24 May 2006

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.


kevin.thurston said...

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.

joe, what are these dangers of pluralism? please expand.

blonde said...


not trying to say one should ignore money--just trying to bring up a concept i think is useful to think about. hope that was clear.

raising a kid, manning a press, writing books and teaching four to five courses a quarter means there isn't a nano-second i don't think about money.

but circulating art ought to have more than one path.


Joe Amato said...

Kevin, at the most basic level, one problem with a pluralistic approach to just about anything is that it can leave important questions unanswered. You know -- I'm OK/You're OK/Why can't we all just love one another? So I'm aware that by advocating what I'm calling 'codeswitching' I may be falling into the trap of not sufficiently examining my assumptions.

Lidia, I didn't have your post in mind when I aired my concerns about economic class issues (my hobbyhorse), though of course, I'm aware that by saying what I've said about money-making in the context of avant-garde practices, I'm being not a little provocative. I don't feel all that comfy as an academic, even speaking as one half of an academic couple whose combined income puts us in the bottom of the 4th quintile. But for reasons that would take me all day to bore everyone with, I'll probably never be able to let go of the class stuff, even if I land that Tinsel Town option. At any rate, I'm all for circulating art (as you so aptly put it) through different paths.

Thanks to you both for your comments.



Lance Olsen said...

I'm fascinated by your detour into screenplays, Joe. It's funny: I think I'm constitutionally unable to associate writing and money. I mean, if I make a little money off my writing, that's fine. If I don't, that's fine. But it would never occur to me to write for money—that is, to change the way I write to fit (or hope to fit) a certain marketing paradigm. When I want to take those sorts of chances, I leave the ocean of language altogether and play the lottery. I know my chances of winning will always be greater than scoring a Hollywood contract.

Joe Amato said...

Lance, think about it: who are we such that the primary activity with which we're engaged -- sometimes every waking moment -- is entirely disconnected from the question of money?

Now of course -- we're both talking about making money from our writing independently of the paycheck we've both seen as (variously) publish or perish academices, yes?

In which regard, I can't say I've earned a dime from anything I've ever writ -- it's not even worth mentioning the (I don't think it even approaches) $1000 I might have earned over the past fifteen years from my writing, b/c I've got way, way more into same (paper, inkjet cartridges, postage, etc.) than a grand. And I would think most of us are in the same boat.

(In fact, if Kass's and my Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing [1999] is any measure, I haven't really made any money even as a writer-academic.)

I'm not saying that our primary motivations as writers should be to write for money.

I am saying that, as a screenwriter, this is my primary motivation.

And since money makes the world go around, the world go around, the world go around, I have to wonder how we get to the point at which it drops entirely out of the conversation. As writers (and also as teachers, some of us), we're doing ourselves a disservice, as I see it, not to keep harping on money matters. To me this is a fuck-me-harder approach to the marketplace, though I do understand how writing without money in mind might be a potentially liberating activity.

Frankly, though, I've found it liberating to have my work rejected not b/c someone doesn't "love" it enough to publish it -- oh, the variations on this that I've rec'd both from the small presses and from the trades are enough to make anyone's head spin around -- but b/c the person doing the rejecting doesn't see any money in it.

At any rate, writers write for lots of reasons. I'm trying to give voice to a reason that a-g writers tend not to want to discuss.

So there.