In the comments to the last post, Richard pointed out that my definition of ‘experimental’ isn’t quite standard. It’s a playful redefinition that encompasses authors, like Josipovici, who themselves have expressed their dislike for being called “experimental,” or like Perec, who wanted to write books which could be “devoured face down on one’s bed,” even though they are consumed just as enjoyably while upright, pencil in hand, at one’s desk. Coincidentally, Jonathan Mayhew, at Bemsha Swing, and Dan Green, at The Reading Experience, have been doing some redefining of their own. Mayhew has been hypothesizing about poetry and music, and what it would mean if we considered that poetry is perhaps closer to music than it is to “literature as conventionally defined;” Green took Mayhew’s hypothesis and ran with it in a direction that I find incredibly pleasing.
Green’s primary point, in response to Mayhew’s separation, is that perhaps we can make the same distinction within fiction itself: there is ‘fiction-as-art,’ which would aspire to ‘music’ in the same way that poetry does, and there is ‘fiction-as-discourse,’ which depicts society through its dispersion of nuggets of cultural meaning— things like Myers’ assertion that in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence there is an “intellectual argument via plot” that the cultural institution of marriage is a tragedy. This was largely my point in the last post, and Green puts it much more eloquently: this type of reading, fiction as discourse on culture, is certainly valid, and there is a field of fiction where this is the perfect method of interpretation, but it is not universally applicable.
The dilemma faced here, then, is that it is the language’s motivation, not its style, form, or content, that distinguishes ‘writing-as-art’ from ‘fiction-as-discourse,’ ‘poetry-as-cultural-relic,’ etc; but such a motivation can only be discovered by active engagement with style, form, and content. (I say ‘writing-as-art,’ per Green’s idea that, should we break fiction-as-art from fiction-as-discourse, we are free to develop a field of writing that encompasses all such “musically inclined” work, whatever form it takes, be it poetry, prose, essay, etc..) One must, in a sense, trace back from the work to the originary impulse in order to determine its aesthetic motivation.
Having written as far as above, I was having trouble articulating just what I meant by motivation, or what, of all possible motivations, is the one behind what I talk about when I talk about writing-as-art. Myers’ latest missive helped me figure out. This particular passage is where I feel most prominently the dissonance between Myers’ way of thinking and mine:
The term experimental writer must be given its unconditional release. A good novelist, whose writing is alive, seeks to pioneer an idiom—a style, a method of organization—by which he is able to complete his novel’s design according to his ideal conception of it.
“Pioneering an idiom” is all good and well, but the presumption here is that “writer” and “novelist” are one and the same. Writer and novelist, however, are not perfect synonyms. A novelist is a writer, but a writer need not be a novelist, even if she writes novels. Which sounds absurd, at first. But when I look at the writers who interest me, in whatever form, be it novel or poetry or essay,the ones to whom I return again and again are the Writers. They are concerned with language and with writing, and with how language is inextricable from our lived life, and often especially with how writing is as well. A parallel, perhaps: Myers is concerned with The Novel in the way a lot of people are concerned with Identity, and I can stomach books whose sole domain is the minority experience as much as I can books whose sole domain is character and plot.
James Merrill, when asked if he had any for young poets, once gave this advice: “There’s no need to wallow in the assumptions of your time and place, since your work will reflect them, whatever you do.” One cannot totally dissociate art from culture, of course (nor should one want to); even art that is more concerned with aesthetics than cultural discourse must inherit and develop the aesthetic concerns of its culture. But, for example, as a gay man, I’ve always found the popular concern with identity literature to be baffling. I am not interested in Gay Literature; I’m interested in Literature. (For the moment, let’s agree to just save the topics of oppression, exclusion, and canon formation for another time.) Poets like Crane and Merrill, some of the strongest influences on my writing, all have a peculiarly homosexual bent which sublimates overt sexuality and the concerns which having a minority sexuality bring about, to allow for more universal themes of language, sexuality, communion, and society. I may even sense an echo of this type of sublimation in writers like Stevens or Hopkins or Melville, whom certain people are always trying to claim as Gay Writers, but I need not claim them as Gay Writers to have enjoyed their work and gotten what I have out of it any more than I need to claim Melville’s novels are poetry because his prose is particularly concerned with sound and rhythm.
I may get a certain type of enjoyment out of “Voyages,” knowing it is the rare poem I could read to a boyfriend without having to subconsciously switch pronouns and alter represented genders, but what most enthralls me about “Voyages” is the language, the desperate attempt to use language to compensate for physical distance and anneal spiritual separation— even if I can acknowledge that that desperation to connect is certainly intensified by the social oppression it faced at the time. But the same expectation of commitment goes for traditional novels. I do not put down a novel simply because it has a traditional plots and characters; I will put down a novel, however, because it only has them, or because it does not seem to be doing more than repositioning things I have seen before. I didn’t finish Hemon’s Lazarus Project, for example, for that reason. Writers who use language like they use grocery bags, whether it be to contain identity issues or social issues, are, at best, marginally interesting to me. (This may be why I’m ambivalent about Bolaño; his writing is excellent, but I’m just not terribly interested in what he uses it for, however much I feel like I ought to be.) I don’t think they should be prevented from writing and publishing, and I’m certainly not attempting to prove their valuelessness, but they will probably not be getting my attention. In the terms I toyed with before, it’s the Nantucketers I’m interested in, not the merchant sailors or the pirates. If the merchant sailor/fiction-as-discourse is your thing, go for it— just please, please don’t expect us all to pretend with you that the Nantucketer doesn’t exist.