Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Calydonian Pass

This is what remains of my father's home...

.... in the village of Karitsa...

... high up in the mountains of Evrytania in Central Greece...

Hadn't been back to the house since I spent a month there when I was 7 years old, but so much was familiar, especially the clay stream running down to the farm below the house, the scents of oregano and tea growing wildly everywhere, the giant bugs and the silence.

The road to Karitsa passes through a gorge...

... the closest point between the cliffs is known as "To Kleidi" or "The Key," and has been called that since ancient times, at least since the time of the late Romans / early Byzantines who used the pass to block invasions. The people of the region are still known as Roumeliotes, a derivation of Romans. This is also the region of ancient myth: Atalanta and the Boar hunt in Aetolia or Calydonia. During the Ottoman Empire, the northern part of the region was known as the Agrafa (or, "The Unwritten") because it was simply not worth it for the Ottomans to trek through the mountains to rule it. The people were ungovernable, and the region attracted brigands and thieves. During WW2, the Greek resistance began in the nearby village of Domnista, a guerrilla militant group that was one of the key factions in the Greek Civil War a few years later.

Today, the area is relatively uninhabited, but its spectacular waterfalls, rivers and cliffs are breathtaking. The roads have also vastly improved. The last time I was here as a seven year old, we rode horses all day to reach the villages.



Tuesday, November 26, 2013



Alissa Nutting’s Tampa: 

The New Metrics of a Junior High Lesson Plan
(published in The Buffalo News, Sept 1, 2013)

The school year is just about to kick off and no other book this season will create the same hunger for long summer days filled with incorruptible light than Alissa Nutting’s debut novel, Tampa. Showcased on tabloid “news” program, Inside Edition, dubbed by Cosmopolitan Magazine the “most controversial book of the summer,” while, at the same time, garnering high-end discussions at pivotal arts and literary magazines like Bomb, The Believer, and Tin House (to name just a few), Nutting’s novel has effortlessly connected with a diverse cultural milieu who are, normally, as eager to keep to their corners as teenage cliques at a sock hop. Tampa has stirred readers up. Not bad work for a new novelist.
It’s too simple to say that Tampa—now a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s 2013 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize (the 2012 winner, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, subsequently also won the National Book Critics Circle Award)—is a novel about pedophilia. Tampa’s narrator, Celeste Price—a 26-year-old English teacher with Barbie-styled good looks—is, undeniably, a remorseless sociopath with a penchant for 14-year-old boys. But the novel is as much about consumerism, the culture of beauty, and entrenched social perceptions about gender and sexuality that allow Price to exploit the students in her junior high classroom. Written in unflinching, single-minded prose, a smart aleck’s wink embeds each line with more than a touch of irony: Price is a lousy teacher of literature (whose lessons on Romeo and Juliet and The Scarlet Letter she naturally twists to promote her own agenda of desire and deceit), but she is without a doubt an impresario of small-minded attitudes. Lovely Celeste knows that she’ll always get the benefit of the doubt because she is desired, consciously and unconsciously, by everyone around her: her colleagues and her neighbors, her students and their parents alike. She’s the “sexy teacher.” The co-worker’s “hot wife.” The pretty “neighbor next door.” Tampa’s foil characters prefer to let Celeste fill roles in their fantasy lives, instead of seeing her for who she really is.
The foreseeable result? Mayhem ensues. But Celeste is a criminal with a mean girl’s chirpy cynicism. And there’s plenty of slapstick, not to mention dark humor, to go around and keep the more unnerving elements of the book afloat. It’s this dangerous character composite that makes Tampa both troubling and hard to put down.
As the novel begins, Celeste Price has just secured her first teaching gig in Tampa, Florida. Married to a hunky cop from an affluent family, Celeste’s life seems as ideal to outsiders as the plastic figures of a wedding cake topper. But from the very first line of Tampa, Nutting’s narrator reveals that her enthusiasm for the new school year has little to do with her lesson plans, or her students’ excitement for their new backpacks and fall catalog fashions: Celeste Price is already fixated on teaching her male students more than just the nuances of metaphor.  Dodging burnt out teachers, post-adolescent jocks, and helicopter parents with meticulous care, Celeste is remorseless as she puts her crimes in motion.  For her, the question is never “why” or “if” she’ll seduce one of her students….but when and how.
The fact that Celeste Price observes an education system in disarray as she pursues her first conquest (a young introvert named Jack), as well as reflects on the nuances of a consumerist culture that idealizes beauty and wealth in the face of society’s most pressing concerns, lends the novel an astute edge. What is it about the orderliness of a landscaped yard or well-groomed clothes—the social mores that form expectations of class—that prevent us from looking deeper at the people we encounter? It’s of no surprise that Celeste drives a red Corvette. It’s a carefully chosen element of her disguise.
Alissa Nutting’s interest in her protagonist is as personal as it is literary.  As she reflects in multiple interviews, she went to high school with Debra LeFave, the blonde, blue-eyed Florida middle school teacher who pled guilty in 2004 to sleeping with her 14-year-old student. In a twist of judicial infamy that captured the nation at the time, LeFave avoided prison time because, as her lawyer argued, she was much “too attractive” for jail. (Late in Tampa, Celeste Price similarly reflects that she’s “too pretty for prison.”) Instead, as part of a plea deal, LeFave was assigned 3 years of house arrest and 7 years of probation.  Nutting’s narrator is also able to work the legal system to her benefit in a conclusion to the novel that in no way ends her predatorial story.
Tampa has already drawn plenty of comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel Lolita, which portrays middle-aged literature professor Humbert Humbert, who, under the spell of a “nymphet’s” budding eroticism—as he famously tries to convince the reader—is led to commit increasingly desolate acts. But Nutting’s book, while recycling, (if shifting the gender of) Nabokov’s protagonist, along with its similarly dark humor, offers the reader a satire of an unusually eroticized nature. Nabokov’s lyricism skillfully clothes Humbert Humbert’s actions so that sexual violation imperceptibly slips into scenes as idealized, baroquely worded sagas (as he reflects, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style”). By contrast, Nutting’s high-octane prose peels back each sex act with the directness of an escort in drill sergeant’s garb, presenting the record of Celeste Price’s depravity in prose reminiscent of passages in a top-shelf magazine. Lines like “I just wallpapered my cervix with the name of a teenage boy” pepper the novel’s pages. Yes, Celeste Price is a monster.  Dare we look away?
There are bound to be readers who wonder if the eroticization is necessary. (There are also bound to be readers who wonder if fictions about pedophiles should be written at all.) And, without a doubt, Tampa is troubling, because the novel asks contemplative readers to wonder about the limits of sexuality and violence, and the capacity of our culture to misconstrue one for the other, particularly when women are involved. (As Nutting reflects: “We’d rather have our nation’s women be beautiful pedophiles than be dowdy humanitarians with cankles.”) At the same time, it would be unwise to ignore the fact that her novel has been embraced by media forums that regularly depend on stories of sex and violence for this misapprehension (and their sales) to continue. That Nutting seems to be putting this intersection of forces directly in the cross-hairs of the book—it’s arguably the origin of much of the black humor in the novel—is one of the many reasons the novel is worth checking out.
Given the range of books to which Tampa has been compared so far—Nabokov’s Lolita, Ellis’ American Psycho, Perrotta’s Little Children, Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin, and Baker’s Vox have all been mentioned in passing—a connection to A.M. Homes’ novel The End of Alice is a downright surprising omission given that Homes (the recent 2013 winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction) paved the way for transgressive texts about gender by women. In particular, her novel The End of Alice (1996) takes up a narrative about two predatorial protagonists: a jailed male pedophile and his female pen pal whose letters recount her ongoing pursuit of a young neighbor.  As Homes reflects, “What I'm doing, which sometimes makes people uncomfortable, is saying the things we don't want to say out loud.” Put another way: she’s writing dangerous, discomfiting stories, the kind that remind readers that fiction’s role isn’t just entertainment; it’s presenting the truth, whether it’s welcome or not, regardless of whether it arises in socially acceptable language. There’s a tradition of women who look into our darkest places with an unerring eye and a satirist’s ear.
Nutting—whose first book, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls was published by Buffalo press, Starcherone Books—may very well be taking this transgressive tradition to a new place.



Friday, October 4, 2013

My "&Now Boulder" presentation on the "Detournement" panel, September 28, 2013.

The story of detournement is perhaps known by many in the audience today: Artist-radicals from the 1950s to the 1970s engaged in a practice of detourning, groups such as the Situationists adeptly rescripted the language of the Establishment into mocking productions of the same. Much of the talk surrounding such derailments focused on the relative valence of irony versus sarcasm, satire versus parody, whether mimicry can avoid recuperation and reappropriation into mass culture. Before and after this period, other art movements also dabbled in lifting, stealing, re-presenting content and concept in tweaked contexts.

When the Surrealists ripped off Op-Eds and republished them word for word as “Simulations of Mental Debility” you could hear mocking laughter in the background. When Oulipo reduced literary labor to writing constraints, they had to free the Oulipian text by adding a clinamen, a wildcard element of mystery and danger, because otherwise the irony was so thick the projects risked being stillborn. In contrast last month, there was almost endless talk and dissection of Miley Cyrus at the music awards. Race, gender, sex—she authored an avalanche simply by being there. The pent-up energy of the commentariat eradicated the silence and the space that allowed previous mockings (intended or accidental) to stand ironically behind their reprint. The speed of current technology, however, makes appropriation seamless with production and performance. Sampling, versioning, and the cut-ups on youtube especially render the goal of detourning quaint (mimicry is almost automatically appropriated) or else it becomes simply dominant. 30 years ago, I might have read Kathy Acker’s Blood & Guts in High School and admired how the narrative content of the opening chapter was about a banal love triangle among adults and not about incest, as purported and implied by the generic character names in the margin. “What did Acker’s recontextualization imply about incest and taboo and prohibition?”

Is such a question possible today given the lack of interest in formal cues?

I’ll return to that question eventually, but (to that end) first I explore the way technology emphasizes content and ideas over the means of production. Franco Moretti, a Stanford professor, has devised a way to get through all those books in your shelves that you've never read. About Moretti’s project, a critic recently commented, “Here’s some advice for bibliophiles with teetering piles of books and not enough hours in the day: don’t read them. Instead, feed the books into a computer program and make graphs, maps and charts: it is the best way to get to grips with the vastness of literature.”

Such an approach to literature depends on computers to crunch “big data,” stores of massive amounts of information, to produce new insights. Who, for example, would have guessed that, according to a 2011 Harvard study of four per cent (that is, five million) of all the books printed in English, less than half the number of words used are included in dictionaries, the rest being “lexical dark matter”? Or that, as a recent study using the same database carried out by the universities of Bristol, Sheffield and Durham reveals, “American English has become decidedly more ‘emotional’ than British English in the last half-century”? Echoes of Beckett preferring French because it was easier to write without style. In this respect, Moretti’s project is in line with the efforts of the psychology outfit known as MarketPsych (specialists at decoding investor sentiment): they’ve developed proprietary text analysis software that identifies and quantifies economically predictive sentiments such as optimism and pessimism, or tones such as uncertainty or surprise. “From the tens of thousands of newspaper articles, blogs, corporate presentations and Twitter messages being analyzed every day, MarketPsych builds a picture of investor feeling.”

Maybe my earlier attempt to even think of fiction or poetry as a kind of writing that exists alongside such monstrous narrative machines as MarketPsych or Moretti’s literary digester is futile. But wait, when the former provost of the University at Buffalo introduced Joyce Carol Oates before a reading, he transformed the entire body of her writing into statistics. A mathematician by training, he declared, “Oates has published 16,347 pages, 341,879 words…. etc. etc.”

I recently came across an article on so-called "Persona Software."

“Persona management entails not just the deconfliction of persona artifacts such as names, email addresses, landing pages, and associated content. It also requires providing the human actors technology that takes the decision process out of the loop when using a specific persona. For this purpose we custom developed either virtual machines or thumb drives for each persona. This allowed the human actor to open a virtual machine or thumb drive with an associated persona and have all the appropriate email accounts, associations, web pages, social media accounts, etc. pre-established and configured with visual cues to remind the actor which persona he/she is using so as not to accidentally cross-contaminate personas during use..."

We’ve all been there—oh the dangers of cross-contaminating personae!

The company automates the ability of poseurs and agent provocateurs to infiltrate social media in order to carry out propaganda campaigns. The software allows one user to employ prepackaged personae that proliferate on the internet. Hackers and bloggers are ostensibly the targets of the propaganda campaigns of Persona Software. These are automated attempts (by both cognitive scientists and computer/math experts) to apply narratives in social media spaces, and then to quantify their impact. Just last week Popular Science magazine shut down their online comments section after a scientific study showed that the impact of trolls and provocateurs on electronic discourse was stifling and deadening. Perhaps Persona Software's most compelling feature is not the discreditation of bloggers and journalists, but rather their engagement with a new form of fiction. The narratives created through use of these personae are quickly and systematically distilled, collated and then eventually sold back to the corporations that fund the propaganda projects in the first place. The companies are paying for the stories to be written, and then paying to see whether the stories are having an impact, without caring that the process is basically one and the same. So, what begins as a propaganda effort, an effort to change minds, quickly turns to something new: a narrative that exerts power over the “told to,” “the told,” and “the tellee.”

By comparison, the story-selling world of book publishing relies on a model in which a story is sold to a single user. The massive social media projects, on the other hand, sell a story about changing the world.

Maybe this is all old hat. I’ve basically agreed that what literary texts mean is a very boring and passé concern. In this respect, the new emphasis on concept, idea or theme brings back older revaunchist impulses. A kind of New Criticism. Yet I’m also saying that how literary texts mean also reinscribes older interpretation methods in an era when no one stops to notice anymore. It is more or less impossible to read Kathy Acker now. And holding, as I am, to the 1980s-1990s postmodern hell that swears how things mean is interesting reveals that I’ve killed one form of interpretation for another. This is a problem in the sense that how things mean is perhaps not the necessary precursor to questions of how things are related to culture, to the relationship of discourse and power. Which is the thing that most literary people today are really interested in (if they even admit they are somehow affiliated with anything to do with the literary). Instead, new narrative machines are more geared to the ways in which they connect to other narrative machines, the ways they produce other narratives and/or machines, or predict the comings (and goings) thereof. Though this world of new narrative machines is brave, there is always the niggling insistence that the primary way to understand how things connect is through language, indeed that’s how meaning forms, an act of interpretation.

Maybe this is not so. Maybe things connect virtually without need for interpretation. The focus on language and linguistic possibility has been eclipsed by the power of computation and the creation of data sets. The interest now is in how these sets are compiled. Shakespeare can be distilled into a set of emoticons that designate the dominant symbol of each play or sonnet. What level of manipulation is required to transform the work into its relevant concept. And, finally, does this shadow concept substitute for the original work or is it the main conveyor of interest itself?

Reverse the tables and ask: if data sets (inasmuch as they distill a work’s real value in the world) are the most important element of a work, how do the data sets operate as works in themselves?

In essence, the question is, is it really possible to talk of distilled concepts or ideas rather than talking about them as language? If a work is flayed to reveal its play within discourses of power, has it really escaped the curse of linguistic interpretation?

Just briefly before I end, I’ll give two examples of works that trouble when I try to avoid interpreting them (since I already stated that I’d find someone like Kathy Acker practically impossible to read under anti-interpretive paradigms). The first work is Brian Evenson’s “Bon Scott: the Choir Years.” The story recounts how the AC/DC lead singer, shortly before his death of alcohol poisoning, had joined the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Evenson’s narrator trades on his credibility (based in research and reportage) as well as the tone of voice that seems so familiar and seductive in its breezy mode of discovery. Even the story structure emulates the world of reportorial expose. Here’s the very last sentence, for example:

Whatever direction his music would have taken, whether he would have continued his experiments with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and transformed his life startingly or else moved in the direction so admirably pursued by Brian Johnson, or pursued some other path entirely, any direction would have been better than the end.

Here, the reporter ties up loose ends not only with a gratuitous salute to Brian Johnson (Bon Scott’s replacement) but also with the wrap-it-up moralizing of a Rolling Stone article. Evenson passes this feat off deftly, making us wonder about the validity of what we have read (yes, the tired talk of fact v. fiction might come into play, but in this story, it’s the mode of expression that disturbs, and not questions of facts). For instance, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is juxtaposed against the Mormon Church’s genealogical archive project (which seems almost a futurist scheme surely fictional). When the factual seems fictional and vice versa, the realm of possibility (Bon Scott’s choir years) seems possible or even plausible. Here, the question of facts and fiction is not one of content, it requires absolutely no interpretation at all. It’s a question of power and credibility more than it is one of factuality. The story seems to latch onto a familiar mode of expression.

Since I began with detourning, I’ll end with something that is entirely more earnest, but not straightforward. That is, Woody Guthrie’s song 1913 Massacre. Guthrie wrote the song in the 1940s, a few decades after the massacre itself. This is the story of the death of 73 people, mainly children, in a social hall due to a prank played by union-busters. The historical record of this event was practically buried until Guthrie wrote his song. There’s very little written about it even to this day. In this respect, Guthrie’s song serves as a chronicle and memorial of the massacre, an alternative to the official record.

The lyrics are simply stated:

Take a trip with me in 1913,
To Calumet, Michigan, in the copper country.
I’ll take you to a place called Italian Hall,
Where the miners are having their big Christmas ball.

I’ll take you in a door and up a high stairs,
Singing and dancing is heard everywhere,
I’ll let you shake hands with the people you see


The song recounts how the children were killed, and then it casts blame on the copper company. This serves almost as oral history. The song functions in that capacity powerfully. Beyond that, however, Guthrie self-consciously focuses on the politics of telling stories at all. He begins by highlighting that one needs to trip through time to imagine the massacre (his disembodied-calling narrator in this respect hints at the way the story was buried, resurrected by a troubador). The lyrics then hint at simultaneous suspicion of the fellow traveller (Why are you listening? Why witness? Why empathize?) and also lets us know whose business it is to grant permission. Guthrie goes so far as to situate his narrator as intermediary between the victims and the listener (“I’ll let you shake hands with the people you see.”) This reveals the coercion by narrator. “What else have they been hiding from you?” And it emphasizes the contested space in which one might recognize this massacre. The lyrics are strange, in that sense. But this mode of interpreting how Guthrie’s narrator involves the listener in the story would seem to be lost in any listening that focuses on content alone.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Review of my novel FARM FOR MUTES

In ForeWord Reviews magazine September 2013 print issue. https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/farm-for-mutes/

"Farm for Mutes is a refreshing read for readers who like their literary escapades with a touch of weird. If anything, the world will seem a little stranger to anyone having read it; many of us do not count that a bad thing. As to what it all means, well, we leave that for you to decide."

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings

I recently wrote a review of Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings for the Buffalo News...a big novel that elegantly handles some of the most significant issues of the late 20th century. A vigilant energy gives “The Interestings” its architecture without weighing it in earnest psychological drama (though there’s plenty of it) or conceptual musing (though there’s plenty of that too). That Wolitzer takes up issues of women's writing elsewhere in her essay "The Second Shelf" lends her work, and the book itself, a bigger context. Check her out....

Wolitzer Gracefully Juggles Big Questions in ‘Interestings’
Buffalo News, May 3, 2013
In her provocative 2012 New York Times essay, “The Second Shelf,” Meg Wolitzer reflects on the conditions that surround the publication of women’s fiction: namely, the editorial and marketing strategies that position women’s books and shape readers’ expectations of them. “Women who write literary fiction,” she reflects, “frequently find themselves in an unjust world … when we talk about today’s leading novelists – the ones who generate heat and conversation and are read by both men and women – we are talking mostly about men.” Wolitzer has good reason to wonder about the impact of gender on the publishing world, an issue that’s “raised temperatures” in the news of late. (Wikipedia was discovered just last week “redistributing” women novelists to a “subset” category, making their “American Novelists” listing homogenously male.)

Having written nine novels over the past 20 years (in addition to a few young adult and nonfiction works), Wolitzer’s repertoire has generally formed around the peculiarity and inconstancy of our most private spheres: our homes and relationships, the complexities of intimacy, our identities behind closed doors. It’s not too much to say that she’s been channeled as a writer for women, though her work is often incisive, sometimes even downright cutting, ambitious in scope, and driven by a peculiarly earnest irony in her descriptions of the tandem paths men and women follow in a state of ongoing incomprehension.


See the rest of the review at The Buffalo News here: http://www.buffalonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20130505/LIFE/130509733/1040&template=printart

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Everything Begins With a Yes: Innovative Fiction by International Women


((*This piece was published by the American Book Review for an issue I guest-edited some time back on "Women Innovative Writers," in which I tried to add further nuance to the often murky topic of innovation and gender in fiction. See: http://americanbookreview.org/issueContent.asp?id=184))

In 2002, the American Book Review published its first special issue devoted to “Innovative Women Writing Fiction” (23:5). At the time, guest editor Stacey Gottlieb called attention to the paradoxical spirit of the assignment: she not only wondered, for instance, how the relationship between gender, writing, and innovation could be measured, but also “whether such gender-specific roundups were even needed anymore.” Now, seven years down the road, little has changed. The strategies for approaching innovative writing by women have settled (“stalled” might be a less tactful word) into two camps: those who propose the feminine is revealed in experimental works through specific stylistic devices—i.e, a fluidity of prose, the non-linearity of narrative elements, a decentered or non-hierarchical plot structure—and those who are more hesitant to connect gender with writing techne. In short, the same body of questions remains core to the task at hand again. The focus of this special issue—“Innovative Fiction by International Women”—gives us a chance to once again revisit the problem that women innovative writers pose to readers.

Evidently, the effort to showcase women’s fiction isn’t as simple an exercise as it first appears. Why does defining these terms precisely matter? What crucial factors hang in the balance?

First, let me note the obvious: that, among writers and critics alike, there remains an ongoing discomfort with the question of “difference”—to be more precise, the relation of “gender” to “genre.” How, after all, do we “classify” women’s fiction? Is it a sub-division of the greater rubric “fiction?” A “literary subculture,” as Nancy K. Miller unhappily remarks, given the “statistical majority” of women? Is women’s fiction, a “minor” literature, a “political” literature, a literature “of its own?” What is its object? Representation, for instance? Readership? Resistance? (Is an objective as such necessary?) And who writes it? Is women’s fiction written by women, or is it a literature about women? Is it a feminist literature? (If so, whose feminism?) Does it represent a “tradition?” (If so, whose tradition?) Finally: what do we mean by women’s innovative fiction anyway? Innovative…compared to what?

Judith Butler, however, questions a central piece of this formulation. “If one ‘is’ a woman,” she reflects, “that is surely not all one is…” (3). Moreover, as she goes on, if gender “intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual, regional modalities of discursively constituted identities,” in what ways can women productively achieve representation through a system of power that has already limited the idea of the “feminine” and of “women” from the outset? Certainly, the consequences for the historical production of women’s texts are evident. As Susan Howe reminds us, for instance, even so-called “recognized” women writers are still often neglected; “Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein,” after all, “are clearly among the most innovative precursors of modernist poetry and prose, yet to this day canonical criticism from Harold Bloom to Hugh Kenner persists in dropping their names and ignoring their work” (MED, 11).

In the “Preface” of Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction—one of the very few multi-author texts that examines at length both the nature of the experimental work and its authors—editors Ellen Friedman and Miriam Fuchs try to answer some of these questions. As they note, their book originated on the one hand against the conventional belief that the writing of women is fundamentally realist and experiential—that women’s interests have been historically focused on “representation” not “innovation”—and, on the other, towards an understanding of narrative experimentation by women as an inherently feminist gesture, a political act. For Friedman and Fuchs, women’s experiments are always already feminist ones and they list a variety of narrative innovations that women writers have deployed in order to resist “dominant” fictional structures—a patriarchal literary environment traditionally characterized by “…plot linearity...a single authoritative storyteller, well motivated characters interacting in recognizable social patterns; the crucial conflict....the movement to closure.” The end result is “an alternate fictional space, a space in which the feminine, marginalized in traditional fiction and patriarchal culture, can be expressed” (4). They conclude that women take narrative risks, in other words, to resist a system of power revealed by conventional fiction elements in order to highlight the role of the feminine which historically has been repressed.

It would appear, in short, that even when we hope to showcase the work of women, how the idea of the feminine is used and deployed (even with optimistic intentions) is itself at issue. I’d therefore like to propose the following: that we begin to create forums in which the idea of the “feminine” is also at stake—not merely designated as a simple condition of inclusion. That we begin to question who, exactly, “we” is: how are “we” a “collective” body of women writers? What conditions connect us? What circumstances keep us isolated from one another? How can we speak together, if not strictly, as one? After all, do all innovative women writers agree on the wealth of meanings the term “woman” or “innovative” invokes?

What we may very well discover is that women’s innovative fictions are not founded in gender—so much as in the critique of gender. That innovative texts by women often identify limits which make gender what it’s understood to be, and offer opportunities to challenge comfortable alignments, how they have come into being.

The fiction of Clarice Lispector offers a case in point in her attention to characters who seem completely bereft of gendered identities or gendering characteristics. In Hour of the Star, for instance, Lispector strips the protagonist, Macabea, of all feminine characteristics until she becomes “scarcely a woman.” Yet even as Lispector goes to great lengths to reduce her character—to make Macabea ever more useless and naïve until she is (spoiler alert) fatally struck by a yellow Mercedes—the prose remains excessive and rich, almost elated. In this “text on poverty that is not poor,” as Helene Cixous reflects, the narrator’s initial meditation—that “Everything begins with a yes”—is followed by an ongoing affirmative (generous) response to language in which the reader becomes entwined within a complex narration whose boundaries (between reader and writer, character, narrator and story) are unusually minimized, challenged by the very language that both brings them together and sets them apart. Hour of the Star is, quite pointedly, about how stories—even poor ones like Macabea’s—come into being; how they evolve; how their language impacts the reader. In this respect, Lispector’s narrator is very direct: “Is it possible that actions exceed words?” he asks, demanding the reader pursue not only Macabea’s storyline, but also the play of language that arises as a means to negotiate the questions the text presents. Hour of the Star is, on one level, the story of a humble (and humbled) girl. Yet it is also a narrative that investigates how (as Butler might say) girls are “girled”—how the question of gender comes into being—by the language that represents them. Words, to answer the narrator’s question, are indeed actions and it is in the relation between word and act that, in Lispector’s fictions (as in those by many other innovative fictions by women) both a challenge to gender—as well as a critique of gender’s operations—arises. The book reviews that follow each pursue this theme in their own distinct ways: how do women innovative writers use language, they ask, to examine the role of language itself within this tangle of thorns?

Each piece in this international issue—weighted toward writers from the USA but also representing France, Poland, England, and New Zealand—examines the conditions of innovation designed by a cache of significant writers who showcase unusual aesthetic approaches to narrative in their work. They are bound by an innovative poetics that act out, push the limits of our expectation of narrative forms. Davis’ minimalist idiom of consciousness. Ducornet’s maximally-styled “cabinets of curiosity.” Montalbetti’s implosive genre gamesmanship. Kapil’s hybridized narrative texts and bodies. Caponegro’s intent language of domestic phenomena. Tillman’s collaborative pagings. Tulli’s altering interiorities. Frame’s narrative of social recoil and dis-ease. They have each sentenced themselves to rethinking how fiction can be shaped and, more, how that shape changes the reader’s sense of order. How language can disrupt and enhance our perceptions through the words that are our worlds.

This is, finally, in no way a comprehensive issue. All of the selected books (nearly without exception, published in 2009) were chosen in order to give breadth and range to this topic: to give a broad portrait of the types of innovation women work with (no one form of experimentation is showcased here); to highlight the conditions under which women continue to write; and to offer possible intersections of very different kinds of projects (minimal, maximal, collaborative, representational, cross-genre, metafictional). Most importantly, there are far too many notable absences in the conversation. A special issue on contemporary innovative women writers should not go to press, for instance, without addressing the work of Christine Brooke-Rose, Kathryn Davis, Renee Gladman, Shelley Jackson, Cris Mazza, Carole Maso, Amanda Michalopoulou, Marie Redonnet, Merce Rodoreda, Lydie Salvyere, Joanna Scott, and Diane Williams (the list goes on). New writers on the field also deserve attention: Danielle Dutton, Kellie Wells, Jessica Anthony, Lily Hoang—not to mention each of the reviewers themselves, experimental writers all, who generously gave their time to this issue.

One thing is certain: it’s an impossible task to accomplish in one introductory essay and eight reviews. But the reviewers of the following fine books have given us an excellent place to start.

(See Issue 30.6 for excellent reviews by Jaimy Gordon, Janet Kauffman, Dave Kress, Christine Hume, Joanna Howard, Julia Elliot, Angela Szczepaniak, and Rebecca Goodman)





Sunday, June 16, 2013

Gregor von Rezzori's Oedipus At Stalingrad

I re-read Gregor von Rezzori’s novel Oedipus at Stalingrad in early May—it’s been about 18 years since my first read. The book, written in the 1950s, drops Freud into the heart of late 1930s Germany. The protagonist, Traugott von Jassilkowski, gets married, then stews in a typical Freudian conflict involving his “tendency toward debasement.” The novel’s obsession with Freud relates, rekindles and re-examines Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism, a prominent reading of the German war effort and the post-war reconstruction. The narrator, a gabby barfly well-up on Freud, excels at drawing parallels between textbook cases and the debased tendencies of the era:

“It would be both conceivable and desirable to reinvigorate stunted erotic instincts with new impulses—perhaps through the planned use on a broad popular basis of the psyche’s masochistic urge, which might alleviate at least for a while the catastrophic impotence afflicting manhood today.” 

Rather than clutter this blog, I'm linking to the very long essay at Ex.-X's twin blogsite here: http://exhibitxbuffalo2.blogspot.com/2013/06/gregor-von-rezzoris-oedipus-at.html

Paul West's Purple Brain

Paul West: “So much fiction today is like mustard rubbed on the belly, take it or leave it.”

In some parts of the world, mustard rubs are as common as, say, cubes of transparent hunter green jello lodged in the throat, as common as a cliché about Brownian motion and antsy adolescents, as men of imagination among scholars. What happens, though, when mustard-belly-rubbing is the very base of excitement, above which almost anything goes, and the writer takes the world and recreates it as the semi-god that he is, reveling in his inability to be bored? The result: West’s fiction.

West’s phrases are incurably optimistic about the writer’s power to create something new; if not a totally new object, then certainly a new way to express it. His approach is modernist and expansive. He makes every sentence an occasion, skirts universals in favor microcosms, drives some readers batty. As one poor soul who shelled out good cash for a copy of West’s Master Class realized, this book about a fiction workshop (of all things) would not teach him to write the next winner of the National Book Award. He excoriated West for bloviated, egocentric, Latin-and-Greek-and-French-ridden verbosity. He was especially incensed that the hyperbolic writing in the book purported to be actual conversation from a fiction workshop. Those who have never met West but read the book might defend West’s tendency toward similes, literary references, toward the realization of metaphors, simply as an acceptable form of literary license. Of course, only someone who has been around West might tell you, “No, he really talks this way.” That’s precisely the sort of thing people used to say about Proust. “No, he speaks in really really long sentences that come together in the end.” An example from West, off the top of his head as he’s advising a student to cram so-called invisible words in the interstices of a sentence: “Faulkner will give you pages of dithyrambic humming, perhaps ungraphed, then clinch all that poly-racket with one physical ingot. After pages of rant he writes, in a para to itself, the simple adroit phrase I heard you. It’s as if all that went before is a big balloon of tendentious gas, against which he will pit his one little phrase. The effect is huge, I think, a cymbal tinkle after much Bruckner.” Spoken aloud with a teacher’s earnestness, the class hones in, brows furrowed. In writing, however, language seems more embarrassed. Such haughty, steamy, arrogance and pretentiousness, will surely drive our future National Book Award winner to seek a refund. Though he’ll forgive the same pretentious language if he hears it on HBO’s Deadwood series, amid guns, gambling, prostitutes, he will vomit if, god forbid, someone commits the dialogue of Deadwood to print. And it does little good to insist that this is just West being West. If the bookbuyer holds West in contempt for his purple brain, then he must find the company of geniuses who prefer to keep their ideas to themselves. Or else just admit there’s more comfort in mediocrity.

West’s maximal expression is rooted in a project that's lasted for a half-century.

In a recent controversy between West and J.M. Coetzee, West’s tendency to embellish history with purple flourishes came under Coetzee’s critical eye. In his book Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee uses his protagonist Costello to criticize what he sees as West’s fetishization of violence in the novel, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, in which West reconstructs executions after a plot to kill Hitler. Coetzee’s Costello declares the book “obscene” and she repeats the word for its talismanic power to ward off so-called evil, to prevent the mind from venturing into history’s dark places. West’s depiction of the dingy execution room absolves the writer of responsibility to the truth (since very little about the executions remains in the record, other than a one paragraph description of the implements used); Costello states that West capitalizes on the gruesome killings (and indeed on the memory of the dead) with a flourish of description that draws attention to the writer’s considerable skills. Costello is concerned about the dignity of those who suffered death by torture, and the needlessness of describing a scene in exquisite detail when a summation of the historical record will do. Though Coetzee’s Costello realizes that the prohibition on dredging up the evil of the past may amount to censorship, she appeals to West at the level of ethics instead. A writer should not debauch his readers, he should uplift them. Indeed, literature itself should not be used to drag readers to the depths.

Costello says that absolute evil passes through us like electricity. We’re excited when reading ghoulish depictions, and it becomes a fetish, a sickness all the more debasing when the deaths depicted actually occurred. (I’ll note of course that Costello is a fictional construction, but the fact is, Coetzee delivered a similar critique of West’s book in an earlier essay.) The cellar of executions in 1944 should remain a forbidden place for writers, Costello asserts. West, by contrast, has been known to state that literature is meant to unfit us for society. Between the two views, fiction as society-building, fiction as a means of disturbance and chaos, a whole debate ensues among a great many other fiction writers.

By now, given the many theaters of cruelty audiences have been exposed to since Sade at least, the torturous theaters that predated Sade, there really is little need to rehash a discussion about art’s purest instincts. Nonetheless, it seems that in the world of reading at least, the literary novel is a hallowed object. How else to explain the response to Kathy Acker’s novels, censored in many countries, or to AM Homes’ End of Alice, and perhaps most tellingly, the arrest of JG Ballard’s British publisher? The publisher was brought to trial on charges of indecency. The publisher’s advocate put Ballard on the stand in defense of his client, and he asked him to defend against charges of obscenity. Ballard’s response startled him: “It is obscene.” It had not occurred to the advocate that Ballard would willingly and deliberately write something obscene. The text in question? “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” written in 1968. By now, a writer who tries to disturb readers is simply treading on old ground. Hollywood, I suppose, excels at obscenity, and no last minute optimism detracts from an audience’s desire for gore. Television dramas depict a world of grit and chaos, which is in perfect juxtaposition to a 30-second commercial in which a soiled carpet turns spanky clean in seconds flat.

The difference for Coetzee, of course, is that the words in this particular novel are hot, as the reader conjures the scene of the executions. The words ask the reader to participate in the killings by reenlisting the executioner—step-by-step—as evil’s electricity courses through all those complicit in the book. One might begin to defend West from Coetzee’s criticism by noting that West regularly writes historical fictions, inserting all sorts of creative anachronisms, doing great violence to history, simply because—as he says—history makes for great ransackable material. West wants to create the “total novel”—a phrase he borrows from Mario Vargas Llosa—where anything can fall into the book, unrespectable things like superstition, or taboos. “It’s all available.” Indeed, the fiction writer better than anyone explores the dark areas of history, as the lack of specific information about an event marks the space for writing. As West states, “In the mind of the proprietor, all things happen at once.” The proprietor is the owner of one particular vision of history, and his power in that dominion is omnipresent.

Which is not to say that West avoids an ethical response to Coetzee’s charge about debauched fictions. Not at all. West takes the argument about fiction’s debauchery much further than writers or artists interested in merely disturbing or unsettling the reader (throwing a cherry bomb, essentially, under the settled bottoms of readers in certitude). Rather, behind history’s most violent acts, West sees the ironic work of twisted artists, bad artists, aesthetes of the cruel, but artists all the same. The vein that runs through much of his fiction is that the imagination is not only the means for envisioning ourselves as other than we are (usually as better beings) but it also operates in retrograde. The painter Walter Sickert is fingered as one of the Jack the Ripper figures in West’s Women of Whitechapel, while in the novel Tent of Orange Mist, the Japanese soldiers gathered inside a brothel in Nanking partake in a highly ritualized, exquisite, teatime ceremony of coprophagy. The retching junior officers embarrass themselves in front of their superiors who are connoisseurs of the droppings of comfort women, able to discern spices, herbs and meat in the mix. The conceit, of course, is that men capable of raising the low depths to such ceremony are capable of aestheticizing all manner of behavior. Such is West’s response as well in the depictions of the executions of Hitler’s plotters. West seizes on the fact that a film was made of the executions, a film watched by Hitler and friends among bottles of old Cognac and the finest cigars. The film itself was shown to new recruits, though subsequently destroyed because of its effects on morale. Too strong for the average young Nazi, but hardly enough to make Hitler queasy. A description of the executioner’s dress, his implements and methods, reveals a deliberately chosen slow and painful hanging by piano wire. West elaborates a bit—the executioner smells of celery and mothballs—but the facts around the scene itself do not seem altogether incompatible with West’s depiction. He is certainly inside his line—even though at one point West insists the men were hung with hempen cord, not piano wire, and that thus the “official” history lied. There is all too much thought put into the execution, all too much enjoyment of the long excruciating deaths, too much cognac and cigars. West asserts that any discreet version of these events would be no less shocking than the full depiction, and worse, it would leave out the details which make all the difference when it comes to assessing evil or depravity. “The novelist must sample truth, if he can get it, or quit,” writes West. “To remove such events from history is to view a rosy world that may just not exist.” Going further, West wants to respond to “the downward swerve of [print] literary culture at large” by fashioning a response to “aesthetic decadence” based in the need for writers to exercise their freedoms ever more forcefully: “Not only picking up the stink of mothballs and celery from the executioner but also tracking him home to sausages and dumplings, cuddly kids and torpid Frau. And his habit of talking back to the newspaper. The split heels from diabetes. To pile on detail to summon down to earth the vision of complexity, of contraries, in which humans abound.”

Coetzee, however, bars the novelist from the torture chamber, precisely when the writer begins to revel in the quality of his imaginings. Artists risk becoming Sadists, Coetzee warns, and in this, West ironically agrees. This is precisely why West argues that writers should never censor and exclude: because they can be almost as sadistic as executioners. West writes, finally, that you “start out to denounce horror, yet in the end accept it for its own sake because it reveals the license of creative power. So long as men are vile, so art can be too, maybe even after.”

I’ve moved a long way from rubbing mustard on the belly. Mustard is what we ignore. Take it or leave it. Fiction, though, exercises powers sometimes beyond its control.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Credibility of Fiction

Yesterday, in a post about reading Brian Evenson's fiction with students, I wrote about "credibility." Quite simply, I meant that the credibility of a fiction is determined by its relation to reality. Mundane stuff, I know. But the same relationship is also at play more generally in culture: our convictions serve as transveyors between the real and the virtual.

Several months ago, John Kay, a columnist in the Financial Times, wrote about how credibility works in the worlds of gov't and high finance. He said that the key to understanding the behavior of many elites today is in how they emphasize credibility: “The behavior of companies and households depends on their expectations of the future. If these incorporate all knowable information, and governments lay out consistent fiscal and monetary plans for sustainable public finances and low inflation, the best course for companies and households is to adjust to a new equilibrium consistent with prudent budgets and price stability. The key is the credibility of the plan for price stability. Arguments based on faith are impossible to refute: if magic fails, it is because we do not believe enough in magic; if credibility fails to bring about the desired outcome, it is because our commitment is too weak to establish credibility. Since the only markets in which you can immediately see prices adjusting to economic events are securities markets, these markets’ movements provide the test of credibility. Even in the bond market, however, expectations are rarely formed with reference to all potentially knowable information: sophisticated market participants base prognostication not on a detailed understanding of future public finances but on conventional wisdom, and on what they have just read in the news or seen on television.”

Such a claim might seem wildly reductive, but Kay’s column arose out of an analysis of several articles in which the term credibility was bandied about as the ultimate measure of one’s seriousness. And by measure, here, I emphasize that credibility, as Kay defines it, is nothing more than a belief in the way that an assessment (preferably statistical) not only describes reality, but indeed forms reality. If a realistic outcome contradicts or does not conform to the predictive assessment then that does not necessarily imply that the measure itself is at fault, but rather the failure is in the lack of market participation, the failure of a needed number of participants to accord themselves with the logic of the measure, to give it the power to bring its predictions into being.

The very notion of credibility, in the sense Kay describes, is an idea fiction writers are very familiar with. More than a metaphor, it’s the very stuff of fiction. Kay’s so-called “magic” is simply what we tend to call the “Suspension of Disbelief.” One willingly enters the fictional world as a space of possibility: a space in which ideas are put into play, where models are formed, the very models that we may employ in the evolution of the story’s future.

In this respect, I find it curious that John Kay’s discussion of stock market participants seems to impute that credibility is somehow matched by the speaker’s insistence on his views. The more insistent, the more credible. And the financial community is well aware of this. This is precisely why psychologists are paid handsomely for their analysis of narrative, and for chatter surrounding the stock market. For instance, psychiatrist Richard Peterson at MarketPsych, a specialist at decoding investor sentiment, developed proprietary text analysis software that identifies and quantifies economically predictive sentiments such as optimism and pessimism, or tones such as uncertainty or surprise. “From the tens of thousands of newspaper articles, blogs, corporate presentations and Twitter messages being analysed every day, MarketPsych builds a picture of investor feeling.” The MarketPsych Data Feed provides real-time sentiment updates from sources such as earnings call transcripts, chat forums and social media sites. MarketPsych’s innovative software engine analyzes 2 million articles daily and normalizes the predictive elements of the text for quantitative research application. The data feed includes 400 plus sentiments, tones, and topics related to 30,000 global companies, 150 countries, 1,000 cities and states, 40 currencies, and 100 commodities.

One possible avenue for thinking of fiction as a literary genre that exists alongside such monstrous narrative machines is to track the various ways that narrative voice unveils itself in the unlikeliest moments and in unexpected spaces.

I think of Patrik Ourednik’s novel Europeana as I write this. Ostensibly it reads as a history of the 20th century, Ourednik says of his book that “the primary question wasn’t to know what events, what episodes were characteristic of the twentieth century, but which syntax, which rhetoric, which expressiveness belonged to it.” Given Ourednik’s statement, the book seems concerned primarily with information rather than with cultural critique or historical narrative. In this spirit, the book’s many comparisons and contrasts of topics—from philosophy to psychology, the moon landing to Barbie dolls, the death of humanism to the ethics of Amish people and a rise in popularity of pets, etc.—produce either sheer information or else a rhetorical argument. How does the work produce meaning? I think Ourednik is unusually adept at making his rather flat (though at times hilarious) language talk back, squawking between the margins if you will. Indeed, a passage in the book seems to presage the Wall Street quants who sent the banks over the edge in pursuit of profit: “Mathematicians invented the theory of information, and conceived of information as something that was unrelated to meaning, and they posed the question of whether the absence of significance in information had any connection with the absence of meaning in history.”

As self-fulfilling narratives take root in the culture, feed back on themselves, metastasize and distort, the reality that girds these stories, these simple models, tugs at them and in a way propels their movement. In this sense, Ourednik is oddly on this side of reality, while the history he describes exists in a fictional universe. The book’s narrator is situated in a reality quite distinct from the counterworld of the 20th century. His unfiction, for lack of a better word, mocks the historical narrative.

Finally, I think of other fiction writers who venture into the same territory. The Peter Handke of A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is tortured by the difficult task of writing on his mother’s suicide, offering that suicide as he describes it as the most exemplary moment of her life. Handke writes that his task was to present his mother as anything but a literary type. He had to skirt particulars and anecdotes, anything that could be regarded as a formulation or abstraction, that could lift his mother into a protagonist in a story. Characters in a story become literary rituals, he writes, whereas the individuals that give rise to them are forgotten, they become mere pretexts.

“There are two dangers—one, of merely telling what happened, and two, of a human individual becoming painlessly submerged in poetic sentences—these dangers have slowed my writing because in every sentence I’m afraid of losing my balance. This is true of every literary effort, but especially in this case. Consequently, I first took the facts as my starting point and looked for ways to formulate them. But I soon noticed in looking for formulations I was moving away from the facts. I then adopted a new approach—starting not with the facts but with the already available formulations, the linguistic deposit of man’s social experience. From my mother’s life, I sifted out the elements that were already foreseen in these formulas, for only with the help of a ready-made public language was it possible to single out from among all the irrelevant facts of this life the few that cried out to be made public. I compared, sentence by sentence, the stock formulas applicable to the biography of a woman with my mother’s particular life; the actual work of writing follows from the agreements and contradictions between them. The essential is to avoid mere quotations even when sentences look quoted."

Handke’s difficult task is to tell his mother’s suicide story without letting it fall into story. And this brings me back to the question of credibility (i.e. the value we place on something in the real world). Since value is determined by the fulfillment, or lack thereof, of desires and needs: how much stock can a reader invest in Handke’s suicide story? It’s not a fiction, not biographical, nor does it posit suicide as a rational solution. Rather, the book accounts, as though entering transactions on both sides of a ledger, for the ready-made formulas that circumscribed his mother’s life, and in a meticulous fashion, Handke’s readers are left to consider how this most-private tragedy, transformed into a public narrative, extracts sympathy as payment from the reader while offering (or preventing, as the case may be) therapy for the writer.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Johnny Otis's Listen to the Lambs

Great read about how underground music cuts across culture and brings class and race into play. Johnny Otis was born into a Greek immigrant family that settled in Berkeley. He was obsessed with blues and jazz. In Listen to the Lambs, he recalls playing with his band in LA and he also describes road trips across the country. Recounts run-ins with Jim Crow, his background and his engagement with African-American culture, and also gives an on-the-ground look at zoot suits and later the LA riots. Most telling, he makes sharp analyses of the class and race problems he and his fellow musicians were hemmed in by, the very ones they wanted to overturn. Recommended for music history, ethnography on the reception of blues across the USA, for LA and the riots, but also for Otis's own ability to meld his Greek background with his love of African-American music and culture.

My Commencement Talk at the U. Buffalo English Department Ceremony in May of 2013.

This is only the last part of the talk:

...I’m going to assume that, unlike say accounting students who strive to become accountants, almost all of you were not attracted to the English major in order to become professional critics. Rather, you were interested in how literature and film helped to shape your approach to your personal life, to friends, family and your family history, and perhaps most acutely to problems in contemporary culture. The way they enabled you to intervene in debates, to discover what needs to be changed and how that change might be accomplished, to ask questions about how things work and how they might work differently.

The founder of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs, once spoke fondly about a calligraphy class he took at Reed College. He described himself as a dilettante at the time, he took the class to expand his artistry and to broaden his knowledge. He said that learning about typography was “beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Mac computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.”

Not everyone is Steve Jobs, obviously, but in many ways his experience with calligraphy can be a lesson. We approach literature in the belief that something important is at stake, a way to express what it feels like to be alive, even if the immediate application isn’t apparent. In this respect, the instruction you’ve received as an English major may have had less to do with the transfer of knowledge—as if knowledge might be poured from one brain into another—than it did with dramatizing or staging ways of reading, listening, and seeing, with seeking out possible entrances into texts and films and art forms, with finding exits when the bell rang, or perhaps never exiting at all. It happened when we discussed things that are perhaps even unteachable (such as the psyche, the soul, the uncanny, narrative voice, objective correlatives, and the death of the author). But I don’t want to present this as something that only happened when a teacher modeled methods for reading, since it also happened when your reading of Chaucer or Shakespeare collided with the conditions of your lives, your present. It happened when your older teachers encountered your youth: maybe we were confounded by it, maybe we tried to understand you better in order to get a sense of your experiences and to incorporate what you knew into discussions. The roles were reversed, you might say—I learned from you when it came to culture. Our shared experience in the classroom has been cumulative, sometimes over multiple semesters, but the entire time we’ve explored literature together by showing our emotions to emphasize what moved us, and by working hard to articulate and share knowledge with friends and peers. This experience—honing our capacity to understand, to communicate, to imagine and to enable change—was always invaluable, for myself, for your other teachers, and I hope for you as well.

&Now Festival in Buffalo 2009

Christina Milletti and I wrote the following blurb on &Now Buffalo for the &Now Innovative Writing Awards #2

As hosts of &Now 2009 in Buffalo, we looked back at the festival’s prior iterations and saw that what began at Notre Dame in 2004 as a showcase for fiction and cross-genre writing had evolved to welcome the arts and performance more broadly. For instance, Miekal And at &Now 2006 (Lake Forest College) launched a mixed-media theremin performance that transported the audience into a hum-hive of sound and sense. &Now 2008 (Chapman College) introduced us to Andi Olsen’s “Scar Project” and Tim Guthrie’s experimental animations. Every festival has made a mark by asking artists and small press writers from around the country to take part in a lively exchange about the changing appreciation for words on paper, screen, canvas.

For &Now Buffalo 2009, we made a decision to give a free, unthematized space to a unique, grass roots festival, to give in completely to the impulse to push the boundaries of literary and performance art that &Now guests had shown with courage, intelligence, and flair. It seemed to us that &Now events were crystallizing around several significant issues: that in fiction, essay, poetry, and performance, &Now artists were asking what happens when we make art in a world in which the condition of artifice increasingly exerts a great deal of pull on public discourse? What kind of power does art have to critique the cultural sphere from which it arises, or when the domain of the arts has been increasingly colonized?

Reflecting on reactions to his (banned) fiction, novelist Thomas Bernhard remarked “They will never forgive us this Somewhere Else,” going on to elaborate that he was made to feel as though—by writing fiction—he had committed a crime. If Bernhard’s “Somewhere Else” can be understood as a fictional space, or even a space for daydreaming and the imagination, it might be said that the area of that fantastic, threatening space is now increasing, its power intensifying, in the mass produced cultural narratives that now exist alongside our vivid virtual worlds.

Against the backdrop of our current political and economic climate, astonishing phrases seep from the mouths and minds of public figures: politicians and economists whose craftsmanship resonates with the metalepsis of a fictive encounter. Karl Rove warns us (not unlike a character from a Philip K. Dick novel) that “While you're studying reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out.” Meanwhile, economist Robert Lucas (taking a lesson from Gertrude Stein) serenely reflects that our “[economic] crisis was not predicted because economic theory predicts that such events cannot be predicted.” Our representatives in government arguably are students of language, not its abusers, and we (artists, fiction writers and poets) have our work cut out for us. Art is being created all around us. But the general awe and optimism surrounding its creation can no longer be simply taken for granted.

Art deforms us as much as it forms us.

So at &Now Buffalo 2009, we paid keen attention to Brian Evenson, H.L. Hix, Joseph Conte and Dave Kress as their panel grappled with what it means to create innovative art post-9/11. We listened intently to Shelley Jackson’s spectral voices tonguing their ghostly, aural language. We gazed in awe at Steve Tomasula’s presentation of TOC, one of the most ambitious digital literary works to ever grace a screen. And, finally, we were reminded at Nathaniel Mackey’s keynote reading—where Mackey introduced us to “paracritical hinge,” a language that sits in with and riffs off of multiple discourses such as fiction, jazz, criticism—that new writing is still possible.






&Now Innovative Writing Awards #2: 2013

The &Now Innovative Writing Awards Anthology #2 is out.

http://www.lakeforest.edu/academics/programs/english/press/books/andnowawards2.php

Many excellent contributors listed below (Christina Milletti & I wrote on &Now Festival Buffalo 2009, see next blog post):

Harold Abramowitz, Shane Allison, Daniel Borzutzky, Rachel Gontijo Araujo, Garrett Ashley, Joe Atkins, Jesse Ball, Lutz Bassmann, Jose Perez Beduya, Matt Bell, Kate Bernheimer, Arno Bertina, Andrew Borgstrom, Amina Memory Cain, J. R. Carpenter, Julie Carr, Sam Cha, Alexandra Chasin, Don Mee Choi, Jack Collom, Josh Corey, Shome Dasgupta, Katie Degentesh, Andy Devine, LaTasha Nevada Diggs, Ben Doller, Sandra Doller, Manuela Draeger, Marcella Durand, Kate Durbin, Craig Dworkin, Brian Evenson, Elisa Gabbert, Roxane Gay, Elizabeth Gentry, Johannes Göransson, Amelia Gray, Amira Hanafi, Duriel E. Harris (Black Took Collective), Gretchen E. Henderson, Jibade-Khalil Huffman, Laird Hunt, Kim Hyesoon, Parneshia Jones, Bhanu Kapil, Jennifer Karmin, Janice Lee, Daniel Levin Becker, Michael Leong, A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz, John Madera, Annam Manthiram, Jennifer Martenson, Dawn Lundy Martin (Black Took Collective), Joyelle McSweeney, Monica Mody, K. Silem Mohammad, Nick Montfort, Sawako Nakaysu, Urayoán Noel, Alissa Nutting, Lance Phillips, Evelyn Reilly, Dan Richert (.UNFO), Kathleen Rooney, Marc Saaporta, David Shields, Eleni Sikelianos, Amber Sparks, Anna Joy Springer, Ken Taylor, Anne-Laure Tissut, Sarah Tourjee, J. A. Tyler, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, Nico Vassilakis, Antoine Volodine, Ronaldo V. Wilson (Black Took Collective), Raúl Zurita

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Dave Kress's Hush

Who else works in, and through, so many chewy tenses? Nathaniel Mackey is one. Can't think of many others--and if you read Kress, tense twists the tale, & creates tension. If a story could be a story and a sermon and a celebration of the everyday, this would be that story. It's all of that, and more, and very often less--as the sum of the whole takes us into a nullity at the soul of the contemporary: we're slaves to a desire for pretend or make-believe gods though we know there are no gods.

Janet Frame's Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room

Frame is incomparable. I've learned more from reading her books than from (almost) any other writer. No one's syntax folds the story inward as well as hers. Unsyncopated at times, you fall right in eventually. But that's by design. You're stopped for a reason. If you read "through" it, you miss it. It's a book, as TS Eliot once said about Barnes's Nightwood, that is "written." 

As a writer, though, I feel more like one of her characters, Lynley: "It was like spending a lifetime studying a special subject and then being unable to practice it."

Amanda Michalopoulou's I'd Like

Very strong collection. The best story was "Teef," as it kept teetering between realism and fable. Sometimes the tendency is to exoticize the foreign, and since I don't know exactly about psychiatric treatment facilities in Greece, it's hard to tell the fabulous from the real. The story walks tightly on either side of the line and keeps the reader in suspense, while the narration is masterful and confident in exposition, but the protagonist's confidence is upended in the dialogue. Michalopoulou is a gifted writer. 

As an aside, I took a glance at the story "I'd Like" in the original Greek, and I can see the translation is very well done. But keep in mind, even the title to "I'd Like" does not translate smoothly as is the case in so many translations. 

Why is it that the manner in which we say "I'd like" differs so much between languages? The Italians and French are similar, but "per piacere" and "s'il vous plait" are still strange ways to ask for something. 

Me at a restaurant: "Gravy, if it pleases you." 
Waiter: "Why would it please me? You're the one about to eat it!"

In Greek, the title to "I'd Like" is "Tha ithela" which properly translates as "I would have wanted" or "I would have liked."

Greeks expect to be disappointed, or else they live in anterior time.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Macedonio Fernandez's The Museum of Eterna's Novel

Fernandez is relatively unknown in the USA, but he's one of the most underrated writers I've encountered in many years. Many American readers are well up on the names of top European writers, but for some reason South and Central America is forgotten. For every Bolano, Marquez and Llosa, there are Macedonio Fernandez's, Severo Sarduy's, Osman Lins's, Fernando del Paso's and Nelida Pinon's. Maybe Clarice Lispector broke through.

I'm responding this way because I'm trying to figure out how I'm coming to Fernandez so late, and what took so long to translate this. It's astonishing.