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.


mark wallace said...

Lance, I appreciate this detailed and highly useful take on what an avant garde approach in writing and teaching might entail.

Some points for further consideration regarding the statement that avant garde work "tells unconventional stories in conventional ways."

The status of the notion of story in avant garde contexts is pretty vexed. Language poetry theory, for instance, often rejected narrative outright; from that point of view, the very notion of "story" is antithetical to avant garde practice: "all narrative corrupts, and absolute narrative corrupts absolutely." It's not an argument I buy, but nonetheless I think the term "story" remains one that can't be simply accepted, but needs to be questioned. Is Finnegan's Wake, for instance, a story? Do "narrative" and "story" mean the same thing? If we are writing fiction, is it inevitable that we are writing stories? Is it possible to imagine fiction that does not tell a story?

Smiilarly, the notion of "conventional" vs. "non-conventional" narratives may need some complicating questions. What exactly are the conventioanal narrative features that, say, Balzac, Chekhov, Joyce (in Dubliners), Babel, and Cheever supposedly have in common? Clearly, there are reasons to be antagonistic towards contemporary American publishing practices, and one of the problems of that practice is a simplified notion of what constitutes realism. But I'm not sure a wholesale casting out of significant names in the history of realism really serves the avant garde cause; it seems too much like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I think all five of the writers above are fascinating, and I can say that while also loving Sorrentino and Pynchon and etc.

Richardson, Fielding, and Sterne occur not too far apart in time; impulses to tell stories and deconstruct stories exist from the beginning moments of the novel forward. The two tendencies are inextricably bound. And consider Joyce again: a founding figure on both sides of the supposed divide. So I'm not sure that attempting to define an avant garde approach by purging or oversimplifying the history of realism is quite the answer; I'm not suggesting that's what you were doing, but the issue needs discussion.

Rather than solely creating a counter canon that repeats either the antagonism or indifference to nuance regarding those outside the canon it proposes, to my mind avant garde practice has also always involved a fundamental questioning of those kinds of consesnsus buidling practices. I don't see, for instance, how in any clear sense Cheever and Burroughs are opposites. I think any canonizing drive that made such a claim, from whatever position, would need to have its political ambitions questioned. The danger of insisting on too definitive a countertradition is not simply that we might perpetuate the second-class citizenship of the experimental writer, but that our insistence would be as historically inaccurate as those whose opinions we seek to displace.

I don't know if that's helpful, but I hope so.

Note: the log-in process confused me; please pardon me if the comment got logged in twice.

Lance Olsen said...

Thanks ever so much for your thoughtful complication of my tentative foray into "avant-garde" practices, Mark. Yours is precisely the sort of discussion I'd love to see more of here.

All your implied questions are dead-on, and ones I hope, as I mentioned by way of my comment on definitions in the opening paragraph of my post, we will all return to at length.

My sense is that many of us (myself, alas, included) attempting to converse about such things as we are here tend to slip into easy binaries (conventional/unconventional; prose/poetry; margins/center; inside/outside; them/us) and manifesto and counter-cannon (or, worse, unexamined rant and snarky quip) far too easily.

So, yes, what you bring to the table is extremely helpful, the sort of post that sends me back into the thick of thought.

(Oh, and no problem at all with your posting process; your piece only entered the system once.)

jdeshell said...

Dear Mark,
At the risk of sounding the genre prig, I’m going to argue with a couple of your assertions. First of all, when you write that the source for the mistrust of narrative is “language poetry theory,” which is both oxymoron and redundancy, one could say, “well duh. What else would they argue?” We all mistrust narrative, partly because none of us have solved its questions and demands. Narrative is hard, and it takes many forms and guises. Narrative’s demands are not easily solved: it requires revision and struggle. Narrative, form, story, conflict, all are fiction’s problems, and it is the existence of these problems that perhaps differentiates fiction from other genres. So I am arguing, I guess, that fiction is different (not necessarily better) from other genres. And not only in the way it is has been marketed. I’ve found very few writers who are equally important?, successful?, interesting? in multiple genres. Blanchot perhaps (for his theory), but not Bataille. Kleist, Bernhard, Handke and Jelineck are all playwrights, who write narrative plays. Joyce was a lousy poet, and Barnes’ Nightwood I find more interesting than her poetry. I am interested in those who have found writers who can write equally well in more than one genre, especially poetry and fiction. But I haven’t yet.

Your second assertion that there is little to be gained by differentiating or opposing realism from the avant-garde is interesting. Let me first change slightly the terms. I don’t like the term avant-garde because while I believe in struggle, not all struggle is fundamentally political (this will get me into some trouble). To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor: every writer is a realist. Realism, with the capital ‘R,’ is a set of choices that tells us what we already know. Non-realism is a set of choices that surprises us, awes us, makes us wonder again (this is close to a definition of philosophy, but I like it so much I’m going to steal it [not that fiction is close to philosophy. At all]). I find a great deal of difference between Cheever and Burroughs, as I do between Franzen and Flaubert, Updike and Kafka, Dillard and Stein, Roth and Evanson, Oates and Levine. And the difference is yes, one of value. I value the second group more because they create worlds I couldn’t imagine until I read the books. And their choices seemed perfect. And making good choices seems to me to be the most important act of (aesthetics and) politics.


blonde said...

in response to lance, mark, AND jeffrey--

one word for you: hybrids.

not only can we dig up examples from the past that break the membrane between genres, but we've got some hum-dingers (academic and technical term) in our present--my favorite currently: jean heuving. also on my list: carole maso and anne carson.

because they form, deform, and reform what we mean when we say "fiction."


mark wallace said...

Hey Jeffrey:

I hear you; I find differences between all these writers also. Let's hope that we can continue to find significant differences in value between all sorts of authors. The word I used was "opposites," which I think implies a different issue.

Of the writers you list, I'm a big fan of Burroughs, Cheever, Flaubert, Kafka, and Stein. I've been significantly impressed by some of the work of Levine and Evenson. Roth and Updike were best in their early work, I guess, but I'm no huge fan of either, and in recent years their presence has been onerous at best. Has Oates gotten better over time? My sense is, perhaps--who's really invested in finding out? Franzen's an idiot whose comments make it impossible for me to read his books.

Agreed, it's a sense of value; for me, though, the value doesn't exist along the lines of a binary between "conventional" and "unconventional." Of the above writers, who's the most "unconventional"?

I think this blog is great, by the way: thanks to Lance and Ted and everybody else who is making it possible, both by providing the forum and the necessary prompts for discussion. I'm flying out of California tomorrow to give a series of east coast readings--I hope to be able to check in to the ongoing discussion while I'm travelling.

Best to all of you--


jdeshell said...

Dear lid,
The novel (narrative) as a form is flexible, it can accomodate everything, even (or especially) non-narrative elements. I would argue that that's what has happened, throughout history, where narrative is formed, deformed and reformed, to become our "new" narrative. Some writers pay more attention to the non-narrative aspect of their narrative (what we could call the tropological, imagistic, vertical or poetic), some less. I would argue that Maso (the one on your list I'm familiar with) is extremely narrative, especialy when it appears she's not (end of Art Lover).
With smiles and hugs,

Ted Pelton said...

What I'd like to know is what Curtis White is doing in that picture. At first I thought it was bread he was breaking, but now it appears that he's holding baby chicks, while giving the camera this weird, "I've cloned new life" look. "They laughed at me at the Academy -- but who's laughing now -- ha ha ha ha ha...."

Perhaps this is reinforced by the old stereotype of the metafictionist as cold & sterilly intellectual, which I'm not sure quote-unquote experimental fiction has ever quite shaken off.

Carceraglio said...

Here's my regressive, reactionary pedagogy. I can only imagine students as myself; my job, if I had one, would be to help them be me. So, students, I would say, if I had job: Do as I did. Do an undergraduate BA in literature and at least get past the exam stage in a PhD program before you ever once even think of writing fiction.

My comment is not that germane to yr question, except that while I agree people don't have to "learn the rules before they break them," I think they have to read a lot before they can recognize what's interesting about a book, any book, avant garde or not.

blonde said...

dear jeffrey--precisely. and thank you for the smiles and hugs.

though i maintain that the "hybrid" is beginning to take up space of its own, which may or may not stay tethered to the novel...we'll see, yes?


Lance Olsen said...

I know just what you mean, Carceraglio. It's mind-boggling how many writing students take a certain amount of glee in announcing (usually in front of the class) that they're not into reading, or that their favorite author is Stephen King.

And Ted: it seems clear to me that White is about to eat the chicks, or chicklets, or whatever the hell you call them.

He's not gloating.

He's hungry.

revjustin said...

I responded to this post in my owm LiveJournal. You can check it out here http://revjustin.livejournal.com/.

kevin.thurston said...

a few things.

1. are genre separations relevant or necessary? i'm not typin realism vs sci-fi, i'm typin poetry vs fiction vs drama. prior to this post
(oh i like the blog as a whole)
an entity got all upset about non-fiction not even existing. well, besides 'why privilege the above genres as existing', and beyond wanting to have some sort of historical legacy (point 2 will touch on this i think i think) why claim to be a:
as mentioned (in someone's above) above it is all writing.

point 2, but not the point 2 that i was going to mention when i originally thought of point 2. is it a dis-service to type:
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.
what i mean is, cortazar strikes me as one who could craft quite a well-crafted narrative. hopscotch anticipates hypertext by 30 years.
i know, i know what you mean by 'well-crafted narrative' but if there are to be discussions of discussing language everyone's language needs to be discussed otherwise we should stop discussing.

point 3, and this ties in with 1, is the avant-garde much more useful as a historical concept as opposed to a 'way of life'? much like the novel, drama, poem, etcetera. this ties in with jdesehll's The novel (narrative) as a form is flexible, it can accomodate everything, even (or especially) non-narrative elements. that is, its all writing. anyone who wants to be specific wants to be a specialist, not an artist.

and is it dangerous to conflate 'novel' and 'narrative'? i mean, not all the undead are zombies.

this may have made absolutely no sense. but its a blog comment box, not a thesis.

Lance Olsen said...

Thanks for your comments, Kevin. Let me address each.

1. You ask: are genre separations relevant or necessary?

The answer, of course, is yes and no. Genres are helpful shorthands for certain kinds of writing. Although one impulse in innovative narrative over the course of the last fifty or sixty years or so (although, as some have indicated, we could trace one hypothetical trajectory back through Sterne and much farther: Rabelais, for instance, or Apuleius) has been to to explore post-genre or hybird productions, and thereby to trouble easy genre distinctions, I wouldn't want us to become unself-conscious about what we're doing, to what, in what aesthetico-historical context, and why. In fact, I might suggest that the presence of anti-genre writing underscores the omnipresence of genre. All one has to do to prove the point is to look at how bookstores are structured.

2. You say: i know, i know what you mean by 'well-crafted narrative' but if there are to be discussions of discussing language everyone's language needs to be discussed otherwise we should stop discussing.

I'm not suggesting we stop discussing certain sorts of language. I am suggesting, however, that we set aside some creative-writing workshops to discuss nothing save fictive possibility spaces. That's because most workshops and literature courses emphasize the opposite, effectively marginalizing or even silencing discourses of experimentation in fiction.

3. You say: that is, its all writing. anyone who wants to be specific wants to be a specialist, not an artist.

I'm not sure it is simply "all writing." As I mention above, I'd like to keep us awake about the subtleties among forms of writing—their assumptions, their purposes, the supposed audiences, etc.—even as we deliberately shortcircuit them.