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Are you feeling ambitious?

This post will serve double duty. First, it will point you toward John Madera’s excellent and informed monthly reading round-up over at The Nervous Breakdown. As he did last time, and as he will continue to do on every first week of the month, his column explores his adventures in reading both new and old works, with heavy emphasis on certain canonical passions (now William Gass) along side of reflections on the work of contemporaries (Aaron Burch, among others). Please go check it out.

The face of ambition.
Name this contemporary author.

As for the second duty, I point you to the very first sentence of Madera’s column, where the following words appear: “the pronounced lack of ambition and its concomitant general distrust of virtuosity in the contemporary arts scene.” Ambition is an interesting concept with regard to art. In the context of literature, I often hear it within with a conversation about the sheer length of a work. (That, or used disparagingly to mark an author’s distasteful self-promotion.)

Of course, artistic ambition is more than a matter of size.

If I were AD Jameson, I’d trace the evolution of popular perceptions thereof from Ancient Greece through Marvel comics. But I’m not AD Jameson. Instead I simply want to know who, among contemporary writers–among people published in the journals you edit or read–you think of as most ambitious? Feel free to add a couple lines of explanation vis a vis the nature of their ambition, or of ambition in general. But mostly I want names. Who are the ambitious contemporary writers?

Finally, do you feel like your own work is “ambitious?” Is this something you see as a reasonable thing to think about when making art? Or is it something for the critics to discuss, something assigned to you after the fact.

26 thoughts on “Are you feeling ambitious?

  1. As I went to some length to qualify the statement quoted above I think it’s important to put what I said in context. These are the first two paragraphs from my essay:

    In my darker moments, usually after being away from art for some hours, and, mind you, this doesn’t just mean literature, but paintings, sculpture, film, or whatever, I start feeling kind of jittery, but the darkness takes on an especially despairing hue when I start to think about the pronounced lack of ambition and its concomitant general distrust of virtuosity in the contemporary arts scene. Sure, I’m guilty as anyone else of romanticizing past eras, characterizing them as golden ages, when of course the amount of dross to gold has always been grossly disproportionate all throughout history. However, these necessary caveats do little to assuage my disappointment with the various contemporary scenes and milieus. That said, there are, of course, massive exceptions, and fortunately these examples do provide respite from our consumerist culture’s celebration of mediocrity, its wallowing in sloppiness. For instance, as I write this, I’m listening to Beirut’s odd fusion of folkloric textures from the Balkans and Eastern Europe with pop forms, all seamed together by Zach Condon’s plaintive, Jeff Buckley-influenced vocals (something which would normally annoy me but, strangely, as with Andrew Bird, the sincerity of the voice outweighs the obvious debt, and it might be because Condon also blends a bit of Robert Smith’s melancholy and Morrissey’s effete tonality). And during February, when New York City’s interminable winter and its resultant gloom invariably descends upon my household, well, upon my partner, but somehow it ends up being the primary theme anyway, I pulled through with books by William Gass, continuing my plan to consecutively read (and reread some of the books) his complete oeuvre. (I should mention that writing with music on is near impossible for me to do these days, and it is an incredible struggle for me to do this now, but there’s a feeling I want to stay in, and Beirut is helping me do that.)

    I began this month with reading Gass’s The Tunnel, a massive tome that took from this reader as much as it gave to him. So what did it take? Well, first of all, it took time and an incredible amount of focus; it demanded patience with its catalogs, its fragmentary narrative, its thoroughly unlikeable narrator, although I must qualify this by saying that Gass ingeniously seduces the reader to like, well sort of, a despicable character by couching his rhetoric within a brilliant, inimitable lyricism. There aren’t many writers out there that attack a sentence with this kind of vigor, intensity of focus, and, moreover, with an easy virtuosity as Gass does. Who else? Well, there’s Mary Caponegro, for instance, whose attentiveness to sentences, and whose use of collage and less conventional narrative forms, and a sometimes fabulist sensibility, has marked her as an important contemporary stylist; and who also calls Gass, as any other writer with any sense would, “the master.” And then there’s Alexander Theroux, Rikki Ducornet, D.A. Powell, Joanna Howard, Gary Lutz, Carole Maso, Joyelle McSweeney, Lance Olsen, John Ashbery, and…well, I should stop there because this will end up flowering, or festering depending on your inclinations, into a massive list; and while I will hang on every word of a finely-crafted list, the kind of thing most readers, I’d guess, probably skip, I’ll spare you.

    Note that the list of writers above of ambitious, virtuosic writers is anything but complete and would include Ben Marcus, Brian Evenson, Robert Coover, Noy Holland, Gary Amdahl, Thalia Field, Diane Williams, and on and on.

  2. Sorry to take you out of context, John. I shouldn’t have. My post was not at all about calling you out, but about spurring others to give up their lists.

    1. No, worries. I’m looking forward to other people’s lists, and also to learning how they think about ambition and virtuosity. And I hope to find out about people I don’t know and people I’ve forgotten, and to get new insight about people I do know about.

  3. I think the brevity and syntax in many of Graham Foust’s poems is ambitious. I like the way his poems contain a kind of logic that doesn’t always lead to a conclusion.

    Here is one from his book, ‘Leave the Room to Itself’:

    SKULL

    Such a white planet.

    And what scars
    the eyes are,

    what page the lack of face.

    Compare this
    to flowers

    in a house.

      1. I hope not. I like the distinction you made between using the word “ambitious” as a description of a work’s length, and using it as a description of some other trait in a work. The trait I see as ambitious in the Foust poem is its restrictiveness. But it’s not the kind of work that most quickly comes to mind when I think of artistic ambition. What Tim says (below) about discipline, for instance, is the way I usually think about it – in a way akin to endurance.

          1. Exactly – the key, key point. Apparently Joseph Young went through writing regular length short stories for years before he came to the form in Easter Rabbit. Why don’t we count all those years as ambitious? The simultaneous learning and unlearning. Plus I think anyone would be hard pressed to arrive at what he has without taking some licks.

            Writing, writing, writing – In Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town (essays) there is a story about a fan yelling at Jack Nicklaus that an incredible chip shot he made was lucky. And Nicklaus said, “Yeah, it’s funny, the more and more I practice, the luckier I get.”

  4. Can we talk more abt virtuosity and how it’s defined for text-based stuff?

    And what is its relationship to discipline and the sheer number of hours we put into writing?

    That’s what I worry abt the most, am in fact quite anxious abt on a regular basis — not feeling disciplined enough or like I’m carving out enough space in my life to push myself further. I’m afraid of treading water and then hitting 40 or something and being like, “Fuck.” Sometimes I’ll feel okay abt what I am able to accomplish given everything I’ve got on my plate, but then I’ll start thinking abt some Malcolm Gladwell-type shit abt the number of hours you’ve gotta put in or whatever, and I freak the fuck out.

    1. I think virtuosity and ambition are, of course, not synonymous, though I’d argue that the latter is subsumed under the former, and that having the latter doesn’t necessarily mean that you will manifest the former. Nor do I think that virtuosity is the only quality to be ambitious about, worth striving toward. I should also hem and haw a little more to say that values like virtuosity are problematic for any number of reasons (and I’m afraid of teasing apart each one since this comment would end up an essay in itself). I think, too, that being ambitious may not necessarily result in anything worth celebrating other than the will and persistence to be ambitious, what you might call a well-intentioned failure, or maybe even a misguided failure, depending on the ambition. I know you asked to talk about how all this applies to literature, but my immediate thoughts about these things usually land on music. For instance, on the surface, musical titans like Miles Davis and John Coltrane appear to come from opposite sides of the spectrum. As stylists, Davis was the sonic reducer, Coltrane the effusive cornucopia. Coltrane was an inveterate “woodshedder,” famously practicing even up to the end of his life for eight to nine hours a day. Davis on the other hand would spend more time boxing and later painting, not to mention the time he spent on “pharmaceutical”-inspired ventures. Both, however, reinvented themselves any number of times, each of their incarnations inspiring countless imitators. One contemporary analogue would be Radiohead. Now in terms of literature, I think there are several different kinds of virtuoso. The first, and perhaps most immediately inspiring, is one who can work across genres not only competently, but magnificently. I think of William Gass and Lance Olsen, their fiction which marks them as important stylists, as formal provocateurs, the quality of which is matched by their essays covering a wide range of ideas and subjects. The same may be said of Lyn Hejinian whose poetry and critical essays are both stellar. Dipping into the past, we find giants like Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, Rilke, and Guy Davenport (I’m leaving a lot out, I know), each of them working in a variety of forms, and all of which attest to their virtuosity. Oh, though she’d probably critically tear me apart for suggesting it, I think of Vanessa Place as a virtuoso in this sense as well. The other kind of virtuosity is choosing to work within a personal, highly-individuated, almost hermetic practice. Think Gertrude Stein (although she, too, may be arguably thought of in the former sense) and Beckett. The closest contemporary analogues would be Ben Marcus, Diane Williams, Gary Lutz, people like that.

      1. I think the idea of a noble failure is particularly interesting, because the word ambitious is often also used when describing something that didn’t quite work, in a kind of apologetic tone. Like certain problems with a work can be forgiven if it’s thought to be ambitious.

      2. This definition of virtuosity in lit as a cross-genre thing is interesting, because when I think abt virtuosity in music I think of it as meaning complete mastery of one’s instrument. So that someone can be virtuosic but completely uninspired creatively.

    1. Yeah, I was going to mention him specifically, because people have been calling his book “ambitious,” but since I haven’t read it, I chose to leave it out.

  5. Thomas Wolfe, Faulkner, James Joyce, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac—I think of all these people as ambitious in their writing. John Updike, though I don’t care for his writing. David Foster Wallace. Jonathan Lethem. Most people I read in journals and online are extremely ambitious, because many of them are just starting out.

    In my own work, I try to be ambitious. Sometimes I try to be ambitious about not trying. I mean, I want things to come naturally and with ease, though they don’t always. I also try to be open about expressing whatever comes in a way that serves it, whether complex or simple.

    I think anyone who creates art is ambitious. Of the people we know, who we’ve grown up with, who we’re related to, how many actually make art or even appreciate it? Henry Miller said in his Paris Review interview that America is against the artist. Sometimes I think this is true.

    1. See, I think if we begin talking about personal ambition, the subject shifts. Something could be ambitious on a personal level that would never be critically/objectively referred to as such–a kind of Special Olympics of psycho/emotional hurdles.

      Likewise, while I’d agree that all art is ambitious by some definition of the term, I’m not sure sayin so advances a discussion about ambition as a differentiating characteristic within artistic practice.

  6. There’s a certain irony in the very use of the word “ambition,” since etymologically (via a fast and dirty and wildly unambitious websearch) it seems to have to do with “going around” in the sense of getting votes, i.e. seeking out popularity. Plus in colloquial usage, probably stemming from everyone having to read Macbeth in high school, being ambitious usually means rising up, meaning trumping the competition, so to speak. Whereas when it is used to describe aesthetics, the “ambitious” artist is usually one who has put the demands of the work first, without regard to popularity or societally-conferred power, though maybe the notion of competition still inheres in the sense that one is vying with other ambitious artists, living and dead. I think the colloquial and artistic meanings can come to be muddled and certainly can come into conflict for writers today…see Donald Hall’s essay “Poetry and Ambition,” for instance, where he scathingly critiques the culture of writerly “ambition” measured in number of publications and lauds a different type of ambition that takes a whole lot more reading. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16915.

    Aesthetic ambitiousness is such a multifarious property that it is difficult to pin down, though. I am reading Place’sLa Medusa and Eugene Marten’s Firework, both AWP snags, and each seems ambitious but in stunningly different ways…in Place’s work, just for starters, I find myself challenged by the sheer profusion and range of voices and perspectives, the fractionation of page-space, the simultaneity of its governing metaphor-fields, from neuroanatomy to film to mythology, each of which is in itself plenty for a novel. Whereas Firework, thus far at least, is rendered in a single close-third in sentences that are fairly straightforward, and its ambition seems to lie in its ability to do this without sitting still or fading into a gray noise waveform, its relentless commitment to a single body, mind, and sensibility, its refusal of a wider perspective or easy transcendence (and cutting between points of view is itself arguably a form of transcendence that he seems to shun). Now that I look at the beginning again, actually, the novel begins with an omniscient and then goes into a “we,” although the “we” is all about what we “don’t know.” So there’s more subtlety than meets the eye in terms of establishing and sustaining this close third.

    So, I guess what I’m suggesting is not that dissimilar to what’s been said elsewhere in this thread, that art itself is ambitious by its nature if it is successful, meaning that it is overcoming certain resistances, those intrinsic to representation as well as to rupturing or otherwise “going around” representation in compelling ways.

  7. [Oops, fixed italics from above.]

    There’s a certain irony in the very use of the word “ambition,” since etymologically (via a fast and dirty and wildly unambitious websearch) it seems to have to do with “going around” in the sense of getting votes, i.e. seeking out popularity. Plus in colloquial usage, probably stemming from everyone having to read Macbeth in high school, being ambitious usually means rising up, meaning trumping the competition, so to speak. Whereas when it is used to describe aesthetics, the “ambitious” artist is usually one who has put the demands of the work first, without regard to popularity or societally-conferred power, though maybe the notion of competition still inheres in the sense that one is vying with other ambitious artists, living and dead. I think the colloquial and artistic meanings can come to be muddled and certainly can come into conflict for writers today…see Donald Hall’s essay “Poetry and Ambition,” for instance, where he scathingly critiques the culture of writerly “ambition” measured in number of publications and lauds a different type of ambition that takes a whole lot more reading. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16915.

    Aesthetic ambitiousness is such a multifarious property that it is difficult to pin down, though. I am reading Place’s La Medusa and Eugene Marten’s Firework, both AWP snags, and each seems ambitious but in stunningly different ways…in Place’s work, just for starters, I find myself challenged by the sheer profusion and range of voices and perspectives, the fractionation of page-space, the simultaneity of its governing metaphor-fields, from neuroanatomy to film to mythology, each of which is in itself plenty for a novel. Whereas Firework, thus far at least, is rendered in a single close-third in sentences that are fairly straightforward, and its ambition seems to lie in its ability to do this without sitting still or fading into a gray noise waveform, its relentless commitment to a single body, mind, and sensibility, its refusal of a wider perspective or easy transcendence (and cutting between points of view is itself arguably a form of transcendence that he seems to shun). Now that I look at the beginning again, actually, the novel begins with an omniscient and then goes into a “we,” although the “we” is all about what we “don’t know.” So there’s more subtlety than meets the eye in terms of establishing and sustaining this close third.

    So, I guess what I’m suggesting is not that dissimilar to what’s been said elsewhere in this thread, that art itself is ambitious by its nature if it is successful, meaning that it is overcoming certain resistances, those intrinsic to representation as well as to rupturing or otherwise “going around” representation in compelling ways.

  8. Going to other mediums…

    Also, doesn’t ‘daring’ dance a little with ‘ambition?’

    Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry – a film about a man closely intent on suicide, made in a country where suicide is strictly forbidden.

    Astral Weeks – Van Morrison – ahead of it’s time, without the heavy ‘industry’ of George Martin and the Beatles (Abbey Road), Van the Man pulls out Madam George and other meandering songs with a wooden nymph’s flute and sly, rollicking voice that plays with sound and syllable to reinvent words.

    Krapp’s Last Tape (play) – Beckett – One man, listening to tapes of himself from years before. Written in 1959.

    The Isenheim Altarpiece (many paintings) – Grunewald, 1515, detailing parts of the liturgical year

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/31/Grunewald_-_christ.jpg

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