Sordid, Unprofitable, Unrewarding

grub

Do you like being reminded of how terrible, terrible, terrible it is to be a writer?

How nothing much changes, despite the progression of history?

And how Victorian literature is really quite delightful?

Read this piece I wrote for The Millions about George Gissing’s New Grub Street.

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The Genius Illusion

1.

When literary historians look back on the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, it will be hard for them to explain the sudden, explosive growth of MFA Creative Writing programs. Certainly the degree makes no economic or professional sense, considering that – with the exception of several notable high-ranked programs – the average graduate of a middle-tier institution is unlikely to have a book published by anyone but themselves in their lifetime, and therefore few teaching opportunities. But perhaps the strangest aspect of what has come to be known as the “MFA bubble” is the cynicism that accompanied its expansion. Professors have publicly deplored the “flattening” effect of the programs themselves, and we have been subjected to innumerable hand-wringing essays about whether “creative writing can be taught” – often by the very people who are currently teaching it. We’re faced with a curious contradiction: on the one hand, a profusion of essays by MFA professors about the tiresome distraction of teaching, the foolishness of the system that surrounds it, and the hubris of the students the system purports to serve; on the other, the students that continue to attend these programs in droves, heedless of their professors’ all-too-public expressions of bad faith.

The latest salvo in this ongoing war against the MFA system by some of its most complicit members came last Friday, when Ryan Boudinot, former professor at the low-residency MFA program at Goddard college, wrote an essay for The Stranger entitled “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One.” The essay, structured around a series of pithy pieces of advice for prospective MFA students, is primarily a regurgitation of old tropes. MFA students are entitled. They don’t read. They don’t write, or when they do they write poorly; their work is too sentimental, too concerned with intellectual posturing, or simply too sloppy. Boudinot seems particularly incensed about verb tenses.

What is novel about the essay is Boudinot’s tone: aggrieved, arrogant, even a bit disappointed, as if he’d hoped for better from his students, and was shocked by the myriad ways they’d let him down. He considers quitting on the spot when one admits to not liking The Great Gatsby; he finds their concerns over time-management to be “an insult to the writers who managed to produce great work under far more difficult conditions than the 21st-century MFA student.” Most importantly, he contrasts what he calls the “Real Deal” student – talented, hard-working, willing to read Gravity’s Rainbow, 2666, and Infinite Jest during the break between semesters – with the hopeless rank and file: the students who, simply by doubting their status as “real writers,” immediately reveal their fatal lack of self-confidence and drive.

One finishes the essay asking a very obvious question: if Boudinot disliked teaching so much, why did he do it? One answer, of course, is that he was paid to do so, and the money with which he was compensated came from the pockets (or future pockets) of the very students he categorizes as “hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it.”

Clearly, Boudinot had few hopes for helping his students produce worthwhile work, but that didn’t stop him from taking their money.

There’s no law, of course, against taking people’s money in exchange for advice that, deep down, you consider worthless. It’s the time-honored province of snake-oil salesmen, TV evangelists, and the leaders of cults and Ponzi schemes. But the fact that Boudinot’s advice has come to represent the opinion of a certain section of MFA-land ought to make us question some of the most taboo issues at the heart of graduate creative writing, namely: what responsibility do teachers bear their students – considering that they aren’t the ones coming out of programs with tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt? Or is this a matter of the students’ own unrealistic illusions, for which they bear no responsibility whatsoever?

2.

I spoke semi-facetiously, a paragraph earlier; I know a professor like Boudinot comes to creative writing looking for more than a paycheck. There are other ways to make money that require, if not less time, than certainly less energy and interpersonal stress. I imagine that many MFA professors come to teaching for the same reason that students come to be taught; they’re looking to meet like-minded people, to talk about literature in a society where literature is not a particularly popular topic of conversation.

Indeed, Boudinot’s essay makes the most sense when he defines what made his own teaching worthwhile in exactly this fashion. “I had a handful of students whose work changed my life,” he writes, and later: “[t]he MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty advisor more than discovering one.” Clearly, Boudinot embraced these Real Deal students with the zeal of a new friend, a comrade in arms. He references them in nearly every section of his essay.

But this is the sort of language that one expects, not from teachers, but from A&R men: the thrill of a fresh sound, the rush of recognition. A&R men are free to skim the cream, avoiding the unlucky majority of artists who don’t provide them with immediate neural satisfaction. Teachers have a different responsibility. They cannot wait for these life-changing bolts of lightning; they cannot concern themselves with only the top one percent of their class.

What about the other ninety-nine percent,? One would hope that a professor would do his or her best to give them as much attention as the Real Deal students, rare as unicorns – since, it stands to reason, they need the help much more. Certainly a teacher should not be allowed to get away with the sort of calumny Boudinot heaps on his own students, accusing them of narcissism, philistine tendencies, and simple laziness. “My hope for them was that they would become better readers,” Boudinot writes – but shares no strategies by which he hoped to help this process. Considering his cavalier dismissal of students who manage to admit their difficulties, I doubt it was much of a priority.

3.

To call Boudinot a teacher, however, is to apply a fundamentally misleading label. Although the MFA bubble is probably as large now as it will ever be, most MFA professors from the last forty years would admit that creative writing pedagogy is still very much in its infancy, and most professors who currently hold MFA jobs have had very little training in how to run a classroom. They were expected to simply know how to teach, by virtue of being writers – as if an engineer were qualified to teach mathematics. No wonder many of them quickly grew frustrated, and threw up their hands in dismay, once they discovered just how difficult a task it would be to provide instruction to pupils less naturally gifted than they were.

This practice of hiring professors for their professional accomplishments, not their teaching, stretches back to the roots of the graduate-level creative writing. The MFA program began harmlessly enough, as a minimally exploitative mutual benefit society for working artists and eager students. The proposition was simple. A well-known author, interested in a few extra bucks and the glow of having helped young writers, could shine the light of his or her (usually his) genius on a class of willing graduates. This was the legendary first wave of MFA professorship: John Cheever, drunk as a skunk, proffering patrician wisdom and making passes at his male students. The professors might have been befuddled by the very idea of teaching, but at least they were fascinating – and this fascination was, in fact, the chief reason they were hired.

It’s helpful, therefore, to look at the first wave of MFA programs not as a paradigm for education, but as a kind of prestige patronage system: a way to provide (again, mostly male) geniuses with a living wage commensurate to their stature, in exchange for which they were expected to share their light with the universities that housed them.

All this changed, of course, when universities began to see MFAs (and, to a certain extent, undergraduate creative writing) as a significant draw for students, and therefore something of a cash cow. The expansion of MFA programs meant that there were more positions to teach in said programs, which also meant that the MFA could advertise itself as a professional degree, as well as an artistic one; succeed, and you might get fame and fortune. Fail, and you could at least teach Creative Writing to undergrads.

Now the patronage system was greatly expanded – just in time, too, for the massive cuts in national arts budgets. Indeed, the MFA bubble served as an unofficial assistance program for literary artists for several decades, for which the state of literary writing in America has much to be thankful for.

It couldn’t last, of course. It was a matter of simple math. With the expansion of MFA programs – delightful in small doses, but highly intoxicating in large quantities – there were simply too many MFA graduates, and prospects for employment quickly went sour. Slowly the qualifications for any full-time post teaching creative writing began to rachet upwards, to compensate: one book, now two, now three (preferably from a major house, of course).

This is the third wave. If you got in when the getting was good, more power to you. For the rest of us, the adjunctification of the modern university continues, full steam ahead.

But the important thing to realize, no matter the wave, is that the actual teaching of creative writing has always been of secondary importance within the MFA system. This is not to say that there are not many wonderful teachers within it: people who consider their pedagogy deeply, and who give their students’ work careful, objective, and intense attention; I’ve known many of them, and appreciated them deeply. It is only to point out that these people exist in resistance to the prevailing attitude that MFA professors are not expected to devote themselves to their classrooms. Many of us still labor under the genius illusion: that those who write are necessarily capable of teaching. Like the research professors they mere modeled after, the work of these geniuses always comes first, with the work of their students a distant second.

Those in the first wave had an excuse. After all, they were thrown into the deep end, without time to plan; they survived mostly on charisma, and on the religious belief in writing as an incandescent act – or else they disappeared in a puff of whiskey-laced smoke. But what about those in the second wave, of whom Ryan Boudinot represents the last meager gasp? What about those who treated teaching as an auxiliary to their own work, who expected their students to either astonish them or fade quietly into the night? They were the product of MFA programs themselves. They had a chance to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. They have no excuse whatsoever.

4.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the conversation around the MFA bubble has been its insistence on punching down: of blaming the failures of the system on the very people who have been most exploited by it – namely, the great majority of students who do not qualify as the Real Deal, but who nevertheless provide the cash by which the system continues to function. Seduced by promises of mentorship and community, only to be judged as untalented, entitled, and unworthy of attention, they are too afraid of retribution by the professors they must rely on for recommendations and (joy of joys) a thoughtful blurb to risk complaining about the quality of their instruction. Ryan Boudinot can tear these students down with relative impunity, knowing full well that they have no platform from which to strike back.

Luckily, the sloppiness of Boudinot’s arguments – the bedrock foolishness of his attempt to provide straight talk about every aspect of the MFA system except his own failings – has inadvertently shed light on the cruelty to which professors like him subject the great majority of their students. He has exposed a side of the process that some of us would prefer remain hidden: the dismissal of the “untalented” majority as nothing more than a glitch in the system, something to be worked around. For this we should be grateful.

We have been languishing too long in the land of the false binary. It does not fundamentally matter, anymore, whether writing can be taught. It is being taught, around the country, with differing levels of professional commitment and in settings too diverse to tolerate someone like Ryan Boudinot, for whom the thrill of meeting someone whose talent reminds him of himself outweighs the admittedly difficult task of teaching complex, conflicted, and compassionate human beings. He was expecting the first wave: to shine the light of literature on a crowd of willing would-be geniuses. The fact that he was born too late to participate in this genius illusion is obviously a source of great distress for him. Luckily, he was able to unload this distress onto to his former students, who will be forced to spend far too much mental energy wondering what sort of evil thoughts he harbored towards them, under the guise of providing them an education.

5.

So what now? Now that Boudinot has reminded us of the sort of cynicism we would prefer to forget, how are we supposed to respond?

We can ignore him, of course. Bad essays have a way of fading into obscurity, once their self-promotional purpose has been achieved. Why bother, since the MFA community is rid of Boudinot, for now – and hopefully forever?

But what should concern those of us who teach creative writing is a not-insubstantial segment of our community that shares his views. Whether out of self-interest, ignorance, or simple lack of skill, they cannot teach creative writing effectively, but they comfort themselves with the commonplace that this is not their fault. The students are fools, the academy is broken, and anyway, creative writing cannot be taught. Therefore they are free to continue to accept compensation, conscience-free, for a task everyone knows is impossible – and, when they tire of the impossible task, they can gleefully present their own bad work as evidence of its fundamental impossibility.

I do not think these people are the majority – not anymore. But there are far more of them than any of us should be comfortable with.

There are tens of thousands of students currently getting an MFA degree in America. It is perfectly possible to view this situation completely cynically: to call the system broken, and yet profit from it. It is also possible – and, I think, preferable for the soul – to view it as a vast opportunity to discuss and practice literature, not as fellow geniuses, but as members of a fundamentally democratic literary society. This is the more difficult path, of course; far too difficult for someone like Ryan Boudinot to be expected to follow. It requires actual engagement with teaching and a genuine attempt to reach as many students as possible, Real Deal or otherwise. It requires forthright criticism, as opposed to retroactive blame, and it will not provide you with a great deal of incendiary material to fuel your self-righteousness. What it does provide, however, is an escape from cynicism, a sense of self-respect, and the clear upside of not alienating, or even harming, the population you purport to serve.

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Practical Theory

I don’t write about movies much, and for good reason: despite having learned a few film theory terms from discussions with smarter friends, I don’t really understand “moving pictures” in any deep way. But in this last week I’ve spent on a sort of writing retreat in Massachusetts with my friend Adam we’ve been watching some Paul Thomas Anderson movies that have got me thinking about the relationship between theory and praxis as it relates to both cinema and fiction, or maybe just narrative forms in general – and I’m going to try and explain some of these thoughts here, even if they might seem naive to someone with a better understanding of film.

The discussion began after Adam and I watched “Punch-Drunk Love.” The next night we were driving through the snowy landscape to get dinner when Adam (who does have some film studies classes under his belt) started in on a train of thought that boiled down to this essential point: PTA seems to be a kind of post-theory director, insofar as when Adam watches his movies he feels as if certain scenes and shots jibe so perfectly with different theories about space and character relationships and “gaze” that it’s too big a coincidence to imagine them not being influenced by these theories, to some extent.

Having looked over some interviews and articles over the last month (the release of Inherent Vice definitely goosed the internet for all things Anderson), I said that I wondered whether this had to do with the way PTA likes to replicate shots from old films: his obsession with incorporating old forms and frames into his narratives. It would make sense, then, that his work would look like it was made in accordance with film theory: not because Anderson is influenced by theory, but because he replicates the classic movies which film theory uses as its starting point.

This got me thinking of the sneaky ouroboros between narrative art and the people who seek to theorize it. The construction of narrative art, whether through language or images, is a very tricky proposition that requires a great deal of artifice. Some teachers of creative writing look down on teaching the creaky mechanisms of structure, like plot, motif, or character development, but the fact remains that these practical concerns are the tools with which most prose writers (even a great many “experimental” ones) manage the trickery that is a narrative. They control the flow of time, the pattern of speech, the appearance of personality. It’s not a perfect corollary to the way directors construct film through camera angles, editing, lighting, sound design, etc., but it’s not so far removed that the comparison ceases to be useful.

This is not to say that novelists don’t consider large-scale effects when producing work, or that a theory which attempts to develop ideas about narrative on a large scale aren’t valuable. It’s only to say that any theory that seeks to talk about narrative art in a way that is meaningful to me ought to spend some time analyzing the way in which that narrative is constructed on a micro level, as well. I know that I’m writing as a writer, here, and that I have my obvious prejudices, but I’m mistrustful of the way some theories of literature seem to be constructed primarily on other theories of literature: that it’s our theory that is “post-theory,” not our literature.

(It’s different in the world of poetry, in which theory and writing praxis have a very productive relationship which I admire and enjoy but won’t discuss here. The construction of narrative has its own difficulties which limit and shape prose fiction, and make the relationship between the two far less productive, IMO.)

I imagine I’m exposing myself to accusations of aesthetic conservatism when I say that I’m primarily interested in the construction of literature as the basis for both my own work and the best kind of literary theory – the same way I think Paul Thomas Anderson’s source of inspiration is film itself, with theory at best a secondary concern – but I can’t think of any other perspective that makes sense. Most of my life I’m shaping text, burrowing into, rearranging it; the sentence level is where I do my work. It’s also the site of reading, at which comprehension (and revision, since the reader is their own author) occurs, if it occurs at all.

That’s why a theorist like Bakhtin seems so productive to me. Even when he talks about the way in which a line of text will always be inflected by its context, he still takes the text as the basic arena in which these issues are played out, and he never abandons his investigation of the form of narrative as the basis for philosophical concerns. Look at the multiplicity contained in a single line of prose, he seems to be saying, and look at the complexity of space and time that novels attempt to wrestle with. When I read Bakhtin, I leave with an appreciation not just (or even mostly) of his own intelligence, but of the inexhaustible intricacy of fiction as a form.

I remember going to see Ben Lerner read a few months back and being so depressed by the way he subtly maligned the idea of writing a novel. “I never imagined myself doing this,” he admitted, as if the fame he’d earned from writing prose embarrassed him, and he maligned “most novels” as being simplistic, beneath his attention. He wished he could just keep on being a poet, he said, but somehow these novels just kept coming out of him. (Not sure whether this excretory form was intentional or not, but there you go.) I left with two clear impressions. The first was that Ben Lerner needed to relax a little bit. The second was that Ben Lerner probably hasn’t read that much prose fiction, or really thought that much about its construction.

This perspective would have concerned me less if I hadn’t heard much the same perspective from friends of mine who are (for lack of a better word) “intellectual” poets: this sense that the wedding of theory and poetry has made the latter deeper and more complex than prose fiction, and that poetry as a pursuit is more intellectually advanced than prose fiction, precisely for the reasons I outlined above: the idea that the creaky constraints of plot and character keep language from articulating its own fissures and disjunctions.

Except, of course, that the creaky constraints of plot and character are tools by which to express time and space, the dialogue not only of opposing points of view but different modes of language, even the movement through which one can reject that language, through the subtle process of irony — and all of this is dependent on a system of narrative which is just as capable of dramatizing its own fissures as any piece of poetry. (In fact, one of my favorite parts of Bakhtin is the way he apprehends the productive relationship between the limiting, unifying aspects of prose narrative and the way heteroglossia bursts through these unifying aspects: the way prose is always forcing a writer to operate in ways which are alien and opposed to their intentions, and therefore complicating those intentions.) Think of a character struggling to become contiguous, the way Odette struggles to maintain her solidity in the face of social apprehension in Proust, or the way a narrator can blur the line between the borders of constructed and “real” occasions, as in the work of Gerald Murnane, or the way a single sentence can deny its own legibility through several levels of discourse and irony, as in my favorite book of prose published last year, Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper. 

All of these novels embrace different strategies through which prose fiction produces and interrogates meaning – and those strategies are just as worthy of investigation as poetic structures. I hope that by now it’s clear that I’m not advocating against theory. In fact, I’d like to see more of it in relation to narrative fiction, as long as it takes the area of the (con)text and the work that narrative does as one of its main preoccupations. It seems a shame to me that the preference for poetics in theoretical circles leaves so many people unaware or even dismissive of the practical complexity contained in narrative fiction.

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Our Position

In the process of writing a novel, you have to think a lot about position. The word can mean several different things, the first, and perhaps most obvious of which is the position in the text itself. Once you produce a work that’s 90,000 or so words long, it simply isn’t possible to apprehend the whole thing at once. You burrow into it in sections, or else you clip at its edges the way you might prune a hedge, trying to stand back periodically and understand the shape of the thing as a whole. You agonize over your inability to see, and you wish you had a big enough mind to read several paragraphs at once, the way the narrator in Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is able to juggle two sets of numbers by splitting his brain into halves.

But you can’t get seduced into this kind of wide-angle thinking: the shape of the thing as a whole – which brings us to another important conception of position: in this case, the idea of roles. When you’re writing something long-form, you can get seduced by the idea of a writer as some kind of master architect: the Frank Lloyd Wright sort, who doesn’t let the residents buy your own furniture. You stop considering the position or role of the reader, who experiences a work of fiction line by line, who makes every sentence the space at which an event occurs, not only in the plot but in the mind of the person reading it. You’re straining for some kind of position of mastery over the text: maybe not God-like, but at least managerial, when in fact you’re only one side of a partnership in the creation of meaning. Your position is meaningless without the reader’s position, so much so that you might want to do away with “your position” for a while, and say “our position,” instead.

Not saying I’ve entirely come to terms with this concept. Certainly it pierces the armor of authorial control, or even dignity: imagine the havoc an irresponsible reader might wreck on your carefully constructed castle of glass, sleeping in the kitchen, eating in the bedroom, peeing in the sink. But it does ease some of the pressure on yet another question of position: the position a fiction writer tries to take on important issues, whether social or political or aesthetic. For those of us who think of our work as, at the very least, tangentially political, our failure to write rightly in the face of these complex questions is something which can rob us of sleep. Forget the question of whether our work will even be read – oh Lord, the horror – and focus, instead, on whether it will be interpreted in such a way that it goes against all we believe in. The characters we thought of us as heroes will be read as villains, we will be seen as reactionaries (at best) and conservatives (at worst), and the people who we’ve stayed up with, late into the night, discussing the world’s troubles will be disappointed to discover that we’ve been hiding our worst selves, all along.

It seems to me that once we accept the fact that our position as fiction writers, or more specifically novelists – whether spatial within the manuscript, relational to our readers, or linked to our ideas about the “real world” – is much more tenuous than we actually think it is, it’s easier to come to peace with the necessary limitations of our work. As Maggie Nelson wrote in an interview with Full Stop last year:

But I also like to grant readers their privacy. Often what you’re so moved by when you read is an alchemical combination of what you need to hear and what you hear, which is a bit distinct from what the person wrote. The former is a bit magical, and deserves a certain privacy.

I feel a profound sense of relief when I look over these words. I feel as if I’ve been granted the right to stop manically re-positioning the furniture inside of the vast and crooked house I’ve been working on for the last year and finally vacate, so that people can go live there in peace, without me wandering around as they go about their routines, re-positioning them, demanding they look in the direction I demand, or else wandering behind them with a megaphone, shouting my position on the current state of human existence.

No – best to consider the whole thing from a slightly detached state, in a position of rest, sipping tea and jotting down notes for future buildings.

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Different Joys

Last week (just in time for the new year) I finished the revisions of the novel I’ve been working on for about two years. Now, two years isn’t really all that much time, as far as a novel is concerned, but for me it felt like a significant chunk of my life – not only because I’m only a baby of thirty, so small percentages loom large to me, but also because during that time I worked very little, if at all, on short fiction.

I know there are other people who are excellent at toggling back and forth between the two forms, but it’s never been a simple affair for me. Like most people who experienced any kind of formal creative writing education, I learned how to write short stories first. Whether or not this is the best way of teaching fiction writing is an argument for another time – what matters to me is that I approached short stories with the eye of student; each one was a kind of experiment, a chance to test out certain ideas about narrative, theme, POV, and so on. Want to measure your ability to write looooong sentences? Try it in a short story. Want to push the limits of intertextuality? Use a short essay/narrative to see if the idea works or not.

Frankly, very little of my attitude towards short stories has changed. I still view them as tiny experiments, and I think that’s actually a fairly fertile way to approach the practice of short fiction. The relatively small size allows for a great deal of tinkering, and if your experiment veers wildly off course you can always restart it without much trouble. Five thousand words here or there isn’t going to make or break your writing life, and if you do fail it’s easy to convince yourself that it was a productive failure. After all, without the possibility of small failures, you never approach the risk necessary to produce interesting art.

Unfortunately, this logic breaks down significantly when I embark on a novel. I’ve pushed this process through to a final draft twice now, and on both occasions the hurtling snowball-like momentum of the project made it impossible to achieve the sort of scientific observation which I so enjoy when writing stories. In a strange way, a novel writes you. Once a project achieves the necessary propulsion to lift off of the ground, it attains its own logic. You make a decision – even a major one – and you find yourself asking, does this fit what I have here already? Is this consistent with the book as it stands? You can’t change course every five thousand words anymore, and start afresh. You’ve committed.

More than that, even – you’ve started living in the world of the novel. The experience is far more immersive. The characters you create aren’t experiments; they begin to feel real to you, to the point where real-life occurrences remind you of them, to the point where something happens to you in real life and you wonder what one of them would think of it.

When I work on a short story, I can work in long chunks without feeling at all tired, and when I get up from my desk I do so with the sense of having worked at a task at which I am at least somewhat competent. When I work on a novel, I either fidget disgracefully and distract myself with idle thoughts as I hover over the surface of the manuscript, or else I go into a kind of trance, in which I enter the world of the novel completely, adjusting what seem to me to be real facial expressions, real landscapes, real words spoken between real people. And when I get up from writing a novel I often need several hours to unwind before returning to the real world.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but the last few years’ experience has made me more eager than ever to write novels. They’re significantly less pleasant to write, but they also provide a kind of deep, sustained pleasure (maybe even a guilty one) that no short story can really provide. (This helps me to understand why most readers prefer them, even if I have no such preference.) It seems to me like I do more interesting, stranger work when I attend to a novel – although ask me in six months, and we’ll see how I feel about it.

In the meantime, I’m excited to start the beginning of a new novel and work on a few new short stories. Because it’s only in the very early stages, when a novel is just winding up its momentum to raise itself into the air, that the two are able to coexist, when everything is embryonic, and the experiment is just getting started.

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Republishing an Old Story

The wonderful Marie-Helene Bertino suggested my story “Bar Joke, Arizona,” which originally appeared in One Story, for Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. I wrote the piece around eight years ago, it was my first published story, and this is my first experience with looking back on my own work with anything like this level of hindsight. Reading it again, I’m struck by a couple of things. Firstly, it has a real manic energy to it, which might be accounted for by the fact that it was written in a series of long sessions in coffeeshops, back when I was twenty-two and had really nothing else to do with my time except drink endless cups of coffee in coffee shops and crank out sentences. Secondly, it does a pretty admirable job pushing to the very end of its premise – once again, this might be because it was written in a few marathon sessions, which meant that I didn’t have much time to question what I was doing, and you trust the process better when you don’t have time to think. Finally, it strikes me as really quite a sad little piece, despite its preoccupation with jokes. Certainly loneliness is one of its primary preoccupations, too, and I like how its final statements are a kind of indictment of its earlier verbal ingenuity.

I read the piece at a reading last weekend, and that was interesting too. After all this time, it feels a little as if I’m reading a piece by a person I used to know intimately, and who I enjoy spending time with, but who isn’t quite me anymore. Not to say that I don’t think the story holds up – I actually really enjoyed re-reading it, in a way I don’t always enjoy re-reading my work and I think you will too – only that it’s inevitable (and maybe good!) that the work we create ends up existing separately from us, growing stranger as the years go by, a separate world. Maybe an old story is like a room you used to live in, and which you now look at like any other passer-by, through the open window.

You can read Bar Joke, Arizona here.

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I Do Not Understand Novels

This year my wife and I bought a house, which meant we had the license, for the first time, to arrange our living situation exactly as we wanted. Naturally, struggles ensued. But a notable point of mutual satisfaction and pride were the two sets of bookshelves we installed in our dining room, next to the round, wooden dining room table. We made them ourselves, and although they are by no means perfect – not particularly level, for one thing, and made of cheap wood – they’re certainly functional. Best of all, they display our books in a spot where we can always see them: making coffee, on our way to work, during meals, headed to bed. It makes me feel as if we’re sharing the same living space.

This feeling may seem odd. Books, after all, are inanimate objects. You can live with them, but they can’t live with you – not in the strictest sense of the word, anyway.

And yet, as I look over the bookshelf now, it makes me feel as if the experience of reading is a kind of expansion of living. Just running my gaze across the spines, I remember whole scenes: the opening murder in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock; the terrifying Nazi-era home which the narrator shares with Glenn Gould in Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser; the final ghoulish car ride in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I remember them the way you remember memories, or maybe even clearer, since text has a way of adhering in my mind, whereas images get unfixed, float free, become unreliable.

To spend a great deal of one’s time in literature is to experience a peculiar and pleasant fragmentation of the self. Scenes which were designed by another mind take on form in your consciousness. They colonize your life. So maybe it’s not fair to say that you can live with books, in the strictest sense of the word, but they certainly live within you. I suppose that if you were feeling lyrical you could think of them as repositories for the dreams someone else gave to you, and which you are in the process of forgetting.

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The critical language we use when discussing novels is painfully inadequate. John Gardner’s oft-repeated dictum that a novel should be a “vivid and continuous dream” is all well and good, until you realize that the dream is a collaboration between the reader and the writer, and that there is nothing continuous about it, especially if you, like most people, read primarily in ten-minute stretches before going to bed.

(George Perec’s investigation of bedrooms and the physical aspects of reading are particularly instructive on this topic.)

It’s unfair to single Gardner out; most structural investigations into the workings of novel are noble failures. E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel is strongest when it complains that the novel, as a form, is so elastic that it seems ridiculous to try to categorize it in terms of technique – and yet that is exactly what Forster tries to do, alongside legions of creative writing programs and traditional English departments.

Or, in the absence of structural critique, we view the novel pseudo-historically. We speak of the novel as if it exists on a progressive timeline, so that even a perceptive critic like Scott Esposito can use phrases like “pushing the novel forward,” as if the novel as a form were a rock we were all hoisting collectively up a hill, metaphor which is both weirdly positive (since we’re moving up) and depressing (since it requires a great deal of back-breaking labor).

But isn’t our embrace of this “progressive” sense of the novel really just a regurgitation of Modernism, Pound’s exhortation to “make it new?” In fact, much of what we consider new isn’t new at all. There’s nothing innovative about the sort of meta-autobiography upheld by somebody like David Shields; Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights is a good entry into the genre, as is much of the work of Jean Genet, or Proust, or – if you want to go way far back – the so-called “memoirs” of Casanova. Or, if you prefer a work that actually mimics the sort of insubstantiality of consciousness which Shields feels is the central tenet of worthwhile writing, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.

Consider – speaking of Proust – our current collective obsession with Knausgaard, and with the long, self-exploratory sentence. Doesn’t this awe at the minute investigation of life owe a great deal to our favorite convoluted Frenchman, who elevated the plane of the banal to a place of rumination and exalted suffering?

In reality there is no such thing as a timeline of novelistic progress. In order for the novel as a form to be “pushed forward,” we would have to shape it into a form, which is only possible by excluding great swathes of literature which do not conform to our ideas of what that form should be – which is why so much “progressive” criticism is actually aesthetically conservative. What do we do with contemporary writers who seem so singular as to exist outside the timeline, like Eudora Welty, Penelope Fitzgerald, or Guy Davenport? What do we do with older writers who still seem so strange that they feel contemporary, like Kleist, Melville, or Emily Bronte?

When we pretend to understand novels, or “the novel” – as opposed to when we try to understand a novel, singular – we force literature into a series of taxonomies, so that we can better expound upon it. At first glance, this makes us seem intelligent. It’s only when we consider the actual experience of reading that we realize how stupid it is. When we read a novel, we don’t understand it. It lives in us, or else we live in it – I’m not sure which. We exist together.

*

Today I decided to take a quick tour through my bookshelf, to reinforce to myself how little our critical categories have to do with the experience of living inside a novel. I didn’t reread any of these titles, to better show the way a book can slosh around in the brain. I relied on my own recollection.

Under the “C”s I found Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino and the Collected Stories of John Cheever. Cheever is supposed to be the exemplary architect of American realism: the consummate New Yorker writer. Calvino, on the other hand, is a famous postmodernist trickster, an ancillary member of the OuLiPo, beloved by self-styled experimentalists. But I remember the titular Housebreaker of Shady Hill, speaking to me, naked in the dark, explaining the perils of his suburban – and, frankly, somewhat surreal – life situation, and I remember a similar desire to confess and explain in the narrator of Calvino’s “All At One Point,” trying to help us understand what life was like before the Big Bang, and how it made social interaction both difficult and unbearably intimate.

Nestled next to one another, at the end of “K” and the beginning of “L,” respectively, I found Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick and Ben Lerner’s On Leaving the Atocha Station, two books you would think would be easily clumped together, aesthetically: autobiographical novels that concern themselves with the relation between art and life, aesthetic and lived experience. But when I think of Lerner’s book I remember the way the narrator’s malaise faded away whenever he began discussing poetry, exposing his preference for ecstasy, giving the lie to the all-too-easy irony that seemed to choke the rest of the narrative – it was powerful, but also odd, like having an indifferent cat suddenly nuzzle your hand, expecting friendship. But when Kraus talked about an art instillation she was clear, insightful, analytical; she wrote about it not as an ecstatic experience but a kind of clear window, a place for looking, and her enthusiasm was the enthusiasm of discovery, the way someone might take you to a particular spot on a cliff, to show you a momentous view.

There are other ways of looking at these four books, of course. You could see Calvino as a spot in the history of Post-Modernism when the fable was re-introduced as a literary form. You could see Cheever as a point in America society when realism started to examine itself, and find itself stranger than expected. You could call Chris Kraus a ground-breaking feminist writer (and she is!), or Ben Lerner an example of what happens when someone with a poet’s understanding of the limitations of representation in language tries to write a roman à clef. But none of these ways of looking do much to illustrate the actual act of reading and remembering, all of which have to do with living inside the language world of a text, of recreating it later, of dreaming it.

There are lots of reasons to distrust large-scale readings of literature. For one, they tend to replicate existing structures of power, privileging white male voices at the expense of others. For another, they tend to reiterate themselves, sticking on particular writers out of habitual agreement, canon-building, directing our collective reading habits in ways that end up not being fruitful.

But the one I’m most concerned with here is the way macro readings of “the novel” reduce the complexity of literature to a kind of short-hand, a making of meaning and understanding. In my experience, novels resist understanding and reduction. They aren’t consumed into discourse or broken down into their constituent parts. They’re lived with.

*

I was part of a panel discussion about writing at Arcadia University’s MFA program a while back, when a student asked the question: “what keeps you writing?”

The other two panelists gave thoughtful answers, and by the time it got to me most of the obvious and helpful responses had been exhausted.

I shrugged. I said that with the possible exception of music I thought that literature was the best thing humans were capable of producing, and I said that every time I walked into a used bookstore I felt as if I were part of an extremely long conversation which had been going on since the advent of narrative, and that I was very humbled and also very excited to be a part of it.

I think I stand by that answer, although I wouldn’t characterize it as a conversation. Conversation implies clear exchange, comprehension, a traffic of ideas. Criticism is a conversation, and sometimes a very fruitful one – but literature is something much more interesting. The expansion and fragmentation of consciousness through language is a powerful process that I do not fully understand, and do not expect to. I consider it a good thing that I do not understand novels, as is so often the case with the things we love.

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