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:
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.