27 October 2006

cam tatham :
from the trenches : teaching pomo fiction

Hi, all.

Lance here.

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

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

And so, without further ado . . .


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, it’s all pomo fiction, right?


blonde said...


i like your list, because it crosses popular culture with writerly po-moisms.

i was interested in your the things they carried choice though.

i've written/thought obsessively about narratology and war...and my only question is, why not paco's story?


Johannes said...

If the class is on "American Literature" it seems rather dubious that there is not poetry on the syllabus...


Ted Pelton said...

Very late to be commenting on this thread; probably no one will ever see, but I had this comment stick in my craw --
"Mainly: I’m fascinated by the knife-edge between innovation that is ‘authentically’ (hear Sartre, Camus, Merleau-Ponty) imaginative, and something that’s ‘excessive’ (hear Morrison). Isn’t there a point at which we have to say, to Federman (or Ron or Lance or Steve or whomever): oh, come on, that’s going too far! Morrison again: the terribly difficult gray area between that which is “too thick” and that which is “too thin” (Beloved)."

I am not sure what this means in response to Morrison. I have a lot of admiration for Beloved: its Faulknerian family-memory complexities, the bravery of mingling a revisiting of slavery with a ghost story which then mutates into a symbol of countless souls lost, etc. If you are saying, as I think you start to, that Morrison can verge on the purple, I think that at her worst, you're right. She is at such pains to make every sensation, every walk down the street to the store, full of overpowering significance that sometimes you just want her to give it a rest and understand the difference between the mundane & the powerful -- tho when she's into the latter, she's terrific. That is, her symbols sometimes fall flat, because nearly everything -- eating corn, pulling up a blanket in bed -- gets laden with attempted symbolic importance. But then again, Morrison is a truly moving & formally daring writer, and I for one don't think her reputation is undeserved. What I've described above may be what is meant by "too thick," I dunno. What is meant by too thin? "Thin," to me, raises the spectre of the cheap effects of the workshop minimalism of the 80s and 90s. Morrison, though, like Faulkner or Marquez, is a maximalist. And I also applaud writers who know their history. There's a half-page sentence at one point in Beloved where Morrison tells a litany-history of the Cherokee -- not "her people," as it were -- and it's magisterial.

FWIW, here's the list for an undergrad class I taught last Spring at Medaille College of Buffalo, called "Post-Atomic American Fiction":

Kerouac-On the Road
Baldwin-Giovanni's Room
Kingston-The Woman Warrior
Marcus-Notable American Women
Federman-My Body in Nine Parts