02 December 2006

virtue, virtuosity, virtuality,

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Joe Tabbi’s graduate seminar on “World Fictions” at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Tabbi asked me to discuss my response to Ben Marcus’s scouring of Jonathan Franzen in Harper’s last fall.

My essay, “Notes from the Middleground: On Ben Marcus, Jonathan Franzen, and the Contemporary Fiction Combine” (Electronic Book Review) proffers that Franzen’s position—non-mainstream fiction (read: the stuff we talk about on this blog) is destroying American literature—and Marcus’s well-meaning response, to some extent, makes an aesthetic argument out of an economic problem. I ultimately suggest that the most interesting works express the tension between art and the market in their material substance, and cite Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland and good ol’ Tristram Shandy to this point.

I’ll leave the nuances of this to those interested, and instead comment on a provocative notion Tabbi articulated during the session:

Tabbi argues, quite convincingly, that the first generation of postmodern authors (Barth, Gaddis, etc…) focused on the literary work above all else. They may have indeed been/be great show(wo)men, as demonstrated by William H. Gass at the &NOW festival at Lake Forest College last spring), or by Raymond Federman or Kathy Acker any time those two, well, do/did anything at all…yet, Tabbi says, many current writers who have moved into non-textual environments sacrific this same intense attention to literary production.

Not that there is any less value in multimedia endeavors, but that these writers, if I take Tabbi correctly, are perhaps not writers in the same sense. And, just maybe, the literary tradition suffers, because literature becomes, well, something else entirely.

My first instinct, as one of these sometime-multimedia folk, is to recoil. I see my non-print, non-text work, really, as writing in different forms. But then I start to wonder if the technological transformations overtaking the work that we now do may not be fundamentally changing what is it is, exactly, we end up doing. No great lament from me about these changes, and if we take Gilles Deleuze seriously, the death of the book has been a long time comin'.

As someone who schedules many writers on the academic circuit, I must admit often considering entertainment value, in many different forms, before extending an invitation. This doesn’t mean that great writers can’t be damn entertaining, but perhaps reinforces Tabbi's claim that writing has lost real cultural ground in the age of the Xbox.

Against my better judgment, this takes me back to Franzen’s seemingly ridiculous claim that literature needs to compete with things such as extreme sports.

Bungee jumping while reading Swann’s Way anyone? Or am I just expressing the bowhunter’s fear of the gun?



jdeshell said...

I (continue to) argue that technology is NOT neutral, that is does fundamentally change the literary project. I would also argue that this change is (not necessarily) for the better, although I might be on shakier ground here. The one example I’ll give is that I believe that all text is hyper – we don’t need machines (other than the book) to demonstrate that. But I’ve beaten this horse (Nietzsche’s or Raskolnikov’s) before.
Your post brings many other nodes of discussion. For example, the whole reading/entertainment/ performance phenomena, which, at the risk of placing myself amongst the old fogies, I find more than a bit overrated. Maybe because I don’t write shorter (performable) pieces, and because I need drinks in order to get myself up there, but I’ve always found public readings and performances, well, at most supplemental (not in the Derridean sense) to the solitary work and play of reading/writing. I’ve found the reading ‘event’ to be more about presence and personality than the work being read. This doesn’t mean I can’t derive pleasure or benefit from attending such events, but this pleasure is on a different and lesser register than the pleasure I can get from reading the author’s work myself. Although it was certainly a pleasure to meet you all at NowWhat, and I’ll continue to go to readings (I suppose), I find this reading phenomena odd and slightly discomforting. I just don’t network well. I’d love to have someone explain this to me.
All the best, Jeffrey

Davis Schneiderman said...


Thanks for your thoughts on this--let me put the question to you and others...when booking readers for your school, is the performative persona an issue at all?

Even to deliberatley discount or include a certain type of writer?

I find that long-time readers and writers often have a better attention span for complex work that those just introduced to complex fictions--and so, I wonder how we make our economic choices here as to who to invite, pay our measly fees to, etc...


jdeshell said...

Dear Davis,
We almost never make reading invitations based on performance persona. We often try to make our reading invitations coincide with our graduate CW literature courses, Studies in Poetry and Studies in Fiction: we try to invite writers on the syllabus, and performance plays no role. Then, it's really whoever's coming around, has a new book, is 'owed' an invitation etc. The one exception was the wonderful performer I saw at &NOW in Lake Forest, Nambi Kelley. She was great in Lake Forest, and great in Boulder, and I haven't yet read her work. But she's in the theater, which might make a difference. Best, J

Dimitri Anastasopoulos said...

I honestly get a headache just trying to comprehend the discussion. Way too general for me. If I even brought it up to one of the guy's waiting in line for 3 days to buy a video game, they would look at me like I was a loon. It just goes to show: readers of literary fiction are crazier than sadomasoch-gamers.

Mark Wallace said...

Institutional money for the small reading series I've started at my university is entirely dependent on student reaction; I had to create a survey to get their responses to each reading, more on the subject of "learning" than "entertainment," but you see the blurriness there, I'm sure.

So far, I've invited only writers who both can make themselves comprehensible to the barely literate and less well-informed than that audience of students--I don't say this to attack them, just as fact--and who also interest me as innovative writers. A very small window, I can assure you--and one that does feature a large number of writers who "perform" as such (given that all readings are performance, etc). Hal Jaffe, for instance, appeared with a synth player and used several readers for multi-layered voices. Not his only mode, but one he can pull off. The students liked it, without always understanding it, of course.

Let me state again that I don't blame the students for what it is they do and don't understand, although it certainly clarifies the kind of capitalist world they've grown up in; still, an institution that makes a writing series subject to student preference is a very limited and annoying beast. I'd rather have the money this way than no series at all, though I can imagine some people feeling otherwise.

Davis Schneiderman said...

Thanks all, for your comments, and I do appreciate's Dimitri's bemusement and Jeffrey's reticence.

On one hand, sure, why even consider this distinction? Perhaps Tabbi's concerns are more theoretical than practical, but then again, Mark's comment demonstrates the real economic restrictions of this problem.

In the case of Lake Forest, we are talking about a combined budget of very little in real money, which makes any great agon about it, seem, well, unreal--but there are still may writers who command considerable sums for their appearances.

The &NOW Festival was able to procure its headliners for relatively modest amounts, but these choices had to be made very carefully. Just 2-3 "big" names wipe out 20-30 potential "smaller" writers. So, who we pick--and why--becomes of great import.

I once had the chance to make an offer to Salman Rushdie to read at Lake Forest. He was participating in the Chicago Humanities Festival, and I found out about it before a public announcement had been made. His booking agent said he normally charges $30K, but he would do it for $15K since he would already be in Chicago.

15K! I could feel my throat stifling the words "no problem" before they made it out of my gut. Anyway, to my amazement, we were able to gather the money together w/i the 2-3 day timetable we had to make an offer--only to be told that Mr. Rushdie was taking a pass...!

To pass on an hour's worth of "work" that will net you 15K is a reality most innovative writers will never know, or even come close to knowing.

I would certainly never be able to obtain $15K for someone who was not a guaranteed crowd pleaser--or who had not amassed the requisite cultural and/or symbolic capital to make us think as much.

Fatwa aside, it seems that connecting with the audience will take you much farther than not. And so, each author who gets an invitation for a few hundred dollars here or there, will perhaps be forced into developing certain characteristics, that, as the above argument goes, may only have tenuous connection to literature.

I don't see this as a negative really--although some clearly do. What makes this discussion interesting is the way a relatively small subset of university money intertwines with larger issues of economic performance.

So, again, if anyone else is willing to share--what motivates your reading series?


Lance Olsen said...

Readings strike me, to echo Timmi's interesting take on the subject two posts down, as a way, not to make audiences (of undergrads or others) comfortable, not necessarily to entertain them (or, rather, not to entertain them via modes they are used to), but to introduce them to myriad voices they haven't heard before, voices that challenge them, unnerve them, ask them what literature is and can be, undercut their assumptions about language and the world, wake them in the midst of their dreaming.

Why, I wonder, would one want to invent a reading series that simply perpetuates the McDonalization paradigm of student/listener as consumer?

Davis Schneiderman said...


I take your point--but my question isn't so much about "why" would we want to avoid this (of course, we would), but rather, whether the paradigm you mention is to some extent unavoidable, given the fact that these series ofter serve larger communities already inculcated into the standards of McDonaldization.

And further, that the economics of the reading series often side with that same paradigm. And, that perhaps the nature of who we invite has changed (not necessarily for the worse) because of it. In other words, and I am certainly not articulating this as clearly as I would like, what do you think of Tabbi's lament that an attention to "literature" is fading, even within the admitted successes of introducing provocative new voices?

[I think here also of your resignation letter from the University system...]


Lance Olsen said...

I agree wholly with Tabbi, Davis, and, I think, with you.

As I mentioned in one of my early posts here, fiction has become a secondary--if not a tertiary--mode of cultural exchange, increasingly competing for smaller and smaller slivers of the general population's attention with everything from movies and iPods to cell phones and their annoying boutique ring tones.

But I wouldn't want to say that we therefore either can or can't avoid McDonaldization with respect to setting up a reading series.

That is, the choice doesn't fall along an either/or axis in my mind.

Now it's my turn to sound like an old fogie, I guess, but I find the idea of students or administrators dictating the terms of reading series repellant. Neither know enough to make informed decisions. That's why we call the former students, rather than, say, professors, and that's why we call the latter administrators rather than, say, teachers.

At my old job, I had to spend most of my time as director of creative writing cajoling, compromising, noodging, begging, demanding, and balancing angels on the head of pin with my colleagues and administrators, but at the end of the day was able to bring in the likes of Kathy Acker, Carole Maso, Samuel R. Delany, Robert Coover, David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, et al., and pack 400-seat auditoriums with willing (and sometimes unwilling) audiences.

What I mean to suggest is that we can and should live both within and against McDonaldization simultaneously.

It's an always exhausting, frustrating, and perhaps finally losing battle, but, heck, what other alternative (pun intended, I'm afraid) do we have?

Kass Fleisher said...

davis and all,

this is a real problem for organizers and especially funny in light of the fact that i gave one of my worst readings EVER at lake forest once upon a time, on the upslope of a rising fever and half delerious. (i had fun, but it was kind of like being at a formal dinner party and you're the only one who's high.)

mark's suggesting that institutionalized material realities are the force most pressing. i couldn't agree more, tho like davis i can't say i *like* it. i don't think, tho, lance, that we're talking about mcdonaldization here. we're talking about artists who view the page in different ways. some artists compose pages that belong on pages. some compose pages that also have the capacity to lift *from* the page. i do both kinds of work. when i give a reading of creative work (not the hideous lecture i tortured lake forest with), i select the works that come off the page. i have a number of works that will *never* be trotted out for readings.

i think, frankly, that it's rather rude to show up in an auditorium and pretend that people don't have to strain to listen to you. if you want your work to stay on the page, then stay home. ah, but then, here's another material reality: for many of us, readings are our only opportunities to "push product," as one of my publishers calls it.

too bad. that's the writer's problem, in my view. figure out how to read, or don't bother me.

i'm being harsh about this in an effort to turn the conversation in a different direction. poets talk about this stuff all the time---perf poetry etc etc. the deadliest, deadliest, most wasted hours of my life have been spent listening to prose writers. i really don't think we can afford to treat an auditorium like a page. this is where tabbi's point is well founded. we have to be able to recognize the differences between media/fora.

(not that i haven't been bored to excruciation by some poets. but i always dread subjecting myself to novelists and 90% of the time i was right to be fearful.)

i want to add another thing to this discussion, and it's going to be a Girl Thing. there are the performers who extend themselves to the audience (joe and i tend to be in this corp), and writers who make the audience come to them. this latter can make for a stunning performance experience, but requires a sophisticated audience. i'm not capable of pulling it off and am really jealous of people who are. generally speaking, these folks are women writers---soft voices, back from the microphone, and it's all about the work---there's no persona, no charisma at work. but still, the work comes off the page---it's just more challenging.

back when i was a theatrical producer, this was the #1 issue my company struggled with. how do you balance the work that gets delivered to the audience with the work that requires the audience to show up. one answer we found for this, and it's one commonly arrived at by many companies, is to mix things up. do both. there's such a thing as audience development, and it's possible that if the coming-atcha performer is placed with the come-get-me performer, either in the same night or in the same season, the audience will grow to grasp the relevance of both kinds of performance. you hope the audience will learn to trust the producer to select artistic experiences well.

either way, yeah, the hell with people who refuse to be conscious that they're taking up time in people's lives, or that this is a different medium to which they need to respond accordingly. seriously. i saw a prose reading once by an amazingly famous writer who carried a massive box to the podium, set it down, started to thumb through it, 5 minutes later turned up some pages, announced that her mother had done the typing and she had never seen this, stumbled over one error after another, dropped this or that page and had to pick it up and then it was 2 more minutes of her finding her place again, and this went on for a full hour. i shit you not: FUCK THAT. that is UNACCEPTABLE.

one last thing; as you can tell you've hit a nerve with me. the reading *itself* has to be set up right. you need a good MC. you need someone who knows how to handle crowds, how to read difficult social situations like the writer has gone on for 90 minutes now and everyone's about to pass out. you need someone who KNOWS HOW TO DO AN INTRODUCTION. may i say, the performers are not the only performance problem we have going here.

i've been running various reading series for 20 years. hell yes performance issues have an impact on who i bring in. my ass is on the line institutionally too. in my salad days i brought in this total jerk to read (he was a friend at the time---i didn't consider what or how he might read---i just knew he had a good rep and about use the $200) and people were pissed at me for weeks. hell yes. when writers figure out that we're talking a different artistic experience, we might indeed find ourselves a bit more socially relevant.

please excuse the rant. or was that 5 rants.


Davis Schneiderman said...

Three cheers for the rant, of which I hope I have more to speak on shortly.

For now, see page 115 of _Cursed from Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs_ Soft Skull, 2006. (which I am about to review):

Letter from Bill Sr. to Bill Jr.

"Writing is a very depleting, exacting, dangerous and underpaid profession, and the most basic and vital advice that I can give to any young writer is: pay attention to your finances. In the words of Wilson Mizner, 'Don't turn down any money.' It seems now that in order to survive we must become performers as well, and peddle our wares like the purveyors of snake oil. At the same time, readings can be fun, when seen as performance..."

blonde said...

well god damn it CHIASMUS is trying a deconstruction of "the literary reading" at awp.