Happy birthday, Lance Olsen, literary giant, small press hero, acclaimed professor, and great friend!
Innovative artist par excellence, Lance’s writing always delights, startles, and puzzles; and inspires me to reject cliché and received thinking, to rebel against “conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct,” which Hannah Arendt (with whom Lance shares a birthday) says has “the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality.”
Lance’s Head in Flames and Calendar of Regrets impressed me so much I was compelled to interview him about each one. (Find my interviews with Lance here and here.) So you can imagine how lucky I feel to have subsequently helped promote Theories of Forgetting; [[ there.]]; How to Unfeel the Dead; and Dreamlives of Debris. And I’m happy to be currently promoting Lance’s forthcoming My Red Heaven. Each of these books is a master class in form, structure, theme, style, and language, in disruptions of same, each book always making me wonder what Lance is going to come up with next.
In other words, seek out Lance’s books forthwith!
In the meantime, check out Lance’s “169 Tweets on the Nature of Possibility,” which we published earlier this year.
And here are 63 quotes culled from interviews with and essays by Lance:
“[T]exts in general should be […] less accessible, not more. Why? Because texts that make us work, texts that make us think and feel in unusual ways, texts that attempt to wake us in the midst of our dreaming, are more valuable epistemologically, ontologically, and sociopolitically than texts that make us feel warm, fuzzy, and forgetful.”
“When I speak of renewing the writing of the Difficult Imagination, I am not referring to the renewal of a narratological possibility space in which we are asked continuously to envision the text of the text, the text of our lives, and the text of the world other than they are. This interzone of impeded accessibility is an essential one for human freedom. In it, everything can and should be considered, attempted, troubled. What is important about its products is not whether or not they ultimately succeed or fail (whatever we may mean when we say those words). What is important is that they come into being often and widely, because in them we discover the perpetual manifestation of Nietzsche’s notion of the unconditional, Derrida’s of a privileged instability, Viktor Shklovsky’s ambition for art and Martin Heidegger’s for philosophy: the return, through complexity and challenge (not predictability and ease) to perception and contemplation. Kafka’s writing will always make one feel a little foolish, a little tongue-tied. One will find oneself standing there in a kind of baffled wonder that will insist upon a slightly new mode of perceiving, a slightly new way of speaking.”
“[B]y trying to imagine the present, by trying actively to imagine the present, you have a hand in imagining the future, and by having a hand in imagining the future you have a hand, a tiny hand, a tiny hand but a real hand, a real hand and therefore an important hand, in shaping its architectonics.”
“To structure a text, a sentence, a phrase one way rather than another is to convey, not simply aesthetic preference, a matter of taste, but a course of thinking, a way of being in the world, that privileges one approach to ‘reality’ over another.”
“I also want to advocate for literary activism: that there is a deep-structure politics, a deep-structure social engagement, in dedicating ourselves to bringing work we care about into the world. Start an online journal. Intern for a publishing company. Review books you adore so others can adore them, too. Teach books you can’t live without. Blog about them. Post about them on Facebook. Pass books from hand to hand. Imagine alternative publishing ecologies that care more about quality than quantity.”
“[I]nnovative and experimental usually refer to a narrativity that includes a self-reflective awareness of and engagement with theoretical inquiry, concerns, and obsessions, as well as a sense of being in conversation with fiction across space and time. One can’t create challenging writing in a vacuum; it has to challenge in relation to something. So contemporary writers interested in the subject are not only in pursuit of the innovative, but are also always-already writing subsequent to it—writing, that is, in its long wake.”
“Limit texts are a variety of disturbance that carries various elements of narrativity to their brink so the reader can never quite imagine them in the same terms again. Once you’ve taken one down from the shelf, you’ll never be able to put it back up again. They won’t leave you alone. They will continue to work on your imagination long after you’ve read them. Simply by being in the world, they ask us to embrace difficulty, freedom, radical skepticism.”
“That’s what we’re all up to in the innovative, be it in written texts or the texts we call our classrooms or the texts we call our politics: trying to disrupt what both can and can’t be disrupted, trying to undo what both can and can’t be undone, continuously.”
“One of the dictums in the creative-writing classroom, of course, is to write about what you know. But it’s also important to write about what you don’t know, to write like a traveler—not like a tourist, mind you, but a traveler. Or at least that’s something that’s always interested me.”
“Retelling is an essential part of knowing. Think of Virgil, who re-speaks the Odyssey as the Aeneid, or James Joyce, who re-speaks it as Ulysses, or perhaps the plethora of fairytale reiterations that are so popular these days. In fact, from a certain perspective every narrative is a retelling of former ones to the extent that it is in constant conversation with the genre in which it’s working, which is to say all examples of that genre the author has read, and all the ones he or she hasn’t. Every vampire story is by nature a recapitulation, adaptation, and alteration of all those that went before.
How come? Because by rewriting we re-right. We bring narratives into harmony with the contemporary. Through retellings we un-tell, compose our present rather than simply perpetuating someone else’s past, interrogate the assumptions of received narratives and recast them so they continue to mean for us.
Doing so, we remind ourselves there are always other ways to narrativize our lives, which is to say other ways to live them, other ways to script them than the ones we’ve been taught. That’s an astonishing political, epistemological, and existential act.”
“One of the many goals of innovative fiction seems to be to rattle those received narratives, which is to say rattle those received structures. It does so, not simply to have fun (although there is almost always an element of the joyously ludic at play in the innovative), and not merely to examine its navel (although there is almost always an element of serious self-consciousness at play in the innovative), but rather to remind us that there are always profoundly important alternative ways to tell ourselves, our lives, our experiences of experience.”
“Capitalism is a power center that generates narratives (having to do with post-moral wealth and conduct) whose continuous recapitulation begins to sound like something very close to veracity. One of the tasks of innovative fiction, as I say, whether a given piece is aware of what it’s doing or not (and many times it’s not, or not quite), is to invent new structures to house our sense of the contemporary, our engagement with the everyday, to teach us that the dominant narratives are not the only ones. I’m reminded of a line from Lidia Yuknavitch’s wonderful and wonderfully raw memoir, The Chronology of Water: ‘Make up stories until you find one you can live with.’ Bingo.”
“Writing and/or reading the innovative enables us to think about inventing languages (in the largest sense of the word) that might help us think beyond who, what, and when we are. Let’s call this sort of communication Beyonding Language.”
“I’m interested in the problematics of representation: what is the relationship, for instance, between words written on a page, or light written on paper or bytes in a digital file, and the touchable world? What are the uncertainties that arise between a noun and the thing that noun tries to point to?”
“[T]he question of memory and forgetting is ultimately a question about various kinds of dying, the enterprise we’re all involved in on a daily basis, and if a piece of literature isn’t in some way about that, I wonder if it is really about anything important at all.”
“[L]ife doesn’t strike me as especially redemptive in nature, so why should fiction? At the end of the day, mister blue-eyed death is waiting for us all, and on the road to meet him I suspect we can at best only hope for the tiniest redemptions, the kind that last for the space of a car commercial. So the Redemption with New-Agey Nuts that seems to be the flavor of the decade in fiction doesn’t appeal to me in the least. I’m most interested in fiction that tries to confront and re-present what it feels like to be alive in these pomo or post-pomo or whatever they are times. And what it feels to be alive now is anything but upbeat and stable and feel-finey.”
“What’s especially wonderful about speculative fiction, at least for me, is how it functions less as a crystal-ball prognostication into tomorrow than as a warped-mirror metaphorization of today. It defamiliarizes who we are and where we are and when we are so that we can view those things from angles we perhaps hadn’t thought about before.”
“[W]here does autobiography end and fiction begin? It’s a real and a really difficult question for each of us to answer. I’m particularly intrigued by how much our memories of ourselves, our pasts, those events we think of when we set out to construct who we are carry a deeply fictive charge, and how we compensate for our lives being a series of distinct photographic moments in a sea of forgetfulness by generating narrative links, by turning discrete shots into filmic narrative.”
“There’s something desperate about people loving [memoir], some acute need for them to turn largely absent past into wholly present story, flickery half-memory (the best any of us will ever be able to conjure) into full truth. I’m speaking in wild generalities here, of course, and of course there are myriad exceptions (David Shields’s and Geoff Dyer’s wonderfully self-conscious work comes to mind in this regard, as do W. B. Sebald’s stellar critifictional hybrids like The Rings of Saturn), but by and large memoir strikes me as an extraordinarily naïve, gullible genre, and for that reason often an extraordinarily tedious one. I’m here! I’m here! I’m here! the memoir’s sentences shout over and over again, but, you see, I’m not really sure that’s the case at all.”
“What I hope to accomplish by engaging in such an intellectually mischievous enterprise is to bring to the fore a contemplation about a number of the novel’s key themes: where reality stops and imagination commences, for instance; the limits of memory and self; the undoing of simplistic readings of photography and hence the kind of simplistic ‘photography’ we call ‘memoir.'”
“I’ve always been fascinated by artists and thinkers out of step with their times. I suspect that may be a good definition of what it means to be an artist or thinker: someone who reads the world in ways most people don’t, thereby allowing us to see it in ways we haven’t, coaching us to pay attention to details the habitual has made invisible.”
“The central question I ask and re-ask my creative-writing students is this: How does one write the contemporary? Naturally, the answer will be different for every author, but the questions behind the question remains: What structures capture our sense of lived experience here, now?”
“[O]ur lives are so legible it hurts, but only to the extent they have been made legible by the narratives we swim in daily that are manufactured by the entertainment industry, the political system, academia, et cetera—narratives designed to be repeated so often they become chronic.”
“For a sense of stable selfhood to persist, we need to convince ourselves that historical knowledge is an unproblematic realm. We need to develop a narrative (the kind at which Western culture has excelled) that affirms continuity—beginning, middle, and end—the notion of causality and solution. We tell ourselves into permanence and consistency. What I find remarkable about Borges and Sebald, two important writers for me, is that they trouble the relationship between pronoun and referent.”
“Is it conceivable […] to imagine beyond Freudian theorizations of character? Beyond those we encounter in fictions by, say, Dickens or Fitzgerald, Chekhov or Morrison, that accept selves as dense products of past traumas, current conflictions and neuroses, unconscious fires and conscious tumblings? Character formations which are, in a phrase, emblematic of identities that are relatively solid through time and space, assume there are great swathes of us-ness that remain constant and complete, autonomous and fixed, aren’t invented minute by minute, second by second, from outside as well as inside, continuously changing constructions flickery as those vibrating strings we are told make up the metalogical essence of ‘reality’?”
“Understand this writing thing isn’t a competition; all of us can win all the time. Think of yourself as part of an oceanic conversation about life and narrative that extends across time and space, and ask yourself where your voice fits in, how you can help other voices be heard. And if you plan to write for fame or fortune, do something else immediately. Seriously.”
“[O]nce I finish a novel I don’t want to write the same one again. Stephen King and Dan Brown have built dynasties on disagreeing with me. But what excites me is when novel-writing puts me back on my heels, tips me into a liquid geography of unknowing; presents me with a topography in which I need to navigate through unexpected and illuminating regions. For me writing is a precarious act of exploration. That’s what I set about gifting myself with in Calendar of Regrets: a complex and unfamiliar framework to live in for several years that would allow me to emerge understanding more both about my experience of experience and my experience of narrativity.”
“And I’m here to report that the cliché is exactly right: those rotations just happen at you faster and faster. You blink and you’re twenty-three. You blink and you’re fifty-seven. I’m coming to believe the collective noun for them should be a murder of journeys. Which is to say I wish there were ways to minimize the damage of those daily catastrophes, but in the end every one of us will discover breathing simply doesn’t work—even, as Don DeLillo once wrote somewhere, we seem to believe it possible to ward off death by following rules of good grooming.”
“Or to put it another way: the end of every narrative is a kind of formal death that reminds us precisely how the script each one of us is writing will invariably end. I’d like to suggest that in the meantime we can and should live as joyfully as possible while paying attention, while learning, while loving, and while knowing we’re only bluffing—but such sentences strike me as too fraught, too shot through with unexamined optimism, to take completely seriously.”
“Bill Gates teaches us every time we open our computer what a page ought to be, what it ought to look like, what fonts we ought to employ to fill it, what margins. I’m increasingly drawn to the body of the text as a non-body, a body of opportunity, and in that sense, I guess, my project correlates with Deleuze and Guattari’s’s concept of body without organs—those forms mobilized in opposition to the organism’s organization, those that stand in opposition to the functional specificity and definability of organs.”
“[I]n this post-genre Age of Uncertainty there no longer remains any productive, articulable difference between innovative poetry and prose. There exist only innovative writing practices. And I’m interested in those that introduce manifold static at various strata—thematic, formalistic, surface, depth, in, of, wherever.”
“What emerges in [innovative writing practices] is a lively transactional condition of textual engagement, a condition of continual exploration and negotiation, that through its illegibilities disorients, deterritorializes, détourns our daily interactions with the dominant cultural mechanisms that read/write/think/feel us, thereby returning us, however momentarily, to a politicized version of Russian Formalism’s ambition for art and phenomenology’s for philosophy: a kind of defamiliarized meta-cognition, a suddenly being-present in the text of the text and the text of the world.”
“To become aware of what it feels like to read (something most of us have forgotten) is to become aware of how we make meaning, is to become aware of how we write and unwrite and rewrite our worlds. So in spaces like these reading is always a kind of writing, writing always a kind of reading.”
“At the end of the day, all acts of writing are collaborative in nature. When you sit down to compose, you’re collaborating with every other author across space and time who has ever written in your genre, against your genre, near your language, in your sociohistorical position, in your gender, out of your gender. And of course you collaborate with the writing application on your computer, with your editor, cover designer, publisher, reviewer, distributor, reading-program coordinator, and so forth.”
“Wittgenstein reminded us one of the problems with Western philosophy is that it’s taken a series of grammatical mistakes and built a metaphysics out of it. I’m interested in exploring that mistaking, the deep inability of language to do what we want it to do unambiguously. Words always means more than they mean to mean, and that’s wonderful, unnerving, frustrating, and liberating.”
“If there’s something inherently broken about language’s capacity to mean, that brokenness can be and is manipulated by all of us, even as it manipulates us, both consciously and unconsciously. This is the case in spades with the various webs of control that script us—from our sense of gender, to our sense of morality, to our sense of you name it. As Goebbels said, if you make a lie big enough, and tell it often enough, people will believe it. We’re living his news flash daily in our post-truth contemporary, where it’s maze all the way down. Maze in the twenty-first century doesn’t feel simply like an architecture, in other words, but like a way of being.”
“I’m fascinated by how, from our infant years, we’re fed narratives that become internalized as truths. One of the purposes of innovative writing practices can be to show the limits of those normative narratives, invite us to think that the text of texts, the texts of our lives, can be other than they are—that we can learn to unwrite and rewrite (and maybe for brief, utopian moments re-right) them.”
“I’m not very interested in bloodless experimental writing practices. Weirdly, perhaps, I don’t see the point in reading for purely cerebral pleasure. Of course, the issue—we’re back to the problem of language—is defining the border between the purely cerebral and purely emotional, a profoundly subjective zone. I imagine those concepts exist, instead, on a continuum. And the swath of that continuum in which I’m most committed is inhabited by a wide range of innovative writers, including Steve Tomasula, David Markson, Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, Raymond Federman, Beckett, Robert Coover, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Gary Lutz, Thalia Field, Patrik Ourednik, and Lydia Davis, to name the first dozen who come to mind. All are, one could argue, abstract thinkers, yet each also breaks my heart in a special way.”
“One could argue that for us, late in the second decade of the twenty-first century, it’s all liquid maze. I imagine the maze as dense metaphor for our current sense of presentness—the impression, for instance, that we are always awash in massive, contradictory, networked, centerless data fields that may lead everywhere and nowhere at once.”
“Rewriting is a form of re-righting, bringing essential narratives into a contemporary key, because through retellings we un-tell, compose our present rather than perpetuating someone else’s past, interrogate the assumptions behind received narratives, recast them so they continue to mean for us.”
“I’m a subscriber to Roland Barthes’ observation: ‘Literature is the question minus the answer.’ So the kind of writing that excites me most isn’t that which presents a truth (I might call that propaganda) so much as that which presents a problematics, both at the stratum of form and theme, meant to challenge us to see and feel and think in unusual, complex, and—all going well—illuminating ways.”
“The question only gets more fascinatingly complicated when we ask precisely what the relationship between language and the body is. These days theory tends to privilege the latter, but of course we can’t think the body without language, nor can we think language without the body.”
“Genres are a series of reading codes we’ve been taught to recognize. They allow us to have relatively predictable, comfortable relationships with texts. But those that I respond to most are the ones that destabilize our reading experience in various ways, including by fusing and confusing genres, or trying to work outside them altogether.
Experimental narrative isn’t just another genre like, say, detective fiction or romance, in other words. Rather, I think of it as a possibility space that invites us to move beyond categorical thinking.”
“[N]one of us are the same readers at forty we were at fourteen, or at sixty we were at six. So what constitutes the concept of innovation will change for each of us over time, depending on what we’ve read, how we’ve lived, how we’ve changed (I wouldn’t quite say ‘evolved,’ which might connote progress for some), how we’ve been educated, even where we’ve inhabited. So one person’s mind-bending experimentation may be another’s ho-hum status quo.”
“My heart hammers knowing (especially in light of the pressure exerted on the trade paperback by the art-book movement) that, even as the book dissolves into bytes in one part of our world, the book beautifully re-embodies itself in another. Of course, there’s also a kind of semiotic feedback loop that has been set in motion: so even as the book (think of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland) becomes more itself, it also registers an awareness of the remediated, hypertextual reality of our networked experience of experience.”
“For me, […] reading is a kind of journey, writing a kind of quest, and both (at least in the case of the innovative) are predicated on many things, one of which is an openness to possibilities, both aesthetic and experiential—viz., we’re talking, at the end of the day, about a motivated inquisitiveness, a desire to learn…and thereby unlearn what we’ve been taught about narrativity with a red bow on it.”
“I both trust in the generosity and astuteness of my readers. I trust that they feel—as I do—that part of the component of any experimental work, whether visual, aural, or otherwise, is the excitement we call challenge, which is another word for defamiliarization, which is another word for waking us in the midst of our dreaming.”
“Nor can I answer whether or not my characters are ‘natured’ or ‘denatured’ through other readers’ optics. I’m not even entirely sure what that might mean. Through my own optics, though, they are characterologically resonant even if the novel in which they are residents is structured unfamiliarly. But why, I wonder, would innovations in structure result in a character less charactered?”
“So-called experimental fiction teaches a fundamental political lesson over and over again, as much through its structural complications as through its thematics: that the text of the text, the text of our lives, and the text of the world can and should be other than they are.”
“One difference between art and entertainment has to do with the speed of perception. Art deliberately slows and complicates reading, hearing, and/or viewing so we are challenged to re-think and re-feel structure and experience. Entertainment deliberately accelerates and simplifies them so we don’t have to think about or feel very much of anything at all except a certain adrenaline rush before the spectacle.”
“I’m interested in writing and reading against simplicity, renewing what I think of as the Difficult Imagination—that dense cognitive space in which we are asked continuously to envision the text of the text, the text of our lives, and the text of the world other than they are, and thus contemplate the idea of fundamental change in all three. If you think about it, then, this isn’t simply an aesthetic but also a political undertaking.”
“All around us we hear certain narratives repeated over and over again—so much so, in fact, they begin to sound like the truth, even though, of course, they’re not: they’re just a few ways of arranging the world among myriad ones. I’ve always been drawn to writing that challenges those received narratives and their assumptions about existence, structure—about, in other words, how life flies at us.”
“The Difficult Imagination is an area of impeded accessibility essential for human freedom where we discover the perpetual manifestation of Nietzsche’s notion of the unconditional, Derrida’s of a privileged instability, Viktor Shklovsky’s ambition for art and Martin Heidegger’s for philosophy: the return, through complexity and challenge (not predictability and ease) to attention, contemplation, and change.”
“My sense is that, once the author mails his or her manuscript to the world, she or he becomes simply one more reader among others, entitled to his or her interpretations, but no more and no less. An obvious point: many of us authors don’t actually remember our intentions after we finish a work. Or they metamorphose while we’re writing. Or we’re not aware of patterns our unconscious is busy creating behind our backs. Or we’ve gone off and gotten older and died four hundred years ago. So in a very real sense we’re not the same person who wrote the text ‘we’ wrote.”
“I love producing texts that self-consciously generate a heterogeneity of possibilities. That’s what experience feels like for me—beautifully various, multi-perspectival, joyfully rich and puzzling and continuously shocking.”
“I’ve come to think of history—along with Linda Hutcheon, the theorist who coined the term ‘historiographic metafiction’—not as a static truth, a kind of transcendental signified we can, if we’re diligent enough, someday somehow reach and get ‘right,’ but rather as a narrative problem.”
“At best, at least for me, literature doesn’t function as inculcation, but invitation—to contemplate and experience in ways we couldn’t have imagined before beginning a particular text, to test our beliefs rather than confirm them, to live inside and hence come to understand other subjectivities, other perspectives, for extended periods of time, and hence arrive at a better understanding of what it means to be alive.”
“I guess this comes as no surprise to anybody, but I’m not a strong believer in linear narrative, alluring as it might seem. Linearity teaches us through its structure that life is an interlocking whole that moves uniformly and comprehensibly from beginning to end. But my sense of being alive is very nearly the opposite.
“History always impedes our rewriting of history at the same time the narrative of the past is always being rewritten by individuals, by the state, by advertisers, by victors, by victims, by historians.”
“I cherish the life of books, the idea of sitting in a room with friends and/or students and/or simply by myself and contemplating how language and narrative mean and don’t mean and in what contexts and what those narratives can teach us about the world and ourselves and those not ourselves. What a glorious thing.”
John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published 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, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.