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What I've Thought (Discuss!)

Readerly Writing

I'm engaged in writing a series of essays in an effort to explore what the real differences are between mainstream and genre practice ("Collage and Map," published in the New York Review of Science Fiction, November, 2004) and a reading practice that can combine them ("The Reader of Maps" in Terrains Vagues (PARADOXA, 2006). The base on which I ground my ideas (and my own practice) is set out in an earlier essay, "Readerly Writing," first given as a talk in 1998 at, of all places, La Universidad de La Laguna in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, and subsequently published in REVISTA CANARIA DE ESTUDIOS INGLESES in 1999. Since this journal has very likely not penetrated deep into the consciousness of the American readership, I reproduce parts of it here.


1. Fiction in the United States is in crisis: it has become a normal art. Publishers do well off it, writers build careers on it, and any number of programs teach how to handle metaphors and editors, how to build a character and a résumé, how to craft a sentence or a sex scene. The work produced within this thriving market conforms to a paradigm very broadly held within the “fiction community” and which governs the practice of most current writers.

And yet this paradigm, narrow as it is, so dominates the field that writers wishing to play a different instrument cannot find a publisher able to pay them for their work or publish more than a few thousand copies of their books. The acquisition, over the last forty years, of all the major publishing houses by large conglomerates is old news now. Where editors once answered to publishers with something of a vision and could therefore take risks in the authors they chose, they now must show a profit. Further, because of a change in the tax laws, bookstores have not, since the Reagan presidency, been able to afford to keep books on the shelf for long and accordingly return unsold copies to the publisher with great promptness. The result, of course, is that publishers favor authors whose work sells quickly, and the work that sells quickly is what the reader can easily recognize. Difficult work, adventurous work, work that experiments with form, that uses dense or uncommon language, requires to be absorbed slowly. How long did Joyce take to escape the ghetto of the avant-garde? Such work does not find much place in the current market.

While there is an alternative to the commercial publishers in the independent literary presses (New Directions, Green Integer, Dalkey Archive, McPherson, FC2/Black Ice, Station Hill, Spuyten Duyvil, Overlook, Ecco, Coffee House, Serpent’s Tail, City Lights, Burning Deck) willing to take on unconventional books and keep them in print, few of these can arrange national distribution and reviews, and most are struggling to survive. Publishing with them brings the writer some prestige but little or no money. University presses, while publishing more contemporary fiction than in the past, have pulled away from any work that deviates from the established “literary” norm and concentrate on the upmarket, “quality fiction” end of the spectrum. A fiction writer who wishes her work to be read, who dreams of being paid for it, must go to the commercial houses and must write the sort of fiction which they will consent to publish.

In the bookstores this work is usually shelved under “Fiction,” sometimes under “Literature,” together with Cervantes, Heliodorus, Can Xue, Lucian, Zamyatin, Sei Shonagon, Tutuola, Rabelais, Walser, Leskov, Borges, and Sterne. Elsewhere there are other shelves for what “serious writers” dismiss as “genre fiction,” and yet “serious fiction” has become so strictly circumscribed that it is now as formulaic as any locked-room mystery. It is easy to blame the publishers for this, but the writers themselves are implicated. My purpose here is to show how this happens, to describe the genre of “normal art” and the kind of writing it uses, which I call “writerly writing, and last to suggest an alternative to it, “readerly writing.”

2. A normal art represents the practice seen as solely valid within the dominant artistic community. Scientists are familiar with the hegemony of such a paradigm, and Thomas Kuhn has described the process by which henemony is won. It is rarer in the arts that such a norm should so totally occupy the range as to displace all other practices, yet that is what has happened with fiction in the United States today, for the economic reasons mentioned above, and perhaps for some other cultural reasons as well, some widespread complacency or else some pervasive terror, to account for which would carry me too far beyond my purpose. There is this monolithic “fiction community,” and it does not consist merely of writers. Perhaps the word “community” is too generous a choice; “industry” is really nearer the mark, for writers belong to an interest group made up of agents, publishers, publicists, book designers, distributors, booksellers, grants panelists, literary journalists, and writing instructors at every level from university Masters of Fine Arts programs through extension courses, summer writing workshops, to the “how-to” class offered in someone’s living room by a local “learning center.” If not a community, this is at least a network, and any practicing writer of fiction will find herself, at one point or another, working alongside a writing instructor, an agent, an editor, a publicist, and the people who organize readings and signings at bookstores, bars, and colleges. She will find herself aligning her interests with theirs. In any substantive disagreement, unless she is a very hot property, it will be she who makes the compromise. She will read the reviewers of her work and from them, whether she wants to or not, come to know what the market likes or dislikes about her writing. And most of these people will know each other, at least by reputation, and will interact as parties who have had, or may in the future have, business dealings. This is the “community,” then, that in fiction defines the normal practice, the central concerns, and the means to bring those concerns before readers in a form that will attract them and make them buy books.

3. As a genre “normal fiction” is a rhetoric of intention, an intention described by Waldo Brown in Patrick White’s The Solid Mandala. Waldo intends to be a writer. The girl in whom he’s interested asks what he plans to write. He replies hesitantly and vaguely: “‘Sometimes I think novels, sometimes plays. It might even be some kind of philosophical work.’” As he “abandon[s] a plan for luring her deeper into the garden by carefully chosen, oblique ways,” daunted by her question, he searches for the true answer and finds it: “It would have been so much easier if he had been able to tell her: I want to, and am going to, write about myself.”

Writers of “normal fiction” want to, and are going to, write about Myself. In many cases these stories do in fact have a first-person narrator and tell a life-story, but I do not mean to say that myself is always to be identified with the writer or that all current writers of normal fiction are hopeless narcissists. Myself is generic, rather like the “I” of Puritan spiritual autobiography; it is a Myself to which the purchasers of books must easily relate. It is the internal coherence of the text’s structure and affect often described as its voice. The task of creating a voice that implies Myself is made easier by the fact that the concept of selfhood involved is very loose. Such stories imagine the formation of identity within an arena of alienation; it is an amalgam of journalism with what one might call virtual autobiography, the first delivering the world, or rather its most salient insanities, as an assemblage of meaningless news-items within which the second traces a quest for authentic experience (“epiphany”), searching among the simulacra for some fixed node around which to make an identity. Characters typically begin as a chaotic bundle of impulses, defined unsatisfactorily by their situation in a structure (job, relationship, school, society in general) which is the extension of someone else’s power. Often they are marginalized as misfits, victims, members of oppressed minorities, and find no place in the hegemonic world for their languages, loves, or lives. The story will lead sooner or later to an epiphany, not always experienced by the protagonist, who may well remain an antic figure in a world impossible to come to terms with, but where the reader at least will touch some truth, make Forster’s redemptive “connection.” The characters, when they succeed in gaining some substance, are not usually transformed, since a canon of journalistic verisimilitude governs this genre, but there is a suggestion of personal fulfillment or transcendence.

If this abstract sounds like a cliché, the stories themselves work to recess it deeply within a dense texture of journalistic noticing. Anybody’s story may be told, none too strange or “low,” and the research is far-ranging and meticulous. These writers shine a light upon the most exotic miseries and madnesses, the most out-of-the-way corners of contemporary life, which they themselves have evidently explored in person. The energy that is drained from the fiction, by so intensive a concentration upon fact and the fact-like, is poured into the writing, into imagery especially: rich, sensory, compelling images open windows into the landscapes and interiors of experience, to the point where a reader may wonder if the characters serve as more than vehicles to articulate a set of keen, often satirical observations.

It is an extraordinarily knowing writing, and this is my chief objection to it. These writers know their craft and their material and their readers far too well. Their address to readers is steeped in what looks like urbanity and democracy. Minutely aware of all the detail that goes to make up lifestyle, they create fictions shrewdly critical of lifestyle, and yet their address to the reader still is made within it, and “lifestyle appeal” is their main source of authority. The knowing writer addresses the reader very directly; the reader’s primary experience is of being known. Of course this may feel comfortable. The book in one’s hands, one senses, is not going to resist one. The story being told, however foreign to one’s own routine, will strike with careful calculation upon the sites of one’s attention, for the map of that attention is spread out in the author’s mental war room. Its limits too will be respected: no part will go on too long. The stimuli playing upon one will be such as to provoke responses that clarify not confuse one’s general state of feeling. In short, the writer practices upon the reader, and the reader is trapped within the perceptual frame predicated by genre and the writer’s too perfect command of it.

Against the face of myself we may set the world and history as an unimaginable field of objects, creatures, events far too multifarious for memory, and we may try to imagine the sort of writing that addresses it. So, as writerly writing tries to make the field imaginable as a configuration of selected details, growing to a point around which everything appears to arrange itself, light shining from that point to irradiate the whole design which is then to be lifted whole out of the puzzling field and placed as a monument in memory–as writerly writing does this, “readerly writing” attempts a narrative within the field, a chameleon narrative hard to distinguish from its surround. “When we open the door to a constellation of memories, they come very quickly, leaving us no time to hone and curtail our sentences.”10 When sentences are to be honed or curtailed, it is implied that they were not keen, too long. The writer knows, the writer leads. When memories, the constellation of them, the field, history, when all these write the sentence, the writer must follow. Must read. The readerly writer is “readerly” not in the sense that she is very literary, saturated with the work of other writers–on the contrary, it is the writerly writers who keep one eye upon successful models–but in the sense that the process of composition is for her an experience of reading. Where is the sentence coming from? The experience is of its coming, not as a form to contain a meaning but as a lively creature. It may travel from a center, it may advance upon a center, but the first will be lost and the second will be new. To find them, it is necessary to release writerly control, to relax the attempt to impose a memorable architecture.

Readerly writing is memorious rather than memorable. Instead of extracting and isolating its objects, to utilize them to incarnate some meaning, it revisits them within the field of the world. In "Funes the Memorious" Borges illustrates the difference: “We, in a glance, perceive three wine glasses on the table;…” and it is easy to guess to what work a writer writing fiction in the United States today would put these three glasses: as the residue, the summary icon, of some action–a love triangle!–and there would be precise attention paid to smears of lipstick on the rim of a glass, the vintage of the wine, the disposition of the glasses on the table.

We, in a glance, perceive three wine glasses on the table;
Funes saw all the shoots, clusters, and grapes of the vine.
He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at
dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare
them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the
design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only
once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised
in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho.

Funes’ objects are far more like creatures, moving, travelling, blending with contexts that turn out to be illimitable. “Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day.” It is not just a matter of memorial reconstruction. “He could perceive I do not know how many stars in the sky.” One does not always want to be selecting out one’s constellations, those familiar figures of known signification, even though to do so relieves us from the anxiety, which the whole field always arouses, of knowing ourselves incapable, through sheer insufficiency of span, of perceiving many stars.

Readerly writing proceeds by unfolding. The reading is guided not by will seeking order but by the instructions and directions inherent in the matter, which must be followed and must be followed out rather than in, to a center. Such a method dissolves the Theatre of Memory and the Realized Voice declaiming within its precincts. It crawls across the field of innumerable events, the matter ramifying in creaturely gestures of language that embody the directions and energies without subjecting them to thematic triage. At the end of the story there is a story–something has been written. Clarice Lispector, Anna Maria Ortese, Can Xue, Stacey Levine, writing on four different continents, have all found the way to do this. They do not write stories about myself, and yet they do write stories, and those stories have endings.

John Hawkes’ fugues, Kathy Acker’s rants, Wilson Harris’ tissue samples from the flesh of Guyana: the experience of reading these is the experience of walking in the forest. Events in the forest do not take their meaning from the structure of the forest. The forest is where you lose yourself, go mad, like Tristan. These writers’ events aid us to recollect the fear and confusion the field of the world inspires, the doubts it raises about our own coherent existence. They deny, as cubism did and Gertrude Stein, the single integral point of view from which objects can be successfully composed and evaluated. Their stories are endless: matter that unfolds always suggests the possibility of further unfolding. What is worked out is an impulse, or else the hand grows tired. This writing is not made by finished masters.

This history is essentially accidental, a welter. Everyone can feel the need to sort through it; we like our world to have a face, our own–myself–since the sort of knowing we prefer is recognition. But sometimes we prefer not to: we ask to be lost. The face of things grows too familiar, a mask. We go look at the sea. That history is a welter of crossing paths that instantly fade is the truth that readerly writing embodies. Left to play where language has not been subjugated to intention, the reader is free to become memorious.

This is the history of many small creatures provoked by the text and now at large in the reader’s imagination. Do they go somewhere? Or is fiction to be reduced to an armature for lyrical meditations? Merely by posing such questions, we may understand at last how deeply the writers of autobiographical-journalistic texts dislike and mistrust fiction. All their skill and labor are directed towards blending the myth of myself with the facts of contemporary life and lifestyle. Fiction is neither of these things. Its radical purpose is not to shape or escape the world–not transcendence, not correctness, not immortality. Fiction is a reading of how things go in the world, and to have any value it requires its readers to read. To read is not to be the wax prepared for the stamp, it is not to be the stamp either. Reading is using, respectfully, the tool of the writing for the reader’s own purpose, on the understanding that the writer was the first reader and constructed the tool respectfully of the world that both inhabit. If the writer of fiction is not articulating purely personal associations, is really a reader of the field that contains that other reader the reader; if she lets the language of the field marry with her own language, as any reader must, then her story will tell a truth, and any reader will be able to trace the inevitability of its telling.