Long Talking Bad Conditions Illinois Blues: A Report on &Now, A Festival of Innovative Writing and Art
Long Talking Bad Conditions Illinois Blues: A Report on &Now, A Festival of Innovative Writing and Art
Ted Pelton writes an in-depth account not just of the &Now Conference at Lake Forest College but of the state of experimental writers and small press publishing.
I been to Chicago and I been to Detroit
But I never had a good time till I got up in Illinois
- Skip James, “Illinois Blues”
You are watching me, runny nose and throbbing headache, wheel an 80-lb. suitcase (for which United Airlines charged me a $25 overweight fee on the flight from Buffalo - still cheaper and more trustworthy than shipping) down Halsted Avenue in Chicago on a brisk sunny April Tuesday morning. The suitcase is freighted with books, and the books freighted with just about every spare moment I’ve had from my college teaching job for the last five years. Others write them, but I (with a small number of trusted associatesAs of August, 2006, these associates include Geoffrey Gatza, Florine Melnyk, Ed Taylor, and Kevin Thurston.) do just about everything else - editorial, layout, design, proofreading, working with printers, advertising, marketing, and, here, selling. This is not the picture I had in my mind of what an English professor does when I began a PhD program twenty years ago. (Jesus, twenty years ago?) It’s not that I didn’t think of English professors involving themselves in the making of new literature, even the production of new literature. I attended programs and studied with professors for whom small press writing was the only new American writing worth troubling with - and now here I am. I just always imagined I’d have grad students to do the actual shlepping around.
I am Dr. Ted Pelton, founder and Executive Director of Starcherone Books, a 501(c)(3) organization that utilizes publishing to fulfill its educational objectives of increasing awareness and appreciation of the avant-garde and innovative fiction that mainstream presses no longer have much interest in publishing, if they ever did. Later in the day I will speaking to a room full of graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Illinois-Chicago before heading on the next day to the &Now Conference at Lake Forest College, a half-hour North of the city. When I tell the assembly today about small press publishing, the images in my listeners’ minds will have to do with piles of manuscripts, desktop publishing programs, and the like. No one will ask about luggage. It’s just as well.
This trip is the third of four with Starcherone this Spring: Tallahassee and Austin done, Boulder to come. I caught the cold ten days ago on a flight back from New York where I had read from my own new novel to an audience of 5 people, one of whom was Tod Thilleman, publisher of Spuyten Duyvil Books, another Nava Renek, an SD author, and a third was the woman waiting to close up the place when we were finished. When I later today appear on a panel with Gina Frangello, founder/publisher of Other Voices Books, she will do me two better, delivering her talk with strep throat and having recently given birth. Making literature today is hard work, but small press publishers are headstrong stock, daunted neither by hardship or illness in their self-styled fight against corporate sameness.
That last is a rather nice reportage journalism sentence, don’t you think?
Mike Neuwirth of Bridge Magazine and Michael Leary of Flood Editions are the other panelists with Gina and I in a sixth floor multipurpose room in one of the towers that make up the University of Illinois campus. All of us do slightly different things. Bridge went from a journal-styled paperback format a couple of years ago to its current newsprint magazine format with a circulation of 30,000. They are the most mainstream presence on our panel, seemingly with a “real people” audience rather than this crowd’s usual specializations and art ambitions - Neuwirth freely banters about the types of issues one would see in Publisher’s Weekly, while nonetheless trumpeting small press successes. The question of audience is a significant one in the small press world. Some see their roles as working to create art, with a select initial audience and the hope more will catch on, but nonetheless assuming the traditional avant-gardist’s approach that the work comes first, and good work will attract good readers. Others say that the literary establishment has grown so petrified and risk-averse that it can no longer even tell the central stories of our time. These presses seek to be popular, perhaps even to “catch on.” But as a result, such publications may select material away from the harder edge experimental work of the moment, work which is likely to turn off the typical reader looking for a breezier experience with his or her reading material. We are all caught somewhere between these two poles because it is hard to sustain any American enterprise without engagement with free enterprise, with all its attendant mercantile assumptions. You don’t choose one or the other, but you are always conscious of both, however you choose to manuever.
(It’s a problem not only limited to fiction. I am reminded of this music example: while no one would argue the Beatles weren’t good, one still laughs when Mark E. Smith of The Fall declaims of them and post-Beatles commercial groups: “All the English groups/Act like peasants with free milk/On a route/On a route to the loot/To candy mountain/Five wacky English proletariat idiots.”)
Anyway, Mike Neuwirth tells a story about Joe Meno, a Chicago author I haven’t heard of (which in itself doesn’t mean much, there being many different worlds within the so-called small press world). It’s the kind of story small pressers love to hear and tell: how Meno published two books with big Harper-Collins but it was only when he did his third book with Akashic that the books started to sell, thanks to the individual attention given to authors and their titles by small presses. But then Akashic, from where I sit, is practically a mainstream press. Yes, they’re so-called indie, but, with an alternative pedigree more descended from the successes of Pearl Jam than Oulipo, they’re the type of New York indie alt-press media darlings an establishment scene - Publisher’s Weekly, The Nation, the Association of American Publishers - understands and is more likely to embrace; in other words, they are culturally but not necessarily formally progressive, and accepting of and positioned to succeed within a certain engagement with free enterprise. Meno’s book in question is called Hairstyles of the Damned: you get the picture. No, they’re not the enemy. Yes, maybe I am just jealous.
On the other end of the spectrum is Michael O’Leary of Flood Editions, purveyors of beautifully designed, high-minded poetry by the likes of Graham Foust, Lisa Jarnot, Pam Rehm, Ronald Johnson, and other avant-garde heroes, many from my own Buffalo, dear Beat poetry-mad Buffalo, a city where you can draw three hundred people to the 80th birthday party of Robert Creeley a year after he’s been dead and two years after he moved to Rhode Island. O’Leary is quiet in the brouhaha that follows, being a poetry guy and thus seeing widespread popularity as something other people think about, fiction people, or students in creative writing programs who still imagine they will have audiences, who haven’t yet been trampled on by the invisible stampedes of neglect. “All writers feel neglected,” Ronald Sukenick (postmodern hero novelist/Fiction Collective co-founder/American Book Review publisher) once said in a workshop class I took and I have quoted it often, having grown up in an age where I feel those wounds as acutely as he did. Like earlier today, stumbling down the avenue with heavy bag and headcold. Or when I will pay the airline the excess baggage fee again on the way back, bringing home most of my books from the road.
“The brouhaha that follows” … well, not exactly a brouhaha, but Mike Neuwirth takes issue with my statement that the average fiction title in the United States sells only about 300 copies, my point being that ALL new fiction publishing, even the divisions of Murdoch and Bertlesmann with their many imprints and stacks of tomes in Borders and Barnes & Noble, is dying, and if they’re only selling 300 copies, hell, I can do that. And this statistic is what Cris Mazza (my host, novelist, short-story writer, UIC fiction prof) tells me her students (fearful perhaps their parents were right - there truly is nothing in this “art thing”) most buzz about after the fact, so when I return home I try to substantiate this figure - God I wish I had been a good scholar and written down where this stat came from, publishers being so guarded about sales figures (as opposed to “print runs,” which they love to release and ballyhoo).The small presses, without the establishment resources at their command, must generally rely on anecdotal information regarding others’ sales. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from an email I received yesterday from one of our new authors: “I had a long chat with J. [an agent] not long ago in which he told me about a certain young, fairly-well-hyped writer of literary fiction who had a book on McSweeney’s and whose next book came out this spring on a big NY house; this latter book got a good amount of attention from literary blogs when it was released. J. had lunch with the book’s editor a while back, who told him that the book has sold 80 copies…” One of the reasons, of course, that sales of individual fiction titles are so poor is that the current paradigm for corporate publishers is to keep new books available for only 3-6 months and if they don’t sell in that time, publishers remainder them and move on. Thus they provide a potential edge for small presses which generally keep books available for longer terms or even perpetually. I like to quote Emerson against this mainstream publishing trend, indicating that the way literature actually works isn’t in keeping with mainstream corporate publishing assumptions: “Never read any book that is not a year old.” But when I return home I do find this statement on the net: 93% of fiction published in the US for which ISBNs were provided (thus not counting chapbooks or micro-press books) sell fewer than 1000 copies, according to a presenter at the Nielsen BookScan-sponsored Book Summit 2005, and this 93% of titles accounts for 13% of sales. Publishing is sort of like wealth today in America: the few are consolidating their power, making a very few people/titles mega-rich and saying to the rest of us and what was formerly called Our National Literature, go fuck yourself.For the purposes of this article I tried to find out how much BookScan charges for their sales tabulation information. An email query led to a salesperson who, four emails later, would not quote me a figure unless I agreed to set up a demo of the service and start a contract. Many aspects of the publishing industry similarly structure access through financial hurdles. All US ISBN numbers, the way one is entered into the national bookselling marketplace, are controlled by a single company, R. R. Bowker. Bowker sells 10 ISBNs at $27 each, 100 ISBNs at $9.15 each, or 10,000 at 34¢ each. Being a small press is something like having to purchase your start-up office furniture exclusively at the price-gouging rates of Rent-to-Own. When I was a PhD student, I worked on Herman Melville, perhaps this country’s greatest novelist but a weirdo in his own time, to be sure, whom some contemporary reviewers feared had gone insane (especially after he wrote Pierre) and who was no great friend of the publishing industry of his own moment. But here is my point: would a situation whereby D. H. Lawrence, in 1920, nearly three decades after Melville’s death, discovered Mardi, Omoo, and Moby-Dick, be possible today? Such a scenario only exists if the books get printed to begin with. And if this printing happens, which publishers are the ones most likely to make this possible? Ones whose responsibility is first to literature or those whose responsibility is first to their corporate parents? Who is likely to publish a novel today for whom there is little or no contemporary audience, but which might one day be discovered, in the context of a survey work on classic American Literature, in the year 2045? If there is, on the shoulders of contemporary small publishers, a need to give voice to the culturally marginalized, á la Akashic, there is also a need to give venues to “new compositions in the arts,” as Gertrude Stein called them when she said that such works “were outlaws right up until the moment they were considered classics, with hardly a moment in between.”
In Chicago, my own press has the most affinity with Gina Frangello and Other Voices which began as a literary magazine and now scrapes together funds to put out one short fiction collection a year, determined by an annual contest with the first winner being Tod Goldberg’s Simplify. Of greater interest to me, though (judging books by their covers), is Frangello’s own book, My Sister’s Continent, a complex and challenging-looking (compliments in my vocabulary) novel based on Freud’s Dora case, published by Chiasmus Press. Chiasmus’s publisher Lidia Yuknavitch is prevented from joining the panel from her home in Portland, Oregon, but her statement, read aloud to the gathering by OV Editor Marina Lewis, says Chiasmus was founded to resist the corporatization of literature, and to publish new work she believes in which isn’t finding venues elsewhere. No mention of sales or profits. That, I nod, is what it is all about. Other voices.
What helps fiction sales - blogs, readings, reviews? What do you think of print-on-demand? Do writers who want to get published realize that they have a duty as well to support the small press economy? Will we be able to withstand the pressures of a society that is increasingly anti-reading? Do we have to increase numbers or is it possible to exist in hundreds of separate fiefdoms of audiences which share and communicate with each other and remain viable without appeasing the monster of expansion, the ineluctable direction of capitalism, always urging bigger, wider, more massive? But if that is not what literature is, should we admit and stake our claim on the proposition that literature and the expansive designs structured by capitalism are inversely proportional?
Questions fill the room. I haven’t even gotten to Lake Forest yet.
And now, through the magic of editing, I am in Lake Forest, an opulent Northern burb. The streets between downtown Lake Forest, the college a mile in one direction and the conference center a mile in another, are not lined with streetlights because the owners of the fabulous mansions in these environs don’t want people walking around in their neighborhoods at night. Walk, dear? I won’t hear of it. If you have anyplace you absolutely have to get to, just take the Mercedes. Or better yet, have Juan drive you. Strange place for a gathering of visiting art freaks, music-mixers, post-metafictionists, hybrid fusionists, pomo parodists, indie pirates, and the like - and so say all the visiting art freaks, music mixers, post-metafictionists, hybrid fusionists, pomo parodists, indie pirates, and the like to each other upon their arrivals here, preparing to take stock of our own glorious wealth.
I have never finished a book by William Gass. He goes on too long for me - and yes, I am aware of this contradiction, in that I said above how much I liked the difficult in writing. Call it a matter of taste. Wait, no, I did finish On Being Blue, the one book of his in which he seemed to momentarily allow himself slenderness of expression. Beautiful book, that. I did also like “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” his long story in the same-named collection. In any case, William Gass becomes the hero of my first afternoon at &Now in an opening panel that also features the not inconsiderable talents of Shelley Jackson and Nambi Kelley (more of each anon). Gass in person is remarkable: 80 years old, hale, lucid, wispy white bowl haircut, dark-rimmed round glasses, wise sad eyes and wry playfulness causing him to resemble an emissary from another age - Buster Keaton as an emeritus professor. His remarks indicate that he himself regards his presence as a visitation from elsewhere: the avant-garde of our fathers and grandfathers. He tells us of the differences between our lands: then, there was something more of a cohesion between different artists; now, there are more types of art and media available for expression, diffusion, multiplicity.
Shelley Jackson is next. It is my first exposure to her work, though I am aware of at least one of her projects, a story in which the words were tattooed on the skin of volunteers, a living work that at the same time is impossible to receive except in fragments. Shelley is striking to look at, any place one looks. On her own inside wrist is tattooed “SKIN,” appropriately. Her hair is the color of fire - not a uniform color, that is, but composed of reds, oranges, yellows, and browns. Yet, despite her formidable visual presentation, she begins to speak somewhat waveringly, reassuringly to some degree: she’s nervous. Her work, she says, seeks to position itself against a fairly complacent contemporary writing world which she finds “dedicated to an illusory image of its own purity.” One anti-literary project was the tattoos; another is her creation of what she calls “The Interstitial Library,” a theoretical project in the spirit of Blanchot’s and Roland Barthes’s similar conceits about bodies of text around and beyond us at all moments. Jackson and her collaborator, Christine Hill, imagine a library that exists in the interstices between presently existing books in the world’s physical and virtual libraries. As Jackson is equally an artist and a writer, as well as a skilled web designer, the library grounds itself in the actuality of a website. But from there it goes out again into the imaginary, as both regards works and their possible existences: “Its vast holdings are dispersed throughout private collections, used bookstores, other libraries, thrift stores, garbage dumps, attics, garages, hollow trees, sunken ships, the bottom desk-drawers of writers, the imaginations of non-writers, the pages of other books, the possible future, and the inaccessible past.”
Nambi Kelley is last. As befits an artist who does a great of her work around the world in acting workshops intended to foster, as she puts it, “global communities,” Nambi Kelley refuses to allow us to remain seated, academic-style, in this conference room. A slender, small-framed woman in fingerless knit gloves and a ball of twisted braids atop her head, she asks first what African-American playwrights we are familiar with; she is featured herself in a current L.A. production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Her presence here has theatricality - she stands and speaks, her hands dance in the air. She throws an object into the crowd - make up a story, she instructs, throw it to someone else. The game ends too early - I mean, in this room we could do it all day. But the point is made - in a world where manufacturers tell us art is this or that outside ourselves, we should not forget this basic essence of expression. Duh … people!
William Gass now has his heroic moment, fielding a question from the crowd meant to trip us up: Aren’t you just saying what everybody says? In the corporate boardrooms of America, aren’t they just figuring out ways to make it new? Aren’t we all always already homogenized? Haven’t they taken away our language, those geniuses of capitalism, haven’t they rendered us impotent, anything we might say here only sounding the same as what we’re always being told and sold? Gass is not to be so easily dismissed, and indeed he turns the tables, calmly, serenely. Any derision I give his response here is my own, because Gass himself stays above anger, indignation, resentment. Dear boy, he says to the questioner, They only do that in the attempt to sell us products. Don’t mistake the language they steal from us as anything but new bottles into which they serve their old wine. Oh, but he’s so much more articulate, refined, cool, and cutting, leaving the room still with wonder. I get too involved in the emotion of the moment to record for posterity his actual words. I am too much the foot soldier to remember to be the scribe.
Which becomes my problem over the next few days. I participate, and only as an afterthought restore myself to the position of feigned-objective observer. It also becomes clear to me, when on the last day I hear people talking about the electronic music and video presentations they’ve witnessed here, that I attend a different festival than a lot of the others. I attend events concurrent with other events, and can only be that one person I am; I ignore too much, fail to witness too much, don’t take account of all I am involved in, and it slips past me, leaving me with only these few sad notes, so much less than what is actually occurring. Sticking close to fiction on both days, among the concurrent sessions I miss are those engaging literature and multimedia, performance poetry, experimental film, mathematically engendered writing by women, and a host of other media, operations, and art-form combinations.
My apologies to all those who were at &Now and don’t appear in this account, either because I didn’t attend your session, took poor notes, or couldn’t fit you into the final article. I should have been a better chronicler than I am. A team of chroniclers!
It’s a fallacy that the dead live in the distant past, Shelley Jackson tells us from the podium that evening, star of the first plenary. Some are from only a minute ago. I love the performance that follows - Jackson reading from a text that brings together the website we see projected above her, also of her own design, her work in progress, The Shelley Jackson Vocational School for Ghost Speakers and Hearing Mouth Children. The site’s url is now lost to me, but this is what I recall seeing: an official seal such as one might find gracing an old brick-and-mortar academic hall, one that introduces the visitor to a school devoted to capturing the voices of the dead as miniature physical objects rendered in wax, objects which have also been sculpted by Jackson who works simultaneously as author, artist, and web designer. The objects themselves, or the images of them that we see, are haunting in their echoes of our dream-images of the unseeable, conditioned by 19th-century spirit photography and similar to paranormal explorations that pseudo-sciences have engaged in over the centuries; this sense is reinforced by Jackson’s schematic drawings of bodies and inventions used in the refinement of sound-objects generated by the dead, rendered in effective imitative detail. Her imaginations are bodied forth in very convincing craftspersonship.
Jackson also engages a rich paradox in the life of the avant-garde artist: the artist looks forward, toward creating the new, but the very act of being an artist puts one in an irresistible dialogue with the dead - at least partly because many of our resources are given us by those who have passed from the living world: “Everything you know about yourself,” reads Jackson, “is by-gone. You are your own ghost.” Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Because we speak their languages; since we may well be animated by them, what could we recognize purely as our own? In the style of the channeler of the paranormal, Jackson then proceeds to lead the auditorium in an exercise whereby we allow the dead to speak through us. We are instructed to relax, let the sound come from deep in the throat, etc., and in the dimmed room we begin to hear others and ourselves intone strange moans from some other place. And/or, we play along, and in the front of the room Jackson can hardly keep from laughing at our successful channelings. The power of Jackson’s work is in its ability to engage its audience’s sense of play with the daunting, tantalizing unknown. She is a significant artist whose work breaks boundaries in the received conceptions of the separability of writing, art, and electronic media, without losing sight of the interests of literature. This is how new literature is made.More of Jackson’s work can be seen at http://www.ineradicablestain.com.
To be fair, given my anti-corporate screed above: Jackson’s new novel, her first, Half-Life, is out this month from HarperCollins, and obviously I do not consider this an example of bad corporate publishing. Jackson, like Ben Marcus, is an example of a significant contemporary literary artist who is supported by the commercial publishing industry. But then again, they may also be exceptions that prove the rule.
I attend a panel the next morning scheduled for 9:30 but I get in a few moments after it has started, having set up my table and tried to construct a means by which, as unlikely and unsuccessful an endeavor as it sounds, customers might leave money for Starcherone books while I am off galavanting elsewhere. My book table is flanked on the right by the Brooklyn crew from Spuyten Duyvil and on my left by the terrific array of poetic objects produced by Miekal And, Maria Damon, and associates (an incidental note: it is very hard to effectively google a man with the last name “And”), including one I pick up for purchase: a 1992 Xexoxial Editions compilation entitled Magnified Section. This book features work by, among others, Critical Art Ensemble, a group with one member, Steve Kurtz, currently enmeshed in legal difficulties, with charges filed against him by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security Joint Terrorism Task Force for illegally trading in biological substances that actually are legal for trade, a prosecution that is widely seen in the artistic community as ideologically based.For more information see the CAE official website. In short, Magnified Section is one of those great publications one can only find done by a micro-press: simultaneous art object and slapdash, cheap material production but gloriously beautiful, with an orange and yellow splattered cover resembling those 60s abstract films with projected light through blood or paint blotches. Inside, a kind of anarchist aesthetic of xeroxes, early computer graphics, found art, and fake slogans: “God for Bid,” “Antigens and Contagions,” “Driftless Permaculture,” etc. The entirety seems to come not from New York (though some contributors are evidently headquartered there, but from odd places like LaFarge, Wisconsin, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Art, poetry, social document of who knows what, all in one. Wild.
My morning running like a sentence I can’t find the end of, I enter late a room where Ralph Berry, Director of FC2 and Professor of English at Florida State University, is already giving his paper.
Berry is one of my heroes in the small press publishing world. Over the years, FC2 has published, in its current imprint or as Fiction Collective/Black Ice Books (two other names by which it has gone the past 30 years), many of the greats of a strand of innovative fiction almost completely ignored by commercial publishers: Raymond Federman, Ronald Sukenick, Ursule Molinaro, Gerald Vizenor, Marianne Hauser, Harold Jaffe, and many others. Yet despite its long and critically respected history, FC/FC2 has, particularly in the last decade, gone nearly invisible in the mainstream literary world. So woeful has this neglect become that perhaps the best and most significant aspect of Ben Marcus’s attack on Jonathan Franzen in Harper’s (with which I was in general agreement) was that a mainstream glossy New York magazine was finally forced to print the name FC2, which Marcus mentioned in passing in the article. Despite Harper’s styling itself a culturally progressive magazine, I can’t recall ever seeing them acknowledge the literary margins before (I do recall one, but only one, instance in The New Yorker). Berry himself is a Southern Gentleman of the type I never knew existed, or would have thought had long since ceased to exist (growing up in suburban New York teleculture Hee Haw and the Klan were my predominant images of Dixie); Berry is passionately committed to art, entirely open in his intellectual conversation, yet soft-spoken, dignified, and polite to a fault. I pick up some of the thread of his argument: he is discussing the role of the fraudulent in art, given the potential for the relativity of interpretation since Duchamp, Cage, and others made the very nature of artistic craft problematic. He then transitions into discussing art that produces its own theory as it produces itself, citing the FC2 book, Blue Guide to Indiana by Michael Martone, as a case in point. This faux-travel guide, a formal pastiche of the actual Blue Guide series of travel guides, locates its subject where all Martone’s work locates itself, in Indiana, or rather under the linguistic sign “Indiana.” Berry points out that Martone’s is not so much a “fiction about Indiana” as “a real travel guide to a not-yet-existent Indiana.” I have heard Berry say elsewhere (and perhaps he has said it in the part of the talk I missed) that such fictive gaming is not, as would perhaps appear to the uninitiated, an end in itself, but a means by which we are led to reflect on the fictive operations all around us. After all, stories of any kind come to us through processes of digestion, selection, characterization, and, at their most insidious extremes, spins and the deliberate constructions of organs of official sense-making: governments, the press, etc.
Suspicions of how discourse constructs contemporary accepted realities and the ways in which novels work to reveal these processes becomes a shared contention of all three talks. Brian Evenson, fiction writer, translator, and Chair of the Literary Arts Program at Brown, is next, speaking of the difficulties of defining the novel genre. In one sense, the question of what a novel is, he says, already has an answer in the forming of that question: a novel is that which looks like a novel. But a novel may also, as Bakhtin wrote many decades ago, be any text which exhibits heteroglossia, language in all its variations. The novel, said Bahktin, was the form that made itself most welcome to the inclusion of various discourses (Martone or Jackson are certainly examples, though of course the latter employs fictive-based media forms rather than what one would typically say pertain to a “novel”) and positions itself against monologism, “a false, single view of the world.” While Evenson notes Bakhtin has his problems - he left unexamined his valuing of the novel among other genres, as well as his devaluing of poetry - his construction of what is novelistic remains compelling. The work of defining genre, nevertheless, is always a continual one, with finer and finer distinctions coming into play. In a sense, purporting to be a science, it is finally a pseudoscience whose classifications are ultimately always problematic. Evenson closes by citing a contemporary example of a hard-to-classify but nevertheless successful novel, Patrik Ouredník’s Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century. Constructed with “metahistorical but undifferentiated information,” Ouredník’s book utilizes actual (and in some cases somewhat fanciful) history to create a seemingly unreal picture of the world of the previous century. His work is a type of making strange that is different from the recent fictional trend of looking at the world from a slightly futuristic point in time by destabilizing or re-fixing the past from our own moment in time; such destabilization happens with the help of a discursive strategy that is not precisely history because its selection of details includes those that would not be included typically in a history:
The Americans who fell at Normandy in 1944 were sturdy young men and they measured an average of 173 cm tall, and if they were laid one after another, with the soles of their feet to the crowns of their heads, together they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were also sturdy young men, and the sturdiest of all were the Senegalese riflemen in World War One. They measured 176 cm, and so they were sent into the front ranks to scare the Germans. It was said that in World War One people fell like seeds, and later the Russian Communists calculated how much fertilizer a kilometer of corpses would yield, and how much they could save on expensive foreign fertilizer if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals. (qtd. in Bolton)
Steve Tomasula, who teaches at Notre Dame and, like Evenson, is both an FC2 author and a college professor, picks up the thread of the novelistic in presumably stable discourse by choosing as his subject Alan Sokal’s infamous fraudulent essay on quantum gravity in Social Text; in Sokal’s own words, “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense … structured around the silliest quotations I could find about mathematics and physics.” Sokal’s intent was to argue the limits of postmodern theories of the instability of signification; he wished to reaffirm the facthood of at least an aspect of scientific truth beyond the alleged instability of signification systems which reify or describe such truths. To Tomasula, Sokal’s linguistic experiment shows the opposite of what he intended: “Frauds in scientific journals show us that there is at least as much desire … as anything else in the selection of articles” purporting truth claims, and such desires are the inescapable condition of interpretation. There is no outside to this postmodern formulation of the conditions of knowledge-gathering, which Tomasula delivers succinctly in four propositions:
Reality is constituted in language.
Language is subject to interpretation.
Interpretation is contingent upon subjectivity.
Subjectivity is subject to temporality.
This last, “temporality,” is the position of the observer, á la Heisenberg, at any particular moment - the observer’s experiences, tools, and desires. Modernity, as Tomasula concludes, in concert with his fellow panelists, means having to question everything in a contingent sphere of particular interests and discourses. A construction of the novel vital to our time must participate in such an understanding of the nature of representations, and such novels that do this are to be valued for continuing to do important work in the course of human understanding.
The Women of FC2
I now spend the next two days checking out all the new fiction I can, particularly by writers with whom I’m unfamiliar. First is a trio of women published by FC2 - Lucy Corin, Jessica Treat, and Debra DiBlasi.
Corin is a package of surprises: an assistant professor at UC Davis with trimmed hair and round glasses, she looks from certain angles like a Harry Potter-ish boy naif. But later in the evening, I’ll discover that she shoots a wicked game of pool. Reading from Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls, Corin’s sentences sound at some moments like she’s channeling Lewis Carroll, at others like a language-conscious feminist sociologist two drinks into a cocktail party. One comic text that she reads is fashioned as a list: “Things I don’t do except mockingly.” “Times I watch with detached indifference as my house gets more disgusting.” Good stuff: female lives caught in worlds of male assumption and construction, the work of disentanglement in which any woman’s subjectivity is necessarily engaged.
Next, Jessica Treat, not necessarily as experimental as other FC2 writers, but an accomplished storyteller, wryly aware of the issues involved in her work’s presentation: “I was on the phone last night with my girlfriend and she was telling me why it [my writing] was experimental. I remember the word ‘subtle’.” I am a fan of these subtleties in Treat, and am on record as such: she appears in Starcherone’s new anthology of hybrid prose, PP/FF (Conners).
Finally, Debra DiBlasi, who is the most formally inventive of the three, at least from what I see in this sampling. She discusses her use of “Storyspace,” the first-generation hypertext software, then goes into a story about gaps, lacunae, places where you get lost in life or in text. She reads selective sentences from a story and there is no loss of experience, the presentation imagistic, cerebral. “I stopped stuttering when she [my sister] ran away from home. It was like she took away the gaps.”
Afterward, DiBlasi stops at the Starcherone table and we discuss doing an anthology of erased text. It may never happen, but it’s a great idea.
The Spuyten Duyvil reading the next morning begins with an impassioned, half-lunatic blast from SD’s mercurial director, Tod Thilleman, so full of accusation and bravado that Tsipi Keller to his right is spurred to spontaneous applause half-way through the rant. I don’t feel like I’m quite awake but manage to get down a couple of his sentences: “I’m trying to understand what I am doing by publishing all these books.” It’s true - as indie publishers go, very few if any out-produce SD. Starcherone does four books a year, FC2 does six; Spuyten Duyvil, publishing fiction, poetry, limited edition art books, and occasional non-fiction, does close to twenty. Thilleman has been called to this, he tells us, by the abdication of literature by mainstream publishing: “Publishing is not literature. Publishing may used to have been literature, but now it’s an industry, the publishing industry.”
The books that SD does (at least those whose authors are on display here) are less deliberately experimental than those of FC2, with the exception of Christian TeBordo (whose Conviction and Subsequent Life of Savior Neck is classic self-reflexive, trip-over-itself metafiction; he’ll be an interesting writer to watch as he develops) and, to a certain extent, Noam Mor, Eugene Garber and Tsipi Keller both read from books that are literary but not particularly formally challenging, inasmuch as one can tell from the presentations. Garber’s novel is a lyrical, period love story set in fin de siècle Vienna (sample set-up sentences: “Anna worries about having a soul. Turn of the century women in Vienna worried about this sort of thing.”); Keller’s is the second volume in a cleverly written trilogy about women struggling with possession of their bodies and desires in the contemporary US (sample sentence about neon billboards on a nightclub strip: “Nipples pointed every which way, owing perhaps to the hasty way in which they were stuffed into the bra.”).
Again the question is raised: why are these authors of very capably written, intellectually entertaining novels on the outside of the literary establishment?
Noam Mor takes up the job of answering. His own reading has been of a disturbing piece of interweaving voices featuring at one point a rather John Hawkes-like description of a termite queen (sample: “Even after I beheaded her, she kept birthing.”). Today’s book marketplace, he says, is even more cynical and profit-driven than one imagines if one just sees it as having mainstream tastes and shunning the experimental. Rather, it appears to be entirely driven by sales and marketing strategies, ignoring (as Thilleman earlier suggested) concerns of the literary entirely. Sales reps see niches - the single career-woman niche, the young phenom niche, the celebrity-in-a-different-field niche, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, etc. - and ask, does your book have certain properties? “Good books,” publishable commodities, are those books that appeal to these markets; lacking these, a book is unlikely to be picked up.
Is it possible that the role of the small presses has expanded to the point where they are needed to save mainstream literature? Industry defenders might counter that, at a time when there are more books being published in the US than ever, we may have too many authors in the US - that is, more writers than there are readers to support them. But is this surfeit of authors, if such exists, a product of niche-marketing as opposed to a problem such marketing is an attempt to solve (after all, much of the new books in the overloaded marketplace seem to be of the Britney-and-her-mother-co-write-a-book-about-Mother’s Day variety)?See Amazon for Britney and Lynne Spears, A Mother’s Gift: a novel, here. Incidentally, so we’re all clear on how the bread is buttered, Publisher’s Weekly reviewed this title, but they have never reviewed a title published by Starcherone Books, despite our repeated attempts to contact them and follow their fetishistic review submission instructions to the letter. Are the interests of literature muscled out by the book industry’s more persuasive desire to get non-book-buyers to buy books (for instance, as happened with Harry Potter, where suddenly it was as important for every child to have these books for Christmas as it was in previous Christmases for them to have Cabbage Patch or Tickle Me Elmo dolls)?
I often wonder whether publishing and promoting avant-garde writing, activities I’ve always understood to be forward-looking and progressive, aren’t actually conservative acts - not politically conservative, mind you, but conservative in the sense of trying to save, or conserve, culture. I have written occasionally about this tendency of late, calling it pastmodernism: “It’s strange to me what we do,” I wrote in an early entry of the blog Lance Olsen and I founded this past May, Now What: A Collective Blog of Alternative Prose Writers and Publishers. “We are forward-looking in an activity plainly our culture is leaving behind …. [I]n the position of salvaging, of casting backward, of recovery, of withstanding erosion.”
We may have reached a moment in cultural history where a certain type of looking backward has become inseparable from and as revolutionary as so-called looking forward.
Evening Gass & Afternoon Nambi
“You first meet a painting like a pie in the face.”
William Gass is well into the first evening’s reading of an essay that sometimes seems like a story, or a story that sometimes seems like an essay, or perhaps just a kind of linguistic variety show, which waxes lyrical at times and at others detours into limericks about nuns, sailors, and the Pope. It occurs to me that his particular talent is that different audience members seem to be reacting to different moments in his performance, perhaps as a result of the fact that what he has to say is evocative of all the materials and sounds and textures of what makes writing, art, and music alive for all of us, in different ways, as here attested by a man who has lived a life in the arts, and as a writer. Which is not to say that the seventy minutes he reads doesn’t seem like seventy minutes. It does.
I am more taken the next day by the late afternoon performance of Nambi Kelley who reads, voices, and sings from her work as a playwright, including a hip-hop reenvisioning of Antigone, backed by jazz guitarist and drums. I fear this reading is going to succumb to preciousness at the start - “She got to bury her uncle but her brother doesn’t want her to?” - but soon the language and Kelley’s passion take control and lead to an artistic epiphany: the violence that seems so full of meaning in Greek tragedy experiences a sea change when transposed to the modern urban environment, the place generally characterized as one of “senseless violence.” Violence is violence: it is always senseless, and always brings about devastating and wrenching suffering and pain, as well as plots for revenge, the stuff of history and drama. As in much of Greek drama, the fight against war and killing is likely to be led by disempowered women rising above their socially constrictive roles.
I think of Cindy Sheehan.
I drift back to my book table and check my cash cup. Little surprise, very few dollars have found their way there. I ask Tsipi Keller, who is now minding the Spuyten Duyvil table to one side of me, how they have done for sales. Very well, it turns out. I turn to the other side and ask Mikael And. He is also grinning. It is now clear to me that Starcherone has given up sales revenue so that I can keep up my schedule of attending numerous events, driven by the assignment to document this festival for electronic book review. Hear that, Tabbi? You owe my press money!
As I fret about this, Dimitri Anastasopoulos comes by my table to remind me of a favor I promised him. I know Dimitri and his wife Christina Milletti from Buffalo. To my mind they are experimental fiction’s most striking couple: Dimitri tall and sturdy with curls of black hair that make him always look like he’s just returned from sailing; Christina with even more notable coiffure, pink at the moment, and thus visible in any crowd, as when Geoffrey Gatza and I once picked her out in the lobby of the Chicago Hilton during AWP from a hundred yards away and ascending, riding up the escalator and looking back, stilled as twin wives of Lot. Both are fiction writers, Dimitri the author of the novel, A Larger Sense of Harvey (lovingly called by Rain Taxi, “an eccentric high-dive into language” (Czyz)); Christina of the recently released short story collection, The Religious and Other Fictions. Dimitri now hands me a statement I am to read aloud prior to his reading with Dave Kress and Edward Desautels, “An Exhibition of Information Produced by Fiction Machines.”
The statement challenges remarks made by British novelists V.S. Naipaul and Ian McEwan, to the effect that in the post-9/11 world we now live in such complex times that fiction no longer is as effective a means of rendering contemporary reality as nonfiction. The “fiction machines” designed by the Anastasopoulos, Kress, and Desautel are attempts to write different forms to embody “the complexities of today’s world” (Donadio “Irascible”) and to respond to McEwan’s desire “to be told about the world.”Similar assumptions are at work in McEwan’s formulation of the problem. Said McEwan, as qtd. in Donadio: “For a while I did find it wearisome to confront invented characters … . I wanted to be told about the world. I wanted to be informed. I felt that we had gone through great changes and now was the time to just go back to school, as it were, and start to learn” (“Truth”). The idea that fiction of necessity employs “invented characters” is put to the test if one’s examples of “novels” include those created by Ouredník, Martone, or David Markson, for instance. All the texts/machines have missing or occluded subjects and are the most varied and far-ranging in subject matter of any group of performances I’ve seen thus far. Kress’s involves the tale of a CD anonymously received in the mail, featuring music either from a band he himself was once in, or a “half-acoustic, half electric fiddle band from Finland,” and concludes with him reading a text with a band playing over the reading, with voices echoing between the music and text. Desautel’s piece is an “investigation artifact,” the instructional apparatus from a segment of the national security thicket, an exquisite piece of political paranoia, except that, as his own text says, “we no longer speak of paranoia in the pejorative … without paranoia there is no security.” Finally, Anastasopoulos reads from “A Notebook for Expectant Fathers,” which begins as a playful mock-scientific guide to the signs of gestation in expectant fathers, and becomes a parable of the demands of helplessness, the impossibility of doing anything when all you can you do is nothing, as your baby in the scientifically-visualized womb is seen gulping its own urine and a doctor intones knowingly, disturbingly, uninterpretably, “Your baby has an enormously large bladder that is grossly efficient.”
It is now a kind of common currency to say that fiction is no longer as pertinent as nonfiction. Here, Rachel Donadio, in The New York Times: “Like painting, the novel isn’t dead; it just isn’t as central to the culture as it once was. In our current infotainment era, in which the line between truth and ‘truth’ is growing ever more blurry, readers thirst for a narrative, any narrative, and will turn to the most compelling one” (“Truth”). But Donadio and others of a mainstream bent quickly substitute “fiction” with an unproblematical form of “narrative” in such formulations, assuming realistic tale-telling. Here, a quote by Gass is appropriate: “The dominant form of the 20th century novel is the 19th century novel” (qtd. in Tomasula). Let me stray away from my usual attack on how mainstream publishing favors more transparent, easier narratives, and instead take a cue from Anastasopoulos to ask what is meant by this idea of nonfiction at all. If, as Berry has it, the role of innovative or experimental fiction is to lead us directly to contemplation of the fictive operations all around us - selection, editing, narrative position and bias, naming the structures of the world we are asked to accept as givens, etc. - where then do these things go, the very nature of how discourse is made, when so-called “fiction” disappears? The presumption that “nonfiction” somehow rids us of all the complications attendant to the making of any assertion is naive at best and at worst a recipe for How to (Continue to) Be Oppressed. Innovative fiction writers contend that Naipaul’s demands that writing reflect the complexity of today’s world require not the abandonment of artistic gestures but demanding and making more complex constructions than we are told constitute “the novel” at present. When fiction is seen primarily as an escape, a form of entertainment, then its ability to be relevant will indeed be questionable. Much small press writing deliberately configures its function as a serious one, involved with the national psyche, indeed perhaps with disabusing us of greater fictions which have gripped us as a nation, as seen above in Desautels’s appropriative language. Likewise, Spuyten Duyvil has taken to using the slogan, “Literature is not what a society pretends,” which simultaneously points to a great deal of fictionalizing, or pretending, going on in the culture at large, and to an antidote in the art of fictionalizing, the making of literature. A true literature invents out of the materials of culture and endeavors not ust to participate in but to reveal the fictions that frequently are foisted upon us for reasons of mystification, power, and profit.
The End of the Day/End of the Night
I am shot, the way one is shot at conferences and festivals of the intellect, where the mind spends all day as a Rock-em-Sock-em Robot, thudding and being thudded, getting your block knocked off and making noises in your head like a reel being quickly emptied of line, then having your block pressed back into place to resume being concussed with ideas. One more session. I sit at my table for a few moments and actually sell a few books. Chat. Yes, OK, now it’s time. People scurry away, the break between sessions ended, new ones are starting again. Dazed, I get up and stumble to the first classroom I see and open the door.
It’s the door I entered seven hours ago to hear Tod Thilleman’s morning harangue. But now it’s transformed. Darkened, there is very little seating space: the room is jammed with people, boxes of books, a podium, a projector shining images on the screen, more boxes of books. A man is uncrating these and handing them out around the room. In the front of the room, opposite the speaker at the podium, a ballet dancer does stretches against the white dry-erase board then, finishing these, various dances. The projection directly onto the board features a man reading Brecht essays, aloud, but softly, so it is hard to make out words. In front of the projection is a TV, where we hear a woman reading what seems to be a foreign language, too softly for the words to be made out.
At this point, a man enters the classroom, moves to the podium in front, and begins to lecture on the history of the theatre. I now recall that I had seen him seated outside the room as I made my way in. The man handing out books is now in front of me and hands me The Time-Life Book of Traditional American Crafts. Now, up front, the dancer gets atop a table and rolls around, not sexually, but certainly very physically. Another woman who had been off to the side now appears, wearing a fur boa, and begins singing a torch song. At this point I try to hear what the speaker is saying at the podium, and through the growing cacophony I hear, “Hiroshima,” “exploitation,” “peoples’ mutual relations.” He is now up to number 20 in what is evidently a series of theses. As more people now come in the door behind me, I am forced to move. I squeeze up toward the front of the room, where I climb up on a table that had been pushed against the wall to make room. I sit on the table with my back against the wall. The action I am now closest to is the singer:
You love me
You love me
Then you snub me
I laugh out loud. The projected video now shows a Chicago street scene. The TV shows yet another reader of some text, probably the fourth or fifth in succession. Jessica Treat is seated on my left. She turns to me as I madly scribble in a small black notebook:
“What are you writing?”
The answer isn’t as interesting as I’d like it to be, given the goings on:
“I was asked to report on this conference for electronic book review.”
A man I had previously taken for another audience member now begins playing discordant trumpet.
Interpretation: Entitled “The Failure of Modern Politics,” the performance’s contention that, in essence, we are all in contemporary society overstimulated, preoccupied, and subject to too many competing claims was not particularly a new notion, and so I can’t say the meaning of anything in that room was startling. The theatrical experience, on the other hand, felt startling, and anything but exhausted. I felt unexpectedly elated.“The Failure of Modern Politics” by Stephen Lapthisopon, with Charlene Brooks, Stephen Burns, Mark Hanner, Tracy McCabe, and Eli Robb.
But I now was that much more ready for an ending, and was looking forward to the evening reception. Soon, there I was, in a stately campus hall, at the far end of everything, greedily slurping chablis.
The last thing I wanted was to be confronted by there was more art.
But here again is Davis.
I have not mentioned Davis Schneiderman, which is perhaps another demonstration of how far from the actual experience of an event a written account can be, because once I got North of Chicago, Davis had been everywhere. Review the tape. Here now at the start of the opening panel, before Gass, Jackson, and Kelley begin to speak, is Davis, welcoming us, thanking us for attending, giving thanks as well to the team of students, faculty, staff, and sponsors who have allowed the event to go off. Fast-forward as I arrive the next morning to set up my book table and here’s Davis again, directing traffic to appropriate places and offering coffee. Davis is at panels all day; Davis is making sure the equipment works; Davis is pointing us in the direction of local restaurants.Davis, too, is the author/editor of the ingenious anti-novel, Multifesto: A Henri d’Mescan Reader. One has heard all tales throughout an avant-garde upbringing of how this or that gesture in the history of the book has drawn attention to the physical objectness of the literary creation; Schneiderman’s Multifesto has a permanent footnote in my own mental catalogue of such: its covers are sandpaper, meant to insult whatever texts one places next to it on one’s shelf. And “Henri D’Mescan,” the previously little-known author-provocateur whose biography somersaults any attempt at easy synopsis, is also, by glorious coincidence, an anagram of “Schneiderman.”
Davis finds the room where I am hiding out (with others, it should be said) away from whatever might be planned to take place and sheepishly tells us, “The performance is about to start.” Several times, so that there is no escape.
Dutifully, the pack of academics and artists who were hiding out with me all move toward the central room in the hall.
There we find LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, poet, musician, and self-proclaimed “wannabe linguist.”
The brief performance that follows is stunning. Diggs’s poetry, sung to her own accompaniment on electronic control panel featuring a sophisticated electronic delay mechanism called a “chaos pad,” is macaronic verse of words and phrases cobbled from phrasebooks of marginalized languages throughout the world: Hawaiian, Samoan, Cherokee, and others, infused with hip-hop strategies. Diggs herself comes arrayed for the occasion: an African-American woman from Harlem, she wears an ornate headress that makes her appear like some sort of pre-Western-contact shaman. The sound fits the look: like nothing else I have ever heard, I am first in line to buy her CD.An example of Diggs’s macaronic verse is seen and heard in “Gamelon” here, though without the electronic music background. &Now has surprised til the end.
Final Judgment: The Lesson of &Now
Don’t get tired. Creative enthusiasm in the spirit of any or all arts constantly reinvents and reinfuses itself. That is all you know and all you need to know.Somewhere in there was my own panel, presenting readings by fiction writers Aimee Parkison, Nina Shope, and Jeffrey DeShell, whom we promote elsewhere (see http://www.starcherone.com and http://starcherone.blogspot.com), but whom I also did not what to feel that they had been left out.
Bolton, Jonathan. “Reading Patrik Ouredník.” Context: A Forum for Literary Arts and Culture 15 (2004). 11 Aug. 2006
Conners, Peter. PP/FF: An Anthology. Buffalo, NY: Starcherone 2006.
Czyz, Vincent. “A Larger Sense of Harvey.” Rev. of A Larger Sense of Harvey, by Dimitri Anastasopoulos. Rain Taxi Review of Books 6.4 (2001/2002): 32.
Donadio, Rachel. “Truth is Stronger Than Fiction.” New York Times Book Review 7 Aug. 2005. 10 Aug. 2006
—. “The Irascible Prophet: V. S. Naipaul at Home.” New York Times Book Review 7 Aug. 2005. 10 August 2006
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Familiar Quotations. 10th ed. Ed. John Bartlett. 1919. Bartleby.com. 11 Aug. 2006
Pelton, Ted. “Pastmodernism Manifesto.” Now What: A Collective Blog by Alternative Prose Writers and Publishers. 9 May 2006. 30 Aug. 2006
Stein, Gertrude. “Composition as Explanation.” Context: A Forum for Literary Arts and Culture 8 (2001). 11 Aug. 2006
The Fall. “C’n’C-S Mithering.” Grotesque After the Gramme. Rough Trade, 1980.
Tomasula, Steve. “Is the Bible Postmodern?” electronic book review 26 Mar. 2001. 9 Aug. 2006