Monday, March 20, 2006

Language vs. Plot: The AWP Smackdown! (warning: graphic content!)

Friday I went to a panel entitled "Revealing Words: Fiction and the Event of Language" with four FC2 authors. The description included "novels are imagined as composed primarily of characters and actions, only secondarily of diction, syntax, rhythm, metaphors, sounds. Why? This panel. . .addresses the relation of fiction to its verbal medium, and asks how stories 'reveal' their words. Is formally experimental writing an attempt to disclose the importance of fiction's language? Is there a narrative equivalent of language poetry?"

Sounds good, right? Right up my alley. I won't name the panelists, as I may, in the course of this post, insult them. But I respect them all as writers and thinkers, it's just. . .well, I'll get to that.

The first woman who spoke looked hauntingly like Aimee Mann. She cited some strong influences on her writing and thinking: Virginia Woolf (yes!), Gertrude Stein (yes!), Margarite Duras (okay, maybe), and Kathy Acker. Hmm. It may be unpopular to say, especially among "experimental" writers (whatever that means) but I'm not a huge fan of Kathy Acker. I mean, I see what she was doing, but she's impossible to read, and by read I mean comprehend, understand, enjoy. Is a collection of words on a page a "story"? I don't mean to be a genre fascist (and those of you who know me, know that I'm the opposite), but if there is a narrative equivalent of language poetry, doesn't it have to be narrative? And if it's not, isn't it just language poetry? Why make a separate category?

Anyway, she went on to say some provocative things, many of them seemed (to me) to be merely provocative, such as "Language should not be made to suck the dick of plot." (It's not an exact quotation, but close. ) And "Women are closer to language let loose. But they don't necessarily know it."

Okay. I like Helene Cixous, I may even love her writing, but as a feminist theorist, she's a bit sketchy. I mean, yes, I'm a woman, I have a vagina, does that make me more "receptive"? I thought experimental writers were supposed to be skeptical of metaphor. Then why do they all want to make the woman's body a metaphor for writing? I realize that many of the French theorists are not being metaphorical when they say we should "write the body." But really.

This woman panelist went on to talk about how language and event (I think that was her word) behave as lovers. But language in this scenario was definitely the woman, the receiver. I mean, if plot has a dick, language has to have an orifice, right? And is sucking dick always bad? Many heterosexual women and gay men would say no. Maybe we (language) like to give plot head. Maybe it's enjoyable.

Did I mention that Alvin Greenberg, nice, poems about dogs, married to Janet Holmes, was sitting next to me? He did laugh, quietly, at the language/plot comment. But as soon as the panel was over he hightailed it out of there. So I didn't have to make eye contact with him, which was good.

The other panelists were less provocative. I have to say my favorite comment of the panel was when a Male Writer compared the commercialization of publishing to McDonalds. He said mainstream novels were no different from the "death patties" that McD's is peddling. I agree.

Many of the panelists lamented the commercialization of publishing. They are selling products, not art. True. They also had me on the use of the term "experimental." Almost meaningless.

R.M. Berry, one of the editors of FC2, gave a great, humorous talk on ethics. Very smart.

An audience member questioned the homogeny of the "experimental" writers. This sub-culture becomes its own group that then enforces certain norms on its members. As an example, he cited hip people who all wear black, drink espresso, and listen to the same music. The Female Writer said there is a difference between forming tribes, and what he was talking about. I agree. But I also think it's interesting that the "norms" he cited were all products, and what the panelists were talking about were really ideas. I agree that sub-cultures can become just as oppressive as the mainstream. But what if the organizing principle is experimentation? I think, sometimes, there can be certain kinds of expectations of what constitutes "experimental." But in theory isn't experimentation itself a norm? And, as such, can't it be an inclusive rather than exclusive norm? More on this in a later post.

Another audience member asked for recommendations of experimental novels. They named some I recognized, Ben Marcus, for example. Also Carol Maso's Ava. But some of their recommendations begged the question, what is a novel? If they are using the term to include any longer book that uses words, doesn't the term itself become meaningless? Again, I'm no genre fascist, but if they are using the word so broadly, doesn't it cease to mean anything? I don't think anything Ben Marcus has written can be, even loosely, interpreted as a "novel." Maybe we need to talk about novels as historical documents, not in terms of form. But if we do talk about novels formally, don't we need to set out the terms of what we mean? Does a novel have to have characters? Does it have to have "plot"? If we are going to conceive of novel broadly, can't we also have a broad concept of plot? Can't interesting writing have both?

And here, I come back to the question posed by Audience Member #1. Is our tribe making excluding some writers because of simplistic reasons, reasons just as simplistic as the exclusion of other writers (presumably ourselves) from mainstream publishing on the basis of the ambiguous meaning of "experimental"?

Which brings me to my final point: I don't want to read writing that focuses on EITHER plot or language. I want both. I'm demanding. What's wrong with that?


theorris said...

I mistrust the folks who go around proclaiming "art." Yeah rabid capitalism can indeed be a bad thing, but claiming that "art" is somehow exempted from materialism seems ludicrous to me. Yeah I don't like looking at things as products either, but that's indeed what many things we make are.

This pie is only half-baked and is making no sense.

Here we go: those who claim that their "art" is being sullied by materialism strike me as petty bougious at best. Why are they so disgusted by things related to money when they are usually the folks that have all that money? In other words, they would call someone who makes money off their writing "gauche" in the old days.

Seems a bit too fru fru to me.

Hmm. I think I burnt my pie.

middlebrow said...

Yes, Dr. Write is demanding.

Paulk said...

Well, the reason Russell Banks et al began Fiction Collective to begin with was to give writers an out, a way to publish what they wanted to write without worrying about what the market will support. I've heard Ralph make this argument when he took over FC2—if they publish things that could be published at mainstream presses, then they no longer serve a purpose.

After taking a Currents in Contemporary Lit with Ralph back as an undergrad, I realized that I aspired to write the "readable" experimental novel, which also meant grappling with plot of a sort. And I think I aspire to this still, though in different ways.

Lynn, do you want to borrow any of Berry's books? I have a couple short story collections and his first novel.

Dr. Write said...

I agree, Paul. I think FC2's mission is honorable: to publish fiction that wouldn't be published otherwise. And I think they do. But I also think that there is fiction that is somewhat experimental, somewhat traditional that doesn't have a home in either camp. Not experimental enough, maybe? I'm not sure.
But still, I respect FC2. I want to be in their tribe!

Sleepy E said...

Paul K and I talked about plot once...I wish I could contribute more to the (this) discussion, sheesh!

Nik said...

I liked Kathy Acker when I first read her, but that may have been because I was in college and was super into theory. Thank God I went to graduate school and got that beaten out of me. Still, I wonder, is there something that makes language stilted when plot is foregrounded? Must plot die so that language may live??? I like a bit of obscurity with my lit, but I sure didn't mind reading Dan Brown's VERY BAD book called "Digital Fortress" when we were in Austin. Bad language AND bad plot. But somehow, very readable. It's a lot like French Fries--you say, I'll just have one more. Then you keep eating. Then you say at least I'm eating. But no one needs to eat French Fries. Not even the French. Though I do like them best with mussels. Mm.