My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) - Neil Young The Wizard - Albert Ayler Runaway - Kanye West Reoccurring Dreams - Hüsker Dü Imaginary Landscape No. 1 - John Cage
05 Sep 2011
A Dozen Dominants: The Current State Of US Indy Lit
To inquire into the state of contemporary US writing—which we’ll acknowledge from the get-go is an impossible task, even if we narrow our scope to only “indy lit” or “small press lit”—is to secretly ask, “What aspects of writing do writers most value in the here and now? Which norms do they adhere to, either consciously or (more likely) unconsciously? What conventions do their readers expect to be followed?” Those valued aspects or norms or conventions are our dominants (I’ve taken the term from Roman Jakobson): pressures that “[rule, determine and transform] the remaining components” of any given work.
Broadly speaking, of course: different writers, different scenes, different journals and presses are—we hope—invested in doing different things. But those separate pools (if you’ll forgive me a complex metaphor) are each in turn subject to the same tidal forces exerted by these dominants, a dozen small moons dangling low on the horizon, almost (just like in the Calvino) close enough to touch. Let’s reach out our hands.
Possibly an outgrowth of 1960s counterculture (and its seed crystals, the Beats and Black Humorists of the 1950s), irony is now transcendent in many, if not most, US subcultures. It is a defense mechanism, a protection against increasingly authoritative authority. It offers authors the chance to engage with any and all materials. Do you want to write a literary zombie novel? Then write an ironic zombie novel. (Can you even conceive of a sincere zombie novel being literary? I doubt that many in indy lit can.)
Online journals regularly limit the length of prose submissions to under 3000 words, and 2000 isn’t uncommon. (The limit for this article was 1500 words; I went 500 over.) This is doubtlessly a consequence of the fact that the Internet is now the dominant medium in the US. Most indy journals are now online (either partially or wholly), and today’s writers have either grown up with, or grown accustomed to, e-literature (which includes forms like email, text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook posts). The lingering dominance (since the 1970s) of Minimalism in music, the visual arts, and design is another contributing factor.
A certain clever preciousness has taken hold in many American arts. It’s easily observable in independent film (Mike Mills and Miranda July might be this dominant’s reigning couple, Wes Anderson their jester, Michael Cera their adopted talking cat son; Guy Maddin, meanwhile, is court wizard); one also commonly finds it in indy music (the list here is endless, but must include The Decemberists and Beach House). The visual arts are no less immune; witness the resurgence of printmaking and artist’s books, which are focused on making ephemeral objects that will be treasured—and think of Gorey-influenced, fine-line illustrations of deer and bears in the forest, dressed up in scarves and sweaters. (Recall also the recent trend of knitting sweaters for trees.) Mc Sweeney's, with its penchant for old-timey fonts and archaic syntax, is this dominant’s best non-required reading.
Twee dovetails nicely with brevity, as well as with our next two dominants:
We live in a none-too-messy time. Many of the designs around us, especially of technological objects, are clean and minimal. The biggest contributing factor here, I believe, is digital production; as it's steadily effaced analog means, starting in the early 1980s, most aesthetics in the US have, correspondingly, been getting cleaner.
Despite the widely-held belief that today’s culture changes quickly, the opposite might be true. US pop culture has changed surprisingly little over the past fifty years. Try the following thought experiment: what did art (film, fashion, literature) from 1910 look like in 1960? Dated, out of place. But what does art from 1960 look like today? Cool, contemporary, still relevant.
We’ve continued emulating a great deal of the 1960s (and even the 1950s) in our clothing, music, writing, filmmaking, and other visual arts. My pet hypothesis is that, mass media—in particular film, television, and magazines—is keeping us more in contact with the 1960s than folks then were with the ‘10s. Today, the past tends to stick around more.
This trend is strengthening; folks now speak openly about the inevitability of nostalgia for previous decades (“it’s only a matter of time before the ‘90s nostalgia happens”). At the same time, corporations have realized that childhood attachments strongly influence purchasing habits, so don’t expect them to stop selling childhoods back anytime soon. (The question instead is, what do we do about this?)
6. Foregrounded Language
Very often I hear indy lit friends say, “I started reading Book X, but I just couldn’t get past the language.” By which they mean prose that is too plain; the current preference by far is for clever, strongly stylized writing. This view is exemplified by John Madera in his 23 January 2011 Big Other post “The National Book Critics Circle Finalists for 2010 Awards”:
“I don’t have time to give writers my attention beyond a few lines or paragraphs, or, in some cases, a few pages. Unless I’m reviewing a book, if my interest isn’t captured within that narrow stretch of time and space, then I have to move on to something else. There are just too many great books for me to catch up on that I just can’t see myself trudging along after a weak opening. […] It’s hard for me to get past […] cliches and generally dull observations.”
John then quotes the opening of Sam Lipsyte's The Ask, claiming: “Here we find what we expect from an accomplished author, that is, careful attention to language.” (For more on this topic, see my response, “The Barthelme Problem,” where I say a great deal more about the “Prose of Constant Surprise, writing willing to make dazzling departures with each new sentence.”)
Concept, intriguingly, is one realm where indy lit proves congruous with the mainstream; one need look no farther than Cowboys & Aliens, to see how widely concept has taken root in the culture.
The word may be an unfamiliar one, but the effect it describes is not. Parataxis is “the placing together of sentences, clauses, or phrases without a conjunctive word or words, as in Hurry up, it is getting late! I came—I saw—I conquered.” The Language Poets, Post Language Poets, and many disciples of Ben Marcus all share a fondness for parataxical, abrasive juxtapositions - Gertrude Stein's Cubist-inspired influence writ large. Postmodernism’s “incredulity toward metanarratives” (as Lyotard phrased it) only increased the serious artist’s fondness for (or begrudging acceptance of) fragmentation and juxtaposition—leading us to our next dominant:
And it’s spilled over into daily life as well. John Cage’s 1930s experience of wandering through a suburb, listening to radios and phonographs playing in various homes while intermingled with the sounds of the environment, seems today almost quaint. Our urbanized world has since then grown ever louder, intrusive, fragmentary. We pause skimming Facebook to text message while YouTube plays in the background (our one headphone in, the other dangling). Some claim that attention spans have decreased, and that might be so, but I think we’re instead conditioned to expect the heterogeneous, leaving us confused - and suspiciously impatient - in the present of the homogenous.
This is perhaps an outgrowth of several other dominants; it’s understandably hard to craft a coherent story in fewer than 1000 precious, language-conscious words. Other factors at work might be postmodernism’s suspicion of all narratives, grand or otherwise; Language Poetry's fervent avoidance of syllogism; and the New Narrative’s desire to foreground the artificiality (and ultimate insufficiency) of narrative an organizing form. Not to mention the fact that genre fiction simply loves narrative (especially long narratives like trilogies and septologies) - so what better way to announce oneself as a “serious” writer than to do away with story altogether?
Furthermore, even realist writing rarely seems narrative any more. The “stories” encountered in university reviews are less centered around the progression of causal actions (plot) than the illustration of character psychology, resulting in prose that reads more like character studies than tales. Such works still utilize many of the a-narrative tropes established in the ‘70s and ‘80s by writers like Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Gordon Lish, and Joy Williams - for instance the common use of white space breaks to avoid having to write causal connective tissue between scenes. (Again, we see fragmentation, discontinuity.)
A-narrative, mind you, is not the same thing as anti-narrative. The latter kicks against narrative’s prick, whereas the former is the diminishment of story’s importance. I have in fact seen very little underground writing that looks directly influenced by authors such as John Barth, Robert Coover, William Gaddis, William Gass, and Thomas Pynchon. Rather, their anti-narrative concerns, which fueled much underground writing in the 1950s through 1980s, seem to have gone mainstream, possibly due to the influence of their fellow traveler Philip K. Dick: if you want metafiction and strange loops and ontological uncertainty, you need merely to pop in a DVD copy of The Matrix, or Inception, or Fight Club, or your favorite entry in the Auston Powers trilogy.
Or “common interests.” Ever since Impressionism and French Symbolist poetry (the true birth of the Modern), mundane materials have served as the “high” artist’s proper subjects. We no longer write poems about Aphrodite and Athena, or even Love and Wisdom; rather, we write about middle-class relationships and clever (or even semi-clever) moments.
This dominant, too, helps separate underground writing from mainstream; the latter prizes much “loftier” subjects, stuff more eternal and escapist. It values fantasy: the success of the Harry Potter books and movies, the Lord of the Rings films, the Twilight series, and movies based on comic books has ensured a non-stop parade of wizards, vampires, zombies, superheroes, and Hobbits through our cineplexes and bookshelves—and spawned thousands of imitations. Alternative lit, unsurprisingly, deigns not to follow that mainstream trend. (If I pen a 2000-page fantasy trilogy about a war between Hobbits and vampires, I’m not exactly an indy writer.)
This overwhelming tendency toward the mundane has, arguably, evolved into our final dominant:
This is an emerging (or reemerging) influence, exemplified primarily by writers like Tao Lin (Richard Yates, Shoplifting from American Apparel) and the ensuing popularity of the memoir. Which is no doubt influenced by the increasing preponderance of social media (blogs, Facebook, FourSquare, Twitter). I expect this one to grow.
A final note: none of these dominants are necessarily mutually exclusive, and many in fact go hand in hand, reinforcing one another. Individual writers, also, may feel more pressure from one or two than from any of the others; many authors may, too, be writing in opposition to these received values. I of course invite conversation and debate along all of these lines.
But for now, from my admittedly limited vantage point in Chicago, late in the summer of 2011, these dozen dominants look like the current zodiac of small press literary life. … What’s your sign?
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