Leora Skolkin-Smith recently wrote a book review for ReadySteadyBook. She reviewed Wreckage of Reason II: Back To The Drawing Board by Nava Renek and Natalie Nuzzo.
Wreckage of Reason II: Back to the Drawing Board, edited by Nava Renek and Natalie Nuzzo and recently published by Spuyten Duyvil Publishing, is a collection of thirty-three experimental pieces written by women. It stands on its literary merits alone, but it also elicits questions that point far beyond its own physical presence in the publishing arena—questions primarily to do with the threatened future of experimental and literary writing itself, with the questionable health and well-being of our current literary culture and its openness or lack thereof to work that isn’t consumerist in intent. As if the standing of experimental writing in our literary culture weren’t enough of a problem, the troubling statistics testifying to the glaring inequality in attention given to women writers in comparison to their male counterparts present a serious crisis in writing, as both problems conflate to confront us with several critical questions we seem unable to table away: for instance, how does our current literary culture make room or recognize experimental writers, not as marginal guests at the buffet but as essential contributors? How do experimental literary writers continue to foster their literary legacy, to offer up profound depths, language, and soul, to grow as writers willing to risk and to toss up, around, and about meanings and connections in ways that rise above entertainment? In other words: to do this thing we still call “prose” and “story” as it evolved during the decades before it was oppressed by the omnipresent forces now censoring writing and writers?
Anthologies such as Wreckage of Reason II provide us with some soulful answers and examples. Nava Renek, co-editor of the anthology, is a writer, editor, and educator. Her published works include the two novels Spiritland andNo Perfect Words, as well as a collection of short stories titled Mating In Captivity. In 2009, she conceived and edited the first volume of Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of XXperimental Prose by Contemporary Women Writers. She works as program coordinator at the Women’s Center at Brooklyn College/CUNY. Natalie Nuzzo, also co-editor of the anthology, is a writer and teacher from Brooklyn, NY whose poetry has been published in Overpass Books, Having a Whiskey Coke with You, NAP, and The Medical Chronicles. She is the author of two chapbooks,Birdland and the forthcoming Reconstruction.
About the second edition of this anthology, Wreckage of Reason II, Nava Renek writes: “Using form and language, our tools at hand, women in this collection leave the literal chronicling to others. Instead, they are genre benders, syntax grinders, consciously and unconsciously chipping away at language and construct to capture a dimension that is familiar, yet also unrecognizable. These stories illustrate moments of conflict, amusement, bafflement and joy that make up a day, a year, a life, a collective history.” While the writing here is far more concerned with life’s moments as captured by words and voices than with linguistic dexterity for its own sake, many of the stories deftly weave formal ideas and abstract theories into scenes and character portrayals to achieve a different kind of immediacy in their sweeps of poetic fancy and explorations of interior states of being.
In a 2000 interview titled “Against Postmodernism, etcetera—A Conversation with Susan Sontag,” the interviewer, Evans Chan, asked Sontag about the beginning rise of commercial literary books bundled together under the label “postmodernism.” Chan posed his question poignantly, summing up the burgeoning trend in publishing that was just starting to take over the literary landscape. “We’ve seen high culture or the so-called canon besieged by popular culture and multiculturalism,” Chan’s question to Sontag began. “We now live in an age of total eclecticism and global interpenetration, which many people, including myself, call the postmodern. So far, your reaction to postmodernism seems largely inimical. And you refused to allow the Camp sensibility that you helped make famous to be co-opted by the postmodernists because ‘Camp taste… still presupposes the older, high standards of discrimination’ (Writing Itself, 439).”
Sontag’s answer was equally pointed and powerful, and it included a foreboding of what was on the horizon for a literary culture that was clearly coming under increasing threat. For two decades, and in defiance of occasional adversaries and naysayers, she had served as one of its most vocal critical voices and visionaries. “I never thought I was bridging the gap between high and low cultures,” Sontag began in response to Chan’s question. “I am unquestioningly, without any ambiguity or irony, loyal to the canon of high culture… the way writers are being relabeled as postmodern (now) is at times baffling… That’s when I get off the bus. In my view, what’s called postmodernism—that is, the making everything equivalent—is the perfect ideology for consumerist capitalism. It is an idea of accumulation, of preparing people for their shopping expeditions. These are not critical ideas…”
What, then, is modernism in literature and writing and what is postmodernism? In The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, s.v.), Chris Baldick provides a useful definition of literary modernism: “A general term applied retrospectively to the wide range of experimental and avant-garde trends in the literature (and other arts) of the early 20th century… Modernist literature is characterized chiefly by a rejection of 19th-century traditions and of their consensus between author and reader, conventions of realism… or traditional meter.” Modernism grew from a dissatisfaction with the bourgeois values which, the Modernists believed, stifled the novel, forcing a linear structure and an overly moralistic, limited sense of human nature onto it. Literary Modernism was influenced in no small part by the new psychological theories of Freud, William James, and others. Rather than seeing literature as telling a moral tale of manners with a beginning, middle, and end, a new kind of novel was being born where characters had interior lives compelled by unconscious forces. Writers such as Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, and James Joyce explored ways of expressing the flow of characters’ thoughts in their stream-of-consciousness styles. Fragmentary images, complex allusions, and multiple points of views changed the novel as we were to know it, forever.
Postmodernism, on the other hand, is an eclectic literary form, one that uses a multiplicity of techniques including those weaned from public media sources including TV, pop music, movies, and popular comic books. The Oxford Dictionary defines postmodernism as “a late-20th-century style and concept in the arts criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of ‘art.’” Typical features include a deliberate mixing of different artistic styles and media, the self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions, and often the incorporation of images relating to the consumerism and mass communication of late-20th-century postindustrial society. It is often a literature of fragmentation, unreliable narrators, and is often defined as a style or trend which emerged in the post–World War II era.”
To a certain degree, and in retrospect, Sontag’s words from 2000 can be taken as prophetic. For fourteen years later, it feels that the possibilities available to an anthology of experimental literary works for finding visibility and favor in our current “literary” environment is slimmer than it was at the end of Sontag’s life. For so many of our current mainstream publishers, reviewers, reading public, and bookstores, experimental writing falls into both contemptible categories: it is both modernist and postmodernist. Expressing and incorporating some ideas and ideologies of contemporary psychology, philosophy, politics and history, it also can fall into the dreaded category of difficult, inaccessible, avant-garde writing, condemned for not having entertaining plots in the drugstore paperback sense of the word. Experimental writers are heirs to the writing of the last generations’ formidable work who left a legacy of depth and experiment and courage, and included postmodernist writers such as Marguerite Duras, Anaïs Nin, William Burroughs, Toni Morrison, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Gaddis, John Hawkes, Gunther Grass, Christa Wolf, Doris Lessing, John Barth, Susan Sontag, James Purdy, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass (the distinguished list is too long to include all of them here) as well as recent Noble Prize-winning authors of their tradition, such as Herta Muller and Efriede Jelinek, both of whom are largely abandoned in our wider literary culture, as if irrelevant.
What, then, can one rightly call experimental or genuinely “literary” work in these contemporary murky waters? It would seem to me, first and foremost, that the work and writer would have rejected the entertainment values that have become so pervasive in the reviewing culture, and would not have indicted, as the known reviewer, Lev Grossman, did in his 2007 article in The Wall Street Journal, Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard, the concept and practice of modernism itself. The article, through an inaccurate depiction of modernism, tries to make a case against a literary heritage that simply cannot be pulled so flippantly and irresponsibly from its roots; it is a disturbing call to arms to undo an entire legacy that has served as a foundation for generations of history’s most important and compelling writers. One could easily believe, perhaps, that the emotional and pained reactions to the question of whether and under what circumstances serious writing can survive these perilously contrary conditions are due to a generational fault line of sorts. After all, the generation of writers influenced by postmodernist and modernist writers is aging, approaching their fifties, sixties, and seventies. Perhaps, it can be reasoned, feeling exiled from the scene comes with age and inevitable obsolescence. Nonetheless, there is abundant indication that something else is at work in the publishing/reviewing world. For example, here a very young, Granta-selected writer involved with the current scene confronts the problem: In the January 2014 issue of Granta, Xiaolu Guo asks: Why Do We Still Pretend We Are Free? “The writer and filmmaker on her encounters with commercial censorship,” Granta reporter Reed Cooley writes, “Xiaolu Guo doesn’t hide her qualms about Western publishing. Last week the London-based novelist and filmmaker made book-world news when she told Jonathan Franzen and the rest of a panel at the Jaipur Literature Festival that American lit is ‘massively overrated.’ She took issue in particular with a simplistic brand of narrative realism that she says has been foisted upon readers worldwide, saying that, in Asia, ‘our reading habit has been stolen and changed.’ Conservatism with regard to form, she told me in an interview, is just one piece of the ‘commercial censorship’ that pervades New York publishing houses. ‘I couldn’t believe it. I had lived most of my life in China, and I didn’t know that political and commercial censorship for fiction existed in the United States.’” Xiaolu Guo herself told Cooley in the interview that “Self-censorship happens not only in China, or Iran, or ex-Soviet places. It can happen anywhere. If an artist penetrates a certain taboo or a certain power through their work, he or she will face this problem. I’m always saying that commercial censorship is our foremost censorship globally today.”
The growing hostility expressed by mainstream reviewers for anything written in a manner or style that isn’t consumer-friendly has largely been typified by Lev Grossman’s aforementioned WSJ piece. In this article from 2007, Grossman declared that modernism is dead and it’s a good thing, for modernism was responsible for the plotless, meandering prose that brought down so-called real novels of plot and good old-fashioned narrative. For Grossman and his contemporary generation of reviewers, modernist and postmodernist work attracts a small audience and offers an unpleasant, snobby reading experience, chiefly designed for “prigs” (a term loosely thrown around in articles I have since read at salon.com).
Modernism is and was a negative force, Grossman argues in his article as he conjures up the avant-garde as a Nietzschean anti-Christ: hermetic, unnecessarily difficult, effete, elitist, inaccessible, likely to attract only a small audience (a small audience being of course completely undemocratic and “elitist”). Oddly, in this provocative and controversial article, Grossman has no difficulty in wrongly (or, at best, loosely) referencing modernism to make his points. He erroneously cites F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms as modernist works, though both novels are plot-driven, tightly woven narrative works. Grossman goes on to state that the Modernists actually had a “conspiracy against plot,” asking: “Where did this conspiracy come from in the first place—the plot against plot? I blame the Modernists.” He continues: “from a hieratic, hermetic art object the novel is blooming into something more casual and open: a literature of pleasure. The critics will have to catch up. This new breed of novel resists interpretation, but not the way the Modernists did. These books require a different set of tools, and a basic belief that plot and literary intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive.” According to Grossman, “In fact the true postmodern novel is here, hiding in plain sight. We just haven’t noticed it because we’re looking in the wrong aisle. We were trained—by the Modernists, who else—to expect a literary revolution to be a revolution of the avant-garde: typographically altered, grammatically shattered, rhetorically obscure. Difficult, in a word. This is different. It’s a revolution from below, up from the supermarket racks. ” Whether we are really prepared to believe this is another matter entirely.
The range of the stories in this volume of Wreckage of Reason II is vast and far-reaching. There are thirty-three selections, among which are playfully reconstituted myths and fairy tales, experimental flash fiction, and sexually pungent satires that are presented alongside powerful stories about violence and loss, mothers and daughters, lovers and spouses, political horrors and existential loneliness, erotic visions and happenings. Each of them seemed to come from a commitment to literary risk, exploration, and playfulness and a tacit disregard of marketability. For that, the selections are unusually wrought, evincing precisely articulated literary intentions. Space will not allow me to include each and every one of them, yet each was unusual and lively, a truth on it own twirling axis. Hence, I decided to highlight the diversity and magic of the collection through four that work together well.
Lynda Shor is a brilliant, well-known satirist, painfully astute and sexually pungent in language and imagery. Colonel Sanders Does It Right, a story about a woman not quite in love, is among her best, with descriptions of food and eating and even Colonel Sanders taking on erotic contours and meaning, leaving ambiguity and nuance at play:
I watch him as he bites into the drumstick he holds between both forefingers and thumbs. A bit of the crust stays in the corner of his mouth. When a small piece drops into his lap, he somewhat self-consciously hunts for it. Colonel Sanders has invented a special method of quick-frying chicken, so all the flavor and juices are locked inside. He has also created a blend of eleven herbs and spices that make up his fried chickens’ enticing and unforgettable flavor. Before I met Charlie I ate crab salad every day, carefully cracking the red shells with my teeth and pulling out the meat, gently but firmly—just the right tension…
In all about love, nearly, Andrea Scrima, known for her extraordinary novel A Lesser Day, expresses the discomfort she experiences at the dissolution of an affair, circling in a series of penetrating questions that ask where to even begin to understand what went wrong, how to even begin to understand:
And afterwards, for months, an agony of absence: running my tongue along my own flesh to recapture some sliver of that day, the way it zoomed out in all directions at once like a bomb exploding in slow motion, creating not a cloud of hurtling debris, but a perfect reality unfurling in some other dimension. Odd how disembodied the carnal instincts can be. And afterwards, my mind careening back to that day again and again: the floating stillness, the quiet, carnivorous inhalation of one another’s being. Incomprehensible to live in a world where I couldn’t close my eyes and transport myself back to that hotel room, at will, instantly.
Margarita Meklina brilliantly shows us the lives Russian immigrants live in her story The Jump:
Each document he would send her made her feel closer to her maternal relatives killed in Ukraine in a decrepit ravine: she was half-Jewish, and he was half-joking, she hoped, when telling her about his fantasies. When she would fail to respond, he would force a new suggestion on her: “Why should it be that you are on the sunny West Coast and I’m on the sexless East Coast; couldn’t we meet in between?”
And in Frankly Fucked Up in E-Town, Lyndee Yamshon takes on the family dynamics of an American Midwest dysfunctional family with much éclat and power:
I was living in my parent’s attic in Evanston after leaving New York where I had giving up acting and a full-time reporting gig. This panopticonic existence on the highest floor was a sort of punishment during the purgatory of my life. I had encouraged my father to believe I was mentally deficient, but I was unable to live up to frail Anne Frank’s persona in the attic, and would soon be forced to work. Female upper middle class leisure without any actual leisure = mental absurdity. Without World War II or the threat of anti-Semitism, especially in the neo-liberal Evanston college town of hippie yippies, I was shit out of luck. … I’m swimming in a vast, infinite ocean. The current is wild, and the waves surge into my pores and begin to suffocate me.
In this anthology, there is some good news for literature—in fact there is some wonderful news. Or as Andrea Scrima, one of its contributors, told me: “It reminds me that I’m not the only person who expects something else from writing, something essential and true. What strikes me is that, contrary to the accusations often leveled at ‘experimental’ writing (that there is no concern for or interest in the reader, or in story etc.), these pieces aren’t nearly as self-indulgent as a lot of the fiction out there—instead, they are spare, economic, serious and playful and mischievous, tightly woven with an awareness of the weight of each word; they find simple, remarkable ways to match the unwieldiness of language to the fleeting ephemera of inner experience, memory, ordinary occurrences. …What I mean is, it is possible to pare language down and leave only the essential, and this is what writing can be—again. I have no idea why American fiction has become so uniform in voice and tone, so alike in message, so predictable. There are amazing exceptions, there always are.”
I hope for many more anthologies like this one. My hope is with the cost-effective publishing possible now with ebooks, we can look both forward and backward again—not through the biased glasses of consumerist publishers that have stunted the freedom of independent writers and presses, but through the corrective lenses of a braver group of innovators like these that have refused, against all odds, to surrender their vision.
Leora is the author of Hystera. Her first novel, Edges, will be re-published by The Story Plant in the fall. You can learn more at our website.