29 December 2006

the death of metafiction
& other malicious rumors

I received an email from Marc Lowe this morning pointing me to a strong essay by Michael Boyden in ebr about American Oulipo writer Harry Mathews. Marc directed me particularly to the following provocative paragraph, which he asked me to post here so that those interested might engage with it:

In the conclusion to her chapter on postmodern fictions for the seventh volume of The Cambridge History of American Literature [1999], Wendy Steiner argues that the 1990s have signalled the end of the experimentalist period of esoteric metafiction in American prose writing. Whereas outside the U.S. such writings continue not only to be produced but also to be appreciated, Steiner claims that in America critical taste "has moved on" (Steiner 529). As a possible reason for this turn away from self-reflexive fiction, she notes the fact that several of the most renowned American experimenters, notably Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Robert Coover, John Hawkes, and William Gass, have passed their creative peak. A more compelling factor, however, would have been the so-called "culture wars" in the American academy which seem to have undermined the cultural validity and vitality of postmodern "high" fiction. According to Steiner, the controversies in the universities have resulted in the gradual erosion of the boundaries between "art" and "reality" (530). Further, the development of new media as well as dramatic changes in the marketing of books have made such distinctions between "high" and "low," or "popular" and "serious," even more precarious. More and more, apparently, novelists are moving away from elitist game playing and instead are drawing inspiration from mass culture and the lives of "ordinary people" (brackets in Steiner's text, 535).

Marc responds elsewhere in part:

Note that, as it says here, metafictional, or "self-reflexive fiction," is still popular in other countries, primarily Europe (and also Japan to some extent, particularly in the form of autobiographical fiction -- i.e. shishosetsu, or "I-novel"-inspired work). . . . To say that American "critical taste" has "moved on" to stories about the lives of Joe the mechanic and Jane the doctor says nothing so much as that American readers have gone from lazy to lazier.

While Steiner's comments were composed more than eight years ago, and may therefore be granted a certain by-default out-of-dateness, they nonetheless strike me, even for 1999, in equal parts preposterous and as strong evidence for her apparently parochial reading habits. (Much the same, by the way, could be said for Fredric Jameson's pronouncements about postmodern fiction, which are based exclusively—and, for an unflagging Marxist, ironically—on a small sample of texts produced by mainstream corporate presses.) I want to say, rather, that all experimental fiction—from Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy to this past year's The Open Curtain (Brian Evenson) and The Exquisite (Laird Hunt) and on to next year's Parabola: A Novel in 21 Inersections (Chiasmus) by new-comer Lily Hoang—is to some extent metafictional: to some extent, that is, self-consciously about its own processes, about the nature of language, about the structuality of structure, about its own (and hence the world's) uses of narrativity, and hardly "esoteric" or "elitist," hardly cut off from "reality," but rather deliberately challenging, difficult, against the narratological grain, profoundly political, oppositional to the status quo on the page or off by its very being .

Still, I'd very much like to hear from others on this, especially with regard to Steiner's comments about those so-called "culture wars" ongoing in the American academy.

28 December 2006

back to the future : fc2 podcasts

Speaking—apropos of the link to the wonderful Bernhard interview Jeffrey Deshell provides below—of interviews, FC2 has inaugurated a series of monthly podcasts that will contain interviews with and readings by its authors.

The first takes the form of an extended conversation (55 minutes) with R. M. Berry, who will be stepping down as publisher of FC2 this spring after nearly eight years at the helm. Among other topics, he touches on the founding days of the Fiction Collective in the seventies, its present, its possible futures, the state of alternative publishing in the U.S., and how one way of defining experimental fiction is to say it is the sort that has always seriously asked the question: What is fiction?

You can download that podcast and forthcoming ones at the FC2 website here, or you can subscribe via iTunes by doing a search there for FC2.

26 December 2006

Mad Hatters' Review Reading, 1/27, NYC

Madhatters' Review
Edgy & Enlightened Literature, Art & Music in the Age of Dementia

Poetry, Prose & Anything Goes Reading Series

Curated & Pickled by Publisher/Editor Carol Novack
5th Reading Friday, January 27th, 2007, 7 – 9 pm

KGB Bar85 East 4th St. 2nd Floor (between 2nd Ave and Bowery)


Norman Lock
Norman Lock is the author of The Long Rowing Unto Morning (Ravenna Press), A History of the Imagination (Fiction Collective Two), Land of the Snow Men (Calamari Press), ‘Notes to the Book of Supplemental Diagrams’ for Marco Knauff’s Universe (Ravenna Press), Trio (Triple Press), Emigres & Joseph Cornell’s Operas (elimae books and YKP, Istanbul), Cirque du Calder (Rogue Literary Society), and The House of Correction (Broadway Play Publishing). Two Plays for Radio is due fall '06 from Ravenna Press. His stage plays have been produced in New York, Los Angeles, in Germany, and at the 1996 Edinburgh Theatre Festival. Women in Hiding, The Shining Man, The Primate House, and Money, Power & Greed were broadcast by WDR, Germany. He wrote the film The Body Shop, produced by The American Film Institute. He is the recipient of the Aga Kahn Prize for fiction, given by The Paris Review. He lives in Philadelphia. Two of his book reviews and a short fiction can be found in MHR.

Terese Svoboda
Terese Svoboda has been described as “A fabulous fabulist,” in Publisher’s Weekly review of her fourth novel and ninth book, Tin God. Her writings have appeared in The New Yorker, New York Times, Atlantic, Slate, Bomb, Lit, Columbia, Yale Review and Paris Review, and her honors include an O. Henry for the short story, a nonfiction Pushcart Prize, a translation National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, a PEN/Columbia Fellowship, two NYFA Fellowships in poetry and fiction, an NYSCA grant, a Jerome Foundation grant in video, the John Golden Award in playwriting, and the Bobst Prize in fiction and the Iowa Prize in poetry. She has taught at Sarah Lawrence, Williams, the College of William and Mary, the University of Hawaii, the University of Miami, the New School, St. Petersburg, Russia and is currently Writer-in-Residence at Fordham. She lives in New York City and will be teaching in Kenya Christmas '06 and Bennington next spring. Her opera WET premiered at L.A. Disney Hall in December '05.

Deb Olin Unferth
Deb Olin Unferth's fiction has appeared in Harper's, Conjunctions, Fence, NOON, the Pushcart Prize anthologies, and elsewhere. Her first book is forthcoming from McSweeney's.

For info, email madhattersreview@gmail.com

Bernhard Interview

Here's a link to a great Thomas Bernhard interview, courtesy of my friend Patrick:

Happy holidays.

10 December 2006

the best of 2006

I'd like to pick up on Trevor's post below and extend it by asking:

Which one or three works of alternative prose you encountered this past year most startled and/or delighted and/or influenced and/or infected you, and, in a sentence or three, why?

Note the works in question don't necessarily have to have been published in 2006. You just have to have engaged with them then—and not necessarily for the first time.

I'm naturally as leery as the rest of you when it comes to the simplicity and sucker's game of lists, yet think this one might serve us all well, both by bringing to our attention works that might otherwise be overlooked, and by generating a resource for readers and writers searching for texts The New York Times Book Review would like to pretend don't exist.

02 December 2006

virtue, virtuosity, virtuality,

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Joe Tabbi’s graduate seminar on “World Fictions” at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Tabbi asked me to discuss my response to Ben Marcus’s scouring of Jonathan Franzen in Harper’s last fall.

My essay, “Notes from the Middleground: On Ben Marcus, Jonathan Franzen, and the Contemporary Fiction Combine” (Electronic Book Review) proffers that Franzen’s position—non-mainstream fiction (read: the stuff we talk about on this blog) is destroying American literature—and Marcus’s well-meaning response, to some extent, makes an aesthetic argument out of an economic problem. I ultimately suggest that the most interesting works express the tension between art and the market in their material substance, and cite Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland and good ol’ Tristram Shandy to this point.

I’ll leave the nuances of this to those interested, and instead comment on a provocative notion Tabbi articulated during the session:

Tabbi argues, quite convincingly, that the first generation of postmodern authors (Barth, Gaddis, etc…) focused on the literary work above all else. They may have indeed been/be great show(wo)men, as demonstrated by William H. Gass at the &NOW festival at Lake Forest College last spring), or by Raymond Federman or Kathy Acker any time those two, well, do/did anything at all…yet, Tabbi says, many current writers who have moved into non-textual environments sacrific this same intense attention to literary production.

Not that there is any less value in multimedia endeavors, but that these writers, if I take Tabbi correctly, are perhaps not writers in the same sense. And, just maybe, the literary tradition suffers, because literature becomes, well, something else entirely.

My first instinct, as one of these sometime-multimedia folk, is to recoil. I see my non-print, non-text work, really, as writing in different forms. But then I start to wonder if the technological transformations overtaking the work that we now do may not be fundamentally changing what is it is, exactly, we end up doing. No great lament from me about these changes, and if we take Gilles Deleuze seriously, the death of the book has been a long time comin'.

As someone who schedules many writers on the academic circuit, I must admit often considering entertainment value, in many different forms, before extending an invitation. This doesn’t mean that great writers can’t be damn entertaining, but perhaps reinforces Tabbi's claim that writing has lost real cultural ground in the age of the Xbox.

Against my better judgment, this takes me back to Franzen’s seemingly ridiculous claim that literature needs to compete with things such as extreme sports.

Bungee jumping while reading Swann’s Way anyone? Or am I just expressing the bowhunter’s fear of the gun?


NY Times' best of 2006

Yet again, the NY Times Book Review's annual best-of list is a predictable yawner. All of the "best" fiction books are from NY houses (I list them, respectively: Random House, Scribner, Knopf, Knopf, Viking), and the only marginally innovative book on the list is Amy Hempel's Collected Stories.

Of course, this comes as no surprise, but it does tease a larger conversation: what *were* the best books for 2006? Here's my short list; most of the names should be familiar:

Steve Tomasula, The Book of Portraiture
Lance Olsen, Nietzsche's Kisses
Gina Frangello, My Sister's Continent
Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie, Lost Girls