26 February 2007

The China Syndrome

Hi all;

Sorry to have been more than silent in the past few weeks; my wife and I have been in China, adopting our daughter Athena. For details of the trip, see here: http://www.chicagotribune.com/adoption. [Can't seem to link in blogger today....]

While in Beijing, we worked with a wonderful guide with an interest in expanding her English. I offered to send her some American novels, yet she asked for "nothing too hard." Her spoken English is quite strong, and she has some concerns about my package not making it through the Chinese mail. We'll see.

So, an interesting question for the blog: What should I send to someone in burgeoning China to further her undertsanding and study of English, while perhaps offering an entry point into interesting American literature?

I have some ideas, but thought you might as well.


17 February 2007

Graphic Narrative

I feel bad that, as one of the founders of this blog, I've posted so little in recent months. One reason, of course, is the time involvements of doing something related to the means of expression discussed in this blog -- namely, I run a small press, and do so more or less in my so-called "spare time."

Teaching 4 classes this semester, Starcherone Books is enough of an additional chore to keep me pretty busy, and behind in my obligations. But this semester particularly has been one in which I've attempted to bring my teaching in line with my other interests. I teach in a college, Medaille College of Buffalo, which has no graduate Creative Writing program; we barely have an undergraduate English major. The main constituency for my pedagogy is undergraduate students who are pre-professional in inclination, and the professions are much more likely to be elementary school teaching, police work, or veterinary technicians than more literary-minded professions such as the law or those requiring grad school educations. The anti-reading figures cited by Lance from the NEA report are realities for my students -- they do not read, not even bestsellers, and Literature to them is primarily something that other people do, somewhere else, with more than a little presumed class advantage.

Nevertheless, I wished this semester to engage them and, sad to say, had had my fill (at least temporarily) of trying to force them through "difficult" work. Doing so is not without its converts, of course -- I've had students in recent years who were very moved and even permanently changed by being introduced to works by Lance Olsen and Ralph Berry when they each visited Medaille, and by texts by Ben Marcus, Williams Burroughs, and Nina Shope, among others. But I was tired of writing off the vast majority of Medaille students. Was there nothing that could engage their creativity? Was I writing off 80-90% of the college's student body, the imaginations of 19-20 year olds which should have some potential for unscrewing the doors from the jambs, and then the jambs themselves? Wouldn't they also derive some life benefit from kicking out the jambs, muthafucka, just once in their narrativally pre-prescribed lives?

I went into the trenches -- I am now teaching 3 sections of General Education 230 - Creative Expression, a sophomore-level creativity class in a Gen Ed curriculum that students by and large hate at Medaille. I decided to try, instead of a more standard Intro to the Arts class, a more populist version of avant-garde. I called the class Punk Rock & Comics. We began with the Sex Pistols movie, The Filth & the Fury, and from there moved into the McSweeney's anthology of avant-comics. Not so populist, really (only 2 of 50 students in 3 sectionshad ever heard of the Sex Pistols!), but with more potential for populist consumption -- and from there inroads into theory and the avant-garde, via Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces & its connections to Dada & the Situationists. I also (as noted in a comment below) showed Lars von Trier/Jurgen Leth's The Five Obstructions, which they are currently wrestling with. Next up is Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel/memoir, Persepolis. I'm trying to keep them drawing, doing cut-ups, etc., the whole time.

This could go in various directions, but my focus for this post is this: What do you folks think about the revolution going on in comics today, toward, it seems to me, a lot of the issues our fiction is interested in? That is, like punk and like us, the alt-comics scene is very much fueled by an anti-corporate aesthetic; it's likely to draw attention to its own act of creating, to be self-referential and question easy assumptions of representation; it's also drawn ("drawn") to depictions of the margins of culture, those left out of the airbrushed versions of American (and world) existence which are the subjects of mainstream books & movies; as well, it is a medium that is, in essence, a post-medium-- it refers to the tradition (see, for instance Art Spiegelman's peon to 100 year-old daily comics, in In the Shadow of No Towers) but sees such as a lost time that cannot be repeated given what we know now, our current complexities; finally (rhetorically, anyway), it engages the "creative non-fiction" debate in a striking and fresh way: artificial and discredited as a serious discourse by its very nature, it nevertheless engages the notion of factual experience, and indeed, history, writ large and small. I think, in this last formulation, of such texts as Spiegelman's Maus, Satrapi's Persepolis, Phoebe Gloeckner's Diary of a Teenage Girl, or in the McSweeney's book, Joe Matt, Lynda Barry, Jeffrey Brown, etc. As well (the hits just keep happening...), is this in any way an extension/reenactment of fiction writers' own desires to create visuals -- Vonnegut, Sebald, Marcus, Federman, Shelley Jackson, etc.?

What say ye?

(Above: Gloeckner's cover for J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition.)

16 February 2007

the writer's edge : a final reminder

A quick friendly reminder that the application deadline for The Writer's Edge Second Annual Innovative Writing Conference (27-29 July, 2007) in Portland, Oregon, is 1 March.

For more information on the workshops, panels, one-on-one conferences, multimedia room, and more, please click here.

Excerpts from An Interview with Lynda Schor

An Interview with Lynda Schor, author of "The Body Parts Shop" (FC2 2006) et al.

By Carol Novack

CN: I'm delighted to interview you as our Issue 7 featured author, Lynda. You're a true Mad Hatter writer, unafraid to take stylistic and thematic risks and brilliantly, hysterically, "over the top" satirical. The Mad Hatters adore "over the top" writers who don't play croquet by the rules.


CN: Do you think that offbeat literary women writers have a tougher time than offbeat male writers? How seriously does the publishing and literary world take offbeat satirical writings by women?

LS: I think whatever women are doing—and women are publishing a lot of books, some of which are experimental and offbeat and satirical—we have to remain nice, and we have to be "acceptable." The cuter we are the better. I think that right now the visual art world is way ahead of the literary world in terms of anything wild, weird, difficult, non-narrative, and transgressive. I'm talking about the U. S. now. Transgression in language or ideas will be less accepted from women authors. The male story is still the main story, and the male story structure is still the acceptable story structure.

Satire is often mean, and satirizing sex (from a woman's point of view) can get disgusting and anti-romantic, or anti politically correct. Probably only about 30% of the American population can recognize that satire is funny. And that it might be funny and dark at the same time is too disturbing. People (and I'm generalizing) seem to think they have a right to be protected from being insulted or disturbed, and many feel empowered to censor what's disturbing rather than to just stay away from it. That said, it's hard to tell what people will really accept, as the publishing corporations are the gatekeepers between the writer and the public, and the publishing world is about money and fear, mass markets and bottom lines.


CN: What's the riskiest thing you've ever written? Do tell!

LS: I'm not interested in anything that isn't risky. I've been sued, and I've lost friends. I've written stories that haven't been published until 20 years after they were written. In a story called, "Eva Braun's Last Tragic Abortion," I describe, in great detail, Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler having sex on their final evening alive. It took 25 years for that one to get published.

I'd say, though, that my riskiest story was about race and class. After a number of responses to the story, I decided to hide it away in the dark, somewhere where some of my most unacceptable ideas simmer. Maybe in 20 years I'll send it out.

I am very interested in and influenced by the "bad guys and gals," such as Henry Miller, Kathy Acker, Dennis Cooper, Kafka, Lidia Yuknavitch, William Burroughs. I love Shelley Jackson's writing. I'm attracted to the innovator, the nasty, the bad, the sexy, the dingy and disgusting, the wild and surrealistic.


CN: You have a degree in visual art, not in writing. How has being a visual artist influenced how you write?

LS: I see my writing in images and one of my challenges is using words as a medium to describe visual images. I'd like my stories to be visual and vivid, and to be remembered as if they are films. My story structures are visual to me. I could diagram them as drawings. I love to think about how the medium of paint and the medium of words are alike, and how they are different. I've never wanted any written work of mine to be illustrated. But I have been using photos and drawings and diagrams as elements that need to be understood the way words are. I like photos that are slightly blurred—like in W.G. Sebald's work—that add mystery, rather than adding a pictorial version to something being said. In writing I use the visual art techniques such as pastiche and collage. I also write many stories about visual artists. I want my writing to be like the art of Francis Bacon, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, Egon Schiele, etc.

In the past, writing was for a tool for expressing something I wanted to express, and doing visual art (painting, printmaking, photography) was a tool for expressing other aspects of myself. I didn't see that there was much connection. My visual art was also sunnier, prettier, I think. But now the visual and the writing have moved closer. My writing has become as abstract as my visual art, my visual art subjects have become darker and more political, and much more satirical. I am happy with my writing and my visual art when the connections vibrate just above or below the line of comprehension, as in an Ashbery poem or a Bacon painting.

In "Sex for Beginners 2," I used the graphic (visual) material instead of words to say something of their own. The graphic or pictorial sections may be inexplicable, but they say something visceral and visual that is related to the written sections. And they are all related to sex in the same tenuous ways.


CN: All of your stories are spectacular, Lynda, but I read "Coming of Age" [In "The Body Parts Shop"] several times because I loved it so much. I was bowled over by the way you depicted your first-person protagonist's real emotions of maternal love, powerlessness, bewilderment, alarm and self-denigration, in the face of her "tough" teenage "whore" daughter's seeming self-satisfaction and independence, and . . . finally, fragility. But what is remarkable is that this beautifully crafted character study of mother and daughter dwells within what we realize in the end is an absurd surreal landscape. Thus the piece goes beyond the borders of a well-executed "realistic" New Yorker type story into the realm of the experimental.

Can you talk a bit about that story and your earlier classification of its theme as bearing on class? Can you tell us what inspired you to write "Coming of Age?"

LS: If it's OK, I'd like to start with your last question and move backwards.

I wanted to write a story about that hideous moment when one's child is very young and vulnerable, but thinks he/she is very grown up. It's a moment that seems very frightening to the parent, who understands mortality and danger, while the kid feels newly powerful. It's also a moment when the child really doesn't have to listen any more, or follow any of the rules that the parent imagines will keep the child safe. It's a very autobiographical story, though it isn't "realistic." I'm not interested in portraying anything in a "realistic" way—whatever that means. I'm interested in believability. All my stories are somewhat surrealistic, and grossly exaggerated. But that protagonist is me in an incarnation, and the daughter is mine in many ways, though not all ways. My real daughter is not a prostitute dating a senator's son who has graduated from Harvard Business School, for instance. "Coming of Age" is successful, and unusual for me, (I write very long stories and love to add any related material I can find) because it covers a lot of issues, but it's pretty short. It's extremely concentrated.

So still going backward to your question, Carol, about how "Coming of Age" bears on class, I guess I really meant American capitalism. I am always aware of how family members become separated by huge differences in income, as that's one of the stories of my family, but that's only touched on in the story. What IS there is the generational difference between the parent and the child—the different interpretation the child has about all the things her mother did during her youth, and all the things her mother felt were important are nothing to her daughter, who has different morals, different standards and different goals. The child's values are materialistic. Because she has a bigger, better apartment than her mother, it doesn't matter to her that she's a prostitute who the mother feels is being exploited. The daughter thinks her mother has been exploited by not being paid enough for her writing, and for living in a crummy apartment with only one window. The daughter would agree maybe that a prostitute can lead a sordid life—but when she owns a business, exploiting other workers (prostitutes too) and making a lot of money, running her enterprise like a C.E.O., her prostitution is institutionalized, she is a success, and she has the material proof of that success. The daughter says, "How am I exploited? I'm the one earning a great living, who's getting rich, who has great clothes, and a great apartment . . ."


Lynda Schor's piece in Mad Hatter's Review may be accessed HERE.

12 February 2007

Seminar in Contemporary American Fiction

Hi, All--

Quick update on the grad seminar. Encouraged by your support, I decided to fill the term with contemporary "experimental" texts (with a couple of early classes devoted to discussions of texts/traditions leading to present).

Here's our reading list:

Jeffrey DeShell, Peter
Shelley Jackson, Melancholy of Anatomy
David Markson, This is Not a Novel
Carole Maso, The Art Lover
Lance Olsen, Girl Imagined by Chance
Susan Steinberg, Hydroplane
Steve Tomasula, VAS: An Opera in Flatland
David Foster Wallace, Oblivion
Lidia Yuknavitch, Real to Reel

So far we've talked through Maso, DFW, and Markson. Jackson this week. We've dealt with some typical complaints (these texts are too difficult, elitist, etc.) and gotten into some fruitful discussions of both text and context (and where context is concerned, I'm lucky that a bunch of these students have already had some theory). Probably one of the luckier things for the class: the group, as a whole, seems to feel safe enough to not only admit what they don't understand but also speculate about the books in some pretty funky ways. Lots of playful consideration of the "links" in Markson, for example.

I only regret not including a hypertext novel, like Joyce's Afternoon.

I'm kind of tempted, now--since we're having such a good term--to offer a few, optional evening film screenings to complement the readings. I, unfortunately, only have a sense of a few mainstream films, like Adaptation, that might work. I'd appreciate any other suggestions.

07 February 2007

time capsule: 17 May 1996

Mark Leyner, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen appeared on The Charlie Rose Show on 17 May, 1996 (fast forward to the 36 minute mark, btw) to discuss televisual reading habits, publishing and the state of the novel at the dawn of The InterWebs. It's nearly 11 years later, and I'm wondering what--if anything--is markedly different. (Besides Franzen's hairstyle, natch.)


04 February 2007

a conversation with jeffrey deshell : part three

Lance: 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?

Jeffrey: Your facts regarding reading numbers are sobering, but not surprising. Although, I daresay if you look at enrollment in creative-writing programs today, I’m guessing you’ll see a pattern of growth: there are more writers than readers existing today, at least in this country. Writing has become just another technique for self-expression, just more data to be mined and processed.

This is why I’m hesitant to embrace hyper-text, e-writing and the rest of the new hyphenated media. On one hand, I understand that this is a way of reaching new readers, of meeting new audiences on their own terms (between working out and watching TV). On the other hand, I’m wondering how much of literature’s peculiarity, the things that it does that other media can’t, is lost. Literature can do things that painting, music, architecture, film, etc., cannot, just as these other forms can do things that literature can’t. “Reading” on a computer screen is a useful way of (quickly) obtaining information or absorbing surface images, but it’s not a good medium for experiencing difficult text, for encountering language that needs to be reflected upon, language that requires time to be comprehended. Every year I ask my students about this, and every year they tell me that anything difficult or long they have to read, they print out. The required sound track, the dancing text, the visual imagery, the machineness of hyper-text prohibits this sort of linguistic contemplation (I don’t like that word) and questioning that the printed book can encourage.

This is not to say that e-writing can’t be interesting, provocative and beautiful and/or sublime in its own right. But I don’t see it doing the things that literature can do well. I don’t believe that art is "platform neutral." Quite the contrary. So I’m interested in literature that does what literature does well, that demands participation from the reader, that performs the questioning and critique we’ve talked about. And I’m interested in painting that does what painting does well, film that explores the possibility of film, and so on. This might be a generational thing. Being so text based, I mean.

I would say a critical awareness is necessary, rather than a theoretical one. This critical awareness can be gained by a variety of means: reading a lot of good fiction, studying painting or architecture, traveling. If we see language as a problem, then whatever can deepen and help articulate that problem for you (I didn’t say "solve") is good. I’ve read too much bad fiction where the writer thinks that undigested theory or philosophy gives the writing ideas, a weight or profundity it wouldn’t otherwise have. These fictions are seldom interesting.

I teach a lot of theory and some philosophy (it gets me out of the workshops), and I certainly don’t like or agree with all of it. I find Bhabha, for example, such a horrible writer, nearly unreadable that I find I can’t pay much attention to his ideas (whatever they may be). I have a hard time with Deleuze as well. The theorists or philosophers I keep reading—Benjamin, de Man, Blanchot, Ronell, and to a lesser extent Nietzsche—are all stylists themselves, what I would consider great writers (de Man sounds way like Nabokov to me), and all put themselves into play in the ways we’ve discussed. I read Derrida, Heidegger and Hegel in grad school, and although I come back to them now once in a while (for teaching), I’m glad I read them in grad school. Hegel is someone whose writing is incomprehensible, but whose ideas, when read though his interpreters, seem important and "true." I often read theory when I’m writing fiction because I find it good mental exercise, and the language doesn’t infect my writing like other fiction can. I don’t write much theory or criticism these days, but I remember not finding the process all that different. Now I think I would.

What about you? I’m guessing Nietzsche, certainly, and maybe Barthes, but who else? And how important do you think it is to your fiction writing? And do you see a large gap between fiction and critical writing?

Lance: We are witnessing—and have been for at least the last 30 or 40 years—what Steven Connors discusses as the slow “collapse of criticism into its object.” Cixous, Delany, Federman, Hassan, Sukenick, Shaviro, to name the first half dozen that come to mind, have been investigating in various performative critifictions ways to erase the artificial distinction between primary and secondary texts, asserting by example that all texts are in fact secondary ones, linguistic and generic collages, bits of bricolage. Said another way, many experimentalists have attempted to efface, or at least deeply and richly complicate, the accepted difference between a privileged discourse written by those who believe that they can somehow step back from what it is they are discussing, as critics sometimes believe they might be able to do, and attain with respect to it something like an elite (that word again) position of metacommentarial objectivity, on the one hand, and, on the other, some subordinate discourse that can be intellectually colonized, written about without actually being written through, engaged with, changed by the very act of said writing. My next project to be published,
Anxious Pleasures: A Novel After Kafka, takes this notion of performative critifiction seriously by reimagining The Metamorphosis.

And so, yes, I feel shot through with theorists and theories, all to the good, and, yes, Nietzsche, for sure, opened up everything for me when I first encountered him as an undergraduate and then graduate student with his amazing epigrammatic style and fierce intelligence that refuses to stay put. Early on Guy Debord, Baudrillard, Bataille, Lyotard, and Derrida influenced me intensely as well. My impression is that once you catch a case of them, you can never shake it, never retreat to a more innocent, uncomplicated perspective. It’s a wonderful illness. Barthes's style and cerebral restlessness teach me something new every day.

Speaking of which, in his famous essay on the death of the author, he writes, as if he were writing yesterday, as if he were writing about your latest novel,
Peter: An (A)historical Romance: “We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning . . . but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture.” Would you conclude by talking a little bit about how that novel engages with this notion of text as multidimensional nexus, how it enters the larger conversation concerning the experimental?

Jeffrey: I’m not sure I’d want to give the game away, even if I could remember what the game was in the first place. I’ve always been interested in amphibology, where a word or image can be grammatically correct and yet mean different things. The famous example is “I shot an elephant in my pajamas.” In S & M, I worked this through the absence of punctuation, and in Peter, through the overabundance of punctuation. I was also interested in a certain nausea of objects (I first wrote “abjects”), as well as its converse, the sort of bleakness or lack. That’s where the Moses and Aaron quote from the epigraph comes from: Moses, who didn’t believe in images, was strict, terrible in his austerity, dreary, while Aaron understood that people need images and things. This is a tension I’m trying to exploit in the novel, the tension between a materialism and an asceticism, where you can’t trust either. I also remember being interested in miscommunication and misunderstanding. Peter doesn’t listen very well, he’s the ultimate American. And yet, and yet, and yet, I find myself growing more understanding of his character the older the book gets. Which is somewhat frightening.

Do I consciously think of the novel as experimental? I guess after the fact, sure. It was published by a small but terrific press—Starcherone—after being rejected by a number of other presses of various sizes, and the book is somewhat difficult to read, with all those parentheses and brackets. It’s interested in language and its own composition. But it does have a linear story, with characters and conflict, and it is, at least somewhat, timely. There are a lot of pop culture references in it, with a lot of fashion and gear. So what makes it inherently or immanently experimental? More experimental that Frank, or Nietzsche’s Kisses, or The Melancholy of Anatomy, or Frances Johnson? And by experimental do we mean “won’t sell very well”? Or do we mean “fits into a slot with others”?, or do we mean “doesn’t fit into a slot with others?”

We’re interested in what we’re interested in, and we do what we do. We’re all realists. There’s everything, and yet nothing, experimental about it. It’s writing, with all the joy and dread that entails. When I was writing it, did I think it was experimental? Yes and no.

We’re back to where we started.