28 April 2007

What are genres?

Following up on Timmi's & other posts, I'd like to relate an experience recently that has me scratching my head.

I've been working very lately in a narrative form I've kinda made up, but borrowed from new techniques in oral transcriptions of native tales, where line breaks are used to indicate breath pauses. I've had Olson in my background for years and this put me in touch with "projective verse" in a new way -- I've always liked the field composition notion and its urging for one to make decisions at each new moment in the process of making the work. Sukenick relies on this quite a bit in In Form, which was also a big early book for me.

But what I've always written is so-called fiction, as per Sukenick. So it feels to me like I'm writing fiction when I write, for instance,

"Ah, Woodchuck

I will tell the story
of Woodchuck

One day
God looked down

On the people and
the people were having

a bad time
because of the sportsmen

The sportsmen would travel
in cars along the roads

so all the people had to do
was put out their heads

or stand up out of their holes
and the sportsmen

would shoot them from the road
with rifles

To die
when all you want

is to look out of your hole
is a bad thing" etc.

it's fiction, to me, but with line breaks.

I sent this out recently to someone who'd asked me for some new work and he said, yeah, he'd like to publish it, but could I rewrite it as sentences. Otherwise, he'd have to pass it to the poetry editor (who, he gave me to think, might not be so well inclined...). So the piece will soon appear ...

"Ah, Woodchuck.

I will tell the story of Woodchuck.

One day God looked down on the people and the people were having a bad time because of the sportsmen.

The sportsmen would travel in cars along the roads so all the people had to do was put out their heads or stand up out of their holes and the sportsmen would shoot them from the road with rifles.

To die when all you want is to look out of your hole is a bad thing." etc.

Well, this raises all sorts of questions regarding the definition of fiction, but from other situations than those discussed already, it seems to me. That is, it seems that the working definition of fiction in the marketplace (and the marketplace of ideas, for that matter) is as a resticted form. On one side, we have poets who write without line breaks increasingly, and whose work is most often called Prose Poetry -- that is, a species of poetry that happens not to employ line breaks. A poetry editor receiving a piece without line breaks likely wouldn't think twice about publishing a work without running past a fiction editor. From another side, "creative non-fiction" claims that the discourse of fiction isn't as serious or relevant in the "real world" as their discourse -- even though fiction writers throughout the twentieth century regularly employed (more "creative") non-fiction in collage and fragmanted narrative forms -- a la Sukenick, Kundera, Vonnegut, Kingston, Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, etc.

It seems as if the territory allowed to fiction in the dominant consciousness these days is a very limited one. Frequently I hear people who pick up Starcherone books say, "It's like poetry..." or "I don't know what to calll the form with your books." To me, it's fiction, but it seems as if I assume a larger territory for the form than is currently accepted.

Poetry's identity in a culture where fewer and fewer people read is less compromised than that of fiction. Fiction, on the other hand, it seems to me is starting, even in the reading public, to suffer from definitions given it by marketplace forces that privilege realism. There's a great review in the new ABR (yes, more than one, but one to the point) by Anis Shivani on the new Harcourt "Best New American Voices" short story anthology. Editor Sue Miller claims in her introduction to the collection that there's not "a workshop story" in the entire book, but Shivani argues there's nothing but -- and then masterfully defines what constitues a typical "workshop story": "occur within realistically identifiable milieus and settings...; history, politics, and culture serving only as background to individuals' private struggles," etc.

I don't know how it might be done, but I think part of reclaiming fiction must reclaiming be its SPACE -- space that the atrophied contemporary mainstream models of fiction has ceded away.

I think the first version above is better (though containing the same words) than the latter -- it preserves the question of whether fiction can use language as its tensions and traditions may allow, much as any other form or genre would allow. Eugene Onegin wrote a verse novel way back when, and Nabokov dabbled with line break -- not to mention the line smashing of Federman. But when "form" became "genre" -- a subtle shift in nomenclature in recent years -- we may have gotten the short end of the shtick.

25 April 2007

at the very least...

Lance poses the question What should fiction (or writing) do?

“Should” is one of those words that makes me nervous. Nevertheless, although I’d be loath to offer up a list of shoulds and should-nots to be observed by all writers, I’ve discovered, thinking about this, that I can come up with at least one should with considerable confidence.

Fiction should transport the reader to a place s/he has never been, however powerfully the work might resonate with the reader’s own experience and understanding. This is the minimum of what everyone demands of the visual, aural, and performing arts, and fiction should be no exception.

The fiction I love best induces a textured state of mind that I carry around inside me for as long as I’m reading it, that I regret losing when that state of mind fades a few days after I’ve finished it, but that I can recover whenever I begin reading the work again. This is above all an effect of language, and one that seems utterly magical when I think about it. How does it happen? I suppose it involves a certain sort of textual synergy in which many elements come together with such power and coherence that one is transported into an altered state, and because one is transported, one feels the reality of the book’s imaginary. By this I don’t mean simply that the characters seem “real” or the details of the setting plausible. I mean the imaginative logic underlying the work’s voice and style and, perhaps more intangibly, its choice of detail, syntactical preferences, rhythm of the sentences, and formal structure, all of which combine perfectly to create feelings and perceptions and sensations and thoughts that constitute a place we would never have been able to visit on our own.

Here’s Wallace Stevens:

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

Most writing, of course, doesn’t create a textured state of mind that infuses one’s whole reality for days at a time and leaves behind it a trace memory of such rapture that one never forgets. But any fiction worth reading should at the very least take us to a space that is outside of the one already in our heads (though it may be a familiar space we’ve visited often before, cozy and comfortable for some or boring and stifling for others, but always small and limited). Even the most mediocre fiction must be able to do that for at least some of its readers (though it’s obviously not going to succeed in transporting those who find such familiar high-volume tourist spots tedious and ugly).

24 April 2007

Living with Virginia Tech

I have no doubt that everyone on this blog was riveted by the events that took place at Virginia Tech last week—particularly since Cho Seung-Hui regularly took classes in a field in which many of us are currently teaching. The enormity of the event looms large—5 faculty and 27 students dead—and I can’t help but reflect on my relationship with some of my own troubled students. We all have them: every semester, students who come from difficult backgrounds, others who are on medication for psychiatric problems, and still others who should be, sign up for my fiction classes. Every semester, violent fictions are submitted for critique to my workshop. What seems to be missed in the reports that have arisen about Cho and his work, however, is that violent fictions are written as frequently by “healthy” students, as by students who are still coming to grips with their problems.

As the public tries to come to some kind of understanding about what role creative writing, academic bureaucracy, and our mental health system may have played in last week’s tragedy, I’ve become frustrated by the continued association between Cho’s violent “predisposition” and his creative work: that his writing was oracular for the terrible events that took place last week.

Stephen King is the most recent “expert” to chime in on the matter:

“For most creative people, the imagination serves as an excretory channel for violence: We visualize what we will never actually do….Cho doesn't strike me as in the least creative, however. Dude was crazy. Dude was, in the memorable phrasing of Nikki Giovanni, ''just mean.'' Essentially there's no story here, except for a paranoid a--hole who went DEFCON-1. He may have been inspired by Columbine, but only because he was too dim to think up such a scenario on his own. On the whole, I don't think you can pick these guys out based on their work, unless you look for violence unenlivened by any real talent.”

(Read the entire piece at: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20036014,00.html)

I understand why it’s much easier to blame the work or the person, rather than addressing the systems in place that might have caught Cho before he took the incalculable actions he did. If Stephen King were the least bit introspective, he’d try to address the larger context arising from VTech. Of course then he wouldn't be Stephen King.

At this point, some of us have no doubt read (or read reports of) Cho’s plays “Richard McBeef” and “Mrs. Brownstone.” For better or for worse, I’ve seen material as violent in my classes. Television and video games (or a simple lack of talent) might be blamed for the all-too-easy transition between character development and violence in works like these. (Certainly, our workshop discussions inevitably take up the question of genre, the influence of the media on the scene of the literary, and the role that language plays in the creation of voice.) But that question, for the moment, belongs to a different day.

Let’s face it: Cho's writing isn’t what clued his professors in that he was ill. From what I’ve read, it was his persona in class—his inability to relate to students or his teachers. His actions and behaviors (an unwillingness to speak, photographing other students with his cell phone, hiding his face etc) were the evident and eerie disruptive force in those classrooms—not his work itself. I’d like to think that, if any of us had a similar student, we would have tried to flag him or her ahead of time, to call attention to such inappropriate behavior. What’s frightening is that Lucinda Roy (then Chair of Creative Writing) seems to have tried her best in this regard—to no success.

What I fear from this event—my reason for posting at all—is that Cho’s actions will change the field in which we work: that administrations will censor what students turn in to class (perhaps through obligations put on instructors to report violent work), though more insidiously, and more worrisome, is that student will begin to censor their own imaginations. For example, one student who handed in a manuscript with pedophilic content this week prefaced to the class that it was written “pre Virginia Tech.”

This might be just one sad outcome arising out of larger, far more tragic circumstances.

What has become more than evident however is that academic bureaucracies aren’t equipped to handle one lone distressed student. Certainly, our mental health system is too clunky and inadequate to handle the isolated minefield that represents a single person’s mind.

12 April 2007

kurt vonnegut : 1922-2007

Kurt Vonnegut died Wednesday night, 11 April, of brain injuries he sustained after a recent fall in his Manhattan apartment. He was 84.

I'm not sure if he's thought of as experimental these days, but I am sure his crazy-funny speculative imagination, brutal political satire, acidic existential irony, poignantly unfussy prose, and liberating structural waywardness lured a host of my generation during our teens onto the wilder side of fiction, into narrative irreverence and opportunity.

I'm also sure I consider Slaughter-House Five (1969) one of the best novels about World War Two, not to mention one of the best of the second half of the twentieth century. By way of a eulogy, let me simply quote a passage from it. Billy Pilgrim has just been snatched by extraterrestrials called Tralfamadorians who intend to put in a kind of cage in a kind of zoo on their planet.

There were two peepholes inside the airlock [of their spaceship]—with yellow eyes pressed to them. There was a speaker on the wall. The Tralfamadorians had no voice boxes. They communicated telepathically. They were able to talk to Billy by means of a computer and a sort of electric organ which made every Earthling speech sound.

"Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim," said the loudspeaker. "Any questions?"

Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired at last: "Why me?"

"That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because the moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?"

"Yes." Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.

"Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why."

Goodbye, Kurt. There are a lot of earthlings still unstuck in time who will miss you.

07 April 2007

mark danielewski

Electronic Book Review just posted a new interview with Mark Danielewski, author of the amazing fictive experiments House of Leaves (2000) and Only Revolutions (2006), here. A few teasers:

On centripetal versus centrifugal novels:

House of Leaves is what I would call a centripetal book. It's about interiorities and history and progeny and ancestors. [Only Revolutions] was pointedly a centrifugal novel. It was about getting outside. It was about looking at landscape. It was about addressing what the open was. It was about—not only an academic level—reading Agamben's "The Open" and readdressing what Heidegger was talking about with "the open." Looking at the naturalists, looking at ecocriticism.

On television, movies, & novels:

My job is to write something that could not just as easily be seen on television or at the movies.

On what is absent in Only Revolutions:

You know, one of the things this [Only Revolutions] resists is vision. The word "light" never appears. With the exception of some colors mentioned, it never quite paints those borders, the edges, it's always resisting the edges. . . . So the word, for instance, "spectacular" is never there, because it comes from speculare, to see. Words that are about seeing, for the most part, were taken out. I've been described—not as dogmatic as Oulipo—but there's a resistance to certain things.

On the future of the book:

My feeling is that there is going to be a technology that will look like this book. The three dimensional quality is an experience that cannot be done away with one reading tablet. I think what's going to happen is there are going to be pages that are as thin as this, and you can go to "A plague on both your houses" and you can click on it, and you'll connect: "Romeo and Juliet. FDR also said it." And suddenly you have this connected tissue.

06 April 2007

review :
lynne tillman : american genius

What I think I enjoy most about Lynne Tillman's American Genius: A Comedy (Soft Skull, 2006) is its extraordinary investigation into the limits of interiority and the lusciousness of torqued language—two areas of experience that prove virtually impossible for any other art form to engage with as fully, as deeply, as resonantly as the novel can.

In many ways, this novel is about a series of lacks. There is no real plot, no real character development, not much forward motion, almost no dialogue. It's even difficult to tease out the setting. The funny, bright, wildly neurotic narrator, Helen (we don't learn her name until the narrative moves into its endgame), may be a patient at some sanatarium, a resident in some New Agey artists' colony, a visitor at some wacky spa. The outlines of the external world are fuzzy at best. What's important, rather, is the movement of her mind, the musicality of her thought, as she obssesses on the pleasure of cotton socks, the vicissitudes of various skin conditions (hers and others'), the Manson killings, the slave trade, Calvinism, Eames chairs, the beloved dog her parents had put to sleep, her dead father, her increasingly unmoored elderly mother, the people surrounding her whose quirks she notes in gossipy detail.

What's important, as well, perhaps even more so, are stunning sentences like the following typical two, which share a great deal with the oceanic language of Woolf, the feverish eye of Bernhard, and which go a good way toward rethinking what a sentence can be, what it can do, and how, through their relentless digressive qualifications that skirt conventional grammar:

Everything is a problem in some way, I can't think of anything that's not a problem from the past for the future, and I often worry, frowning to myself, unaware that I'm frowning, my lips turning down involuntarily, which I've been told to stop doing since I was a child, because it creates the impression that I'm sullen and also etches fine lines around my mouth, but I can't. My father worried about the future, which presumably he could imagine, but I can't, just as I can't imagine lines like tributaries running from the river of my mouth the way they do from my mother's, who was angry, who'd abandoned her girlish hopes of marrying a violinist named Sidney, and who often speaks of him now that my father is dead, wondering where Sidney is, and also wondering where my father is, if he is outside, waiting for her in the car that he loved.

Jeffrey Deshell lauded this novel last December in Now What's posts concerning the best alternative fiction of 2006, and I've only recently found the time to settle down with it. Thanks, Jeffrey. Thanks, Lynne Tillman. What a strikingly intelligent, mischievously obsessive, beautifully written book.

04 April 2007

fc2 podcast two

As I mentioned a while back, FC2 has inaugurated a series of podcasts that will contain interviews with and readings by its authors.

In the second, which might interest some of you, host Frank Giampietro interviews me about the definition of experimental fiction, my novel Nietzsche's Kisses, and Fiction Collective Two's past, present, and (in the wake of R. M. Berry's stepping down as publisher after eight years at the helm) future.

You can download this podcast and the first with R. M. Berry at the FC2 website here, or you can subscribe via iTunes by doing a search there for FC2.

what should fiction do?

Lidia Yuknavitch recently posed the following provocative question on Other Mouths, the Chiasmus Press blog: What should fiction do?

Here are several of the answers, some from our own bloggers at Now What.

What form would your answer take, hmmmm?

andrei codrescu: Writing should . . . give you a feeling of "weight" when you walk around, it should make people soft and hard, it should keep playing in your head long after it’s written/read, and it should be swift and consensual.

trevor dodge:
Writing should share a hot shower with you, towel you off with a high thread count, and then retreat downstairs to powder the sugar on your pancakes. But before all that, writing should throw a psychotic fit in front of you because you haven’t been paying enough attention to it lately. You, with all your InterWebs and XBoxing and iLife–a-ma-jigging that you do; with all your attempts to tell writing what it is (a juice extractor!) and what it is not (a mini-fridge!), you are missing what writing could be, and this is why writing is so thoroughly and justifiably pissed off at you right now.brian evenson: I don’t think that writing should be doing anything in particular, but I do think it should be "doing." It’s easy for writing to slip into old tired patterns where it doesn’t have to "do," where it’s following the same groove in the same record, where it’s covering the same tired ground, where it’s one of the millions of cars on the same superhighway, inching along with everyone else. How much better if the writing is traveling down disused back roads getting knocked by branches and trying to make it around places where the road has been washed out. Or threading itself thinly down an animal track. Or hacking its way deep into the thicket of being without having decided in advance what it’ll find there. The more effort, the better….

lance olsen:
In The Middle Mind, Curtis White maintains that the narratives generated and sustained by the American political system, entertainment industry, and academic trade have taught us over the last half century how not to think for ourselves. Essentially, those narratives shun complexity and challenge; avoid texts that demand attentive, self-conscious, and self-critical reading; and embrace The Middle Mind’s thoughtless impulse toward the status quo. In a phrase, what we are left with is the death or at least the dying of what I think of as the Difficult Imagination. What writers can do is attempt to revive the Difficult Imagination by exploring various strategies that call attention to, reflect upon, and disrupt the assumptions behind conventional narratives, thereby challenging the dominant cultures that would like to see such narratives told and retold until they begin to pass for truths about the human condition. "Our satisfaction with the completeness of plot," Fredric Jameson once noted, is "a kind of satisfaction with society as well," and I would add much the same is the case with our satisfaction with undemanding style, character, subject matter, and so forth. My orientation, then, rhymes fairly closely with those posed by Viktor Shklovsky for art and Martin Heidegger for philosophy: the return through complication and challenge (not predictability and ease) to perception and thought.

davis scheiderman says:
What shouldn’t writing do is perhaps a more germane question if writing mainly gets us—in the form of the most obsequious best-seller—only more of the same hum-drum mediocrity of the spirit, dead-eyed keno zombies mugging their way through the Shop N’ Save in search of Tostitos, cheap soda, and maybe on a whim at Wal-Mart, or Sam’s Club, some dime-store book about the good within us all, et al. Why write at all about anything, really, if living in American is so damn, well, like being the butt-end of some data-mining target marketing campaign that plays and plays and reads itself into the uneasy sleep of an over-stimulated 10-month old rubbing her eyes, right now, jet-lagged from a cross-continental air trip from China where she was just adopted, and ready to spring back into action at any moment. Why write? For her of course. And what shouldn’t writing do? Make her world smaller with every word. Baby, I say starting now, we’ve got a long way to go.

lidia yuknavitch says:
It should break the back of language in its truths, then softly heal her, cradle her, sing her back to life.

02 April 2007

Chapbook Competition

Announcing Subito Press

Subito Press of the University of Colorado is proud to announce a new chapbook competition which will publish two chapbooks annually, one each of innovative fiction and poetry. Submit manuscripts of up to 40 pages of poetry or 30 pages of (double spaced) fiction along with a $15 reading fee and an 8.5 x 11 SASE if you would like a copy of the winning entry in your genre. Manuscripts should include two cover sheets: one with title only, the other with title, author's name, address, e-mail, and phone number. Submissions will be accepted from June 1 to August 15 (postmark date). All submissions will be judged anonymously by the creative writing faculty at the University of Colorado; friends, relatives, and former students of University of Colorado creative writing faculty are not eligible.. Simultaneous submissions o.k.; please notify Subito immediately is your ms. is accepted elsewhere. Winners will be give a reading at the University of Colorado. Notifications of winners will occur by December of 2007.

Send mss. to:
Subito Press
Department of English Box 226
University of Colorado, Boulder,
Boulder, Colorado 80309-0226