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On Lance Olsen–4 years later

I’ve been thinking a lot about Lance Olsen lately—not only because he tied up and duct taped my mouth during the AWP 2010 session on copyright a few weeks ago, and not only because we’ve become friends over the years, but also because he is A) so damn prolific, and B) so damn insightful in his fictions.  Read Head in Flames (Chiasmus 2009), which I recently discussed here, for the most recent example.

Some years ago (2006), I conducted the following conversation with Olsen for the now-defunct econoculture.com. Two notable developments since then:

1)    Olsen has returned to academia at the University of Utah.

2)    My editor for this piece at Econoculture, Matt Kirkpatrick, has too gone to academia after years in the private sector, and, in an odd happenstance, is now one of Olsen’s Ph.D. students (and a damn fine writer himself) at Utah. They did not know each other when this interview was published.

Rereading this, I’m struck by the way it’s a snapshot of a great writer at a particular moment.

Eternal Returns: Lance Olsen and the (Un)Steady State of Contemporary Writing

Lance Olsen is a multi-threat: author of one hypertext, four critical studies, four short story collections, a fiction-writing textbook, and eight novels from a variety of innovative publishers—including the most recent, NIETZCHE’S KISSES (FC2, 2006). Olsen is a compelling speaker, a dynamic presence at seemingly every possible writing event.  Send him an email, any day, any time, and you will almost always receive an away-response noting his numerous appearances, by city.

As Chair of the Board of Directors at FC2, one of publishing’s major natural resources, and a writer who has literally given up his day job (resigning from his professorship at the University of Idaho in 2001 after teaching in academia for 20 years, Olsen is quickly becoming, if not the face of innovative literature, then certainly its mouthpiece.

DAVIS: As I alluded to in my review of your novel 10:01 (Chiasmus, 2005) in American Book Review (27.1), you are extremely productive. You have the enviable position of being a full-time writer, an occupation relatively rare for those not part of the mainstream publishing juggernaut. How do you do it? Particularly, can you tell me about your writing habits—this is not out of prurient curiosity or some absurd reification of the “Author,” but from an interest in the material basis of creative production…in other words, time to come clean—it’s Idaho, your home for the last 16 years, isn’t it?

LANCE: We’re inhabiting what feels to me like an increasingly strange literary landscape—one that is becoming increasingly Oprah- and McDonald-ized. The result is the dominance of an anesthetic aesthetics that sells ease, predictability, and redemption. Unfortunately, my fiction is about the precise opposite, so it’s virtually impossible for me to live from it directly.  I therefore make ends meet by accepting various visiting teaching and speaking gigs, reviewing, investing wisely, and existing in a drop-dead gorgeous state that doesn’t cost much to inhabit. In addition, my wife, Andi, and I have made a few key life-choices, not having kids perhaps the most consequential, which allows us to live on less than others in our situation might.

My sacred writing hours are the first three or four after waking up in the morning, seven days a week, 365 days a year, unless I’m on the road.  I take no phone calls, check no email, close myself off in an upstairs room with the blinds drawn, and curse any repairman, child, bird, dog, or car that distracts me from the stuff of language and narrative. I should perhaps add that I don’t produce a lot each day. I’m happy with a good page, a good paragraph, a good duet of sentences.  Who, after all, could ask for more?

DAVIS: Ok, so your answers are not so far from what we might expect, and I’m not surprised by your writing habits in virtual isolation. Yet, your fiction is so often about the converse of isolation. In fact, there is a sort of pervasive hyper-involvement continuously at play. This is supremely clear from the intense free indirect discourse of 10:01, where the narrative voice enters into the minds of the many moviegoers in a theater at the Mall of America. We might expect such intense interiority to produce even more layers of isolation, but, stunningly, exactly the opposite happens: everything connects and clicks, not into a Jungian unconscious—no spiritus mundi—but into a sloppy mélange of American independence that becomes a mediated co-dependence. And so, my question circles back to the same area of “process”: can you provide insight into what you do, while/before writing, to produce these types of results? Are you consuming any media, cutting-up annual reports, working from extensive notes? What happens when you see the first blank page?

LANCE: Let me answer the question implicit in your observation first: the one about how 10:01 is about what goes on in the heads of those movie-goers in that theater on the fourth floor of the MOA during the ten minutes and one second before the feature commences. It’s emblematic of where my interests have come to rest recently: in the dance of consciousness. Although there are antecedents in my fiction, I would say from Girl Imagined by Chance (FC2, 2002) forward I have been increasingly engaged with what goes on in the really important movie theater: the one between our ears.  The spectacles on the screen are less appealing.

By way of illustration, in my new novel, Nietzsche’s Kisses, there’s almost no present-tense action.  That is, almost nothing happens.  Here’s the plot in toto: an insane German philosopher dies in a small upper-story room in an undistinguished building in Weimar. But what fascinates me, what I hope will hold the reader, is his drift among memory, hallucination, and small bright reality splinters. Such emphasis on interiority signals for me some of the most fruitful terrain for fiction: how another human mind shifts, shoves, stirs. That seems to me the converse of most contemporary mainstream fiction, often designed as rough drafts for screenplays, and of film itself, a genre incapable of doing depth, do extensive explorations of psyche.

As far as your last three questions go: I pour myself a cup of coffee after breakfast, monk in that hermetically sealed upstairs room, review the plot outline I’ve both developed meticulously and given myself permission to veer from at a moment’s notice, and read a few perfect sentences by a writer concerned with the same sorts of things I am. These days they might include, say, William Gass, Vladimir Nabokov, and Ben Marcus. Then I read what I wrote the day before, telling myself I’m just going to skim in order to come up to speed.  Invariably, though, I find myself within a minute or two tinkering with this phrase, that word, the other paragraph, and I’m gone.  So, oddly, I don’t deal much with a blank page, if that makes any sense; except for the initial plunge into a fiction, I’m usually working with words that lead to words.  I can’t imagine listening to music, as some authors do.  For me, such stuff sets both the sentence and narrative rhythms off, turns everything into clunk and clank.

DAVIS: (I almost always listen to music.) This sort of radical interiority you’re proposing—traveling without moving, and, significantly, without pulling forward conventional notions of “plot,” plays directly into the indeterminacy of your recent work. In Girl Imagined by Chance, the child, constructed through borrowed images and ideas, clearly does not exist in the “real” world, but the reader, of course, feels the presence of this absent being. The reality becomes unimportant, and the unreal becomes real.

In my favorite story from Hideous Beauties (Eraserhead, 2003), “Sixteen Jackies,” the reader sees the fragmentation of Jackie O. as a function of the tabloid embellishment of her post-Dallas life, but like an obese Elvis at the corner 7-11 who then appears at the bodega, the laundry mat, and the cover of the daily newspaper, there is no longer a sense of the “original.” The climax of 10:01, without giving it away, works in similar manner.

This all seems perfectly resonant with Nietzsche’s critique of the “origin” point, the notion that history and truth, and thus, a linear plot and clear (i.e., oppressive) narrative, contributes to the folly of the human situation. William S. Burroughs does similar work with his The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, a cut-up cinema-scape based upon transcripts of the gangster’s final, delirious days. For Burroughs, the choice of subject was obvious given his concerns with American hucksterism, organized crime, and the conspiratorial machinations of the reality studio.  What I’m getting at here, in some sort of appropriately recursive way, is whether your subject was as obvious a fit. Why Nietzsche, aside from his historical interest? Does he represent something, philosophically, perhaps, about this dance of consciousness you wish to approximate/capture/step deftly around?

LANCE:  Just as Jackie cleaves into multiple selves, multiple possibilities, so does poor Fritz. I first fell in love with the existentialist version of him when I was an undergraduate in a philosophy course at the University of Wisconsin, then visited the deconstructionist one when I was a graduate in a theory course at the University of Virginia.  A twenty-year latency period followed, broken in 1999 when I taught Twilight of the Idols in a course at the University of Idaho pairing and comparing texts from the last decade or so of the nineteenth century to ones from the last decade of the twentieth.

What captivated me then and now was Nietzsche’s his fierce intelligence, how he attacked and unsettled assumptions, termited his way through them, refused to see the world simply, returned continually, through complication and challenge (not predictability and ease) to perception and thought. While it feels facile to name a single thing he stands for in my mind, at least one of them is the intellectual space where everything can and should be thought, tried, unwritten, tilted, troubled.  His is a philosophy of indeterminacy, destabilization, that is ultimately a philosophy of liberation.

Of course, what puts a hole in my heart is the distance between that consciousness and the one shredding on that bed in that little room on the upper floor of that undistinguished house in Weimar, now pawn of his sister, the anti-Semitic league, the proto-Nazis, his unraveling body, the third-stage syphilis eating his brain. It’s in that sad, disjunctive zone where the novel began for me.

DAVIS: I’m struck by your characterization of the sadness in this dying Nietzsche, the “mad” Nietzsche who is somehow compartmentalized as a crazy man rather than a philosopher to be taken seriously. Yet, you speak of Nietzsche’s philosophy as having the power to bore through the complacency of human understanding. No matter what one thinks of any possible, potential Nietzsche, his theory is aggressive, deconstructive, and perhaps set in some contrast to the physical man, dying in bed—manipulated by external forces for whatever nefarious purposes.

Given that such a subject, written in your evocative, exploratory style, may not be the most popular fodder for the large New York houses, might there be a comment, hidden within the folds of your language, on the publishing industry itself? Is this dying Nietzsche, this quasi-persecuted figure, only capable of emerging in the small press context?

LANCE: Let me answer with a parable.  Last autumn at a writers’ conference in northern Idaho at which I was invited to speak, a former New York editor gave a lecture on current publishing conditions entitled “How to Sell a Book a Year.” Much of what she had to say floats before me in a mnemonic fog. But I did happen to jot down verbatim two points she made that summarized the tenor of her presentation. She was a bantam woman in her early fifties with heavy black nerdy glasses and artificial blond hair that had been mussed meticulously. She wore tight jeans highlighted with rhinestones and spoke in the chipper, amphetamined voice of a stand-up comedian or Hannah-Barbera character. Apparently, she is best known for having had a hand in bringing out best-selling books on the miracle of Christmas, the miracle of sons, the miracle of fathers, the miracle of guardian angels, and how to become what she termed a “millionairess.”

Point One: When someone in the publishing industry comes up to you at a cocktail party and asks you what you do, you should first tell them you’re in “the book business.” Only when they ask what your role there is should you tell them you’re a writer.

Point Two: To be a successful author, you need to learn to focus on the same things the people at Nike are focusing on this very minute: market trends, platforms, packaging, and celebrity endorsements.
I remember sitting toward the back of the room, listening, feeling the complex emotions I usually reserve for bungee-jumpers on The Discovery Channel who forget to measure the length of their bungee cords before going over the bridge railing. Which is to say that in the world of books the worst has already happened. Three behemoth media corporations run New York publishing. Those entities use the publishing arms of their bloated conglomerates as tax write-offs. They view their products precisely the same way executives at McDonald’s view their death patties.

While I wouldn’t want to suggest said houses aren’t bringing out some terrific and surprising work (think José Saramago, David Mitchell, David Markson), I do want to suggest they are bringing out less of it than they did, say, forty years ago. Nor would I want to suggest that indie presses don’t bring out some horribly mundane, simple, sloppy stuff in innovationists’ clothing. Still, in our current sociohistorical reality (and I use the term loosely), indie presses by and large remain sites of aesthetic, political, and philosophical resistance. They remind us that our fiction, and hence our world, can always be other than it is.

DAVIS: Funny that you mention this…I’m also in the book business. But, business being business, I had to fire myself for low productivity, poor sales, and a bad attitude. So, I am taking your answer as a “yes,” in general, to my question of whether your madcap, dying Nietzsche is only possible in the small press world.  I am very intrigued by your comment that indie presses are sometimes given to sloppiness, as I think most critics of the avant-garde take this as their main point of umbrage.

A recent Time Out Chicago article (“Finnegan’s Quake” pg. 74—issue no. 57) about the &NOW 2 / Lake Forest Literary Festival that I co-organized, an event in which you and FC2 participated, makes a great case for how this type of innovative art is in many ways more representative of what’s going on in the world than the formulaic mechanics of the mainstream. Still, the article makes an interesting juxtaposition. After noting how art-book copies of my new novel Multifesto: A Henri D’Mescan Reader (Spuyten Duyvil, 2006) have been bonded with sandpaper in order to destroy other texts that rub against it, the article starts its next paragraph with an observation about how the Festival is not taking an “elitist standpoint.” While this is all inadvertent, I worry about the occasional mundanity of the small press world creeping completely into public consciousness as a code word for throwaway, which becomes a cipher for difficult—even when well-done prose of this type occupies very different terrain.

Can you speak more about where small presses fail, and what the stakes of this failure, if any, might be? You’re Chair the FC2’s Board of Directors, so I’m asking this to you as writer…and as guy in the book business.

LANCE: As I say, the worst, it seems to me, has already happened in the world of books. Even bestsellers, after all, exist in a secondary position in our culture to the spectacles of film, television, the web, the Xbox, the iPod, the cell phone. Almost every writer, whether working in innovative or science fiction, mystery or memoir, poetry or pornography, feels marginalized.  But perhaps more disheartening still, many indie presses have decided to mimic in miniature the preposterous Manhattan publishing paradigm rather than trying to subvert, re-imagine, or otherwise stand in opposition to it. “That’s just the way it is,” the people who run them repeat until the phrase starts sounding like something akin to the truth. But is it?  Really?

My sense is that the answer has to be no, that the structure of alternative presses must form a rich possibility space, an always-already adaptable region. Otherwise, how are they different from that which they allegedly set themselves against, except in terms of scale?

Too, small presses have to be twice as vigilant as Manhattan ones to avoid bringing out weak or botched or unrewarding experiments, or, equally awful, “innovations” that have already been attempted a thousand times before and are hence anything but innovative. In other words, they ought to contemplate very long and very hard about what they are doing and why each time they begin to begin to consider publishing a work—although never with respect to economic pressures. Otherwise, they risk perpetuating that bad rap you mention.  They risk becoming synonymous with the concepts of throwaway, silliness, difficulty without illumination, fustian failure.

That, I want to say, are what the stakes are, and they can’t be any higher.  Settle for less than the most accomplished and engaging and startling innovations, and small presses simply reinforce the stereotypes many readers already have of them, and thereby reinforce their own marginalized status in our culture while actually shutting down rather than opening up options for truly radical writing and its potential effulgent transformative effects.

DAVIS: Infinitely reproducible “McBooks” slathered in fryer grease aside, you seem to be identifying two problematic vectors of indie publishing: 1) mini-”Manhattan “presses that replicate the same totalizing juggernaut of so-called literariness; these houses are looking to break into the big leagues, to press the next cookie-cutter phenom into a tasteless vat of swirling, saccharine goop; or, 2) the haphazard “experimental” publisher, thinking little about the implications of their production in terms of the anti-tradition, or the negative reception such sloppy work generates.

Well, let us not go so gently into that good night. And let us avoid naming names lest we err by inclusion. We both obviously believe and work for more productive possibilities. Aside from FC2, what other presses or authors are shaking things up? Where to turn in a world with entirely too many pages to turn? Give us the Olsen picks-o’-the-moment, and then we can stop writing this and maybe get back into print (electronic or otherwise).

LANCE: That’s both a tough and an interesting question. It’s tough because, despite the worst having already happened in the world of books, the best has already happened as well.  There are simply so many engaging things going on now, so many authors and presses dedicated to doing so much fresh alternative work. To commence speaking in lists is to commence omitting important names and impulses. It’s interesting, at least for me, because I’ve noticed a fairly new pattern to my reading habits: I find myself as likely to read by press as by author. That is, I can almost always trust a book from such well-established innovative venues as Coffee House and Dalkey Archive, or from such relatively new and brave ones as Chiasmus, Clearcut, Spuyten Duyvil, and Starcherone. I know I’ll always be able to discover something appealing with a quick visit to one of their websites.

Right now I’m reading two books. The first is Stacey Levine’s Francis Johnson (Clearcut, 2005), a wonderfully strange novel about a small, isolated town in a not-quite-normal Florida where a volcano named Sharla fumes on the city limits and citizens seem to be turning up with cauliflower-like “scars” on various parts of their anatomies. What I find appealing is the lightly uncanny tone of the whole, the slight tilt of Levine’s fictive universe. The impression is one of watching an episode of Twin Peaks, only on the page.  Just as Frances wants to leave her dreary home, so too does Levine want to leave the dreary moves of realism’s plots, characters, and discourse.

The second is Steve Tomasula’s The Book of Portraiture (FC2, 2006), an ambitious novel made up of five intersecting plots that do nothing less than trace the development of representation from the invention of the alphabet to the digital present while embracing the idea of the book itself as wildly gorgeous object. The text contains colored pages, sketches, experiments in layout and typography, etc. I just can’t say enough about it. Tomasula’s an extraordinarily unique and talented writer.

Others whose work that I’ve enjoyed and admired in the last few months, and that I highly recommend to anyone interested in the dynamically unusual, include Brian Evenson, Susan Steinberg, Aimee Bender, Michael Mejia, Shelley Jackson, Patrik Ourednik and, of course, you and your sandpaper-covered meta-friction bent on destroying those unsuspecting books and bookshelves in its vicinity. In more general terms, I’m finding myself drawn especially to critifictional projects, like Mary Burger’s Sonny, concerned less with their being fiction or nonfiction than with their simply being modes of narrative; writing exploring narratological amphibiousness, like Matt Madden’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, where fiction becomes richer by living within or beside one or several other arts; and pieces, like R. M. Berry’s Frank, obsessed with unwriting and rewriting and rerighting previous texts.

Which is to say that 911 calls announcing publishing in extremis and the novel’s demise have been phoned in for more than four decades.  And they’re true.  Believe them.  Believe every word.  And but they’re also not true.  Not in the least.  I’m here to tell you nothing could be farther from the case.  Alternatives to Manhattan and to the novel’s traditional frumpy form have also never been more energetic, rousing, robust.

It’s enough to make you downright optimistic at the prospect of all tomorrow’s parties.

7 thoughts on “On Lance Olsen–4 years later

  1. I love Lance’s idea of flushing out one’s brain before a writing session by reading “a few perfect sentences by a writer concerned with the same sorts of things” one is interested in. And look at that marvelous triumvirate: Gass, Nabokov, Marcus. This reminds me of something Gass himself does which is almost an inversion of what Lance does: At the end of a day of tired local prose Gass will thumb through some of his favorite texts to get his head in a different space. For me, along with those writers, Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein are good for that. Oh and John Ashbery. Emily Dickinson. Wallace Stevens.

    One of the things that I love about Lance is that while forthright and damning with his criticisms he’s also always bubbling with excitement with all the wonderful things being made, and he’s also still very much excited about all the unexplored possibilities.

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