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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press
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10/12/2009

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jseliger.com

Unfortunately, in my view it tells us that their understanding of fiction's purposes is very limited indeed, their assumptions about its possibilties

I wonder if this because the writers in it are trying to be specific in their commentary: perhaps their is a trade-off between specificity and generality that makes those attempting the former more likely to be "narrow." You might be hinting in that direction with your comment, "Perhaps this is to be expected in a book presenting "craft essays.""

To me, the essays worked: they illuminated more of the "craft" part of writing than I think I'd known before, and I elaborate on why in my post about the book: http://jseliger.com/2009/07/24/the-writers-notebook .

H. O'Nail

The reductionistic approach to story writing which regards it as a set of techniques that can be taught and learnt (that’s what a ‘craft’ is, isn’t it?) is entirely consistent with its role as a teachable subject in courses, ‘workshops’, etc. An instructor in a course or ‘workshop’ can only teach techniques, no more. Therefore to feel satisfied that s/he is teaching everything that there is to be taught, s/he will have to believe that there is nothing else that needs to be learnt/acquired/developed. What the course teacher’s net can’t catch is not fish.
On the other hand, the aim of teaching is always to make students conform to some norm. It’s not only that a school can only teach techniques – a school will only teach the techniques it regards as appropriate and will dismiss as unacceptable anything that differs from them.
To expect any teacher-learner context to breed originality or to foster talent is a contradiction in terms.

Steven Augustine

"Unfortunately, in my view it tells us that their understanding of fiction's purposes is very limited indeed, their assumptions about its possibilities, its potential to surprise and to creatively challenge established conventions, very narrow and constricted."

I'm 500 pages into the (thus far) strongest new work I've read in ten years (Littell's The Kindly Ones) and the sickeningly provincial squeamishness, ignorance and book-burning glee on display in its shittier reviews indicate that it's more than Fiction's purposes (et al) but also its *rights* that are under attack. Lucky for Littell he was writing, as it turns out, for an appreciative (French) audience; they seem aware, largely, of the fact that the novel has a right to present its horrors as horrible; its subtle arguments without convenient keys and its jokes quite bitter if the world they lampoon is inarguably cruel. But Fiction's rights go beyond even that: they're total, in a near-inverse of the "rights" of the Actual (that's us). That *should* be the point; it *should* be liberating. Wrong era, however, for "liberating".

Dan Green

Steven: It's funny that you bring up The Kindly Ones. I'm reading it now myself and have had the same reaction to the earlier reviews I read: "sickeningly provincial squeamishness" is about right. I'll be commenting on the book at greater length when I've finished it, but your point about its transgressiveness is well-taken.

Steven Augustine

Dan: after the slapstick of reading 4-out-of-every-5 reviewers skim/misread Roth's relatively straightforward novella Indignation (important plot point reported incorrectly with such regularity that I began to suspect that some of the critics were basing their reviews on other reviews), how could I have expected close-readings of a densely-packed 984 pages featuring a protag that no reviewer can "care" about? Mea culpa.

Casey

But if we DO want to expand our understanding of fiction's nature and possibilities, why not include hour-long television dramas as "fiction?" And if we make that move, then Tin House isn't at all representative of the current state of things. Movies and television are our fiction.

Steven Augustine

"Movies and television are our fiction." Sadly true. Adding pictures and sounds to a narrative doesn't expand the possibilities of text, it shrinks them to technological limitations while shifting the Imagination from a central/active role to a voyeur's passive one (the little work remaining is a sympathetic reflex: projecting oneself into the action). While a book as it is read is not, literally, taking place on the page, a movie is, literally, taking place on the screen; even an illuminated text (Tenniel's Alice, eg) doesn't steal so much of the Imagination's fire as to render it almost superfluous. Film/video are valid forms but not interchangeable with Literary Fiction (neither was stained glass). Very different functions/experiences and those of us who will have the one replace the other, entirely, in their lifetime, will be cheated out of something.

Frances Madeson

Experimentation, Imagination and Liberation!

The three sides of the artist's triangular shield, behind which we keep our spark alive and glowing as best we can. All of these are, and have been, under sustained attack in this Voyeurism Revolution being perpetrated against us. Brain science cuts both ways. They know more than ever how to precisely manipulate us. LCDs, pop-ups, ring-tones—we are made to look whether we want to or not. And what do we get to look at? Posters depicting flayed bodies, vampires, and now, the deeply debasing, cougars. But our wants really aren’t the point, are they? It’s greed and power, concentrated like they never have been before. Our dispossession is their ultimate goal. Dispossession is well under way, and it seems to be okey-dokey with most Americans, maybe even some reading this blog.

I live in a city where the mayor who came to power, came with $4 billion of personal wealth. Now he has $16 billion (per Wikipedia) and there persists a view that he is not corrupt because he doesn’t need the money. That he used his power to overturn the term limits (thereby subverting the will of the voters twice expressed in public referenda) is not viewed as corruption. That he plans to spend over $200 million on his re-“election” campaign is not viewed as corruption. People are scrambling to get on his company’s payroll, one of the few secure sources of income left. He laughs in our faces; we are already ridiculous, that much easier to strip us completely bare. Yesterday I saw three different homeless men with clothes so tattered and filthy, they could only be considered clothes in any sense by previous association. These men don’t even bother begging. They’re over thinking there will be any relief, any justice. We are the kindly ones to them. I watch them well. They are our teachers.

Soon, the news will start reporting the annual tragedies (totally preventable) of families burning up in their beds because there’s no heat in their apartments and they slept with all the burners of the stove on. This mayor could personally buy every building that needed it a new boiler and not feel it, even for a second. But he is content to let the children in the city he lords over immolate. I’m talking about evil. Evil.

And if you think there is no connection between protesting (and brilliantly so, Daniel, thank you, and thank you, Steven, my heroes, Edmond, too) against the strict conformity of craft and these political realities, you are not thinking. Not at all. We are already living in a tin house, just the kind you might find in the sprawling slums circling most South American cities. I held my breath this Macarthur Fellowship season because surely Daniel Green should have been a recipient. But instead, they gave it to Deborah Eisenberg, whose crafted stories are often set in just such milieus.

KK

Re: And if you think there is no connection between protesting ... against the strict conformity of craft and these political realities, you are not thinking.¨

Not speaking for everyone, but as a lover of experimental literature, I kind of feel like it makes me feel less politically motivated, not more so. It makes me want to just focus on art and ignore reality.

Frances Madeson

KK:
Go with your intuition. One doesn't need to be free or even fed to make art. In fact, one of the homeless men I mentioned is always writing in a notebook. Maybe that's why I first noticed him. And then there's this:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Never_Saw_Another_Butterfly

Steven Augustine

"Go with your intuition. One doesn't need to be free or even fed to make art. In fact, one of the homeless men I mentioned is always writing in a notebook."

Frances: that's one of the most concise and powerful (low-temperature) responses to a comment I've ever read.

Schopenhauer's Bloody Knuckles

i have a special loathing for the word "craft." It conjures up images of old washed up nevers with big glasses, mothy clothing, and piles of bad books that no one will ever read (which somehow got published)...and those horrible pictuers on university websites of an old person surrounded by young unkempt students (oh those young, wild artists! I bet they were just smoking some inspirational reef before coming to this potent discussion!) in some supposedly enthralling debate (which is about craft, which is utterly mundane and inimical to the concept of a vimy debate). It also remindes me of Joyce Carol Oates, which I would equate with everything I have said above.

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