February 11, 2011

How to read – the politics of quality and multiple readings

(NB: I love AWP, everyone there is awesome, and all the Versal editors had a superblast. Tot de volgende jaar in Chicago!)

When we talk about the notion of the “experiment” or the “innovative,” especially in fiction, where certain notions, such as plot or character, tend to be a bit more codified than the (perhaps) more open field of poetics, we often tend to think about works that subvert (I’m going to stop using scare quotes – assume that all terms are provisional) these concepts – concepts that we attempt to teach in the creative writing class. Think, here, about Beckett or Proust as classic examples of texts that subvert our understanding of plot – texts in which, as the Talking Heads describes heaven, nothing really ever happens. Or Patrik Ourednik’s Europeana, in which there aren’t really people as characters, or Vanessa Place’s Dies: A Sentence, which is an 117-page novel of a sentence, or anything by Kathy Acker, which combines writing and drawing, rewriting canonical (male) novels, multi-vocalizing and defacing them, lacing them with the abject.

My point here is not to diagram a history of textual non-conformities (which, if truth be told, would hearken back to The Odyssey), but to open a discussion of the writerly and readerly conventions we take for granted. If we understand ideology (I think this is Barthes here, and certainly not the Webster definition) as a set of artificial values that we mistakenly believe are timeless and universal, then we also must look at writing and reading as a set of conventions that we take for granted. We pretend, for example, that the psychological novel has always existed, though some of the novels that make up the core of the canon (air quotes, scare quotes) could care less about personal psychology – think Tom Jones, or even Austen and Dickens, where social structures dominate over psychic concerns.

It’s easy to see, when talking to a reader of popular fiction, some of these fundamental assumptions in action. By and large, readers (who is this reader?) look for round characters, they look for plot, they tend to (whatever this means) want to read books that don’t call attention to themselves as written; the book as window on the world. My father, who has submitted himself (often unwillingly) to all kinds of writerly muck-muck, is not alone when he associates aesthetic fluff and writerly self-awareness with unnatural and unnecessary artifice, pretentiousness, and elitism. Did I hear no end of it after giving him Rick Moody’s Purple America, a book whose first ten pages are an absolute tour de force.

One of the reasons I love working as the fiction editor of Versal is that, at semi-regular intervals, we, too, have to question our own assumptions. This year, through the type and quality of the work we read, we had to look at an unquestioned, fundamental underpinning to the selection process; that of pleasure and textual depth. The questions went something like this: is the quality of a piece DEPENDENT on deepening and increased enjoyment after multiple reads? Could we accept a piece that shined on first reading, but added little in subsequent readings?

It is, perhaps, a core assumption of the literary selection process (and the reading of literary fiction in general) that a piece “withstand” multiple readings. What adds to depth in a story? Subtle psychology (often through the choice of physical detail), the unpacking of metaphor, the where’s waldo of literary allusion, the puzzle-like assembly of how the parts of a complicated machine fit together.

Yet: as many theorists have argued (think Baudrillard here, for starters), our era is one in which depth is itself a fiction, and surface is everything. The age of the unlocked text, the deeper moral is gone, and in fact had never fulfilled its promise. There is and was no originary signifier. What was important, perhaps, coming back to Beckett and Pynchon and countless others, was not the fulfillment of meaning, but the journey towards an always invisible endgame. On a more practical level, do we (or any other literary journal) assume that readers would read each piece multiple times? Perhaps it is simply chutzpah or magical thinking to hope that readers would spend so much of their twittery time reading and re-reading.

Given hypermedia, ADHD, micro-clocks, crowdsourcing, zombie flash mobs, and porn movies based on the Transformers, is it a terrible mistake for us to judge work based on this very 19th century notion of depth? Writing about Davis Schneiderman’s Drain, I noted that its very project is to undermine this notion of depth in meaning. His metaphors break as they are written; his signifiers contradict themselves. Characters are caricatures and the plot undoes itself. Yet the book, at least on first read, is an absolute joy, its language vibrant (and often disgusting) and playful and shimmering. Would we, out of habit, reject such a work?

I, for one, am not ready to give up on depth; my own writing would amount to little without depth as an end-point. At minimum, however, I want to recognize (and have readers recognize) that depth, too, is an artificial construction, time and context sensitive. Perhaps in this admission, we will further be able to open up ourselves to other modes of writing.



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