I Want Everything

Kathy Acker (née Karen Lehmann; April 18, 1947 – November 30, 1997)
was an American experimental novelist, punk poet, playwright,
essayist, postmodernist and sex-positive feminist writer. She was
strongly influenced by the Black Mountain School, William S.
Burroughs, David Antin, French critical theory, philosophy and
pornography.

AckerI went back and reviewed my previous entries on Kathy Acker in this weblog and surprisingly, most of my writing on the subject must have been lost in an earlier edition of my opinionated rants (probably in the bit bucket at Apple). So here is a quick introduction to Acker and her art. The quotation above is from Wikipedia (you might want to go there for a deeper discussion of the author).

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XFX: 1st Quarter at Experimental Fiction

ma femmeI’m usually more out front of this, which is important since it’s sometimes difficult to get a copy of some of the recommended books. This quarter all the books are relatively new and therefore easy to find. One selection is by a favorite French author; another is by a very successful contemporary author; one is a vision of a digitized future; and the last one has the word “porno” in the title. Sound interesting. I haven’t read any of these novels and past history suggests I will read three of them before the quarter is out. For some reason I always leave off at least one book, although it stays on my current reading list.

So this is the first quarter schedule at XFX. Intrigued?

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XFX: Stephen Dixon

Johns Hopkins has the reputation for an excellent Creative Writing program and one of its major assets was the writer Stephen Dixon. Dixon was nominated two times for the National Book Award, first for his early novel Frog and later for Interstate. I mention this because it serves to frame my experience with Dixon.

Back in the ’90s I read my first Dixon piece, Interstate. I hated it. If you look back through my early postings it was prominent on my “Worst” list and remains there to this day, even though my opinion has changed considerably. Interstate is not the type of novel that Forster describes: even though you might find the appearance of a plot, or of characters, the narrative structure subordinates all those normal novelistic things and takes over the novel. Dixon tells a simple story of a father driving along with his daughter when another automobile creates a dangerous interaction on the road, a gun is brandished, a tragedy occurs or is about to occur … and then the father is driving along the road with his daughter but the circumstances are slightly different and when the second car arrives …

That’s the book:  a short narrative, altered slightly and repeated over and over. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood to have my literature-brain poked and nudged at that time because I remember hating this novel and agonizing my way to the last page. But for some strange reason, I read more works by this author and he rapidly won me over. I could see the value of the experimentation Dixon displayed in Interstate:  variations on a theme being more common in music but why not in writing too?

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XFX: Another View of Experimental Fiction

I have lifted the beginning of a review from the excellent weblog:  The Reading Experience by Daniel Green. I encourage you to visit this site.

Arthur, Arthur

Partisans of “experimental” fiction (I am one) frequently make unequivocal distinctions between a properly experimental and a “conventional” work: The experimental work is formally or stylistically unlike anything that has come before–satisfying Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new”–while the conventional work merely recapitulates, perhaps with modest variation, an already existing form or style.

If the goal is to identify the truly original, this distinction makes sense, however much it seems to some readers an overly rigid standard or just unnecessary–if a work of literature provides some kind of aesthetic satisfaction (if it’s merely “a good read”), what difference does it make if it can be called original or not? In my opinion formal and stylistic innovation is important in maintaining the aesthetic potential of fiction. Without it, fiction becomes just a routinized “entertainment” medium that at best appeals to readers willing to settle for routine entertainment but that at worst itself implicitly denies that fiction has any potential to be “art” except through the skill required to master the moves involved in joining together the familiar elements–plot, character, setting–associated with it as an inherited form. I would not deny that this can be done more or less skillfully (and that the result can be more or less entertaining), but surely it is artistic originality that at the very least introduces a fresh perspective on what might be possible in a particular aesthetic form, and surely this is as true of fiction as of any other of the arts.

Perhaps, however, those of us who would defend experimental fiction against its frequent enough detractors (who usually either do prefer the familiar over the fresh or conveniently judge all literary experiments to be failed experiments) do, wittingly or unwittingly, too quickly discount the value of a work’s capacity to “entertain,” at least if “entertaining” is defined as that quality of the work that sustains attention, makes the reader feel the reading experience is worth the time spent. I have always thought the greatest experimental fiction precisely manages to both find original means of expression and make that expression entertaining, even traditionally “enjoyable.” The fiction of Gilbert Sorrentino, for example, has always seemed to me wildly entertaining, even if it is dedicated first of all to discarding all the conventional ways of providing entertainment through narrative fiction. The same is true of the fiction (and the plays) of Samuel Beckett, if the reader can reconcile the at times farcical premises and occurrences with the bleak view of human existence Beckett presents.

There is also perhaps a middle ground between “experimental” and “conventional” in fiction where writers are able to follow up on (in a sense further experiment with) strategies and techniques first introduced by previous innovative writers, in some cases precisely employing those techniques in a more obvious attempt to turn them to the purposes of familiar literary pleasures. Although some practices that were at one time more daring–fragmented narrative or the move toward “psychological realism” among modernist writers such as Joyce and Woolf, for example–have inevitably become so assimilated as to no longer seem exceptional, others can still be used to credible effect by skillful writers seeking to avoid the most conventionalized assumptions about writing novels or stories. While the results couldn’t be called experimental other than in this second-order sense, such works are certainly more adventurous than the great majority of what gets called literary fiction, and might even help convince some readers that more adventurous approaches to both the writing and reading of fiction could have their merits.

I am much in agreement with the discussion above. I do not personally insist that experimental fiction must be entirely unlike anything that went before. It’s great if it is truly new but I leave room for improvement of the experiment (so many examples of experimental fiction are unsuccessful or only marginally successful) and for other authors to try the experiment out themselves to see how it goes and how well they might be at writing something new, even if they weren’t the first. I also allow that what was experimental two-hundred years ago now might be considered conventional; that does not mean the original experimentation should be overlooked:  shoot, the novel itself was once experimental … and it didn’t get very good reviews.