The name “Viktor Shklovsky” comes up a lot at this site (I’m guilty of mentioning it in perhaps half of my posts), and one might wonder why the man and his work matters. Below, I’ll try and lay out what Viktor Shklovsky has done for me, and what he might be able to do for you, too! Because Shklovsky might be the single most interesting and, above all else, useful critic I’ve ever encountered…
I have never seen a theory of poetry that adequately included a sub-theory of choice.
–Ron Silliman, from The Chinese Notebook
It’s not about inventing anything new; it’s about finding things that exist and reframing them and representing them as original texts. The choice of what you’re presenting is more interesting than the thing that you’re presenting.
–Kenneth Goldsmith, from “‘Against Expression': Kenneth Goldsmith in Conversation”
I used a rhyming dictionary, but it only gives you options. The job of the poet is to say ‘This one, I guess.’
–Milhouse Van Houten, on his love lyric to Lisa Simpson, “Homer Scissorhands” (#22.20)
The new sentence, like all other “new” phenomena and movements (the New Criticism, the New Novel, the New Narrative, dozens of New Wave movements in film and music) keeps getting older and older—it is, in fact, roughly as old as I am, if you date it from 1977. Such is the danger of naming anything new. But what made the New Sentence something novel way back in its youth, in the late 1970s and early 1980s?
An aside, though, before we begin: I’m rather fond of tracing out lineages and influences. This may create the impression that I don’t believe that anything’s ever new. Quite the contrary! We are surrounded by innovation—however, I believe that it rarely (if ever) arises out of thin air, and that it represents less of a break with the past than we might think. An extremely novel effect can come about through the recombination of preexisting influences and materials. Or: a simple shift in an artwork’s organizing dominant (to use Roman Jakobson’s term) can create something exceedingly innovative.
Allow me to attempt to demonstrate with the new sentence, first described (to my knowledge) by Ron Silliman in his 1977 essay titled after it. This long and complex essay advances several arguments: much of it, for instance, is devoted to criticizing the lack of a coherent concept of the sentence in linguistics, philosophy, and literary criticism. Along the way there are numerous intriguing observations, such as:
If we argue—and I am arguing—that the sentence, as distinct from the utterance of speech, is a unit of prose, and if prose as literature and the rise of printing are inextricably interwoven [here Silliman is following a line of thought borrowed from Viktor Shklovsky], then the impact of printing on literature, not just on the presentation of literature, but on how writing itself is written, needs to be addressed. This would be the historical component of any theory of the sentence. (73)
A few months ago, in April, to be exact, I started a series of posts entitled “A Sentence About a Sentence I Love” with a sentence about one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s magnificent sentences. This concentration, or, rather, this obsession with the sentence may have come from my, at the time, recent readings of William Gass’s essays wherein he concentrates much of his attention on the sentence as a primary building block in poetry and prose. Essays by Gass like “The Soul Inside the Sentence,” “The Sentence Seeks Its Form,” “The Architecture of the Sentence,” take as their focus the centrality of the sentence toward the construction of thought, and particularly of thoughts within the parameters of fiction. In “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction,” Gass claims that sentences are “the most elementary instances of what the author has constructed….a moving unity of fact and feeling.” Moreover, sentences
must be sounded, too; it has a rhythm, speed, a tone, a flow, a pattern, shape, length, pitch, conceptual direction. The sentence confers reality upon certain relations, but it also controls our estimation, apprehension, and response to them. Every sentence, in short, takes metaphysical dictation, and it is the sum of these dictations, involving the whole range of the work in which the sentences appear, which accounts for its philosophical quality, and the form of life in the thing that has been made (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 14).
Writing the title of this post actually felt very silly; it seems such an arbitrary way of gathering a list of writers to look out for. What could be sillier than singling out writers in this way, according to their age? Surely, there are more worthy criteria. Well, there is an answer to what could be sillier than singling out over forty writers over forty to watch, namely, singling twenty writers under forty to watch, especially largely mainstream writers writing, for the most part, conventional and redundant fiction. And the New Yorker has done just that. But this isn’t surprising. Theirs is an idea once again institutionalizing, reinforcing our decayed culture’s obsession with youth, not to mention its eyes wide shut wallowing in mediocrity. So, not only have they missed, for the most part, who are the best fiction writers under forty to watch, but, with their unapologetic valorization of youth, they missed entirely. The following writers (and I include poets, essayists, and theorists among them) are writers who have consistently written great work. I anticipate great things from each of them in the years and years to come. With full awareness of how a corrective sometimes ironically and paradoxically legitimizes what it seeks to correct, here, in the order in which I thought of them, are over forty writers over forty whose work I will be busy watching.
It’s a very familiar story: Romanticism began in 1798 and ended in 1900, when it was replaced by Modernism. …Although maybe it wasn’t replaced until 1901; it must have taken a while back then, in those days before cellular phones and email, to “get the memo,” as we say today. How long did it really take for everyone to hear that they were to stop making Romanticist works, and start making Modernist ones? Why, in some of the outlying regions, Romanticism may have limped on until 1902—even 1903!
Pinpoint the year when Romanticism died, or when Modernism perished. Can you have two eras at one time? Some have argued that Postmodernism is over; have you heard? Stop making Postmodernist art! It’s sad; I liked Po-mo; I’ll miss metatextuality (plus I had a killer idea for a story that became self-aware, and demanded the right to vote). But there’s also an upside: no more Shrek movies! (Well, not after this year’s Shrek Forever After.)
All of this begs the question: What happens to eras? And what are they? Surely they exist—Modernism happened—and if they exist, they must have beginnings. Right? Modernism surely began at some point. Do they also have endings? When Modernism started, what became of Romanticism?
Let’s see if we can’t find out.
Regarding “Innovation Redux” by Malachi Black and this post by Ron Silliman (which were both partially responding to something I wrote regarding innovation): I find that one of the sticking points on this subject is that “innovation” is often defined too broadly, or not defined at all. And so it’s easy for terms like “innovative writing” to become confused with terms like “experimental writing” or “the avant-garde.” (These terms might at times be synonyms, but not always.)
To innovate literally means “to introduce something new.”But it also means to “make changes in anything established.” Which is the historical meaning of the word’s root: “to renew, alter.” Many people (myself included) often forget this.