Finally a Cogent Definition of Avant-garde, care of Monsieur Hawkes

My own concept of “avant-garde” has to do with something constant…this constant is a quality of coldness, detachment, ruthless determination to face up to the enormities of ugliness and potential failure within ourselves and in the world around us, and to bring to this exposure a savage or saving comic spirit and the saving beauties of language. The need is to maintain the truth of the fractured picture; to expose, ridicule, attack, but always to create and to throw into new light our potential for violence and absurdity as well as for graceful action.

He goes on to say:

I don’t like soft, loose prose or fiction which tries to cope too directly with life itself or is based indulgently on personal experience. (61)

– from Critical Essays on John Hawkes:

In light of this, one wonders: what the hell happened? What Hawkes is defining seems to have been much more celebrated in decades past, the ’70’s especially, when Pynchon, Barth and Gaddis won the National Book Award. Of course there are exceptions, but the fiction of the traditional narrative arc and characterization by way of the Joyce of Dubliners dominates now. Who is avant-garde today?


24 thoughts on “Finally a Cogent Definition of Avant-garde, care of Monsieur Hawkes

  1. In light of this, one wonders: what the hell happened?

    Publishing became an entirely commercial enterprise. John O’Brien has explained it better than anyone:

    Q: Why hasn’t literature been funded in the same way that other art fields have been?

    A: As with all of the arts, literature was once upon a time entirely made possible through patrons. This goes at least as far back as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. They were able to write because their patrons provided them financial support. And this was of course true of all of the other arts. Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, however, literature and commerce got mixed. With the emergence of a literate middle class and the technology to produce books in mass numbers, publishers emerged who could make money from selling books. Thus we have such people as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, whose books could make a lot of money for both the writers and the publisher. Books became a commercial enterprise. The relationship between literature and commerce worked relatively well-with such notable exceptions as Herman Melville-into the twentieth century, though one can easily point to a writer like William Carlos Williams whose books were almost exclusively published by small presses and, later, by James Laughlin at New Directions. Yet, until perhaps as late as the 1970s, one could assume that all “good” books were available and that the marketplace would support them, or at least such pioneers as Alfred Knopf and Horace Liveright wouldn’t let commerce completely determine what would be published and what would stay in print.

    Starting, however, in the 1970s and ’80s, the situation began to change. Larger publishers bought out smaller ones, merged lists, and cut lines that weren’t profitable. Even though commercial publishing has always been concerned with profit, it also had certain standards of what a book should be in order to be a book. Those standards no longer exist. If you write a book called How to Lose 50 Pounds in 5 Days, someone will publish it. Since it is printed and has a cover on it, it’s a book! It was Alfred Knopf who said that best-sellers would kill publishing, that they were insidious. It would be impossible to find a New York publisher now who would agree with him. You might find some editors who would agree with him in a bar late at night in a very private conversation, but they certainly would not agree with him in terms of how to run a publishing house.

    So, a certain path was set for publishing thirty years ago and the only thing that surprises me is that commercial houses haven’t changed even more than they have. Commercial houses would object to what I am saying here and indeed they can point to certain books on their lists that are not only remarkably good but also do not make money. True enough.

    But if you take a longer view of all of this-let’s say from the 1950s to the present-you know that a number of serious literary books are not published at all by these houses or that there is only a token effort at publishing them to maintain a pretense of seriousness. You can see this, for example, with plays, which commercial publishers used to publish. They are now almost the exclusive domain of a nonprofit press. Poetry and translations are very nearly in the same situation. And then you have the reality of how long serious books stay in print. Dalkey Archive publishes or reprints books that thirty years ago would have been done by commercial publishers and would have been kept available, regardless of sales. This is a radical shift in the publishing scene, a shift that has occurred so gradually that it is not easily detected.

    …Your post’s title, Greg, implies that we’ve been lacking a cogent definition of the word “avant-garde.” That isn’t so. If anything, the problem is that we have too many definitions for that word.

    It’s a term I kind of hate, myself; I wrote about why here:


    • …Large house publishing has become entirely commercial, I mean, in the above post. The small presses of course arose to combat this, and thank god for that. But the small presses lack the cultural bullhorn that the large houses have (so to speak), and so it’s difficult for the experimental writers of the 60s—who were dropped by the large houses and picked up by the small presses—to attain the nationwide dominance they once held.

      That’s putting it bluntly, to be sure. And all that said, just because the large houses are now entirely totally commercial doesn’t mean one can’t publish experimental or innovative fiction with them—it would just have to be commercial experimental or innovative fiction. (If they think they can make a buck, they’ll run with it.) However, it seems to me that, since Modernism, a great deal of experimentation and avant-gardism has been associated with austerity and coldness (as Hawkes says above), which doesn’t always make it the most commercial venture. But it doesn’t have to be that way. One can make commercial, entertaining experimental work. Just look at children’s books, many of which are really experimental poetry.

    • Well Adam, I’ve been lacking it. I’m sure there are other good ones, but this one speaks to something else.

      It’s fine to veer off into the money, seems everything always does at some point, but Hawkes was talking about themes and world-view – spirituality I think, the bones and blood of the person and their force in the world.

      Do people really don’t write in avant-garde ways because they think it won’t sell? Not that you are saying that – I am.

      I think the issue is more interesting than money, it’s a matter of aesthetics. Our US world is much more relaxed, more armchair at the moment. We’ve watched all the corruption happen and a few souls have fought but many (me too) have not. If we don’t struggle against oppression how can we struggle with our art?

      • People should do whatever they want to do. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making art for money, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making art not for money. There are many reasons to make art.

        Instead, I was just trying to answer your question about “what the hell happened” such that 1960s and 70s experimental fiction stopped being published by the large houses, and why they such books and authors no longer dominate the awards scene or popular consciousness.

        I agree with John O’Brien’s assessment; it echoes what I’ve heard from other then-popular experimentalists, like David Markson and Rudy Wurlitzer and Steve Katz. Katz once told me the story about how the large houses stopped returning his phone calls, even after he’d published a couple of books with them: The Exagggerations of Peter Prince (1968 Holt, Rinehart and Winston) and Creamy & Delicious (1970 Random House). Hence he went and helped found the Fiction Collective. O’Brien founded Dalkey Archive.

        As for Hawkes’s stance, I have nothing against his aesthetic/political position (in many ways, he’s channeling Adorno, one of my True Heroes). But I don’t see how it has anything to do with the avant-garde, really, in regard to either its historical or contemporary meanings (although, to be fair, its contemporary meanings are essentially meaningless). It seems to me that someone as interested in precision—as opposed to “soft, loose prose or fiction”—would want to be more careful in his word choice. (See, I’m commenting in the spirit of John Hawkes!)

        If anything, back in the 1960s and 70s, “the avant-garde” in literature was widely considered to be those experimental writers who weren’t Modernists, like Stein and Zukofsky and the Dadaists and, later on, folks like William Burroughs. (Davis just wrote something about that at this site.) Hawkes, if anything, always struck me as more of a Late Modernist himself, descended from folks like Faulkner and Beckett, and not really part of that more abstract tradition. (Indeed, I think he’s one of the best post-Beckett writers.) Although to be sure I never knew the guy and don’t know what he read in private, whom he considered his influences, etc.

        • It seems Hawkes is defining a philosophy of the avant-garde, his own, very personal.

          I think this discussion opens the can of sauce called “Words mean what we want them to mean” – an intriguing alfredo, somewhat akin to the pesto-flavored, “We hear what we want to hear.”

  2. There’s nothing like Dale Peck to ruin someone’s day.

    Talking about writing and Bernard. He kind of apes your mojo Adam – re: Beckett came from Kafka, Jaws came from Beckett

    Also, it’s news to me that Bernard’s reputation has been suffering. I’ve been hearing about him for 15 years. He’s often mentioned in tandem with Beckett and Rick Moody has song sung blue his praises.

    • Hi Jim,

      Thanks for checking in. Is anyone here mourning the passing of the “well-educated white guy avant garde”? That said, I’m not sure if you can conflate the so-called avant-garde with “well-educated white guy” anyway, whatever definition you might come come up with for the so-called avant-garde, since the the so-called avant-garde has always been comprised of a diverse group of people, ethnically, racially, or whatever.

  3. The avant-garde is very much alive and well in the U.S. right now — white male, black female, and many shades/genders/preferences in-between. Every two years the &NOW Conference of Innovative Literature grows, and its inception was only in 2004. With greater frequency, innovative (or avant-garde if you wish — many of us hate these useless labels) books are being taught in creative writing programs; therefore, younger readers and writers spill into the world with an understanding of new fiction and poetry, especially since a lot of us references, either directly or obliquely, the shapes and implications of new technologies. The book reviewers won’t catch up with 21st Century literature until their editorial desks see some advertising profit coming in. Meanwhile, we’re having fun reading, writing and publishing outside the prison yard.

    • Thank you Debra. I should have been more clear about the avant-garde in terms of influence on the small press world and the large press world. But maybe the avant-garde (whatever the terms means to one) is synonymous with the small press world these days. I’m remembering Franzen ridiculing a package from FC2 he received, thinking the name was a terrorist organization. This was in Harper’s I believe.

      The growth is wonderful and &NOW is fabulous. We are having fun, thanks for reminding me of that.

    • that was haterish of me hehe…

      i enjoyed “second skin,” which was recommended to me by the aforementioned john o’brien of dalkey archive.

      i have “beef” re what i see as many of the postmodernists’ (guys like Gass, Gaddis, Hawkes, moreso than say Barthelme, although Barthelme’s writing if not his speaking reflect the same, to me, lack)(and today, Tom McCarthy’s, many indie publishers’/writers’) willful overlooking of (to me) essential aspects of their father Joyce’s approach and philosophy. foremost in inspiring my ire is the constant badmouthing of autobiographical writing and of emotionality/personal investment, the elements which, for me, elevate, for example, “ulysses,” from a very impressive, inspiring book to a very impressive, inspiring book that moves me deeply.

      cheers, happy new years, come to Quickies! 1/11/10 :P

      -STD (yes, i know)

      • Hi Stephen,

        Looks like Greg got to your comment before I did. I haven’t seen evidence of any of those writers you’ve mentioned “willful[ly] overlooking” Joyce’s accomplishments. Gass has expressed his debt to Joyce innumerable times. For instance, from an with Carole Spearin McCauley interview (1971):

        I’ve learned from so many I couldn’t even list the essential. As far as my own writing goes, from poets mostly, from philosophers, of course, because they supply me with material, and from stylists in general, whether Sir Thomas Browne, Hobbes, Stein, Joyce, James, Ford, or Colette.”

        Check out, too, his book A Temple of Texts, wherein he writes eloquently about Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

        You might want to check out “On William Gaddis: In Recognition of James Joyce,” by Bernard Benstock, on Gaddis’s rather obvious debt to Joyce (for anyone who’s ever read him).

        Even Barthelme’s so-called skepticism about Joyce and modernism is anything but “willful overlooking.”

        And considering that both Hawkes and Joyce are no longer breakfast, even for worms, I’d say that there’s more to the feast than the fountainheads. And this comes from someone who, if asked to choose to a single author’s work to read, would probably choose Joyce over just about anybody else, well, and Virginia Woolf and Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens and…

        • the nature of his writing, not their debt to him. it’s obvious they appreciate his accomplishments and are indebted to his example. i’m saying their writing differs from him in notable ways and suggests to me a selective understanding or embrace of his writing/influence, and to me, not in a way i like. i’m also saying many indie writers and publishers would say they are huge joyce fans while condemning autobiographical or obviously emotional, or they would say, sentimental writing.

          i’m saying these writers were trying to carry on where he left off, but they forgot or never knew what kind of writer he was.

          • another way of putting it, and i feel cynical about my chances of being understood, is that many of the postmodernists seem misanthropic to me and i think that’s the furthest thing from what joyce was. even beckett, while certainly possessing a macabre (and wonderful) wit, was never far from a beautiful phrase/thought, however restrained and realistic (paraphrasing, but, “to be together after so long…that is perhaps something, perhaps something,” WATT). to me, the postmodernists took joyce’s satire and humor, which to me is a celebration of sorts, and his at times earnest emotional autobiographical writing (ulysses is essentially “about” his wife), and turned towards insularity, mean-spirited misanthropy (thinking of sorrentino in particular), and hollow art for art’s sake (gass, barthelme, gaddis, et al.)

            joyce is a guy who set his most famous book on the date he met his wife!

            • i would like, honestly, to come to disagree with my assessment of those writers. i know my opinion is subjective. all i know is so far i’ve never been moved by those writers, only vaguely impressed, and beckett and joyce and woolf move me deeply. but whatever, to each her own.

              regardless, my overall wish is that writers who care about writing would stop saying and propagating the belief that it is sentimental or childish or less serious (whatever that’s supposed to mean) to write what you feel, to write about what you care about, in whatever form that takes, be it autobiographical, semi-autobiographical, shaded and hidden in artifice, whatever–i’m tired of writers approaching their work and the work of others with the spirit of the know-it-all graduate student, the pompous professor, or the jaded aficionado. i care about this because i know what it is to have the opposite happen, to be inspired and encouraged by writers’ words and example.

              i’m saying “keeping it real” doesn’t have to mean writing domestic realism or epiphany stories, and “authenticity” need not refer to a 90s notion of not selling out. it can mean believing in something that you know isn’t real and/or is infinitely elusive, but something that is felt as well as thought. i like to feel love in a person’s actions and in their words, even if it is wild, delusional, ridiculous, erratic, vengeful, unpredictable, selfish, or desperate love–even if it is wholly fictional.

              • Frankly, Stephen, it’s hard to get a sense of what you’re actually arguing. To lump together Gass, Gaddis, Sorrentino, and Barthelme, in the ways that you’re doing, strikes me as wrongheaded, since each one is a distinctive stylist, each writer producing narratives embracing the vast array of human qualities, each writer producing beautiful sentences that cohere into beautiful paragraphs that cohere into beautiful books; and each writer can hardly be lumped together as misanthropic, nor can their writing be considered misanthropic.

                Who is your real target here?

              • Hi Stephen,

                I think I know what you’re talking about (I think). I myself often lament the fact that a lot of experimental writing since the end of the 1970s (or want-to-be experimental writing) has been rather “emotionally dry” (to quote Sol LeWitt); this has been true in a lot of the arts. Speaking for myself, I tend to prefer fairly passionate, goofy, sentimental work—the kind of stuff that’s perhaps largely out of favor for the past 30 years in experimental/small press/indie-lit circles.

                But I think there’s still a lot of exuberant, loving work out there. The 80s/90s saw the publication of Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School (1984), Steve Katz’s Stolen Stories (1984), Mercè Rodoreda’s Death in Spring (1986/2009), Lyn Hejinian’s My Life (1987), Harry Mathews’s Cigarettes (1987), David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988), Carole Maso’s The Art Lover (1990), Mati Unt’s Things in the Night (1990/2006), Carol De Chellis Hill’s Henry James’ Midnight Song (1993), Yuriy Tarnawsky’s Three Blondes and Death (1993), Scott Zwiren’s God Head (1996), and Curtis White’s Memories of My Father Watching TV (1998)—among others. All of those books are pretty sentimental—silly, even. They risk a lot, emotionally. And more recently: Michael Kelly’s Ulrich Haarburste’s Novel of Roy Orbison in Cling-film (2007), Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel (2008), Jeremy M. Davies’s Rose Alley (2009), Stephen Paul-Martin’s Changing the Subject (2010)—all very warm, emotional novels. (Lin and Davies write in somewhat restrained styles, but in my experience that restraint heightens a lot of the emotions in their respective book.)


      • My take is we write what we are. Whether we like it or not, it’s always there. Just like the Cruxcifiction’s and Madonna and Child are really often about the painter, so too are books. The autobiography is in between the lines, yes?

        As far as Gass, The Tunnel and In the Heart…(that novella) pretty much hinge on the autobiographical. The Recognitions is set in locations where Gaddis lived.

      • who are you referring to re “laywoman”? and why is this layperson female?

        “time will tell” is a meaningless phrase

        “those days are done” is a meaningless phrase

        i’ve never read pynchon

        i agree re “we write what we are,” to some degree. that makes abstract sense to me. some people would not be satisfied with that idea, but it’s subjective/relative, of course.

        i stand corrected re gass/gaddis.

        i could have been more precise in my original comment. i mean that, though, that i think many of joyce’s descendants lack some of his most gratifying (to me) qualities

        fire-stoker/toss-off: not being a pretentious asshole is the new avant-garde

  4. Pingback: Why I Hate the Avant-Garde « BIG OTHER

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