29 December 2006

the death of metafiction
& other malicious rumors

I received an email from Marc Lowe this morning pointing me to a strong essay by Michael Boyden in ebr about American Oulipo writer Harry Mathews. Marc directed me particularly to the following provocative paragraph, which he asked me to post here so that those interested might engage with it:

In the conclusion to her chapter on postmodern fictions for the seventh volume of The Cambridge History of American Literature [1999], Wendy Steiner argues that the 1990s have signalled the end of the experimentalist period of esoteric metafiction in American prose writing. Whereas outside the U.S. such writings continue not only to be produced but also to be appreciated, Steiner claims that in America critical taste "has moved on" (Steiner 529). As a possible reason for this turn away from self-reflexive fiction, she notes the fact that several of the most renowned American experimenters, notably Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Robert Coover, John Hawkes, and William Gass, have passed their creative peak. A more compelling factor, however, would have been the so-called "culture wars" in the American academy which seem to have undermined the cultural validity and vitality of postmodern "high" fiction. According to Steiner, the controversies in the universities have resulted in the gradual erosion of the boundaries between "art" and "reality" (530). Further, the development of new media as well as dramatic changes in the marketing of books have made such distinctions between "high" and "low," or "popular" and "serious," even more precarious. More and more, apparently, novelists are moving away from elitist game playing and instead are drawing inspiration from mass culture and the lives of "ordinary people" (brackets in Steiner's text, 535).

Marc responds elsewhere in part:

Note that, as it says here, metafictional, or "self-reflexive fiction," is still popular in other countries, primarily Europe (and also Japan to some extent, particularly in the form of autobiographical fiction -- i.e. shishosetsu, or "I-novel"-inspired work). . . . To say that American "critical taste" has "moved on" to stories about the lives of Joe the mechanic and Jane the doctor says nothing so much as that American readers have gone from lazy to lazier.

While Steiner's comments were composed more than eight years ago, and may therefore be granted a certain by-default out-of-dateness, they nonetheless strike me, even for 1999, in equal parts preposterous and as strong evidence for her apparently parochial reading habits. (Much the same, by the way, could be said for Fredric Jameson's pronouncements about postmodern fiction, which are based exclusively—and, for an unflagging Marxist, ironically—on a small sample of texts produced by mainstream corporate presses.) I want to say, rather, that all experimental fiction—from Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy to this past year's The Open Curtain (Brian Evenson) and The Exquisite (Laird Hunt) and on to next year's Parabola: A Novel in 21 Inersections (Chiasmus) by new-comer Lily Hoang—is to some extent metafictional: to some extent, that is, self-consciously about its own processes, about the nature of language, about the structuality of structure, about its own (and hence the world's) uses of narrativity, and hardly "esoteric" or "elitist," hardly cut off from "reality," but rather deliberately challenging, difficult, against the narratological grain, profoundly political, oppositional to the status quo on the page or off by its very being .

Still, I'd very much like to hear from others on this, especially with regard to Steiner's comments about those so-called "culture wars" ongoing in the American academy.

28 December 2006

back to the future : fc2 podcasts

Speaking—apropos of the link to the wonderful Bernhard interview Jeffrey Deshell provides below—of interviews, FC2 has inaugurated a series of monthly podcasts that will contain interviews with and readings by its authors.

The first takes the form of an extended conversation (55 minutes) with R. M. Berry, who will be stepping down as publisher of FC2 this spring after nearly eight years at the helm. Among other topics, he touches on the founding days of the Fiction Collective in the seventies, its present, its possible futures, the state of alternative publishing in the U.S., and how one way of defining experimental fiction is to say it is the sort that has always seriously asked the question: What is fiction?

You can download that podcast and forthcoming ones at the FC2 website here, or you can subscribe via iTunes by doing a search there for FC2.

26 December 2006

Mad Hatters' Review Reading, 1/27, NYC

Madhatters' Review
Edgy & Enlightened Literature, Art & Music in the Age of Dementia

Poetry, Prose & Anything Goes Reading Series

Curated & Pickled by Publisher/Editor Carol Novack
5th Reading Friday, January 27th, 2007, 7 – 9 pm

KGB Bar85 East 4th St. 2nd Floor (between 2nd Ave and Bowery)


Norman Lock
Norman Lock is the author of The Long Rowing Unto Morning (Ravenna Press), A History of the Imagination (Fiction Collective Two), Land of the Snow Men (Calamari Press), ‘Notes to the Book of Supplemental Diagrams’ for Marco Knauff’s Universe (Ravenna Press), Trio (Triple Press), Emigres & Joseph Cornell’s Operas (elimae books and YKP, Istanbul), Cirque du Calder (Rogue Literary Society), and The House of Correction (Broadway Play Publishing). Two Plays for Radio is due fall '06 from Ravenna Press. His stage plays have been produced in New York, Los Angeles, in Germany, and at the 1996 Edinburgh Theatre Festival. Women in Hiding, The Shining Man, The Primate House, and Money, Power & Greed were broadcast by WDR, Germany. He wrote the film The Body Shop, produced by The American Film Institute. He is the recipient of the Aga Kahn Prize for fiction, given by The Paris Review. He lives in Philadelphia. Two of his book reviews and a short fiction can be found in MHR.

Terese Svoboda
Terese Svoboda has been described as “A fabulous fabulist,” in Publisher’s Weekly review of her fourth novel and ninth book, Tin God. Her writings have appeared in The New Yorker, New York Times, Atlantic, Slate, Bomb, Lit, Columbia, Yale Review and Paris Review, and her honors include an O. Henry for the short story, a nonfiction Pushcart Prize, a translation National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, a PEN/Columbia Fellowship, two NYFA Fellowships in poetry and fiction, an NYSCA grant, a Jerome Foundation grant in video, the John Golden Award in playwriting, and the Bobst Prize in fiction and the Iowa Prize in poetry. She has taught at Sarah Lawrence, Williams, the College of William and Mary, the University of Hawaii, the University of Miami, the New School, St. Petersburg, Russia and is currently Writer-in-Residence at Fordham. She lives in New York City and will be teaching in Kenya Christmas '06 and Bennington next spring. Her opera WET premiered at L.A. Disney Hall in December '05.

Deb Olin Unferth
Deb Olin Unferth's fiction has appeared in Harper's, Conjunctions, Fence, NOON, the Pushcart Prize anthologies, and elsewhere. Her first book is forthcoming from McSweeney's.

For info, email madhattersreview@gmail.com

Bernhard Interview

Here's a link to a great Thomas Bernhard interview, courtesy of my friend Patrick:

Happy holidays.

10 December 2006

the best of 2006

I'd like to pick up on Trevor's post below and extend it by asking:

Which one or three works of alternative prose you encountered this past year most startled and/or delighted and/or influenced and/or infected you, and, in a sentence or three, why?

Note the works in question don't necessarily have to have been published in 2006. You just have to have engaged with them then—and not necessarily for the first time.

I'm naturally as leery as the rest of you when it comes to the simplicity and sucker's game of lists, yet think this one might serve us all well, both by bringing to our attention works that might otherwise be overlooked, and by generating a resource for readers and writers searching for texts The New York Times Book Review would like to pretend don't exist.

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?


NY Times' best of 2006

Yet again, the NY Times Book Review's annual best-of list is a predictable yawner. All of the "best" fiction books are from NY houses (I list them, respectively: Random House, Scribner, Knopf, Knopf, Viking), and the only marginally innovative book on the list is Amy Hempel's Collected Stories.

Of course, this comes as no surprise, but it does tease a larger conversation: what *were* the best books for 2006? Here's my short list; most of the names should be familiar:

Steve Tomasula, The Book of Portraiture
Lance Olsen, Nietzsche's Kisses
Gina Frangello, My Sister's Continent
Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie, Lost Girls


30 November 2006

"What is a reading?"

A recent trip I made to San Diego to read at UCSD started me thinking about readings and audience and publics. And I found myself recollecting an anecdote by Richard Wright that Juliana Spahr relates in her book Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity. Spahr argues that “complex works” empower readers by granting the latter equal authority with the author, and among the works she focuses on are texts by Gertrude Stein and Lyn Hejinian. The anecdote occurs in a page-and-a-half end note discussing how what Spahr calls the “indeterminancy” of Stein’s race and gender dislocations (via the use of racialized language that she wished to defuse and disempower) in “Melanctha” has opened that text to charges of racism. Here is Spahr quoting from a magazine article published in 1945:

Believing in direct action, I contrived a method to gauge the degree to which Miss Stein’s prose was tainted with the spirit of counter-revolution. I gathered a group of semi-literate Negro stockyard workers“basic proletarians with the instinct for revolution” (am I quoting right?)into a Black Belt basement and read Melanctha aloud to them. They understood every word. Enthralled, they slapped their thighs, howled, stomped and interrupted me constantly to comment on the characters.

Spahr argues that often in her work, Stein, whose first (and even second) language was not English and whose childhood years in the US coincided with a great wave of immigration, explores “how people with different levels of fluency speak to each other” and “encourage readers to bring to them different levels of connection, of meaning, of resonance.” Using her immigrant experience, Spahr says, Stein is writing for everybody, not just those schooled in English conventions. (The latter are named as those “schooled in Dick and Jane” and trained to the mastery of “close reading.”)

Earlier, in her introduction, Spahr notes that her emphasis is “less on deciphering works, and more on what sorts of communities works encourage.” (5) Spahr means a variety of things by “communities.” In light of my reflections on readings that authors perform in public, I think it would be interesting to use her words as a different way of thinking about a problem we’ve been talking about on this blog since it began.

I wrote the following narrative during the first couple of days after my trip, then put it aside, for I thought it was a bit too much of a “day in the life” sort of piece to be interesting to anyone but myself. But I’ve decided that since my experience that particular day, however unexceptional, provided the focus for my thoughts, I’ll go ahead and post it and let people decide for themselves whether to bother reading all of it

Nov. 2-3, 2006. Waking up the morning after, it all seemed like a dreamflying down to San Diego for the ParaSpheres reading and stepping out of the terminal into sunlight so dazzling I had to grope in my bag for the sunglasses I’d remembered to pack; spending the day on the UCSD campus; going to the reading; and then flying straight back home. By contrast, it’s dark today in Seattle. The little light there is in the world seems to be located in the gold and red leaves that glow against the dark gray sky, swaying madly in the wind as rain spatters against the window. Indoors, lamps burn all day. Maybe it’s the contrast between here and there that makes it seem more dream than memory, or maybe my memory was warped by sleep deprivation (for by the time I arrived home, I’d been awake for 42 hours).

The long, disjunct day had an interesting shape to it, full of curiously parallelor should I say mirror?experiences. It began at 4:30 a.m., when I rose after a night spent sleepless but relaxed, to dress, drink coffee, and put in my contact lenses. Leaving the house and entering the frozen darkness, it felt like the middle-of-the-night rather than early morning, but even at that hour I-5 had a lot of traffic. And so with SeaTac. Expecting a quick pass through the checkpoint on my way to the gate, I found myself one of hundreds of sullen, anxious travelers crammed into the zig-zagging files of the coach-class queue at the security checkpoint. They were mostly silent, except for those who fretted in low voices about missing their flights or whether their hand lotion or contact lens fluid would be taken from them as contraband. (We are all school children now, it seems, endlessly subject to changes in the rules.) A tape loop blared interminably, oppressing our spirits with a stupidly hectoring male voice (what canthey be thinking?) delivering a barrage of instructions (including a new one that annoyed a guard when I slavishly obeyed it). Perhaps it was the hour, but as I stood in line watching my fellow travelers, gray and dreary and bleak, I couldn’t help thinking that all that was missing was an enormous image of the dictator staring down on us. Instead, an enormous banner advertising Toyota hung above the entrance to the checkpoint proper. The point wasn’t lost on me.

The crowning moment following forty minutes’ wait came after I had entered the checkpoint and managed to strip off the outer layers of my clothing (including, it goes without saying, my shoes) and get everything onto the conveyer belt while still holding onto my passport and boarding pass. I had to wait to pass through the metal detector for the family being processed through the adjacent station (which shared the metal detector with the station currently processing my shoes, coat, and carry-on bag full of books and papers) to precede me. The man and woman with a baby and small child, unfortunately, were being given a hard time. First it was the baby’s stroller: one guard yelled at them for trying to take it through the metal detector and ordered them (juggling babies, passports, and boarding passes) to collapse it and put it on the conveyor belt. And then it was the baby’s clothing: a second guard snarled at the mother because she hadn’t removed the baby’s jacket, and when she had done that snarled at her a second time because the baby was wearing a cardigan sweater that the guard said had to come off, too. The mother was so frazzled and worried they would miss their flight that she yanked at the infant’s sleeves in a panic. (Miraculously, the baby didn’t freak out.) By the time I left the checkpoint, I had the taste of acrid disgust in my mouth.

This was the first time in my experience since the institution of the airport checkpoint ritual that even the semblance of politeness had been absent. (Had I just been lucky? Or has something changed?) It seemed that the security personnel had been reduced to gray elements of a clunky, clumsy machine, brainlessly enforcing rules for no reason but that they existed, while we travelers had been reduced to the anxious herd, enduring what we must without protest, knowing only that if we want to travel, we must submit. Never had it been clearer to me that airport security personnel are mindless enforcers of arbitrary rules that have nothing to do with “safety”: certainly that morning at that checkpoint they knew it and we knew it. And surely of those many women old and young, so anxious about hand lotion and toothpaste, most knew as they shuffled in line that if they had the clout of the merchants who lost money when the Bush Administration decided to make bottled water verboten and now have miraculously been saved by the revised regulation permitting water bought after passing through the checkpoint, their problem with items of personal hygiene, would, like the merchants’, have gone away by now, too.

After all that, imagine my 5:55 a.m. chagrin whenrushing to the gateI passed by the egress of another checkpoint I could have passed through: this one almost completely deserted of all but security personnel. Why in the world hadn’t the security personnel let those of us queuing for the other checkpoint know?

But the rest of my morning went smoothly. Although the shuttle I’d made a reservation with didn’t show, a driver for another company agreed to take me to the UCSD campus. Perhaps because I was the only passenger, he felt obliged to make conversation with me. We began (naturally!) with the weather, with my past visits to San Diego, and from there to the local issue of the airport’s expansion. (He favored a plan in which the Navy would share its base at Miramar with the civilian airport that he said the Government was opposed to.) After a brief silence, he asked me if I was a student or a professor. I said, simply, that I was just visiting for the day, to give a reading. And here’s where the conversation got interesting. What is that? he wanted to know. What do you do at a reading?

His question made me do some thinking. This man who was likely in his early forties really had no idea what a “reading” was: he was asking me because he actually didn’t know. And it occurred to me that “readings” aren’t often given representation in popular media (like movies and television) and how else would he have known? So I offered him a general description and added the comment that when readings are held in bookstores they also usually included book signing, where people buying the book ask the author to autograph it. He chewed this over for awhile, then said, “Does that mean you write books?” I said that yes, I did. Another silence set in, and I thought that was the end of it. But a few minutes later, he said, “I don’t read much.” I said, “I gather most people don’t.” Another silence, then: “I guess I’d never’ve heard of you.” (How wonderful that he didn’t ask “What name do you write under?” as strangers usually do.) He went on, “The last books I read were the Left Behind books.” I know these have been big sellers, but this was the first person I’d ever met who’d actually read them. I was glad I was wearing sunglasses, because I wanted to keep my voice and face neutral, and at that point I needed all the help I could get. “Were they gripping?” I asked, curious that he’d apparently read more than one of them, which from all accounts (bestseller status notwithstanding) were long and tedious and turgid in the extreme. “Did you get hooked?” “For awhile,” he replied. “But I stopped after the fourth book.” A fairly lengthy silence set in after that, and I thought maybe he’d let the subject of books drop now for good. But it seemed that he just couldn’t stop thinking about my being a writer (as though he’d discovered he had some exotic animal sitting in the van with him), for about half a minute after I’d decided that the conversation had dead-ended, he said, “So have you written many books?” He didn’t sound as though he was asking this just to keep the conversation going: rather, he sounded anxiously curious. (And of course it was the anxiety in his curiosity that made me curious.) “Yeah, I guess I have,” I said, not wanting to get too specific. We exited I-5 about then, and I knew it wouldn’t be far to campus. “What’s the name of your latest?” he wanted to know. That was a tough moment, because I had a hard time not breaking into giggles at the thought of a Left Behind reader picking up the next book (or indeed any book) in my Marq’ssan Cycle, parts of which take place in San Diego county. Tsunami, I said. It’ll be out in January.” “I’ll have to try to remember to look for it,” he said as he made the turn to enter the campus. And at that exact instant, the fact that I’d gotten no sleep the night before and had been through that surreal 5:30 a.m. scene at the airport and had shifted from 32F to 61F in the space of three hours clobbered me with a moment of impossible disjuncture as I tried to imagine what it would take to communicate the reality of the typical writer’s situation to this man who was both interested and reasonably intelligent but in no way equipped to understand.

This odd, awkward conversation and the issues it raised in my mind recurred to me throughout the day. In the end, I found my reflections on the conversation more interesting that the actual experience itself (which I’d characterize as stiff and halting in the moment and though not painful, not pleasurable, either).

After exploring the campus to satisfy my curiosity about its differences from the same campus eighteen years ago (when I’d last seen it), I settled at a carrel in the library for a couple of hours to jot notes about my morning, read, and think. At three, I wandered into the food court at the Price Center where I sat down with a bagel and iced tea. I’d planned to read but instead ended up observing the students surrounding metalking on cell phones, working math problems, gossiping in pairs, or just passing the time in groups, laughing, joking, flirting. Several were logged onto the internet, and a couple were doing math homework on graph paper, but I didn’t see a single person actually reading a book. (But then I saw people online or reading magazines in the library, but not a soul reading a book there, either.) It occurred to me to wonder whether any of these people had any more idea of what a reading was like than the shuttle driver, which led to a what-if moment. As an undergraduate music major back in the 1960s, like every other music major, every Thursday morning I was required to attend a convocation that usually featured a recital. (We were also encouraged to attend several recitals a week. Recitals are, I suppose, the musical equivalent of readings. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, frequent attendance of recitals allowed me to be exposed to a wide variety of music. Sure, among the range of recitals given there were occasionally some stinkers, but it proved to be an easy and pleasurable way to broaden my musical experience.) What if, I wondered, attending readings regularly were a requirement of all English and composition courses? Might not at least a few students find their way to work they’d ordinarily not even know existed? And might not even a few of those few afterwards choose to attend readings voluntarily? Nothing is more important for shaping aesthetic and entertainment tastes than exposure, and of course we all know that there is little more powerful in one’s life than habit…

Since I’d arranged to meet Aqueduct author Kimberly Todd Wade at 4:00 outside the Visual Arts Performance Facility, at about 3:45 I headed in what I thought was the right direction. When I realized I’d probably taken a wrong turn somewhere, I stopped and looked around to take my bearings and contemplated cutting through one of the campus’s groves of eucalyptus trees still left standing. “Can I help you find your way?” a young guy called out (lanky, clean-shaven, articulate, and gay), and without further ado swept me under his wing and walked me to my destination. Of course he knew the Visual Arts Performance Facility. “It’s a perfect black-box space,” he said. He himself had attended events there when his organization helped bring in gay and lesbian authors and performers. He played the role of the responsible tour guide to perfection, for as we walkednecessarily skirting the huge construction sitehe informed me that UCSD is constantly expanding and hopes to reach an enrollment of (gasp) 30,000 students. He waved his hand at the massive construction sites and blithely chattered of vitality and “growth.” The campus’s expansion filled him with obvious pride and excitement, which took me aback a bit.

I met Kimberly as arranged, and we chatted for about twenty minutes before we went in. The space the reading was held in was indeed a black box. Near the door a couple of women were seated at a table with a cash box and stacks of ParaSpheres. At the front of the room, in the far corner (to the left of the lectern), Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan (the editors of ParaSpheres and the publishers of Omnidawn) had loaded a large round table with fruit, shrimp, smoked salmon, cheese, crackers, raw vegetables, and madeleines. The second person I asked pointed Rusty out to me, and I approached her and introduced myself. I was given a form to sign, granting UCSD permission to record the reading and the rights over any recordings, audio or video, that might be made, and in short order met the other writers who were reading Carol Schwalberg, Noelle Sickels, William Luvvas, and Mark Wallace. At once everything snapped into place, becoming familiar and comfortable, and I lost my sense of being a stranger. I hadn’t actually met anyone there in the flesh before (although I’d had brief email correspondences with three people present). But now I was among other writers, and that was enough to make me feel at home. Strange, isn’t it? Writers are notoriously solitary and independent souls. (“Organizing writers is like herding cats,” I recall hearing Vonda McIntyre once say.) The works we read and the answers to the questions the audience asked us marked us as very different in style, formative experience, and ideas about narrative. But after a day spent moving in a world in which readings and writers are exotic and alien (at best!) or irrelevant and invisible (for most), I felt a rare appreciation of what we shared in common. Adding to my sense of ease was the speed with which Rusty helped me resolve the problem of getting back to the airport (due to the shuttle company’s flaking out on me that morning).

As well all chatted and nibbled, an audience assembled around us. I spotted a few young undergraduates attending, but most of the audience was older people, likely not students. Anna Joy Springer spoke first and introduced Ken. Then Ken spoke for a few minutes about how ParaSpheres came about and talked a little about “New Fabulism” and “New Wave Fabulism.” And then I read, for the first few minutes struggling with a microphone that persisted in drifting lower and lower over the lectern until finally it blocked my view of the page I was reading and Anna had to come up to adjust it. Mark Wallace read next, and as he read, I imagined the shuttle driver in the audience. And I thought: though Mark’s story is “odd” by conventional narrative standards, the fact is, it’s both entertaining and accessible. Anyone whose literary taste hadn’t gotten stuck in a hopeless, habit-driven rut must surely enjoy hearing this story read. When Mark finished, Carol, who was sitting on my right, whispered into my ear, “His humor’s like Kafka’s, isn’t it?” And another moment of trying to imagine what the shuttle driver would make of the readings worked powerfully on me. And so, for the rest of the event, I listened with a sort of dual-perception. I especially loved the idea of him listening to Carol read about a woman who conducts an extramarital affair in serial dreams, night after night, with the husband of the woman she buys fish from. The dry wit of Carol’s performance would surely seduce just about anyone into wanting to read her story for themselves. I don’t know if Ken and Rusty just happened to get such a diverse stylistic mix of stories to be read for the event or if they planned it that way, but the range of styles represented in the five stories we read from offered a fair representation of the diversity of the anthology itself.

After reading, the five of us, joined by Ken Keegan, lined up in a row behind the lectern, facing the audience, and fielded their questions. Two different young people asked us questions about how we had become writers and when we had realized we were writers, and each of us offered answers testifying to just how different such stories can be. Though after so many hours without sleep I wasn’t exactly a model of alertness, the questions about non-realist fiction actually got my brain working. Anna Joy Springer commented from the audience that too much of the fiction we need is getting “thrown away” into the genres and expressed a sense of frustration that there’s little interest in the mainstream for fiction that doesn’t conform to realist conventions and forms. Echoing his earlier opening remarks, Ken said that that was one of the reasons he decided to publish an anthology of “New Fabulism” and “New Wave Fabulism” stories. He then said that such stories “transcend” their genres. I’m leery of “transcendence” generally, myself, but in the case of fiction, I think it’s a serious error to suggest that good work “transcends” its genre (though it’s a claim that many peopleincluding Steve Erickson, for instance, in a recent interview in Black Clock with Samuel R. Delanymake, when work they consider first-rate uses genre conventions and requires genre reading protocols of its audience. Someone else asked what fables are, which led to a collective attempt to offer a description. Another question from the audience asked us to talk about the difference between “New Fabulism” and surrealism. And finally, someone asked if there was a reason why so many writers were writing fables or fable-like stories now. I suggested that we live in a time in which we find it difficult to speak the truth, and nonrealist stories provide us with the space to speak freely. William Luvvas asserted that such writing has nothing to do with the political. And Mark Wallace offered an interesting, complicated elaboration on the difficulty of breaking past clichés at this particular, postmodern stage of capitalism. In another context, this could have been an opening to a fruitful, possibly fascinating discussion.

I regretfully said good-bye to everyonewishing I could stay long enough to join the Omnidawn contingent for dinnerand left with Eileen Miles, who had generously offered to drive me to the airport. We stepped out of the room into night, which I found a bit disorienting, since, living in Seattle, I tend to associate warm temperatures with long days. The talk flew so fast and easily between us that the drive to the airport from campus could be taken as the polar opposite of the drive from the airport to campus. Eileen is best known for her poetry, but she writes fiction, too. And she is one of those rare individuals who came new to the academy in middle agesomeone suddenly inside the academic world after years of experience as a working writer outside. So we talked about the academy—my decision to abandon it came up during the Q&A—and cities and the pedagogy of writing, all with amazing fluency, considering we had just met. Afterwards, I was struck by the observation that we share a good chunk of the same language, as the shuttle-driver and I so painfully do not.

When I arrived at the airport, the terminal was all but deserted. Nevertheless, a woman security officer stopped me from entering the checkpoint in order to give me a mini-lecture about liquids in carry-on luggage; and she insisted that I trade my transparent sealed plastic bag for an identical one of hers. Surely this was pointless mystification! Looking from her bag to mine, it struck me that our world had taken a shift sideways, into a fantastic baroque dimension where officials wield arcane rules the ordinary citizen knows nothing about with bizarre, arbitrary inflections. Soon our fashions and architecture will begin resembling the rococo grotesquerie that rules Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. My head spinning, I entered the checkpoint and was greeted politely by name by a dapper little man in a suit & quickly processed: the mirror experience of 5:30 that morning at SeaTac. And whereas I boarded the plane almost as soon as I arrived at the gate that morning, here I ended up waiting for hours. The monitor said the plane was on time, but it did not show and did not show. Though the population around the gate remained sparse, as I tried to read I was constantly distracted by indiscreet conversations about office politics or intimate exchanges shouted into cell phones of the few passengers sharing the space around the gate with me. Finally, though, the plane arrived—the same one I’d flown in on—and the few of us taking it boarded, and I spent the flight stretched across the row of seats, lying in the dark, staring out at the stars, listening to music. And so, eventually, to home and bed.


Writers don’t live in “ivory towers.” Most of us write about the world we all live in, using language anyone willing to make the effort can grasp. And yet, the contrasts I experienced that day, outside my daily round, a thousand miles from home, argues it’s not that simple. (Big news: as though we didn’t already all know that.) Juliana Spahr gestures toward one possible way of refusing the gap, but her discussion is, in a sense, mostly a glorious assertion about what could be without any hint of how to get there. The fundamental problem, as Andrea Hairston told me when we faced the abysmal turnout to her reading in Seattle last April, is how to get people to leave their homes, their television sets, their computers, and physically into a performance space. She’s been running a theater for years and years: and the hardest part, she said, is getting people to attend performances that will give them pleasure, if only they could be coaxed into the theater.

I’m interested in the ideas Lyn Hejinian expresses in her essay “Who Is Speaking?”

At stake in the public life of a writer are the invention of a writing community; the invention of the writer (as writer and as person) in that community; and the invention of the meanings and meaningfulness of his or her writing…But the invention of oneself as a writer in a community is only part of a larger question; it should be accompanied by the necessity for inventing that community, and thereby participating in the making of the terms that, in turn, themselves play a crucial role in making invention possible (or, in bad scenarios, impossible)…

…Do we need community? Do we want one? One quick way to answer this is to say that, want it or not, we have it. And this is the case not just because the world is with us. To the extent that humans know about humans, community occurs. A community consists of any or all of those persons who have the capacity to acknowledge what others among them are doing…

I’ve understood different things in these passages every time I’ve read them. What I’m thinking now is that we alternative writers don’t just need readers, we need a more expansive invention of community than the one that just happens to form among and around us. How do we do that? I think many of us are working at it in diverse ways. (I know I have been doing so!) This blog, obviously, is one. I think it could be helpful to be more conscious of it, to conceptualize it more clearly.

19 November 2006

electronic literature collection:
volume one

The first volume of the Electronic Literature Organization's anthology of new-media work turned up in my mailbox last week, and it's simply stunning.

Edited by N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Monfort, Scott Rettberg, and Stephanie Strickland, the collection has brought together in one place for the first time 60 of the most influential and significant digital texts from the last fifteen years or so. Included are projects by Edward Falco, Shelley Jackson, Michael Joyce, Deena Larsen, Talan Memmott, Judd Morrissey, Stuart Moulthrop, Kate Pullinger, Jim Rosenberg, Alan Sondheim, Rob Wittig, and others from the U.S.A., Canada, the U.K., France, Germany, and Australia. Each work is prefaced by a brief editorial description and author bio, and tagged with descriptive keywords for easy cross-referencing.

The compilation presents a broad overview of the field of electronic literature: hypertext, kinetic language experiments, generative and combinatory forms, network writing, codework, 3D, and narrative animations. Sampling the results, you can't help sensing distinctions between such unicorns as "poetry" and "fiction" (even "text" and "image," or "language" and "film") seem ever blurrier and more anachronistic—except in the minds of marketing engineers, librarians, book sellers, and reviewers.

Interestingly, the anthology is being published under a Creative Commons License, so readers are free to copy and share any of the pieces—or, say, install the whole on every computer in a school’s computer lab—without paying any licensing fees.

E.L.O., established in 1999 to promote and facilitate the writing, publishing, and reading of e-literature, is offering the collection in two formats at no cost: CD-ROM (which runs on both Windows and Mac) and web-based. For the former, the editors ask that you request a copy by writing to: Electronic Literature Organization, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), B0131 McKeldin Library, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742. For the latter, just click here. The collection will also be included with N. Katherine Hayles’s book, Electronic Literature: Teaching, Interpreting, Playing, forthcoming from Notre Dame University Press in 2007.

18 November 2006

call for innovative books to review

In my new role as one of the associate editors at American Book Review, I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for significant just-published or (better yet) about-to-be-published innovative fiction, poetry, theory, and hybrid texts that should be reviewed in ABR.

If you ever know of one—by beginning or established authors, by yourself or others, from independent presses or corporate, in digital or dead-tree format—would you please email me (lmo AT lanceolsen DOT com) with an announcement that includes author, title, publisher, brief description, publication date, and contact information?

And if you're a publisher, would you please add me to your emailing list?

Many thanks, and please pass the meme.

15 November 2006

Kent Johnson Speaks

Kent Johnson himself was drawn our way by the recent discussion of his work. But since his comment was the 15th reply to a post that is now over a week old and well down the page, I offered to post it here for him. The image of Yasusada was found in a past issue of the great Australian online poetry mag, Jacket.

A belated commentary here.

There are some really interesting remarks in this discussion, and thanks to Ted for putting up the generous post.

Just to throw something into the mix, I thought I'd comment briefly on Joe Amato's thoughts on the "genre" location of the Yasusada writing. (By the way, please see, if you haven't, Joe's amazing new book, Industrial Poetics, just out from Iowa--what its genre should be called, I'm not quite sure! It's fabulous.)

Actually, I wouldn't necessarily see Doubled Flowering, etc. as closer to Poetry than to Fiction, nor would I make the vice versa claim. And I don't say this just because the two AY books have as much "prose" in them as "poetry": Generic identity, I think, is not so much a matter of textual form as it is of Authorial identity and identification (i.e., how does the Author frame the form and how does the Author frame herself or himself?). And of course, the Yasusada writings refuse, in important senses, to mark themselves in ways that provide for ready placement.

Clearly, though, Motokiyu's writing *is* fictional... But I'd say it's a fiction in a decidedly non-conventional sense, since it also--and this would be at the core of its controversy--gathers into its poetic-fictive space a number of "real" and relatively unquestioned paratextual categories: ones that are almost always kept distinct from the imaginative "essence," so to speak, of literary writing, traditional and experimental alike.

Most relevant here would be the Yasusada work's departure from the expected projections of Authorship and the standardizing rituals of taxonomy and axiology that flow from its function (as they do, no?). And it's the paratextual category of Authorship, in particular, innocuous and normal as it appears to be, that provides the character roles we all fill and which the Literature institution absolutely requires for its overall stage effects--including the ongoing tragicomic display of the "avant-garde's" auto-recuperation into the Culture industry (Ron Silliman's post on Barrett Watten the other day, by the way, seems blind to the fact that there could be nothing more *inside* High Museum culture than a tenured, academic [winner of the Rene Wellek Prize for Criticism, no less] writing in arcane theoretical language about the negative dialectics of poetic opposition!). Er, Ideology, meet Language Poetry...

Not that Yasusada totally succeeds in escaping those dynamics... Far from it, since one could argue it's a pretty provisional, even flawed gesture of resistance to what I mention above. And not that these kinds of "theoretical" considerations are the major impulse or meaning of its writing. In fact, what I've said in this comment seems more than a bit uptight and stilted, now that I read it over. Well, too late now, I guess. Maybe a briefer way of putting it is that I think Motokiyu's work wishes to unfold not only as a fiction on the page, but as a fiction within the world. A poetic fiction, I suppose, that hopes to enchant and confuse the scenery in some modest, but useful and unpredictable ways. In that, I think it's had, and is still having, some impact.


14 November 2006

interview : lidia yuknavitch

Lance: I think of you as a major literary activist on the American scene with a history of engagement and community-mindedness that stretches back at least as far as two girls review and has come to full fruition with your founding of and involvement in Chiasmus Press. What lured you into the universe of activism, and how has your sense of it changed over the years?

Lidia: What lured me into the universe of literary activism was this: my heart hurt. As I began writing myself up and through the literary machine I found that some of the most vibrant, exciting, driven work was being done by people on the margins, particularly the margins of academia, of economy, of the mainstream—and that caused me angina.

I think I came of age as a writer when all that NEA funding was hacked to pieces—writers and artists such as Karen Finley and Andres Serrano and books like Doug Rice’s were being attacked and de-funded in ways which truly marked me.

Closer to home in Oregon I noticed a dismal repetition of awards and legitimacy landing on the heads of a very short list of writers whose work tends in the direction of … warm and cozy and comfortable. With very few exceptions.

The crossroads for writers like me looks like this: wait around to be accepted by authorizing systems and lofty literary communities that have little to no chance of claiming you as one of their own (thing of darkness), or, do what my favorite artists have done—the ones who have kept me alive all these years—invent, innovate, improvise, take action.

Because in the end making art and jamming the door open for other people to make art is more important to me than pretty much any form of culturally authorized party hat I can imagine.

The other thing that has moved me toward intention and action is my sense that women writers in America are endlessly in need of diversification. Don’t get me started. See my post A Prayer for Women’s Writing.

Right now I am most invested in helping to create a tribe—which is a word I prefer over community, because it signifies so differently. It carries with it ritual and warrior call, it touches both my mother’s Native American heritage and my father’s Lithuanian saga. It justly identifies intimate relationships born from a nomadic, shifting, de-centered energy, belonging more to the land and to other bodies than to society. It is plural and moving underneath power and order.

I love the tribe I belong to like I love my family.

Lance: "Chiasmus Press," the mission statement on your website reads, "is a Northwest, Portland-based literary collective intent on printing the most innovative emerging authors, those who have been excluded or have not yet been co-opted by the mainstream-print-industry or well established, often academically entrenched, forms of Avant-gardisms." Would you talk a little about how you arrived at the collective structure, what you've enjoyed most and least about running the press, your contest, and what advice you have for those thinking of launching their own alternative presses?

Lidia: You know, there is virtually no way I could be part of a press that was not at its heart a collaborative effort. I so seriously believe in collaboration that half the time in my own writing I can’t live with its mono-vocality. Chiasmus is thus a collective or collaborative entity because I can’t stand it any other way. Honest.

What I enjoy most is creating a space for writers and artists to just make.

One of my eternal frustrations is always how to keep everything funded.

The other is how much my “job” (15 courses a year) gets in my way.


My advice to those thinking of launching their own alternative presses is: hurry, please. And: make it up. And: make it sing.

Lance: Whose voices—inside the world of fiction and out—have enabled you to write, and how, and why?

I actually came to writing through painting and music, which is to say that musicians such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits, The Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols and the Pixies made stories burn inside me. Painters who were also innovators like Jackson Pollock and Joan Mitchell and Francis Bacon and Willem de Kooning and Frida Kahlo brought the crouch of dreams to my very fingertips.

At one crucial point I was visited in a dream by Mary Shelly … that seems key. It was a long conversation. When I woke up I took very careful notes.

But it was three women writers in particular who burst the membrane of my imagination and brought me to writing: Kathy Acker, Marguerite Duras, and Gertrude Stein. In their work I felt less like a freak. And I felt as if my stories had mothers.

I am moved lately by writers like Carol Maso and Anne Carson, since they sail across genre lines so effortlessly and without apology.

I am moved by the writers we publish, their bravery, their risks.

And I don’t mean to make you blush, Lance, but in my present tense, it’s you—you enable me to write. Literally. Because being in literary relationship to you and Andi makes me feel tethered to real bodies and hearts. I honestly believe I’m alive as a writer in part from knowing you/your writing.

And I think people should say this kind of thing in public.

Because it is not enough to be profoundly intellectual or a wizard of artistic tricks or a spanky academic or an award winning author—as so many of my beloved fellow writers are—it’s the heart that matters to me.

Lance: Well, it's right back at you, and in spades. Seriously. You've taught me universes about everything from how communities should work to what a sentence can do. But since repressed Scandinavians blush more deeply than others, let me change the subject. Thomas Mann once commented that "A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." What is most difficult about the art form for you?

Lidia: That it’s more real to me than people and the world.

Lance: You recently mentioned to me that you're in the process of finishing a new novel. How, if I may ask, does it converse with your former fictions and obsessions? How do you sense it moving beyond or transforming them?

Lidia: Well I’m profoundly shitty at trying to describe it, so I’ll just give over a bit—I think in a way the story is about all of us, and about making art, but this small bit is about a girl orphaned by war who will later become an American artist ... a painter.

There is not a word for what she is feeling, thinking, living. At least not for her; an as yet unformed lexicon rests between vertebrae in silent evolutionary swirls. It will take years for this word to emerge, and more time than that for consciousness to wrap its vines of comprehension around it.

Her hands carry the trace of a family like skin psalms.

Sometimes she does not know what to do with them.

Her hands.

She is a girl in a tribe of sorts—those who have suffered loss and grief inexplicably, through circumstance, environment, accident, karmic lurch, or for no reason in the least. This is what they must decide, no matter the age or level of wisdom, no matter what is at stake, who is around them, where they are geographically or spiritually or physically or intellectually or politically: live or not.

And if it is life they choose, then the road of their lives joins them with a secret society of sorts. Having lost their origins. Moving over land and soul. Living a life in which one must invent meaning perpetually.




From the wreckage of a heart.

She places a hand to her own face.

This is art.

This is how she grew.

12 November 2006

Brooklyn Rail Anthology

Speaking of Brian Evenson, he's one of the contributors to what looks to be a terrific anthology edited by Donald Breckenridge, which has just come out from Hanging Loose Press, The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology.

Breckenridge has been running a very strong reading series in Brooklyn for at least three years I've been aware of; plus, as Fiction Editor at Brooklyn Rail since 2002 he's made over what might be just another alternative arts weekly into one of the most interesting venues in the country to read new work by and about innovative fiction writers. Says Breckenridge in the introduction: "As a self-taught writer and ardent reader of formally experimental fiction, my goal as the Rail Fiction Editor has always been to highlight the talents of emerging writers, many of whom live in Brooklyn, as well as to showcase the current writing of established authors who have been marginalized by an increasingly risk-averse, profit-driven publishing industry."

The 432 page Anthology succeeds in its mixture of established and emerging writers, and is as good as any anthology available in marking the territory of new fiction.

List of contributors: Diane Williams, Brian Evenson, Caila Rossi, Lynda Schor, Sharon Mesmer, Susan Daitch, Jill Magi, Leslie Scalapino, Douglas Glover, Jonathan Baumbach, Jacques Roubaud (Translated by Guy Bennett), John Yau, Kenneth Bernard, Michael Martone, Barbara Henning, Lewis Warsh, Bart Cameron, Aaron Zimmerman , Jim Feast, Will Fleming, Evan Harris, Blake Radcliffe, Meredith Brosnan, Pat MacEnulty, Martha King, Carmen Firan (Translated by Dorin Motz), Elizabeth Reddin, Jeremy Sigler, Constanza Jaramillo Cathcart, Marie Carter, Lynn Crawford, Johannah Rodgers, Robert Pinget (Translated by Barbara Wright), Jean Fremon (Translated by Brian Evenson), Doug Nufer, R.M. Berry, Albert Mobilio, John Reed , Thomas D’Adamo, and Kurt Strahm.

09 November 2006

brian evenson : the open curtain

When I'm in a relatively optimistic mood, I start thinking maybe the last few years are proving that something fresh and important is going on in the precincts of innovative fiction. After all, several significant alternative writing celebrations—&NOW and The Writer's Edge among them—have sprung up and seem to be planning on staying around a while. Even the Associated Writing Programs conference, once the bastion of the bland leading the bland, kin to the Bowen essay Carol Novack cites below, has been hosting some energizing panels on innovative prose and some fine alt-readings.

Moreover, this past summer and fall have seen or will see—in addition to a number of exciting new texts from Now What contributors—publication of Thomas Pynchon's new novel, Against the Day (due out 21 November), which spans the two decades or so before World War I, the first titanic rupture of the 20th century; Mark Danielewski's ballsy followup to House of Leaves, called Only Revolutions (September), that takes the shape of a kind of wacked-out roadtrip in which the book (a sort of prose poem, of all things)—reminiscent of Milorad Pavic's love story, The Inner Side of the Wind—is printed on two sides, one telling the story from a male narrator's point of view, the other from a female's; and two of my recent favorites: Shelley Jackson's brilliant Half Life (August), the story of a 28-year-old bisexual, bi-headed narrator who, citing "irreconcilable differences," seeks divorce from her other self by decapitation, and Laird Hunt's wonderfully curious third novel, The Exquisite (September), which is both a response to 9/11 and paean to Manhattan—especially to its seedy, shadowy, cramped, and unhinged Lower East Side, where anything can and does happen. Set shortly after that rip in reality’s fabric half a decade ago, "when the gaping hole … was still fresh, and the air was still stinging everyone’s eyes," the novel conjures a universe that is as much feverscape as city. It is a zone, as one character comments, "of subtle simulacra, of deceptive surfaces, of glib and phantom shimmerings" that "falls under the rubric of the danse macabre."

Put that together with the advent or re-invention of a host of intriguing indie presses (including Chiasmus, Aqueduct, Starcherone, and the others listed to the right), and I start wanting to say, as I did a few days ago in my post about electronic book review's new thread, Fictions Present, that it's beginning to feel a little like a renaissance of experimentation in the U.S.

Brian Evenson's recent novel, The Open Curtain, which Coffee House brought out last month, adds fuel to this meme's fire. In it, a Mormon teenager named Rudd stumbles across three letters—two from a woman named Anne Korth, and one from his dad who recently committed suicide—that suggest the possibility of a half-brother from a liason between Korth and Rudd’s father. Rudd’s resulting research into that relationship, as well as for a high-school paper he's writing on a nineteenth-century murder of a young woman by the grandson of Brigham Young unfold into a narrative (as the novel’s title suggests) about deception, hidden things, the dark, blank, blurry spaces in meaning, identity, and, finally, existence itself that give the lie to the inflexible vision at the core of conventional religions that can’t bring themselves to accept, as Rudd realizes, that "nothing came unmixed."

Initially, The Open Curtain seems a mimetic departure from Evenson’s earlier avant-gothic fiction. Toward the end of the first of three sections that comprise the novel, however, Rudd begins to experience unnerving blackouts and temporal disruptions that unhinge the apparently traditional narrative tactics at play. The second section jarringly changes point of view to Lyndi, a teenager whose parents have been murdered in a gruesome ritual killing in which Rudd seems to be implicated. As Rudd and she move toward marriage, the narrative further disrupts, and by the third section it becomes clear that each movement in its architectonics has essentially troubled and unwritten the preceding one. The final section flickers between realities, histories, and cleaving selves, transforming what at first may have seemed a traditional murder mystery into a mystery of ontology and epistemology, a novel about undoing "realistic" novels, and an extended investigation into the inexorable violence and blindness shot through Mormon culture.

We have returned, in other words, to all that makes Evenson's fiction so engaging, accomplished, and consequential. In its impulse to investigate the rich possibility spaces between genres, that fiction transforms and extends our notion of what narrative is and what it can be and do. Its clean, understated, even rationalist prose is in constant tension with its transgressive content, its resonant irony and unexpected humor, its unblinking examination of psychological and narratological instability. Evenson's fiction rhymes with that of very few authors, living or dead. It perhaps shares the fierce and absurd stare of a Kafka, the existential and textual undoings of a Beckett, the critifictional and paraliterary engagement with its materials of a Delany.

But at the end of the day it is all its own sprightly menanced thing, and one of the most important projects currently being undertaken on what I want to say this evening seems to be the increasingly ascendant innovative scene.

08 November 2006

Notes on Writing a Novel - Essay by Elizabeth Bowen

I don't think you'll be able to access the essay I originally hot linked to narrative. They're removing the hot link.

The following were (obviously) comments concerning the now inaccessible essay.

What do you inventive novelists think of this essay, with its LAWS about novel writing? Pro's & con's?

07 November 2006

Mad Hatters' Review Reading 11/17 NYC

Mad Hatters' Review
Edgy & Enlightened Literature, Art & Music in the Age of Dementia
Poetry, Prose & Anything Goes Reading Series
Curated & Pickled by Publisher/Editor Carol Novack
4th Reading
Friday, November 17th, 7 – 9 pm
KGB Bar, 85 East 4th Street, N.Y.C.


Wanda Phipps, a writer living in Brooklyn, NY, and the author of Wake-Up Calls: 66 Morning Poems (Soft Skull Press), Your Last Illusion or Break Up Sonnets (Situations), Lunch Poems (Boog Literature), the e-chapbook After the Mishap and the CD-Rom Zither Mood (Faux Press). Her poems have been published over 100 times in publications such as the anthologies Verses that Hurt: Pleasure and Pain From the Poemfone Poets (St. Martin's Press) and The Boog Reader (Boog LIt). She's also curated several reading and performance series at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church as well as other venues and written about the arts for Time Out New York, Paper Magazine, and About.com.
Frederic Tuten studied pre-Columbian art history at the University of Mexico and later traveled through South America, writing on Brazilian cinema. He received his Ph.D. from New York University, concentrating on the Melville, Whitman period; for some years he taught courses in literature and America films at the University of Paris 8. For more than fifteen years he directed and taught in the City College of New York's Graduate Program in Creative Writing. He is currently giving graduate fiction workshops at The City College and offers classes on experimental writing at The New School University. He is the author of five novels: The Adventures of Mao on the Long March; Tallien: A Brief Romance; Tintin in the New World; Van Gogh's Bad Café; and most recently, The Green Hour. His short fiction has appeared in Tri-Quarterly, Fiction, Fence, The New Review of Literature, Conjunctions, and Granta. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing and in 2001 was given the Award for Distinguished Writing from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Diane Williams, the author of six books of fiction. It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature will be out from FC2 in Fall 2007. She is the founding editor of Noon.
A limited edition of signed “Homeland Security” posters (our cover artwork for Issue 5) created by contributing artist & writer Marty Duane Ison will be on sale, as will books by our featured authors.

For further info, email: mailto:madhattersreivew@gmail.com
(type READINGS in the subject line)

Text on the installment plan

, which I’ve just come across, offers mainly public domain novels serialized through daily e-mail installments.

Below are a few of the more interesting offerings—seems like a micro-sampling of the same material available through the 19,000 titles at Project Gutenberg, but the digest idea makes for a twist.

I’ve ordered Edwin Abbott, which I’m sure would please Steve Tomasula, and so can now spend even more time tethered to my computer. This is the idea, it seems.

I suspect I will scan when the first of 37 parts hits my email tomorrow morning. Got 332 days to do Ulysses?

Implications for literature? Sure. Would it work with the texts we often write about at NOW WHAT? Maybe.

If so, what novels should be made available by this method?


Abbott, Edwin
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions [37 parts]

Du Bois, W.E.B.
Souls of Black Folk, The [78 parts]

Joyce, James
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, A [103 parts]
Ulysses [332 parts]

Proust, Marcel
Swann's Way [206 parts]

Stein, Gertrude
Three Lives [96 parts]



06 November 2006

Some Fictions of Kent Johnson

Election Eve, 2006 --

Kent Johnson (on the left, pictured with BlazeVox editor Geoffrey Gatza) was in Buffalo recently. He gave a great reading at Medaille College (my employer, which earlier this semester hosted our own Lance Olsen as well) -- work political, lyric, alternating langauges and moods, beautiful and full of truth. Johnson denominates himself a poet, but only because in the current world of poets "fiction" seems to have become a fallen, dirty word. Somehow experiments involving prose and narrative investigations, if conducted by poets, are being called poems these days -- as if, to bend the old saw, the dancer were now more essential than the dance. (I even had a writer recently tell me that she had written a book of prose poems, though she supposed that if we were in France it would be called a novel.)

Living in Buffalo, a city of poets, I am used to such (mis)constructions of fiction. But whatever Kent Johnson calls himself, he is partaking in the strategies and tactics of fiction writing.

Let me talk about his recent book in the ongoing Araki Yasusada project, Also with My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords: Araki Yasusada's Letters in English (Combo Books, 2005).

This work is a sequel publication to the alternately lauded & decried collection, Doubled Flowering ("the most controversial poetry book since Allen Ginsberg's Howl" - Forrest Gander), on whose title page Johnson appeared as editor (alongside Javier Alvarez) when the book was first published in 1997. What happened subsequently is the stuff of literary provocateur legend: Johnson was ultimately accused and (perhaps) revealed to have been himself the author of the poems which had been claimed to be the work of Yasusada, a survivor of atomic-bombed Hiroshima; accounts of the hoax appeared in Lingua Franca, The Nation, and elsewhere. The "perhaps" above ensues because Johnson has never (to my knowledge) fessed up, and instead we read such labyrinthine narrative positionings as this, from the more recent (2005) letters volume's introduction:

"In the poetry world, it is by now generally known that Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada is a fiction created by its 'primary translator' Tosa Motokiyu, the pseudonym of a writer who requested, before his passing in 1966, that his legal identity never be revealed."

Any attempt to try to stabilize statements of the authorship of Yasusada eternally encounters new self-cancelling fronts and evasions. Yasusada's Letters are likewise a maze of metacritical delights on the order of Nabokov's Pale Fire, which, of course, Yasusada and Motokiyu both have occasions to reference. The letters date from a year in Yasusada's early student career in the US, 1926, almost two decades before he was to be present in Hiroshima, and are written to a never-further-identified "Pal-Pen" named Richard. They are annotated throughout by the at-best pseudonymous and more likely entirely invented Motokiyu, as well as the sur-editors Johnson and Alvarez, with commentaries that are notable for almost invariably and frequently comically missing the most obvious significations of the lines they meant to elucidate. And the letters themselves are written in a deliciously imagistic and variously attenuated pidgin language which begins as naively attempted English before morphing into a gorgeous, if sometimes precious, poetic prose, over a period of months. Despite all of the circuities of Johnson’s framing device, one has the uncanny experience, confronted by the core textual materials, of seeing a young artist blossom, an accelerated, fragmentary, international 20th century kunstlerroman:

January 5, 1926. "I am writing the letter from this class of American English. I hope you are feeling lovely. Do you have a wife? Inside your nation I know there is hotness in months of August and July. Particularly there is hotness in my nation when in August. Now there is coolness. And much snow. I enjoy to travel upwards in mountains (yet especially downward on long clauses!) [...]and also the study of your tongue, English."

July 24, 1926. "Boiled tortoises are made to cool. Giggling geishas left bones with tweezers. Red dace make eggs in mussel shells. Eels are sliding in baskets of bamboo. A carp goes eaten by the bride. Inside Fujiwara and Manabe there are bandits. This is one silly song sung while tops are spinning."

November 7, 1926. "Each time I read Dr. Anzai's poem, 'Spring,'
A herring is about to be brought to the table, coming through a subway tunnel
I feel renewed and excited, as if I had been slapped awake by an Imperial courtesan with the thighs of a wrestler! [sic] And your own 'Horse,'
There is a naval port inside its intestines
reveals, if there ever was any doubt, that within a single turnip pulled up by a squatting man there are mountains, rivers, and a whole formation of rubber-capped subjects swimming across the Hokaido Strait! My death is coming; I am patient."

Sweetly, Yasusada signs each letter "I am sincere." Of course, the liar always sez he's telling the truth.

The slim volume closes with an essay and a personal reflection by yet two more characters, critic Mikhail Epstein and Hosea Hirata, the latter of whom claims lineage to another survivor of the atomic blasts. These people may be real, as Javier Alvarez also might or might not be; yet Araki Yasusada has an entry on Wikipedia and Johnson was asked and answered a question about the attempt to secure a University home for Yasusada's papers when I saw him in Buffalo, engaging now in a fictive game of such momentum that it has acquired players in his audiences. Where Johnson has been criticized (and I avoid here investigating further the blog wars in which Johnson and detractors evidently both descended to nastiness), it has been for exploiting the victims of this historical crime by authoring poems which are said to have issued from that time, place, and subject-position. There are both hard and soft critiques to be made from this perspective: Is Johnson’s Yasusada a reactionary “reverse-discrimination” experiment suggesting the limitations of “witness” poetry, that writings that would not have received such an audience when seen as written by a white American more valued when they are seen as the products of a now-dead Japanese writer, who perished as an indirect result of historical violence? Or, crediting Johnson with his own version of “I am sincere,” to what extent is the Asian “other” subject position rightfully claimable by one who has not lived in the society or had the experiences, but mimics identity for the purposes of art.

Johnson full body of work turns these types of questions inside out and every which way. A notable text in this debate is his story/poem, "Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz (Or, Get the Hood Back On)," which first appeared in Gatza’s online magazine BlazeVox and has subsequently appeared both in Johnson's collection, Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War (Effing Press) and in the anthology, PP/FF, published by my own Starcherone Books. Of these, the essential experience remains the BlazeVox publication, where Johnson’s text is presented under a montage of Abu Ghraib photos, musically scored and designed by Gatza to reinforce the contrast of casual colonial brutality and naive gringo enthusiasm that is a hallmark of Johnson’s text:

"What’s up, Ramal, I’m an American boy, a father, two children, graduate of Whitman High, where I was a member of the Science Club and Student Council, then I got to be the youngest elected officer ever in the history of my town’s Rotary Chapter, I’m in charge of fund-raising, which hasn’t been easy the past few years, what with the economy and all, but we’re hanging in there. I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, because I don’t want to assault your sensibilities, or anything like that, but I want to be up front with you because I believe that honesty is the best policy: So, I’m going to put a pointed plastic hood on your black and blue head, and then I’m going to stand your caped body on a milk box, with live wires taped to your outstretched hands, and then I’m going to count to ten, you witch-like Arab freak, and maybe I’ll flip the switch and maybe not, it all kind of depends."

“I think Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz is by far the most relevant poem for/in/about this War,” poet Ethan Paquin has about this text (about 15% of which is excerpted above). Paquin’s statement is one with which I am in wholehearted agreement, except perhaps for the part about “poem.” But whatever kind of text one wants to call this, the sense in which Johnson has made himself an actor in the service of national conscience should be emphasized. Always in Kent Johnson's work is the linger of American war violence -- whether it is the haunting flash-backward and forward to Hiroshima in the Yasusada letters, our devastation of Baghdad or the incomprehensible (and radically uncomprehended by its perps) tortures of Abu Ghraib. Johnson loves the interplay between the devastations wrought by US superpower and the naifs (young soldiers, young Yasusada) entangled in any deciphering of their meaning. Gander makes much the same point, in talking about Doubled Flowering:

"Using Modernist strategies, the author(s) [Johnson and Alvarez], steeped in translations of Japanese literature and feeling uneasy, even -- if they are Americans -- complicit with the U.S. foreign policy that generated such mass destruction, invented an imaginative, political and poetical act of empathy. To write poems concerning Hiroshima, they felt it necessary to imagine themselves as the other, 'the enemy.' They relinquished their own identities as authors and became invisible, as the Hiroshima victims themselves disappeared. It is an impossible gesture of solidarity, since one cannot truly imagine one's way into an actual culture considerably different from one's own."

I am interested in and sensitive to questions concerning the ethics of representation as similar questions as pertain to the Yasusada project may well be raised about my own novel, Malcolm & Jack, particularly where I fashion artificial constructions of the subject positions of such figures as Malcolm X and Billie Holiday. In answering these concerns myself, I would underline the sense that narratives are always constructions, and any verisimilitude created by fiction is an effect of the art form, in no way a speaking for the absent subject: verisimilitude is not verity. At the same time, what fiction writers DO is represent. That is the essential form of the art: it is an art of lying, invention, artificial construction, mimicry, semblance. I think it is a limitation on the practice of the art to say that there is some aspect of discourse, experience, or history that one should refrain from representing, as a hard and fast rule. Of course, one should not go into the minefields of representation unadvised or without respect for the significances of histories of racism, oppression, violence and the like. We should also expect the representations of others from assumed and masqueraded subject positions will be problematic -- that is the nature of experimental art. Fiction, by its very nature, is a practice which self-consciously presents itself as lies, thus leads us to reflect upon lying, both within deliberately designed aesthetic creations and upon the at-large practices of fictionalization at work in all walks of our lives. Fiction is that discourse that calls into question the truth-telling strategies of language even as it employs them. Airtight, airbrushed, sanitized lies are the ones we really have to worry about. I am a fiction writer, and so I lie, but my lies haven't been killing people. This distinguishes Kent Johnson and I and y’all (who’s out there?) from Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney, who lie and kill people, or who lie and make people killers. Fiction is lies that do not lie about lying. That distinguishes the art of lies that is fiction from the lies of power we are so much in the grip of in our national discourse today. We are distrusted and feared by the world and we have alienated our own youth so much that a majority have opted out of democratic agency even as we claim to be bringing this great gift to the rest of the world.

To summarize, then: Kent Johnson is (and is not) Araki Yasusada. Geoffrey Gatza is Superman. I am Jack Chapeau. George Bush is Bozo the Clown with 100 million vials of poison. And I guess tomorrow we'll start to find out if we can trust our voting booths.

"There was never a mistake in addition," Gertrude Stein once wrote. Or was that Antonin Scalia?

the electronic book review
& fictions present

ebr, edited by Joe Tabbi, has just gone live with a new thread that should be of real interest to the Now What tribe.

Entitled fictions present, it includes, among other things, a summary of and engagement with the last &NOW conference by Ted Pelton, a narrative disruption by Rob Swigart, and a collection of sharp essays by and about edge writers (including Raymond Federman, Michael Martone, R. M. Berry, Lucy Corin, Harry Mathews, Lidia Yuknavitch, and others) that I've been gathering over the last couple of years.

In his introductory statement to the thread, Tabbi writes:

Everything that happens, happens now. The essays, narratives, and essay-narratives gathered under the thread title, Fictions Present, reaffirm the "presentist" bias in electronic publishing and in ebr particularly: our non-periodical, continuous publication is designed to keep the archive current and to present critical writing not as an afterthought, but as an integral element in the creation of literary fictions.

ebr has been relatively quiet for a while as it's been reinventing itself. The outcome is well worth waiting for—a digital venue at once beautiful, theoretically and aesthetically and politically engaged, and yet more proof (should any of us need it) that there's been an exciting renaissance going on in American avant-garde fiction over the course of the last four or five years online and off.

To check it all out, click here.

29 October 2006

Notes from an Eastern Front

It seems Elfriede Jelinek had some trouble publishing her latest novel, Greed (in English translation). Once she did publish it, well, it got savaged:

A story of some sort emerges, but the thrust of the novel is really the most vulgar and stupid commentary imaginable about the murderous misogyny of men, the environment, the appalling taste of the kleinburgerlicher and so on. It is a novel to warm the heart of Viz's Millie Tant. Densely unreadable as it is, there is something terribly banal about every one of its intellectual propositions; as hopelessly banal in its attempted chic as its predominant present tense (The Telegraph). Read the entire review here.

I would love a review like that. Still, I don't think she has an American publisher. Her books are only available from Serpent's Tail, and Greed hasn't yet been released in this country. Lance, Ted, Lidia: this is our chance. Give her people a call, maybe Chiasmus, FC2 or Starcherone can pick up a Nobel Prize winner. Actually, I just wrote this as an excuse to post that photo.

27 October 2006

why it is hard to have the conversation we're having

Apropos—at least in an oblique, if dazzling way—of our ongoing conversations about which texts to read and which to teach and which to write, this statistic I stumbled across today in the latest issue of Poets & Writers:

Last year a total of 172,000 books were published in the United States, a number that represents a ten percent decrease from the year before.

cam tatham :
from the trenches : teaching pomo fiction

Hi, all.

Lance here.

Cam Tatham was having some difficulties posting the following response to our discussion about teaching contemporary fiction, so I'm doing the honors.

And, given how much food for thought is housed here, I didn't want it to get lost in the tadpole's tail of comments to Matt's provocative post below.

And so, without further ado . . .


1. Unlike most (all?) of you guys, I’m coming at the issue with the p.o.v. of a teacher, not a writer. Maybe more accurately: while I’ve written critifiction, I’m not a fictionist. And as Lance points out, I’m no longer even a ‘real’ teacher, being retired, only coming back for the occasional course. Context is all.

2. One of the first courses I ever taught (going back to 1969) I titled ‘Anti-Fiction.’ Ihab Hassan hadn’t yet joined our faculty and nor coined the term ‘postmodernism.’ As I recall, I was teaching writers like Barth, Cortázar, Borges, Nabokov et al; quite soon, I began to become obsessed with the Fiction Collective gang: Federman, Sukenick, Katz, Abish, etc. Since then, I’ve tried to ‘keep up,’ regularly teaching a course I simply called ‘Postmodern Fiction.’ And in one version or another, it’s included some of you bloggers here: Lance, Lidia, Matt, Steve, and Jeff.

3. What draws me to you guys was and remains the emphasis placed on the telling of the story – self-reflexive metafiction: looking in a mirror as you compose the story of yourself composing the story while watching yourself in a mirror. etcetera.

4. Another frame I’ve brought to pomo fiction: existential phenomenology (esp. Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, and especially Deleuze/Guattari), which reminds us that reality is always, in part but only in part, a matter of point of view. How large that part is is precisely the issue.

5. Mainly: I’m fascinated by the knife-edge between innovation that is ‘authentically’ (hear Sartre, Camus, Merleau-Ponty) imaginative, and something that’s ‘excessive’ (hear Morrison). Isn’t there a point at which we have to say, to Federman (or Ron or Lance or Steve or whomever): oh, come on, that’s going too far! Morrison again: the terribly difficult gray area between that which is “too thick” and that which is “too thin” (Beloved).

6. This is linked to the struggle you guys constantly enact between the shaping power of the imagination and the pressure of intrusive ‘reality.’ Federman perpetually wonders: can pomo fiction address the holocaust? Okay, but what about his beloved daughter’s life-threatening cancer? Or even his own bout with cancer? On one level, you celebrate the release brought about by ‘innovation’; on another, you dance faster and faster, more and more desperately, over what you fear may be an alltooreal abyss. (Wallace Stevens as early postmodernist.)

7. That said, for me, the issue is less which texts to insert into a grad, or even an undergrad, course in pomo fiction, but rather how to insert the issues of pomo into a more ‘expansive’ syllabus likely to infect larger numbers of students. Like Matt (and, I suspect, a lot of you guys), I’m at this moment tinkering with my syllabus for a course next semester titled ‘American Literature: 1965 – the Present.’ Unlike Matt’s, however, this is an undergrad survey course, one that’s required of our English-Ed majors (future high school teachers), and because anything connected with “the Present” interests young students looking for what they hope is an easy elective, it draws from a variety of disciplines, not just English majors. Which means, to be blunt: I couldn’t include Steve’s VAS (which ‘worked’ wonderfully in a pomo fiction course) but I could use Lance’s 10:01. The socalled real world intrudes once again. For a Business student, VAS is regrettably too thick. In the trenches, compromises are also real.

8. Also influencing the selection process: it’s a survey course, we all have them in our departments, and we’ve all probably taught them at some point or another. And ‘survey’ usually means something linear: you start at 1965 and come up to yesterday, if possible. But I’m using that other sense of ‘survey’: to look over a field to see what’s there (epistemological issue: making v. finding ‘what’s there’). So whether I include this decade or that becomes irrelevant; more important: am I raising the issues of this vague block of time in a way that has an ‘authentic’ impact on the students? As Pynchon said of Robbins: I want to change their brainscapes, but it has to be done with a scalpel, not a broadsword.

9. And of course, another real world intrusion is simply the number of texts you can assign: I find that Matt and I pretty much agree on nine. So someone is always being excluded – as Jeff says, you can’t teach ‘em all.

10. So I start with war stories and end with 9/11 and terrorism, because I think that’s maybe the most important issue of our moment. But throughout is a preoccupation with perspective, p.o.v., in terms of narrative devices as well as mixed media.

11. So here’s the current version of my version of Matt’s course, in the order I plan to teach them:

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
George Clark, The Small Bees’ Honey
Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Carole Maso, The Art Lover
Art Spiegelman, Maus I
Toni Morrison, Jazz
Lance Olsen, 10:01
Jonathan Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

I mean, it’s all pomo fiction, right?