10 June 2006

matt madden : 99 ways to tell a story

In 1947, Raymond Queneau—mathematician, poet, fiction writer, and member of the Oulipo group dedicated to using formal constraints imposed on one's own work as a method of generating creativity—published Exercises in Style. He took a simple story and told it in 99 different styles: as a letter, a sonnet, a moral lesson about The Youth of Today, etc. The narrative itself is wholly unremarkable: a young man gets on a crowded bus, complains about being jostled, and then sits down when a seat becomes available; later, the narrator sees the man who jostled him in another part of town talking to a friend.

In 99 Ways to Tell a Story (Chamberlain Brothers, 2005), Matt Madden performs a kind of homage to Queneau by doing much the same thing, only in comix. The narrative itself is, if possible, even more unremarkable than the original nonstory story: a man who has been working at a computer stands, closes his laptop, and walks to the refrigerator; his partner asks him what time it is from upstairs; he responds 1:15; then he bends in front of the fridge, looking puzzled, wondering "What the hell was I looking for, anyway?" Madden retells that narrative in a variety of comic-book styles, from a variety of points of view, in a variety of different settings, from a variety of different angles, with a variety of different characters, without one of the two leads, without the refrigerator, as a paranoid religious tract, as an existentialist parable, and so on.

The outcome is fascinating, stimulating, and a micro-education in both narrativity and the history of comix. Its mechanism of production is the simultaneous use and abuse the past, and its aesthetic impulse harmonizes well with what some of us back in the mid-nineties referred to as the Avant-Pop, a mode of telling that amibivalently accomodates pop culture while using many of its assumptions of comfort, predictability, and spectacularization against itself.

One of my litmus tests for a "successful" text is that it makes me want to go out and write. Madden's accomplishes that like few I've come across recently. And, to tie back into our earlier discussion of pedagogy and the difficult imagination, I'm guessing it might have a vibrant life in the classroom as well.


Carol Novack said...

I love this perspective, Lance -- thanks! We can of course go back to the classic Wallace Stevens and think of "13 ways of looking at a blackbird," and probably a whole slaw of writings that speak to different ways of viewing and writing/interpreting a particular scene/concept. But what really rings the bell for me is your statement that one of your litmus tests for a "successful" text is that "it makes me want to go out and write." Many years ago, I studied under Norman O. Brown, and I've never forgotten his statement (perhaps derived from someone else -- or perhaps he never said this) that "the only response to poetry is poetry." For me, that's THE mark of great writing. Great writing compells me to write.

I remember when I first read Gertrude Stein. I couldn't read for long. I had to stop and write. Why? Her concepts, rhythm and word plays tickled me shocking pink. I could do nothing but pick up the pen!

Joe Amato said...

So Lance -- Chamberlain Bros, as you doubtless know, is a Penguin imprint.

Which means, of course, that they'll accept new material only through an agent (or if you should happen to know someone there personally).

But my point is this: in this case -- and in so many others -- I can't connect the quality dot (i.e., 'Madden's book is great') with the critique-of-the-publishing-empire dot. Sure, we could argue that Madden's is the exception to the rule as far as innovative Penguin books go (whatever we mean by innovation) -- in fact, I'd argue as much.

But superlative work is the exception to the rule anyway, whether innovative or more conventional or whatever. Isn't it?

So: how do we square our marketplace ambitions with what we see happening at the aesthetic level? I mean, if we can agree that great work (in smaller proportions, sure) is coming out of the major trades, where's the beef?

Or is it that we really do want a piece of that action, and in the meantime, will go with the small presses b/c they're the only ones who'll listen to us, meantime to mount arguments contra that part of the publishing industry that we can't seem to "break into"?

I'm not trying to be merely provocative, and I'm certainly not cynical. I'm trying to understand what "we" are after here, in this space of exchange. And I feel I need to persist in raising this question of publishing economies.



Laird Hunt said...


I could never get down with those connect the dot things -- could you? I always ended up with a mess of misconnections, weird outcomes, etc. Part of the trouble was I couldn't get past the absolute imperative of 1 leading to 2 rather than say to 14 or 48. The other part had to do with not wanting to do it the dumb way my smarty-pants much more capable older sister did it.

That's part 1 of my two cents, here's part 27: Anne Waldman, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, Liz Willis (have/have had books with Penguin); Gary Lutz, Brian Evenson, Ben Marcus, Diane Williams (had books with Knopf); W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolano, Lydia Davis (have books with FSG); Chip Delany (his masterworks have been reissued by Vintage)...

I have no idea what "we" are about here, which I rather like, but I will say that fierce loyalty to indie presses + active mistrust of multinational corps. running the New York publishing show is sure as fuck not going to keep me from reading/discussing The Descent of Alette or Austerlitz or Almost No Memory or, for that matter, 99 Ways to Tell a Story.



Lance Olsen said...

I'm on board with Laird here, Joe, I think, both in terms of dot-connecting and in terms of having an inordinately intelligent older sister who always scored higher on the math SATs than I did . . . but even more so with respect to the odd and complex corporate/indie press divide.

What's striking to me is how there's no easy formula to help us work through this. As I commented in my first post on this blog, "Three behemoth media corporations dominate Manhattan publishing. These Brobdignagians employ the print arms of their swollen conglomerates as tax write-offs, considering low sales figures and small audiences tantamount to failure. That is, they view their products exactly the same way executives at McDonald’s view their death patties." Yet, at the same time, "That isn't, of course, to suggest Manhattan isn't bringing out some wonderful and surprising work (think José Saramago, David Mitchell, David Markson), but it is to suggest it is bringing out less of it—much less of it—than it did, say, during the sixties, when over 100 big houses thrived in New York. Nor would I want to suggest that alternative presses don’t bring out some bland, simple, sloppy stuff in innovationists’ clothing."

I'm not quite sure what to do with that observation, except to suggest that discussing publishing economies doesn't perhaps lend as much light to the gnarly subject of the innovative or spaces of political resistance as it might first seem to. Luck, good agents, serendipity, previous sales, ardent editors, potential sales, review track records, power of a particular work at hand, and even kinds of experimentation figure in to things. At the same time, I wonder if a New York press would even know what to do with work that regularly appears from, say, Dalkey, FC2, or Chiasmus, even though all have authors who at one time or another have published with gargantuan New York houses.

Joe Amato said...

Hey guys -- well it's good to know that we all agree: the major trades are producing some incredible work.

Let's digest this reality for a moment, and measure it against, oh, I don't know -- some of the assertions here at Now What? Just for starters...

No, Laird, I too wouldn't let the imprint of a work prevent me from reading. But (and I hope you know this) that was not what I was suggesting. Quite the contrary, in fact.

At any rate, I do think one can connect the dots, tentatively. Hell, I'd be willing to claim some expertise in the matter, as long as y'all don't ask me to do it here, in 1000 words or less.

My point is simple, but not easy (I am borrowing from Marcella Hazan, whose "pork braised in milk" recipe I just employed this eve, with considerable success): we probably ought to consider how our assumptions about the marketplace for our writing, however half-baked (or un-dotted), condition the terms of our writing. We won't come up with any but provisional answers, but those answers will be nonetheless valuable in developing corresponding questions. How do we imagine the reception of our work?

This says a helluvalot about who "we" think we are (never mind who "we" actually are).

That we can't entirely "control" the reception of our work (we've discussed this already, at some length) doesn't mean that we don't bring such assumptions to bear on our public yearnings (scribblings).

I'll stop now, and see if what I'm saying is at least (ahem) digestible.



Anonymous said...

dots, schmots.

What is influencing what? Each, the classroom and the so-called publishing world are mutually exclusive in that they parade a facade of "alternative" instead of actually coming up with a plan of attack.

99 ways shows how both classroom society and publishing world can get together and genre-bend. Ah, but you weren't interested in that outcome, were you now?

Rose Selavy

Laird Hunt said...

Pork braised in milk!

Which incidentally came out as bork praised milk on my first typing pass.

Thanks for the clarification, Joe. I do believe I misread your comment, a little like I mistyped your recipe.

Or perhaps I gave it one possible reading of more than one possible reading.

At any rate...

Joe Amato said...

Laird, thanks.

Yes, that pork recipe is the cat's ass. Or somethin' like that...

Re audiences, Whitman sd -- well, we know what Whitman sd. I've talked to writers who tell me they write for a dozen people in the world. That might be an equally fraught construction (esp. as I have zero interest in starting my own cult -- which some writers, too, have managed with ample success).

I'm appalled (and I mean it) at what I see happening all too often under the imprimatur of (to pick one) Bertelsmann.

But (and Lance will recall my incomprehensible outburst at the last AWP) I don't think we can any longer, or rather, should any longer be mounting our marketplace criteeks in such terms (i.e., via fingerpointing).

It's not that the trades aren't, to a large degree, sitting ducks. But if their business model sucks, and if this has repercussions for ambitious art, to argue as much again (and again) isn't exactly breaking any new conceptual or pragmatic ground. And believe me when I say, I've been known to have beat this drum, or dead horse, myself (it's difficult not to).

OK, enough from me for a while... Thanks for listening.



Laird Hunt said...

"It's not that the trades aren't, to a large degree, sitting ducks. But if their business model sucks, and if this has repercussions for ambitious art, to argue as much again (and again) isn't exactly breaking any new conceptual or pragmatic ground."

Yes, excellent point here, Joe.

Davis Schneiderman said...

Joe, Laird, Lance, et al...

I'm struck by Joe's question about how we may change our writing to play to or against what we perceive as the big publishers.

For years, when I first started writing, I sat down to pen every story as if it could appears in one of the mainstream anthologies that I routinely read in college courses. Of course, two sentences in would find penguins in outer space or an enormous turd a la Gogol's "The Nose"...and so I came to evenutally stop worrying so much about what I thought I should be doing.

And even now, a decade later, I find myself describing my work to a stranger at a party, with phrases like, "this new one is not as weird/weirder than the last one."

I know also, in ways I've never fully articulated, that when I am writing, this question is very much in my mind.

I'm going to give it some thought as I edit my current ms.

What say the rest of you?


PS: Reading Murakami's _Kafka on the Shore_, a so-far fantastic book from a non-small press...!

Joe Amato said...

Let me post something that might help frame this issue -- an excerpt from an interview with Samuel Delany that appeared in Rain Taxi back in 2000. You can get to the full interview here:

"Among my recent enthusiasms is the critical work of the late poet Gerald Burns. In a slim pamphlet called Toward a Phenomenology of Written Art, in 'The Slate Notebook,' the first of the two essays that comprise his book, Burns writes:

'Some writers know a great deal about how words should come at a reader; others study the ways words come to a writer. The second is likely to please passionate readers more, if only because the first is more likely to be vulnerable to literature as rule book, a catalogue of other men's effects. What saves him sometimes is reading very little. The second, whether reading or writing, is likely to pay less attention to the book of rules than to grass and how the ball looks coming at you, and the oddity of lines painted on a field. What he explores is the act of writing, as his readers explore the act of reading. There is nothing contemptible about traditionalist writing, but its readers are more likely to ignore the act of reading as part of the experience of what is read. In the first-quarto Hamlet Corambis asks, What doe you reade my Lord? and Hamlet says, Wordes, wordes. In the Folio he says, Words, words, words. It's not only funnier, it's truer, to his and our experience. The scribe may hate his pen as the painter his paint, but in another mood he will imitate Van Gogh and drink ink.'

Around his baseball exemplary (borrowed, surely, from Jack Spicer), this kind of insight locates our attraction to poets from Pound of the Cantos, through Laura (Riding) Jackson, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Jorie Graham--and is one you're only likely to hear from a poet. The writers of prose fiction whom I can easily think of who fall in with those writers more interested in how words come to the writer than to the reader are D. H. Lawrence and the greatly underrated Paul Goodman. Today, language-aware prose is, indeed, more likely to be concerned with the reader. William Gass or Guy Davenport, Richard Powers or Edmund White are all writers primarily interested in the reader. As, I confess (my Nevèrÿon tales excepted), am I."



TThilleman said...

Joe is saying here, folks, in response to Davis, that the word power is a-fore! the place of its supposed comment.

echoes happen, surely, but what about the 88 keys of the piano which is in the chest of the rain taxi mulch-type pulp interview printer inked up slapped together stapled and mailed OBJECT?

Hey, take a hit of this shit, it's pretty good...

Lance Olsen said...

Joe, you say: "We probably ought to consider how our assumptions about the marketplace for our writing, however half-baked (or un-dotted), condition the terms of our writing."

I have a feeling I might be in the minority here, but, well, when I'm writing, I never think–either consciously or, I want to say, unconsciously—about the marketplace. I just write the narrative I want to read. Then, when I'm done writing, I see if there's a publisher who wants to publish it. If there is one, I write another narrative I want to read. If there isn't one, I write another narrative I want to read.

This isn't to say the role of the marketplace in writing isn't a potentially interesting and important one, just one that it never crosses my mind to keep in mind when I'm working. That may well be why I make virtually no money off my fiction. But who cares?

And Rose, you say: "99 ways shows how both classroom society and publishing world can get together and genre-bend. Ah, but you weren't interested in that outcome, were you now?"

I've read those lines 99 times, and from various points-of-view, in various settings, via various styles, and I still don't know what you mean. Would you pretty please clarify?

Kass Fleisher said...

davis wrote:

>For years, when I first started writing, I sat down to pen every story as if it could appears in one of the mainstream anthologies that I routinely read in college courses. Of course, two sentences in would find penguins in outer space or an enormous turd a la Gogol's "The Nose"...

i think this is the answer to lance's claim that he doesn't think about his audience (ie, whether there is a market; market=audience, yes?) when he writes. i'll assume that *most* of the folk on this list don't think about the six people in the u.s. who might be interested in their work...in the *generation* phase. but the *rejection* phase of writing—that's a whole nother thing entirely. when something turns out to be not-accept-able, the writer is *obliged* (yes?) to assess why, both in terms of the bullshit one sometimes receives from publishers (sample from a letter joe and i once received from the editor-in-chief of a major trade: "i liked these works but don't *love* them enough to publish them"—real helpful revision advice) and one's own editorial bullshit detector (as in, "you know, chapter 7 never felt right to my gut, must redo even though no rejection has mentioned chapter 7."). i mean, that's what one does in the face of mass rejection from an entire industry, right? (i have a colleague with 60 rejections for a book that's VERY good. 60. in 1965 years, pre-conglomerate, that's the equivalent of _zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance_.) one is *forced* to ask (speaking of noses), did i fart—or was it *their* smell-machine that's off??

i want to keep this short(ish), so let me add that ever since i learned (i wish i could say from whom, sorry) to think of these systems as economies—'systems' meaning the various publishing systems, or games, that are available (games are played in the small-press world too, eh?)—i have been better able to assess rejection. (you can also call these systems ecologies, but for me that loses the aspect of cultural capital that comes into play.) here is my addition to this discussion: there are *many* economies at work in the small-press biz, including this thing i'm calling the economy of praise. i discovered this while working on _american book review_. i'm sure we've all had a chuckle or two over blantant blurbs. but lance, you know i love you, but if there was absolutely NO—NO!!!!—praise coming your way (and there i went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid like 'i love you') from ANYTHING you wrote (so hard to imagine that this exercise might not even work!!), i'm not sure i can imagine your response. but praise-exchange is as old as the hills (transference, anyone?), and kept t.s. and virginia and w.c.w. and stein and (good god) hemingway going in the worst of wartimes.


Lance Olsen said...

I think you're on to some important distinctions, Kass. It's not a "claim" that I don't think about the marketplace when I write; I really don't think about the marketplace when I write. As I say, I just think of writing a book or a short story or whatever that I'd love to read.

The rejection-phase is a much more complicated affair for me. Again, I really don't pay much attention to rejection; I have a 24-hour turn-around rule: if something gets rejected one day, it's out in the mail the next. That isn't to say, though, that I don't listen to editorial suggestions from people whose voices I've learned over the decades to trust, several of them editors, most of them writer-friends; I listen to them like mad, weigh them for what strikes me intuitively as right, and often incorporate them into future drafts. Unfortunately, those voices have little or nothing to do with the marketplace.

If you'd like to conceptualize praise as another form of economy, well, that sounds find. But praise has nothing to do, at least for me, with the marketplace—i.e., with some cash nexus—and so I don't think "economy" is quite the right metaphor here (maybe I'm getting tugged back to my notion of the "tribal" instead). Please don't get me wrong. Praise means worlds to me, of course, as I suspect it does to every writer, virtually every human being—so long as it comes from a source I respect, but I don't think of it as an "exchange" in the way I think of money as an exchange. Praise is blood fuel, yes. It's food. It's sometimes vindication and motivation and celebration. But I can't make that into an "exchange" the way, say, buying a Big Mac or a bike is an exchange.

Nor would I write—would any of us write, I want to say—just to receive some of that wonderful stuff.

Yet, having said that, I know publishing itself is a kind of praise (often, interesting, virtually untied to money, at least where the writer is concerned), and, like you, like us all, I suspect, I can't imagine what would happen if someone stepped up to you, to me, to the next writer, and said: "Sorry. The rules have changed. You can do anything else you like. You'll be a millionaire and a brilliant physicist both. But you can never be published again."

My instinct is to say I'd say I'd keep on keeping on, since writing's a telling I have to do, and for many reasons that have nothing to do even with praise. But I don't know in what sense that's true, and I don't know of any way (thank goodness) to find out.

What about the rest of you?

Davis Schneiderman said...

Hmm...do we know of anyone who always published with small presses, and had never approached a mainstream agent or press in her or his career (not even in the wide-eyed period of early production)?


Kass Fleisher said...

yeah, thanks, davis, for the nudge, and i'll confess that i think about these things in terms of switching codes in order to switch audiences. so, you know, an agent reads everything i write and evaluates it for the trade marketplace (the answer has usually been Forget It). some day i hope to storm her office because 1) my retirement account is empty; and 2) i really would like to talk to those people sometimes. not always but sometimes. sometimes i want to talk to YOU people, so i do Your Stuff.

i think, lance, that you and i are working from different points of the processes—you seem willing to theorize reception but not willing to theorize generation (or as us luke-warm-marx-y types would call it, production). i'm trying to collapse that linearity and talk about the way reception (which involves various marketplaces) has an impact on generation, and vice versa, cycling endlessly.

but as you say: anyone else?


Lance Olsen said...

Kass, you say: "i think, lance, that you and i are working from different points of the processes—you seem willing to theorize reception but not willing to theorize generation."

It's not that I'm unwilling to theorize generation. In fact, I think my post above is a stab in that direction. It's just that we appear to disagree about generation's necessary dependence on the marketplace. That quasi-Marxist equation seems a little too easy to me, a little too obvious, reductionistic, unnuanced.

That's probably no more than to say that we're different writers sometimes writing for different reasons. And to that I say: thank goodness. Imagine how dreary it would be if we were all the same writer writing for the same reasons. Ick.

Joe Amato said...

What I want to know is, What happened to Tod's post on Oil/Gold? B/c I find that kind of (in this case economic) framework very appealing at present in dealing with the outer reaches of cultural production.

I mean, surely generation and reception have something to do with each other, right? Else the knuckleheads over in the creative writing wing are perfectly justified in never ever picking up a book of theory, and their counterpart knuckleheads over on the scholarly side are just as justified in never ever picking up a book of contemporary poetry. You start drawing hard & fast distinctions twixt generation and reception, you end up with hard & fast distinctions twixt the creative and the critical. Which, among other things, is Bad History (thank you Barrett Watten).

At any rate, it wouldn't be an overstatement to say that my entire writing life has been dedicated to softening such distinctions.



jdeshell said...

A few fragments around ‘For Whom Do We Write.’

One of the ideas of late 20th Century crit theory was the difference separating writer and reader was kaput (Barthes, Benjamin, de Man et al).

When we write, we need to read and have read. When we read, we are help completing the text, we are writing what we are reading. Writing and reading, no difference.

Does this collapse if difference works to bridge the gap between production and reception? Is there a difference between the “subject positions” of the writer and the reader?

In other words: what is the relationship between (separating) the writer and reader? Is saying “Writing and reading, no difference” the same as saying “writer and reader, no difference?”

Possible response: I keep the reader (large [becoming famous and/or rich] or small [cult] group) in mind when I write.

Possible response: I write for myself.

Possible response: Some combination or oscillation between the two. I write primarily for myself, but if FS&G pick it up, well, that’d be cool.

Question concerning responses: Do we know the reader? Can we ever know the reader? Is the reader absolutely other? Reading SOME reviews of my work, reader’s reports or rejections suggests this to me. I honestly don’t understand what they’re talking about most of the time. It’s like they’re speaking a foreign language. Who is the public(s)? Who are these editors? Who are (and how smart) are the people making these decisions? What do they have in common with me? What do they want?

Question concerning responses: What does it mean to write for oneself, when writing is an ‘activity’ that puts the self into question? “I write what I like to read” is a sentiment I sympathize with, but writing seems to destabilize both the “I” and the “want.” And then, when you return to yourself (a different self in that now you are a self who has written), the end product is never what you desire. Is it?

Whenever I start to think about readers I end up being wrong. This could be my problem.


Kass Fleisher said...

jeffrey, lance, joe, all,

as joe and jeffrey suggest, lance, i'm not advocating for a "dependent" relationship between writer and marketplace (audience, reader). was it derrida who coined the term "wreader"? i see them as symbiotic, and as i suggested some posts ago, and what jeffrey echoes, i imagine the writer working through phases of the process, emphasizing various realizations at various stages (at the beginning, following impulses; reconsidering those impulses; realizing what audience she'd like to share these impulses with; then, having written 10 pages she thought would fly in a larger venue, she realizes that the gatekeepers of those venues will never go for it, so rewriting for different conventions...etc etc). and again, if economy doesn't work as well as na analogy, the other system i'm fond of is ecology---writer and reader in symbiotic relationship (think buffalo and prairie dog).

because jeffrey, it's not that writers need to read (altho god knows we've all seen writing that's been *under-read* by it's author...) it's that writing IS reading.

so i like that jeffrey brings desire into this...desire of course being something capitalism manufactures for us all. thus: writer desires a given reader. a large-venue reader (writer thinks) might pay off in cash-capital as well as cultural capital (picture in _vanity fair_). a small-venue reader might pay off cultural capital (keynote speaker at small conference on innovative writing) as well as in increased salary and rank (if writer is academic).

(and, just want to say that even as we writers struggle financially, our small-venue publishers seem forever on the fiscal brink. i'm very grateful to all of them for keeping on.)

either way this could reduce to that simple primal desire to belong to...something...to be accepted by...something. a tribe, we keep saying here. what was the name of those apes someone studied--bonobos??--who spend the first half of ever day seeking food, which they share, and the rest of the day picking on each other? yeah: i mean, i write in the morning, then log onto the blog to give folks here a hard time.

what joy is yours.

thanks for the dialogue, tribe. i DESIRE you.


Kass Fleisher said...

the term wreader: not coined by derrida (i have the world's worst memory, sorry), but used in early days of hyperfiction clan gatherings (late 80s, '90, '91) by jed rasula, joe amato, martin rosenberg, george laundau, doubtless others....

i wonder how many other great ideas derrida gets erroneous credit for....


Joe Amato said...

Quick note that probably nobody gives a shit about, re the term "wreader": Kass gets it almost right. Jed Rasula, I THINK, may have coined the term in the early 80s wrt a certain kind of poetry/poetic experience.

Otherwise, George Landow, Martin Rosenberg and myself (and doubtless others) used the term in the early 90s to discuss a certain kind of hypertextual experience. I thought I'd invented the term in my 1991 electronic review of Jay Bolter's Writing Space (the publication of which was a watershed moment for many of us), but soon after stumbled across Rasula's use of same.

At least, that's how I recall things.

OK, file this little number under "cs" for chickenshit (remember Milner in American Graffiti?



mer19@psu.edu said...

Joe's right about the "wreader" reference. I used it in 1993 and 4, thinking I had come up with it.
But unbeknownst to me, Joe used it before I did. I was unaware of electronic journals in 1991.

I think its important to give credit where credit is due, since the academy is a pyramid scheme where ascendancy occurs through the "originality" of one's thinking (one hopes).