This is indeed a heady space and perhaps, rather than writing an independent post of my own, I should simply be appending my various remarks to the illuminating conversations in play below. Still, here it is.
I’d like to examine a bit further the definition and question Lance introduced in his post regarding the teaching of avant-garde writing. The definition (of avant-garde writing): “that which tells unconventional stories in unconventional ways.” The question: “Why teach avant-garde writing?”
To take the question first: though we all (?) do it, I’m uncomfortable with discussing or foregrounding (let’s say in the workshop setting) what we term innovative/avant-garde/experimental fiction as a genre in its own right, a genre distinct from, or in opposition to, say, realism or mainstream writing, because this perpetuates the notion in the minds of our student-consumers that such writing is (albeit in heterogeneous ways) different from, even antithetical to what student-consumers, what many consumers want or expect from literature (if, indeed, they want anything at all, or rather prefer simple, and simple-minded, affirmative entertainment). While we may see or feel this opposition variously according to our own experience, I’m not convinced--and my experience with students’ general lack of knowledge of the full range of authors that abide in the literature section of our library let alone our local B&N (unfortunately the only game in town)--that students are at all a priori aware of the fact that what we think of as innovative, avant-garde, or experimental has been labeled by the market as unreadable or unsaleable and therefore not worth anyone’s time or money.
My impulse is to insist that writing students, if they intend to have their work taken at all seriously (not just by me, their friendly neighborhood Decider), should strive to produce narratives that respond to the culture in which we live as we live in it, as we receive it, as we act on it right now, in real-time as it were. And by respond I mean in every aspect of narrative: character, pacing, structure, plot, dialogue, etc. I feel as though I have no need to append the term “postmodern” to works by Michael Martone, Noy Holland, Italo Calvino, David Shields, Lydia Davis, et al. (those students who are suspicious of difficult reading will do this anyway) because, from my perspective, if we choose to so name our era, we are all of us living and writing at this time “postmodern,” and the only writing of any value that is produced in response to our contemporary culture or its futures must be postmodern. Even, or perhaps especially, history and historical fiction, if they are to be valued, are written from this perspective. That is, contemporary writing must engage with the culture, as any creative prose writing has done, through at least some of the enduring problems of narrative—plot, structure, character, point-of-view, etc.—even if this engagement is only a disengagement, is only to disregard, pervert, or enhance these categories. I’m asserting then that valuable creative contemporary prose is and always has been avant-garde prose. I’m asserting that to be unable or unwilling to produce or read avant-garde writing is not simply to be ignorant of complex and challenging work, it is to be completely out of touch with the current state of the world as it is happening and about to happen. As has been noted this way of thinking “postmodern” does not, in my mind, necessarily exclude much of what may seem conventional in style or form, work that in fact may engage our contemporary cultural, political, economic, scientific landscape in some alternative, valuable way. If I give students the categories they want and then show them the ways in which contemporary avant-garde authors--or, for that matter, authors such as Sterne or Poe or Stein (I’m sorrowfully feeling the weight of the West here), experimentalists in form and language throughout the history of narrative (as much as this is possible in a single semester)—have revalued these categories, I have at least given them the tools not only to produce recognizable works of fiction (my job), but also shown them how to produce work that has the potential to complicate reading and thinking the now for themselves, for the workshop, and for any potential readers they may have down the road. (I teach undergraduates, so this road may be quite long for some, or, in many cases, our semester-long stroll may only be a brief, highly disturbing diversion.)
Regarding the definition (of avant-garde writing): “that which tells unconventional stories in unconventional ways,” I propose deleting the term “unconventional stories” and replacing it with nothing at all. In the third of her three lectures on narration, Gertrude Stein writes/tells: Narrative is what anybody has to say in any way about anything that can happen has happened will happen in any way. Talk about possibility space. (And I should say here, too, that I think of the workshop as much as the page as such a space. Even more than convention and readability, students want permission. The kind of writing we’re talking about shows them how to attain, create, and/or abscond with that in all kinds of ways.) Stein puts pressure on this permissiveness by warning the audience about itself, about audience and the consideration of whether or not anyone is listening. She also reminds us that we are our first audience. Are we listening to what we are saying, or have we grown bored with ourselves, our ways of telling? This seems to me to be an excellent model and one with which we are hardly done. Avant-garde writing as “that which tells in unconventional ways” also seems to me to place a correct emphasis on telling, listening, and the speaker, a relationship which, for me, seems of central importance aesthetically and politically in our present, in which one can tell (or not tell) anything with impunity, or, alternatively, can tell everything without knowing that it has been told or to who. [Just for the record, I’m not intending to misread Lance’s post. I’m just responding to certain propositions raised in it, however they may be clarified or revised later.]
Later in his post, Lance writes the following: “[A]s 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.”
To this my response would be again that the notion needs some revision, perhaps a refocusing or broadening. The question I have is with the idea of trying, of willfully breaking rules, of acknowledging that certain rules for writing fiction exist that should be learned or should be broken. Of course, we know that there are any number of books that have attempted to define these rules, and other books about the breaking of them, and one might say that the one basic rule, the one that no one seems to forget and that doesn’t require a workshop or reading a book to teach it, is that in order for your writing to be considered “good” or “valid” or “worthwhile” it needs to be published. Somewhere. This is a rule that I have not yet intentionally sought to break, though I wouldn’t fault anyone for wanting to. No, the thought I have about this idea of making and/or breaking rules has more to do with the amount of narrative that is produced in complete ignorance of the rules of writing other than those imposed on the author by him/herself. One might say that even this author has or does not forget the single rule stated above. And they may have a way of formulating their own rules based on their own reading of published writing. But what if they do not read or cannot read? Or what if that author’s rules are derived from other nonliterary art forms or other forms of non-artistic communication (i.e. computing, biology, noise, etc.)? And though I can and do read innovative fiction, what if I were to decide to eschew all rules of fiction that I may have learned and written? There’s something, to me, fascinating in this prospect, something that, if one were to accept my idea that contemporary fiction should “respond to the culture in which we live as we live in it,” given the ahistorical, antiliterate nature of Americans, writing that responds through unliterary means may actually better fulfill this goal than any writing that in any way responds to rules of fiction, rules, one might also say of the printed page. Am I talking about hybrids? Perhaps. Yes. And I would add to the list Lidia has suggested elsewhere the work of our blog-fellow Steve Tomasula.
Now that I write this, I wonder if I might be accused of trying to promote a sort of naïve art in writing, a misguided primitivism, but that’s not my intent at all. I’m simply speculating about the possibilities of writing without any attention to the so-called rules of writing as they have been formulated by numerous writers. I am suggesting the possibility of ignoring these and perhaps courting, perhaps imitating or adapting the rules of other forms of narrative production. This ignoring of the rules is, in a sense then, a breaking of them. On the one hand, yes, I am positing a naive writer writing in isolation, perhaps in a cell, perhaps in a secret prison in Romania, or on a hunger strike at Gitmo, or in the process of starving to death with a hundred other illegal immigrants trapped and forgotten in a grain car on a shunting in Texas; a naïve writer whose politically essential narratives, told however artlessly, contain real terror, and were they told with even a milligram of authenticity, would most likely have a more powerful impact on the culture than most anything we here could produce. But I am also positing a sophisticated writer who might seize/appropriate other forms of narrative with which writing is vying, with which culture and truths are constructed, in order to interrogate, critique, extend, undermine, explode them.