Where Do Our Desires Come From? (Want as Tradition)

Owl City: I steal, therefore...

I’ve been thinking about comments that darby and Mike Meginnis made on Amber’s recent post “I Don’t Like Crap Games.” In response, darby wrote:

[…] im saying dont think/worry about what editors want. dont worry about “what they like.” read what you like and write what you like. dont study a journal just to try to get published by them. first, you should love what you write. then you should love what you read. then think about maybe this fits here maybe.

Mike then added:

Yeah, I pretty much agree with Darby’s thinking on this. When editors ask me to figure out what they like I don’t think very much of them. That’s their job. My job is to make what I like. Sure, it’s possible to take that attitude too far, but editors who want fewer submissions can limit their window for slush or etc. I want everyone to submit to Uncanny Valley who wants to so I can choose the best possible, coolest work. I don’t want them worrying in particular about what I want. And I never worry too much about what they want.

I agree with Darby and Mike (and I admire Mike’s editorial stance); I’ve said things like this myself: writers should write whatever they want to write, and damn everyone else’s eyes.

But today I want to try thinking past that thought. Why do I want to write what I want to write? And is it really entirely my decision?

“We have no qualities; you, God, have all the qualities.” I wish I could remember now which musician I once heard say this… (It wasn’t Owl City.)

What are our qualities as contemporary writers? Well, who are the gods of our time? Without trying to make a definitive list, here, I think, are some of them:

  • Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace: the postmodernist Systems Novel;
  • Lydia Davis, Diane Williams: post-Barthelme short short fictions;
  • Cormac McCarthy, Brian Evenson: post-Faulkner/O’Connor Gothic/pulpy genre-hybrid fiction;
  • Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein: Language Poetry (post-Stein/Zukofsky/WCW/late Jack Spicer);
  • Ben Marcus, David Ohle: “steam-punky” language-based surrealism;
  • Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, Joy Williams: post-Lish minimalist realism;
  • Lorrie Moore, Ken Sparling, Tao Lin: more contemporary, “flatter” minimalist realism;
  • The Oulipo (in particular Queneau, Perec, Calvino, Mathews): constraint-based fiction and poetry;
  • Kenneth Goldsmith, Craig Dworkin, Vanessa Place: conceptual writing;
  • William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Ron Sukenick: postmodernist collage texts (with strong juxtapositions between high and low culture);
  • Dennis Cooper, Gail Scott, Renee Gladman: post-structuralist confessionals (“the New Narrative”).

Again, the above isn’t intended as a definitive list; I’m ignoring a lot of non-experimental realist fiction here, for instance. But I think these (mostly) contemporary writers exert a strong influence on those of us who read Big Other, pulling our fiction and poetry and our readerly interests in certain directions—toward certain qualities. They create recognizable subgenres which we and others can seek to produce work in, and that programs and journals and conferences can be organized around.

There’s a lot of social pressure to conform. When we sit down to write fiction, and send it out to literary journals, we’re more likely to be directly influenced, stylistically, by Diane Williams or Lydia Davis than we are by, say, Charlotte Brontë or Jane Austen. This makes a lot of sense; we probably all wear blue jeans and T-shirts, and not Victorian dress; we probably watch more contemporary movies than we do silent films. We live in the present day. (Ever since Modernism, there’s been a lot of social pressure to live in the present moment, where things are new and hip, rather than inhabiting the classical forms of the past.)

We’re all born into a preexisting culture. We open our eyes and look around and get the lay of the land. We can of course make some changes to that landscape, to our culture, but a lot of things have been predetermined for us. None of us invented modern English. None of us invented the idea of writing, or publishing books, or standing up and reading at readings, or submitting to literary journals. We’re inheritors of a literary infrastructure, just like we’ve inherited a world full of countries and cities and cars and factories and telecommunication devices. Furthermore, most of us read voraciously (absorbing influences)—and we mostly read what’s in print, and what others are talking about. (Who here was reading Bolaño before 2007? I bet very few of us, if any, can raise our hands.)

What’s more, many of us have attended writing programs, where we may even have studied with some of the above-listed authors. It’s no surprise that a lot of Ben Marcus’s students often write like Ben Marcus, or that those who studied with David Foster Wallace often produce texts that look like his. The painters who apprenticed with Rembrandt went on to paint like him, too. Inheritors can innovate, no doubt, but they root their innovations and experiments in that which they inherited.

When you decide to partake in a literary culture, you inherit a lot of convention and tradition. When I’m honest, I don’t really see much difference between loving Diane Williams and writing work that’s very much influenced by her, and really loving NOON and trying to write work that might get published in it. Because that’s pretty much the same thing, right? And don’t we admire Diane Williams for her consistent editorial vision?

Williams’s editorial vision ensures the intelligence and integrity of the journal as a whole. —Alison Kelly, The Times Literary Supplement, October 30, 2009

If one wants to be published, then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to produce publishable work, especially if you don’t compromise your values in the process. There are many ways to learn from one’s teachers. I love Ronald Firbank, but people don’t seem so into Firbank at the moment. (Raise your hand if you read Firbank. You should! Especially you, Tim Jones-Yelvington!) I also love Donald Barthelme, and people are just nuts about DonB these days. I think we can assume that writing that looks like Barthelme’s will be easier to publish than writing that’s been influenced by Firbank. (Just ask Brigid Brophy.) What’s a poor boy to do?

For the record, I’m not trying to pick on NOON, or Diane Williams, or anyone else. These influences and stylistic preferences exist everywhere, and so of course they can become codified. For example, most fiction literary journals I know prefer submissions that are under 5000 words (15–6 pages). Many want no more than 2000 words (6–7 pages). Some accept upwards of 7500 words (23–5 pages). I know only a few journals that will consider something longer than 30 pages. (There are exceptions: Birkensnake recently published a 34 page story of mine, which was only the first half of it; they put both parts up online. Thank you, Brian Conn!)

…Well, what is the effect of those maximum word limits? Obviously, they create a strong incentive, should you want to be published, to write fiction that’s under 5000 words, if not shorter. (Alternately, you can write longer work that lends itself to shorter, standalone excerpts.) Over the past year, I started writing flash fiction again after a ten-year break from it, because there are a lot of journals out there that want stuff that’s under 1000 words. (An editor told me recently, in response to an 8000-word story I’d sent him, that it was impossible to publish anything that long these days; he wouldn’t even consider it.)

So when I write flash fiction now (like I was doing earlier today), am I doing something I really want to do? Yes and no. I’m certainly trying to write the flash fiction that I want to write, and I throw out the pieces that I don’t like. I won’t sign my name to anything I myself don’t want to read. But I’m not naive; obviously I’ve decided to resume writing very short fiction right here and right now in response to a trend/fad in contemporary fiction, one which has been encouraged by publishing. (“Trend” is the positive term, “fad” is the pejorative one.) Writing’s a social activity, and what I want to write isn’t entirely my own decision. Even literary recluses like Henry Darger and the Unabomber were responding to their times!

I don’t see why this should be a contentious fact, unless one is convinced that writing is the product only of personal genius, or divine inspiration. Elsewhere at this site, I’ve been documenting certain trends in late-70s/early-80s music; one can easily discern similarities between certain bands. Talking Heads and Television were clearly responding in similar ways to the same cultural influences and preferences; I love both bands.

Nor do I hold it against Mark E. Smith that his singing style sounds like Hugh Cornwell from the Stranglers—or that their singing the way that they did, in that time and place, made it possible for them to get recording contracts.

It’s a fine line, isn’t it? Why do so many people so hate Owl City?

That’s an obvious one:  Adam Young is too directly influenced by the Postal Service. (To put it in Philip Glass’s terms, he solves all artistic problems in the same way that Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello would. Or, as a friend of mine said: “It’s as though the only album he’s ever heard is Give Up.”)

But no one rags on Gibbard and Tamborello for what they’ve borrowed from Aphex Twin:

…and Built to Spill (and power pop in general):

…and the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band:

…not to mention the US Postal Service.

Well, the Postal Service (the band) has mixed things up a lot more than Owl City has, and stolen a little less blatantly (and from more underground artists). So perhaps the best thing an artist can do is to try to absorb a great many influences? (That was the advice I received from my master’s thesis adviser, Curtis White: everyone steals, so steal from a lot of people, or from really weird combinations…)

…Since this is a post at Big Other, I’ll steal my ending from other contributors here: Where do your desires come from? Who are your literary gods?

7 thoughts on “Where Do Our Desires Come From? (Want as Tradition)

  1. Wow. Fantastic post. You hit on something that actually troubles me often; while I’m heavily influenced by many, if not most, of the authors you list above, my prose–stylistically speaking–owes more to Swinburne, to Hopkins, to Shakespeare, to Blake, to Rimbaud, to Austen, and to later lovers of language like Stevens and Nabokov and Fitzgerald and Eliot and Yeats. These are who I read first, and though I may dig pop culture seeding and though i may structurally write more like Ben Marcus or Calvino (another favorite), that love of words, language, wit and wordplay will always be the foremost influence on my writing. And because of this, I often hear back from editors that my prose is too overwrought, too descriptive, etc.

    On the other hand, a lot of editors dig that style just as much as others hate it. And looking at your list, there’s an enormous amount of diversity in style and influence out there today, certainly more than ever before. It’s a great time to be a writer, because there are so many venues that someone is bound to like you. And it’s a great time to be a reader, because there are so many different kinds of prose and poetry to devour. So many writers influenced by so many others.

    • Thanks, Amber. I hope I don’t imply above that older authors aren’t influences; certainly they can be and are—although of course we’re influenced by our modern understandings of them. The Jane Austen we read today is today’s Jane Austen—not the mid-19th century Jane Austen. (If she ever even existed.)

      As for whether there’s more diversity today, I hope that there is, although I wonder. I do believe, though, that there have always been trends, and poolings around certain dominant styles, as different things have gone in and out of fashion. And for one thing to be fashionable necessarily requires that something else be unfashionable. If you’re a Language Poet and prize, say, parataxis, then you can’t write or accept any heavily syllogistic writing, any lyric verse, confessional poetry, etc. It’s Heideggerian: when you’re sitting in your chair, you’re not lying in your bed, and vice-a-versa. So while others may be busy writing syllogistic lyrical voice-driven confessional poetry, your journal, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, isn’t going to publish those poems; otherwise, if you do, you’re no longer L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.

  2. I like this, and thanks for the plug. (You should write me back about those edits I sent you sometime!)

    This is something that I think about a lot, especially in terms of the compromises I’m willing to make to achieve my goals. The truth is publication in magazines isn’t very helpful to one’s career, so I try not to make many compromises there, and yet I have had a very good couple of months in terms of publication. So I feel like maybe it’s easy to overstate the extent to which compromise is necessary.

    Sometimes though I do feel a lot of pressure. I do think the aesthetics of lit journals are rather monomaniacal in a lot of ways, and fortunately there’s overlap between those aesthetics and mine, but sometimes I do worry because a lot of my favorite impulses are not very “cool,” and the stuff I consider uncool is also the stuff people tend not to publish. I like to write sweet things, and stories that are in many ways very kind, and these stories are very difficult to place. We are in a period that does not believe in generosity.

    Length is really the big one, though. I recently rediscovered an old project that isn’t flash fiction really but can be published under the category and I thought, “Thank God.” I actually really dislike flash generally, even dislike the word, precisely because it often seems designed more to be easy to publish than to be great. I prefer longer stories by far, and tend to write fairly huge ones. But I knew I could publish these little babies and feel some pride, and it was true. But I feel like a lot of fiction these days is primarily being structured in order to be easy to publish, and this is a big part of our decision to do our magazine, because we admire the Birkensnakes and Lifted Brows and so on that don’t fold to that pressure.

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