(This review appears in the current issue of American Book Review (unavailable online) No. 35, Issue 2.)
Arguably what has over the past 50 years been called "experimental" fiction is inherently a "conceptual" fiction. The efforts among such postwar American writers as John Barth, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Raymond Federman to question established norms and to extend the formal possibilities of fiction challenged readers to put aside the assumption that a work of fiction is identical with its "story," which in turn enlists "character," "setting" and "theme" to give it substance. Not all readers would necessarily describe their expectations in this way, nor cling rigidly to them, but even the innovations of modernism (which arguably only altered perceptions of how plots could be organized and characters presented) did not finally overturn assumptions about the centrality of narrative as the default structural principle of fiction.
Writers like Sorrentino and Federman contest these assumptions by disrupting complacent reading habits and substituting for the formal structure provided by narrative (a structure that pretends to be no structure at all but instead the embodiment of fiction in its natural state) an alternative form created for this particular work, whose "concept" the reader must ultimately grasp in order to affirm the work's aesthetic integrity. Inveterate experimental writers such as these essentially attempt to reinvent "form" with each new work, requiring that readers regard literary form (at least in fiction, although the stakes are the same in poetry as well) as perpetually unsettled, always subject to revision and re-creation. Most readers of fiction, of course, remain unwilling to relinquish their inherited conception of form as something already known, an established paradigm by which to judge the work's "success," and so experimental or adventurous writers must still attempt to break through ingrained reading habits by, if necessary, rudely interrupting them.
Perhaps it is the persistence of these passive reading habits, despite the efforts of various outlaws, absurdists, metafictionists, and other assorted postmodernists, that accounts for the appearance of a more direct form of conceptualism in Davis Schneiderman's [SIC], as well as his previous novel, Blank. (INK, the third book in a conceptualist trilogy, is scheduled for publication in 2014.) Both books bring to fiction the programmatic conceptualism that has featured prominently in Amerian art since Joseph Kosuth's 1969 manifest, "Art After Philosophy," and that more recently has been rather flamboyantly adapted to poetry by the poet Kenneth Goldsmith. Blank is a series of pages that are, well, blank except for a few pages with chapter titles on which the blank pages refuse to elaborate. Schneiderman has said of the book that it "takes as its starting point that there is no starting point. . .this is literature that exceeds its frame and grows to encompass and then process its own discussions" and that it is "a conceptual work that allows you an entry point into a world beyond realist and experimental/innovative literature. This is conceptual work that responds to the at-times alienating character of contemporary art" (The Nervous Breakdown, April 26, 2011)
While such remarks surely do manifest a kind of postironic glibness that warns us not to take them altogether seriously, finally we have to accept that the provocation of Blank is indeed directed toward the purposes Schneiderman describes here, or the book threatens to become merely a joke (although we should not underestimate the extent to which it is indeed intended partly as a joke). No doubt Schneiderman does want us to think of his book as going "beyond" both "realist and experimental/innovative literature" and to regard its "content" as radically indeterminate (if it can be said to have content). That the book is meant as a response "to the at-times alienating character of contemporary art" is somewhat vague—What kind of response? To what feature of contemporary art that makes it "alienating"?—but more generally this notion that art is fundamentally a response to the nature of art is one of the controlling ideas behind conceptual art going back at least to Kosuth (who himself argues it goes back to Duchamp). Presumably Schneiderman wants us in particular to have in mind the "character" of contemporary fiction (especially in its "literary" version), but the moves he makes in describing his "conceptual book" are recognizably those associated with conceptualism.
Blank certainly follows the central principle associated with conceptual art: once we have identified its motivating concept, we have appreciated its "art," which has almost nothing to do with execution, with the way the writer works with the "materials" at hand. We do not judge this book by its artful disposition of words, since it contains none (aside from the chapter headings, which more call attention to the absence of words than furnish us with a few scarce specimens). [SIC] is equally conceptual, although in this case the text is full of words, except that none of them have been written by the author. (He does conspicuously lay claim to them, nonetheless.) Part 1 of the book consists of a series of appropriated canonical literary works, proceeding in a more or less chronological sequence, form "Caedmon's Hymn" to Joyce's Ulysses, each work presented as "by Davis Schneiderman." Part 2 is a "translation" of Borges's "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," although it is actually a transformation of the text through several different languages as produced by an online translation program. Part 3 consists of a miscellany of documents produced since 1923 (the cutoff date for determining the "public domain"), including Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address, a recipe for a "1943 Victory Cake," the source code for the Melissa virus, and the first 30 Tweets—all again putatively "by Davis Schneiderman."
Thus while [SIC] unlike Blank seems to provide a text we might read (a text composed of other texts), it turns out to be one we don't need to read. Again once we have assimilated the underlying concept bringing the texts together, unless we would like, say, to re-read Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" for its own sake, we have little reason to do more than skim through the book's pages to get its "point." [SIC] is an implicit critique of copyright, of the "ownership" of writing and the taboo of plagiarism. Conversely, one might see it as the celebration of the possibilities of appropriation, a kind of literary remixing. Finding this critique satisfying must finally depend on the extent to which the reader also finds him/herself in sympathy with the philosophy of artistic appropriation and considers the product of such appropriation compelling as a work of art, since there are otherwise no aesthetic standards against which a book like this can be measured. Certainly there are many readers who would find this sort of thing simply irrelevant to art, perhaps its very antithesis. Others would just as surely defend it as a necessary tonic against bloated claims on behalf of "originality" and a challenge to us to think seriously about what we do expect of art.
I myself do not find originality an altogether empty term, at least if we concede that originality in art or literature is always a relative claim, a perception that a specific work or writer has exploited a formal possibility not previously so fully realized or produced effects with language so well-rendered, not an assertion that something wholly new, unconstrained by convention or uninfluenced by other artists and the history of the form, has been created or is even possible. Davis Schneiderman would likely deny that in its way his book aspires to originality, but it seems to me that it asks to be taken as original in the most radical sense, a book so utterly removed from the ordinary practices of "literary fiction" that it is a work of art on its own terms, not on those tied to existing formal requirements or to literary history. It seeks to be regarded as sui generis, a book that can be judged only by the criteria its sets up for itself. However, if there are few, if any, touchstones in previous fiction by which to assess it, [SIC] is recognizable enough as a fellow traveler with conceptualism in contemporary art, as well as with the escapades of Goldsmith. In this context, [SIC] can't really be called original (save perhaps in bringing conceptualism to fiction), but, more importantly, it's really not that interesting, either.
Finally it is rather hard to know why we shouldn't prefer a straightforward nonfiction polemic against the ill effects of copyright (including its perpetuation of the myth of "ownership," of "intellectual property") over the more indirect version of this critique as found in [SIC]. In some ways a writer like Davis Schneiderman performs a worthwhile enough service in reminding even those of us who favor experimental writing that we can still impose too many formal requirements on a work of fiction, and "The Borges Transformations" is a provocative demonstration of the inherent instability of meaning in any text. But in essentially reducing the scope of his iconoclasm to a secondary role that primarily reinforces what the book wants to "say" about the subject it indirectly raises, [SIC] almost negates whatever adventurous impulse might seem to animate a work ostensibly so unconventional. Such didacticism only makes experimental fiction a means of achieving the sort of conventional goal—in this case, communicating a "theme"—emphasized by the "realist" fiction to which it is supposed to be an alternative.