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.