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?