Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Thoughts and quotes on lyric essay, genre bending, etc.

The below quotes are all taken from Reality Hunger by David Shields, attributed where possible. Interstitial thoughts are mine.

"'Lyric essay' is a rather ingenious label, since the essayist supposedly starts out with something real, whereas the fiction writer labors under a burden to prove, or create, that reality, and can expect mistrust and doubt from a reader at the outset. In fiction, lyricism can look like evasion, special pleading, pretension. In the essay, it's apparently artistic, a lovely sideshow to The Real that, if you let it, will enhance what you think you know." (Ben Marcus)

"The lyric essay asks what happens when an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem." (John D'Agata)

Isn't it funny that both "essay" and "novel" etymologically denote newness and uncertainty? The definitions were, initially, undefined. Novel meaning something new, essay meaning attempt, stab. Now that the genres are fairly codified we need modifiers to denote that looseness of form: "experimental novel," "lyric essay."

"When I worked at a newspaper, we were routinely dispatched to 'match' a story from the Times: to do a new version of someone else's idea. But had we 'matched' any of the Times's words -- even the most banal of phrases -- it could have been a firing offense. The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of minor differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence." (Malcolm Gladwell)

"Reality takes shape in memory alone." (Patrick Duff)

"Photography: the prestige of art and the magic of the real." (Robin Hemley)

"In essays, ideas are the protagonists." (Rebecca Solnit)

"We make a mistake in thinking of memoir as nonfiction. It's really nonpoetry." (Patricia Hampl)

I have always found it odd that poetry is classified as nonfiction, since it seems to me closer to fiction. (But then it's also odd that we should divide all books along this line, fiction and nonfiction, when far more nonfiction books are published. Why is fiction taken as the default that everything else is defined against? It's like dividing everything into cookbooks and noncookbooks.) I like Hampl's quote out of context because it's basically incoherent. What could she mean? She's saying that memoir should be read more like poetry, with an understanding that it's art, not 100% verified "fact." (So really it's not the opposite of fiction or poetry; it's a third thing, which is why the term "creative nonfiction" isn't really satisfying.)

"In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

There's a theme in Reality Hunger of looking to literature to feel less alone. ("One is not important, except insofar as one's example can serve to elucidate a more widespread human trait and make readers feel a little less lonely and freakish.") Is this, reader, why you go to literature? I only half-recognize this instinct. I think alien viewpoints can be just as interesting as familiar viewpoints. Plus I like to think of myself as special and unique and that's only so compatible with not being alone.

"This is the wager, isn't it? It's by remaining faithful to the contingencies and peculiarities of your own experience and the vagaries of your own nature that you stand the greatest chance of conveying something universal." (Geoff Dyer)

"Life is, in large part, rubbish. The beauty of reality-based art -- art underwritten by reality hunger -- is that it's perfectly situated between life itself and (unattainable) 'life as art.'" (DS)

26 comments:

  1. To tangle this even further, "novel" is partly derived from "news" (O Fr. "nouvelles" etc.); OED says, "In the 17th and 18th centuries freq. contrasted with a romance, as being shorter and having more relation to real life," i.e., a relatively journalistic, "newsy" sort of fiction.

    Yes "nonfiction" is unsatisfying and so is "creative nonfiction." To my mind there's a sharper distinction between "writing that is partly about itself" and "writing as a vehicle," sort of like the difference between a roller-coaster and an SUV. One could call the former "literature" but the word is distractingly loaded.

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    1. Oh, fascinating! That plays into Shields' whole claim that novels have always been partly nonfiction and memoirs have always been partly fiction.

      Plus one wants "literature" to be literal. Literature and metaliterature, perhaps?

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    2. The good stuff should all be filed under wordplay.

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  2. "Why is fiction taken as the default that everything else is defined against?"

    It's funny, but I always think of poetry as the default in this equation.

    I actually picked up Shields's book a couple months ago but haven't read it yet. Now I'll have to.

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    1. Would be pretty cool if books were classified as poetry and nonpoetry. Or just poetry and prose, with all prose, fiction and non, lumped together.

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    2. Yeah, I like the idea of poetry and prose too because it doesn't force other generic markers like narrative into one category or the other.

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  3. Just poetry and prose would be fine, but the writer should get to decide which category her work belongs in. Other people might not know. I mean, if Poe hadn't called Eureka a poem because of its intuitive dreaminess and beauty, wouldn't it have been shelved with other cosmological and scientific prose works? A piece of writing should be considered as what the writer calls it, though you might think it belongs in a different category.

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    1. Do you think so? I'm not sure I agree. I'm pretty content to let readers claim me for whatever side they want.

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    2. Well, that's just you, isn't it? Not that you're alone. I mean, you may be one of those writers who's content to be called either a poet or prose-writer, but might some writers wish to be considered poets even if their work is often dubbed prose because it subverts the dominant paradigm of poetry? And where does your contentment shelve into dis-? I mean, you might be fine with me calling The Self Unstable the book prose, philosophical aphorisms or autobiography, but what if I called it a Waring blender manual or fortune-cookie viscera? Would you be fine with that? Maybe you would...maybe you'd just dismiss me as a crackpot...

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    3. Probably nobody would listen to you, especially in the case of the blender manual claim. But if someone in a position of influence called it philosophy, then fuck yeah. If in 50 years it's getting anthologized as an essay versus poetry, then fuck yeah. If you invent a new genre called Fortune Cookie Viscera and I'm its poster child ... sure, why not.

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  4. I like this: "The good stuff should all be filed under wordplay." Overall, I tend to get grumpy with the notion of the lyric essay; in my experiences, they rarely amount to developed analysis and instead seem like phantasmagorias of unsubstantiated claims and or to be driven by intuition--inherently a bit hermetic, in many or most instances--not sufficiently executed argument. I am though biased: I think relatively un-stylized, thorough close reading which supports its claims and does not shy from emphasizing ethos is often so terrific but it seems some circles wld quip wow he's a pedantic fuddy-duddy. To stay with poetry analysis/essaying, Helen Vendler, at her best, is a superb example of patiently developing a point which really tries to get close to the text, not merely create a stylized overlay which may parallel the text but does not clearly analyze (HV on Shakespeare is not for example just grafting on her own metaphor or concept to his sonnets, but working from the assumption that they don't exclusively belong to any one reader and instead really tries to imagine the writer's motives) . This may be why privileging affect often strikes me as dull; too often I learn way more about the perciever than the dynamics being percieved. Another note in honor of ethos: I am apparently conflating essay to critical essay. Final, for now, idea: essays may be so gorgeously written that they seem lyrical (Woolf's Three Guineas etc) but I don't think they have a chiasmatic relationship. Tender Buttons, for example, is wonderful, but as poem not essay: there's nothing to dispute because the text is not clearly discursive, but rather magnificently expressive. Largely, I'd argue essays work with and from the recognition that a subject cannot be owned by one writer, that handling which does not court other perceptions, or show that an issue exists regardless of whether the writer does. For these reasons--I tend to think most poetics statements are ghastly self-agrandizing drivel and many poetics statements do seem in line with the idea of discursive prose meeting lyric (a melding that too often diminishes).

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    1. In general lyric essays are not aiming for analysis or substantiated claims or sustained arguments, they are basically like long rangy prose poems. My discussions on this topic in the past month or so lead me to believe that no one really knows what "lyric essay" means though. Hmmmmmmmmm

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  5. Add-on: I do not, however, think that a reviewer has to approach a text from the stance of the author's intent; this demand implies that one does not have the right to challenge the warrants of a text, and that is a privleging of author-status which I find hierarchical in a bad way unlike, say, haute cuisine, which is status and/or hierarchy in a sublimely delicious way!

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    1. Let's be sensible. Sometimes a writer will say, "I've written these...things. What to call them I neither know nor care. Call them poems, stories, skywritten tweets, doornail obituaries--what you will." That happens. But ordinarily a writer aspires either to be a certain kind of writer--e.g., a comedy writer--or to produce a certain kind of writing. If X wants to be a poet, he'll send his work to poetry mags or poetry editors of lit mags. He'll want Daisy Fried or Michael Robbins or some other poetry reviewer to say, "This is great poetry. X is a great poet." He'll want to win the Pullet Surprise for poetry. And if he wants to produce horror fiction, he'll want Kathe Koja to say, "X is the future of horror." Isn't this true? That's all I mean by "a piece of writing should be considered as what the writer calls it, though you might think it belongs in a different category." If the writer doesn't call it anything, she'll imply what it should be called just by where she sends it. Now if you don't think X's so-called poems are poems--if you think, for example, that they're flash fictions arbitrarily chopped up into pseudo verse lines--you're perfectly free to say that. I don't see how anyone's being privileged in either a good or bad way.

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  6. OK, that's fair, but then it'd be clearer to just use the term prose-poem; is it just me or can the word essay reasonably connote a discursive practice, and discourse can reasonably be viewed as denoting argument or logically sustained point-development, not only linguistic expression which sets its own truth terms and does not work from the pluralist stance of discourse.

    Sort of a joke, sorta not: the definition of the lyric essay is that it is a marketing term which does not have any verifiable meaning and is not meant to, but rather serves to enhance the status of a work and render it an event, an overturning.

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    1. The meaning of the word essay has shifted over time into something codified and academic (which is exactly what I said above, in the post) but originally it wasn't so narrowly defined. Nobody knows the real difference between a prose poem and a short short story, none of these terms are well-defined. "Lyric essay" is meant to describe something that looks like an essay (long and prosey) but behaves more like a poem. I don't think it's uncalled for as a term.

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    2. True--it's just a verb meaning something like to explore. I'm unsure of this: "Nobody knows the real difference between a prose poem and a short short story." I think this makes sense if poetry becomes surrogate for the idea of beautiful language, but I'd wager we may agree to an impressive degree over marking works prose-poems or stories due to the degree of emphasis on narrative rather than, for example, paratactic constellation. Lorie Moore's Birds of America has lots of lively language, but it's pretty discernibly different from much of the prose-poetry of, for example, Haryette Mullen. Maybe prose-poems emphasize metonomy over narrative, or try and get metonomy to stand-in for narrative? Or, to take the Self Unstable shards of yours I've read: I see aphorism, but not narrative in any sense not requiring lots of qualification. Yes, this can get tricky: some of Ron Silliman's ostensibly very disjunctive paratactic prose-poetry does make a kind of narrative emerge, but this stance, for many, will require far more explanation on my behalf. Another example could be Tender Buttons versus Autobiography of Alice B: the latter is much, much more recognizably a narrative.

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    3. You can cherry-pick examples that you think are clearly on one side or the other but I can do that too! :) Russel Edson's prose poems could easily be short shorts, but we think of him as a poet so we think of them as poems. Claudia Rankine's book Please Don't Let Me Be Lonely is categorized as poetry but I think it reads more like lyric essay. The labels may affect how we read the texts but I don't think the texts clearly fall into a distinct category, it's a judgement call.

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    4. I think Donald Hall said somewhere that we call Edson's pieces poetry because they're crazy.

      But as an old friend of mine used to say, "Fuck Donald Hall."

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    5. They're not even close to as crazy as Diane Williams' stuff, which we call fiction.

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  7. I can't really cogently argue against that, despite wanting to, and so I have erased further attempt but wish we didn't (seemingly) end-up at what seems a rather stagnant equivocation. And to pull my own rug out from under me: I'd love to meet with people and read the "wild" Stein and Silliman's Tjanting etc with the lens of narrative prose.

    If I've ended up as an irritating reactionary--apologies!

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    1. And I'm sorry for being stubborn though I assure you there is no ill will behind it. I've just gotten so much resistance to the idea of "lyric essay" lately and most of it seems based in assumptions that categories are pretty clear-cut, when I don't agree that they always are.

      Thanks for commenting as always!

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    2. And then there was the bald critic who pulled his own rug off from over him in order to elucidate the subtext.

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  8. Smiles; I actually think I may agree; maybe what I've been avoiding is stating that I just don't get excited by that term and am rather obsessed with writing which is extremely reasoned and not in terms of, primarily, an aesthetic patterning or claims which are almost impossible to substantiate. Give me M Nussbaum on women in India any day over Laugh of the Medusa. In some ways this, though, may give a very misleading sense of just how much writing I enjoy.

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  9. Genre has the same root as gender. I find this instructive. We want to believe (or the generation before yours and back and back and back) wanted to believe they understood gender. Gender is different than anyone imagined, and worse and better-- and so it is with genre. As the publishing houses go, so will genre--there will be more of them, infinitely more... and this will cause great confusion and gnashing of teeth and rending of androgynous garmentry.

    Genre, more than anything else (other than money issues), teaches people expectations for what they read. So sic-fi is allowed more exposition, lit-fic more navel gazing, lyric essays--more associative/poetic movement. When someone is primed for one genre and receives another: there can be anger, even rage. (See James Frey). But here's the rub... thoughtful writers find energy at the edges of formula... at the borderlands. What to do... what to do? Confessionalscifi is not a thing, except it is my thing. philopoeticbrashness is perhaps yours. What to do... what to do? 1. Never expect fame or money. 2. Appreciate each other.

    much love, kirsten

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    1. Good point (if you study biology you learn that gender is more of a continuum than a binary) and good advice

      xoxo

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