Happy birthday, Michael Martone—writer, professor, small press hero, and literary citizen extraordinaire! Here are some quotes from Martone.
“I think the act of creating literary art begins with the writer posing for him- or herself interesting questions or imposing problems of content and style. The pulse for me then is appreciating the working out through the written performance the solution to the complex challenges that initiate the effort…The pulse for me then is in the paradox of the geometry of story telling—the self-imposed limitation of the bounded space and the infinite possibilities contained within such limits.”
“I want to think of what I do as writing and let the speciation to others. Many artists draw, use watercolor, paint in oils, sculpt, construct, assemble, paste. They mix their media but it is all seen as art, and issues of its fact or fiction seem beside the point to me. Well at least beside the point when the thing is in the making. I am in the fabrication business and there are different gradients on that scale of fiction and non-, I suppose, but none I worry about as I am doing them.”
“As for structure, when one abandons plot, one realizes that the structure of plot is simply an arbitrary collection of rules, suggestions, protocol. So you just find another set of arbitrary armature…There is nothing natural or normal or elemental or essential in the structure we call plot—setting, vehicle, rising action, climax, dénouement, ending. All is artifice.”
“This was ‘play’ in the sense that everything every time was to be re-invented. Nothing in this art, in this aesthetic is fixed—meaning in place or stable—or can be fixed—meaning to aspire to an ideal form. It seemed to me my job was…to break open these fixed categories, expose them constantly for the constructions they are, and allow the reader to participate in the making of art, not simply its passive reception.”
“My eye is caught by a little wink, a little self-consciousness of formal play. I assume everyone will be, at least in part, running his or her words through an incredibly powerful typesetting machine, and I am very interested in seeing just what artists imagine doing with this new technology, this new narrative delivery device. That being said I certainly am still stirred by the transparent trickery of narrative realism. I can be drawn into a well-constructed sustained dream…I don’t think of myself when I read anything as judgmental. I enter a text, I believe, I hope, with great curiosity. What kind of animal is this? I don’t start reading asking every creature I come upon to be a lion. I always dread making the decisions I am charged to make because I know the making of a book, a collection of stories or fictions, is difficult and yet rewarding in itself. The truth is, I guess, that I don’t really know what will catch my eye at this particular moment in time and space. As we all know, workers in an existentially linear medium, we never step into the same river twice.”
“To invoke ‘literary’ or ‘genre’ is to create a frame where something can be made safe. It is a kind of ghetto. Writers in America seem to have voluntarily committed themselves to some kind of reservation—the university—and assigned their work to very controlled publishing venues—the literary journal. Now there are many very nice, tasteful, serious etc literary journals but I can’t help thinking that one thing the journal is signaling the world is this—that is harmless, tamed, framed, controlled. And that it is not really a part of your life, dear reader. This is a zoo you can visit. I like art in its natural habitat, in the wild. Or is in the journals it is acting like a bug resistant to the antibiotic. Art that doesn’t know its place. Art out of place. Art that disrupts convention corrupts expectations. I like the notion of defamiliarization, of attempting to open up received notions and categories to wonder or to, at least, satire.”
“I like to think of the other meaning of fiction. Fiction not as not true but fiction as a thing made up, a thing made. A fabrication. In that sense fiction or nonfiction is a made thing, an artifice. A fact is a thing done. Once it happens it is gone. It has no reality. A fact leaves behind residue—documents, news accounts, letters, physical evidence. But all of it can be faked, manufactured, constructed. No the truth is that readers for a long time have had to make judgments about what is true or false, real or not and the writers have always made up things, created things both ‘true’ and ‘false.’ So a ‘clear’ line? Not the world we live in perhaps never the world we lived in. That’s especially true of the empirical world. If we believe we know things by what we can gather from our senses—and we do believe this—that the baby is a blank slate and learns through experiencing the world—we also know that our senses are easily fooled, our memories are notoriously inexact. That blurring is what we live with. We live and play, create and destroy unclearly.”
“What Barth made clear to me is that I, as a writer and artist, make things and make the frames the audience needs to perceive those things. All is artifice. Raymond Carver famously dismissed Barth’s kind of fiction—No more tricks. But what I learned was that everything is a trick including the trick of no tricks. Artifice is all I know and all I need to know.”
“I think that much of my work is produced and distributed in the gift economy and not a market one. Also I don’t know if anymore I make too much of the distinction between the kinds of writing I produce. This is my ‘work,’ and this is my postcard to a friend, or letter to my son at school. I think that all of my writing is my work, and that I publish or give it away for free in many forms. I think of my status updates published on Facebook as a part of my work. I think of the notes I write in the margins of my students’ papers as my work. When I complete my annual faculty report, I have to push a button that reads ‘publish,’ so I consider it a kind of publishing, and I report it as a published article on my faculty annual report. I feel good about this. I am living in a time that publishing is very easy technically, and I am able to do it in a gift economy rather than a market one.”
“As writers writing in the context of ‘literary prose and poetry’ we often forget about the frame—the literary. We think there is only this one kind of writing that we should be writing and that we should completely internalize, naturalize the rules and conventions of literary writing as if there is no other writing worth our attention. The truth is there are many many kinds of writing that we deal with everyday. I read the writing on my breakfast cereal box today. Then the newspaper. Then email. Twitter. Letters and postcards. Bills and ads. My student’s papers. New York Magazine. Instructions to assemble furniture. A medical prescription. All of these various texts are different from each other and all are interesting in their own way. So not research so much as paying attention to the variety of writing in the world. How is writing for travel guides made? How does it differ from a short story published in, say, the Iowa Review? All language is special unto itself. For me the fun of being a writer is mastering or trying to master all those special languages.”
“I think the hardest thing to teach when one teaches writing is writing’s material nature. If one paints, a critic can comment on such things as color or the consistency of the paint and not just the picture it is creating. Unlike painting, writers would never think to comment upon the nature of the ink or the tooth of the paper a work is printed upon. Nor do we often question the margin size or the leading or font. We get used to dealing only in abstractions and forget those very concrete choices contribute to the meaning and the effect of a piece of writing. Imitation, I think, makes us look, a little bit, at how something looks, feels. You are assigned to mimic often not only the meaning of the piece but how it ‘looks.’ You have to see it to see it. Imitation, if it does nothing else, should make you conscious of all the different artifices of art.”
“It’s not hard for me to structure. Structure is what the structure is all about. I am conscious about resisting the existential nature of language to line up. Words want to become narrative. They have naturally a beginning, middle, and end of the line. The challenge for me is to break it up, to disrupt what the written language wants to do on the page. It tends to the narrative. The challenge for me is to use that medium without the bias. Perverse, I realize. I figure that is the challenge for a reader who wants story, that thread out of the maze, not just the maze. Yes, I build mazes but I’m not a very good Ariadne. The clews of yarn I supply are pretty clueless.”
“I am all in to the dead author side of the argument. I am not the authority of the texts I create. I don’t have the sole stake in the making of meaning. I know I am collaborating with the reader. I provide the interesting pieces (I hope) and the reader takes it from there. The reader writes the book.”
“Art is about rearranging the known. About re-framing the deranged. I worry at times that the cultural moment we are in as writers–namely the movement into the university for poetry and literary prose–subtly forces us to fix the broken instead of break the fixed. The university’s impulse is curatorial by nature. It finds a bunch of bones and puts them back together and then teaches its students to put the bones back together in the same way. To maintain, to store, to study, to norm. All of these are important activities but not activities that art should be about. I want to generate new genera and that is very difficult in the setting that seeks to categorize and sort. The university can be thought of as a vast efficient storage facility….Writers should be trying. Writers should try to be trying. Should try to try one’s patience.”
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.