24 May 2006

Unconventional Telling

This is indeed a heady space and perhaps, rather than writing an independent post of my own, I should simply be appending my various remarks to the illuminating conversations in play below. Still, here it is.

I’d like to examine a bit further the definition and question Lance introduced in his post regarding the teaching of avant-garde writing. The definition (of avant-garde writing): “that which tells unconventional stories in unconventional ways.” The question: “Why teach avant-garde writing?”

To take the question first: though we all (?) do it, I’m uncomfortable with discussing or foregrounding (let’s say in the workshop setting) what we term innovative/avant-garde/experimental fiction as a genre in its own right, a genre distinct from, or in opposition to, say, realism or mainstream writing, because this perpetuates the notion in the minds of our student-consumers that such writing is (albeit in heterogeneous ways) different from, even antithetical to what student-consumers, what many consumers want or expect from literature (if, indeed, they want anything at all, or rather prefer simple, and simple-minded, affirmative entertainment). While we may see or feel this opposition variously according to our own experience, I’m not convinced--and my experience with students’ general lack of knowledge of the full range of authors that abide in the literature section of our library let alone our local B&N (unfortunately the only game in town)--that students are at all a priori aware of the fact that what we think of as innovative, avant-garde, or experimental has been labeled by the market as unreadable or unsaleable and therefore not worth anyone’s time or money.

My impulse is to insist that writing students, if they intend to have their work taken at all seriously (not just by me, their friendly neighborhood Decider), should strive to produce narratives that respond to the culture in which we live as we live in it, as we receive it, as we act on it right now, in real-time as it were. And by respond I mean in every aspect of narrative: character, pacing, structure, plot, dialogue, etc. I feel as though I have no need to append the term “postmodern” to works by Michael Martone, Noy Holland, Italo Calvino, David Shields, Lydia Davis, et al. (those students who are suspicious of difficult reading will do this anyway) because, from my perspective, if we choose to so name our era, we are all of us living and writing at this time “postmodern,” and the only writing of any value that is produced in response to our contemporary culture or its futures must be postmodern. Even, or perhaps especially, history and historical fiction, if they are to be valued, are written from this perspective. That is, contemporary writing must engage with the culture, as any creative prose writing has done, through at least some of the enduring problems of narrative—plot, structure, character, point-of-view, etc.—even if this engagement is only a disengagement, is only to disregard, pervert, or enhance these categories. I’m asserting then that valuable creative contemporary prose is and always has been avant-garde prose. I’m asserting that to be unable or unwilling to produce or read avant-garde writing is not simply to be ignorant of complex and challenging work, it is to be completely out of touch with the current state of the world as it is happening and about to happen. As has been noted this way of thinking “postmodern” does not, in my mind, necessarily exclude much of what may seem conventional in style or form, work that in fact may engage our contemporary cultural, political, economic, scientific landscape in some alternative, valuable way. If I give students the categories they want and then show them the ways in which contemporary avant-garde authors--or, for that matter, authors such as Sterne or Poe or Stein (I’m sorrowfully feeling the weight of the West here), experimentalists in form and language throughout the history of narrative (as much as this is possible in a single semester)—have revalued these categories, I have at least given them the tools not only to produce recognizable works of fiction (my job), but also shown them how to produce work that has the potential to complicate reading and thinking the now for themselves, for the workshop, and for any potential readers they may have down the road. (I teach undergraduates, so this road may be quite long for some, or, in many cases, our semester-long stroll may only be a brief, highly disturbing diversion.)

Regarding the definition (of avant-garde writing): “that which tells unconventional stories in unconventional ways,” I propose deleting the term “unconventional stories” and replacing it with nothing at all. In the third of her three lectures on narration, Gertrude Stein writes/tells: Narrative is what anybody has to say in any way about anything that can happen has happened will happen in any way. Talk about possibility space. (And I should say here, too, that I think of the workshop as much as the page as such a space. Even more than convention and readability, students want permission. The kind of writing we’re talking about shows them how to attain, create, and/or abscond with that in all kinds of ways.) Stein puts pressure on this permissiveness by warning the audience about itself, about audience and the consideration of whether or not anyone is listening. She also reminds us that we are our first audience. Are we listening to what we are saying, or have we grown bored with ourselves, our ways of telling? This seems to me to be an excellent model and one with which we are hardly done. Avant-garde writing as “that which tells in unconventional ways” also seems to me to place a correct emphasis on telling, listening, and the speaker, a relationship which, for me, seems of central importance aesthetically and politically in our present, in which one can tell (or not tell) anything with impunity, or, alternatively, can tell everything without knowing that it has been told or to who. [Just for the record, I’m not intending to misread Lance’s post. I’m just responding to certain propositions raised in it, however they may be clarified or revised later.]

Later in his post, Lance writes the following: “[A]s anyone intuits who has ever tried, say, to push language or structure in a refreshingly unfamiliar direction, breaking the rules always-already involves learning and understanding them. The two acts are anything save mutually exclusive. Rather, they are intensely interdependent.”

To this my response would be again that the notion needs some revision, perhaps a refocusing or broadening. The question I have is with the idea of trying, of willfully breaking rules, of acknowledging that certain rules for writing fiction exist that should be learned or should be broken. Of course, we know that there are any number of books that have attempted to define these rules, and other books about the breaking of them, and one might say that the one basic rule, the one that no one seems to forget and that doesn’t require a workshop or reading a book to teach it, is that in order for your writing to be considered “good” or “valid” or “worthwhile” it needs to be published. Somewhere. This is a rule that I have not yet intentionally sought to break, though I wouldn’t fault anyone for wanting to. No, the thought I have about this idea of making and/or breaking rules has more to do with the amount of narrative that is produced in complete ignorance of the rules of writing other than those imposed on the author by him/herself. One might say that even this author has or does not forget the single rule stated above. And they may have a way of formulating their own rules based on their own reading of published writing. But what if they do not read or cannot read? Or what if that author’s rules are derived from other nonliterary art forms or other forms of non-artistic communication (i.e. computing, biology, noise, etc.)? And though I can and do read innovative fiction, what if I were to decide to eschew all rules of fiction that I may have learned and written? There’s something, to me, fascinating in this prospect, something that, if one were to accept my idea that contemporary fiction should “respond to the culture in which we live as we live in it,” given the ahistorical, antiliterate nature of Americans, writing that responds through unliterary means may actually better fulfill this goal than any writing that in any way responds to rules of fiction, rules, one might also say of the printed page. Am I talking about hybrids? Perhaps. Yes. And I would add to the list Lidia has suggested elsewhere the work of our blog-fellow Steve Tomasula.

Now that I write this, I wonder if I might be accused of trying to promote a sort of naïve art in writing, a misguided primitivism, but that’s not my intent at all. I’m simply speculating about the possibilities of writing without any attention to the so-called rules of writing as they have been formulated by numerous writers. I am suggesting the possibility of ignoring these and perhaps courting, perhaps imitating or adapting the rules of other forms of narrative production. This ignoring of the rules is, in a sense then, a breaking of them. On the one hand, yes, I am positing a naive writer writing in isolation, perhaps in a cell, perhaps in a secret prison in Romania, or on a hunger strike at Gitmo, or in the process of starving to death with a hundred other illegal immigrants trapped and forgotten in a grain car on a shunting in Texas; a naïve writer whose politically essential narratives, told however artlessly, contain real terror, and were they told with even a milligram of authenticity, would most likely have a more powerful impact on the culture than most anything we here could produce. But I am also positing a sophisticated writer who might seize/appropriate other forms of narrative with which writing is vying, with which culture and truths are constructed, in order to interrogate, critique, extend, undermine, explode them.

If I Only Had a Match

Nice to be a part of this landscape, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to etch. I take it as a given that this formation constitutes something of a mutual admiration society -- it’s unavoidable in some sense, given the conditions under which we’ve come, are coming together. And that’s OK, to my way of thinking, provided we find ways to be as candid with one another as possible. Otherwise we’ll likely devolve into a mutual admiration society.

A few things come to mind in mulling over what’s been writ thus far. My apologies in advance for waxing so prosaic (even redundant) on an initial foray, but it seemed best to survey general contours:

First, as to what sort of writing we’re about: like Mark Wallace, I just can’t get behind “telling unconventional stories in unconventional ways,” not least b/c, as a poet, I don’t see my primary job as telling stories. I work in other modes/genres (including memoir, oh yeah), but even there, I wouldn’t -- even as a sort of shorthand -- define my activity in such terms.

More to the point, I might indeed complain on occasion about conventional stories told in conventional ways, but if they’re really important stories, and told extremely well, it’s just as likely that you’ll hear few complaints from yours truly. (The conventional nonfiction [call it what you will] that I prefer fits this bill.) In all, I simply can’t -- or won’t -- dismiss out of hand conventional-mainstream work if it’s making some sort of cultural headway. And of course, this means that there’s a judgment call entailed, which is all wrapped up in political ontologies and the like (mine and others’). As I see it, there’s too much at stake -- in terms of the state of the arts, public literacy, the waning intellectual health of the US, the global context generally -- to turn one’s back on any artifact that’s taking on urgent issues, and doing so with intelligence and verve.

So what am I saying then? I’m saying that I’m not convinced that defining our activity in terms of an aesthetic conviction, strictly speaking, is the way to go. Aesthetics (I use the term, like the rest of you, in its more contemporary sense) plays a pivotal role in all of this, and I certainly wouldn’t want to see us pay mere lip service to same. But however we come to understand what we do, we should perhaps be thinking more about relations -- and by relations I don’t mean, either, the kind of thing you tend to hear (say) from avant poets, about how their poems provoke a less passive response in readers, or subvert the status quo, or what have you. It’s not that I think the latter untrue, exactly, it’s more that I believe we’re past the point, socially and culturally, at which such an argument can help catalyze collective action, even indirectly. We are, I think, at a point at which we could do (at a minimum) with more affirmative forms of resistance.

New publishing ventures fit the bill, of course. Question: is it possible for small presses to create alliances with (gasp) the conglomerate trade presses? It’s been done here and there, and I’m wondering whether we should be thinking more about how to tap into this potentially vast resource. I know it’s not easy, and I know there are risks. (Will Tom’s of Maine start putting sorbitol in their toothpaste now that they’ve been bought by Colgate-Palmolive?) I’m not arguing that presses need of necessity to get larger -- I am arguing, though, that having a wide(r) readership might be (might be) a desirable thing.

Relations between readers and writers then, sure. Tentatively, the kinds of relations (and relation-ships) I have in mind have much to do with a renewed sense of purpose -- as perceived/imagined by writers and readers. I want to write thus & so, and write thusly, b/c I hope to ________, and in addition to writing thus & so and thusly, here is what I’m willing to do to make ________ happen. I want to read thus & so, b/c I hope to ________, and in addition to reading thus & so, here is what I’m willing to do to make _________ happen. The social responsibility (I don’t know what else to call it) attendant to the transaction cuts both ways, if you will, and we might begin to develop a discourse in which writing -- as an art form -- actually begins to mean something to more than .001% of the population.

Call me an optimist, but even a 10% increase in readership across the avant board might exert a profound impact on our public sphere.

You publishers out there are probably best equipped to intervene in what I’m proposing. Surely you all have authors whom you would like to see do more to promote their own work. But you see -- the further you get into avant poetry circles, for instance, the more the very notion of marketing one’s work is viewed askance. It’s like this: poets don’t have careers, they don’t make money from their poetry -- they are in fact a further distance away from the trade publishing enterprise (and a large advance) than are innovative fiction writers (if I may be permitted to invoke this distinction) -- hence to ask a poet to state the purpose of his/her work (even ex post facto) is to threaten to undo the tacit predicate: art has no purpose, as we customarily understand purpose. It is not a commodity, or at least, it is not a sociological epiphenomenon. Etc. And lo! -- we end up, among other things, with a (disciplinary, yes, but damagingly popular) divide between writers and critics/scholars, between the generative demands of producing literary art and those issues revolving around its reception.

Which can’t be a good thing, can it?

In all of this -- which again, I offer most tentatively, and in broadest sweep -- the question of different modes and genres and, indeed, relations ought to be kept constantly in mind. We need, I think, to come clean as to what it is we’re about, and why, and frankly, I haven’t always found this an esp. easy thing to do myself, b/c “selling out” drops from the lips of some poets I know faster than David Horowitz can say “politically correct.” With my partner (Kass Fleisher), I’ve spent a good deal of time over the past five years writing screenplays, and when pressed for a reason, my first response these days is simple: MONEY. Simply put, I need (want?) to make more than $30K per (which is what I’m looking at in academic year O6/07 for teaching a 4/4). So hoo-ray for Hollywood. At the same time, nothing Kass and I have written is without a certain social justice angle (likely the reason we have yet to sell anything!). And we have no intention of writing crap, albeit our screenplay work is entirely (123 acts w/midpoint) conventional. And we’d love, for a change, to be writing for more than 100 people.

But make no mistake -- our primary motivation is MONEY.

So codeswitching is one aspect of what I mean by relations. Sometimes my writing proposes, in effect, to create its own audience. Sometimes I’m more obviously piggybacking on the mountains of writing that have come before me. Dangers of pluralism notwithstanding, I don’t see a real problem here, provided I’m honest with myself, and with others, about what it is I think I’m doing. And am willing to take criticism accordingly.

So: what is it that I think I’m doing, specifically? Well, it varies...

I have more -- much more -- to say about this question of pedagogy. Not that anyone has implied as much, but I don’t believe pedagogy turns solely or even primarily on the type of writing you bring into the classroom, or the type of writing you ask of your students. I think we need to look, here again, at classroom relations -- first and foremost, the relationship between the teacher (who has primary institutional power) and the students -- before we can mount a properly pedagogical argument. Else we’ll lurch toward that formalist trap into which, as I see it, so many avant and traditional instructors have fallen. But we can save that for another time, and if experience is any judge, I have a hunch that my predisposition toward critical pedagogy (Freire et al.) may rub some of you the wrong way.

Thanks for listening, at any rate, sorry for any harshness gives offense, great to be here.