Dear Blogerati and lovers of literature,
I thank you sincerely for what you do here, for bringing attention to books on small and independent presses, books in translation, and books that are challenging in a way that necessarily makes them undersung. I’d like to thank especially Dan Wickett, who is a tireless force for good, a real mensch, and whose unwavering enthusiasm for my work has meant a lot to me. Thanks also to Ed Champion, and to Meg Sefton and Mary O’Connell for their comments on Skin. (And I urge you all to check out Mary’s terrific collection of stories Living With Saints. And while I’m recommending, let me mention to you another U of Nebraska book: Minor Angels, by Antoine Volodine, translated by none other than Read This! Jordan Stump.)
At the risk of adding hot air to a heat wave, I thought I’d just post here an excerpt here from an essay that is partly a statement of poetics, an essay I was asked to write for a Dalkey Archive electronic casebook on Stanley Elkin’s The Magic Kingdom, edited by Elkin’s biographer, David Dougherty.
At the time I entered graduate school, Raymond Carver, though dead a few years, still held aesthetic sway in the graduate workshop, and though I read and admired the so-called minimalists (well, okay, some of them), I knew I’d never be one myself no matter how much literary Slim Fast I might force down my starving gullet, but it wasn’t clear to me (having had my own predilections summarily savaged in workshop) what the alternatives were. The strong-arming thuggery of hegemonies (all right already, uncle!) is always so, erm, persuasive. So happening upon the maximalism of Stanley Elkin was something of a revelation to me, license to indulge the (as I saw it, productively) convoluted syntax, the profligate diction, and the darkly comic situations that came more naturally to me and were much abhorred by many of my classmates, the more staunchly partisan and word-rationed realists among them.
Here are some aspects of Stanley Elkin’s aesthetic that attract me: first and foremost his attention to language, to the sensual pleasure of how words can so pleasingly fill up the mouth and dizzily stumble off the tongue, a rapturous kind of gluttony, one descriptor never enough; the hazardous over-the-topness and word-besotted overindulgence of his work (an intemperance that can give a reader the spins and necessitate imbibing again the lapidary hair of the dog)—in every book there's a certain Disneyland excess that is money-grubbing, celebrity-seeking, larger-than-death, paradox-embracing America, and it is his confidence-man, beat-the-clock rhetoric that persuades you to spend 300+ pages on holiday there. I'm also smitten in Elkin's work with the absurdity that results from taking the familiar, the commonplace, and canting it just a few degrees north so that the ludicrous shape of everyday life, which can go unremarked beneath the manufactured veneer of the quotidian, is heightened, made all the more discernable. And I identify with his fascination with the compulsive or beautiful or charming freak (in his cosmos center stage rather than in the wings, redefining freakhood), as well as his interest in the failing body, not to mention his sense of the comic, which is so black every laugh, and there are yuks aplenty, exacts an emotional toll from the reader. All this would be the tradition to whatever individual talent I could lay claim to, the literary nation of which I wished to be a citizen, even if it meant being deported from this hostile republic I found myself in those days inhabiting.
And here’s an early and typical workshop encounter: Once while a story of mine was being discussed, a fellow fiction writer asked me why I thought it necessary to assault the reader with "highly foregrounded language" and exasperate her with improbable situations and absurd characters. I didn't really know, at the time, what highly foregrounded language was, but I could tell by the defensive glower that puckered her puss when she talked about my story that it probably wasn't, to her way of thinking, a virtue. This was, as I said, the era of minimalism, dirty (and otherwise) realism, and a lot of time was spent discussing the merits of letting a simple story tell itself, a story about the workaday travails of everyday people, spoken in a wallflower language that wouldn’t draw attention to itself and certainly in a voice free of the falsifying adornment of free-wheeling, swaggering, rococo verbiage. There were two of us linguistic delinquents in that workshop at whom this weekly catechism was aimed and we politely listened to the tutorial, but despite the ongoing efforts of these earnest reformers to rein in our most unforgivable excesses, to purify our polluted aesthetics, we remained recalcitrant heathens to the end, unrepentant apostates. I dutifully noted my peers' many beefs with my work, however, and seriously considered their suggestions—really I did, some of my best friends are realists—but, in the end, their antipathy to the way I spun a story only served to galvanize my sense of what I was doing as it forced me to think very particularly and carefully about why I'd chosen to write the stories as I had (an accounting any dyed-in-the-wool realist in the workshop writing in the “unobtrusive” default style of the day was never pressed to make), an accounting that seemed especially important given how the most fundamental and integral elements of my work seemed really to chafe certain readers. I wasn’t trying to be a rapscallion (I’m a congenital Midwesterner, reticent Heartlander, yearly field trips to the Agricultural Hall of Fame, descended of an ethos of nose-to-the-grindstone taciturnity, and I did in fact sometimes fret about how flamboyant expression would curl the reserved and stoic toes of my family and forbears), so this was always chastening.
Unlike the moment in American literature when Stanley Elkin’s star was rising, in those later minimalist days, a lapidary style of the first water, polished to a high gloss—the love of a carefully and complexly hewn sentence that is as respectful of sound as sense, an ardent belief in the almost sacramental power of excess, digression, exhaustive qualification, their ability to reflect on the level of the sentence something essential about the experience of being a twentieth/twenty-first century citizen of the developed world trapped inside the hamster wheel, the frenetic tilt-a-whirl of everyday life (form is content, goes that old saw, and why shouldn’t it be?)— this is likely to earn a writer a reproachful rap on the bean with a smugly smoting, implicitly pejorative cudgel: experimental (smack!), postmodern (bap!), stylistically, er, challenging (whomp!), florid (pop!), pretentiousaffectedpoetic (bambambam!), suggesting literary fraud of the worst sort, the boondoggle of smoke and mirrors style, the guilty writer a snake oil huckster hawking placebo nostrums, goat gland salves. I’ve repeatedly been asked by critics, reviewers, peers, sometimes even students (those few who arrive with intractable opinions knitting the permanently furrowed cement of their brows) to feel ashamed about the sort of bejeweled prose I find my raven’s eye attracted to, the sort of mandarin capering (and I don’t use this phrase dismissively, on the contrary) that engages my mind, makes it click and whir, go pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. Let the story tell itself, I’ve been urged. Style is an attempt to conceal an absence of substance, I’ve been cautioned. If the writer knew how to tell a story, she wouldn’t need to hide behind flashy language, I’ve been rebuked. Highly foregrounded language calls undue attention to itself, I’ve been instructed. (Wap! Zing! Thump! Thwack!)
Where did this love of linguistic austerity come from exactly? Dowdily dressed prose leaning diffidently against a shadowed wall (as the others, though outnumbered, giddily jitterbug beneath the diamond light of a mirrored ball)? That seems to be what the detractors of high style are calling for, those arbiters of respectable prose. You may recall an incendiary rant published in The Atlantic a few years ago, from the pulpit of a professor of North Korean studies, B.R. Myers, a blustery snarkfest entitled “A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness of American Literary Prose” and later expanded into a book-length screed. Though Myers doesn’t finger Elkin in the article as an example of the kind of prose that makes him want to spit—and spit he does—I can only imagine that this is because, after frothing at the chops for 13,000 words or so, he runs out of saliva. On the other hand, the group of writers he attacks in this broadside don’t share an obvious aesthetic kinship and make for a peculiar and tenuous taxonomy— Prizewinning Writers B.R. Myers Has Had It Up to His Furrowed Noodle With: Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, David Guterson, et al. That group of literary rabblerousers who began stirring things up in the sixties, referred to, sometimes sneeringly, as postmodernists, escape his wrath in this jeremiad but not, as it turns out, in his more recent review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which has him splenetically sputtering anew, though it’s the same grumpity-grumping harrumph.
So where did this apotheosis of a Jack Sprat aesthetic come from? It certainly didn’t come from those writers at the center of the American canon. It didn’t come from the glitteringly circumlocutory musings of Emerson. It didn’t come from Melville or James or Fitzgerald or even Hemingway (simple machine-gun syntax sure, but whose prose calls more attention to itself, whose prose could be more mannered, more carefully calibrated for cadence, effect?), didn’t come from Faulkner, to name but a few of the antecedents of The Contemporary American Stylist. It’s as though this “prose of sackcloth and ashes,” as Jaimy Gordon has described it, was reared, like I was, on the longsuffering plains where, in the absence of a showy landscape to goad you into aspiration, Christian humility is one of the highest values (“Great I” 33). The more anonymous, the more invisible you are, the more admirable goes the paradox (Highly foregrounded language calls undue attention to itself—cover your ankles, harlot!). And the woman writer whose aesthetic is, well, eye-catching, she can expect to be doubly damned, doubly marginalized, cheeky trollop! But that’s another essay.
I liked to think that had Stanley Elkin also been in that workshop, he would have been similarly upbraided, and I sometimes consoled myself by thinking we could have been infidels together, lawless unrealists. In the essay "What Birds See," Nathalie Sarraute argues that one person's realism is another's sclerotic convention, a matter of habit, a “matrix of preconceived ideas and ready-made images,” and she suggests that simply imposing a sense of order on experience from these “prepared moulds,” however reassuring, doesn't necessarily make it so (Tropisms 120-136).
And so on. Thanks for reading.