In the beginning, there seems just one way to write, the way it comes out, and then that way becomes a debate, contested, most essentially, in and by its writer. Hopefully, a writer reads and reads and will become more conscious of decisions in style and form. Some writers make these choices more consciously than others, the decisions mark differences in fiction, though whether they might be experiments can’t be assumed, certainly not by their authors.
The term “experimental” and others that characterize or categorize writing have, for me, lost their explanatory power. Mainstream, conventional, innovative, progressive, whatever value they hold or once held, the notions are vague, and they lack agreed-upon meanings among writers, readers and critics. Rather than being descriptive, the characterizations are predictive and can mark expectation, both writers’ and readers’. Also, they are outmoded and unhelpful, even as heuristic tools; still, they survive, like the human appendix, without usefulness. Lacking other terms, we writers are their hapless recidivists.
If a writer has an idea about how writing should act, or what a reader should experience, it can occupy the writing, which then might foreground the writer’s beliefs and a priori aesthetic preoccupations, which then might preclude a sensation, for a reader, of its “newness” (even when writing is not technically “new,” as most isn’t). A writer’s discovering or discerning a way to write “it,” whatever that is, finding a style, structure, subject to realize “it” through his or her capacities and sensibilities, lies outside of proscription. It’s not that any of us can, with clairvoyance, recognize our ensnarement in and by language or in the grand, middling and small narratives that construct our lives, but it is a writer’s most essential work to be conscious of the act of writing, of enabling words to do as much as possible, for instance.
Our business is to see what we can do with the old English language as it is. How can we combine old words in new orders so that they create beauty and that they tell the truth. That is the question. . . . [Words] hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or one attitude. What is our nature, but to change. It is because the truth they try to catch is many-sided, they convey it by being many-sided, dashing this way and that. Thus they mean one thing to one person, another thing to another person. —Virginia Woolf, from “A Eulogy to Words,” BBC Radio broadcast 1938
Sometimes finding the best word, best way of saying it, at least to the writer’s mind, can be less accommodating to a reader; difficulty is always relative. But how a writer’s trials, errors and successes add, or not, to a body called literature draws consensus in one time that might be denied in another. Believing in how it should be written, a way to write, also bedevils reasons to write; for me, the necessity to figure out how to accomplish a story or novel pushes me on. Many writers talk about sensing necessity in fiction, feeling it in a story, in its writing, which does not imply subject, psychology, relevance or reason, since nonsense can have necessity in the way it’s written. Harry Mathews once remarked, and I paraphrase, It’s not what you write about, it’s how you write it. This is the ineffable which makes writing about writing so hard.
Unquestioned adherence to any dictates—about arcs, character development, fragmentation, dramatic tension, use of semicolons or adjectives, closure, character development or assassination, resolution or anti-closure—to any MFA workshop credos, or their antitheses, for a novel, story, poem, essay, will generate competent, often unexciting work, whether called mainstream, conventional, progressive or experimental; these products will have been influenced by or derived from, almost invariably and without exception, “established” or earlier work, their predecessors. In writing, “derivativeness,” except in extreme cases, is a cagey issue, since all things flow from others; discontinuities emerge from a writer’s objections, conscious and unconscious, to earlier literary approaches. But contemporary art and writing can be thoughtless or mindful re-inventions, dull or highly creative imitations, resonant and generative reworkings; new work can also glide, skip or jump off of culture’s secure bases and revamp them remarkably, keeping the racquet, just restringing it. It’s assumed there’s less conformity in “experimental fiction.” But what constitutes a genuine experiment in an “experimental” text? An argument might go: A true paradigm shift will model what follows, and these accumulate and accrete to the next. So, a convention results from earlier breaks or reformulations—Gertrude Stein’s, Jane Bowles’, Henry James’ with the novel—and, augmented over time and by practice, the “experimental novel” becomes recognizable, no longer really an experiment but in the spirit or school of such. “Innovative” is used instead of “experimental,” and that’s often allied with “fresh,” “edgy,” “inventive,” “novel,” “groundbreaking.” Then there’s “unique,” but how many formulations can be? The “literary novel”—what is it? Uncommercial? Conventionally experimental? And, how is “literariness” measured? And then there’s “progressive.” What is progressive writing, is it in its subject matter, politics or style? Or all three? Can there be a measure for it, whatever it might be, in its own time or before readers experience it?
The indeterminate and indefinable, elemental to fiction, complicate any naming. Inexorably, all writing fits into genres, like the genre-bending novel, which has itself become a genre. Wishing for scientific and technological discoveries or an avant garde to save and advance society and culture is futile; it supports, in the sense Modernism did, the idea of more advanced and superior articulations in writing, of a loftier civilization, less bellicose, more civilized, and an expanded human consciousness—progress. But the machinations and machines of the 20th century should have eviscerated this understandable illusion, since, by midcentury, progress ate its babies alive. So, no progress in literature or art, only differences and changes, contemporary responses and aesthetic variations: Mrs. Dalloway is not better than Middlemarch, Zeno’s Conscience isn’t better than Augustine’s Confessions. And the other way around.
If the reader accepts, as I do, that no object has inherent value, that it is re-made by passing generations of readers and viewers —the erratic history of the worth and reputation of authors’ work attests to this—no form can be privileged, no judgment eternal. Consciousness, in all its manifestations, will come to be represented variously by each generation for their different days and nights; since what is around people, what we see, hear, watch, exist in, affects our being and becoming, our reactions and what we make, as our psychologies shift within parameters of basic needs, new hungers and expanded wants.
Human beings are fantastic and horrifyingly adaptive creatures, fashioning tools or re-tooling, making nice, making war, building up and tearing down. Things change, they stay the same, the world changes and doesn’t, simultaneously. Writers rue rewriting old narratives, despair that there’s nothing new under the sun, except, say, a depleted ozone level, which will engender a plethora of apocalyptic myths. Still, an object can be shaken up and turned on its head, a word set beside another can create a shattering collision, like John Milton’s use of “gray” as an adjective in his poem, “Lycidas.” Still, fiction will thrive primarily through readers’ imaginative capacities, which means that how and what we read is ultimately more crucial than how and what we write.
Those of us who are practicioners live in interesting times. Writing now is like doing laps without a pool. Maybe we wail in an aesthetic void or shout in a black hole, life’s empty or dense; we can’t know what we’re in—fish probably don’t know they’re in water (who can be certain, though). But uncertainty is not the same as ignorance, it may point writers toward other registers of meaning, other articulations. Complacency is writing’s most determined enemy, and we writers, and readers, have been handed an ambivalent gift: Doubt. It robs us of assurance, while it raises possibility.
Fiction is the enemy of facts, facts are not the same as truths. Fiction is inimical to goals, resistant to didacticism, its moralities question morality, its mind changes, while explanations crash and burn, mocking explicability. Fiction also claims that seeming lies can be true, because everything we say and don’t say, know and don’t know, tells and reveals. Novels and stories are not training manuals, their “information” is gleaned by readers in their terms and for their own uses, often not easily comprehended in part or whole, or never. Knowing the plot of Oedipus Rex, say, doesn’t change its powerful effects, for its enunciation of the unspeakable, the way it’s written and its evocation of the mystery and tragedy of human desire overwhelm any one of its parts. A great story is necessarily greater than its plot.
Call these statements a polemic or rant or a partial theoretical background to my own writing, my catholic or promiscuous inclinations. I’m for generative types of contemporary writing, not for proscriptions about writing. I don’t have a secure or immovable position, my various notions on writing might include contradictions, I’m sure they do. I don’t want to take A Position. Not taking a position is a position that acknowledges the inability to know with absolute surety, that says: Writing is like life, there are many ways of doing it, survival depends on flexibility. Anything can be on the page. What isn’t there now?