27 October 2006

why it is hard to have the conversation we're having

Apropos—at least in an oblique, if dazzling way—of our ongoing conversations about which texts to read and which to teach and which to write, this statistic I stumbled across today in the latest issue of Poets & Writers:

Last year a total of 172,000 books were published in the United States, a number that represents a ten percent decrease from the year before.

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?