30 January 2007

Two Arguments

Two Arguments

I seem to be hearing what amounts to two recurring and concurrent arguments on this blog -- interconnected arguments, surely -- but two arguments, as follows:

(1) The economic argument, which is also an aesthetic argument: the major trades are a problem b/c their approach to the literary marketplace has little to do with literature per se, which they view in the main as a commodity. The consequent emphasis on producing blockbuster novels and the like is clear evidence that the trades will continue to churn out homogenized product as long as it continues to make money -- or to lose money, as in loss leaders.

Against (1), the small presses offer a competing model of literary production, in which what is valued is the literary per se, as opposed to its capacity for commodification.

(2) The aesthetic argument, which is also an economic argument: those who are involved with the trades, from agents to editors to publishers (in many cases, entertainment magnates), hold relatively conservative views of what literature can be. Now while it's clearly the case that economics may drive such aesthetic predispositions, aesthetics can drive economics too -- there are prevailing sensibilities about literature that can, by virtue of the massive circulation of ideas and values (and, uhm, fiscal inertia) attendant to publishing networks, be made to speak rather directly to readerships.

Against (2), the small presses offer a competing model of literary aesthetics, in which what is valued is unconventional literature and literary modes, as opposed to more mundane realisms and the like.

In the midst of this deplorable (yes, OK) situation, we have the "long tail" argument, in which people (readers) will presumably be buying less of more. But may I observe here that there is less, and there is LESS. Buying (selling) 3000 copies of a book -- 3000 down on the flatter part of the tail, if you look at the overall distribution range -- is a whole different ballgame than selling (buying) 50 copies of a book, and 3000 is a good bit higher than most (most) small-press runs with which I'm familiar. So I'm not certain about the scales at stake here, finally, and without being certain, I'm simply not willing to put too much hope in the tail end of things.

But here's my main point: If I have to choose between (1) and (2) -- and nobody is holding a gun to my head, mind you -- I'll have to rate (1) as the more urgent reality at this point. It seems to me that if literature as such -- by which I mean to designate quality literature, or literary fiction, poetry, etc (please permit me to allow these terms to pass unexamined) -- is jeopardized outright as a result of economic realignments at the global level, then the small presses might think about getting less caught up in aesthetic arguments than in finding a home for any literature, as long as it's deemed of sufficient quality.

I know that the word "quality" will give some conniptions. Me too. However, given the urgencies at stake here, as I understand them, I likewise see no reason why someone who's doing challenging work in a realist mode, but can't find a home on the trades, ought not to be welcomed by the small presses.

(This is already happening, of course, in some quarters, and in said quarters, there are people making negative noise about this development. Please don't ask me to name names.)

Of course, small press publishers are free to publish what they wish -- it's their (your) dime. And of course, much (but not all) of the literature I continue to be drawn to is aesthetically ambitious. But my appeal, I suppose -- and w/o wishing to come off as too disputatious -- is that we might reconsider the aesthetic argument as a rationale for publication, and turn our attention to the literary, in all of its more ambitious manifestations.

Then what?

28 January 2007

Conversations in the Book Trade

I was recently contacted by Finn Harvor, who maintains Conversations in the Book Trade. Below are my responses to his questions, to be posted there in a couple days. I recommend the site, which features responses to these same questions as well from Che Elias of Six Gallery Press, James Chapman of Fugue State Press, Micheal Allen of Kingsfield Publishing (UK), Jon Paul Fiorentino of Snare Books (Canada), Catheryn Kilgarriff of Marion Boyars Publishing (UK), Michael Bryson of the Danforth Review (Canada), Robert Lasner of Ig Publishing, Richard Nash of Softskull Press, Fred Ramey of Unbridled Books, and Bev Daurio of The Mercury Press (Canada). I think these are interesting interviews because they are international in scope and also issue from a place other than our own sphere (for instance, see the questions about agents, big contests, etc.). I apologize for the repetitions of other things I've said here, but I've tried to have some new thoughts as well!

Conversations in the Book Trade: Literature is in trouble -- that is, more trouble than usual. Why do you think this is? The increasing prevalence of TV? The distractions of increasingly narcotic subcultures such as video games? Sept. 11? Or is talk of the "death of literature" simple exaggeration?

Ted Pelton: Lots of economic & cultural reasons gave rise to the novel as a popular form some 300 years ago, and lots of cultural reasons get in the way of it being an easily consumable form of entertainment today, just having to do with amounts of leisure time, different forms of entertainment and entertainment technologies being available, etc. Tough to read while listening to an iPod – and even I just got one for Christmas. Lots of other kinds of entertainment are more passively enjoyed than in Samuel Richardson’s, even Henry James’s, or even James Baldwin’s day, and these can fit multi-task life-functioning better, are less demanding. But I wouldn't go so far as to say the "death of literature." As a rejoinder, look at the enormous & growing number of creative writing programs in the US today. One might be cynical and say that this is symptomatic of our current self-obsessed time -- everyone wants to be writers but no one is reading. I think there's validity to saying that. But I also think that people feel & comprehend the deep inadequacy of being limited to only ephemeral pastimes; they want to be readers and be turned on by books, recognizing the deep satisfaction, pleasure, and wisdom to be found there. It isn't as central a part of our society as it may used to have been, but then there's also a lot more people, and if we had a publishing and establishment that was literature-friendly instead of hell-bent on blockbusters, I think we'd see literature have a bigger profile. Small presses are trying to fill in this gap.

CBT: And what is literature, anyway? Should the traditional novel be considered the prime example of it?

TP: Sure, but look also at what's happened to comic books, which have arguably become MORE sophisticated in the age of the Graphic Novel, so that we have Literary comics now as well as the more typical forms, novels, poetry, etc. Definitions are troublesome, because no sooner does one come up with one than someone else comes in and says, "Yeah, but what about 'x'?" But I would say, off the cuff, that literature is an open, expanding art form that contains writing of some sort and is intended to have more value than simply being useful as entertainment; that is, it has artistic ambitions. So while the novel might generally be considered Literature, I'd say many novels published today are not Literature (i.e., they have no artistic ambitions, but simply entertain in formulaic, predictable ways), while some categories of writing that formerly were not thought of as Literature -- like the alternative comic, for instance -- might today be seen as Literature.

CBT: Prizes and awards are playing an increasing role in determining an author's career-trajectory. In short, winning a major literary prize can win a writer a large audience overnight (not to mention, considerable fame and financial remuneration). But, as British critic Jason Cowley has observed, what is lost is the ability for readers to think in a critically complex fashion.

Are literary prizes dangerous in this regard? Do they convey to the public the message that "this book is worth reading and all these others aren't"?

TP: I haven't really thought about the big prizes, which probably do operate in the way Cowley suggests. Then again, a prize that's honorably given for the right aesthetic reasons can be a terrific cultural instrument for good. I think of the recent Nobel Literature Prizes, including the stunningly brave awarding of it to Elfriede Jelinek the year before last. Who in the United States read Jelinek before this? Indeed, to this day, she doesn't even have an American publisher -- her brilliant, savage books, severely critical of Western capitalism and male-domination, are distributed in the US by the British publisher Serpent's Tail.

Let me also give you another view of the prize issue. The press I direct, Starcherone Books, does an annual blind-judged contest, now going into its fifth year. We do our best to make certain the contest is run completely on the up-&-up, including publishing a strict set of ethical guidelines on our website. Over the past 4 years, we have 4 times discovered debut authors as winners, whose work was terrific, couldn't get published elsewhere, and makes us proud to be in this business. A contest was the vehicle by which this occurred. So I'd at least complicate Cowley's view of the role of prizes to suggest that they are actually a means by which authors who are less privileged can compete and get into print.

CBT: Literary publishing has always been a marriage of art and commerce. But in recent years, the Cult of the Deal has become more influential, with agents demanding larger advances and marketing people paying especially close attention to sales figures. Is the "art" side of the business being pushed out?

TP: Oh, most definitely. But that's what makes a press like Starcherone -- or FC2, or Chaismus, or Other Voices, or 3rd Bed, or Calamari, etc. -- so important and valuable. Major publishers today are more than ever divisions of entertainment conglomerates with business concerns involved in the editorial decisions: how predictable a market does this book give us, who's going to buy it, how do we target its appeal in a marketing blitz, etc. These are not concerns of Literature. Big houses want to run their book divisions like movies are distributed -- get them out to venues, give people a short time to "consume" them, then clear the venues for the new products. Again, this is where small presses are more in line with how literature actually works: we keep books available longer than that 3-6 month window. I'm always quoting Emerson that "one shouldn't read a book until it's at least a year old." I find that I read that way -- the books I'm reading at any one time have generally been out 1-3 years, and are still new; I wait until several people have told me to read a book, etc. That's antithetical to how the book business is set up – the celebrity deal culture. But it coincides with how small presses work, keeping their books in print indefinitely; and now, with internet venues (as well as the indy bookstores that have stayed afloat) allowing for "long tail" retailing -- extending customer choices by having many more products available, instead of making everybody consume this month's Harry Potter or Johnny Depp product -- the mainstream publishers are in trouble. Their way of doing business doesn't make sense (either economically or for readers) and needing as they do huge profits in order to stay healthy in the weird way corporate economics works these day, they are covering up their panic in glitzy press releases. That's my read, anyway.

CBT: Many major publishers now refuse to accept "unsolicited" work; that is, they will not even consider work unless it is agented. Is this a sound policy from point of view of finding the best new literary voices? Isn't there a chance good writing will be squeezed out?

Of course it isn't a sound policy for finding the best new literary voices, but commercial publishing isn't about that. And it certainly isn't interested in good writing. Commercial publishing is about finding the best new literary PRODUCTS -- works that fit in already understood niches, are marketable in predictable, pre-established patterns, etc. Accepting agented-only manuscripts is part of streamlining the corporate process -- outsourcing the work of finding talent. And agents present at least 2 problems, it seems to me, as arbiters of Literature: 1) they will always (except in very rare circumstances) favor books that are more commercial in orientation; 2) agents largely draw from a rather pre-selected pool, which I think is pretty much class-based: those who go to the top schools, who meet at the top clubs & prep schools, who already know the top dealmakers, etc. Literature has always been the rich person's game, but I think it's likely worse than it's ever been, in the state of affairs you describe.

No wonder we have such boring, pedestrian mainstream literature these days.

CBT: Alternatively, for small presses that do accept unsolicited work, is the problem that the majors are squeezing the small houses at the distribution/retail marketing end? In other words, even when good writers get published by small houses, do they have a fair chance of winning an audience? Or are the major houses introducing an overly corporate, overly aggressive mentality to the book trade?

TP: The deck is stacked against small presses in major ways. Follow this scenario: A major publisher has a new book. It sends out its galleys 4-6 months ahead to the major reviewers, complete with descriptions of the national publicity campaigns planned. The major review venues (Publisher's Weekly, NYT Book Review, etc.) then write the reviews of the major publishers' books, coinciding with the week the books come out in retail chains around the country. It's a beautiful, multi-million dollar industrial ballet, with advertising, reviewing and distribution synched up all across our nation of 300 million people, via the major newspapers and book chains positioned all across the country to serve those people. Of course the small presses can't compete with that. The mainstream reviews don't review our books, because they know we're not corporate players (again, the decision to review or not review has little or nothing to do with the quality of the book); the distribution systems that ship tens of thousands of books only to see most of them returned unsold and get remaindered and pulped, within the year -- these are well-beyond the finances of small presses to compete with.

But what I've come to realize is that small presses don't have to operate in direct competition with this model. We make our books' marketing period not the three months after it comes out, but the lifetime of the book -- that is, always keeping our books in print, available, and continuously marketed. And by not competing with this corporate model, we not only help even the playing field, spreading the news by longer-extended, word-of-mouth means, author tours, ads for backlist titles, localized approaches, etc., but we also adopt a practice that's more in keeping with the way literature actually works. As a small press fiction publisher, I look at how poetry has been sold for years, with virtually no visibility in the cultural mainstream, yet selling steadily, as it were, through underground channels.

CBT: Returning to the question of agents -- are they too powerful? If so, in what ways? Or are they a largely beneficial and necessary element of contemporary publishing?

TP: I have had little direct involvement with agents. I think I operate in a different world.

Generally, I think agents can help distort what literature really is. I have from time to time met agents who seem like nice people, with their hearts in the right place. But by fundamentally judging writing by the expectations of its sales potential, which it seems to me they MUST do, by the very nature of their jobs, I think they help pre-select a largely predictable, culturally received type of literature.

CBT: Does America have too many publishers? Or too few?

TP: Too many publishers! Well, the mainstream book world certainly thinks so, and the corporate review establishment basically tows this line. It's always, inherently, "Are there too many small press publishers?"

Starcherone Books publishes really great books. We do an annual contest that finds terrific debut authors (not that we limit it to that, it's just how it's gone) every year. So, no, there aren't too many publishers -- there are as many publishers as there need to be, because no one is going to go through the hard work of selling in a marketplace where the odds are stacked against you, unless there's a real need. And rarely does a week go by that I don't hear about a new press starting. Maybe there really are too few... Maybe a better way to think about it might be this -- when some kids start a rock band, they don’t think so much about "are there too many rock bands," they think "I want to be in a rock band, I have some friends who'll come see us," etc. So, too, presses. Why should there be a category of "too many"?

CBT: In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?

TP: I really don't know. This has been argued about for a while -- but the changeover to electronic books has seemed very slow in actually happening, perhaps because people really like books, their tangible feel, etc. It's happened much more slowly, for instance, than technology has affected how we listen to music, for instance.

One thing that is definitely happening, and happening for the better, concerns the literary magazine world. It used to be that people would get published in these, but you'd rarely see them; they were very localized, and obscure in other parts of the country. But now, web magazines are all over the place and there's much more of a sampling of everybody's works out there -- at least among avant-garde/experimental/innovative writers.

CBT: Putting aside the hype, does the Internet provide a real opportunity to publishers? If so, how?

TP: As I started to say above, now you have the opportunity to see just about anyone's writing you're interested in (short of the very established writers, whose work is everywhere already anyway), immediately, for free. Book publishers, I think, are less affected, because internet reading isn't really given to book length works. Or at least it doesn't seem yet to be. But the literary magazine has been transformed forever. Now people have magazine blogs, as well as new mags forming all the time, and linking to one another. It's actually quite exciting, if you give up the idea of making a living at it!

My friend Geoffrey Gatza has a press called BlazeVox that may also be a sign of things to come. He's done a terrific amount of work in sponsoring new literature through the internet, with virtually no money expenditure. He "publishes" books as pdf's, then if you want to get the book in tangible form, you order it online and it's assembled per order -- pure print-on-demand, through amazon.com's BookSurge, and the book quality is superb! He has the authors doing their own proofreading, and by farming out such tasks he's able to publish dozens of books. My novella, Bhang, is available through BlazeVox Books. The titles include books by some of my favorite alternative authors, Kent Johnson, Daniel Nester, Kazim Ali, etc. This is one guy, with no cash expenditure, working out of his home office, who has published about 3 dozen books! The authors themselves are then responsible for marketing, etc., besides website and email marketing.

Starcherone Books is more traditional -- we do print-runs and publish a more manageable 4 titles a year. But we started with nothing in 2000 except the name, taken from "start your own." It would have been impossible to do what we have done without the net -- we advertise there, do a lot of direct sales, communicate with our authors, other publishers, printers, etc., and otherwise make up the ground between us and the big publishers.

CBT: And what role can traditional, venerable institutions such as libraries and English Departments play in reversing the decline in sales of literary fiction?

TP: English departments can spend more time studying the economics of the book industry, as this very much affects what Literature indeed is, as I've been arguing. But the more radical kinds of theoretical discourses, that should theoretically lead English departments toward buying and supporting indy lit, assigning it to classes, etc., runs up against the continued corporatization of the universities. Universities themselves get into the book business, agree to have Barnes & Nobles on campus, or outsource the campus bookstore to an online dealer -- all of which works against anything that isn't routine. Big booksellers profit big publishers, and on it goes.

Libraries generally do their parts when they have funding and they're informed about the small presses. But small press literature is somewhat akin to organic grocers -- it takes an effort and thus requires education of its customers. Lots of cities have "If everyone read the same book" programs -- when libraries and other community organizations get involved with these kinds of events, it can really raise the profile of literature. But people also have to want to do this. Maybe we are seeing Literature become a more selective pastime. I don't think this means that it will die out -- but the people who believe in it have to work to keep it a healthy part of our culture.

CBT: What projects are you working on now that you are excited about?

TP: We're always working, bringing out new books. We have new books by Harold Jaffe and soon another from Raymond Federman -- authors with world-wide reputations (particularly Federman) who can't get mainstream publishers in the US because they are viewed as too "difficult," or simply now not young and glib enough for the pre-conceived American marketplace.

We've also discovered some great new writers -- Nina Shope, Aimee Parkison, Sara Greenslit, and just coming out, Joshua Harmon. People interested in finding out about our authors at http://www.starcherone.com .

And of course I also write. I've got three books, the most recent a novel, Malcolm & Jack, about the American underground in the 1940s. See more about me at TedPelton.com.

26 January 2007

In the Shape of a Disappointed Publishing House

Read Lawrence Norfolk’s In the Shape of a Boar. It’s one of the most challenging books I’ve read in a while, one that emphasizes grammatical tense over plot, myth and the insensate experience of myth over verified reality. A strange book, that’s my best description, and a very difficult one.

The reason I’m writing this piece on Norfolk is not to give a review of the novel, though I will discuss it mostly, but to point to Norfolk as a writer who adroitly pulled the wool over the eyes of publishing/marketing/reviewing world. His first novel, Lempriere’s Dictionary, was an international success. I can only guess that he signed a doozy of a book deal off that success. Since then, he has used that deal to publish books which, had they been submitted by an unknown author, would have been rendered absolutely unpublishable by a major American house, or most of our smaller independent outlets. Granted, Grove Press (the publisher) has done good work in the past, but Norfolk is considered one of England’s best right now, and the fact that his novel In the Shape of a Boar received so much advance hype is, frankly, kind of astonishing.

This was a book that I understood. I didn’t understand it logically, or analytically, and I can hardly explain to you what it’s about or purports to be about. In other words, I didn’t understand it in my brain, but at some further remove, maybe behind my eyes, or inside my skull but outside the brain. The opening section which recounts the myth of the boar of Caladonia reads as though it were being told in an unfamiliar but classical heroic style. The tense is all wrong. The events described are written as though in stone. There are most definitely a series of active descriptions, of actions, of killing and fighting. Of hunting. But the actions belong to such a distant past, and the grammatical tense is so arch and, well, marmoreally diagrammatic, that even the thrust of a spear seems as though it were dabbed by painter on an ancient vase. In other words, Norfolk makes you feel the expanse of time between the narrator’s now (the 1960s) and some mythological classical past. Regardless, the hard slog through the opening section ends in a cave where the boar hides out, and at any moment, an immensley violent act threatens. I made my way through this section as a somnambulist reader.

Let me give you a sample of the action, which is perfectly intelligible, easy to understand, but in its accumulation of detail without context, soon becomes epic in scope, but fragmented in form: “They are here to hunt the boar. Atalanta plucks at the folds of cloth about her waist. Her chiton has dried. She covers her breasts and ties the garment in place. The men pay her no attention, gathered together on the twilit shore and meddled by the shadows and Meleager’s challenge. The dusk settles on them all like a rain of dusk or ash, the rain they have fled. Their pasts are carcasses, toted shoulder-high as trophies, as is her own. Her father left her wailing on a mountainside. She sucked bear’s milk in place of her mother’s. She was the bear-girl. Now she is the huntress, the bitter-virgin, the centaur-killer: her own monsters, of which the most insistent and insubstantial is her own circling shadow. A bronze arm points her forward at dawn. Midday, and the arm of iron warns her back. She has looked up through the breaks in the forest canopy expecting vast slow-beating wings but there was nothing and nobody save herself.”

The first section flows in a similar style. On each and every page, there are footnotes to Ancient Greek texts which reference the boar myth. This section, then, is the modern fictionalization of a myth. Reading it was somewhat akin to reading Nathalie Sarraute’s Portrait of a Man Unknown or Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. But not quite. I only mention them because they were the first two books I can remember reading in a hazy daze. No, a better metaphor might be Lamont Young’s, um, music. Young was born and raised in the American mountain west. Living so close to the highway, the sound that accompanied his childhood was the incessant buzz of the powerline. He attuned himself to its various frequencies and tones, and he made a virtue of the singularly reductive note which contains within it a great many other notes. To use a writing metaphor, imagine the writer who can’t change speeds, all his characters sound alike, and yet he’s able to create a polyphony of meaning/noise just the same. He's not a ventriloquist at all, but a master of the sentence. Young’s home in New York City, as very infrequent visitors have reported, is filled with diametrically opposed speakers which constantly leech out a barely audible hum. Visitors train themselves to listen to the hum’s many tonalities, and soon enough they can hear changes as bodies move through each room. I saw a Young performance a few years ago in a church. We sat down, watched as the performers warmed up, tuned their instruments, etc. Thirty minutes later it became clear: this was the performance. Singular searing notes, a bow whose trip across the violin strings lasted ten minutes, a three hour performance with three instruments, cello, violin, flute, and only 8 or so sweeps of the bow. After an hour of this, I was hallucinating. Not quite asleep, but in some sort of hypnogogic state, “music” bypassing my ears and being rendered inside as a maddening, but strangely riveting, obsessive hum. I didn’t leave. And when it was over, I felt exactly as I felt reading the opening section of Norfolk’s book.

Yes, I know my description of reading this book is a bit dramatic, but what can I say? It was literally an enthralling experience. It might’ve been my mood, who knows, but I blame it solely on Norfolk and the novel.

The rest of In the Shape of a Boar is about a Paul Celan-figure, a Jewish poet who treks out of Romania, escapes the deportations to death camps, as suffered by his family and friends, and lands in the mountains of Greece. Specifically, he finds himself in Agrafa (literally, “the unwritten”) which takes its name from the fact that the Ottomans never bothered to collect taxes or administer the region because of its remoteness in the central mountains. For this reason, the region has a reputation as a home to all sorts of ungovernables, mainly brigands and the like. There, the Celan character (who goes by the name of Solomon Memel) is resuscitated by the Communist resistance, whom he joins in the fight. Years later, he recounts these events while living in Paris as the internationally renowned writer famous for writing a poem that compares one particular female resistance fighter to the Atalanta of the myth. The poem becomes compulsory reciting for German schoolchildren, much as Celan’s Todesfuge became compulsory, and as you might expect, Memel thinks of it mainly as a yoke around his neck. The memory of his time in those Greek mountains (which coincidentally is also the site of ancient Caladonia) hides a secret, one which the protagonist, the narrator, and the writer refuse to uncover. That secret is hidden in a cave. Inside the cave a horrifically violent boar awaits confrontation.

At no point in my reading did I even consider that the opening section would serve as a primer or palimpsest for the ending. The very idea seems odd, because of the insanely difficult references. The book precedes from mythic voice, to memoir, to a dark secret with echoes of myth, a secret never revealed. I was astounded that a book would be so hazily constructed. I don’t know of many other books like it. Reviewers seemed similarly flummoxed, but they liked the book generally and the reason is obvious. After all, Norfolk wrote it. So, I guess I’m making the case that sometimes a book can literally put us in a trance. We may not know what we read. The author function certainly validates some of these books, and in a way, you have to earn the rep that allows such a thing to be published. But, it makes me think, if there’s a space for a book of hallucinations and secrets, refusals to reveal the core of the story, then the publishing industry will just about publishing anything. But only if there’s money involved.

21 January 2007

a conversation with jeffrey deshell : part two

Lance: Do you sense something about what you think of when you say “contemporary experimental fiction” that separates it from the experimentalisms of, say, the 1960s? The 1760s? What, I mean to ask, makes the experimental experimental for you in 2007 that might not have made it experimental in 1907?

Jeffrey: These are indeed thorny questions. Let me begin by clarifying just a bit. The questioning I’m talking about has to happen on many different levels—the level of writer, of text, or reader—and will (necessarily) put into play the status or existence of each. So while a mass-consumption romance novel has to ask questions about genre and marketing, these questions do not extend to a serious inquiry about the status of language, the status of the text and the status of the self. So not only do I not consider this “experimental,” I don’t even call it literature. This is probably a weak restatement of the Frenchie (Blanchot, Barthes, Derrida) distinction between work and text. This brings up a couple (at least) more questions: if we (I) exclude this, can we exclude other, more “radical” types of writing, like e-writing and hypertext? And, can realism be experimental?

I’m going to tackle the “easier” question first, the question of realism. Can realism be experimental? Can realism, the dominant mode of narrative, question itself sufficiently, genuinely, strongly, so it becomes truly self-conscious? I would argue yes, and use Flaubert as an example. On some level, Flaubert is the opposite of what we’ve termed experimental, having distilled Madame Bovary from an original of 600 odd pages to 250: now that’s some revision. This revision, if I would not call it spontaneous or improvisational, I would still call self-conscious. He’s the one who first articulated the desire to write a book about Nothing. What marks Flaubert’s realism as experimental or literary is his irony, his ruthless (self) distance. Irony is what separates “good” questioning realism (Flaubert) from “bad” reactionary realism (Franzen).

One could argue that it is irony which is the quality that determines experimentalism, as one (text, writer, reader) needs self-distance in order to be self-conscious. It’s impossible to say if irony precedes self-consciousness, or if self-consciousness preceded irony, although they are not identical. I think Wendy Steiner would place irony fully in the modernist sublime camp. And wasn’t there a discussion going around a couple of years ago about the death of irony? Some sort of post-irony?

It’s hard to say that irony is the necessary ingredient to experimental fiction, however, because as de Man reminds us, there can be no theory of irony because irony is the interruption of theory. So we have to take each case separately, and maybe we’ll find a quality these works have in common, and maybe this thing will be called irony rather than self-consciousness, or maybe it will be called something else.

Now, the trickier question of e-writing. Quickly and simply, I would not put e-writing into this category of literature that questions itself. I say this for 2 reasons, which really might be more than two, but really might be one as well. Let me begin by asking this question: is e-writing a radically different form of writing? If you say yes (as Tomasula’s excellent post seems to indicate, a post deserving of a separate response), then how can both the pros and cons of the medium be part of the work? In everything I’ve come across in my (admittedly limited) reading on the subject, why is it that there’s very little questioning of the value or project of doing this at all? What is lost in the demand that one “think in terms of screens, chunks, or blocks of text that would fit on a notecard”? What is lost in the expectation that the work “have a sound track, move around”? Why isn’t the questioning of (the value of) technology part of (most) work? He implies an ideology of progress that I’m uncomfortable with. Can technology itself be self-questioning? I don’t think so.

If you answer the other way, that e-writing is simply another form of writing, and that language is platform neutral, then I would ask what does the machine add to the experience of language? In other words, isn’t all text hypertext, in that references and signifieds are open-ended, multiple and personal? Don’t we all have multiple, uncontrollable, textual links, every time we read? And how dare you control how my links function, where they go. And unless you’re going to link (I’m unfamiliar with the vocabulary) every single word, aren’t you still working within a hierarchy of directed manipulation? I have a similar complaint against hybrids, or fiction with pictures, soundtracks, etc. It reminds me of MTV. I don’t want a video to limit the images I get from language or music. This is not to say that such work is invalid, or uninteresting, or not as radical as it claims. It is to suggest, however, that it doesn’t possess the irony or self-consciousness necessary for what I’ve termed literature Electronic literature is a contradiction in terms. I know we disagree on this, so I’d like to hear how and why you classify these hybrids and/or e-writing as experimental.

I’m sympathetic to what both you and Tomasula call difficult work, work that isn’t resolved by a single or even multiple readings. And difficulty, contradiction, ambivalence, complexity etc. can come in many forms: there are as many ways to be self-conscious as there are selves.

You’ve asked me how experimentalism might differ today from other times. I was going to think about this in terms of irony, but if we even go back to the 1970’s and 80’s, how do we define writers like Federman, Sukenick, Hawkes et al.? I mean, the ironic Hawkes of Travesty is quite different from the mawkish Hawkes of Blood Oranges, and Sukenick, Katz, Coover et al., well, their irony is hard to pin down (maybe Roberson can chime in here). And all of our irony today isn’t subversive or complex: metacommercials are rather popular, as was Seinfeld. It seems much of today’s irony is used to reinforce the status quo, to abstract or detach the ego or self from the game, which is the opposite of the questioning I’m interested in.

So how are we different? I guess I would say that women are more fully represented now than they’ve ever been. It was possible, although ignorant, to talk about experimental fiction in 1960’s and 70’s (let alone the 1760’s and 70’s) without mentioning any women, while now, even the most superficial discussion has to include Acker, Maso, Tillman, Caponegro et al. And Stein, Barnes, and others have been mainstreamed to a certain extent. So yeah, I’d say that’s important.

There seem to be a lot more avenues for disseminating fiction than there were even 5 or 10 years ago, with places like Chiasmus, Starcherone, Akashic etc. This is certainly a good thing. There’s a lot of good work coming out now, of all different kinds, with all different presuppositions and concerns. At the same time, there’s a certain despair over how quality writing has become marginalized, neutered, rendered irrelevant. This is what now Tomasula calls “a diminishment in the appreciation of poetics.” I would argue that this diminishment is not unrelated to a general devaluation what I’ve called the peculiarity of literature: if all (textual) experience is equal and similar, if a video can do the same thing as a written story, then interesting and complex texts, perhaps the most interesting and complex texts, will get ignored.

One of the differences, which I hinted at in my Steiner response, is that I do believe that while writing of fiction has remained healthy, the critical apparatus for innovative fiction has certainly broken down. Under this rubric I would include review mechanisms, as well as more academic criticism and theory. There’s so very little of it, and much of what is written sometimes isn’t very smart. I do think we need full-time critics who know what they’re doing who care about such writing. Actually the word “need” is perhaps a bit strong. We’ll keep doing what we do, I suspect, regardless. These points are certainly not exhaustive, but are maybe places to start.

Lance: I’m not sure I wholly agree with your suggestion that it is irony that separates “’good’ questioning realism (Flaubert) from ‘bad’ reactionary realism (Franzen).” This is not so much because I disagree with your sense of irony as a mode of self-distancing consciousness, but because my sense is that irony has beaten at the heart of the novel genre from its inception, whether that genre has engaged in so-called “realistic” practices or not. I’m thinking, for example, of Cervantes’s use of acidic irony toward the romance tradition in Don Quixote, Sterne’s toward the novel genre itself and its assumptions in Tristram Shandy.

But I’d rather focus momentarily on the word “realism” in your equation and ask if perhaps we should think of “realism” as one of the least mimetic forms extant, suggest that the real “realism” is the one embraced by the fast fractures and radical destabilizations we see taking place throughout recent literary history in experimental fiction, the sort we find, in other words, evincing itself at the rise of modernism and carrying on through postmodernism into whatever we want or don’t want to label our current alternative aesthetic impulses. Isn’t it experimental fiction, in its varieties and vagaries, that is most seriously involved with, as Lyotard put it, trying to present the unpresentable, the flux we think of as contemporary existence? Isn’t experimental fiction the kind most committed to giving us a sense of what “reality” feels like, and isn’t the traditional “realism” of, say, a Stendhal or Zola, with its coherent subjectivities, arced plotlines, transparent stylistics, and comfortable moralities, the opposite of that?

You’re right that I tend to disagree with you, as well, in your assertion that “electronic literature is a contradiction in terms.” I should begin, though, by underscoring how much unsuccessful e-writing is out there, how much of it is produced either by visual artists who have no sense of language, or language artists who have no sense of the visual, or perhaps “artists” who simply like to see things move on a screen and go bang in the night, or practitioners who don’t seem to be aware that, with barely two decades of exploration behind them, they are still working in the infancy of a new mode of expression. That said, the most interesting examples do by their very presence pose the question: what is fiction in general, what is e-fiction in particular, and what, if any, is the relationship between the two? I’m thinking of e-writers like Michael Joyce, Stuart Moulthrop, and Young-Hae Chang, who have produced fascinating work that continuously challenges its own processes while presenting us with textual events we simply haven’t experienced before, don’t quite know how to read yet, how to talk about. They thereby insist that all of us writers push farther, even if we decide not to venture into electronica.

What you have to say about contemporary experimentalism(s) differing from past experimentalism(s) resonates deeply with me. I might only add that I sense over the last ten or fifteen years a certain political urgency having entered the discourse of experimental prose that maybe wasn’t there to quite such an extent in the modernist or even early postmodernist projects. Of course even as I write that line I can name exceptions: Dos Passos, the Dadaists, Burroughs, Pynchon, Sukenick. Still, I tend to think of many modernists as being quite content to stand back paring their fingernails along with Joyce—which, in a sense, leads me to my next question: how do you respond to the charges that much experimental fiction is elitist, that, at the end of day, if our conversation is any indication, one needs an advanced degree to talk about it?

Jeffrey: I would definitely agree with you that irony has “beaten at the heart” (nicely put) of the novel since its conception: I was arguing that its presence in what we term realism differentiates it from a na├»ve or sentimental realism, what could be argued as the dominant mode of narrative, the realism that works to reinforce preconceptions and habits rather than works to question them.

I would also agree, up to a point (because I think I see where you’re going with this), about how realism, with a small ‘r,’ tries to (re-)present or articulate the contemporary world in all its destabilized forms, all its vicissitudes and variables. Flannery O’Connor argued that we are all realists, and in this sense, it’s hard to disagree. What else can we do but represent the world as we (want to) experience it? But if we push this, then there are as many realities as there are participants. What might be contemporary to me might not be contemporary to you, or what might be positive in contemporary life to me might be negative to you.

Representation is never objective, and so one constantly takes a position on what one is representing. And by “taking a position” I mean “putting oneself in play.” And putting oneself into play can be a way of resistance, or a way of celebration, or something else entirely. To be more precise, this putting oneself into play, what we’ve called irony or self-consciousness, simultaneously detaches and involves, abstracts and questions. This is key, more fundamental than mimesis. If we take mimesis, even a formal mimesis, as the ultimate objective, then we are no different from Zola and Stowe, or from Franzen and Drabble. Just because we live in an e-chamber pop-culture wild wired world does not mean we should reflect, without irony, that world. I’m remnded of a Bernhard quote: If we do not constantly exist against, but only constantly with the facts, says Oehler, we shall go under in the shortest possible space of time.

One could argue that this irony is itself a mimesis. We live in an ironic, all-too self-conscious YouTubed MySpaced world, and so the "natural" response to such a world can’t help being ironically self-conscious. I would counter this argument by saying this type of irony celebrates and affirms the self rather than questions it: it is the opposite of putting oneself into play. Plus, we can’t overlook the fact that, well, writing is different.

We’re not going to agree on e-writing yet, mostly because I’m too ignorant of it to offer anything other than ill-informed platitudes.

To your last question, about politics and elitism. I agree that the political situation of the world is so pressing that to ignore it seems irresponsible. The fact that the political situation of the world has always been pressing is really beside the point. We have to ask ourselves, individually, if a previous reaction, say the modernist one (as if there is a single modernist reaction) of silence, exile and cunning is appropriate or adequate for us. For many (most?), I expect that it’s not.

What can fiction do, then? I would like to make a distinction, first of all, between discussions of politics and discussions of power. Now obviously the two are inseparable, but they’re not indistinguishable. We can think of politics as relations between people, and, like aesthetics, politics in this sense is closely tied to choices, choices how we live our lives and how we compose our works. Here, fiction CAN affect, in direct and oblique ways, in immediate and mediated ways, the other(s). The danger of this, of course, is that art and life decay into solipsism and selfishness, where the authentic choices of how to live and how to make art are obliterated or eclipsed by mere consumer choices (Ford or Chevy, Miller or Bud). But ideally, and hopefully, by reading a provocative and self-conscious work, where the choices are imaginative, dangerous and, well, right, one can learn to make similar imaginative, dangerous and right choices in living. That’s the hope.

I’m not sure how art, or experimental literature, can directly affect discourses of power. Other than make the reader question the "naturalness" of power discourse through politics (choice, as defined above), the contest seems one-sided. I think of Genet or Sade as the most possible examples, but I can’t see how even they directly and successfully challenged the power structures of their times. I don’t think fiction, literature in general, is that efficacious at directly confronting and changing discourses or structures of power. What it can do, however, is perhaps, in the long run, more powerful, in that it can show a) how we are interconnected through the choices we make, b) that these choices, whether they be aesthetic or political, are important and c) that the easy choices are often not the best, that one needs imagination to truly make good choices. But this might be Pollyanna-like here, perhaps a rationalization of my own emphases.

As for the elitism part, I won’t argue against the word, only its connotation. On the one hand, I’m fond of the Wilde quote, that Art should not try to become more popular, the public should become more artistic. The public, the masses, I can’t define those groups any more, and “reading public” seems a contradiction in terms. There are readers out there, but I have no idea how many readers are interested in what I’m interested in, or the things we’re talking about today. It reminds me of when I used to work at the campus radio station: you’d bring your records and put together a set, but as to how many people were actually listening to you, who knew? Some nights you’d get a phone call, other nights not, but you’d still try to compose a good set. I’m guessing it’s not an overly large group who is willing to put themselves into play like we’ve been talking about, but I really have no idea. A hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? I’m guessing less than ten thousand. What difference does that make? What does the number of one’s readers measure?

But since elitism has so many negative (at least in this culture) connotations we need a new word. How about educated? I don’t necessarily mean university educated (although the university can be a good place for the reading and writing I’m talking about), but educated in the sense that you’ve had experience reading this type of thing before, that you’re not bothered or disturbed by reading that asks more questions than it answers, that tries to break you of habits of presupposition and safety, that forces you to interact with the text, the world and yourself imaginatively and dangerously. How is this education tied to opportunity, to class and to other economic factors that might limit it or make it impossible? I wish I knew. I’m guessing we’re more of a mandarin than elite class anyway. I mean we have very little power.

Lance: What a wonderful quote from Bernhard, Jeffrey, and I had never thought about your distinction between irony as mode of self-consciousness and—what do we call it?—a certain faux or unreflexively staged contemporary irony that’s all about jumping up and down and saying Look at me! Look at me! Look how cool and detached I am! Which, of course, is about nothing save green narcissism, the existential mode du jour, and hardly about revelation or revolution. A mode, by the way, that jibes nicely with the one you describe in which democratic choice has become bastardized into the right to download whatever songs you deem fit from iTunes. This is late-stage capitalism in democracy’s clothing, and people are falling for it more than ever, I'm afraid.

Ben Marcus argues provocatively in his by now well-known piece on experimental fiction in Harper’s that the “true elitists in the literary world” are the ones who evince “a hostility toward the poor common reader, who should never be asked to do anything that might lead to a pulled muscle.” But what, I wonder, constitutes a “common” reader? A bus driver in Baltimore? An innovationist in Indiana or India? The bland (if ever amorphous) bourgeois whom many of the early avant-garde movements sought to harass? And what sort of textual aerobics might lead her or him to pull a muscle?

In its
Human Development Report 2000, the U.N. defines illiteracy as the inability to read or write a simple message, and reports that 90 million children worldwide are denied any sort of schooling, 232 million any sort of secondary education, and that one billion adults are illiterate through and through. Is that really what we mean when we say illiteracy? Is that the only kind? In 2004, as I mentioned earlier on this blog, the N.E.A. questioned 17,000 American adults about their reading preferences and habits. The survey discovered that since 1982 there has been a loss of roughly twenty million readers—a number that represents a ten percent drop in readership—and that reading rates are declining among all demographic groups regardless of gender, ethnicity, education, age or income level, with the steepest decline in the youngest groups—i.e., those between 18-24 and 25-34, respectively. Of those surveyed, 95.7 percent said they preferred watching television to reading, 60 percent attending a movie, 55 percent lifting weights.

In light of such news, to what extent aren’t all readers “elitists,” the very existence of written texts “radical” and “disruptive” … while, ironically, increasingly anachronistic and pointless with respect to the culture at large, to any real “revolution”? To what extent do such statistics reduce all queries concerning “elitism” and “innovation” to ethically challenging if ultimately unenlightening drills in semantics?

One way, it occurs to me, that we might define most, if not all, contemporary experimental fiction is to say it is that sort of writing shot through with a theoretical intelligence—a self-reflexive, difficult, often contradictory critifictional awareness. In a sense, this is no more than an extension, I think, of your use of the notion of irony. Whether or not that’s generally the case, it strikes me as the case in an important and illuminating way with respect to your own project. Which theorists and/or philosophers (if you sense a difference between the two terms) most inform your writing?

part three of this conversation
coming soon . . .

16 January 2007

rain taxi fundraising auction

In order to raise ever-needed and well-deserved funds, Rain Taxi Review of Books is holding an auction this week on eBay.

There are lots of great first editions, broadsides, artwork, etc.

For a full listing, please click here.

15 January 2007

a conversation with jeffrey deshell : part one

Lance: In his podcast interview with Frank Giampietro, R. M. Berry defines experimental fiction, essentially, as that which knowingly poses the question: what is fiction? Would you agree?

Jeffrey: So we don’t get a chance to get warmed up or anything, then, do we? R.M. and I had the briefest of conversations about this at the Attention/Inattention Conference at Denver University a year ago last fall. I have a couple of approaches to this question.

On the one hand (and I haven’t yet listened to the podcast, as the word “podcast” frightens me), this seems like an adequate, working definition. There are a couple of words here that seem key: the word “knowingly” and the word “fiction.” In order to fit this definition, one must be (self-)conscious about the questioning, one must set out to question, as it were—the questioning is the project, the questioning is the problem. This questioning quality, I think, indicates the open(ing) and process(ing) of the fiction we’re talking about, its movement and restlessness. And it’s not just a questioning of its own status, it’s the questioning of fiction (and by extension language, reality and the self) itself (themselves). The question of What am I as writing? becomes the question of What is writing? becomes the question of What am I?

I’m curious, however, if we’re saying enough. Doesn’t all fiction, all literature, question itself on some very basic level? Isn’t even the most genre specific formulaic and trite mass-marketed trash, self-conscious? Doesn’t it demand (self)conscious (at least on some level) choice and effort to make a piece of writing fit the genre? Isn’t all writing, on some very basic level, an experiment? In the very act of writing, does anyone know, when they write the first word, what the last word’s going to be? When I wrote the word “When,” six words ago, did I know that the final word of the sentence would be “be”? No. And that’s just with a single sentence. Every word, every sentence, every page, every chapter etc.: all experiments.

Barthes wrote somewhere that writers are those for whom language is a problem. If you already have the solution before you start, it’s not a problem. This is something I’d like to ask a more traditional writer someday: do you really know how your sentence, paragraph, novel or chapter is going to end when you write the first word? One might have a general idea, a bright and shiny figure idea in one’s head, but in the translation to imperfect, dirty and stubborn language, doesn’t something get lost (gained)? Not to mention life getting in the way. The vicissitudes of writing something long, like a novel, when you have to live with the thing for years, and the kids are making noise, and you get sick, divorced, remarried, and it’s a nice day to go for a walk, and you want to watch all of Robert Mitchum’s movies, and you have to grade papers etc. etc. etc.: how can you say that you know what you are doing and what you will be doing? How can you say that you’ll know how your sentence will end? How can you say that’s not an experiment? So is it a question of degree or intensity?

On another hand, the word I’m most concerned with in the R.M.’s definition, and the one that causes the most trouble for me, is the word “is.” By saying experimental fiction is, aren’t we arresting its experimentalness, its contingency, openness and restlessness? Doesn’t the is stabilize the fiction, make it into a thing, into an object like other things? An object with use-value, with existence, with presence, with a status that is predetermined and fixed? This is why I objected so strenuously to the metaphor of fiction as architecture in a discussion a couple of months ago: can built (realized) architecture question its own existence in the world? I don’t see how (this could be my own blindness). To my mind, music, with its ephemerality, with its existence and yet non-existence, seems closer to literature. If we takes Berry’s definition seriously, the is is the first place we have to question. Does experimental fiction exist? Yes and no.

Still, on another hand, the western tradition often defines (advanced) human life as requiring self-consciousness, the ability to question one’s existence. I like that Berry’s definition connects experimental fiction with this human life, making it lively, open, animated, uncertain, indeterminate, indefinite. Experimental. Experimental fiction puts itself in play, as well as the self in play. And if we say that all literature is experimental, then let’s take that label off, and say that all Literature, indeed all Art (and I’m very invested in these terms), rigorously asks these questions: What is a text? What is a reader? What is a writer? Literature asks these questions (serves as the ax for the frozen sea within us etc.) while other, more “popular” forms of writing, do not.

Your turn. I know, from your posts and other writings, that you consider self-consciousness a key component to experimental fiction. How does your thinking differ from mine?

Lance: I very much like your troubling questions and caveats, think they’re right on the mark, believe in many ways we’re thinking along much the same lines about experimentalism—or, better, as I've mentioned here before, experimentalisms. Let me respond quickly to a few points you make, however, that may help delineate a few difference in our approaches. I don’t seem to be as convinced as you that all literature questions itself on some basic level. Or, perhaps, I want to assert that different sorts of writing ask different sorts of questions of writing. Authors of Harlequin romances, for instance, surely pose questions about genre to themselves, as you suggest, maybe questions about market forces, but for me the questions their texts pose are neither interesting nor enlightening about the nature of fiction and the culture/languages that speak through it. On the other hand, I don’t see a clear binary between experimental writing and whatever we might conceive of as the other thing. Would it be helpful, therefore, to think of experimentalisms as existing along a continuum? At one end, we would posit cookie-cutter texts like those romances; at the other, we would posit something called, say, Finnegans Wake. Other texts would then situate themselves somewhere in between.

Texts begin to become engaging for me at that point where they become much more than predictable, much more than texts I’ve seen before, where they begin to impede my easy understanding of them, where they begin to challenge me to invent a modified and fairly complex way of speaking in order to converse with them. So, yes, self-consciousness is a key component of experimental fiction, as far as I’m concerned, but, equally if not more important is a certain textual density and difficulty of imagination at the strata of language, structure, character, voice, vision, and so forth. Of course, my threshold for difficulty will be different from other readers’, and perhaps that’s enlightening as well: that is, not only are there different experimentalisms (Burroughs’ project isn’t Coover’s isn’t Diane Williams’s isn’t Shelley Jackson’s isn’t Jeffrey Deshell’s), but it is also the case, I think that I think, that different texts will strike different readers as more or less experimental at different times in their lives. One’s first engagement with Ulysses will not be one’s third or thirtieth. Moreover, different texts will strike different readers as more or less experimental at different times in the conversation across time and space called literary history.

Do you sense something about what you think of when you say “contemporary experimental fiction” that separates it from the experimentalisms of, say, the 1960s? The 1760s? What, I mean to ask, makes the experimental experimental for you in 2007 that might not have made it experimental in 1907?

part two of this conversation
coming soon . . .

08 January 2007

Two Announcements

A revision:

1) The January 26 reading by Debra Di Blasi, Steve Tomasula, and Davis Schneiderman has been postponed; it will be rescheduled later.

In the meantime, your best bet is to order books from Debra and Steve.

2) I'm looking for contributors for a new co-edited project:
Love Letters to Mom:
A Final Goodbye to the Mothers We've Lost.
Details here.


07 January 2007

The Shifting Literary Landscape

In reference to Lance and Davis's posts, Yeah, the nature of lit has changed a lot. Just look at what gets written about as if it were literary: the museum without walls as it used to be called in the visual arts where, after Duchamp’s urinal, anything could be an art object. Seems like the same thing has been going on in literature, though not necessarily in a liberating, or genre-expanding way as was the case with Duchamp’s FOUNTAIN, given that one is as likely to see critics expend their energy in analysis of Survivor, The Sopranos or Grand Theft Auto as contemporary lit (which raises a point Joe Amato makes elsewhere: when are critics going to start considering the ramifications of the choices they make in selecting the objects they do for analysis?). That Steven Johnson book Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter seems to be a popularization of an idea that has dominated literary studies/American culture for some time now.

But I digress. More specifically, when I think of the number of things all of us do now in comparison to say 20 years ago, I think it’s not hard to conclude that there’s been a seismic shift in what literature is, what is considered literary. It wasn’t that long ago that a monthly calendar of readings was alien. Readings were a thing that poets did in a bar. The reading fee was a free beer. Now in Chicago, to use a typical city, any month’s calendar is made up of authors of financial-advice books, cookbooks, history, etc. etc. That is, there seems to have been a real rise in the author as celebrity, or at least a rise in the importance of face time in literature. (It’s also odd how readings have come to dominate the hiring of faculty authors: as part of the hiring process, a visiting candidate’s reading is the one thing everyone in the dept. attends, and they vote on the basis of the reading, not the written work.) As someone who writes for the page, i.e, uses the page as a visual element that is part of the story, this emphasis on performance has caused me to make pieces that can be used in these performance venues—it’s shifted what I do as an author, and I only mention my own case as an example of how widespread this phenomena is, slam poetry aside. Then there are all the other things all of us do—creating pieces for the web, contributing to blogs, etc. and all the other kinds of creation that aren’t necessary writing or reading in the traditional sense.

Hand in glove with all of this is the market as coauthor. It’s been true for some time now that the movie that doesn’t play at the mall doesn’t play, the same is true in lit. As Trevor and Ted note elsewhere, poetry, experimental writing and other kinds of writing that don’t have mass market demographics are invisible to the commercial newspapers of record, and all of this has helped to redefine what counts as literature (or a movie, or anything ‘mass’ for that matter). This too has had a trickle down effect in terms of determining what is and isn’t part of the literary conversation: you can’t buy, teach, read a book you don’t know exists, and the narrow-view of lit taken by the mainstream reviewers/papers has certainly shaped what is read, or taught in schools, written about by critics (see above). (Not coincidentally this dynamic makes the few publications that have a broader view of what lit is and can be all that much more important, e.g. RCF, ABR, Rain Taxi).

But finally, and I guess this is what Davis is actually talking about, the word-image hybrids that dominate e-writing are certainly a different animal in every way from traditional print: the assumptions behind what is considered "literature," what is considered “writing” and what goes on during “reading” are certainly different. All writing is writing under constraint, be it the constraints of realism or OuLiPo, and electronic writing certainly has its own particular constraints: the reluctance of readers to go through dense prose on-line, for example; pressure there is for e-writers to basically think in terms of screens, chunks, or blocks of text that would fit on a notecard. The genre expectations that we bring to e-lit demand that it do something other than print-lit, have a sound track, move around. If nothing is happening, don’t we start clicking the mouse? These differing constraints and assumptions, not to mention the marketplace as co-author, allow a different kind of literature to emerge, one that is stunning for its ability to be multimodal, as the English call it. Check out Heavy Industries’s DAKOTA [http://www.yhchang.com/DAKOTA.html]. Check out the great anthology of e-lit just put out by ELO (Hayles, Montfort, Rettberg, Stickland eds.), Electronic Literature Collection, Vol. One [ http://collection.eliterature.org/1/]

(Anyone who still doubts how clueless/apathetic commercial newspapers are about the wider world of aesthetically-driven literature need only note how invisible e-lit is to their reviewers. Speaking of which, does anyone know where e-lit is reviewed in a meaningful way? Seems like I only hear about works I should read/look at by word of mouth or by stumbling across them, and there’s so much junk online I never want to spend the effort wading through it find the pearl. The great thing about the web is that it has no editor/the bad thing is that it has no editor.)

I don’t know if any of this is good, bad or neutral. There seems to be a diminishment in the appreciation of poetics. There certainly seems to a bleed over from one sphere to the other; as someone who also teaches lit, for example, I’ve noticed that students no longer come into a classroom understanding that poem or novel might have to be read more than once to be understood. Or as Silverblatt once said on Bookworm (to Gilbert Sorrentino, I think), not as many people can APPRECIATE ‘difficult’ books today (think Faulkner) because not as many people can READ ‘difficult’ books (think of NY Times ‘critic’ James Atlas who once wrote that Proust, along with Joyce, etc. bore him--this from someone who writes for the paper of record, not someone who lives under a rock). That seems to be the downside. The upside is that no one know what literature is anymore, and that seems exciting. This shifting literary landscape reminds me of an essay by Morton Feldman on the art scene at the dawn of abstract expressionism: “What was great about the fifties is that for one brief moment—maybe, say, six weeks—nobody understood art. That’s why it all happened. Because for a short while, these people [the artists] were left alone. Six weeks is all it takes to get started. But there’s no place now where you can hide out for six weeks….” Or as Dylan Thomas might have put it, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”?

01 January 2007

happy new year

A very warm happy new year to all readers of and contributors to Now What, and many, many thanks for making this experimental conversation about experimental fiction the success it's been so far.

Back on 3 June 2006, one month after our launch, we had had 2,672 visitors. As of this morning, we've had 18, 804. We continue to see readers drop in regularly from around the country and from as far away as Norway, Turkey, and Australia.

Originally Ted Pelton and I conceived of Now What as a fairly stable entity. The plan was for us to invite a dozen or so innovative authors and publishers to be full-time contributors—and that, we figured, would be that. But this blog has proved to be deeply Heraclitean in nature. Because of time constraints, some of our initial contributors have had to bow out. Because of interest in our project, others have come aboard. Still others have remained more or less constant from Now What's inauguration. I suspect that this will remain the case, that Now What will remain a polyphony in process. I can't imagine a more perfect manifestation of its goals.

The same has seemed to prove true for Now What as for alternative prose and publishing in general—i.e., that there's a real and substantial audience out there for this sort of engagement, despite the fact that, as David Fenza, executive director of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, points out in the latest issue of Poets & Writers, our culture has

entered an era of trickle-down belligerence to artists and the arts. Congress cut the budget of the NEA by 40 percent in 1996. The NEA lost resources with which it could support small presses and literary service organizations. Many states cut funding for their state and local art agencies. This also limited support for nonprofit presses and literary programming. Private philanthropic support for the arts, including literature, declined. In 1991, the arts received 8.4 percent of all private charitable giving; that giving fell to 5.2 percent in 2005. The advocacy group Americans for the Arts estimates this decline to be a loss of $8.4 billion in support.

Despite, in other words, that even relatively mainstream art has found itself under attack over the last decade and more, there remains a real and substantial audience for what we at Now What do, what we care about, what we stand for. The only problem, from what I can see, is finding increasingly effective ways to reach that audience. To that end, let me start the new year by making a request of you: please continue passing the words.

And here's to a 2007 that makes 2006—one of the most dynamic and diverse years I can remember in the field of innovative writing, apparent proof, in light and in spite of Fenza's sobering statistics, that this enterprise is never ultimately about money, but rather in many respects about the very opposite of money—look downright flat and faded.

Sometimes this feels like a beginning.

Sometimes this feels like a first sentence.