Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What is Accessibility in Literature?

On April 17th we'll be hosting a reading and discussion with contributors to the anthology The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility & the Avant-Garde and I can't be more excited. For a bookstore, often the last link in the chain that connects a writer to a reader, we are professionally concerned specifically with the term "accessibility" in the title. As we try to match readers with books, we always have to have some idea of "accessibility" in the back of our minds. We have to surmise what a reader will actually enjoy. Many readers do enjoy being intellectually challenged by books often considered "inaccessible" and we do our best to match that. So ahead of the event, I asked the editors and the presenters: "What is accessibility in literature?" Here's the first response from anthology editors Lilly Hoang (LH) and Joshua Marie Wilkinson (JMW).

LH: So Josh Cook has asked us to examine the role of accessibility in literature. We began this project to question and interrogate exactly that. Nearly 100 essays and an anthology later, is there any take-away you can offer?

JMW: Well, for me it's about not ventriloquizing market capitalism in order to make sense of art. There's a book that was really important to me called Just Being Difficult? that was edited by Jonathan Culler. When I want to see what literature can do, I turn to Spivak's and Judith Butler's and Michael Warner's pieces in that collection. Warner is writing about 1984 in his essay called "Styles of Intellectual Publics" when he says,
For whom does one write or speak? Where is one's public? These questions can never be answered in advance since language addressed to a public must circulate among strangers; neither can they be dismissed, although the answers necessarily remain mostly implicit. One does not stand nakedly to address humanity.

I love Warner's response as well as his reading of Orwell. It's never the innocent question it’s cloaked as, asking somebody or something to become "accessible" so that a public can "get it." The question itself implies something dangerous about whatever the "public" or "common reader" is concocted to become. Poetry can disrupt normative reading practices and form new, strange, sometimes lovely, and maybe harrowing modes of feeling and thinking. That's what I want from art. What are you after now, Lily? What are you obsessing over?

LH: I was listening to Eugène Ysaÿe yesterday and my roommate came in and I said, Isn't it amazing that a person—a real person—is making all that music?, and then I explained that I was listening to the gala from the Henri Wisniaski Violin Competition and shit dude, they probably practice like more than eight hours a day, and he said, Can you believe people still play that stuff? It just seems so, you know, like old. Like who still plays stuff like that? By play he doesn't mean listen. He isn't that big of an asshole to insult me directly. But regardless, my roommate is a filmmaker and I am a writer and he is new and I am old. I am like the classical musician who insists on practicing and performing Eugène Ysaÿe and who the fuck cares anymore? Well, I do. I am still listening. And culture. Culture needs people for musicians to continue to play Eugène Ysaÿe. Or maybe I mean high art. I don’t know what I mean.

Eugène Ysaÿe is accessible to me. I used to be a violinist—please don’t call me a fiddler, it's insulting, not to fiddlers but to the instrument itself. Form. When I changed private teachers in high school, he wouldn't let me pick up my violin for three months because I didn't know how to properly hold my bow. I mean: I was hard core about it. So Eugène Ysaÿe is accessible to me, but to my roommate, "classical" music is a remnant of a time so long ago it may as well be age of Egyptians.

Furthermore, my roommate doesn't read.

I'm not picking on him. Rather, I'm using him as a case study. He is not your average American. He's into arts—if you choose to call making horror films art, which you may or may not, it really doesn't matter to me. My roommate writes scripts and directs films, he edits them. And he doesn't read. He doesn't listen to classical music. He isn't going to art openings. I'm sure he doesn’t give a flying fuck about architecture or what terms are the most politically correct. What's my point? Here we are, worrying and defining accessibility, which is so important to us in our world, but who outside of us cares? This makes me sad. I didn't answer your question at all, but I'm really talking about audience. More people care about Eugène Ysaÿe than all of my books and anthologies combined—and probably yours added to mine, too.

Yes, I care about audience. But I wouldn't sacrifice my devotion to the concept and the sentence to gain audience. Besides which: what kind of audience do I really think I'd gain if my writing were more accessible? I pose this question to you too.

JMW: I wonder about audience. I'm suspicious about a work that tries to imagine its audience too precisely in advance. Then again, maybe it's impossible not to think about audience in some way. But to try to imagine what an audience—a reader, a listener, a participant in meaning—is capable of thinking and of feeling seems to me like a failure. Perhaps I want to not know what's possible for a work to bring up in the audience—that the yet-to-come of whatever response (however intelligent or indifferent, capacious or unsettling) isn't for the writer to try to determine prior to making any work public. Yet, I hope for an audience more various and unlike me to encounter it. I hope for a smarter audience who will think thoughts beyond my ken and feel, beyond my influences and understanding, my emotional registers or political imagination. Love to hear you answer your same question, Lily…

LH: I know quite a few "experimental" fiction writers who have tried and tried to write their "sell-out" novel, the one that will launch them into more mainstream literary fiction, and they always fail. I think we can only write what we write. Like: my brain thinks in little pieces, so I write modular or flash. Whereas I am able to write a longer, more traditional novel, it’s exhausting—and probably unpublishable.

That being said, I also think that my own perception about how accessible my books are is skewed: I suffer from book dysmorphic disorder. We just got back from AWP, where this anthology got so much sugar, but also, a lot of random people—youngins too—gushed their adoration. (I know for a fact you had the same "problem.") This tells me that no matter what I think, my writing is accessible, and maybe the goal isn't to have a wider audience, maybe it’s just to have a better audience.

To participate in this discussion with Lily and the other presenters please join us on Friday April 17th at 7PM

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