FLOTSAM VS. THE ULCER DIET
When I began to write, my ideas about narrative were pretty nonexistent. I tried to write prose that was consonant with the work of writers I admired and, later on, tried to extend their techniques when I could. It wasn’t until my first novel was shuttling from trade publisher to trade publisher and later, when the published book was eventually reviewed, that I found out narrative was supposed to be something. I got smart comments and dumb comments and everything in between, but what really struck me was that in nearly every case the reader took the position that my book represented at best a sort of exotic exercise, at worst a pale imitation of other writers whose superior reputations justified their use of “technique” (instead of the other way around). The consensus was that the book was an example of a “non-traditional narrative.” Kinder commentators took a “he’ll outgrow it” attitude. Few editors or reviewers approached the book as if there were any kind of historical continuity inherent in a young author’s fascination with exploring literary techniques (some dating to the turn of the century), or as if the techniques themselves retained more than historical interest.
Now, the book has problems. It’s very much a first novel. There are countless things about it that will bother me until my dying day. But as far as the execution of its premise goes – that is, the “non-traditional” part – it does just fine. And this is precisely the aspect of the book that worried, annoyed, and inspired the condescension of its critics.
It’s disheartening. There’s something fundamentally barren about a culture that expressly discourages play, not to mention “experimentation,” in its literature and poetry. Not that experimentation in other arts is routinely greeted with marching bands and ticker tape parades, but I’d just about plotz if I saw Walter Abish on the cover of the Voice, as Philip Glass was recently, or if Curt White’s meticulous walk-throughs of literary theory’s minefield had as much attention paid to them as Mark Tansey’s paintings. Few things about contemporary writing bug me more than my creeping suspicion that what impels many gifted writers to deliberately work below their capacities – by which I mean to deny themselves the full spectrum of the narrative legacy that’s their inheritance here at the end of the century – is their sense that to do otherwise would marginalize them to the point of imperceptibility. This is a real fear, not to be taken lightly or derided as cowardice. Yet we avoid “non-traditional narrative” at our peril, and we’re all, reader and writer alike, obliged to shoulder the burden of the “plot-driven” novel that’s taken its place. You know the book I mean because you’ve already read it: When things flag, (after the letter is read or the confidence is revealed over tea in the parlor or the family roué returns with his Dark Secret after many years) there are always skeletal trees standing stark against the forlorn and windblown landscape. Somewhere, a dog barks. Etcetera. This may be someone’s idea of literature, but to me it seems like an ulcer diet. It’s format become formula.
Okay, that’s the polemical part of this brief essay. Here are some actual, if disjointed, opinions I personally hold on the subject of narrative (if I conflate the separate concepts of “narrative” and “composition” here it’s because for me they’re entangled):
1) An essential part of beginning to locate myself as a writer was to discover that my job is to reconcile isolate pieces of good writing with one another and to disguise their discreteness within a single harmonious form. After nearly ten years it occurs to me in retrospect that this is what I’ve always worked at doing, with varying success. I like to think I’m getting better at it. It’s not for everyone, of course, but it seems most appropriate for me to build out from what stabs at and haunts me in specific sentences I’ve written, to discover something beyond that initial sense of its felicitousness (whatever the original context) and then to frame it.
2) By so trying to find a home for the good stuff, you can never go wrong. I mean, it doesn’t disappear; I don’t believe in that wastebasket full of crumpled Chapter Ones.
3) When pressed to define it, I think of narrative as working the way that primal video game, Frogger, used to work: you leap from plank to log to orange crate, whatever flotsam goes by in the current, to make your way across the river. Toward that end, I don’t believe anything’s off limits. I mean metafiction, defamiliarizing techniques, OuLiPian1 games, generative devices, archetypal narratology – the whole bag of tricks. Of course these things are “gimmicky” – but are we obliged to accept this word only in its pejorative sense? A gimmick is also a good thing, “an ingenious and usually new scheme or angle,” according to Webster’s Ninth. I don’t think readers are innately hostile to this kind of thing. I used to, but I was wrong.
4) This isn’t a blanket endorsement of the “experimental.” Most experiments don’t come off. Nor am I championing a kind of experimentation that yields predetermined results, like your old chemistry set. But it’s invariably the writer figuring stuff out who I can use. This may be a sentiment echoed mostly by other writers, but it’s valid for readers as well.
5) B.S. Johnson: “I feel myself fortunate sometimes that I can laugh at the joke that just as I was beginning to think I knew something about how to write a novel it is no longer of any use to me in attempting the next one.” Amen.