuse for naïve, narcissistic, and decontextualized writing intent on reinventing the anti-wheel.
I disagree with this hypothetical caveat for at least two reasons. First, as anyone intuits who has ever tried, say, to push language or structure in a refreshingly unfamiliar direction, breaking the rules always-already involves learning and understanding them. The two acts are anything save mutually exclusive. Rather, they are intensely interdependent. Second—and more important—is the deeper question involved in the notion of "learning one’s craft"—of learning, namely, the cultural codes for what comprises "good" (i.e., conventional; i.e., socially acceptable; i.e., marketable) writing—and that is this: Why teach students to tell the same kinds of stories in the same kinds of ways the dominant cultures would like them told?
Or, better yet: What is the opposite of teaching avant-garde writing?
And: What does it mean to help perpetuate what we think of when we say "conventional stories told in conventional ways"?
In order to begin to suggest an answer, I’d like to turn to the central argument in Curtis White’s wonderfully provocative and wonderfully merciless book, The Middle Mind. There White maintains that the stories generated and sustained by the American political system, entertainment industry, and academic trade have taught us over the course of the last half century or so how not to think for ourselves. Given the present political situation, as Timmi points out so forcefully in her recent post, I doubt too much needs to be said about how (in White’s words) "the political narratives of the United States as created by our political leaders and their comrades in media, in technology, and in business" have led to the "starkest and most deadly" poverty of imagination. Nor how, "on the whole, our entertainment—movies, TV, music [and, of course, books]—is a testament to our ability and willingness to endure boredom … and pay for it."
Academia doesn’t fare any better. For White, the contemporary university "shares with the entertainment industry its simple institutional inertia"; "so-called dominant 'critical paradigms' tend to stabilize in much the same way that assumptions about 'consumer demand' make television programming predictable." If student-consumers want to watch The Da Vinci Code or read Stephen King in the classroom, well, that’s just what they’re going to get to watch and read. Unfortunately, the consequence—particularly in the wake of Cultural Studies—has been the impulse to eschew close, rigorous engagement with the page; to search texts "for symptoms supporting the sociopolitical or theoretical template of the critic"; to flatten out distinctions between, say, the value of studying James Joyce or Carole Maso, on the one hand, and Britney Spears or Bart Simpson, on the other; and therefore unknowingly to embrace and maintain the very globalized corporate culture that Cultural Studies claims to critique.
"It seems very odd to me," White writes, "that the contemporary humanities, which began with deconstruction’s distrust of truth-claims, moved very quickly to certainty, conviction, and even self-righteousness during the ascendancy of Cultural Studies. This self-certainty … has had a stifling effect on the role of art as a material practice, as something involved with history and technique."
What we are left with in White’s view, which I (as a recovering professor) in good part share, is a constellation of dominant cultures that shuns complexity and challenge; avoids texts that demand attentive, self-conscious, and self-critical reading; and embraces The Middle Mind’s thoughtless will toward mediocrity.
In a phrase, what we are left with is the death of what I think of as the Difficult Imagination.
So back to my earlier questions. The opposite of teaching the avant-garde, the innovative, and therefore the polyphonically disruptive in writing is to support the dissemination of conventional stories told in conventional ways. And to support the dissemination of conventional stories told in conventional ways is at the end of the gray day to support, either consciously or unconsciously, those dominant cultures that would like such stories told and retold until they begin to pass for something like truths about the human condition. "Our satisfaction with the completeness of plot," Fredric Jameson once noted, is "a kind of satisfaction with society as well," and I would add much the same is the case with our satisfaction with undemanding style, character, subject matter, and so forth.
Samuel R. Delany argues in favor of reading science fiction on the grounds that it serves as a tool to help us think. The same is the case in spades with avant-garde writing. (Science fiction and avant-garde writing, I hasten to point out, are by no means mutually exclusive, as works by the likes of Delany himself, Timmi Duchamp, Mark Danielewski, Margaret Atwood, and Philip K. Dick testify.) Avant-garde writing is a mode of creativity whose goals rhyme well with those posed by Viktor Shklovsky for art and Martin Heidegger for philosophy: the return, through complexity and challenge (not predictability and ease) to perception and thought.
Products of the Difficult Imagination therefore resist J. K. Rowling, Survivor, and the well-crafted if lifeless suburban narratives peopled by fairly predictable, well-rounded characters that appear in The New Yorker and roll off the workshop assembly lines around the country every week of the semester. Products of the Difficult Imagination, White states, resist "the automatic" while functioning as "antagonists to the status quo in entertainment, intellectual orthodoxy, and political ideology." We may think of the Difficult Imagination, then, as a kind of a possibility space in which we can envision the text of the text and the text of the world other than they are, and can thus contemplate the idea of fundamental change in both. The Difficult Imagination is nothing less than the arena of human freedom; serious social, intellectual, and aesthetic critique; and emancipatory reinvention.
It may seem a peculiar (not to mention paradoxical) position for me to take, contending as I seem to be that we should somehow teach rules for breaking rules in our creative-writing classrooms. But that’s not exactly what I’m doing. Rather, I’m proposing that we should generate possibility spaces there in which our students can begin actively to revive the Difficult Imagination by exploring ways of telling unconventional stories in unconventional ways, thereby reevaluating the assumptions behind the often uncritical impulse to tell conventional stories in conventional ways. And I’m proposing we do so by reconsidering the kinds of stories we ask our students to read and the kinds of stories we ask them to write.
What I advocate in the first case (and I suspect most academic readers of this blog have already done so) is to move away from teaching the well-crafted narrative à la Chekov, Carver, and Lorrie Moore (I guarantee we have nothing to fear: our students will meet those narratives in other courses over and over again), and introducing or reintroducing in their place fictions by such writers working in the tradition of the anti-tradition as Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Cortàzar, Abish, Leyner, Acker, Guy Davenport, Susan Steinberg, and the rest we have already spent some time on this blog enumerating. Consider using an anthology like Norton's Postmodern American Fiction that privileges avant-garde work, or, perhaps better, one from an indie press: Chiasmus’s Northwest Edge: Fictions of Mass Destruction, for instance, FC2’s In the Slipstream: An FC2 Reader, or Starcherone's PP/FF. Consider supplementing that anthology with the most recent issue of a journal like Fiction International. Consider, as well, exploring several web-based hypermedial texts such as Shelley Jackson’s My Body or Stuart Moulthrop’s Reagan Library. Consider spending part of each class period for the entire semester discussing in loving detail one richly textured experimental novel: Joyce’s Ulysses, say, or Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew, or Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Consider setting up a web-based forum where students can over the course of the semester interview several diverse avant-garde writers around the country about why and how they do what they do.
What I advocate in the second case is that we invite our students, whether or not the avant-garde is their preferred mode of composition, to investigate for at least one semester writing unconventional stories in unconventional ways. Since I list many exercises along these lines in Rebel Yell: A Short Guide to Writing Fiction, my textbook on the subject, I won’t go into much detail here. Rather, I'd like to hear from the rest of you:
- What texts have you found helpful in teaching the avant-garde?
- What exercises?
- What new paradigms for workshops?
Certainly there is nothing especially new about many of this post's largest brushstrokes, and there is a better than middling chance that I’ve been preaching to the choir. Yet every once in a while, as I find myself inhabiting the periphery of a constellation of dominant cultures where lucrative, bland, distracting, slightly ominous warm-and-fuzzy entertainment passes for art, and find myself feeling increasingly like what I imagine the last triceratops must have felt like 65 million years ago, it occurs to me as a potentially valuable gesture to retell the vitally significant—if increasingly neglected and unconventional—story of what Nietzsche once called "the unconditional," Roland Barthes "a less upright, less Euclidean space," and Derrida "a privileged instability," thereby hoping against hope to revive, if only for a few paragraphs, if only via a few alternative presses, the possibility of the Difficult Imagination.