Anyone who has read Gilbert Sorrentino knows that he was constantly trying out structural devices that would substitute for conventional narrative in fiction. In a 2006 review I wrote of Sorrentino's penultimate novel, A Strange Commonplace, a structurally bifurcated novel whose twin halves mirror and repeat each other, I suggested that this device "tempts us actively to seek out correspondences between these episodes; perhaps such correspondences can indeed be found, but one suspects that Sorrentino himself would be less interested in leading his readers to the meaning' that might be gleaned from this approach than in the process — unconventional and unorthodox — by which they are led there." Paul Deppler decided to in effect test this proposition and has produced a concordance charting the correspondences between the novel's two parts, here. He also offers an insightful interpretation of Sorrentino's use of these correspondences, here.
"Literary citizenship" is a concept that many writers apparently take quite seriously, as it has evolved from a metaphorical notion that writers should advocate on behalf of literature generally to a quasi-literal requirement that they be good citizens in the "literary community" at large, whose well-being they are expected to consider.. According to Lori A. May in her book The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship and the Writing Life (2015),
Literary citizenship takes the power of the individual and puts it to use in fostering, sustaining, and engaging with the literary community for the benefit of others. The concept is to pay kindness and skill forward, to offer something to the community so that others may learn, engage, and grow from combined efforts. And the possibilities for how that is accomplished are wide and varied, both in effort and in outcome. At the heart of literary citizenship, though, is one constant: contributing something to the literary world outside of one's own immediate needs.
The biggest motivating factor in the rise of literary citizenship as an ideal to which writers should aspire is likely to be found in that "constant" May identifies in the final sentence. "One's own immediate needs" in the literary world, are of course, to be published, to find readers, if lucky to make a career of writing. At a time when it has become harder to do all of those things (and when there even more writers trying to do them), "literary citizenship" and the "community" work together as appealing alternatives to the publish-or-perish ethos that dominated not just academic publishing but in effect all of publishing and the old "literary world" associated with it. While "contributing something" to the community free of self-interest is ostensibly the goal of literary citizenship, surely the ultimate benefit of such a contribution redounds to the contributor in some way (tangible or intangible), or it simply wouldn't be worth making. One's "immediate needs" aren't necessarily identical with one's long-term hopes.
Considered most generously, the creation of community through literary citizenship is a way of preserving a space for literature that isn't dependent on (although ultimately by no means completely separate from) a hyperactive capitalist economy that has so distorted social and commercial values as to otherwise leave little room for such a relatively nonprofitable enterprise as literary writing, except at the most crass and mercantile levels of the "book business." From this perspective, cultivating the literary garden as a whole is the only way to ensure that the garden survives to provide a spot for one's own harvest.
But while such an effort to affirm literary value for its own sake is both commendable and necessary, how many would-be literary citizens really are as dedicated to Literature in the abstract as the rhetoric of literary citizenship would have them be? Are there many who would be willing to cultivate the garden even if it wasn't going to be open to their own work, after all? Perhaps I am overly cynical in suspecting that the ranks of good literary citizens would thin out appreciably under those circumstances, that Literature as a sovereign territory worth defending would be a less compelling cause if one's loyalty to it were so purely conceptual. But even if what might be gained through exemplary literary citizenship is not careerist in the narrowly commercial sense, the urge for recognition and status can't help but dilute the purity of motive that supposedly underlies the practice of literary citizenship.
That in itself does not invalidate the call for literary citizenship. Human motives can never be pure, and none of the strategies for manifesting one's citizenship described by May--attending readings, starting a journal, writing reviews, joining literary organizations, etc.--are in themselves at all objectionable (although it is certainly possible to question the reliance on the Reading as the most visible representation of the "literary world"). There is a point, however, beyond which the breadth of responsibilities May suggests the writer might shoulder actually seems to appease the very market forces that literary citizenship is supposed to counteract. Corporate publishers have already contracted out most marketing and advertising to writers themselves, who must relentlessly promote their own work through book touring and maintaining a social media "presence." Should writers aid and abet this process by voluntarily enabling the system in the name of literary citizenship? As Becky Tuch has written on this subject, "Today’s writers are expected to do more marketing work than ever before while not expecting much in the way of compensation or benefits. It’s what we are being 'trained' to do."'
If literary citizenship "takes the power of the individual and puts it to use" on behalf of all writers, what about the much greater power of publishers and publicists, who are surely in a much better position to be "fostering, sustaining, and engaging with the literary community"? Is the push for literary citizenship another way of acknowledging that the era of the publisher has come to an end? Is the logical extension of literary citizenship a literary world dominated by self-publishing as well as self-promotion, which becomes the only way to do business in books? Although, to again assume the sincerity of those advocating for a writing community built around literary citizenship, presumably "business" would not be the center of activity: payment comes in "kindness and skill," receipt of which cumulatively allows everyone to "learn, engage, and grow."
But would real growth actually occur if all that was "paid forward" was "kindness"? Would the "skill" also offered in payment include a critical skill, an ability to honestly assess what a writer has produced, even when that assessment might be negative? Is literary citizenship specifically about ensuring a certain kind of "literary life," as May's subtitle suggests, or should it also encourage a serious engagement with literary works that in taking them seriously accepts that some literary efforts are more successful than others? In the literary world that emerges from the congruence of idealism and the obsolescence of the old publishing model, will there be a role for literary critics, who sometimes are accused of something less than kindness, but from whom much can often be learned? It is hard to imagine that a "literary" culture (or "community") with any credibility and integrity could be sustained if frank but impartial criticism was unwelcome.
It is not exactly the case that readers seem to be unwelcome in the literary community as described in The Write Crowd, but as the title suggests, literary citizenship is practiced primarily by writers, although finding ways of "reaching out" to readers is certainly encouraged. Indeed, in addition to the decline of publisher support, an underlying assumption of both May's book and the appeal to citizenship and community more generally is that there aren't enough readers to go around and thus writers need to support each other, offering themselves as especially dutiful readers who will not just content themselves with the reading experience but will supplement it through recommendations on social media, reviews, and attendance at author events. Writers act as readers on steroids, giving the literary community a semblance of vitality, even when most writers struggle to find readers for whom reading is not so freighted with external obligation.
What about the apostate, the writer who resists the call to literary citizenship, either through obstinacy or through a sincere belief that the writer's job is to write, not to network? Although May frequently insists that the writer's first responsibility is indeed to his/her own writing, those who might deny the value of literary citizenship when it is made into a de facto requirement of living a "writing life" would surely provoke resentment for not carrying his/her weight in propping up the remaining structures that make a literary life still marginally possible. More importantly, what about the true literary apostate, who violates community norms, who produces work even the best literary citizens might have trouble celebrating, or even understanding? What if the demand for literary citizenship had been made of Samuel Beckett or William S. Burroughs (or even a more conventional curmudgeonly type such as, say, Philip Larkin)?
The work of Beckett and Burroughs was surely abrasive (to some, incomprehensible) enough to its original audience that, absent some expression of solidarity with their fellow writers by each of them, it was almost foreordained to at first be rejected or ignored (or both) by the literary community of the time, however that would have been defined. Perhaps we feel that now the more self-identified literary community is inclusive enough that iconoclastic writers such as these would be acknowledged. Still, it seems to me that the inevitable tendency of a "literary community" expecting its members to be "good literary citizens" is an at least implicit regulation of what counts as worth supporting, what can be recognized as "literature" in the first place. Bad literary citizens are going to continue to disregard the exhortations to blend harmoniously into the growing crowd of writers, but will also manage to write what turns out to be great works of literature, nevertheless.
Tom LeClair's Lincoln's Billy is a work of revisionist historical fiction somewhat similar to Thomas Berger's Little Big Man or Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. Like those novels, it refuses to take iconic American history at face value, presents a version of that history at odds with received wisdom and national myth-making. LeClair in fact confronts the most iconic figure of them all, Abraham Lincoln, whose heroic façade is even harder to pierce than the always rather dubious General Custer or the mostly unknown Mason and Dixon.
Lincoln's Billy most conspicuously contrasts with these predecessors in its scale. They are prodigious, expansive picaresque narratives that question fundamental beliefs about the nature and direction of American history. Lincoln's Billy is more compact and restrained, more narrowly concerned with conveying an impression of Abraham Lincoln somewhat at odds with the brooding but dignified Lincoln presented in popular biographies and films. The novel accomplishes this by taking the form of a first-person narrative purportedly written by William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner in his pre-Presidential days in Springfield, Illinois. The novel's title ironically echoes the title of Herndon's 1889 biography of Lincoln, Herndon's Lincoln, a book that at the time was itself attacked for offering a less-than-worshipful account of Lincoln, covering his unhappy marriage to Mary Todd and his bouts of depression (referred to in Lincoln's Billy as "the hypos").
"After devoting many of the last twenty-five years to Lincoln's biography," writes "Billy," "I decided to compose this brief autobiography. . .to set the record straight about me--and about Lincoln." Billy thus does tell us the story of his life with Lincoln during their partnership, but also after that partnership, the period of Herndon's life otherwise likely to be considered an afterthought by historians, for whom Herndon's time as Lincoln's associate is his main source of interest. Still, his story always circles back to Lincoln, and to Billy's ambition to tell the truth about the now martyred President, and so his autobiography also becomes a kind of shadow biography of Lincoln, the kind of truth he wasn't able to relate even in the published biography (produced in a collaboration with another writer, about which Billy ultimately seems ambivalent).
Although Billy's narrative essentially proceeds chronologically from Lincoln's death up to the publication of Herndon's Lincoln (as it turns out, Billy is writing his account just on the cusp of his own death), it does feature numerous digressions, as Billy looks back on his partnership with Lincoln. We are offered many putatively authentic conversations between Billy and "Mr. Lincoln," as Billy persists in calling him, conversations that take us back, often with Lincoln speaking in his quaint "Kaintuck" dialect, to Lincoln's experiences as a flatboat driver, his time "riding the circuit" as a lawyer, his boyhood problems with his father. Billy and Lincoln have frank talks about religion (Lincoln is revealed as a thoroughgoing unbeliever), politics (Lincoln always saw the world through a political lens), and, of course, race relations (Billy is a more vigorous abolitionist than Lincoln, and he often tries to get Lincoln to remove that political lens and confront the simple evil of slavery).
Ultimately, the most important revelations about Lincoln come from his recollections of the flatboat days, when his job was to take the flatboat and its cargo down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Here the Kentucky bumpkin is initiated into the ways of the world, and he does not flinch from them, however much we might want to think that "Father Abraham" would know little of such things. The most sensational revelation is held back until near the end of the novel, when we learn about one of Lincoln's activities in particular that may have profoundly influenced his later thought and actions related to slavery and emancipation--although even here Lincoln remains enigmatic, and we can't finally know exactly how his "secret" affected his decisions as President. Billy can only speculate.
Despite all of the disclosures about the "real" Lincoln, the "truth" about him only makes him seem more human, less the living statue his posthumous adoration may have made him. This is Billy's intention in writing his supplementary book, and LeClair himself succeeds in having his narrator fulfill this intention. Of course, Billy must finally still be considered a not entirely reliable narrator; his own story of ultimate failure--as a lawyer, as a farmer, perhaps even as a husband--raises the possibility he is motivated by a latent envy of Lincoln, a belief in his own moral superiority. Billy assures us that in the end Lincoln's caution was the right response to the national crisis he was attempting to manage, but in general Billy portrays himself as less willing to compromise with evil, although certainly he recognizes that Lincoln's agonizing sense of responsibility while President belies the notion that his political calculations were made in his own self-interest.
Billy shows no ambivalence at all toward Mary Todd Lincoln, whom he clearly detests. Indeed, living with her is one of the burdens Lincoln bears that only increases Billy's sympathy for him. (Even if it doesn't help him to understand why Lincoln married her in the first place.) Mary makes one actual appearance in Lincoln's Billy, followed up by a visit from her son Robert, both of whom try to convince Billy not to publish his biography full of "gossip" about the Lincolns' marriage and Lincoln's previous courtship of Ann Rutledge, allegedly his one true love. "Poor Robert," writes Billy, "Deputized by a mother ruled by the selfishness that Lincoln maintained ruled everyone, the Martyr's Son might eventually get free of her but never of the role she had assigned him as protector of a myth."
"Words are what Lincoln left me," Billy asserts in the novel's penultimate chapter. The "words" are those passed between Lincoln and Billy in the law office, and they are the words that reveal Lincoln to be a man, not a myth. If they are words that Tom LeClair has, for the most part, invented, they ring true enough in evoking a man of Lincoln's experience and temperament. LeClair is the author of an important critical work, The Art of Excess (1989), a study of the "mega-novel" in contemporary American fiction, and some readers might be surprised to find him in his own fiction producing, if not a mini-novel, a work of much more modest scope. In its quieter way, however, Lincoln's Billy manages not to just "re-create" a period in history, but to alter our perception of it.
My review of Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers:
Readers who may have shied away from Joshua Cohen’s previous novel, Witz (2010), because of its daunting length (over 800 pages) and presumed difficulty will probably find his new novel, Book of Numbers, rather less intimidating and more accessible, if not exactly an airport book. At a mere 600 pages it is still bulky enough, and while its prose is not quite as dense and its narrative not quite as opaque as in Witz, it hardly represents an embrace of conventional formal strategies. Few readers are likely to regard it as a work of mainstream “literary fiction.” Continue reading
My essay-review of Harold Jaffe's Induced Coma is now available at The Kenyon Review Online:
If any writer deliberately proceeded throughout his career to almost ensure his work would be ignored by critics and publishers, it would have to be Harold Jaffe. Jaffe has steadfastly continued to write fiction that is formally and conceptually adventurous while at the same time advancing a radical sociopolitical critique that portrays US culture in the most starkly unfavorable light. From his first novel, Mole's Pity (1979), to his newest collection of “docufictions,” Induced Coma , Jaffe has challenged assumptions about fiction as a literary form and enlisted his work in the effort to resist the maleficent influences of America’s “official culture,” a culture that undermines human well-being and despises real human freedom. Since inevitably many readers are uncertain how to respond to these objections, at worst confused about, if not actively hostile toward, the purposes behind them, it is not surprising that Jaffe’s books are seldom reviewed and are usually published by small, even marginal, independent presses. . . . Continue reading.
Each of Jeremy M. Davies's first two novels, Rose Alley (2009) and Fancy (2014), emphatically reject the notion that, in fiction, form serves content, proceeding instead as each of them do by establishing a form to which narrative content must accommodate itself. Rose Alley especially subordinates its "story" to the operation of its formal devices. According to Davies in an interview, the book's chapters "were composed with predetermined vocabularies, taken from twelve different works (sometimes nonfiction, sometimes fiction): twelve lists of twelve words that had to be used, will I or nil I—though I was allowed to use them in whatever way I liked: all at once, in one long sentence, or spread out, etc."
Fancy is less directly Oulipian in its appeal to constraints, but it is still strictly formalized, nevertheless, it's narrative premise unorthodox but rigorously carried out. Its first-person narrator, a retired librarian named Rumrill, rehearses aloud the instructions for taking care of his cats that he wishes to give to a young couple, whom Rumrill designates as the Pickles, a soliloquy that soon enough expands into the story of Rumrill's life, including his relationship with the elderly and enigmatic Brocklebank, for whom he once performed the same duty he is now entrusting to the Pickles. The novel systematically alternates paragraphs beginning "Rumrill said:" with a much briefer paragraph, an aside of sorts, beginning "He added:." In addition, an occasional entry introduced with "Brockleman writes:" provides a quote from the late Brockleman's surviving manuscripts, which lay out a philosophy of cat-fancying that also acts as a series of Wittgensteinian reflections on our experience of reality itself.
In a sense, what both novels are "about" is determined by how effectively the eventual details of the story allow the formal devices to be realized and is otherwise almost inconsequential beyond plausibly elaborating on the initial premise--in Rose Alley the recreation of the circumstances surrounding a fictional movie shot in Paris in 1968, in Fancy the successful completion of Rumrill's monologue as the means of getting his story told. Rose Alley's formal structure encompasses more than the initial imposition of constraint, as its 12 chapters (a 13th is added from the perspective of the present) are presented not in a way that would give us an account, chronological or otherwise, of the making of the film--about the English Restoration poets John Wilmot and John Dryden, and the violent 1679 attack on the latter allegedly instigated by the former--but as a series of narratives about the people involved in making the film (or involved with people involved in making the film). The novel as a whole thus moves sideways, the chapters associated by who is involved with whom. We never get a panoptic view of the film in either its nascent or completed state, and the reader unfamiliar with the Rose Alley attack on Dryden (or with Wilmot) has to wait until the penultimate chapter to get an extended explanation.
The novel's mischievous formal gestures might be more enlivening if the characters and their stories were themselves more compelling, however. It would seem that we are to take as compensation for the lack of focus on the film and its actual production the eccentric and at times sexually adventurous behavior of the characters, a fairly motley collection of failed actors, a sensationalist producer, the faux avant-garde director and his writer wife, the film's editor and designer, as well as others more tangentially connected to the film. But these characters and their circumstances are only mildly interesting at best, and at times the lengthy expository detours away from a clear connection to other characters or to the film make for rather laborious reading.
If Rose Alley suffers from a lack of immediacy and a surfeit of exposition over drama, certainly Fancy risks succumbing to a similar fate, given its reliance on a single character and his continuous monologue. But in this more recent novel its one character (aside from those who have a presence only in the speaker's discourse) seizes our attention, initially through voice and style but ultimately as well through his obsessions and idiosyncrasies. His narration is nothing if not immediate, and while there are no other characters present to literally interact with Rumrill, he nevertheless manages to invest his nondescript town and his seemingly commonplace existence as a librarian with a kind of archetypal quality, himself an Everyman grappling with fundamental questions of existence, disguised as a fascination with cats.
Rumrill's language is consistently rather stilted, but this very quality is weirdly engaging, as we hear him attempting to explain himself as precisely as possible:
Rumrill said: Apropos, may I say that through my open door as you stepped in I saw little clouds frisk across the morning or evening sky? Which clouds looked by no means significant enough to be responsible, down here below the tropopause, at the height of the three stone stairs that access Rumrill's house--squat in the fashion of most detached residences in our town--for having left you both so wet and weary from your walk?
He added: Little round lucid clouds.
Not least of the reasons why Fancy is a compelling read is the undercurrent of humor running throughout, derived first of all from the implicit absurdity of Rumrill's situation, the mundane task with which he is ostensibly occupied at odds with the theatrical manner and ornate style he adopts to carry it out, his expansively developed, carefully articulated address essentially delivered into the void. Ultimately one could say that Fancy is a novel about language (that, in a sense, it is a novel in which there is only language), but it is language deployed in such a way that it becomes inextricable from character.
And yet Rumrill does not finally come off as a hopelessly absurd figure, or at least not entirely so. It is perhaps tempting to say that in his apparent loneliness he is a somewhat pitiable figure, illustrated most poignantly perhaps in his repeated references to "the woman with whom I had gone into the stacks," a fellow librarian whom Rumrill claims he often met in the stacks for a sexual assignation but who has long since left town. Eventually it becomes clear that these encounters were probably the closest thing to intimacy with another person Rumrill has experienced, and that he acutely realizes it even as he speaks of their relationship in the most impersonal terms. His relationship with Brocklebank could be described as close--he in fact cares for Brocklebank in the latter's dotage--but Brocklebank barely recognizes him most of the time, and what Rumrill really knows of Brocklebank comes from the writing reproduced throughout the text, the "system" Rumrill has adopted as his own.
Rumrill's real dilemma, however, is existential. So profound is his appreciation of the tenuousness of reality, in fact, that he is loath to leave his house in the first place for fear that when he is gone it and his life in it will blink out of existence. One of the most outrageous episodes in the novel recounts Rumrill's elaborate construction of a corridor of mirrors, placed in such a way along his route when he must be away from home that he can continue to see his house and thus remain assured it abides and will be there when he returns. Brocklebank's cat-fancying system appeals to Rumrill because of the way it seems to promise order and coherence, sense from the seemingly random: "The variation of the features of a basic unit [of the system] producing all the thematic formulations which provide for fluency, contrasts, variety, logic, and unity, on the one hand, and character, mood, expression and every needed differentiation on the other."
In its focus on a character who would like to impose certainty and consistency on a recalcitrant reality, Fancy is reminiscent of Tom McCarthy's Remainder. While the narrator of Remainder continually rehearses episodes in his life in an effort to recreate them, however, Rumrill's rehearsal of his directions for the Pickles seems as likely to be the thing itself, the actual extent of his willingness to contemplate leaving the house and its cats (who may also, of course be a figment of Rumrill's discourse) in the care of Mr. and Mrs. Pickles. Rumrill speaks often of his dreams, and ultimately we have as much reason to believe that his purported recitation is one of those dreams as that he is actually performing it. Rumrill is not so much an unreliable narrator as he is an unavoidably contingent one, and part of the novel's lingering resonance comes from acknowledging this.
Fancy is more successful than Rose Alley in sustaining interest through its formal design, from which Davies has fashioned engrossing "content." If Rose Alley left me intrigued but too often impatient with its more arid stretches, Fancy leads me to now enthusiastically anticipate the author's next formally audacious work.
The impatience with which many writers (and some critics) regard "negative" reviews is in part a natural enough response, reflecting the tense relationship between artists and their critics that has probably always existed. On the other hand, it seems to me that such tension has become particularly acute in our time because of two simultaneous and seemingly contradictory phenomena: There are more published and aspiring-to-be published writers than ever before, and the audience for serious fiction (and poetry) continues to diminish. In these circumstances, negative reviews threaten to undermine the "community" that has come to substitute for the cultural recognition poets and novelists have lost and might deprive writers of whatever small chance they have of gaining readers among what remains of a general reading audience.
Defenders of negative reviews often justify them as providing a service to readers, who will be cautioned against spending their time with an inferior book. Even those who don't think reviews are primarily a form of consumer guidance (and thus a function of capitalism more than literature) nevertheless generally contend that the evaluative role of criticism should take precedence, helping readers come to a conclusion about a given work's merit. If this is done by offering evidence and cogent analysis, it is a perfectly valid exercise, although it would seem that the occasions for performing it should be limited: What's the point of subjecting a book by an early-career writer to harsh critical treatment when it's not likely to attract much of an audience anyway and can safely be left to its fated lack of attention as an ultimate verdict? Why take up too much review space and critical effort with bad books when what's really needed is for the good but neglected books to be discovered?
After all, in the long run lengthier critical commentary isn't going to be afforded to truly inferior work. Literary criticism of a more extended sort almost always centers on books that have continued to resonate, whose success is no longer at issue. Few serious critics--and not just academic critics--are going to devote these opportunities for more thorough critical reading to largely superfluous evaluation. Despite the widespread impression of critics as prescriptive taskmasters, literary hanging judges, evaluation is not the most essential task taken up by the literary critic. At their best, critics are not judges, but more like witnesses offering an account of the reading experience that has a tentative authority that comes from close and conscientious reading allied with a grasp of context--literary, cultural, historical. A critic of this kind describes, makes connections, explicates, albeit as the means to the discovery of value, a discovery the critic hopes the reader will share.
If criticism is not the act of rendering a critical verdict on a literary work, neither is it any kind of evaluation of the author of the work, a divining of the author's character or moral standing from his/her "presence" in the text. Thus a negative review is not an attempt to find fault with the writer but to point out flaws in the work through identifiable standards. (If the standards can't be identified then the review itself is fatally flawed and can't be taken seriously, anyway.) Likewise, a positive review is not an affirmation of the writer, but the qualities of the book at hand that make it artistically successful. Quite likely most writers would not take such offense at negative reviews if they didn't implicitly believe that a positive review is not just an expression of approval of a particular book they've written but also approval of their decision to be a writer, an acknowledgment of their inherent talent.
In my view, most of the debate about positive and negative reviews is misguided not only because it oversimplifies but because it proceeds according to mistaken assumptions about the objective of reviews, and of criticism in general. Reviews should not be written as a kindness to either readers or writers but as a contribution to the continued relevance and vitality of literature. While many reviews may be no more than a transitory register of unreflective opinion or superficial pronouncement (at times no more than perfunctory plot summary), others offer genuine insight into the immediate context and the aesthetic effect of the book under review, and the very best also help maintain the continuity of literature by declining to write about a new book as if it has arrived shorn of all connection to the writer's other work and to important literary history. Collectively, reviews provide the first layer of commentary on a literary work, which can be very influential in stimulating subsequent critical consideration of that work.
A reviewer can't be sure, of course, that the work being reviewed will receive subsequent critical attention. The presumption probably should be that it won't. However, the reviewer should also presume that a book presenting itself as a serious literary work deserves to be regarded as such, but also needs to be honestly assessed when it falls short of its ambition. Ultimately both readers and writers can only benefit from this kind of effort when carried out in good faith, even if it is not directly made on behalf of the well-being or convenience of either.
"The increasing popularity of the prose poem among current poets has itself brought the two forms into closer proximity, through the confluence of prose poetry and what is called “flash fiction.” Not all writers of flash fiction, of course, regard it as a version of prose poetry, but rather as an experiment in the radical reduction of plot, character, setting, or scene to the minimum extent possible while still retaining some semblance of structure and coherence. Nevertheless, a number of such writers do blur the boundaries between prose and poetry, from both sides of the diminishing line between the two, and among those should be counted the Canadian Meredith Quartermain, whose new book I, Bartleby is labeled “short stories” on its cover but surely does come close to making that line all but imperceptible, if not simply irrelevant."
My review at Full Stop.
I am making available here an e-book I have written on the current state and status of "experimental fiction." It does draw on essays and reviews previously written and published in various places (including the first iteration of this blog), but I have substantially recast them and added significantly to many of them.
Although the term "experimental fiction" is admittedly awkward and is frequently enough rejected by writers considered exemplary of the practice, I assume that most readers understand what is meant by the term (although in the book I try to clarify what I mean by it) and can accept it as a not very precise but useful way of gathering together writers and works who are "adventurous" in the way that I describe at the beginning of the book.
I have by no means attempted to be comprehensive in my survey of current experimental fiction, but I do believe the writers I examine are representative in their practices and in their tangible but also sometimes conflicted relationship to the experimental writers of the 1960s and 70s whose legacy these present writers have inherited. No small degree of Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence" is manifested among experimental writers of the past 20-30 years, what could be called the post-postmodernists, both shaping and misshaping the work they have produced. Sometimes it results in something new that successfully extends the postmodern legacy, while in other cases the result is fiction that doesn't so much express this influence as evade it, as I believe my discussions of the writers included here show.
In the "Interchapter: A Manifesto," included in The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom asserts that "True poetic history is the story of how poets as poets have suffered other poets, just as any true biography is the story of how anyone suffered his own family--or his own displacement of family into lovers and friends." In using the word "poets" Bloom does not confine himself to those writers of lyric poetry whom we now designate with the term but certainly includes writers or fiction and drama as well, all those writers who belong to what we now call collectively "literature," and thus by "poetic history" Bloom implicitly invokes literary history as a whole. This is probably the most direct explanation of what Bloom means by the "anxiety of influence" to be found in the book, and while it might even seem somewhat flippant, unpacking this statement could perhaps help clarify the insight into the nature of literary influence that is likely to remain Bloom's most lasting contribution to literary criticism, while also suggesting a view of literary history that perhaps cuts across the grain of most current notions of writing as a literary vocation that is itself embedded in what is called a literary "community."
The "other poets" that any individual poet "suffers" are what Bloom calls "precursor poets," those poets who are in fact most important in motivating the current poet to "overcome" the influence of the precursor poet. The attempt to do this does indeed produce "anxiety," not in the poet him/herself but manifest in the poems produced in the attempt. To say the younger poet (an "ephebe," in Bloom's parlance) suffers the precursor is to say both that the ephebe feels an intense rivalry (again, not so much a personal rivalry but one rooted in the latecomer poet's anxiety about the "originality" of his/her own work) but also that there is a kind of suffering involved in the "displacement" of the precursor, who in the poet's development is as important as family is for most people. Ultimately the poet recognizes the significance of the precursor's example (although elsewhere Bloom notes Wallace Stevens's reluctance to acknowledge the influence of Whitman), but also the imperative to break free.
Literary history--at least at the level of the time-tested and canonical--is thus the history of this struggle among "strong poets," the writers whose own achievement can't finally be separated from their simultaneous dependence on and resistance to the achievements of their eminent predecessors. In short, writers who want to be taken seriously can't ignore writing from the past because writing in the present inextricably emerges from the writing of the past, giving substance to the claim that the origin of a poem is always another poem. Writers find themselves within a "tradition" they can't finally evade, although in most cases they don't wish to evade it, but instead to transform it, at least to the extent that the tradition now can accommodate their own work. According to T. S. Eliot, the tradition itself is also thus transformed, but in Bloom's analysis this is not the orderly, "organic" process Eliot described, and "tradition" is certainly not the near-devotional object some of Eliot's followers want it to be. Instead it is fraught with conflict and unacknowledged envy.
It is also, of course, a conflict that arises from intense admiration. One attempts to "overcome" an influence only because the influence is real, because the poet and the work in question has had a profound effect on the would-be poet. But would-be poets are always going to be "anxious" in their admiration because the very qualities they admire pose the greatest threat to their own projects. How can those projects succeed if "other poets" have already made all the best moves and come upon the best subjects?
While Bloom is advancing a Freudian narrative in which quasi-psychological forces are manifested in the relationship between literary works, not a direct Freudian analysis of poets themselves, surely the notion of "rivalry" among writers is neither far-fetched nor confined to the use of images and tropes within writing itself. Certainly Bloom's focus on the anxiety of influence as a material textual feature is the more interesting application of psychoanalytic theory, providing as it does a concrete interpretive tool, but isn't it likely that writers view their own contemporaries not just as colleagues (perhaps not even colleagues) but as antagonists of a sort, potential threats to their artistic visions and literary reputations? How easy is it for a writer to rise above competitive impulses that to some extent seem only natural?
These questions for me are prompted in part by a current literary culture that seems devoted to creating an impression of great collegiality among writers. The most immediate and influential form of literary criticism--book reviewing--is dominated by novelists and poets, some of whom are also perceptive critics but many of whom have been assigned to write reviews under the apparent assumption that fiction writers are best situated to judge other fiction, poets other poetry. This assumption is dubious at best, but the primary effect of this practice is that most reviews dispense abundant praise, often long on superlatives and short on real analysis.
In addition, almost all books now come heavily "blurbed" by other writers, who often seem determined to outdo each other in the rhetorical excess with which they praise their fellow authors. The literary corners of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook liberally engage in various digital versions of handclapping for writers especially admired and frequently feature explicit appeals to "community" among writers, as if literature was a civic organization, or a team sport in which one pledges one's mutual support for teammates. Perhaps it is in this context that we can understand the controversy over "negative reviews": Some writers, and many critics, fail to fully join the team, venturing to question a team member's accomplishment and disrupting group camaraderie.
In surveying literary history, it is hard to identify another period in which serious writers expected to be, or indicated any desire to be, part of a literary community. Paris after World War I is often discussed as the setting for a gathering of like-minded modernists, but Hemingway's A Moveable Feast ought to be evidence enough that whatever friendships that might have formed at this time were laced with barely suppressed resentment and condescension, examples of writers suffering other writers. It seems to me that the push for "community" among writers is a direct function of the "program era" in American literature, the relocation of literary life to the academy, where it is administered in creative writing programs, where other writers are indeed colleagues, and where the wheels driving publication and recognition are greased by the spread of literary magazines sponsored by creative writing programs themselves and the substitution of tenure for commercial success. Under these circumstances, it becomes much easier to think of other writers as fellow members of a community (the community of creative writing teachers and students) rather than rivals, although also much easier as well to write safe but duly crafted, convention-approved fiction and poetry rather than challenge the hegemony of craft and convention by following inspiration where it leads.
Certainly at a time when literature occupies an ever-diminishing portion of public attention and offers an ever-diminishing prospect of providing a livelihood, the removal of writers to the security of academe and the rewards of community was and is understandable and perhaps inevitable. But ultimately this model makes no allowance for the more unruly impulses that kindle the imagination and that make the most profound kind of creativity possible. As Bloom says elsewhere in The Anxiety of Influence,
It does happen that one poet influences another, or more precisely, that one poet’s poems influence the poems of the other, through a generosity of the spirit, even a shared generosity. But our easy idealism is out of place here. Where generosity is involved, the poets influenced are minor or weaker; the more generosity, and the more mutual it is, the poorer the poets involved.
Today's literary culture of community doesn't much account for "misprision," or creative misinterpretation, because it doesn't really have much room for interpretation and judgment at all. All writing is taken with the same congratulatory enthusiasm, allowed to interpret itself through reviews stuffed with plot summary or overwritten superlatives. Program-era fiction gave rise to the vacuous marketing term "literary fiction," which is mostly applied to the kind of proficiently-written but uninspiring stories and novels issued by the writers within creative writing departments needing tenure or first publication. To judge by the blurbs, the tweets, and the tumblr posts these writers use to promote this work, they are reasonably satisfied with the results, but we could wonder whether some of them, perhaps among the more ambitious, don't finally feel a crippling constraint in all such enforced "generosity of spirit."