26 June 2006

the californication of history

In light of our recent discussion of the postmodern (please, oh please, note: I always eschew the ugly ism and everything it suggests) and feints in the direction of a conversation about innovative fiction and history, I thought some of you might be interested in a guest column I wrote called "Twenty Digressions Toward the Californication of History" for the current issue of PIF magazine.


  1. Back in Nam, I was one of those guys they called the Tunnel Rats—the ones small and thin enough to shinny down the camouflaged holes in the Cu Chi jungle and crawl on their bellies through the marshy-hot burrows twisting in near faultless darkness in a seventy-five-mile-long maze, rattle and pop of automatic fire above them, millipedes skittering over their arms.

    One June morning in 1970, I took a deep breath, clicked off the safety on my .45, and dropped down to find smack in front of me this ungodly

    No. Wait.

    Or was that the History Channel?

  2. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the Red Hot Chili Peppers about Californication: Space may be the final frontier/ But it’s made in a Hollywood basement.

  3. What I mean to say is that, despite frequent claims to the contrary, innovative fiction is neither necessarily ahistorical nor dehistoricized. Rather, it continually questions our culture’s suppositions about what constitutes historical knowledge, embracing the counter-intuitive recognition that texts are simultaneously self-conscious linguistic and formal systems shut off from the world and active participants in larger sociopolitical contexts.

  4. Once upon a time, Linda Hutcheon about postmodern fiction: It knows it cannot escape implication in the economic (late capitalist) and ideological (liberal humanist) dominants of the time. There is no outside. All it can do is question from within. It can only problematize what Barthes has called the "given" or "what goes without saying" in our culture. History, the individual self, the relation of language to its referents and of texts to other texts—these are some of the notions which, at various moments, have appeared as "natural" or unproblematically common-sensical. And these are what get interrogated (xiii).

  5. In the good old days, of course, we had heard all this stuff before. That’s no longer the case.

For the full version of the essay, click here.

25 June 2006

Updike, "The End of Authorship"

Reposting from the back page of today's New York Times Book Review. I suspect we all have a lot to say about this.



The End of Authorship

Published: June 25, 2006

Booksellers, you are the salt of the book world. You are on the front line where, while the author cowers in his opium den, you encounter — or "interface with," as we say now — the rare and mysterious Americans who are willing to plunk down $25 for a book. Bookstores are lonely forts, spilling light onto the sidewalk. They civilize their neighborhoods. At my mother's side I used to visit the two stores in downtown Reading, Pa., a city then of 100,000, and I still recall their names and locations — the Book Mart, at Sixth Street and Court, and the Berkshire News, on Fifth Street, in front of the trolley stop that would take us home to Shillington.

When I went away to college, I marveled at the wealth of bookstores around Harvard Square. In addition to the Coop and various outlets where impecunious students like myself could buy tattered volumes polluted by someone else's underlinings and marginalia, there were bookstores that catered to the Cambridge bourgeoisie, the professoriate, and those elite students with money and reading time to spare. The Grolier, specializing in modern poetry, occupied a choice niche on Plympton Street, and over on Boylston there was the Mandrake, a more spacious sanctum for books of rare, pellucid and modernist water. In the Mandrake — presided over by a soft-voiced short man, with brushed-back graying hair — there were English books, Faber & Faber and Victor Gollancz, books with purely typographical jackets and cloth-covered boards warping from the damp of their trans-Atlantic passage, and art books, too glossy and expensive even to glance into, and of course New Directions books, modest in format and delicious in their unread content.

After Harvard, I went to Oxford for a year, and browsed for dazed hours in the rambling treasury, on the street called the Broad, of Blackwell's — shelves of Everyman's and Oxford Classics, and the complete works, jacketed in baby-blue paper, of Thomas Aquinas, in Latin and English! Then I came to New York, when Fifth Avenue still seemed lined with bookstores — the baronial Scribner's, with the central staircase and the scrolled ironwork of its balconies, and the Doubleday's a few blocks on, with an ascending spiral staircase visible through plate glass.

Now I live in a village-like corner of a small New England city that holds, mirabile dictu, an independent bookstore, one of the few surviving in the long coastal stretch between Marblehead and Newburyport. But I live, it seems, in a fool's paradise. Last month, The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy article that gleefully envisioned the end of the bookseller, and indeed of the writer. Written by Kevin Kelly, identified as the "senior maverick" at Wired magazine, the article describes a glorious digitalizing of all written knowledge. Google's plan, announced in December 2004, to scan the contents of five major research libraries and make them searchable, according to Kelly, has resurrected the dream of the universal library. "The explosive rise of the Web, going from nothing to everything in one decade," he writes, "has encouraged us to believe in the impossible again. Might the long-heralded great library of all knowledge really be within our grasp?"

Unlike the libraries of old, Kelly continues, "this library would be truly democratic, offering every book to every person." The anarchic nature of the true democracy emerges bit by bit. "Once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page," Kelly writes. "These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or 'playlists,' as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual 'bookshelves' — a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf's worth of specialized information. And as with music playlists, once created, these 'bookshelves' will be published and swapped in the public commons. Indeed, some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages."

The economic repercussions of this paradise of freely flowing snippets are touched on with a beguiling offhandedness, as a matter of course, a matter of an inexorable Marxist unfolding. As the current economic model disappears, Kelly writes, the "basis of wealth" shifts to "relationships, links, connection and sharing." Instead of selling copies of their work, writers and artists can make a living selling "performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions — in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the 'discovery tool' that markets these other intangible valuables."

This is, as I read it, a pretty grisly scenario. "Performances, access to the creator, personalization," whatever that is — does this not throw us back to the pre-literate societies, where only the present, live person can make an impression and offer, as it were, value? Have not writers, since the onset of the Gutenberg revolution, imagined that they already were, in their written and printed texts, giving an "access to the creator" more pointed, more shapely, more loaded with aesthetic and informational value than an unmediated, unpolished personal conversation? Has the electronic revolution pushed us so far down the path of celebrity as a summum bonum that an author's works, be they one volume or 50, serve primarily as his or her ticket to the lecture platform, or, since even that is somewhat hierarchical and aloof, a series of one-on-one orgies of personal access?

In my first 15 or 20 years of authorship, I was almost never asked to give a speech or an interview. The written work was supposed to speak for itself, and to sell itself, sometimes even without the author's photograph on the back flap. As the author is gradually retired from his old responsibilities of vicarious confrontation and provocation, he has grown in importance as a kind of walking, talking advertisement for the book — a much more pleasant and flattering duty, it may be, than composing the book in solitude. Authors, if I understand present trends, will soon be like surrogate birth mothers, rented wombs in which a seed implanted by high-powered consultants is allowed to ripen and, after nine months, be dropped squalling into the marketplace.

In imagining a huge, virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines and populated by teeming, promiscuous word snippets stripped of credited authorship, are we not depriving the written word of its old-fashioned function of, through such inventions as the written alphabet and the printing press, communication from one person to another — of, in short, accountability and intimacy? Yes, there is a ton of information on the Web, but much of it is egregiously inaccurate, unedited, unattributed and juvenile. The electronic marvels that abound around us serve, surprisingly, to inflame what is most informally and noncritically human about us — our computer screens stare back at us with a kind of giant, instant "Aw, shucks," disarming in its modesty, disquieting in its diffidence.

The printed, bound and paid-for book was — still is, for the moment — more exacting, more demanding, of its producer and consumer both. It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other's steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness. Book readers and writers are approaching the condition of holdouts, surly hermits who refuse to come out and play in the electronic sunshine of the post-Gutenberg village. "When books are digitized," Kelly ominously promises, "reading becomes a community activity. . . . The universal library becomes one very, very, very large single text: the world's only book."

Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.

So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our sense of personal identity.


John Updike's most recent novel is "Terrorist." This essay is adapted from his address to booksellers at the Book Expo convention held last month in Washington.

23 June 2006

Marianne Hauser Changed Tense

Email from Raymond Federman:

marianne hauser changed tense yesterday - have you read The Talking Room - if not order it imediately --

it came out from FC at the same time as TIOLI and Marianne and I became friends immediately -- she was a fabulous writer -- she was 93 yesterday when she changed tense [and still smoking pot which we did together regularly once upon a time -- she had an antique silver cigarette box full of joints and she would offer them to her friends or even to strangers -- she was quite a woman -she was from Alsace had traveled all over the world -- she had married some mediocre orchestra conductor who conducted the kirkville municipal orchestra in nebraska -- she dumped him -- but not her son michael whom she loved and still loves -- and became an outrageous lesbian -- at 80 she was more gorgeous and seductive than those young broads [excuse the term] who walk around with their jeans exposing the crack of their asses and they boobs falling out of their blouses --

I swear the world is full of such exposed young ladies -- and too many of them are fat around the hips

but marianne hauser she was something else

when she published that marvelous little book called ME & MY MOM I wrote her to tell her that Erica and I had just gone through that with Trude [E's mother] -- if you have not read ME & MY MOM -- drop everything -- it's explain to you your relationship with mother or your mother in-law --

I am sad that marianne is gone and at the same time happy to think that she hung in there and still wrote a couple more fabulous books before she decided that she was fed ufp with this fucking world of ours --- if you want to read about the demolition of the father read SHOOT OU WITH FATHER by Marianne Hauser -- it's as great as the letter Kafka wrote to his father --

she was complaining one day to me after ME & MY MOM came out that no one payed attention to her work -- maybe we were complaining because my work was also being ignored --

and so I wrote a little piece for Marianne

you may have seen it before - but here it is again

For Marianne Hauser
As we old bums [you & me & your mom & the other bum in peeoria] contemplate what appears to others to be l'âge [vieillesse ou vieilles fesses] as we admire [with a touch of disdain] our own amazing present mental agility [and virility too] as we delight in the fact that we are becoming so good [so dexterous] so much better with words as we get older [perhaps even wiser in spite of the cliché] as we listen [especially at night] to those protracted echoes of the void [excuse the terminal lyricism] but without asking [as in days of youth] whence the original sound [I almost said original sin) came [sometimes unwanted] as we contemplate the landscape of words we designed and left behind us [not without pain] yes as we contemplate the not too distant moment when we will have to change tense [inevitably so] we wonder [often aloud] how the hell have we managed to come this far [to do that much] with words [words words our whole life was but a pell mell babel of words] and look oh look how they fall in place now so easily so quietly our words as they say [or fail to say] what they want to say before crumbling into the great void [excuse the romantic agony] alright crumbling into the motherfucking abyss of forgetfulness [le grand abîme de l’oubli]

21 June 2006

Hear ye, hear ye!

We (the royal and literary we, together) might be interested to learn that the definition of a book is as follows (in part):

“A book is a collection of sheets of paper, parchment or other material with a piece of text written on them, bound together along one edge within covers. A book is also a literary work or a main division of such a work. A book produced in electronic format is known as an e-book.”

Following along with the various threads and this oh-so-helpful definition, I suggest a radical publishing maneuver: audiobooks of innovative fiction.

To my limited knowledge, there are no independent press audiobooks. Steve Tomasula has been working on audio for his excellent novel VAS, and I have dabbled in audiocollage and audiotext, but think of it—a collection of spoken-word audio books, perhaps under an umbrella coalition of small presses, ready for the sweatshop-produced Ipods of the technological multitude.

Sound good?

20 June 2006

event of language, a duet :
lidia yuknavitch & lance olsen


“Breathtaking”–I’d like to claim that word inside of my own experience of language both literally, as in to stop one’s breath, to steal it, and figuratively, to astound. I’d like to say that the language of literature which most compels me is performed language, the drama of language, language let loose enough to occupy the stage of page in and of itself, especially when it abandons the dictates of narration. What takes my breath, what arrests my being is the drama of language. When the real drama of language is staged and played out, it carries something underneath plot, narrative cohesion and the so-called psychological development of a character. When the real drama of language is staged it carries something underneath what passes for story—gesture, implication, shapes, silences, intervals, momentary relations, memories, fleeting states of being. These breathtaking moments I would term as the event of language.

To say that language is an event is to remember that language bears language. Artistically, it is as if language could be an organic and chaotic motion reflected only by the motions of corporeal desire and being.

Form—language’s lover—either revels in that chaos, or tames it.


A return, then, to our ongoing conversation about language. Since the sixties, the death of the novel has been announced bi-weekly, but whatever happens, however else the geography of the imagination might modify in the future, written fiction—especially the innovative variety, as I shall explain in a minute—will always be able to investigate and cherish two things that music, painting, dance, drama, and most other arts can’t: the luscious, extended changeableness of human consciousness and the effulgence on the page called words.

That’s why, I want to say, no director can ever make a fully satisfying rendition of a novel like Lolita. Stanley Kubrick and Adrian Lyne seem to believe the heart of that book has something to do with a naughty narrative about pedophilia, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The heart of the book has to do with how a brilliant, funny, amoral, and excruciatingly besieged mind subtly crumples, and it has to do with a love affair, as Nabokov reminds us in his afterword, not with “topical trash” and “the copulation of clichés,” but with the “English language” and “aesthetic bliss.”


If you will bear language with me I will let her loose:

Gertrude Stein: Language as a real thing is not imitation either of sounds or colors or emotions. It is an intellectual recreation and there is no possible doubt about it and it is going to go on being that.

Marguerite Duras: Around us, everything is writing; that’s what we must perceive. Everything is writing. It’s the unknown in oneself, one’s head, one’s body. Writing is not even a reflection, but a kind of faculty one has, that exists to one side of oneself, parallel to oneself: another person who appears and comes forward, invisible, gifted with thought and anger, and who sometimes, through her own actions, risks losing her life. Into the night.

Kathy Acker: Art is a cry.


Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins—what astonishes about those nine words, makes them immovable in my memory, is how they announce, not only a murderous narrative about hobbled love, an acidic satire about the bubblegum-chewing brashness named America, but also the Event of Language.

Closer to the phrasings of resonant lyric than the vapid transparencies of fictions that aspire to be screenplays, this luminous opening houses Nabokov’s novel in miniature: a misshapen consciousness in motion, yes, but, equally, if not more so, the drama of alliteration, assonance, rhythm, self-reflexive verbal surprise, the pleasure of lovingly sculpted prose, the delight in density and detail, each phrase of it written on the back of an index card until it was right beyond belief by that distinguished, trilingual, virtually apolitical Anglophile, so that the reader can hear in this initial linguistic fervor, if he or she listens attentively, the foreshadowing of Humbert Humbert’s burning dyspepsia during the famous seduction scene at the Enchanted Hunters half a book later; in the clash between the spiritual housed within the first bright metaphor and within the fiery sinfulness of the second the ghost of St. Augustine’s brutally conflicted Confessions; in the “lee” comprising the second syllable of the nymphet’s pseudonym (Humbert has stolen poor Dolores Haze’s name from her just as he will come to steal everything else) Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee,” and hence the Annabel Leigh who unreliable Humbert blames (by way of that Viennese quack, Freud) for his, Humbert’s, fixation.

No wonder, then, that, in addition to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Bely’s Petersburg, and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Nabokov included Joyce’s Ulysses on his shortlist of greatest twentieth-century novels.


Let’s momentarily and in a single breath go underneath the chatter of the contemporary so-called novel. I think the majority of acclaimed novelists, with a very few exceptions, are involved in the process of creating products for consumers. In these novels there is a certain storyline that ignores corporeal experience in favor of some brutally absurd cockamamie fako-script life. The cockamamie fako-script life makes people worry less about the disruptive nature of living a life and also it makes them feel better about themselves like television and cookies do. Mostly I’m talking about plot, and writers who suck the dick of plot in order to maintain a secondary, whorey, without artistic integrity, harem of consumers.

Corporeal experience, on the other hand, works more like language does, if you let language happen. In this way both corporeal experience and language are events. Untamed, beautiful, terrifying events.

What I mean when I say let language happen, as an event, is let form open language rather than close it. Let form be in relationship to language. Like a lover. Inside their passionate embrace emerge: fragmentation, spatiality, intervals, states of being, dream, intuitive landscapes, relational free-for-all, memory glimpses, retinal flashes, orgasmic pulsings, action broken back down into its parts, silence and sound and rhythm and image. These constitute the event of language. These reconnect writing to painting, music, performance, sculpture, philosophy, bodies.


Those opening citations, and this word “breathtaking,” I mean for them to bring us to the event of language as I understand it.


Gertrude Stein: She was living very well, she was gay then, she went on living then, she was regular in being gay, she always was living very well and was gay very well and was telling about little ways one could be learning to use in being gay, and later was telling them quite often, telling them again and again.

Samuel Beckett: my life last state last version ill-said ill-heard ill-recaptured ill-murmured in the mud brief movements of the lower face losses everywhere.

Walter Abish: Ages ago, Alex and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement.


I know not everyone cares about what I am getting at. I also know that a small handful of people do. For you I am telling the secret: intimacy is a woman’s realm. This fact puts women close to language let loose. This fact puts a woman’s body close to language.

Male or female or anyone in between, if you understand just now that intimacy and desire and bodies are exactly the space of language, then I can go a step further with you few and say that fucking is a metaphor for language.

I am aware that my ideas, my speaking, and my fiction will lose readers. I am making that choice. I’m going to start saying “I” now, differently. I’m going to activate that Whitmanesque thingee and scatter that “I” out across all territories of being and knowing, transgressively and without permission or apology. I’m saying my I can move inside your body. I’m saying my body—father ravaged and shamed daughter, excellent athlete, ex-heroine armed heroin, sexual explorer, mother of a dead daughter and a live exquisite son, mapmaker of intimacies and loss, hearer of voices, seer of images not there, body of arthritic twists in spine and hand and hip, wife of three men, lover of many women, sister, fallen angel recovering catholic touched by those meant to guide her, sinner without apology, experience addicted flower, daughter of the drunk southern belle liar, great mother storyteller, writer—my body is in you.

I’ve got some years now written across my skin. I’ve got the graham crackers and a flashlight and a blue blanket from childhood. I know what foreplay is and how it is its own story. I understand how grief makes you crazy and haunts you like a sado-masochistic lover or a bruise at the shoulder that speaks to you in the night the rest of your life, or how disease relentlessly brings a body to its lifedeath line, or how desire wrenches a person to the bone and beyond, out of oneself and into surrender and on and on, or how death disfigures a face, shifts the horizon, tilts the earth on some new axis. I understand how a heart beats out a life and beats down a self. I know loss lives in you like metastasizing cells, joy is fucking unbearably fleeting tense, love is a word definitionless and cast adrift across loneliness, the skin and touch of a woman can save a person’s life.

I know the crouch of dreams lives in the tips of our fingers and at the edge of breathing in all waking moments.


I emphasize innovative fiction’s focus on language because conventional mimetic fiction usually—although not necessarily—thinks of sentences as spotless windowpanes onto the world. In innovative fiction’s phrasings, you can always hear a joyous indifference to or scrupulous exploration of convention. Its page becomes laboratory where anything can happen, where an opacity of discourse becomes as much a protagonist as Flaubert’s Emma or those little stick men running down the poorly drawn corridors of The Da Vinci Code.

That opacity can do many things. Why limit its purposes? Among myriad others, it can, as in Mark Leyner or, in a completely different register, Michael Joyce, dislocate in a self-conscious aesthetic maneuver that calls attention to the medium itself in a method similar to how cubist paintings announce themselves more about the act of painting than the thing painted. It can, as in Burroughs and and Acker and Leslie Scalapino, function as conscious political disturbance, an unmasking of dominant modes of articulation in an effort to critique them. It can, as in Carole Maso, delight in sensual linguistic performance, a gendered aural skin.

Whatever else it does, innovative prose’s syntax and grammar search for other ways and means of saying that lead us to express things other than we might otherwise have expressed.

This is a space of resistance, refusal, celebration, possibility, opposition, alternative, openness, freedom.

Language becomes laboratory, then, but it also becomes architecture. In innovative prose, you want to notice the drama of the complex building through which you’re strolling because it’s no longer simply the local mall, the corner Conoco, the 7-Eleven, the institutionalized tract housing of the mind.


Which is how I am able to understand this:

A novel is what you dream in your night sleep. A novel is not waking thoughts although it is written and thought with waking thoughts. But really a novel goes as dreams go in sleeping at night and some dreams are like anything and some dreams are like something and some dreams change and some dreams are quiet and some dreams are not. And some dreams are just what anyone would do only a little different always just a little different and that is what a novel is.

I know she is right.

I know breath can be taken by the event of language.

I wish you a book worthy of night.


Last October in Harper’s, Ben Marcus wrote a provocative, vibrant defense of experimental fiction that was primarily a defense of experimental language. Granted, I have more than a few qualms with it. Marcus goes on at length about something called the Fog Index, for instance, a test for determining the density and readability of a text, which he applies to passages by Jonathan Franzen, Stein, and Gaddis. The net illumination is zero, the move an odd digressive intellectual red herring. More important, I wish Marcus’s definition of innovative prose were more catholic, including mention of formal aerobics, politically transgressive content, problematizations of characterization and spatialization, and so forth.

Still, his essay is an important long overdue rallying cry in the mainstream press for what innovationists do and why. In it, Marcus recalls that, “in the literary world, it’s not polite to suggest that the brain is even involved in reading. . . . It’s the heart that writers are told they must reach in order to move readers, to stir in them the deepest, most intense feelings.” Marcus challenges such a fatuous notion, arguing in favor of the cerebral challenge the foreign and astonishing provide.

Although we have recently been taught that liking “new concoctions of language that might set off a series of delicious mental explosions” in a reader makes you an elitist who hates your audience, the literary industry, and “probably … even yourself,” Marcus champions exactly such rewarding concoctions, urging writers not to settle for mere competence, mere mimetic mimicry, not to “behave like cover bands, embellishing the oldies … while ensuring that buried in the song is an old familiar melody to make us smile with recognition.” Further, he contends that “the true elitists in the literary world are the ones who have become annoyed by literary ambition in any form, who have converted the very meaning of ambition so totally that it now registers as an act of disdain, a hostility to the poor common reader, who should never be asked to do anything that might lead to a pulled muscle.”

In essence, Marcus heralds a return to what I have been referring to as the Difficult Imagination, a replenishment of an impeded accessibility where everything can and should be considered, attempted, troubled; a return, through complexity and challenge (not predictability and ease) to perception and contemplation.


Here are a dozen sentences that Nike commercials don’t want you to remember.

Ronald Sukenick: Theory is a sign of ignorance. It becomes important when we are no longer sure what we are doing.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

Kathy Acker: And I’m working at trying to find a kind of language where I won’t be so easily modulated by expectation. I’m looking for what might be called a body language.

John Hawkes: The only thing that exists is torment, lyricism, and the magnificence of language.

William Gass: Language is … more powerful as an experience of things than the experience of things.

Adrienne Rich: The matter of art enters the bloodstream of social energy. Call and response. The empathetic imagination can transform, but we can't identify precise loci of transformation, can't track or quantify the moments. Nor say how or when they lead, through innumberable unpredictable passageways, toward recreating survival, undermining illegitimate power and its cruelties.

Ben Marcus: Language is a social form of barely controlled weeping, a more sophisticated way to cry.

19 June 2006

Repeating the Done and Over

i think it's a bit untoward of me to post again after only a couple of days but felt a strong need to share this with you. in the current issue of _the economist_ is an article called “painting by numbers” (page 64 in June 10th if anyone else is into that rag).

it notes the recent sales of chinese art at sotheby’s and christie’s (one auction brought $27M for 150 works, or an average of $180K apiece); wang guangyi’s “pop art revolution paintings featuring Western consumer brands” are selling for $500K apiece; zhang xiaogang sold a work for $1M. ergo, chinese art is improving as it becomes more open to western influence, etc. (is warhol spinning in his grave, or only chuckling?)

but that’s hong kong. on the mainland, where exposure to art is limited, there is a place called the “oil painting village” in dafen. there are 700 galleries there. what is sold there are mostly fakes, “hand-copied with startling accuracy,” that sell for a coupla bucks.

“painter workers” produce these works in an assembly-line fashion. each painter works on several canvases at a time, filling in the same patch on the canvas, then hand it off to the next painterworker. a p.w. produces about 200 paintings a month, and earns about $188/month, which ain’t hay in that part of the world. 5000 p.w.’s crank out the replicas, and there are also 3000 skilled artists are known as “painters.”

gallery owners take orders from mostly international customers---a popular order of the moment is to paint the last supper to include mary magdalene, a la _da vinci code_ (!). the customers are nouveau rich russians and middle easterners, as well as folk with florida condos (i can hardly bear to think of this last). the rising chinese middle class is buying too, as home ownership and interest in decor has risen.

a movement toward original art is starting, but these paintings are bringing only about $200 apiece.

sorry to trouble you with this belabored tale, but what struck me as i read this dismaying article is that we in this country HAVE the freedom to stop repeating the old and done---and for the most part, we don’t use it. these are people who DON’T have that freedom.

i like blonde’s suggestion (tho perhaps i only inferred it) that movements may be cyclical rather than linear (i can’t deal with the whole linear premise myself), and i like lance saying “getting over it” to curt’s “get over it.” i hear lance saying “writing is writing,” and in a way i’m agreeing when i say we have to follow our impulses (even, i add, as we analyze their sources). i see art as being very much tied to the sorts of economic machinery described in _the economist_ (and other kinds of machinery too---other fora for oppression such as sex, race, etc.), so i would not say “writing is writing” so much as i would say “writing is what we make it as per our individual capacities to evade said machineries.”



18 June 2006

Self-Publishing -- What Do You Think?

OK, so I have a question (or, questions) after seeing the full-page IUniverse ad today on p. 2 of the NYTBR:

What do you folks think about IUniverse, XLibris, Author House and other such adventures in POD self-publishing? ( I mean, the kind where you have to fork over your own cold hard cash. The ad for IUniverse is asking for a grand in exchange for a quotient of marketing support courtesy of Barnes & Noble.)

I'm seriously considering doing something like this, and somewhat aware of the associated (esp. contractual) hazards. But to be candid, I'm tired of the hoop-jump I'm experiencing wrt certain of my manuscripts, and thinking that I generally have to invest in my own PR anyway. $1000? Sounds like a lot, but it isn't. And like the rest of you, I presume, I figure I've been around long enough to drum up some interest in my work.

I've read the comparative (online) reports of these services. It seems to me, at any rate, that they're altering the publishing landscape by offering publishing models somewhat betwixt & between vanity press and standard publishing arrangements.

But really, I'm less interested in the more abstract ramifications than I am in sheer down & dirty pragmatics. Love to hear what you all have to say.



16 June 2006

Postmodernism: Sublime, or Over?

is a posting of what was previously a comment. by request. some will have read this already, in which case, surf elsewhere.]

jeffrey, liberation, or a return to ethics, would be fabulous—would that it were so.... and as to your analogy with regard to definitions of beauty and sublime, i *do* have sublimely dark brown eyes....

and lance, with regard to _american book review_, yeah, jeffrey di leo in houston may take it over---if he did it would be in great hands---but i have heard *nothing* to indicate that this deal went through so i hesitate to name names (too late!).

but that's a side bar to jeffrey's interesting nudge. i like lance's seconding nudge to recall that with pomo sublime we

>put forward the unpresentable in presentation itself

terrific!, and just say no to "consensus of taste"; say yes to "openness"—it all sounds lovely. i don't think it's happening much, but it all sounds lovely.

should i say it's not happening much "any more?" are we ("we") going to grapple at some point with the ... consensus ... that pomo has come and gone and we should be investing in something known as "now what"? i love lytotard too and we need to be conscious of such constructs (is there a collapse that needs to happen between “next” and “now”? are we getting too linear?). presenting the unpresentable is certainly my goal, but we're also going to have to strike out a bit on our own. talk about "open"—unknown territory!—or so i HOPE. i feel like i'm seeing a lot of rehash, even DOING a lot of rehash—maybe all of that is even necessary—but what now? what next? beyond? please not between. to think that we are all writing between movements is just too disabling to me.

what comes beyond presenting the unpresentable? of course, some folks are telling me that the logical next step is presenting the presentable. duh. backwards much? where is *forward*? it's like i can't find the gears on the drive shaft. but forward could be too...linear. where is “the third way”? given a choice between forward or backwards, i would like to see what’s behind door # 3.

which door i do not intend to imply would be a hybrid of representation (realism) and nonrepresentation (the meta- stuff lance suggests). not a hybrid---a THIRD WAY.

sorry to get all buddhist on everybody’s asses. i’m not one, really, i just groove on some of the ways pomo can be very zen....

but what do we think? is pomo over, or what?



13 June 2006

that tribal thing

On my return from Madison, Wisconsin, where I attended WisCon, I was forced to contemplate the resourcefulness of administrative language as it was used to slot & manage me. Northwest Airlines designated me a “distressed passenger” when I found myself stranded following the failure of the hydraulics system in one of its planes. Personnel at the airport motel I was assigned to repeated the phrase, as did various other employees of the travel industry, interpellating me with a certain knowing sympathy that had the function of slotting me securely in place. Distressed? It’s a characterization hinting at a psychological problem rather than a person at the mercy of logisitical inadequacies. Used as an impersonal & instrumental categorization, it implies that any passenger’s state of being “distressed” could prove inconvenient or uncomfortable for others if not handled carefully. Certainly I felt stressed. But negotiating the ordeal that air travel has over the years become always has that effect on me. If the travel industry had chosen to use the term “stressed passenger” rather than “distressed passenger,” the emphasis would have shifted to the stressfulness of the conditions of travel rather than the state of mind of the traveler. But that would hardly have suited the corps, would it: administrative language seeks always to render potential subjects into objects that can be managed.

As if being designated a “distressed passenger” weren’t sufficiently pacifying, on arrival in Seattle I found that my home had been broken into. I prefer that clumsy verb phrase to the more efficient “burgled” because the break-in ruptured the privacy of my most personal spaces—evident in certain traces, such as open filing drawers, letters of thirty years past scattered over the floor of my office, the bed sheets and duvet cover thrown back and rumpled, drawers ajar with their contents incompletely jammed back into them… The characterization rendering me passive in this instance is “victim,” the word used on the police report. No thank you, officer. I decline the role.

See, it’s a never-ending battle against administrative language: law enforcement as well as the medical, insurance, and travel industries, all of them can’t function if those whom they administer aren’t basically acquiescent. Those who don’t accept the role of object, those who don’t acquiesce, are troublemakers. (& no doubt there are procedures & another set of labels for managing them.) Language, insidious language. Think Foucault, not Sapir-Whorf. Resistance isn’t futile, but unintelligible.

WisCon, though. Some of the conversation of Now What resonates with some of the conversation I engaged in (or listened to) at WisCon. For the uninitiated, WisCon is a feminist science fiction convention. Its attitude is inclusive, which means that conflicts spring up & are never resolved, just endlessly deferred over papered over. (Tribal identification at WisCon is as loose as it gets.) This year, a thousand people attended, among them Samuel R. Delany, Carol Emshwiller, Andrea Hairston, Ursula K. Le Guin, Wendy Walker, Kelly Link, Alan DeNiro, Nalo Hopkinson.

Caught up in my preparations for WisCon, WisCon itself, and the considerable aftermath following the event, I’ve slipped out of the loop of the conversation here that’s moving so fast. Blonde’s inciting us to Virilian speed, and reading all the posts in one go, the words go racing past. For a moment I’m the animated figure surrounded by sentences whizzing past in every direction, my head spinning around like a top as my eyeballs extrude on eyestalks chasing after them. Back when my body was young and could take the stress, I’d eat speed to write brilliant seminar papers. That was around the time I learned to think, to consciously make connections, which I’d do by putting words on an unlined page and drawing lines and arrows and circles, something I don’t think I’ve done even once in the last twenty-five years. Maybe because I think now in sentences, sentences with lots of subordinate clauses denoting relations. Thirty years ago, thinking was painful, effortful—but exhilarating. For a long time, engaging in the activity of thinking felt exactly like taking speed.

Thinking is an altered state of consciousness. Some people live in that state almost all the time. Do they ever watch television? Which activities are compatible with the altered state of consciousness that is thinking? And when people think & write about what they’ve watched on television, do they slip out of that state while they are watching television, or are they able to watch television without slipping out of that state? What is it that happens when we watch television? I ask because I’m starting to wonder if television has something fundamental to do with the numbed quiescence of the administered classes of the United States, passive spectators to the destruction of their future.

If I had hours & hours of time, I’d write pages & pages in response to the many contributions made to Now What since my first post. Instead, I’m just going to pluck a few fragments out of context & comment.

Kass: you ask how we respond as intellectuals and artists (or artists and intellectuals) to the fact that the public has gone to sleep. It may be that that’s the Big Question of the Moment (portentous capitalizations & all). It’s not a question I’ve ever seriously asked myself as an artist & intellectual (or an intellectual & artist), though for most of my life as an artist & intellectual, political consciousness has informed my work. It strikes me that this question is one for artists & intellectuals (or intellectuals & artists) to address collectively—but never individually. How, after all, can the artist (& the intellectual) do their imaginative work if that particular Big Question informs the work? Not so with the collective approach. Part of the reason of forming an intentional community or tribe is to create & expand the discourse in which the artist & intellectual lives, breathes, works. (& yeah, I hope we can talk more about this.)

Another thing about this Big Question you pose, Kass: it might help if we broke down “public” into something made of distinct parts rather than taking it for a blob that amounts to “the masses” etc. There are so many different publics. & it seems to me that there are different problems with different publics (though yeah, the effect of all those publics falling into inattentiveness or indifference or comatose absence feels near-Total).

“the masses slumber as we jack off, i guess”

That’s the late capitalist system at work, Kass, making us think that work is masturbation. (If it’s not validated by the usual criterion of success—the almighty dollar—then it’s got to be just wanking. Meaning, you’re doing it for yourself. Meaning, artists who don’t make a living off their work are just self-indulgent sluts contributing nothing to the culture.)

Kass: you ask, “In Opposition To What?” Sometimes “existing in opposition” is what’s needed, in which case no one has to ask about what the “What” actually is. Sometimes, though, that kind of reactive focus isn’t what’s needed. In which case, it’s not opposition that’s needed, but an alternative. Consider: we can be in opposition to the Iraq war. But that won’t solve the larger problem we’re talking about on this blog, will it? Or we can be in opposition to the US’s use of & rationalization of torture. Or we can be in opposition to the US’s determination to eradicate all reproductive freedom for women and effective AIDS education programs. But these are all issues (or clusters of issues). For me, the imaginative construction of alternative narratives, alternative ethics, alternative worldviews, alternative aesthetics, is key. It’s harder to talk about the alternative than it is to talk about the oppositional, sure. But the point is, refusing both the status quo & the oppositional to embrace an alternative is a refusal to get trapped within the parameters of the mind-numbing nonsense that’s constantly shrinking the imaginative possibilities available to public discourses. We need fresh directions, fresh paths for our imaginations to take. We’re being killed by the narrowness of our culture’s notion of “reality.”

You also raise the more general question, Kass, of the relation between art & politics. Adrienne Rich recently addressed that issue in an essay titled “Permeable Membrane” in the Virginia Quarterly Review at http://www.vqroline.org/articles/2006/spring/rich-permeable-membrane/

I suggest reading it alongside Lyn Hejinian’s “Who Is Speaking?”(which can be found in her collection, The Language of Inquiry. Together, these might give us some ideas about that tribal thing we don't know how to talk about.

interview : ted pelton

Lance: Some might say it's pure self-destructive lunacy, in the current socio-economic environment, to try to launch an alternative press. What motivated you to do just that with Starcherone in 2000? What have you enjoyed most about it? What have you found most difficult?

Ted: The main impetus at first was to get my own book published. I’d won an NEA in Fiction but despite sending out my work all over for years and years I remained in the strange position of being an award-winning but essentially unpublished writer. So one day during a time when I had been undergoing an unrelated, life-changing experience, I said, Why not, and started Starcherone.

Slowly, it became more than that. Ray Federman asked me in 2001 if I could reprint The Voice in the Closet, which had long been out of print. I think Federman is a terrifically important writer, as any number of national audiences outside the US (France, Romania, Germany, etc.) attest, so I jumped at the chance. Two years later we incorporated as a non-profit and a year later we adopted our current 4 books/year schedule.

What I have enjoyed most about it is that it was in some way all ridiculously easy–that for the amount of money that one might have otherwise used to buy a middling car, one can become important in the world of literature, or at least in the certain select part of that world I had always cared about and admired the participants of, whether one calls that avant-garde or small press or whatever. The importance didn’t really translate into much for which one could supply data. But nevertheless, very suddenly, people were talking about the press, teaching and discussing our books in some impressive universities, and for the first time in my life I began to have the flattering and uncanny experience of people already knowing who I was before I met them in person and actually seeking me out–and as well knowing my work. I was on the radar.

At the same time, what I have found most difficult is how entrenched the true mainstream, hegemonic discourse of Literature is–that while it is easy to break into the avant-garde, which after all is not a single place, but multiple, ephemeral environments always in flux, there exists this other definition or characterization of contemporary writing that is truly bound up with money, class, and corporate power. I already knew these things in an abstract way, I’m sure. But I think I had also always naively credited the literary world with values that transcended these base concerns–art was a province where the assumptions of power were dismantled, critiqued, and a new world, at least potentially, gestured toward.

But now I see that The New York Times doesn’t write about our books not because they don’t think our books are good enough, nor even because our books are not geared to a commercial marketplace (because there are arts that The Times does acknowledge that are esoteric and rarified tastes), but because we are not part of the establishment that they are trying to uphold–an establishment which includes the (dying) New York publishing industry, and in which someone like John Updike is considered a major artist. What was an ART to me has been revealed as a business and a constructed and protected social strata. I really feel in many ways like a true dissident–and there is of course a thrill in this–in that I am sure there is an active effort in these places (include Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, etc.) to ignore what we do. I have seen The Times, the paper of record, flat-out LIE about contemporary literature, how it is made and produced. But the frisson of being an enemy of the establishment is ultimately overcome by the tedium and disappointment of seeing what continues to pass for American Literature among these people and among the people they report to, because obviously we’d like to reach the large audience of smart people who read The Times and don’t realize that there are alternatives to the construction of contemporary literature one finds there.

Lance: If you could offer three bits of advice to someone reading this who might be interested in starting his or her own press, what would they be?

Ted: One, join CLMP, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. This will not only give you a measure of credibility and community for your enterprise, but it will gain you inclusion of the CLMP listserv, which is the best resource available for any question you might have about publishing, an open forum where you can network with people all over the country who have been doing this for years. You will have a thousand questions, in time, and there’s no single source for answers, the technologies and other factors are changing so rapidly.

Second is a piece of old-time advice I saw in a short essay by Robert Creeley in Was That a Real Poem describing the early days of Black Mountain Review back in the 1950s. He said that when he started BMR, he wrote to Pound asking for words of guidance. Pound wrote back that just as verse is comprised of a constant and a variant, a magazine should be likewise constructed. Have roughly half of your content be from people whose work you know and trust. Then have the other half–and I still remember these phrases from when I first read the essay at least 20 years ago, when I edited my first magazine–“be as hogwild as possible, so that any idiot thinks he has a chance of getting in.”

With Starcherone, that’s translated to our making certain that works that come to us either through our contest or our open reading period have a place on our list. Even though there are particular writers and traditions we seek to uphold and maintain, we’ve always wanted to make sure we also provide a way for new talents to break out, people unknown to us. A press that just publishes friends or acquaintances or members of a designated crowd or writing program doesn’t do much good, I don’t think, even when the work is generally strong. The 50% figure has worked out pretty well to date: 4 of the 8 single-author titles we’ve done, excluding my own book, have been by debut authors. “Idiot,” by the way, is Pound’s word, not mine.

Finally, third, don’t be discouraged; specifically, don’t be discouraged by poor sales. Books are hard to sell, even for the big New York houses. What was initially very frustrating to me was to discover that although a lot of folks will talk about how they support small press literature, it is terrifically deeply ingrained in the American character to look for bargains and discounts, and this desire may well supercede all others among my fellow citizens. So that even one’s friends, the ones you expect would be quickest to make sure your enterprise recovers its costs and stays afloat, frequently try in every way they can to get the books from your struggling little non-profit for free or in trade, etc. Don’t be angry with them; Americans can hardly help themselves from behaving this way. Stay persistent.

Sadly, a great deal of your time will almost always be given over to raising money. Accept that. And don’t feel bad if you have to play guilt cards on people to pry some cash out of them. As someone who is devoting so great an amount of your time and energy in the service of art, and not in the least to making a profit, you are always beyond reproach, an angel flying too close to the ground.

Lance: You're a writer as well as a publisher. Malcolm & Jack, your first novel, is due out next month from Spuyten Duyvil. It's a wonderfully hip, energetic imagining of a meeting between Jack Kerouac and Malcolm X, with cameos by the likes of Williams Burroughs and Billie Holiday, during the late forties and fifties. That is to say, it engages with a re-envisioning of the past, a fictionalization of history—something we've only touched on glancingly in this blog so far. Would you talk a little about how such a project shaped your dynamic use of point-of-view and narrative structure? What interested you about reshaping yesterday?

Ted: Thanks for reading it. Every person who reads one’s work feels to me like they are bestowing a gift. There are a number of things to say in response to your question. For one thing, I wanted to write a book that tried its best not privilege any particular gender or racial perspective. Now of course this is an impossible task, to remove one’s experiences, as it were, to become so utterly the negative in negative capability, to disappear, and I’m not even sure one would ever want to entirely disappear, but I certainly wanted to have different voices drive the novel. The novel has narrators who are black and white, male and female, straight and gay. I don’t do this in the old sense metafictionists used to be after, of virtuosity. I’d never want to make any such claims, and I find them really cloying and self-aggrandizing in a way that’s not only off-putting but I think destructive to the art of fiction writing, how it’s received.

So I don’t view every different style or voice I can ventriloquize as a writer as an achievement, another victory; rather, I view everything I’m not particularly good at representing or creating as limitations. For years I have been trying to do better, forcing myself to things I don’t do well, to decrease my limitations, to escape myself. That is a great joy to me as a writer. To make a metaphor, I can’t experience sex as a woman in real life; I am not a woman. Yes, I could I suppose go out and approximate it in those creative ways people do in their lives, dressing up, blurring boundaries, but that isn’t me, for one thing, and, for another, it seems like it would always come up against limitations. I’m also not unsatisfied with who I am; I’m just curious about things I’m not. As a writer I can satisfy this, and it’s particularly good to hear that I got this or that thing right. That’s one thing I’m after, anyway. To me that’s a big part of what literature is and does–tells you what it’s like to be other people.

Another part of the reason, I think, besides the simple thrill of being “other,” is democracy, what it really means. Malcolm X is my countryman; he is an inspiring figure in my history as an American citizen, even though I am so-called “white.” It’s funny that literature, which is supposedly a sophisticated art form, finds itself hamstrung by things that many popular art forms really have no problems with, and haven’t had for years. The Rolling Stones played Howling Wolf more than 40 years ago, respectfully, and found themselves and their own sound in doing that; there are many such examples in music. But when I was writing this book, many people said to me, “Ooh, you’re going to get into trouble for writing as Malcolm X. People are really going to be angry with you.” None of them personally had a problem with what I was doing, but there were all these “that’s not allowed” assumptions going on. I feel like the true nature of democracy is to some extent to dismantle the simpler assumptions of identity writing, and I think it’s shameful how aesthetically conservative literature has become, where everyone’s assumptions about novels, certainly mainstream publishers but even readers presumably interested in “innovative” writing, presuppose narrative as, first and foremost, barely disguised confession. I think writing certainly does have elements of confession, but words aren’t interested in the truth, to quote Creeley again. Maurice Blanchot also told us this, among others.

Anyway, there was another aspect to your question, about remaking the past. I think this was basically just a side-product of writing about my heroes, Malcolm X, Jack Kerouac, Billie Holiday, and, sure, Alfred Kinsey. And it was also certainly prompted by political resentments against a generation of politicians who have now pretty much passed from the scene, though not entirely–and certainly their assumptions haven’t. I was interested in taking on the 1940s, the period of the development of American Empire. I mean, yes, we fought a war that saved the world from fascism, not rhetorical but real fascism, and that was wonderful and necessary, but what has followed from that, the national valuing of war, has been disastrous, and keeps repeating.

I started the book following on the heels of the Reagan-Bush years; Reagan and Bush were both of that war generation. Malcolm and Jack were both part of an underground in the 1940s that became the different parts of the powerful counter-culture discourse of the 1960s. I wanted to meditate on the 1940s mythmaking that fueled the rise of conservatism in the late 20th century and trumped 1960s pacifist and socialist impulses. Remaking the past is something everybody does. It is the job of fiction writers, I think, to clarify this. Reagan isn’t in the book, but he so clearly exemplified this: I mean, in his stories, as was well documented (see Gary Wills’s book on him, for instance), he believed he actually fought in the war, even though he had worn the uniforms only in war films, and believed as well he was actually present at the liberation of the death camps, so powerful and convincing had his narrative reconstructions about these events been.

So in Malcolm & Jack we’ve got American Empire, hegemonic national narratives, historical crimes (as Malcolm never stopped telling us), and a bunch of sexy people at the heart of it–why shouldn’t I enjoy the activity of remaking the past? Susan Sontag says somewhere that the past is the greatest, most tantalizing imaginative space we have. It’s supposed to be stable. Of course, it isn’t at all; it’s all stories, being remixed and recreated all the time.

Lance: In a recent comment here on Coetzee's Disgrace, you wrote: "I would contend that while innovation is a path to the beautiful, it is beauty itself which is the goal, to my mind." Would you please expand on that a little? What, by your lights, constitutes innovation in fiction? And what do you mean when you say "the beautiful"? How did such an aesthetic impulse inform your writing of Malcolm & Jack?

Ted: I think I’ve already now gone into that in the rest of that thread on the blog, and I can’t help it that I remain a sucker for Romantic constructions of the purpose of literature. It seems real enough to me to talk about beauty being truth and learning as an artist to trust that sense, given one’s own particular historical and aesthetic circumstances, which are always changing, it’s true, and should always change; nevertheless, beauty and the search for beauty, the desire to make beauty, is a constant. It even sounds maudlin to me to hear myself speak this way. But beauty, as you pointed out in that thread, can be embodied in a work of hideous ugliness such as Samuel Delany’s Hogg, which is so brave, so uncensored, so transgressive, indeed so uncomfortable, that it becomes an aesthetic experience of a very high order.

How this impulse informed Malcolm & Jack? I wanted it to be a good book, so I kept trying to make it more beautiful in fulfilling the tasks it had created for itself. Billie Holiday not being able to sing because she’s in jail for drugs she takes because she’s miserable about her life and, goddamn it, oppressed in white America, allowed to appear on a marquee at a hotel club but having to enter the hotel through the back door, and then finding herself in an interracial affair in the segregated jail ... I wanted to create such complex situations out of little-appreciated histories in a way that fit my sense of the complexities of lived experiences–beauty is truth, and truth beauty. That’s all I know, as the poet sez, and I’m sorry some find that a maudlin or politically unsophisticated construction. I want to move thoughtful and sophisticated readers; part of that is political, certainly, but, as Williams says, bad writing never helped anyone. Beauty is what makes a political art successful or not. What is beauty? You tell me.

Lance: In your posts about alternative publishing here, you come across as a born optimist. Does that hold true with respect to where you see the enterprise in, say, another ten years?

Ted: Jesus, I don’t know. I am an optimist, it’s true, but I think I’d have to be a pessimist to see myself still doing this same thing ten years from now. I’ve always liberated myself from such things after a certain amount of time; I love my life and my own writing too much to remain so long serving (and I do mean serving, not as a jail term, but definitely in the sense of service) as Starcherone’s director.

Ten years from now, in 2016, I would hope, optimistically, that Starcherone still exists, and that I will have passed on guidance of it to someone else. But it is also true that I can’t foresee a time when I will willingly let Starcherone die. I owe that to our authors. Starcherone can’t get its books into Barnes & Noble coinciding with release dates, with coordinated advertising campaigns and orchestrated reviews to maximize sales over the short-term, so what we do offer authors is that their books will stay available and that we will keep talking them up and pushing them, with our books’ shelf life measured in years rather than months. That requires us to stay in business. Literature is a long-view art form; it is perhaps the most difficult art form to consume, so time is always needed to allow a book’s audience to be nurtured and developed, particularly when the work is new and challenging and requires its audience to learn how to read it, as is the case with practically any new innovative artist in fiction.

That’s the drama. Will I escape my own creation eventually and get back to my own life and writing (make no mistake: Starcherone takes up hours, weeks, and months, and most of that time is not spent creatively)? Or will I sacrifice the greatest part of my creative years to a larger cause that in the end even I will see as having been fruitless, pointless, a useless and unappreciated waste of time and energy that in the end becomes no more than a footnote in a very large history of our literature, if anyone in the end ever cares about that again?

Who knows? In any case, even if I was born an optimist, I have studied other subjects over the years since, in school and on my own.

11 June 2006

Top 10 Reasons Not to Fart in an Elevator (or, why passing gas is sometimes a lot like passing prose)

N.B. For those who stumble on this post, its contents respond to Kass Fleisher's recent post "Art|Politics|Beauty|Power," where, at the end, she writes...

"other than that, can we just have a moratorium on the list thing? unless we can manage, say, Top Ten Reasons Not to Fart in an Elevator...etc...."

And so,

10. Because while farting is often strangely appreciated (although often unacknowledged) by the sender, cracking wind in front of others can be taken as an insult.

9. Unlike an escalator, where people and their ideas move mostly in a linear manner, from point A to point B (unless one gets her shoelaces caught in the mechanism), an elevator is an enclosed space where riders assiduously avoid each other’s bodies.

8. For what may be beautiful to one rider (the sender), in the presence of others may be taken with horror—as in the terror of the Kantian sublime.

7. Because beauty and truth in writing, while eloquent and meaningful and etc, become shot full of shit once someone cuts the elevator cable and a boxful of strangers plunge to their deaths. And when this happens, of course, the ventilation stops working.

6. When Willy Wonka launches the great glass elevator into the sky, above his candy empire, the last thing he wants is to be reminded that Charlie stole “fizzy lifting drinks.”

5. Because with 99 ways to tells the same story, how many of those aren’t visual? Letting it all out after a plate of beans would simply confuse the issue through another sensory dimension.

4. If power were a discussion to be had over a sophisticated intellectual dinner atop a high-rise building, the gaseous passage of such contents through the bowels in a downward moving elevator at the close of the meal would surely never be mistaken, by those guests not privy to the previous conversation, for a suitable dessert.

3. Humankind has never produced a working elevator; rather, the government “produces” elevator shots in Area 51, and thus, the act in question is technically impossible.

2. In 1853, when American inventor Elisa Otis invented the brake that would stop an elevator with failed cable from falling unfettered (see # 7, anyway), public confidence in the devices increased—and thus, the modern skyscraper rose over the typhoid-sodden streets of Chicago New York London Paris. Had Otis focused on flatulence, instead, as his primary concern, because you didn’t know enough to keep a tight lid on things, well, then, we’d have never reached the astounding heights of present-day narrative (for where would our publishers house themselves?).

1. In other words, elevators, of course, don’t exist when we write about them, anymore than truth, beauty, originality, genius, authorship, or the other methane-filled constellations of fickle word winds swirling—a vortex of reeking syllables—through the lost shafts of the descending colon.

0. Even so, all in good fun, you may smell something untoward emanating from your motherboard.

10 June 2006

matt madden : 99 ways to tell a story

In 1947, Raymond Queneau—mathematician, poet, fiction writer, and member of the Oulipo group dedicated to using formal constraints imposed on one's own work as a method of generating creativity—published Exercises in Style. He took a simple story and told it in 99 different styles: as a letter, a sonnet, a moral lesson about The Youth of Today, etc. The narrative itself is wholly unremarkable: a young man gets on a crowded bus, complains about being jostled, and then sits down when a seat becomes available; later, the narrator sees the man who jostled him in another part of town talking to a friend.

In 99 Ways to Tell a Story (Chamberlain Brothers, 2005), Matt Madden performs a kind of homage to Queneau by doing much the same thing, only in comix. The narrative itself is, if possible, even more unremarkable than the original nonstory story: a man who has been working at a computer stands, closes his laptop, and walks to the refrigerator; his partner asks him what time it is from upstairs; he responds 1:15; then he bends in front of the fridge, looking puzzled, wondering "What the hell was I looking for, anyway?" Madden retells that narrative in a variety of comic-book styles, from a variety of points of view, in a variety of different settings, from a variety of different angles, with a variety of different characters, without one of the two leads, without the refrigerator, as a paranoid religious tract, as an existentialist parable, and so on.

The outcome is fascinating, stimulating, and a micro-education in both narrativity and the history of comix. Its mechanism of production is the simultaneous use and abuse the past, and its aesthetic impulse harmonizes well with what some of us back in the mid-nineties referred to as the Avant-Pop, a mode of telling that amibivalently accomodates pop culture while using many of its assumptions of comfort, predictability, and spectacularization against itself.

One of my litmus tests for a "successful" text is that it makes me want to go out and write. Madden's accomplishes that like few I've come across recently. And, to tie back into our earlier discussion of pedagogy and the difficult imagination, I'm guessing it might have a vibrant life in the classroom as well.

09 June 2006


let me do a couple of things here:

first, lance said in his post that American Book Review is “in crisis,” and i thought i should let yall know that “crisis” isn’t quite the term at this point. “flux” would be more like it, and if what i was TOLD is happening does happen (so this is qualified), the situation may even be somewhat improved. illinois state had removed its long-time funding for a full-time, professional managing editor, which meant that the 2 people on the editorial wing (joe amato and me) and the 2 people on the production wing (tara reeser and sarah haberstich) were tasked not only with the expected duties but also details like...”um, has anyone checked the mail in the past month?” it didn’t work. (no shit? really?). if the editorial wing does move to another institution, it would seem that that new institution will restore that funding and position, which would allow the ed staff and prod staff to do what they’re best at. the person who has been proposed as the editorial point person for the journal in its new home is a very capable guy, and if this all goes through i think ABR will be in good hands.

if anyone has anything more up-to-date on this deal, please chime out. i’m no longer entirely...um...informed. hah.

so that’s done! (check.)

next: dear blonde (although only her hairdresser knows for sure...), i loved your post. (i’d say it left me ecstatic but that would be too...TOO.) lovingly, i’ll point out that this was my favorite section (perhaps b/c i have a short attention span...):

>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?

one thing striking about your post is that it’s primarily composed of questions, which i find much more comfortable than monologues, this latter being what most of our posts have been. lance’s tyler gowan excerpt sounds a resonant tone for “us” (this tribe, whatever we are...)----how do we respond, as intellectuals and artists (or artists and intellectuals---this latter would be my personal ordering) to the fact that the public has gone to sleep? the masses slumber as we jack off, i guess---all of us in bed, then? (i don’t cum via dissensus---in times of conflict, most women’s capillaries shrink up, which is why a lot of women aren’t very into make-up sex...but hey, if that does it for others, why disrupt it?)

art is always the politics of making art, but apparently any insistence to that effect sounds to most of our citizens like a very shrill alarm clock. if we don’t control our readers, how do we respond to the fact that they just hit the snooze button and roll over?

i have a pretty bad jones for the russians myself; i’ve often been told i should “move on”...get “up to date”...but i still find them far better at discussing power than most thinkers, bar foucault, etc. here’s a shklovsky snippet from his memoir:

"So we see that Gorky is made of disbelief and piety, with irony for cement.
Irony in life is like eloquence in literature: it can tie everything together.
It makes a substitute for tragedy."

ouch! shit!

and so, ted! i love arguing with you, so let’s have it (note: there will be no sex afterward). keeping the power problem in mind, i’m thinking that what i loved greatly about poststructuralism was the suggestion that we could keep 2 ideas in our heads at one time. you wrote that altho...

>innovation is a path to the beautiful, it is beauty itself which is the goal, to my mind. Where I become doctrinaire about innovation is where I see conventionality hampering an artist's ascent to the beautiful....

do we as a group have a problem with the notion of innovation for the sake of innovation? (i’ll assume yes.) does our “tribe” have troubles with folks hoping to join b/c they have some notion of wanting to be an artistic rebel---just to be an artistic rebel? little of this has much to do with addressing power (to my mind). we have a habit of setting ourselves up as existing (“being,” blonde said, echoing heidegger maybe, ironically?) In Opposition.... many of us are old enough to flash to james dean and the anti-hero hero etc etc. but what plagues is, In Opposition To What?

my concern with beauty is that i want to do beauty (yes, i’ve failed, sue me) even as i’m conscious of beauty as a construct and as a commodity, a thing that can be romanticized right along with james dean, who ultimately served as (many things but also) a fabulous billboard for cigarettes.

sure; i want beauty as much as the next guy: the elegant turn of phrase, the well-turned ankle. i just want to maintain also the awareness of how violent those sorts of “turns” can turn out to be (and violence isn’t always bad in this context). the artist’s ascent is already hampered, yes? or perhaps we could say that the artist’s ascent will be a struggle against the powers of gravity, the baggage on her back, cigarette smoking, etc.

is it possible that one of us may be able to compose the utterly unexploitable piece of art? if “beauty,” and all its commodity-driven problems, is a good-size ascent, could unexploitability become...K2?

because, listen, al-zarqawi is dead. so is the pregnant woman (and her driver and, as many anti-abortion republicans have *interestingly* failed to point out, HER FETUS); and, you know, we’re still committing my-lai’s (anyone else shocked by this?).

seems to me there’s plenty that needs doing culturally, much of which has to do with abuse of power, and whether we want it to or not, or notice it happening or not, our work is going to do work. beauty does work. i can’t control my reader, but maybe i can attempt to ascend the slope that has to do with (at minimum) half-assed attempts to...attempt. to direct. against.

i mean, i’m obsessed with truth, but i can’t help but trouble “truth.” this is ok, right?

lance: check out drew gardner’s Petroleum Hat. great poems, brutal, smart, funny as fuck.

other than that, can we just have a moratorium on the list thing? unless we can manage, say, Top Ten Reasons Not to Fart in an Elevator...etc....


A Call for Submissions

Emboldened by the fc2 sukenick award posting, I would like to invite all offbeat-onbeat writers, particularly of the female variety, to submit to Mad Hatters' Review, as our reading period for Issue 6 is officially due to close on the 14th (at midnight wherever you are). My staff and I are attempting to make our online journal a haven for offstream ("innovative") writers. We welcome book reviews, interviews, "non-fiction," short shorts, longer shorts, poetry, prose poetry, drama, multimedia projects, collaborative projects, and what we call whatnots (the indefinable glorious delicious outrageous). I've said "of the female variety" because we're getting many submissions from offstream male writers, but very very few from women. This is an issue for a future discussion, I'm sure.

I've been working on a schpeal (sp?) about the role and importance of online journals in promoting and disseminating fresh, sociopolitically aware/sophisticated and non-commercial writings. My own journal is only one of an increasing number.

07 June 2006

ronald sukenick innovative fiction prize

Beginning this fall, the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize will be awarded annually by FC2 to an outstanding book-length manuscript of formally innovative fiction. Hosted by the University of Notre Dame Creative Writing Department, the contest is open to all writers who have not previously published with FC2.

Contest entries will be accepted bewteen September 1, 2006, and December 1, 2006. The winner will be announced May 2007.

Full manuscripts, accompanied by a check for the reading fee of $20, should be sent to:

Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize
c/o Steve Tomasula
The Notre Dame Review
840 Flanner Hall
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, IN 46556-5639

Final selection of Sukenick Prize winners will be made by the FC2 Board of Directors: Lance Olsen, Lidia Yuknavitch, Michael Martone, Noy Holland, Susan Steinberg, and R. M. Berry. Selection criteria will be consistent with FC2’s stated mission to publish “fiction considered by America’s largest publishers too challenging, innovative, or heterodox for the commercial milieu,” including works of “high quality and exceptional ambition whose style, subject matter, or form pushes the limits of American publishing and reshapes our literary culture.”

The Sukenick Prize includes a $500 advance on royalties and publication of the winning manuscript by FC2, an imprint of the University of Alabama Press. In the unlikely event that no suitable manuscript is found among entries in a given year, FC2 reserves the right to award no prize.

For contest updates and full information on FC2’s mission, history, aesthetic commitments, authors, events, and books, please visit the press's website.

06 June 2006

Tsipi Keller's Jackpot

The most recent novel I’ve read is Jackpot (2004) by Tsipi Keller, the first of what is intended to be a trilogy (the second book is just out, both by Spuyten Duyvil). I’d give it a B-plus, but then that’s because I’m a teacher and that kind of evaluation comes easily to me. And any good educator should define criteria. B-plus in my gradebook suggests good effort, but just short of highest achievement.

Maggie is a single, late-twenty-something New York clerk who hates her boss and is bored with her life. She has a friend, Robin, who always seems to have more fun than Maggie does (Robin’s page 10 brag about a vacation, “I fucked my brains out,” haunts Maggie the entire novel). She also has an older work-colleague, Susan, who is more stable and sensible. Against Susan’s advice, Maggie goes with Robin on vacation to Paradise Island.

Well, Maggie shows Robin a thing or two about fucking and brains once she gets to Paradise Island. Or rather, Robin immediately shoving off on a companion’s yacht, abandoning Maggie, Maggie shows herself. It’s like The Damnation of Theron Ware, to cite a novel from a completely different context and century: a naif gets a whiff of something much too heady and then outdoes her original influence to such an extreme as to show complete misunderstanding of the nuances of selective transgression, horrifying everyone, including ultimately the protagonist herself.

The movement of the book is clean and delivers on a very deft narrative strategy – the heroine’s descent is unexpected even though, when we look backward, all the signs were there. There was her ex-husband’s ridiculous accusation that she was an alcoholic, for instance. The early exposition seems innocent, and then, ka-blam, you’re in a cesspool of vomited-up Bahama Mamas and men who are only remembered as vague spectres from the previous night, even when they appeared in teams.

This is where Jackpot might have been a more courageous novel, to my mind. The descent is perhaps too clean. I found myself thinking of J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace – there, the descent is painstaking, delivered in excruciating, never-anaesthetized increments. Maggie’s blackouts in Jackpot, at the gaming tables and the nightly journeys afterwards to her now solely occupied hotel room, are a little too blurry for the reader to register the full horror of what is being represented. The novel comes in at a little under 200 pages. Maybe it needed to be 250 and to linger in anterooms on the way down to hell.

But maybe we’re not in hell yet, for Keller has the next novel in the sequence, Retelling, just out. Full disclosure: I also have a book with Spuyten Duyvil this summer; Keller and I are “stablemates”.

Given that, you’d think I would have given her at least an A-minus....

03 June 2006

r.i.p. : review outlets & indie bookstores

Since today marks the one-month anniversary of Now What's launch, I'd like to start off by thanking a thousand times our contributors, commenters, and readers for what has begun to develop, at least from my perspective, into an engaging, energetic, rhizomatic conversation, as well as an intriguing, important, and downright addictive experiment. In his blog Samizdat, Robert Archambeau describes us as "a grubby left-bank cafe of the twenties, only available right on your lap-top, in a bring-your-own-absinthe environment." That sounds about right to me.

In a recent post, Davis Schneiderman wondered aloud if we had any figures on those who in one way or another are participating here. The answer, thanks to Site Meter, is yes. Now What has had 2,672 visitors so far, with an average of 112 a day. Each visit lasts, on average, four minutes and eleven seconds. Not only have people dropped by from around the U.S., but also Bulgaria, France, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland, the U.K., Spain, Australia, Germany, Canada, and elsewhere around the world.

What I take away from those stats is this: there really is an extended tribe of readers, writers, and publishers Out There interested in the notion of perpetuating alternative prose as a space of resistance and celebration. That's a good thing, since the outlets for announcing and thinking about such projects are few and becoming fewer. At the Small Press Festival hosted at the University of Colorado in April by Jeffrey Deshell and Elizabeth Robinson, Ted Pelton and I found ourselves on a panel bemoaning the loss of traditional review channels for experimental fiction. As those of you who subscribe will have noticed, The New York Times Book Review, hardly a friend of the innovative, writes about fewer novels and short story collections of any kind than ever before. The American Book Review, one of the most ardent supporters of alternative writing in all its forms, is in crisis. In the hardcopy world, that leaves the inimitable Rain Taxi and a small handful of others.

In the digital world, however, it's a slightly different story. Excellent blogs—a good number of the best noted to the right of this post—are helping get the word out via an updated version of word-of-mouth. I don't know how many readers each actually has, but I suspect many fewer than those in the meat world.

Another dark sign for adventurous prose is the gradual folding of America's great indie bookstores. In a recent article in Slate on the subject, Tyler Gowan announced the closing of Berkeley's famous Cody's. The infiltration of chain bookstores into local shopping malls in the sixties and seventies began the slow erosion of the culture of literacy, inclusion of the odd, and sense of community fostered by the indies. Worse—and get this—there is only one buyer of fiction for the whole Barnes & Noble empire. Think about what that means for alternative publishers bringing out alternative prose. FC2, for instance, considers itself wildly lucky if B&N will carry even a few of its titles, but said titles remain on their shelves for less than a season before any unbought are returned.

Gowan goes on to argue, both provocatively and depressingly:

The real change in the book market is not the big guy vs. the little guy, or chain vs. indie stores. Rather, it's the reader's greater impatience, a symptom of our amazing literary (and televisual) plenitude. In the modern world we are more pressed for time, and we face a greater diversity of cultural choices. It was easy to finish Tolstoy's War and Peace when there were few other books around and it was hard to find them. Today, finishing it means forgoing many other options at our fingertips. As a result, we tend to consume ideas in smaller bits, a proposition that (in another context) economists labeled the "Alchian and Allen theorem." Long, serious novels are less culturally central than they were 100 years ago. Blogs are on the rise, and most readers prefer the ones with the shorter posts. Our greater access to books also means that each book has less time to prove itself. A small percentage of the books published account for a large share of the profits, thus setting off a race to track reader demand. Many customers want very recent best-sellers, often so they can feel they are reading something trendy, something other people are talking about.

And so, as Now What continues to become whatever it will become, if it becomes anything at all, let me make a suggestion: that its contributors and commenters post—in addition to whatever else strikes their fancy—reviewlettes of books they love in order to let others know about them. Let's try to stay away from title dropping, since that doesn't illuminate much for those who haven't read said title.

It's sometimes easier and/or more interesting to talk around novels and short fiction collections, formulate those reductionistic lists The New York Times Book Review seems bent on hawking, or remain afloat in a perpetual theoretical drift, but it's equally if not more important work to embrace praxis and help pass the word. Think, too, about doing a short interview with or profile of an experimental author or publisher and posting it here. Think of other ways of telling readers about books no one else will tell them about. And, naturally, always support your local indie bookstore—if there are any left in your neighborhood (the nearest to me is more than two-hundred miles away).

If I'm sounding especially pragmatic today, well, you caught me.

02 June 2006

That NYTBR Best List revisited again: The Rest of the Best

CRITICAL MASS: The Rest of the Best
the blog of the national book critics circle board of directors
Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Rest of the Best
As you may have heard -- unless you are, for example, living in a steamer trunk -- the New York Times Book Review recently polled 125 writers in order to determine "the best work of American fiction of the past twenty-five years." When the Times presented the results of its survey, only books receiving multiple votes were listed. Since we're book critics (and therefore not too hung up on numbers), it seemed to us that the difference between getting one vote and getting two was ... not much. So we set out to find the books that received a single nomination, thinking that readers might be interested in the complete list.Thanks to the kind cooperation of many judges, as well as the deep inboxes of several of our Board members, here's the first installment of ... The Rest of the Best.*

- Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon (nominated by: Edmund White)- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon (nominated by: anonymous)- Little, Big, by John Crowley (nominated by: David Orr)- The Hours, by Michael Cunningham (nominated by: Roxana Robinson)- Carpenter's Gothic, by William Gaddis (nominated by: Cynthia Ozick)- The Cider House Rules, by John Irving (nominated by: John Irving)- Ironweed, by William Kennedy (nominated by: anonymous)- Collected Stories, by Grace Paley (nominated by: Rick Moody)- On Glory's Course, by James Purdy (nominated by: Paula Fox)- Collected Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer (Library of America Edition edition - 3 volumes) (nominated by: Norman Rush)- Aberration of Starlight, by Gilbert Sorrentino (nominated by: Geoffrey O'Brien)- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, by Anne Tyler (nominated by: anonymous)- 60 Stories, by Donald Barthelme (nomination listed in NY Times Podcast)- The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen (nomation listed in NY Times)In addition to compiling this list, we've asked judges for commentary on why they chose they books they chose. Some chose to remain anonymous -- others didn't. Like John Irving:"I voted for myself," Irving told us, "for "The Cider House Rules" -- suspecting that, otherwise, I might not receive a single vote. We all know presidents vote for themselves, and they do far more harm than writers do. I confess to being underwhelmed by most of the books (and authors) receiving multiple votes, with the notable exceptions of the four novels by John Updike, and the six by Philip Roth. Clearly the TBR should have admitted that it asked the wrong question; the most admired writers of the past 25 years are Updike and Roth, and it's no surprise to me that among all the writers receiving multiple votes, Updike and Roth have the most readers. In fact, I just wrote Roth a letter, in which I said that, if the poll in the TBR had been a fight, he would have won by a TKO in the first round."* We're still collecting information from several participants in the NYT survey. Over the coming days, we'll be updating this list -- (see rest of article & commentaries).