30 May 2006

from physics, through sentences, to ecstasy (without organization or apology, but warmly)

Why does it matter that ideas we seize in the present have made appearances in the past—through other mouths, minds, hearts? Does that mean we shouldn’t keep thinking them alive and reshaping them? Energy never dies. It just changes forms.

Does it matter that this space is heteroglossic and even carnivalesque (my man bakhtin)—many headed, many voiced, no main character, no identifiable telos, no consistent logic, a buncha interruptive sentences and languages and histories and theories and questions and possibilities crashing into each other or cozying up like lovers—or is this the chaos of matter itself?

Is there more to genres and sentences than we think, stuff we keep forgetting? Can genres and sentences teach us something about social change?

What if we viewed genres metaphorically as "the drive belts between the history of language and the history of society" (more m.m. bakhtin)? What if shifts and transformations in genre conventions are “both indexical of social change and contribute accumulatively to social change?”

Why do we need or want to unify anything we are saying or doing here, if it is miraculously opening up a space where the social, the literary, and the body (for me) are making intimate and creative exchanges (still riding the back of m.m.)?

Why do we pretend we have any real power over students or readers, when what is at stake is the possible space of human relationship? I’m speaking of the difference between the market’s reach to buyers and consumers (even in education) and the possibility space of intimate human connection (fast in danger of being subsumed).

Is resistance to power something we all have to call by the same name, or funnel into the same strategy?

If I say “words of creepy shit-head zombies” instead of “language of the oppressor,” does that make my words less powerful? If I say “my government makes me want to rearrange a fucking face” instead of “we must endeavor to de-center and expose hegemonic authority,” does that make me sound unintelligent? If academia would have me change my language and move it away from my body and its disturbances, what does that mean?

Why can’t making art be the politics of making art?

What’s the problem with creative and passionate dissent?

Is it useful to ask ourselves questions about being, even if it might draw criticism or open us up to being accused of jacking-off?

Do we want to know each other’s histories? Why or why not?

If I am in love with the things that the people here say, whether or not I ever agree with them, can’t that in itself be a creative practice which busts up and through the things we complain about? Can my willingness to be in that relationship lovingly be a form of hope, a peek of insight beyond the fog of the present, the possibility of artists and writers and thinkers interrupting the flow of economy and war? Can I say lovingly in a discussion like this? Love and beyond, into the ecstatic.

What can ecstatic mean?

If I keep reinserting the body into the discussion, putting it dangerously close to sentences, narrative, will it matter?

Why can’t passionate thinking and writing be understood as ecstatic states? The root understanding of the word ecstasy — ‘to stand outside’ —comes to us in those moments when we dive so deeply into the act of thinking and writing that everything else falls away.

Right here—in this space--I get to be in a chronotrope. Time-space--“the spatio-temporal matrix which governs the base condition of all narratives and other linguistic acts” (m.m. b. again). Right here I get to risk the ecstatic state.

Tribally yours.

29 May 2006

Readings and such

While I'm trying to think up something remarkable and insightful to say about eccentric, gifted new wave groupettes vs old guard elitist, boring & mundane groupettes vs proud, charming, irritating & eccentric individualists vs "tribes" vs "kibbutzes" vs conscious collectives vs unconscious collectives vs task vs process vs chlorinated swimmings pools, socioeconomicpolitical stratispheres, homogenous & incompatible hemispheres, offbeat universities in the Midwest, subway systems, sentences & narratives & the relevance of my cultural roots in old Russia & my Electrac attachment to my past father, I'd like to follow Mark Wallace in announcing a reading in NYC. It's on Thursday this at the KGB Bar, East Village, 7 - 9 pm. Tis the second in the Mad Hatters' Review Poetry, Prose & Anything Goes Reading Series, and features Edwin Torres (the "experimental" theatrical/performance poet) and lyrical "innovative"/"avant-garde" prose-narrative writer Dawn Raffel. We will also present an actor reading selections from our journal, issues 1 through 5, a live saxophonist playing original abstract music, & for a reasonable price, signed posters depicting a torture victim of The Homeland Security Dept. of the US of Ameerica (our issue 5 cover art). Admission is free For details, please proceed to MHR.

Thanks for listening!


We’re ready for our close up, Mr. DeMille

[Thanks to all for the scintillating and complex views, and for the several glimpes into the classroom. I’m always happy to hear what my colleagues are up to…]

What’s that old Hollywood saying...something like, if you want to send a message, go to Western Union…? And we all love moving pictures.

Not sure, as per Lance Olsen’s (I'm using last names for readers) recent post, what unifies any of the people on this blog—except that fact that we are on the blog. Follow?

An I.Q. test is a test of how well you take an I.Q. test, and if so, then the GREs are a test of well, you guessed it, how well you take the GREs. And, a dissertation becomes a test (word “test” used broadly) of how well you comport to the various institutional rules that govern what constitutes a dissertation in your particular field, at your particular moment, with your particular committee etc. Roll over, Pierre Bourdieu, and dig these rhythm and blues.

In other words, I’m with Kass on focusing on “power.” Of course, Kass Fleisher and I had the same dissertation director at SUNY Binghamton (now called Binghamton University, in its privatized phase), although we were a few years apart. I can’t pin this down for sure, but knowing the Bingo scene, Kass and I were probably relative anomalies from the still to some degree John Gardner -influenced zeitgeist going on that-a-way.

[I deliberately do not want to be John Gardner…can’t ride a motorcycle, not much of a hard drinker, etc, and found The Art of Fiction to be real snoozer.]

Lance’s point about affiliation in an important one. We may not all be academics, or small press/journal editors, or even however-you-want-to-define-it “innovative” writers, but we are still, of course, on this blog. We’re all passing this test of how well we write on a blog rather well, it seems. But, how’d we get here?

Invitation from Lance and Ted Pelton perhaps (?), who, I believe, both came up with the idea while at a Colorado writing festival with Jeffrey DeShell. Maybe the seed emerged at an earlier meeting, AWP in Austin, the &NOW Festival at Lake Forest College? A number of us are alums of a short-lived list serve from the late 90s (Prosaics…was it called?), which was kind of like this blog, but not quite so public. [Like multicolored legos, we’ve got plenty more connections I won’t bother to enunciate here.]

If it ain’t writing until it’s read (as Doug Rice notes), then perhaps there is the public internet aspect to muse upon…? Is there anybody out there? Clearly, a few, maybe more. Do we have the visitor stats for the blog thus far? But otherwise, perhaps we are still engaged very much in a tribal enterprise. Seems to me, though, that tribes are often eradicated, marginalized, or, if things carry on long enough, given points on lucrative casinos.

Watch the ball bouncing over the roulette wheel; ignore the keno zombies staring cold and catatonic over the empires of the senseless.

I’d be very interested to know about affinities this group shares, about articulations, even tentative, that can offer a way to point toward some collective interrogation of the contemporary writing landscape.

For my part, I’ll venture a very tentative hypothesis that what makes members of a group like this coalesce is some collective recognition, albeit drawn from myriad different experiences, of what makes art signal difference from whatever definition of traditional/mainstream/narrative/sentence-based/etc stuff it is not.

We may not, and should not, all agree of any of the specifics of how this occurs, but to shoot back to an earlier idea (Bourdieu’s)—we are to some degree acculturated into our likings, and for some (and here’s a problem), such aesthetics are markers of “privilege” (education, exposure, leisure time). A trap in the radical possibilities of our broadly defined aesthetic? Production for producers? Rewarded with symbolic capital (academic jobs…) for not engaging in a certain type of self-promotional capitalist game? Pick a card, any card.

Let me throw out another possibility for what our stuff is not—for the most part, we don’t control the means of widespread distribution for our work. Even our most financially successful enterprises can’t compete with most of the cookbooks Joe Amato probably reads.

I dropped out of the Culinary Institute of American at 17, and since have never made a béchamel again.

28 May 2006

tribal identity : tentativeness

What is it, if anything, that unites the works or perspectives of those participating in this blog and beyond in the world of "alternative" writing?

Initially, the answer strikes me as not much to nothing. Some of us don't like the word "experimentation," others "postmodern," others "avant-garde," others still the very notion of the "alternative." Some embrace the rhetorical pyrotechnics of theory; some eschew it. Some want to talk about the economics of writing; others find such discussions dull. Some foreground language and minimize narrative; others don't. Some get antsy around conversations concerning genre. For some, it's "all writing" (except, apparently, nonfiction, which is something to be scorned); for others, such assertations are proof of the lack of precision and rigor. The very books that some cherish, others find failures.

To make matters more tricky still, writers/artists in general are iconoclasts by nature (and, yes, I use the term loosely) who don't like to belong to things, don't like to be associated with trends and movements, since such chimera seem to minimize their individuality and originality (as if these traits are the ones that make artists artists). Yet, of course, all of us writers/artists do belong to things. Some of us "belong" to universities or colleges. Some "belong" to presses or magazines. All of us "belong" to the category "writers" and "contributors to this blog." All of us, for better or worse, "belong" to the politics of the present.

But simply because what we have in common may be complex to pin down and even more complex to articulate shouldn't by my lights be a cause for making a difficulty into an impossibility.

I've been thinking about the notion of the tribal lately in an effort to begin to begin to make sense of these continuities in the midst of myriad divergences. The dictionary definition works thus: A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent.

I find appealing the notion of many families and clans being part of something that is both them and not them. The notion of shared ancestry and culture. The notion of impermanent, unformalized leadership or center.

If we start there, and proceed tentatively, then the following are some questions that bloom:
  1. Why make an effort to search for common ground?
  2. What sort of sociopolitical (or, perhaps in this case, aesthetico-political) organization(s) are we?
  3. Can we/should we in fact enumerate some of the common ancestry and culture we share? That is, what are our histories? Who are we?
  4. The dangers of such enumerations are obvious, it seems to me, in this age of difference and deferredness, but what are the opportunities and benefits?
  5. If the metaphor of the tribal doesn't seem illuminating, are there others that might function more effectively for helping us contemplate who we are and what we're doing?
As I mentioned in my comment to Ted's last post: Once upon a time we knew all this stuff (and all the stuff Sukenick et al. wrote) before. That's no longer the case.

Speed is all about forgetfulness. I'd like this to be a small space of reminding.

27 May 2006

Memorial Day Weekend

I can't pick up on most of the great stuff here - great simply that it is happening - but I will quickly post something before I leave town for weekend (holiday Memorializing a time before we became the new Soviet Union...).

Buffalo last week had a birthday party for Robert Creeley who would have been 80 last Saturday had he made it. (Miles Davis's 80th then followed later in the week, which I thought was sweet beyond words.) In the long day and a half celebration of this occasion, there's a couple of things I wrote down, from the film Creeley by Bruce Jackson - a couple of Creeley statements which seemed to me useful:

"Words make very powerful grids of determinant meaning."


"Words don't care about the truth."

I bring these statements in first as a final salvo in the "non-fiction" thread way far above. Even the slightest engagement with language should convince one of its slipperiness and disabuse one of the simple dream of pure representation. And so my problem with the realists, the creative non-fictionists, and the political mythologists (in Roland Barthes' sense of the term) of our time is this: they lie. As Barthes said long ago, Mythology (readerly writing) is the end of Writing, that is, it shuts down imagination, installs a narrative (a politics, a reading, a "Truth") that ends free-play of imagination, and with it actual literature. In the marketers' desire for a fiction whose sales they can predict and in the political leader's desire for a pliable people are the same abusive readerly "Mythological" uses of language, and the things they stamp out are real participatory democracy and literature.

Painting all this with a very wide brush indeed.

Other lines that come to mind, that I've been thinking about lately (& that have haunted mne for years):

Let those who use words cheap, who use us cheap
Take themselves out of the way
Let them not talk of what is good for the city
-Charles Olson, Maximus Letter 3

The "city" for Olson being a construction of future political and artistic organization - the "book to come" of our potential social & imaginary organization. Let them use words intelligently & sensitively and all else will follow.

Call me naive, but I also believe this. I don't think it's accidental that when Orwell gave us his portraits of totalitarianism, he focused so heavily on how language was employed as the basic component of social engineering, abuse, and mind-fucking: "Four legs good, two legs better" -> "work shall set you free" -> "support the troops": we have seen this many times, to many degrees, in many contexts. Reading/deconstructing are tools resembling what Woody Guthrie long-ago painted on his guitar: "This machine kills fascists."

So, pedagogy: I try NOT to give exercises to writing students that are heavy on doctrine; rather, I try to construct situations where they be forced to consider the formation of writing-art in language.

One of my favorite exercises is to go with students to the zoo (across the street from my college) and tell them to find an animal they've never heard of before and write a story/prose-experiment about it. (This is a mid-semester intro-workshop exercise, after they've seen some & hopefully retained some things but hopefully while they are still open to experiment - they do close down, too frequently.)

The crucial other part of the exercise is that each paragraph's first letter has to ultimately spell out the name of the animal, as an anagram. This gets them thinking about their words, where they break and how they use paragraphs, and how long the story is -- that texts are artificial constructions, and may have to end in a hurry if you're up to the V in cerval.

In this spirit it was great to hear about Christian Bok's book, of which I didn't know. It reminds me of those old Walter Abish books so formative for me back in the (yes-Kass-I-remember-them-too) 1980s, Alphabetical Africa, Minds Meet, and In the Future Perfect. But here again, poetry - Lee Ann Brown's Polyverse is also full of such experiments. Someone back there quoted Andy Rooney about the pretentiousness of poetry; yes, it can be and often is. I generally prefer reading fiction myself,too. But this too: if you are happy with the narrative assumptions of Andy Rooney, by all means, keep avoiding reading poetry. These questions, on average, are much more likely to arise among poets than in the general run of prosewirters. I think this group is on to more than that.

I also run a second track in my fiction writing classes where we read stories when there's nothing to workshop, and I use an anthology for that purpose. I use a handful of classic and new pieces -- "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," "A Cask of Amontillado," "Monkey Garden" (Cisneros) -- usually I use Story and its Writer, supplemented with something avant-garde, or handouts, the first chapter of Notable American Woman ("Bury Your Head"). Paragraph Magazine is good -- about 40 single para. stories to read, imitate, joust with, That magazine, available from a Oat City press in Rhode Island (see http://conan.ids.net/~oatcity/Paragraph.html). Or, yes, STARCHERONE BOOKS has that PP/FF thing....

The classic "Exquisite Corpse" exercise too always yields great images and sentences that I'll then challenge students to accept the logic of, and write coherent (or incoherent) narratives around.

All this to say I am really itchy when I hear someone say students have to be indoctrinated or formed or recruited in a doctrinaire way. I think that if you present them with object lessons and simply try to get them to ask the questions that make the other kind of writing (that doesn't think about the role of language) impossible, then you move them toward a more interesting art and a more open politics.

And, yes, Kass, Ron Sukenick does also ask all of these questions. There are many roads.

26 May 2006

Eunoia, Yes.

I've been looking for a place amidst the terrific sparks flying about to squeeze a word or two out of my sleep-deprived, impoverished word cloth/skull, and Carol's friendly post on Eunoia was it.

A marvelous book, Bok's book: smart, funny! strange. And, go figure, a huge seller in Canada. My copy, purchased a couple years ago, was the 15th printing. Perhaps others of you know the story better than I do -- but apparently what helped Eunoia catch on was interest from synesthetes (a society thereof), who found their senses going all deliciously bonkers when they would hit the different vowel-rich sections. Bok (I apologize for not knowing how to do the umlaut here) writes interestingly on writing Eunoia in the anthology Biting the Error (worth a long look, incidentally) -- describes how in part it was a way of wrastling with the Oulipo and the often, as he saw it (and it can certainly be true) bland (I paraphrase/misremember/muck up) results of their wild systems (I love the Oulipo to death, but it's definitely true that there are many works that are more, hmm, appealing in concept. Anyone else have that sense?). If you can get hold of the Coach House edition, do so -- it's printed on lovely paper, has a great cover and crisp, elegant font. I'm curious to see what Soft Skull does with it. Incidentally, Eunoia sits bizarrely close to Europeana (check it out, Kass -- I think you would dig it) in my mind, mostly for quirky personal reasons, but also as a striking gesture that manages to feel sui generis even as it positions itself in a traceable lineage. And then of course there are all those letters the two titles share...

Resisting the Sentence

In so many ways, I would prefer to do in art what we’re talking about here. But here are a range of comments I have after a long read of the blog entire.

I’m with Lydia on “resistance,” but after 10 years of resisting, I’m not sure what I’m resisting anymore. Quite often of late I feel that I’m resisting my own tribe. For instance I find frustrating Lance’s discussion of Stacey’s “quirky” narrative turns and Ourednik’s (last name there since I don’t know him) “absurdities.” Perhaps I am simply aged and weary. The theater of the absurd, in which I participated in the late 70s, was over by 1980. Lance (and you know I love ya, Lance) suggests that resistance is about “working within and against historico-aesthetic continuities and rupture” (hereinafter HACR). It’s that “within” that’s got me a bit nervous.

Timmi mentions the problem of executive power and I am so with this, so freaked about this incredible loophole that 43 has gone apeshit nuts with. We're talking (or should be) about power, folks. I know someone early on in the conversation (sorry, notes incomplete as always) said something about modernism going on for 100 years. The twentieth century, at the same time, has seen a dramatic shift in power distribution to the executive branch---unheralded in history blah blah blah. We’ve also lived through two gilded ages, two upward transfers of wealth. We’re living through the 2nd right now.

I think it’s been made pretty clear by everyone writing in this space that Lance’s “within” to that culture is not possible.

This is why when Jeffrey insists that we take genre boundaries seriously for the sake of maintaining narrative, I have to step back and say, Whoa. The fundamentally discrete attribute of prose is not narrative; it’s the sentence.

What is it with prose writers that we so rarely talk about the sentence? Or do anything with it? Or challenge it? IT’S OUR FOUNDATION. (The traditional sentence is the source of prose's market power.) Thus I was grateful for Mark’s nudge toward language poetry. Most of what I know about the art I make these days has not come from reading novels. It’s come from listening to and reading about “difficult” (uh-oh) poetry. The only time I need to know anything about how story works on readers is when I write (more) conventional (dreaded, I know) nonfiction. Nonfiction exists entirely on a novelistic structure. Makes me nuts----

---but there ARE essential stories that need to be told, and for those, and for that wider audience, yeah, I retreat to the good old sentenced story. My thinking about the work I do in that area is this: telling a willfully unheard story is radical (resistant) only in the short term. Once the story gets out (assuming you can find a publisher in this era of these HACRs), once the story enters the public consciousness, the book is dead. It’s no longer a resisting artifact.

So yeah, Lydia, hybrids. I agree with Lance that lists are a fool’s errand, but the group indulged the impulse anyway, and what I find missing from the lists are some women whose (I believe) prose innovations (hybrids, due attention paid to the sentence) are being published as poetry. Lyn Hejinian wrote what is, for me, the best memoir of the late 20th century; and then we have Carla Harryman and Laura Mullen. I think of myself as a novelist, but all of my artwork has been accepted by poetry publishers. You should see my rejection letters from the prose tribes. Some really Wow stuff in there.

So when Lydia asks whether hybridity will stop being hybrid at some point and become its own third genre, I have to answer that hybridity or creolization has already been divorced in the main by prose folk, and is finding a lumpy-mattressed home as poetry’s distant cousin. That is, at this moment, hybridity isn’t even hybridity. It’s some other genre’s third limb.

(Ted: Curt White has a jones for birds. Dunno why, but chicks dig him.)

Michael! I’m concerned about the use of the word postmodern to describe what we’re trying to do, or the ethos of the current moment. I turn to Federman here, who in Critifiction said that postmodernism died with Beckett (I think Michael Berube puts the obit a few years later) BUT that the issues that created the NEED for postmodernism have NOT BEEN RESOLVED.

Among other things, we still don't know how to talk about power.

I guess what I’m trying not to say here is that most of us have been down these roads before. Yes; we've been less-empowered for a long time now. I’ve been quoting Fed. for ages ("To play the same old game by the same old rules, to say the same old thing the same old way would be merely competence"), not to mention Bruce Lee ("Using no way as way, having no limitation as limitation") and Stevens ("The trouble with your poetry, Frost, is that it has subjects," said Wallace to Robert while on a train trip to Florida---this as quoted by Robert in 1963)----all of these for the past NINE prose-writing syllabi.

What are we doing?? I love that Michael mentions rules. And Michael mentions history.

History. History. History. I really think this is, with the sentence, prose writing’s final frontier. At this point in time (said Nixon), the thing haunting culture more than anything else---more than language, much as I WISH the culture were haunted by language---is history. Just 2 days ago on CNN, a presumably sane and intelligent man said into a stuck-in-his-lapel mike, “Wolf, in this postmodern era nobody believes in truth anymore.”

My television is lucky to have survived this appalling incident. People need to be told (Stein and telling) that this is not what people “believe.”

I fear that our tribe is living in its own past...and is refusing to take up a number of ongoing challenges, like the sentence (our people love to QUOTE Stein, but we don’t like to risk our transparency, as she does) and hybridity and history and power (withinness). Rather than respond to these urgencies we have rationalized our existence by scientizing ourselves (lord, 40 years after lit crit did the same thing)---you can’t get anyone to look at an “unconventional novel” without spending a full year in the library, researching something obscure, quirky, and absurd that happened.........long ago.

Recently I had an amazingly depressing experience; I got my hands on a little-discussed book by Sukenick, Down and In, a history of The Glory Days for artists of all sort, including writers, in the Village 60s. He wrote the book in the 80s, and in it he asks virtually every question we’ve been asking here.

Again: he wrote that in the 80s.

(I had really bad hair in the 80s. I was really hoping the 80s were over.)

I will now...SIGN my STATEMENT. THANK YOU for this space, and

love to yall,


Christian Bok's Eunoia

A writing colleague brought this to my attention and I think it's worth sharing here:

As mentioned in Harper's this month, Christian Bok has a book forthcoming called Eunoia which is only five chapters long but each chapter ONLY uses a single vowel. Here is an extract from the 'i' chapter: Fishing till twilight, I sit, drifting in this birch skiff jigging kingfish with jigs, bringing in fish which nip this bright string (its vivid glint bristling with stick pins.) Whilst I slit this fish in its gills knifing it, slicing it, killing it with skill, shipwrights might trim this jib, swinging it right, hitching it tight, riding brisk winds which pitch this skiff, tipping it, tilting it, till this ship in crisis flips. Riging rips. Christ, this ship is sinking. Diving in, I swim, fighting this frigid swirl, kicking, kicking, swimming in it till I sight high cliffs rising indistinct in thick mists, lit with lightning.

I was wondering who'd publish such a wild and wonderful book, and it's Coach House (also listed on this blog).

As an addendum to my comment to Michael M's post, I forgot that Amazon now publishes stories one can download for a modest amount of money. I'm wondering if we (and other "innovative" writers) should consider forming an e-fiction, fusion and book collective, using the crowdsourcing model but without the corporation.

In dementia perpetua,


25 May 2006


Reading Blonde’s, Joe’s and Michael’s posts.

I think B’s discussion of speed is useful for beginning to articulate some of the problems posed by Joe and Michael, specifically the problem(s) of agency and/or desire, which is another way of saying the difficulties that fiction has in the realm of politics. When Michael writes that fiction “respond[s] to the culture in which we live as we live in it,” and Joe writes that he wants his writing to function in the world (what he calls “purpose,”) I’m hearing a similar argument, that writing should work immediately in the world, make it a better place etc. I’m not sure anyone will argue with this desire: I believe we all want a better world, and we all hope that writing is way to achieve this. And innovative writing, because it breaks the rules of realism and realistic narrative, might be the ‘best’ type of writing to do this.

But we can’t forget Blonde’s post, and Virilio’s idea of speed, or Dromology, what Blanchot calls Impatience (“It is impatience which makes the goal inaccessible by substituting for it the proximity of an intermediary figure. It is impatience that destroys the way toward the goal by preventing us from recognizing in the intermediary the figure of the immediate” [Space of Literature 80]). The problem with the desire of wanting our writing to work immediately in the world is complex, but for this post, can be broken down into two points. First of all, the desire of the writer plays an almost non-existent role in how her writing will be received. If it played a larger role, we’d all be rich, famous AND important (in whatever order you chose). Writers simply don’t have much say in how their writing will be received. The second problem is the problem of impatience, with the word “immediately.” I don’t think immediacy is the answer. I don’t think we can expect our writing to immediately affect the world. If writing has any culture work, it will be in the future, in vague and hidden (obscene) ways, in hard to discern, important, subtle ways. This is why, on one hand, I can welcome Michael’s naïve writer, but on the other, I’m afraid the naive solutions, because they may be immediate, will be superficial, fading into history like Upton Sinclair. This is also why I mistrust Joe’s desire (or actually maybe his solution) for a socially responsible writing, as imaginative writing primarily used as immediate political activism seems to me to be fairly ineffective intervention. I just don’t see where it works, and in the case of writing by women in the later part of this century, I feel that the attempt to privilege “engaged’ writing has led to a serious regression, both on the aesthetic and political levels. Not to mention the almost total erasure of non-realistic women writers. But that’s probably another post.


Crowds & Power, or the R & D of Innovative Fiction

I'll keep this short. Ran across this article on Wired.com today and immediately sensed a multitude of questions for us as well as some possible answers in marketing, distribution, design, narrative production, etc. I think it definitely has potential for addressing the concept of relations that Joe raised yesterday (relations with or without corporations), and Lidia’s comments on speed and an alt-market. It also seems to me that the innovation and interactivity of crowdsourcing is a positive sign for the kind of work we produce, that there are a lot of people who think like we do, whose creative concepts, whose ways of reading overlap with ours albeit in disparate fields. I think: “These people should be reading our work.” And I think: “What do they read? Do they read? What might I produce that they might want to read?” I’m also thinking about the discipline-bleed of the various problem-solving scenarios. Finally, too, a very interesting appearance of that chess-playing automaton that kicks of Benjamin’s notes on History.


24 May 2006

Unconventional Telling

This is indeed a heady space and perhaps, rather than writing an independent post of my own, I should simply be appending my various remarks to the illuminating conversations in play below. Still, here it is.

I’d like to examine a bit further the definition and question Lance introduced in his post regarding the teaching of avant-garde writing. The definition (of avant-garde writing): “that which tells unconventional stories in unconventional ways.” The question: “Why teach avant-garde writing?”

To take the question first: though we all (?) do it, I’m uncomfortable with discussing or foregrounding (let’s say in the workshop setting) what we term innovative/avant-garde/experimental fiction as a genre in its own right, a genre distinct from, or in opposition to, say, realism or mainstream writing, because this perpetuates the notion in the minds of our student-consumers that such writing is (albeit in heterogeneous ways) different from, even antithetical to what student-consumers, what many consumers want or expect from literature (if, indeed, they want anything at all, or rather prefer simple, and simple-minded, affirmative entertainment). While we may see or feel this opposition variously according to our own experience, I’m not convinced--and my experience with students’ general lack of knowledge of the full range of authors that abide in the literature section of our library let alone our local B&N (unfortunately the only game in town)--that students are at all a priori aware of the fact that what we think of as innovative, avant-garde, or experimental has been labeled by the market as unreadable or unsaleable and therefore not worth anyone’s time or money.

My impulse is to insist that writing students, if they intend to have their work taken at all seriously (not just by me, their friendly neighborhood Decider), should strive to produce narratives that respond to the culture in which we live as we live in it, as we receive it, as we act on it right now, in real-time as it were. And by respond I mean in every aspect of narrative: character, pacing, structure, plot, dialogue, etc. I feel as though I have no need to append the term “postmodern” to works by Michael Martone, Noy Holland, Italo Calvino, David Shields, Lydia Davis, et al. (those students who are suspicious of difficult reading will do this anyway) because, from my perspective, if we choose to so name our era, we are all of us living and writing at this time “postmodern,” and the only writing of any value that is produced in response to our contemporary culture or its futures must be postmodern. Even, or perhaps especially, history and historical fiction, if they are to be valued, are written from this perspective. That is, contemporary writing must engage with the culture, as any creative prose writing has done, through at least some of the enduring problems of narrative—plot, structure, character, point-of-view, etc.—even if this engagement is only a disengagement, is only to disregard, pervert, or enhance these categories. I’m asserting then that valuable creative contemporary prose is and always has been avant-garde prose. I’m asserting that to be unable or unwilling to produce or read avant-garde writing is not simply to be ignorant of complex and challenging work, it is to be completely out of touch with the current state of the world as it is happening and about to happen. As has been noted this way of thinking “postmodern” does not, in my mind, necessarily exclude much of what may seem conventional in style or form, work that in fact may engage our contemporary cultural, political, economic, scientific landscape in some alternative, valuable way. If I give students the categories they want and then show them the ways in which contemporary avant-garde authors--or, for that matter, authors such as Sterne or Poe or Stein (I’m sorrowfully feeling the weight of the West here), experimentalists in form and language throughout the history of narrative (as much as this is possible in a single semester)—have revalued these categories, I have at least given them the tools not only to produce recognizable works of fiction (my job), but also shown them how to produce work that has the potential to complicate reading and thinking the now for themselves, for the workshop, and for any potential readers they may have down the road. (I teach undergraduates, so this road may be quite long for some, or, in many cases, our semester-long stroll may only be a brief, highly disturbing diversion.)

Regarding the definition (of avant-garde writing): “that which tells unconventional stories in unconventional ways,” I propose deleting the term “unconventional stories” and replacing it with nothing at all. In the third of her three lectures on narration, Gertrude Stein writes/tells: Narrative is what anybody has to say in any way about anything that can happen has happened will happen in any way. Talk about possibility space. (And I should say here, too, that I think of the workshop as much as the page as such a space. Even more than convention and readability, students want permission. The kind of writing we’re talking about shows them how to attain, create, and/or abscond with that in all kinds of ways.) Stein puts pressure on this permissiveness by warning the audience about itself, about audience and the consideration of whether or not anyone is listening. She also reminds us that we are our first audience. Are we listening to what we are saying, or have we grown bored with ourselves, our ways of telling? This seems to me to be an excellent model and one with which we are hardly done. Avant-garde writing as “that which tells in unconventional ways” also seems to me to place a correct emphasis on telling, listening, and the speaker, a relationship which, for me, seems of central importance aesthetically and politically in our present, in which one can tell (or not tell) anything with impunity, or, alternatively, can tell everything without knowing that it has been told or to who. [Just for the record, I’m not intending to misread Lance’s post. I’m just responding to certain propositions raised in it, however they may be clarified or revised later.]

Later in his post, Lance writes the following: “[A]s anyone intuits who has ever tried, say, to push language or structure in a refreshingly unfamiliar direction, breaking the rules always-already involves learning and understanding them. The two acts are anything save mutually exclusive. Rather, they are intensely interdependent.”

To this my response would be again that the notion needs some revision, perhaps a refocusing or broadening. The question I have is with the idea of trying, of willfully breaking rules, of acknowledging that certain rules for writing fiction exist that should be learned or should be broken. Of course, we know that there are any number of books that have attempted to define these rules, and other books about the breaking of them, and one might say that the one basic rule, the one that no one seems to forget and that doesn’t require a workshop or reading a book to teach it, is that in order for your writing to be considered “good” or “valid” or “worthwhile” it needs to be published. Somewhere. This is a rule that I have not yet intentionally sought to break, though I wouldn’t fault anyone for wanting to. No, the thought I have about this idea of making and/or breaking rules has more to do with the amount of narrative that is produced in complete ignorance of the rules of writing other than those imposed on the author by him/herself. One might say that even this author has or does not forget the single rule stated above. And they may have a way of formulating their own rules based on their own reading of published writing. But what if they do not read or cannot read? Or what if that author’s rules are derived from other nonliterary art forms or other forms of non-artistic communication (i.e. computing, biology, noise, etc.)? And though I can and do read innovative fiction, what if I were to decide to eschew all rules of fiction that I may have learned and written? There’s something, to me, fascinating in this prospect, something that, if one were to accept my idea that contemporary fiction should “respond to the culture in which we live as we live in it,” given the ahistorical, antiliterate nature of Americans, writing that responds through unliterary means may actually better fulfill this goal than any writing that in any way responds to rules of fiction, rules, one might also say of the printed page. Am I talking about hybrids? Perhaps. Yes. And I would add to the list Lidia has suggested elsewhere the work of our blog-fellow Steve Tomasula.

Now that I write this, I wonder if I might be accused of trying to promote a sort of naïve art in writing, a misguided primitivism, but that’s not my intent at all. I’m simply speculating about the possibilities of writing without any attention to the so-called rules of writing as they have been formulated by numerous writers. I am suggesting the possibility of ignoring these and perhaps courting, perhaps imitating or adapting the rules of other forms of narrative production. This ignoring of the rules is, in a sense then, a breaking of them. On the one hand, yes, I am positing a naive writer writing in isolation, perhaps in a cell, perhaps in a secret prison in Romania, or on a hunger strike at Gitmo, or in the process of starving to death with a hundred other illegal immigrants trapped and forgotten in a grain car on a shunting in Texas; a naïve writer whose politically essential narratives, told however artlessly, contain real terror, and were they told with even a milligram of authenticity, would most likely have a more powerful impact on the culture than most anything we here could produce. But I am also positing a sophisticated writer who might seize/appropriate other forms of narrative with which writing is vying, with which culture and truths are constructed, in order to interrogate, critique, extend, undermine, explode them.

If I Only Had a Match

Nice to be a part of this landscape, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to etch. I take it as a given that this formation constitutes something of a mutual admiration society -- it’s unavoidable in some sense, given the conditions under which we’ve come, are coming together. And that’s OK, to my way of thinking, provided we find ways to be as candid with one another as possible. Otherwise we’ll likely devolve into a mutual admiration society.

A few things come to mind in mulling over what’s been writ thus far. My apologies in advance for waxing so prosaic (even redundant) on an initial foray, but it seemed best to survey general contours:

First, as to what sort of writing we’re about: like Mark Wallace, I just can’t get behind “telling unconventional stories in unconventional ways,” not least b/c, as a poet, I don’t see my primary job as telling stories. I work in other modes/genres (including memoir, oh yeah), but even there, I wouldn’t -- even as a sort of shorthand -- define my activity in such terms.

More to the point, I might indeed complain on occasion about conventional stories told in conventional ways, but if they’re really important stories, and told extremely well, it’s just as likely that you’ll hear few complaints from yours truly. (The conventional nonfiction [call it what you will] that I prefer fits this bill.) In all, I simply can’t -- or won’t -- dismiss out of hand conventional-mainstream work if it’s making some sort of cultural headway. And of course, this means that there’s a judgment call entailed, which is all wrapped up in political ontologies and the like (mine and others’). As I see it, there’s too much at stake -- in terms of the state of the arts, public literacy, the waning intellectual health of the US, the global context generally -- to turn one’s back on any artifact that’s taking on urgent issues, and doing so with intelligence and verve.

So what am I saying then? I’m saying that I’m not convinced that defining our activity in terms of an aesthetic conviction, strictly speaking, is the way to go. Aesthetics (I use the term, like the rest of you, in its more contemporary sense) plays a pivotal role in all of this, and I certainly wouldn’t want to see us pay mere lip service to same. But however we come to understand what we do, we should perhaps be thinking more about relations -- and by relations I don’t mean, either, the kind of thing you tend to hear (say) from avant poets, about how their poems provoke a less passive response in readers, or subvert the status quo, or what have you. It’s not that I think the latter untrue, exactly, it’s more that I believe we’re past the point, socially and culturally, at which such an argument can help catalyze collective action, even indirectly. We are, I think, at a point at which we could do (at a minimum) with more affirmative forms of resistance.

New publishing ventures fit the bill, of course. Question: is it possible for small presses to create alliances with (gasp) the conglomerate trade presses? It’s been done here and there, and I’m wondering whether we should be thinking more about how to tap into this potentially vast resource. I know it’s not easy, and I know there are risks. (Will Tom’s of Maine start putting sorbitol in their toothpaste now that they’ve been bought by Colgate-Palmolive?) I’m not arguing that presses need of necessity to get larger -- I am arguing, though, that having a wide(r) readership might be (might be) a desirable thing.

Relations between readers and writers then, sure. Tentatively, the kinds of relations (and relation-ships) I have in mind have much to do with a renewed sense of purpose -- as perceived/imagined by writers and readers. I want to write thus & so, and write thusly, b/c I hope to ________, and in addition to writing thus & so and thusly, here is what I’m willing to do to make ________ happen. I want to read thus & so, b/c I hope to ________, and in addition to reading thus & so, here is what I’m willing to do to make _________ happen. The social responsibility (I don’t know what else to call it) attendant to the transaction cuts both ways, if you will, and we might begin to develop a discourse in which writing -- as an art form -- actually begins to mean something to more than .001% of the population.

Call me an optimist, but even a 10% increase in readership across the avant board might exert a profound impact on our public sphere.

You publishers out there are probably best equipped to intervene in what I’m proposing. Surely you all have authors whom you would like to see do more to promote their own work. But you see -- the further you get into avant poetry circles, for instance, the more the very notion of marketing one’s work is viewed askance. It’s like this: poets don’t have careers, they don’t make money from their poetry -- they are in fact a further distance away from the trade publishing enterprise (and a large advance) than are innovative fiction writers (if I may be permitted to invoke this distinction) -- hence to ask a poet to state the purpose of his/her work (even ex post facto) is to threaten to undo the tacit predicate: art has no purpose, as we customarily understand purpose. It is not a commodity, or at least, it is not a sociological epiphenomenon. Etc. And lo! -- we end up, among other things, with a (disciplinary, yes, but damagingly popular) divide between writers and critics/scholars, between the generative demands of producing literary art and those issues revolving around its reception.

Which can’t be a good thing, can it?

In all of this -- which again, I offer most tentatively, and in broadest sweep -- the question of different modes and genres and, indeed, relations ought to be kept constantly in mind. We need, I think, to come clean as to what it is we’re about, and why, and frankly, I haven’t always found this an esp. easy thing to do myself, b/c “selling out” drops from the lips of some poets I know faster than David Horowitz can say “politically correct.” With my partner (Kass Fleisher), I’ve spent a good deal of time over the past five years writing screenplays, and when pressed for a reason, my first response these days is simple: MONEY. Simply put, I need (want?) to make more than $30K per (which is what I’m looking at in academic year O6/07 for teaching a 4/4). So hoo-ray for Hollywood. At the same time, nothing Kass and I have written is without a certain social justice angle (likely the reason we have yet to sell anything!). And we have no intention of writing crap, albeit our screenplay work is entirely (123 acts w/midpoint) conventional. And we’d love, for a change, to be writing for more than 100 people.

But make no mistake -- our primary motivation is MONEY.

So codeswitching is one aspect of what I mean by relations. Sometimes my writing proposes, in effect, to create its own audience. Sometimes I’m more obviously piggybacking on the mountains of writing that have come before me. Dangers of pluralism notwithstanding, I don’t see a real problem here, provided I’m honest with myself, and with others, about what it is I think I’m doing. And am willing to take criticism accordingly.

So: what is it that I think I’m doing, specifically? Well, it varies...

I have more -- much more -- to say about this question of pedagogy. Not that anyone has implied as much, but I don’t believe pedagogy turns solely or even primarily on the type of writing you bring into the classroom, or the type of writing you ask of your students. I think we need to look, here again, at classroom relations -- first and foremost, the relationship between the teacher (who has primary institutional power) and the students -- before we can mount a properly pedagogical argument. Else we’ll lurch toward that formalist trap into which, as I see it, so many avant and traditional instructors have fallen. But we can save that for another time, and if experience is any judge, I have a hunch that my predisposition toward critical pedagogy (Freire et al.) may rub some of you the wrong way.

Thanks for listening, at any rate, sorry for any harshness gives offense, great to be here.

23 May 2006

Some civil servants look just like my loved ones

What’s most interesting to me about Lance’s call for pedagogical practices and the always eloquent Blonde’s description of speed, is the fact that both together make for crazy classroom antics. That is, the faster we go, the rounder we get. Er, the faster we get, the thicker our prose—the most closely, like some coked-up asymptote, we near the absolute zero, the dead zone, that never-present non-center of our consumerist little paradise.

Or, put even more obliquely, for students, teach them while they learn. Get rid of books all together for a creative writing class, or, at least the textbooks.

For Ah Pook’s sweet sake, who needs another useless exercise on “how to express yourself through nature poetry” or “why setting is real important, like that big-ass house in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ which is also personification you memorization-happy big brain so give yourself a gold star, step directly to go, and do not pass jail”?

Since I like to think of writing as something that can indeed emerge from the classroom in an innovative manner, the first thing to do is to do away, completely (in the undergrad intro course), with firm genre walls. No six weeks of poetry, followed by six-weeks of fiction, followed by six weeks of god-awful workshops where unprepared students learn to jockey for position in the Darwinian umbra of the teacher’s favor.

My first writing teacher, when I was an undergrad at Penn State, was none other than “Now What’s” Dimitri Anastasopoulos, who didn’t bother, if I can recall those halcyon days, with much of the canon, but jumped straight to the strange and wide. I remember becoming so enchanted with Italo Calvino’s “The Distance to the Moon” story (from Cosmicomics) that I would have been prepared to follow Dimitri (or ___ as he was known in those days) into a airlock where we drain away the sounds of the body, the beating of the human heart, before popping open in the great expanse of the milky unknown.

That’s right, babydolls, the other side of the sun.

When in a slightly more “advanced” writing course at Penn State, with a prof. heavily disenfranchised with the rest of the English Department, my two cronies and I were so tired of the typical workshop grind that we began to make things real inarresting like. One pompous student had a habit of recommending, like an idiotic librarian, other tales for us less-well-read types to check out. He’d write on every story, at the close of his curt comments, something akin to: “See ‘The Cherry Orchard’ by Checkov for a more successful version of this piece.”

In response, one of my friends began writing these types of things on the other stories: “Please see ‘The Worst Story in the World’ by Armitage Shanks for an example of what you are getting at.” Not content to sit on the sidelines, me and the other crony jumped in, and before long, the real writing of course took place in the margins. Literally. (Side note: Our obnoxious antics came to a rapid close when one student accosted my first friend in the Penn State library, upset that she had been unable to find the story he had so kindly recommended. When he came clean, the prof. shut us down, although not without that sly, disenfranchised smile.)

The point here, if there is one, is that the best writing often happens at these organic interstices. One practical example stolen and then adapted from another creative writing teacher (great for the first few days) of that intro. course.

1) Play a song about the suburbs (perhaps “Don’t Worry about the Government” from Talking Heads ’77) [N.B. Don’t ignore the culture industry for some ridiculous literary trip.)
2) Give the students posterboard and markers, break them into groups, and get them to create a “townspace.”
3) Generate a few characters, symbols, etc. based upon the collaborative experience.
4) Write about it.
5) Place all the class’s different post-boards together, and come up with one huge mega-town.
6) Generate connections.
7) Send the students home to lovingly take their best character from 3, and send that person, squirrel, cyborg, piece of cardboard, into the unknown of another posterboard’s townspace.
8) In secret, fill up water balloons.
9) Next class, play an apocalyptic song (“London Calling” works well).
10) Just when these students are in love with their own genius, creativity, originality, and Hegelian speculative movement, water-bomb the crap out of the town and rip apart the remnants.
11) Write about the aftermath.

From here, it’s onto the not-quite systematic deconstruction (pardon my French) or all those nice little narrative lines that end in silly high school love stories and dime-store Mafioso romances.

Onto Oulipo, séances, cut-ups, et al…and all the wondrous lexicons of the hexadecimal.

Writing in the academy may have its problems, but I do charge those water balloons to the department budget.

What else?

21 May 2006

Speed and Narrative Production

What a terrific morphic space this is . . .

I’d like to design an extension to Lance’s thoughtful and inspiring comments on pedagogy in the categories of writing and publishing. Think of it as an extra leg on what he said. Or something.

I have one word for you.


Let’s talk about speed. And in particular, its dominant status as the central feature to social organization, economy, being, and war circa 2006.

Why talk about speed? I suspect at the heart of our fledgling discussions about authors, the nature of innovative writing, non-mainstream publishing, and politics (hurray for those of you who insist on including this in the discussion) is speed—a speed that pulses out a beat faster than we can count it.

Lemme cop to the fact that I FIRST began thinking about speed as a conceptual framework after reading Paul Virilio.

I mention speed and I steal it from Virilio because it sort of shoots the gap between the market and art. It seems to me that publishing has become a game of extreme competition and velocity, with the exclusive goal being the quickly and mass produced product, fast money, and fast circulation of material.

I’m talking about the making of books—publishing--but I think I am also talking about authors and what they do and what they want.

Publishers and writers want speed.


They either want to be valued or presume they have no choice but to be valued in purely capitalistic terms, and the American market “writes” those terms.

They want to be recognized, legitimized, honored, given jobs in their genres. Quickly.

Bravo America.

Bravo you capitalist metropolis.

As an effect of technological evolution, speed has changed every element of our corporeal, material, and lived existence.

Thus, what’s happened to our concept and experience of time has EVERYTHING to do with discussions of writing, books and publishing. Why? Because reading has become buying/consuming—it has become a conditioned reflex (here there IS a connection to teaching, since our students are or will become either become consumers or readers).

"The tyranny of real-time is not so far removed from classical tyranny in that it tends to do away with the time for thought on the part of the citizen in favor of a conditioned reflex” (Virilio). Time needed to think is in danger of disappearing: "Democracy is the time spent waiting for a collective decision. Our current version, ‘live’ democracy, automatic democracy, does away with that time ... the opinion poll is the election of tomorrow, it is the virtual democracy of the virtual city" (Virilio).

Like the election poll (jesus. I mean really), the commercial (or mainstream, or whatever you’d like to call it) publishing racket has subtracted struggle, thinking, reflection, relationships with readers from the equation in favor of mass marketing of the product.

Technological advance makes this more and more possible.

I don’t think independent presses have any Teflon to speak of here…one of OUR authors at Chiasmus recently said to me: “I would hope that you would not stand in the way of a Chiasmus author making money just to uphold your tribal philosophy of artists creating a space of resistance and possibility . . . “

Reread that.

Yeah, I get it. Writers and publishers want to make money.


Writers and publishers think notions of connection, tribal identity, making art as an act of loving or being or resistance is naïve, quaint, romantic, old fashioned, uneducated, not academic enough, not saavy, not legitimate in the right circles, not newsworthy, not not not marketable, and worst of all, S L O W motion nonsense.

But I also get that making money and circulating the product on the market and making a name and scoring a job and getting buyers, reaching consumers – these are not the ONLY options. I mean, when did we decide to roll over and play dead in the face of the fact of the market?

Don’t panic. I’m not suggesting starving the artists or shooting the publishers.

I’m suggesting that one could circulate art differently. One could short-circuit the market. Go underground, as an act of resistance TO the market, as an act of social relevance UNDERNEATH THE BELLY of the market, where its very sex sits. Reproduction and circulation could happen in smaller cells, so that thought, reflection, and reading could be reinvented.

And here’s the kicker: technological advance makes THAT possible too (the internet).

So I’ll say it again, I think that writing and publishing COULD BE a site of resistance, even with all our socio-political woes, even in this dark and arguably evil moment in history, if we SEIZE the very materials and conditions which threaten to subsume us (nod to walt b.). And not in a naïve way.

The very element which rises up to obliterate independent publishing—the SPEED of the mass marketed book, the SPEED of communication, the SPEED of the dreaded barnes and noble selling mega-machine, the SPEED with which books become commodities and authors get seduced—could be understood as precisely the space of resistance.

The SPEED of information could rally a dormant breed of artistic activists. The SPEED of communication could unite cells of individuals toward common artistic practices and results. The SPEED of readers could be “turned on” by electronic connection, bypassing the market altogether, or dipping in and out of it randomly, chaotically, without permission or apology.

Think of an author’s work we consider “dead” being reincarnated as an internet event for a new generation of “readers.”

Back to speed.

Dromology. A word, a fiction invented by Paul Virilio. “Dromos’” from the Greek word to race. Meaning: the “science (or logic) of speed.” Dromology is important when considering social organization and the laws which govern it. “Whoever controls the territory possesses it. Possession of territory is not primarily about laws and contracts, but first and foremost a matter of movement and circulation” (Virilio).

Whether we are talking about the puny shrub’s dictatorship and the current new wave colonialism, or making books which matter, or writing, or teaching, or creating readers, I’m saying speed has something to do with it.

Perhaps part of the way out of the tensions and limitations inherent in the terms we use to define ourselves, our questions, our visions, this discourse we are creating is to reinvent the terms themselves—the conceptual frameworks, the spaces of possibility, something which Lance’s last post inspires in me. I suspect the nowness of things carries with it the terms of our remaking . . .

20 May 2006

pedagogy & the difficult imagination

In a future post, I'll ask us to turn to a discussion of more precise definitions of such charged words as "alternative," "experimental," "innovative," "postmodern," "elitist," "phallocentric," and so forth. My suspicion is that we may be using the same words to mean different things, and it's no doubt important and useful for us to make ourselves increasingly self-conscious about our various usages and their limits and ambiguities. For now, though, I'd like to think a little about innovative pedagogy, or perhaps pedagogy of the innovative—something Frank brought up in his initial comment to my first post—because it strikes me that those of us who teach or have taught fiction writing, contemporary fiction, and/or theory in some very real ways are helping shape or have helped shape tomorrow's readers, tomorrow's writers, and, by implication, tomorrow's alternative publishers.

So, for the purposes of this discussion, let us grant a fairly straightforward (if potentially underexamined) definition of avant-garde writing as that which tells unconventional stories in unconventional ways, and quickly follow up that definition with a question: Why teach avant-garde writing? After all, a good case could be made that an aspiring author must learn the rules of his or her craft before attempting to break them. That is, a writer should be required to understand the grammar, syntax, and aesthetico-sociohistorical context of the literary conversation of which she or he is a part before trying to add to it, disrupt it, or begin a new one. Failing that, the avant-garde runs the very real risk of becoming little more than an excuse for naïve, narcissistic, and decontextualized writing intent on reinventing the anti-wheel.

I disagree with this hypothetical caveat for at least two reasons. First, as anyone intuits who has ever tried, say, to push language or structure in a refreshingly unfamiliar direction, breaking the rules always-already involves learning and understanding them. The two acts are anything save mutually exclusive. Rather, they are intensely interdependent. Second—and more important—is the deeper question involved in the notion of "learning one’s craft"—of learning, namely, the cultural codes for what comprises "good" (i.e., conventional; i.e., socially acceptable; i.e., marketable) writing—and that is this: Why teach students to tell the same kinds of stories in the same kinds of ways the dominant cultures would like them told?

Or, better yet: What is the opposite of teaching avant-garde writing?

And: What does it mean to help perpetuate what we think of when we say "conventional stories told in conventional ways"?

In order to begin to suggest an answer, I’d like to turn to the central argument in Curtis White’s wonderfully provocative and wonderfully merciless book, The Middle Mind. There White maintains that the stories generated and sustained by the American political system, entertainment industry, and academic trade have taught us over the course of the last half century or so how not to think for ourselves. Given the present political situation, as Timmi points out so forcefully in her recent post, I doubt too much needs to be said about how (in White’s words) "the political narratives of the United States as created by our political leaders and their comrades in media, in technology, and in business" have led to the "starkest and most deadly" poverty of imagination. Nor how, "on the whole, our entertainment—movies, TV, music [and, of course, books]—is a testament to our ability and willingness to endure boredom … and pay for it."

Academia doesn’t fare any better. For White, the contemporary university "shares with the entertainment industry its simple institutional inertia"; "so-called dominant 'critical paradigms' tend to stabilize in much the same way that assumptions about 'consumer demand' make television programming predictable." If student-consumers want to watch The Da Vinci Code or read Stephen King in the classroom, well, that’s just what they’re going to get to watch and read. Unfortunately, the consequence—particularly in the wake of Cultural Studies—has been the impulse to eschew close, rigorous engagement with the page; to search texts "for symptoms supporting the sociopolitical or theoretical template of the critic"; to flatten out distinctions between, say, the value of studying James Joyce or Carole Maso, on the one hand, and Britney Spears or Bart Simpson, on the other; and therefore unknowingly to embrace and maintain the very globalized corporate culture that Cultural Studies claims to critique.

"It seems very odd to me," White writes, "that the contemporary humanities, which began with deconstruction’s distrust of truth-claims, moved very quickly to certainty, conviction, and even self-righteousness during the ascendancy of Cultural Studies. This self-certainty … has had a stifling effect on the role of art as a material practice, as something involved with history and technique."

What we are left with in White’s view, which I (as a recovering professor) in good part share, is a constellation of dominant cultures that shuns complexity and challenge; avoids texts that demand attentive, self-conscious, and self-critical reading; and embraces The Middle Mind’s thoughtless will toward mediocrity.

In a phrase, what we are left with is the death of what I think of as the Difficult Imagination.

So back to my earlier questions. The opposite of teaching the avant-garde, the innovative, and therefore the polyphonically disruptive in writing is to support the dissemination of conventional stories told in conventional ways. And to support the dissemination of conventional stories told in conventional ways is at the end of the gray day to support, either consciously or unconsciously, those dominant cultures that would like such stories told and retold until they begin to pass for something like truths about the human condition. "Our satisfaction with the completeness of plot," Fredric Jameson once noted, is "a kind of satisfaction with society as well," and I would add much the same is the case with our satisfaction with undemanding style, character, subject matter, and so forth.

Samuel R. Delany argues in favor of reading science fiction on the grounds that it serves as a tool to help us think. The same is the case in spades with avant-garde writing. (Science fiction and avant-garde writing, I hasten to point out, are by no means mutually exclusive, as works by the likes of Delany himself, Timmi Duchamp, Mark Danielewski, Margaret Atwood, and Philip K. Dick testify.) Avant-garde writing is a mode of creativity whose goals rhyme well with those posed by Viktor Shklovsky for art and Martin Heidegger for philosophy: the return, through complexity and challenge (not predictability and ease) to perception and thought.

Products of the Difficult Imagination therefore resist J. K. Rowling, Survivor, and the well-crafted if lifeless suburban narratives peopled by fairly predictable, well-rounded characters that appear in The New Yorker and roll off the workshop assembly lines around the country every week of the semester. Products of the Difficult Imagination, White states, resist "the automatic" while functioning as "antagonists to the status quo in entertainment, intellectual orthodoxy, and political ideology." We may think of the Difficult Imagination, then, as a kind of a possibility space in which we can envision the text of the text and the text of the world other than they are, and can thus contemplate the idea of fundamental change in both. The Difficult Imagination is nothing less than the arena of human freedom; serious social, intellectual, and aesthetic critique; and emancipatory reinvention.

It may seem a peculiar (not to mention paradoxical) position for me to take, contending as I seem to be that we should somehow teach rules for breaking rules in our creative-writing classrooms. But that’s not exactly what I’m doing. Rather, I’m proposing that we should generate possibility spaces there in which our students can begin actively to revive the Difficult Imagination by exploring ways of telling unconventional stories in unconventional ways, thereby reevaluating the assumptions behind the often uncritical impulse to tell conventional stories in conventional ways. And I’m proposing we do so by reconsidering the kinds of stories we ask our students to read and the kinds of stories we ask them to write.

What I advocate in the first case (and I suspect most academic readers of this blog have already done so) is to move away from teaching the well-crafted narrative à la Chekov, Carver, and Lorrie Moore (I guarantee we have nothing to fear: our students will meet those narratives in other courses over and over again), and introducing or reintroducing in their place fictions by such writers working in the tradition of the anti-tradition as Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Cortàzar, Abish, Leyner, Acker, Guy Davenport, Susan Steinberg, and the rest we have already spent some time on this blog enumerating. Consider using an anthology like Norton's Postmodern American Fiction that privileges avant-garde work, or, perhaps better, one from an indie press: Chiasmus’s Northwest Edge: Fictions of Mass Destruction, for instance, FC2’s In the Slipstream: An FC2 Reader, or Starcherone's PP/FF. Consider supplementing that anthology with the most recent issue of a journal like Fiction International. Consider, as well, exploring several web-based hypermedial texts such as Shelley Jackson’s My Body or Stuart Moulthrop’s Reagan Library. Consider spending part of each class period for the entire semester discussing in loving detail one richly textured experimental novel: Joyce’s Ulysses, say, or Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew, or Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Consider setting up a web-based forum where students can over the course of the semester interview several diverse avant-garde writers around the country about why and how they do what they do.

What I advocate in the second case is that we invite our students, whether or not the avant-garde is their preferred mode of composition, to investigate for at least one semester writing unconventional stories in unconventional ways. Since I list many exercises along these lines in Rebel Yell: A Short Guide to Writing Fiction, my textbook on the subject, I won’t go into much detail here. Rather, I'd like to hear from the rest of you:

  • What texts have you found helpful in teaching the avant-garde?
  • What exercises?
  • What new paradigms for workshops?

Certainly there is nothing especially new about many of this post's largest brushstrokes, and there is a better than middling chance that I’ve been preaching to the choir. Yet every once in a while, as I find myself inhabiting the periphery of a constellation of dominant cultures where lucrative, bland, distracting, slightly ominous warm-and-fuzzy entertainment passes for art, and find myself feeling increasingly like what I imagine the last triceratops must have felt like 65 million years ago, it occurs to me as a potentially valuable gesture to retell the vitally significant—if increasingly neglected and unconventional—story of what Nietzsche once called "the unconditional," Roland Barthes "a less upright, less Euclidean space," and Derrida "a privileged instability," thereby hoping against hope to revive, if only for a few paragraphs, if only via a few alternative presses, the possibility of the Difficult Imagination.

19 May 2006

gilbert sorrentino 1929-2006

Gilbert Sorrentino died yesterday, at 77, in a New York hospital. For those who are unfamiliar with his writing, the Center for Book Culture has a good overview here and Gerald Howard an intelligent profile here. For those who know his work, you know we've just lost one of the giants in the world of comic innovative fiction. Mulligan Stew, the embodiment of Bakhtin's notion of the novel as polyphony, changed the way I thought about how fiction could be structured, and the book's carnivalesque delight in language, irony, and self-conscious textuality taught me back in graduate school, where I first came across it, that work can and should always attempt to be more extreme.

18 May 2006

An Alt-List

113 Novels in reply to the New York Times (compiled with reference to recent blog reactions, etc.). A fuller explanation of this list, as well as notes on how it was compiled, appear on Starcherone Books's Starcher-Blog.

Walter Abish - How German Is It; Kathy Acker - Blood & Guts in High School; Great Expectations; David Antin – tuning; Donald Antrim – Elect Mr. Robinson For A Better World; Paul Auster – In the Country of Last Things; Jonathan Baumbach – B; Greg Bear - Blood Music; Kenneth Bernard – From the District File; R. M. Berry – Frank; Judy Budnitz – Flying Leap; Mary Burger – Sonny; Octavia Butler – Kindred; Mary Caponegro - Complexities of Intimacy; Thersesa Hak Jyung Cha – Dicteé; Sandra Cisneros – Woman Hollering Creek; Dennis Cooper – Period; Michael Cunningham – The Hours; Mark Z. Danielewski - House of Leaves; Lydia Davis – The End of the Story; Samuel R. Delany – Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand; Bradley Denton – Blackburn; Matthew Derby – Super Flat Times; Jeffrey DeShell – Peter; Jim Dodge – Fup; Stone Junction; Ricki Ducornet – The Word “Desire”; The Fanmaker’s Inquisition; Katherine Dunn – Geek Love; Dave Eggers – A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; Brian Evenson – Altmann’s Tongue; Percival Everett – Erasure; Raymond Federman – To Whom it May Concern; William Gaddis – Carpenter’s Gothic; William Gass - The Tunnel; Denise Giardina – Storming Heaven; William Gibson - Neuromancer; Robert Glück – Margery Kempe; Barry Hannah – Ray; Carla Harryman – Gardener of Stars; Marianne Hauser – Prince Ishmael; Donald Hays – The Dixie Association; Laird Hunt - The Impossibly; Shelley Jackson – The Melancholy of Anatomy; Harold Jaffe – 15 Serial Killers; Gwyneth Jones – Life; Kevin Killian – Little Men; Charles Johnson – Oxherding Tale; Stacey Levine - My Horse; DRA—; Frances Johnson; Mark Leyner – I Smell Esther Williams; Kelly Link –Magic for Beginners; Pamela Lu – Pamela: A Novel; Alison Lurie – Foreign Affairs; Nathaniel Mackey – From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate; Ben Marcus - The Age of Wire and String; Notable American Women; David Markson - Wittgenstein's Mistress; Reader’s Block; Carole Maso - Aureole; Ava; The Art Lover; Defiance; Harry Matthews – My Life in CIA; Cris Mazza – Former Virgin; Heather McGowan – Schooling; Ursule Molinaro - Fat Skeletons; Toni Morrison – Tar Baby; Walter Mosley – Devil in a Blue Dress; Padgett Powell – Edisto; Tim Power - Last Call; Thomas Pynchon – Mason and Dixon; Vineland; Doug Rice - Blood of Mugwump; Mary Robison – Why Did I Ever; L. A. Ruocco – Document Zippo; Thaddeus Rutkowski – Tetched; James Salter- A Sport and a Pastime; George Saunders – CivilWarLand in Bad Decline; Pastoralia; Sarah Schulman – Girls, Visions, and Everything; Jason Schwartz – A German Picturesque; Joanna Scott – Arrogance: A Novel; Elizabeth Sheffield – Gone; Lucius Shepard – Beast of the Heartland; Nina Shope – Hangings; Leslie Marmon Silko – Ceremony; Almanac of the Dead; Jane Smiley - A Thousand Acres; Ordinary Love and Good Will; Gilbert Sorrentino – Aberration of Starlight; Little Casino; Neal Stephenson – Quicksilver; Bruce Sterling – Schismatrix; Ronald Sukenick – Mosaic Man; Lynne Tillman - American Genius; Steve Tomasula – VAS; Joseph Torra – Gas Station; William Vollman – You Bright and Risen Angels; Europe Central; Chuck Wachtel – Joe the Engineer; Howard Waldrop – Heart of Whitenesse; Alice Walker – Possessing the Secret of Joy; David Foster Wallace - Infinite Jest; Brief Interviews with Hideous Men; Joe Wenderoth - Letters to Wendy; Curtis White – Requiem: Diane Williams - Excitability; Joy Williams – The Quick and the Dead; Gene Wolfe – The Book of the New Sun; Douglas Woolf – Wall to Wall; Lidia Yuknavitch – her other mouths.

17 May 2006

web design question

So I am totally new to this but just found out that www.nodbodaddies.com is available as a domain name so i am going to start designing a webpage. my first. so : how much bandwidth to start with as a minimum? how many gigs of storage as min? i dont have much money as we all dont...so help...also thinking of doing this through yahoo small business. any advice?

15 May 2006

"The Golden Age of the Small Press"

This blog’s two weeks old, but I’m still musing on Lance’s first post. Proclamations from the NYT (or anywhere else) about “bests” just provoke me to dig deep enough below the foundations to threaten the structure that makes such proclamations look interesting & credible to so many people. To be honest, I don’t think I’d care which book or author they proclaimed “best.” Art can’t be judged by arithmetical methods. So instead of commenting on the NYT’s arithmetical approach to literature, I’ll explore some of the thoughts I’ve had on reading Lance’s first post.

Now What. Among other things, we could add a question mark to these words and take them as a wide-open question. The discipline of History laid down the tracks for my synaptic connections at an impressionable age, so I’m wired to think that asking such a question implies the demand to see through the murk of what’s going on now and as well as some kind of sense of what’s already been. It could be that it isn’t necessary to attain a vision of either the present or the past in order to move somewhere else, but my entire mental apparatus would short-circuit if someone actually managed to convince me of that.

So, I grope about in the murk. This is especially hard to do since I’ve lately become disoriented by the discovery that a political form that once looked so hard & definite to my naïve eyes—I’m speaking of dictatorship—doesn’t necessarily come with an on/off switch. Those of us living the United States are living in the murk. And a fearful, denial-filled mess it is. I’m sure it all looks clear from the outside. But inside, there’s the babble of nonsense night and day. Here the very word “reality” is under contestation, if you know what I mean.

Just consider: The US stood at the brink of a constitutional crisis in late 2000, but Congress collaborated with the Supreme Court, & the moment passed. The United States could have had a constitutional crisis any number of times since then as the executive branch has made a practice of defying the constitution its officials have sworn to protect.

I think my most bewildered moment came when I returned home from the Delany Conference in Buffalo at the end of March and saw the Washington Post article reporting that a bill that had been signed by the POTUS had become law even though it hadn’t been passed by both houses of Congress. Even then, I expected a cry out of outrage. My partner said testily, “It’s not a law,” as if the issue were a matter of semantics & my fear that the executive could get away with doing such a thing was absurd. But the truth is, if the Supreme Court, which has been packed by the executive, rules that the bill is nevertheless a law, the two hundred year old definition of legislation will carry as much weight as any of the many “facts” the executive scorns as irrelevant, & the executive branch will know that the process by which a bill becomes law, which children used to have to learn in middle-school civics class, has become merely an option rather than a requirement for binding legislation. The moment passed, however, as of no interest to the political class, with the result that few people are even aware that a law exists that bypassed the required process.

And finally, if any hope for democracy in the US were left, it should be having one at this moment, as the massive scope of the executive’s usurpation of Congress’s legislative functions has been exposed for all to see, viz., the so-called “signing statements” that have rendered the presidential veto obsolete. It never occurred to me that the lack of such a crisis would signal the arrival of what we all know is not democracy but can’t otherwise name. I grew up thinking that violent coups d’etat were the only vehicles capable of bringing authoritarian governments into power. But although the POTUS now polls a disapproval rating of 71%, only half of those polled think that his administration has gone too far in extending executive power, including his NSA’s clandestinely appropriating and warehousing trillions of phone records of two hundred million US citizens, and 71% of Republicans polled actually approve of the NSA’s Orwellian program.

About a week ago, Republican Senator Arlen Specter warned that there “soon might not be a Congress,” because “'we're undergoing a tsunami here with the flood coming from the executive branch on one side and the judicial branch on the other.”

Paul Craig Roberts, an economist who served as an assistant secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan Administration, uses the expression “soft dictatorship” to characterize the current state of government in the US. I’m resisting the term, but even as I do, I have to wonder what a historian a hundred years hence would call the current political configuration of the United States.

The political landscape of the US is not the only area of confusion. The function and role of small, independent presses (including micropresses like my own Aqueduct Press) are changing today in swift & unpredictable ways that don’t neatly fit into the discourse we’ve developed for talking about both mainstream and alternative publishing. It makes sense, then, that in his first post to this blog Lance asks what constitutes alternative publishing and writing. It strikes me that answering such a question in other than simplistic terms would make a worthy—& on-going—ambition for this blog.

The technology of printing, from its orgins in fifteenth-century Europe, developed alongside and necessarily in relation to capitalism. For centuries, as Andre Schiffrin points out in The Business of Books, publishing was a business yielding low profits, a business in which firms balanced economic exigency against other interests—aesthetic, civic, religious, political, ethical… In the traditional model, best-selling books supported the work that publishers and editors loved, regardless of whether they could be marketed profitably. Though publishing was a hard-nosed, unromantic business, it was nevertheless a business undertaken for love.

As just about everyone living on this planet has by now discovered, postmodern capitalism does not believe in sacrificing profit to love (much less to public good, moral imperative, or even life itself). Business, in the postmodern era, exists to make as much profit as possible. For publishers conglomerated within the three remaining mammoth multinational media corporations, the math is stark: every book is expected to be a source of profit. Obviously this has been bad news for the “alternative” writing that was once associated with certain imprints of major New York publishers. Less obviously, this has also been bad news for “mid-list” writers—the authors publishers traditionally supported throughout their careers, even when one or two of their books flopped. Most people reading this post will know of examples of writers who have chosen to adopt a pseudonym in order to escape the taint of poor sales and began writing more aggressively for the market. But the shake-out of major publishers’ lists did not stop with mere flops, for it now includes authors whose books aren’t profitable enough—or whose books the publishers’ marketing departments merely predict won’t be profitable enough. This has resulted in floods of authors (and their agents) looking for alternatives to the major publishers. Recently when I was on a panel at the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, one of the other panelists noted that the very mainstream Peter Beagle had a very mainstream, wide-appeal novel coming out from Tachyon Publications, a small press that publishes science fiction. I’ve heard of many other cases of equally well-known wide-appeal authors resorting to the small press. Indeed, I’ve had submissions for Aqueduct from some of them.

“We’re living in the Golden Age of the small press.” I’ve heard several editors from big New York houses assert this often over the last couple of years. The first couple of times I heard it, it sounded good, especially in light of my just having started my own small press; & I took it as a reference to the sophistication & variety we’ve seen proliferate in genre short fiction over the last decade as small-press anthologies, collections, and magazines have bloomed. But then I began to wonder, what does that mean? Why should editors who aren’t themselves associated with the small press be proclaiming such a Golden Age? & then I thought about how an editor of a mainstream house had said to me after I published Gwyneth Jones’s novel, Life (which subsequently won the Philip K. Dick Award), that he was glad that I had done so, that he (& another editor he named) had liked it a lot but that his house couldn’t publish it. Night Shade Books, a larger small press (that has published fiction by M. John Harrison and Michael Moorcock and Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts’ celebrated The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide To Eccentric and Discredited Diseases), has just begun bringing out Gwyneth’s near-future rock-stars-in-politics series, Bold As Love, which Gollancz has been publishing in the U.K. The editors who talk about the Golden Age of the Small Press cite the proliferation of small presses with high editorial and production values and what is to some people the astonishing quality of their lists. The small presses, the editors say, are taking up the slack—they’re keeping the authors in print whom they would once have been publishing themselves.

So is this a Golden Age for the small press? Not from the authors’ point of view, since small presses usually are able to offer only smaller advances and print-runs and its book promotion must be done on the cheap, mostly through the initiative of the author. What about from the small-press publishers’ point of view, though? Granted, some very fine writing—like Gwyneth Jones’s—is now finding its way to the desks of small press editors. But consider what can happen when a small press published an author heretofore associated with mainstream publishers. From the first, the question of print-run size will be an issue, for the publisher can never be certain what a reasonable size for such authors might be. Next, a review in the New York Times (or some other market leader) of a name author will bring in a flood of orders from the big distributors, threatening to exhaust the print-run almost at once. What does the publisher do? Sit tight and wait for the returns to pour in on the assumption that the first print-run will be enough? Or go out on a financial limb, hoping to ride the wave to its peak? Baker & Taylor can take forever to pay, & small presses have sometimes been broken by such success. & yet an optimist might think that although extraordinary success is risky, the overall effect could well be to see some of the larger small presses emerge into a formation resembling that of the many independent established publishers of pre-conglomerate eras, subsidizing less financially-remunerative books with the profits of blockbusters. I myself see this as unlikely, simply because the structural conditions of the industry have changed. But I’ll admit it’s possible.

As they negotiate these shifting circumstances, small presses need to be clear about their own identities. Lance remarks in one of his posts “I know chances are I can trust a book from, say, Coffee House, Chiasmus, or Wordcraft,” and that’s the point. Yes, the small press represents an alternative to mainstream publishing. But as mainstream publishing narrows its focus, excluding many of the books it would in the past have published without question, the range of what is “alternative” necessarily expands. Aqueduct has been in existence for about two years now, and we’ve published five full-sized trade paperbacks and thirteen small trade paperbacks. Although the fiction we’ve published ranges all over the map stylistically, I have a clear sense of what it is that I want to be publishing (even if I seem only able to say what it is that I do not want to publish).When writing our mission statement I chose to use “challenging” to characterize the kind of fiction we intended to publish, I knew that such an adjective would put off some readers. But how, I reminded myself at the time, if one is offering an alternative to the blockbuster, if one is aiming to serve a small rather than least-common-denominator audience, can one not put off some readers? Last month at Andrea Hairston’s reading here in Seattle, one of the people attending the reading said she loved my openly using the word. This stood, she felt, for the character of Aqueduct’s alternative-ness to the mainstream.

If it is not exactly a golden age for the small press, it is a time in the US when the small press it not a luxury but is desperately needed, not least for preserving a diversity of voices and kinds & styles of writing. As for alternative writing: if we’re lucky, Now What will be a site for exploring what it is and why it matters.