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The avant garde is dead.

It’s the tail end of fashion week, and since my girlfriend is a style editor, I’ve been hearing about all the runway shows. I also couldn’t ignore the suicide of one of the fashion world’s luminaries, Alexander McQueen. Here’s some of his recent work:

Alexander McQueen
Just something to wear around the house.

Not all designers show couture, of course, but what’s remarkable about the fashion world is how those who do are revered as visionaries, given funding, and allowed/encouraged to really push boundaries. Which made me feel a kind of medium-envy.

Clearly the big publishing houses take on and champion some “high literary” authors at little return on investment other than the honor of publishing visionary art. At least, they used to. But these days, they don’t exactly parade them around as though people could learn something by reading them.

It makes me wonder how the literary world would change, were avant garde authors treated in a way befitting the true meaning of that term: ahead of the general society of practicing writers. Treated as though they were taking interesting and worthy and noble risks to ask writers and readers simple questions like “What if…” and then putting the results on display.

The deep suspicion and distrust and aversion many people in the “establishment” express toward avant garde authors (see, say, Jonathan Franzen’s famous tirade) is largely absent in the fashion world. Instead risk-takers are rewarded, and their influences ripple throughout more wearable, popular forms.

It would almost be fair to say that, in literature, there is no longer really an avant garde. Not in the sense that remains at all true to the term’s origin as describing highly skilled soldiers leading an army into battle. For in this sense of the term, it has generally agreed-upon value. In fact, the value really has its root in the popular consciousness and agreement thereof.

Literary avant garde in this sense is dead. Now there is only a fringe.

68 thoughts on “The avant garde is dead.

  1. Those are some spectacular outfits – especially the dark, mermaid-looking one.

    It’s hard not to feel two ways about the fashion industry. On the one hand, the objection can be made that it advances an overvaluing of the superficial, and that its effect on self-image is damaging.

    On the other hand, by heightening our awareness of superficial beauty, designers reveal the way art can improve upon nature.

    I’m reminded of a quote from Oscar Wilde: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

  2. Well, judging couture based on the fashion industry is like judging literature based on the best seller list. In other words, just because the medium is visual, doesn’t mean it’s superficial.

    1. Sorry, my intention wasn’t to conflate the too.

      I think fashion, including couture, is purposefully and unapologetically superficial. That isn’t to suggest couture shouldn’t be taken seriously.

      1. Hmm, do you mean that it does not seek to address ideas? I guess I’m confused by your use of the term. Is beauty superficial? Fashion has been a site where people address gender stereotypes, ideas of familiarity and obscenity, the integration of technology into human behavior… the list goes on. I don’t see how any of that is superficial. Unless by superficial you just mean, “visual.” Which, see above.

        1. By superficial, I mean concerned with the outward appearance of things in a way other mediums are not. I think this has to do with the fact that fashions need to be modeled by humans, yet the role of humans, in this case, is solely to wear the fashions well. In other words, we are not asked to be interested in the psychology or emotional life of the person wearing the fashion (whether that person be a model or someone you see on the street), but only in how well he or she wears it. If a model wears something badly at a show, for instance, attention is drawn away from the fashion itself, and any ideas associated with that fashion.

          But I don’t mean to say that fashion (especially couture) doesn’t seek to address ideas. Like you said, fashion has been a site for the airing and interchange of ideas. Wasn’t a clothing designer (Westwood?) largely responsible for the birth of punk?

          In any case, if superficial is not the right word, let’s not use it. I like the ideas you raised in this post.

  3. I think there are a lot of different issues balled up here, and I’m not sure how helpful it is to express them together as “the avant-garde is dead”:

    1. Large presses have dropped many of their less commercial writers. This includes not only experimentalists but also poetry, drama, translations. John O’Brien has written frequently and insightfully on this topic, as well as suggest and demonstrate many things that can be done about it. (I’d include a link here, but Dalkey’s website isn’t really working at the moment.)

    2. Literature seems to have less impact on determining culture than other media do. (In this regard, it’s similar to painting.) Culture seems more driven by film, television, video games, performance. And “innovative” or “experimental” literature seems to have even less influence.

    This is a complicated statement and it can be objected to. Students still read “classics” in school. (I just subbed for a class in which the students were reading THE LORD OF THE FLIES.) People still read literature: comics, Harry Potter novels, Stephanie Meyer. There are still big “literary” authors: Cormac McCarthy, Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison. (Some of them are even “experimental”—which is to say they self-identify with an experimental tradition: Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Mark Z. Danielewski.)

    …And of course I think that innovation can be found anywhere, not just in so-called experimental circles:

    Films are often adapted from novels—comics, for instance (Frank Miller is a writer who’s had a big impact on the culture). We just had a very high-profile adaptation of REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, for instance (which is not quite the realist novel that everyone thinks it is). Isn’t LOST a re-imagining of LORD OF THE FLIES? LOST also led to Dalkey selling thousands of copies of Flann O’Brien’s THE THIRD POLICEMEN after one fo the show’s characters was glimpsed holding it:

    3. There are no longer any high-profile experimental writing movements.

    But this begs the question of how well-known the historical avant-garde writers and movements were in their time—not to mention how well-read. There was a study done once of the first printing of ULYSSES, I recall, that found that few people had ever read it (this was simple enough to prove: the signatures remained uncut). Gertrude Stein, for all of her contemporary influence, still fits Twain’s definition of a classic: someone many people have heard of but few have read. What has happened is that a great deal of time has passed, allowing these writers’ respective influences to permeate through the culture. More people probably read INFINITE JEST on its initial release than they did ULYSSES. Certainly more people read it than have ever read THE MAKING OF AMERICANS. (Or probably even TENDER BUTTONS.)

    Meanwhile, there are high-profile contemporary experimental movements. Look at music: Philip Glass is one of the best-known American composers. Who’d a thunk? How did he get there, playing his repetitive arpeggios? …Well, he never shied away from making more commercial work. He composed for Sesame Street. he collaborated with Paul Simon. He released SONGS FROM LIQUID DAYS. He accepted film score commissions. Etc.

    4. Small press writers like to complain about how no one reads them, listens to them, buys them, invites them on TV, …

    I’d rather they stop doing this, actually. It’s like when people complain that no one will go out with them. We all know how successful that is as a seduction tactic. (Or do small press authors really want just a pity-fuck?)

    If writers think their writing is good and important and should be read widely—then they should not be afraid to state that. Look at Tao Lin: he’s not afraid to tell people, “Hey! Look at me!” Look at Miranda July.

    There are many things that can be done; we’re limited only by our imaginations. One example I’m fond of mentioning: invite non-writer friends to come to readings. And if you’re ashamed to do that (because most readings are—let’s admit it—so boring that writers attend them only as social obligations), then do something to change that state of affairs. Because there’s your reason why others don’t care: why should they want to attend boring readings? Do something to make the reading more interesting. I don’t mean that we should pander—but we shouldn’t sit around moaning and waiting for others to rediscover us.

    If your ideas are good, if your work is good, then explain to others why they should be interested in it. Start by connecting it to the things they’re already interested in.

    Lots of people like Neil Gaiman’s work, right? So maybe I can interest them in Alan Moore’s work. (WATCHMEN was just adapted: talk about experimental literature!) And if I can get them to read that, maybe I can get some friends to read Carol De Chellis Hill’s HENRY JAMES’ MIDNIGHT SONG. It isn’t too much of a stretch.

    From there, maybe I can interest them in Flann O’Brien’s AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS. Or Gilbert Sorrentino’s IMAGINATIVE QUALITIES OF ACTUAL THINGS. It’s not impossible.

    I’ve given away many, many copies of WITTGENSTEIN’S MISTRESS as presents. People really enjoy it!

    And so much more. Why not try collaborating with more mainstream artists? It won’t kill you! It might result in something interesting! (There is innovation in the mainstream.)


    1. You’ll notice that I’m not talking about whether innovation exists, Adam. I’m talking about avant garde as a relational term, and suggesting that if the general reading public does not see innovative texts as representing/exhibiting forward, useful movement, it is no longer appropriate to call it “avant garde.”

      1. Adam, what small press writers are complaining about not being read? We can’t all be rigorous self-promoters, and it seems most of us don’t want to be (beyond some facebook ads). If it’s about money, people should not be in this business. If it’s about readership, people should write stories that people will not be able to put down.

        The work should speak for itself, I hope.

        1. Greg, if you don’t know any small press writers and publishers who complain ad nauseum about being isolated, or not selling enough, or not being popular, then you’re very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very lucky, and I envy you.

          “If it’s about money, people should not be in this business.”

          What business is that? The writing business? I thought writing was an artform, untouched by business…?

          The work doesn’t speak for itself, and it never has. Writing has always been about art, yes, but it’s also been about business, promotion, money, popularity, trends, etc. You can’t divorce writing from any of those things.

          Q: How do you think Ezra Pound got himself published?

          A: He befriended James Laughlin.

          Q: How did James Laughlin get his millions?

          A: His family exploited a lot of poor workers.

          …That’s the history of literary innovation!

          (J’adore New Directions.)

          1. Not ad nauseum, no.

            I like the very’s. Like a flock of birds in line.

            I only said business, because we were talking about promotion. There is a part of writing totally divorced from promotion.

            I talk about the work speaking for itself in light of the Beckett post. I guess I’m not business savy or to quote Woody, “I’m cash poor…something isn’t flowing.”

            Look at Scott Garson’s book, the pre-order sold out in a few days, they had to print more. I bet there was not a dime spent in promoting that. It was word of mouth and internet and our community that did it. If Obama can win an election with the internet, I’m sure we can get the word out about writing and not worry (so much) about money. This tool is quite a tool we can do almost anything with.

            I understand I’ve gone a little off topic and I agree about things you suggest (I always invite non-writer friends to readings). Bars seem the best place to hold readings.

            1. And as long as we are talking about Flann O’Brien. Where does one start? Is the Dalkey Archive the wrong book to read first. I read the first chaper and the policeman book seems more straight forward, not that I’m anti-difficult. Any O’Brien people out there?

              1. I’d say start with either AT SWIM-TWO BIRDS or THIRD POLICEMAN.

                3rd P was Donald Barthelme’s favorite novel, if that’s any incentive. (I saw him say that somewhere; I think he meant of all time…on that day.)

                But Hitler hated AT SWIM so much, he started WWII in order to destroy it. So it has that going for it.

                Best to read both of them, really.

            1. Ah, that’s kind of you, Paula, but by those people I meant “me.”

              …I just looked at your blog and saw that people are criticizing your stories. What’s up with that? Is it Pick on Paula Week? Or do you invite people to criticize your work publicly?

              Criticism makes us stronger, because it fills us with hate, and hate is filled with adrenaline.

              1. Haha- I just linked those bad “reviews’ to my blog recently even though they are not new. I think they’re funny. Especially the “snobby” comment. That one cracks me up.

                Also, I don’t know what to tell you about you hanging out with you and finding yourself whining about readers not reading you. Maybe you should take drugs and become “different” on drugs? It works for me.

                1. Mainly I complain about how I don’t read myself. I send myself rejection notices daily (but every ten days I allow myself the enticement “please try again! (smiley!).”

                  Meanwhile, despite how many treats I give her, no matter how many catnip toys I buy her, regardless of how often I brush her fur while calling her “My Pwecious-Specious,” my cat refuses to nominate me for a Pushcart Prize, or Best American.

                  My stuffed dolls and action figures remain my own readers. And listening audience.

                  But they are patient.

                  And sealed in plastic.

      2. Hi Shya,

        It’s difficult to tease out when the term “avant-garde” first appeared, but it was originally used in reference to French poets and artists of the 1860s—specifically, those painters associated with the Salon des Refusés, like Manet. His work was criticized and refused exhibition by the salons of the time, and so he and his friends set up their own salon, the Salon of the Refused. In time, they became known as the Impressionists, and their work became more popular than the regular salon work, and so they were seen as having been “ahead” of the culture.

        Taken in this precise historical sense, the avant-garde has been dead for some time.

        Later, its meaning was broadened to refer to many other artistic movements—Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, Expressionism, etc.—that was similarly initially decried but later came to exert a social influence.

        Or (and anyone with a background in public relations can see where this is going), it became a term that could be applied to a minority artistic group that wanted to brand itself as the Next Big Thing.

        So see, for example, the Language Poets, who understood from the get-go the value in marching in lockstep, publishing one another, promoting one another, and swearing allegiance to a marketable group identity.

        Since 1870, this trick has been played out so many times, by just about any nascent experimental group, that “avant-garde” has come to mean “any minority artistic group that hopes they’ll find success and influence others.” Sometimes calling yourself this works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

        In this sense, the term “avant-garde” has been dead for some time as well, because it no longer really really means anything.

        Here, I think you’re using it in a related but different sense—specifically “visionary” (US) writers (of any stripe) who are “ahead of the general society.” (You don’t necessarily mean that they belong to a single coherent movement.) And your complaint is that such authors are no longer published by “the big publishing houses” (in the US). And so they’re therefore on the fringe—publishing with small presses, or not being published at all.

        I think it’s a very fair observation that the big literary presses have, ever since the 1970s, become more conservative, increasingly focused on publishing only whatever will make them lots of money. The same thing has happened in Hollywood. And this is an unfortunate thing.

        So, yes, I agree that certain writers are having a hard time being published. I would rather than the big publishing houses (and Hollywood) be more diverse in what they fund and help disseminate.

        But I don’t see what, if anything, this has to do with the “avant-garde.” Which is, I think, as I hope this makes clear, a term whose meaning is not immediately apparent and which isn’t synonymous with “experimental writing.”

        I’d also argue that the historical notion of the avant-garde is rather elitist, because it locates innovation with a select group of people: “visionary” artists “ahead of the general society.” And who therefore (the implication runs) be rewarded with high-profile publication and exposure, so that their ideas can become available to all. Similar to how in the fashion industry “risk-takers are rewarded, and their influences ripple throughout more wearable, popular forms.”

        And I think this is far too simple a view of how innovation occurs in the arts (if we’re not discussing innovation here then I don’t know what we’re discussing.) And it’s a symptom of the elitism endemic in “high” literature. (“We take the risks and invent the new technologies that then spread to all other writers, who would otherwise be limited to using older literary devices.”)

        There are visionary, innovative, experimental writers all over the place, if one only looks. Many of them are having a big effect on literature and on the larger culture. …Are they avant-garde?

        Taken from this perspective, why isn’t J.K. Rowling an avant-garde writer? When she wrote Harry Potter, publishers weren’t marketing fantasy to young adults. They certainly weren’t marketing boarding school stories to young adults. She wrote something that was out of step with her current moment, and it became a big hit (partly due to advertising but of course that’s what the Salon des Refusés was, too—the avant-garde has always been a marketing concept). And the rest of the culture followed. (This also resulted in more obscure writers, like Philip Pullman, selling more copies.) (It also drew in new readers and arguably created more of a future market for all writers. More than one of my friends have benefited from this by writing young adult fantasy novels, making some money, and then being able to write their other, less commercial fiction.)

        Do we recoil from calling Rowling avant-garde because she was ultimately commercially successful? (No, you have to ultimately be successful to be properly avant-garde; see Manet and his friends).

        Because she isn’t writing properly experimental fiction—the kind of fiction the academy declares experimental? (Ah, now we’re getting closer to the truth.) Because she didn’t get her MFA from Brown? Because she isn’t a metafictionist? Because she didn’t first publish a few books with Green Integer?

        (Rowling’s actually more avant-garde than that: she was a single mother on the dole when she wrote Harry Potter!)

        So what is it then?

        …I’m not claiming that a certain kind of writing isn’t having trouble getting published and widely disseminated. I agree with that. But I also think that such writers:
        1. shouldn’t claim that they’re the font of innovation in society—seems like a quick way to appear even more elitist to readers who already don’t care;
        2. should be a bit more open-minded to innovation elsewhere, and maybe even borrow from it a bit;
        3. should be more innovative in finding ways to participate in the general culture. Rather than just publishing 2000 copies of their book with a small press that has no distribution, and then promoting those books at readings at universities.

        It was really only a very brief period, after all, when Rudolph Wurlitzer could publish NOG at Random House.


        1. Whoa, whoa, whoa.

          I don’t think elitism is quite the right word. I think it is a fact that some writers attempt to innovate more than others. Given this, I think that authors who tend toward innovation, and whose innovation is adopted or seen to trend outward, could indeed be considered “avant garde” in a rather literal way, and that the publisher of these authors could do a lot more to make a spectacle of the impact these authors are having (c.f. the “fashion” model). If they were to treat their “avant garde” authors in this way, it might change the way the public at large considers work they don’t quite understand. Because what people do understand is power, and people also understand that influence can be a great power.

          You’ve used Rowling as an example a number of times over the last couple months, and I do see merit in looking at what she’s done. I don’t at all underestimate her value and influence in the literary world. She has her target market in mind, speaks to it very well, and has a vivid imagination. And yes, she has fused a couple of tremendously potent genres (boarding school and fantasy) to great effect.

          If indeed she pretty much came up with this out of nowhere, she would in my model stand to be considered avant garde. This doesn’t break the model. If, on the other hand, she used similar ingredients also being fused by earlier, less successful artists (say, Kelly Link–though I don’t know whether he work predated Rowling), then my model would persuade Link’s publisher to do a little research, and trot Ms Link and her work out and put it on a pedestal and say, “Look at what she was doing, and the impact it has had!”

          1. Hi Shya,

            I definitely think that some authors innovate more than others. I just don’t think they’re necessarily the authors who call themselves the avant-garde.

            A lot of self-professed experimental writers that I see do nothing experimental.

            Sorry if I came off as too ornery, though. I must have been extra cranky this morning—apologies.


            P.S. I like using Rowling as an example because she makes for a perverse example. But I am serious in the questions I ask about her. A lot of people I know have a deep-seated aversion to her…and without having read her books. Makes me suspicious.

            (Certainly there are plenty of reasons not to like her, or more specifically her work.)

    1. I know, right? Have you read that Steven Millhauser story A Change In Fashion? It charts this emergent style whereby women’s entire bodies became concealed, and then the dresses become bigger and bigger until they begin to have drawing rooms for entertaining guests, and women just never come out of them. Pretty great.

      1. I love that guy but don’t know that story. I have this collection of novellas of his that I read some of and then misplaced- he’s great. Do you know the one where the wife is showing her house to sell to her husband’s mistress and it ends with her trying to convince the mistress to kill herself for ruining thier lives? What the fuck is that one called. It’s fantastic- it was in Harpers.

        re: the ladies and those dresses- I just the like the idea of people walking around looking like complete freaks. It’s comforting to me.

  4. I suspect that the difference here is how much effort an audience is asked to invest. Reading obviously takes a greater investment of time than the 30 seconds a model spends on the runway, but interpretation in literature also requires a much greater investment. Which isn’t supposed to be dismissive of fashion as an art, it’s just that fashion statements seem to be distilled into essence, where a piece of literature’s “statement” is often more specific and complex (this definitely does not mean better).

    Anyway, if a viewer is continuously asked to invest a LOT in art that “take chances” and is continuously disappointed, I think they’re more likely to be resistant to similar art from then on…even if there are gems in the pile somewhere.

    1. I’m beginning to like my fashion analogy more and more, for the simple fact that it’s predictably dismissed and/or softly condescended to by a broad swath of educated and otherwise open-minded people. In that way, it’s in a position similar to that of the kind of literature I’m talking about.

      Anyway, it’s certainly true that all this is predicated on the assumption that, if given the opportunity and example, more people would find something of value in the challenge literature presents. My sense is that if people see it in an aspirational way, they’ll be willing to expend more energy for it. But I think it begins by sending the message that these authors are something to be wondered at and esteemed.

  5. I hope I don’t seem to be condescending (was it the “30 seconds on the runway” thing?). Actually, I think fashion is every bit as legitimate as other art forms when it’s wielded artistically. I’m only trying to say that the way it’s processed and interpreted is different from lit and so it has a different relationship with its “audience.” If I made the same observation about painting vs. poetry I don’t think it’d be controversial at all.

    As for authors and esteem, I think writer in general is probably the most inaccurately glamorized of any artistic profession. And I think “the community” reveres innovation in any art (mostly), but it’s when you start polling the man on the street that the avant-garde starts annoying people. This is the same with Alexander McQueen, I would say. How many “demographically average Americans” are going to have a positive opinion of the designs above? Very few. How many will read an entire novel with similarly innovative qualities? Far fewer, even…for the reasons I listed above.

    The reason innovators make bank in the fashion community, then? Because innovation is always beneficial to the community (bits and pieces get co-opted by everyone)…and I’m going to assume there’s a hell of a lot more money in that industry than in books. If the literary industry had so much money laying around, I imagine the same would be true there.

  6. The fashion avant-garde is only partially about the dissemination of fashion technology; it specializes also in the dissemination of fantasy. Haute couture is—very openly—a form of entertainment: people photograph it and put it in glossy magazines sold at supermarkets. And that the fashion industry in general has long prized the outrageous, because celebrities enjoy being outrageous. Because that allows them to have their photos taken when they show up at the Grammys or the Oscars wearing a swan dress, or their bras outside their shirts.

    Note too that we’re talking mainly about women’s clothing, not men’s clothing. (Women’s clothing is what drives the industry.) The haute couture fantasy, like almost all fantasies, objectifies women. And so the whole time that we’re looking at these radical fashions, we’re also looking at the models who wear them. Who usually show a lot of skin. And who help foster unrealistic standards of beauty.

    So let’s return this fashion analogy to writing, and see what kind of avant-garde it gives us. (I don’t think it will give you the avant-garde that you want.)

    Women authors should write more luridly fantastical but also autobiographical accounts of their sexual practices, real and invented. Their characters and therefore the texts themselves will be emaciated waifs who project above all a carefree, passionless attitude no matter how outrageous their behavior is—a practiced mixture of sexual enticement and aloofness.

    For the full effect, the authors should also emaciate themselves and change their styles seasonally, rejecting whatever views they espoused one year ago. Their careers will be over at the age of 33, at which point they can turn to acting, or just go die (hopefully entertainingly). One or two will occasionally be allowed to continue writing so long as they cover themselves up and wear sunglasses at all times, and not distract from the younger authors.

    Men authors should stick to the background, using only female narrators, which they can use to sublimate their hatred for women; alternatively they can ghost-write novels published by women. Their consolation will be that they’ll get to privately dominate the industry and pocket more of the profits. And that they won’t need to take their clothes off.

    Meanwhile, pray tell, when to the Indonesian sweatshop employees who sew the clothing sold at Target get to come onstage? Funny how the hottest new Parisian tech—this season’s “in” color, the newest black—never trickles down to them.

        1. Feeling a bit cynical, Adam? You’ve taken what began as a wish that the literary world would promote and champion rather than ghettoize it’s innovative writers, and proceeded to try and pick apart the meaning of innovation, then attack the referent I was using in analogy. Not that I blame you: all these issues you’ve taken up are legitimate. But really, it seems a bit misaligned to the spirit of my inquiry.

          1. I definitely agree with you, Shya: I wish the literary world would do more to promote its more innovative writers. That would be wonderful! I would be so happy!

            But, as always, I’m a critical guy. I can’t help it; God made me that way. Or the seventh grade.

            Please understand that my criticisms are never anything personal, but rather my way of exploring how that real-world phenomenon would actually play out. Call me a pragmatist, if it makes me any more sufferable.

            So I’m actually keeping very much to the spirit of your inquiry. I’m taking it seriously. I think that’s fairly respectful, actually.

            I mean it’s fun to wish for things on blogs but see how far that gets anyone…

            What would it mean for the literary world to promote and champion its innovative writers?

            —What is the literary world?

            —Who are the innovative writers?

            —How will they be promoted?

            —Why will they be promoted?

            —Who will gain from this?

            —Who will lose because of it?

            I mean, it’s not like someone’s sitting around with money they made perfectly legally and without oppressing someone somewhere, thinking to him or herself, Gee, I know what I want to do, I want to publish some poor experimental novelist somewhere, because it will make the culture better.

            And then they go ahead and do that, and everyone takes notice, and…I don’t know. There’s a cure for cancer?

            Look at Gilbert Sorrentino (now there’s a cynic for you). He was published by lots of large presses all through the 60s and 70s. Then that dried up and he went to smaller presses. Dalkey reprinted some of his stuff in the 1980s and 90s. And so it went until he died a few years ago. Now…he’s dead.

            Everything by the guy’s in print. Does anyone anywhere actually read it? I’ve read maybe seven of his books; they’re great, and I think they’re real important. No one ever seems to talk about them much, though.

            So I do what anyone can do. I promote his work. I take it seriously. I consider it an influence. I try to respond to it. I’ll teach it someday, if I ever get a teaching job. If I work for a press someday and see some chance to publish any of it, I’ll do what I can do.

            What is it that people actually want? To be published by Random House? To have Martin Scorsese adapt their novel? To be Lady Gaga’s girlfriend/boyfriend?


            I was serious when I wrote above: “I’d rather [small press folk stop complaining]. It’s like when people complain that no one will go out with them. We all know how successful that is as a seduction tactic. (Or do small press authors really want just a pity-fuck?)”

            Anyway, if I come off all cynical, color me a crank. I may be critical, but I think I also make some sense, and don’t just blow smoke up people’s asses.

            I also propose a lot of solutions to the problems I see around me. And I promote the hell out of the things I like. I write book reviews all the time, take seriously the things I read, am always trying to find new ways to link things together, offer new perspectives into the things I love.

            It does no good just to complain about things.

            1. Explaining how the fashion industry exploits and objectifies women is your way of “exploring how the real-world phenomenon” of Penguin publicly celebrating the influence of their less-known, more-innovative authors “would actually play out”?

              I see. I must have misread you.

              1. Sorry, Shya. I really don’t mean to be a goof.

                What I was trying to say was that the fashion industry is able to fund its more experimental styles through two means:

                1. Celebrities and other rich folk fund designers to be crazy because that craziness results in them (the celebrities and rich folk) being able to wear crazy things and therefore win more media attention and therefore continue being celebrities.

                2. As a side benefit, the whole thing becomes spectacle that entertains a wide variety of folk. People pay to view this spectacle.

                Lord knows I’m not a fashion industry insider, but I think those two points are obvious.

                The (considerable) revenue that’s generated consequently allows the innovative designers to let their imaginations run wild. And their innovative designs aren’t at odds with the commercial interests of the people who are footing the bills.

                So how does this model apply to writing? I want to take this idea seriously, because, like you, I want to see innovative writers become successful–or at least make some money, get published.

                Let’s look at how the system used to work. John O’Brien has explained it very clearly many times.

                Before the 1970s, publishing houses were run more by families. It was something of a gentleman’s club. Wealthy families invested in publishing because they saw it as a way of investing in the culture.

                They regularly lost money publishing works of fine literature, but they regarded that as honorable. It was actually considered noble to lose money publishing writers like Joyce and Pound and Stein!

                Meanwhile, don’t ask where the money came from! (Because it came from exploitation. I have relatives who died in coal mines and steel mills like the ones James Laughlin’s family owned. But let’s look past this for the time being and just assume the money came from…somewhere nice.)

                OK, in the 1970s, the big publishers got bought up by larger media conglomerates. This process has continued through to the present day.

                Those new conglomerates were run by accountants and other execs would cared fuck all about keeping non-sellers in print for the benefit of the culture.

                They looked at their publishing units and said, “Why are carrying this chaff? Cut it!”

                And so they slashed their lists. They demanded that they’re publishing units turn a profit.

                This is, in a nutshell, how Knopf went from publishing, say, insane experimental stuff like NOG by Rudolph Wurlitzer (1968) to stuff like Eragon today.

                So now you have these major companies who aren’t going to publish you unless you turn a profit for them.

                How are you going to turn a profit for them? (If you can figure that one out, then I’m sure someone at Penguin would love to publish you.)

                You say, look at the fashion industry. So I did; I did what you said. And I said, the fashion industry turns a profit by promoting celebrities and entertaining people.

                So, taking your idea seriously, we can fund experimental literature by promoting celebrities and entertaining people.

                That’s a logical conclusion based on what you wrote.

                Or am I not to take your ideas seriously? (But what’s the point otherwise?)

                Maybe others will come to different conclusions. Hell, I don’t claim to know how to succeed in publishing.

                *****CAVEAT WRIT BOLD: A D Jameson is not a successful writer or publisher, so keep that in mind when you read his comments on publishing.*****

                Meanwhile, there are consequences to what the fashion industry does. Its models are often anorexic. And do lots of drugs. To cite two well known examples.

                And a lot of women complain about how the industry helps creates false ideals of female beauty.

                And the clothing industry very much does exploit third world workers around the world, very systematically.

                Well, those are the costs of all that fabulous haute couture.

                I’d love for another Allen Lane to come along and publish me, but I’m not holding my breath. Or complaining about it not happening.

                What’s that saying about wanting a gold-played toilet?

  7. More response!

    Your girlfriend’s a fashion editor, Shya. Ask her how the industry works. Capitalism’s lousy but it’s the world we’re stuck in at the moment. Find out what funds all that stuff and see if something analogous could work for small press lit.

    I’ll try to do that here.

    “Fashion Week” “Runway Shows”

    I have no idea what these things are, but they sound like promotions. Are they televised? Covered in newspapers? Magazines? If so, they involve commercial advertising, is my guess.

    OK, apply these ideas to small-press publishing:

    Fashion Week: Designate a week of the year when the culture at large should pay attention to publishing. How are you going to do that? Well, how does fashion do it? Try doing what they do. I imagine you’re going to need funding and to entertain people.

    If anyone here watches fashion week or runway shows, then feel free to chime in here as to why you do it.

    Here’s an example from something I know. I go to a lot of readings. And those readings are, for the most part, DEADLY BORING. A lot of writers come in, read poorly from their books (without even practicing), then people stand around and talk about…anything other than writing. And then go to a bar and drink.

    Well, that looks to me like a good place to focus on improving. Why not work on making readings into events non-writers might actually want to attend? And maybe spend some money at, buying books?

    As always, I don’t mean that writers should pander, but that they should think of such events as ways to actually reach an audience. Not some horrible obligation they suffer through. You know: actually try to engage the listeners!

    You don’t need to be a slam poet. (But maybe not despising slam poets would be a good place to start. Why not try taking them seriously? How is it that they draw people in–people pay to attend slams! Often crowds of more than 100 people! Maybe some of those ideas can be applied to more experimental, “high art” literature circles.)

    Here’s another option: combine readings with other artistic events. Instead of having just poetry and fiction readings, try to hook up with other artists to create events that are more happenings/cabarets/vaudeville/variety shows. Then you’ll attract a wider audience, reach people other than fellow writers.

    You’ll also benefit from meeting other artists, maybe getting ideas from them, finding collaborators, etc.

    Other options:

    If you want to be taken on by a big publishing house, maybe try writing some commercial fiction. Who here has tried to write a best-seller? (I have; I’ve found I have little talent for it. Though I vow to keep trying.) Who here has tried to secure an agent? (I’ve talked with some, but haven’t pursued it all that seriously. I intend to do more of that in the future.)

    I’d love to be published by a bigger house! But you’ll have to give them something for that: a book they can sell. So you’ll have to write something like that first.

    That probably means reading some of the stuff they publish first. Just like how you should read an issue of FENCE before submitting to FENCE.

    Over the winter holidays, I read Dan Brown’s DA VINCI CODE, because I wanted to see how it works. Because I want to know how he attracts so many reader. And I found that it’s a really fun book, very suspenseful, fairly ingenious in its pop-fiction approach to art history.

    Made me think, Gee, I should try writing something like this. It would probably be fun!

    Made me also think, Gee, this isn’t too radically far away from something like LIFE A USER’S MANUAL.


    So there you go, Shya: there are some practical suggestions based on what you wrote.

    Note that what I’m not doing here is asking that other people just suddenly start taking me seriously. Which is what I see so many writers and publishers doing: complaining. Why don’t others like us?

    Well…what are you doing that others should like? And how are you going to approach them and try to get them to like what it is that you’re doing?

    I mean, if people write and publish the stuff, then they must like it, and believe in it very strongly. So find some way to communicate that passion to others!

    1. Shya, I’m speaking hypothetically in the above, so don’t read the “you” as being you you, except at the beginning and at the end.

      I’m not accusing you of hating slam poets of anything. Or of not trying these things.

      I just slip into second person address when brainstorming.

      That is all!

    2. I don’t have time to read through this right now, but briefly, the way the shows and designers are paid for and supported is through private investors–investors who, as in the middle ages, gain elevated status by associating themselves with these influential artists.

      The basic point is that, if the big presses made a bigger deal of how great and influential their great and influential but little-known writers were, they could generate status-driven popular interest in said writers.

      1. I didn’t know anything about private investors in the fashion industry, and I’d like to hear more about that. But I’d suspect that it can’t be the only way said industry gathers capital.

        For instance, there are fashion magazines (lots of them). And they have ads. So that’s another way they take in funding.

        And I often catch glimpses of how how such-and-such celebrity is wearing such-and-such gown by so-and-so. Which is also advertising. Maybe some of those clothes are lent, but some are rented. And I’m sure celebs buy some of it. So money is surely changing hands there.

        In any case, note that here’s another place where high-profile celebs are being employed to advertise for the industry. Not unlike paid models.

        And there are boutiques that sell haute couture fashion—very designed stuff, even if it’s not radical strange stuff. We have a lot of them on Michigan Ave here in Chicago. People buy stuff there, and the money goes to designers, somehow. …Designers who probably make a lot of concessions to taste and what sells, and don’t just sit around all day making experimental outfits.

        But, meanwhile, sure—writers should do what they can or want to do to attract private patrons. Dalkey, for instance, takes donations. Its board actively solicits from private investors.

        And it pursues grants.

        Those are both means that can be pursued.

        And note, Shya, that your conclusion here is again for *someone else* to do something: “The basic point is that, if the big presses made a bigger deal of how great and influential their great and influential but little-known writers were, they could generate status-driven popular interest in said writers.”

        Why wait for someone else to do something? Why does the responsibility lie with people other than the writers?

        Have a safe trip, Adam

          1. I know you aren’t, Shya, which is why I tease you when you write things that others might misread. Because I think you’re actually pretty inspirational, in regards to getting out there and letting people know what you are doing. As you should be!

            And I talk a big game, but in reality what I like most is sitting at home in my bathtub, reading. My time…is over… But with my failing breaths, I want to see others get out there and do things…things that I could have done…

            I’m enjoying IN THIS ALONE IMPULSE, right now (reading it in the bathtub—and I’ve dropped it only twice!), and will of course be doing everything I can to get it reissued by Penguin.

            Although you do realize that penguins make terrible publishers.

            Demanding tremendous amounts of fish in return.

            …You won’t be touring anywhere near Chicago, perchance?

            1. I’d love to. I will be setting up some sort of tour, fo sho. But if it can only involve one flight, it might have to be to SF or LA. We’ll see…

              And don’t worry. I demanded the 80lb paper so the pages could withstand total submersion.

              1. Someone’s skimming; you may have gotten 75, but not 80. Because I have submerged the book (I was curious!), and it logged rápidamente.

                But I threw it in the drier and it dried out fine.

                Albeit curlier.

  8. people will always accept spectacle in the visual arts more than in literature. people use words everyday and depend on them to be clear, we are trained to want clarity in the words we write/speak, it is our primary communicative tool, so fucking around with that pisses people off. the visual arts doesnt have the same kind of communicative burden/obligation.

    i dont think of avant garde as something, inherent in its definition, to be revered or respected or ‘treated as though they were taking interesting and worthy and noble risks…’ its avant garde simply if its intention is to be that, regardless of who’s following it/caring about it/funding it. That any avant garde effort proves to be revolutionary is a) irrelevant and b) won’t be recognized for a century later.

    1. Why don’t want people want clarity in what they see? Sight’s more primary than language. If you can’t see clearly, if people mess with your visual perception, then you might not see the bear that’s charging toward you. Seems to me that, by this logic, people would get pissed off at anyone doing crazy visual stuff.

      I think what we’re all circling around here is the fact that these crazy clothes are FUN. They’re wild. They’re exciting. They’re experimental, yes, but they’re also playful and colorful and enjoyable to look at.

      They don’t have to be that. I’m sure there are fashion designers out there who make boring, monotonous experimental fashion. And then insist that people come look at them. And then complain when no one cares as much as they do about their inventive stitching. “Everyone always wants to go look at the Alexander McQueen designs—curse him! He’s just pandering with those goofy designs! That’s not really experimenting!”

      Anyway, even if your claim is true, then that sounds to me like a good reason to look for more synergies between writing and the visual arts–for instance, organizing events that involve both writers and visual artists. The visual arts folk can provide the spectacle. The writers can balance that out with some clarity.

      Why not combine fashion with writing? Make friends with the fashion students at the local art college. Ask them if they can provide some clothing for you the next time you read. Win win: you get to look more spectacular; they get to show off their designs.

      Why not have a fashion show at the same time as a reading? One of the last readings I was part of, back in December, I wanted to have a non-sexy walk competition in the middle of it, as a break from all the literature. I thought it would be fun to have people get up, stretch their legs, have a little contest on who could perform the most non-sexy walk.

      My co-host chickened out before the performance, so we didn’t do it. Too bad; it would have been fun.

      …When’s the last time you went to a reading where anyone moved anywhere? Well, you can’t blame audiences for not wanting to sit around listening to experimental writers talk for an hour or so. Me, I’d rather go dancing.

      1. Can we incorporate walking competitions into our Chicago Big Other readings? I love it, it’s very ball/vogue scene.

        1. Well, the first Non-Sexy Walk Competition was held at New Wave Coffee, sometime back in October. Its participants were Celeste Newhaus, Doug McLaren, and myself. Lily Hoang was also there.

    2. And darby, I think you’re missing the fact that the avant-garde is a *marketing term*. Manet and his fellow Impressionists called themselves that precisely because they wanted a larger audience; they wanted to influence the culture and win money and acclaim. They didn’t want to be recognized a century later.

      They succeeded. They won.

      1. i wouldnt say its purely a marketing term. i mean anything can be used to marketing effect, but i tend to think of its definition outside of that.

        1. Of course “the avant-garde” is not *purely* a marketing term. Is anything on God’s green earth pure? But I can’t fathom why so many people so persistently overlook the term’s *historically demonstrated* commercial aspect. I mean, it’s not like Manet and his friends were secretive about what they were doing!

          They weren’t allowed to exhibit their paintings at the salons. They turned to the only venue available to them, “The Salon of the Refused.” They turned their having been banned into a selling point—they made it sexy! It was scandalous at the time—bigger even than that silly Franzen/Marcus debate! Paris was the center of the art world at the time! People came from all over to see and argue about the naked paintings that were too dirty or strange to hang in the galleries proper. Here’s one of them:


          Manet made a career out of provoking people with art that chafed the traditional social boundaries of what was acceptable. He pushed limits and experimented with technique and was a superb painter…but he also knew how to market himself—which is a big part of the reason why you’ve heard of him. When his work was refused exhibition, he took whatever options were available to him. He spent his own money to have his work exhibited—he nearly bankrupted himself! And he meanwhile kept pursuing mainstream channels. He sold himself on having been rejected, and simultaneously worked to have himself accepted by the mainstream—pretty savvy, huh?

          *That* is the very origin of the term avant-garde. (It was coined by critics and artists to refer to Manet and his fellows.) You and anyone else are welcome to think of it as meaning whatever you want it to mean, but that’s its historical definition.

          Consider Stan Brakhage. When he made his film “Anticipation of the Night,” Cinema 16 refused to distribute it. Brakhage’s friend Jonas Mekas and others formed the Film-maker’s Cooperative in response:
          The Film-maker’s Coop to this day defines itself as an avant-garde film distribution company.

          Fiction Collective was founded by writers who were frustrated that they could no longer commercially publish their books with the majors. FC2 to this day defines itself as an avant-garde publishing company.

          John O’Brien founded Dalkey Archive Press to reprint work by authors who were being dropped from the majors. Dalkey shies away from the term “avant-garde,” but it’s of course been called that many times throughout its history.

          …This is a common story: artists can’t distribute or exhibit or publish with the dominant powers, and so they turn that rejection on its head and calling their work avant-garde. (Note that they often do this before they’ve demonstrated that their work really is an “advance guard” that will have any impact on the larger culture!)

          *This* is why I’m being so cantankerous in this thread, and why I find it so amusing that Shya is calling the /refusal of large presses to publish and promote innovative authors/ the *death* of the avant-garde.

          The refusal of authority to promote innovative work has always been the *birth* of the avant-garde!

          I know that blogs are fast and loose places where people can redefine words to mean whatever they want them to mean (how avant-garde! how post-language!), but forgive me if I raise some objection. I know, I know—I’m a conservative…

          Meanwhile, why people are so reluctant to examine the financial aspect of art boggles my mind. Art costs money and requires materials and an infrastructure. Good luck distributing it without any money: you’ll be left reading your work to your cat and stuffed animals in your bedroom. Just like I do.

          If that makes you happy (it delights me!), then hallelujah!

          OK, I’m going away for a very long time to watch ZARDOZ, which is an experimental movie starring…Sean Connery! John Boorman made it in 1974…after he made a ton of money making DELIVERANCE. And could do whatever the hell he wanted to do:


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