Your Marvin K. Mooney joins a long list of writers as characters/heroes in literature. What can writer characters say about life in general? Is there something universal about the challenges that writer characters (and, thus, writers) face?
Again, I don’t believe in artistic novels saying anything about life in general. I also don’t believe in universals of any kind, except maybe the universal fact that the Los Angeles Lakers are the greatest basketball team in the NBA. (Sorry, Celtics fans.) Other than that, I resist the reduction of singularities to generalities, particulars to universals. I affirm difference, as a general rule.
As a writer, I cannot say anything to anyone; all I can do is produce and present my work. This is the major error sign that pops up in the eyes of undergraduates when you explain to them the intentional fallacy. They, like most of us, were taught the Hegelian model of aesthetic purpose: that authors intend to say something with their works, intend to send a message, and that the job of the reader is to decipher that message. I adamantly disagree. As Nabokov famously put it, “I leave my messages at the post.” In other words, if I wanted to say something about life I would write philosophy or write for a newspaper. Journalists say stuff about life, artists do not. Artists make shit and people view it and that is all. We get in trouble when we start assuming significance where no significance resides, or when we start to think that art is a means to an end rather than an end unto itself. It’s like the young man who has a one night stand with a woman and then waits anxiously by the phone every night for the rest of the week waiting for her to call him – she’s not going to call! It was meaningless. It was just a fun time. It was an end unto itself. It was just a one night stand. Art is just a one night stand. Art is fun and that is all. Art is not a long term relationship. Art is not significant, which is what makes it significant.
If more people would come on board with this way of thinking, we could get a lot more out of art and a lot more out of life; but alas, the human creature is sick with this ugly disease that makes it desire meaning, crave meaning, want meaning, need meaning in everything, and this same human creature will gladly go insane giving meaning to meaningless things at every turn at all costs and therefore unhappiness always has and always will plague our species. Yikes! This answer took a somber turn. I need to add some levity…have you heard the one about the Platonist and the deconstructionist who walk into a massage parlor?
Is this human desire for stable, specific meaning inherent or constructed, or has the difference between the two collapsed? If it’s inherent what is gained when art pushes against the desire? If it’s constructed, who constructed it, how was it constructed, and to what end was it constructed?
The only things I believe to be inherent are biological conditions: morphogenetic principles guiding organisms toward nourishment and procreation. All else is culture. Who constructed our desire for stability, specific meaning, etcetera? Unknown. We are all simulacra. We are all part of a system that created a system from a system that is pure trace. I could point to Aristotle, which is what I tend to like to do: blame everything on Aristotle for codifying the principles of storytelling in his wretched Poetics, but the truth is that Aristotle only codified what always already existed.
So the closest thing we can come to in terms of an identifiable culprit is Aristotle: he who codified the system. But Aristotle is more than the codifier. He represents the worship of cosmos (order); while art represents the worship of chaos (disorder). Aristotle represents society; while art represents nomadology. It takes an exertion of cultural force to create and maintain order -- the benefit of which is perceived safety: order is safe while chaos is scary. This idea is ingrained in the human animal. Art challenges that which is ingrained by exciting the freeplay of the imagination – imagination is chaos, imagination is creation, imagination offers escape from the real while entertainment binds us to it. Order and chaos are the yin and yang of everything -- wow, I never thought this answer would go all Chinese philosophical, but here I am saying "order : meaning :: chaos : mystery". Order makes sense. Chaos does not make sense. Order is logical. Chaos is paradoxical. Order is convention. Chaos is experimentation. I like this train of thought, but have to stop here or I might start producing some haiku, which would be so embarrassing that it would surely cause my Alma Mater to revoke my MFA.
Are contemporary novels that experiment with the forms of storytelling, inherently post-modern novels? Have we moved into a different era? Are terms like “post-modern” or “literary realism” or anything else useful in helping readers get more out of the books they read?
Critics made a big, huge, monstrous mistake affixing the prefix “post” to everything –“postmodern” “poststructuralist” “post-avant” – because it puts us in an apocalyptic position. I mean, what are we supposed to do now? Where are we supposed to go from there? “(Post)postmodern” literature? The whole critical obsession with the prefix “post” is just so bloody unfortunate. (I actually take it to signify the critic’s death impulse.) Also, attempting to affix temporal signification to terms like “postmodern” continues to prove problematic in the face of overwhelming evidence supporting the argument that “postmodern” literature can be identified further and further into our past. It’s hard to think of Diderot as a “postmodern” (read: after modern) author, given that he wrote Jacques the Fatalist in 1765, or Sterne who wrote Tristram Shandy in 1759, but both of those texts display strikingly postmodern tropes, most notably the element of metafiction. Or what about Don Quixote, probably the most postmodern book ever written, published in 1605 & 1615?
I would put it another way, I’d say contemporary novels that experiment with form are inherently experimental. Experimentation has always and will always exist as one current, a progressive current, a current compelled to produce difference, which competes with at least one other current: a conservative current that desires the reproduction of sameness. Understanding that these two currents exist, that there are texts attempting to dispel convention as well as those attempting to recuperate convention, and learning how to distinguish these two types could certainly help readers get more out of the books they read. If, for example, one picks up The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney expecting it to enact conventional literary techniques, then that reader will undoubtedly be disappointed. But, on the other hand, if that same person picks up the same book with the knowledge that there are certain books that purposefully attempt to deviate from the convention, then the reader is much more equipped to handle the book and might therefore be quite satisfied with it.
What needs to happen for people to start reading more daring and risky fiction?
Okay, here comes my soapbox rant: I believe there will come a day, relatively soon in fact, when experimental literature is the dominate current. I foresee this being a consequence of the dwindling number of readers plus the desire of those remaining readers to be challenged in imaginative ways. I foresee a future where literature becomes more purely an art form and less a means of entertainment. Already we see this tendency: television and videogames far surpass books as the source of entertainment sought by young people. The role of books is changing. The era of “reading a good book for entertainment” is coming to an end. I teach undergraduates, and I can tell you first hand that even those who are majoring in English are reading very little for pleasure – not to mention the seeming nonexistence of pleasure readers outside the English major. Eventually, the internet will phase books out of the entertainment industry all together. Harry Potter and Twilight were two of the industry’s last gasps. What has come to fill the lacuna? I’m afraid there will not be a replacement. King, Grisham, Brown, those mass market paperback writers will find that in one generation’s time their audience will have vanished. Even, I would wager, the mega-dollar romance industry, will come to an end with the passing of the baby-boomer generation. I just don’t see Millennials reading for entertainment the same way as previous generations.
But rather than viewing this negatively, I think we should consider it as a positive move. Small independent bookstores, like Porter Square Books, will thrive by virtue of their affinity with the movement of the market toward an embrace of the experimental, toward a foregrounding of art over entertainment, while mega-entertainment-center-bookstores like Blorders or Barnes & Ignoble will soon sink because they cling to the sinking ship of entertainment and refuse to embrace the unconventional, the hard-to-categorize, the experimental. Literature will transform. We will see it happen. And that sounds pretty exciting.
What are you reading now?
For fun I’m reading Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History, Francois Dosse’s Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives, and two by Steven Shaviro Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics & The Cinematic Body.
I’ve recently received and am eagerly anticipating Tom McCarthy’s C, Stephanie Barber’s these here separated to see how they standing alone or the soundtracks of six films by stephanie barber, Alissa Nutting’s Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, Tao Lin’s Richard Yates, and Ben Spivey’s Flowing in the Gossamer Fold, to name just a few of the new additions to my “must read soon” stack.
For school I’m teaching a course on experimental short fiction, for which I am right now re-reading Julio Cortazar’s Cronopios and Famas; I’m also teaching a course on the lyric essay, for which I’m re-reading John D’Agata’s Next American Essay anthology; all in addition to finishing my last year of Ph.D. coursework, for which I’m right now reading Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Linda Hutcheon’s Narcissistic Narrative, and a bunch of theory on “the poetics of everyday life.”