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

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.


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

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.