Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built from Scraps

Both of my parents were journalists. My mini-rebellion was to become a fiction writer. I wrote three novels, but trying to write my fourth, I couldn’t commit the requisite resources to character and scene and plot—apparently, pretty important elements of a novel. This book, Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity, became a literary collage, and that was my Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole moment. I’ve never touched terra firma again. All of my books since have been literary collage. I love literature, but I don’t love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. We live in a post-narrative, post-novel world. Plots are for dead people. Novelly novels exist, of course, and whenever I’m on a plane, it’s all I see everyone reading, but they function for us as nostalgia: when we read traditional novels, we get to pretend that life is still coherent. Twenty years ago I was hired by the University of Washington creative writing program to teach fiction. However, by the mid-1990s I had stopped writing or reading much if any fiction. I felt after a while as if I were taking money under slightly false pretenses, so in order to justify my existence to myself, my colleagues, and my students, about ten years ago I developed a course in the self-reflexive gesture in essay and documentary film. The course reader was an enormous, unwieldy, blue packet of hundreds upon hundreds of statements about nonfiction, literary collage, lyric essay. That course packet was my life raft: it was teaching me what it was I was trying to write. Each year, the course packet became less unwieldy, less full of repetitions and typographical errors, contained more and more of my own writing, and I saw how I could push the statements—by me and by others—into rubrics or categories. All the material about hip-hop would go into its own chapter. So, too, the material about reality TV, memory, doubt, risk, genre, the reality-based community, brevity, collage, contradiction, doubt, etc. Twenty-six chapters; 618 mini-sections. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto has created quite a lot of controversy, so this may sound disingenuous on my part, or falsely ingenuous, but all the book really ever was to me was that blue-binder life-raft: it was a book in which I was articulating for myself, and my students, and my peers, and any fellow-travelers who might want to come along for the ride, the aesthetic tradition out of which I was writing. It wasn’t the novel. And it wasn’t memoir. It was something else. Hard to define, but it had to do with the idea that all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one; if you want to write serious books, you must be ready to break the forms; it’s a commonplace that every book needs to find its own form, but how many really do? And here was the big break: I realized how perfectly the appropriated and remixed words embodied my argument: just as I was arguing for work that occupied a liminal space between genres, so, too, I wanted the reader to experience in my mash-up the dubiety of the first-person pronoun; I wanted the reader to not quite able to tell who was talking—was it me or Sonny Rollins or Emerson or Nietzsche or Frank Rich or, weirdly, none of us or all of us at the same time? Until that point, I never thought a great deal about the degree to which the book appropriated and remixed other people’s words. It seemed perfectly natural to me. I love the work of a lot of contemporary visual artists whose work is bound up with appropriation—Richard Prince, Sherry Levine, Cindy Sherman, Elaine Sturtevant, Warhol. And I’ve been listening to rap for thirty years. Why in the world would contemporary writing not be able to keep pace with the other arts? My publisher, Knopf, which is a division of Random House, which is a subset of Bertelsmann, a multinational, mutli-billion-dollar corporation, didn’t quite see it the same way. I consulted numerous copyright attorneys, and I wrote many impassioned memos to my editor and the Random House legal department. At one point, I considered publishing the book on my own. Random House and I worked out a compromise whereby there would be no citations throughout the text, but there would be an appendix in the back with citations in very, very small type (if you’re over fifty, good luck reading it). I received permissions from everyone I quoted, including many whose work fell well within fair use.  Quite a few of the citations are of the “I can’t quite remember where this is from, though it sounds like fourth-generation Sartre; endless is the search for truth” variety. The appendix is prefaced by a disclaimer in which I explain that “I’m writing to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost,” and I urge the reader to “grab a sharp pair of scissors and remove the appendix along the dotted vertical line. . . . Stop; don’t read any farther.” Numerous bloggers appear to think I’m the anti-Christ because I don’t genuflect at the twin altars of the novel and intellectual property (there’s a misnomer if ever there was one).  I’ve become the poster boy for The Death of the Novel and The End of Copyright. Fine by me. Those have become something close to my positions. However, when I began, I was just trying to follow the Kafka dictum “A book should be an axe to break the frozen sea within us.” My literary sea was frozen, and this book was my axe. Art, like science, progresses. Forms evolve. Forms are there to serve the culture, and when they die, they die for a good reason. The novel is dead. Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps. See Also: All Great Works of Literature Either Dissolve a Genre or Invent One: A Reading List

All Great Works of Literature Either Dissolve a Genre or Invent One: A Reading List

Three books, each of which asks what is for me the only serious question: given that we die, and given that there is no god, how do we find purpose in existence? Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage. This may sound unpromising: Dyer tries and fails to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence, but the book conveys Lawrence better than any conventional biography, and more importantly, it asks the question: how and why do we get up in the morning? In many ways, it’s a thinking person’s how-to book. How to live your life with passion when you know every passion is delusional, is drained of meaning. Dyer can’t commit to place, to relationship, to art, because he can always see the opposite position. Dyer’s conclusion: “The best we can do is try to make some progress with our studies of D.H. Lawrence.” By getting up in the morning, we get up in the morning. By not writing our biographies of D.H. Lawrence, we write our biographies of D.H. Lawrence. I reread this book at least once a year. J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello My favorite book of Coetzee’s, by far, because chapter by chapter it takes a commitment that Coetzee, in previous books, affirmed and now undermines: politics, sex, love, art, animal rights. This book is a series of lectures Coetzee actually gave, but it’s now a fictional character named Elizabeth Costello who gives the lectures. The book hovers between fiction and nonfiction, as for me, so many of the most exciting books do. By the end of the book, the only thing Coetzee can affirm, the only thing Costello affirms, is the belling of frogs emerging from mud. The animal life of sheer survival. I love how joyous and despairing that is: it’s affirmation, but along a very narrow margin. My favorite books are candid beyond candid, and they proceed form this assumption: We’ll all be dead in 100 years. Here, now, in this book, I’m going to cut to the absolute bone. David Markson, This Is Not a Novel. A book built almost entirely out of other writers’ lines, some attributed, many not. One of the pleasures of reading the book is recognizing so many of the passages. A bibliophile’s wet dream, but it’s no mere collection of quotes. It’s a sustained meditation on this single question: against death, what consolation if any is art? Against the dark night of death, what solace is it that we still read Sophocles? For Sophocles, Markson implies, not a lot, but for us, maybe a little. Markson constantly toggles back and forth between affirming the timelessness of art and mocking such grandiosity. Even for readers who don’t recognize the quotations, the book will prove provocative, because it forces you to ask yourself: what do you push back with? I seem to like books that help you get out of bed, but just barely. These books do that, with ferocious and, for me, life-affirming honesty. A reading list: Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams Renata Adler, Speedboat James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Hilton Als, The Women W.H. Auden, A Certain World Augustine, Confessions Nicholson Baker, U and I, A Box of Matches James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot, Nothing to be Frightened Of Roland Barthes, S/Z Jo Ann Beard, The Boys of My Youth Samuel Beckett, Proust Alan Bennett, Writing Home Sandra Bernhard, Without You I’m Nothing Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein’s Nephew John Berryman, The Dream Songs Grégoire Bouillier, The Mystery Guest, Report on Myself Jorge Luis Borges, Other Inquisitions Joe Brainard, I Remember Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America Sophie Calle, Exquisite Pain Albert Camus, The Fall Mary Cappello, Awkward Anne Carson, Plainwater Terry Castle, “My Heroin Christmas” John Cheever, Journals Frank Conroy, Stop-Time E.M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist Billy Collins, The Art of Drowning Bernard Cooper, Maps to Anywhere Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave Douglas Coupland, Generation X John D’Agata, About a Mountain Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm Thomas DeQuincey, Confessions of an Opium-Eater Joan Didion, “Sentimental Journeys” Annie Dillard, For the Time Being Marguerite Duras, The Lover Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes Brian Fawcett, Cambodia F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up E.M. Forster, Commonplace Book Joe Frank, In the Dark Amy Fusselman, The Pharmacist’s Mate, 8 Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments, The End of the Novel of Love Simon Gray, The Smoking Diaries Spalding Gray, Morning, Noon, and Night Barry Hannah, Boomerang Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights Kathryn Harrison, The Kiss John Haskell, I Am Not Jackson Pollock Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom-House” William James, Varieties of Religious Experience Frank Kafka, Letter to My Father David Kirby, The House on Boulevard Street Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat Charles Lamb, The Essays of Elia Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classical American Literature Denis Leary, No Cure for Cancer Michel Leiris, Manhood Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip Jonathan Lethem, The Disappointment Artist Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing Ross McElwee, Sherman’s March Rosemary Mahoney, Down the Nile Rian Malan, My Traitor’s Heart Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay David Markson, Reader’s Block, Vanishing Point, The Last Novel Carole Maso, The Art Lover Herman Melville, Moby-Dick Daniel Mendelsohn, The Elusive Embrace Leonard Michaels, Shuffle Michel de Montaigne, The Essays of Montaigne Danger Mouse, The Grey Album Vladimir Nabokov, Gogol V.S. Naipaul, A Way in the World Maggie Nelson, Bluets Friederich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys” Blaise Pascal, Pensées Don Patterson, Best Thought, Worst Thought Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time Jonathan Raban, For Love & Money James Richardson, Vectors Alain Robbe-Grillet, Ghosts in the Mirror François Le Rochefoucauld, Maxims Rick Reynolds, Only the Truth Is Funny Chris Rock, Bring the Pain Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants Wallace Shawn, My Dinner with André Sarah Silverman, Jesus Is Magic Lauren Slater, Lying Gilbert Sorrentino, The Moon in its Flight Art Spiegelman, Maus Jean Stafford, A Mother in History Stendahl, On Love Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy Jean Stein, Edie Melanie Thernstrom, The Dead Girl Jean Toomer, Cane Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War George W.S. Trow, My Pilgrim’s Progress, Within the Context of No Context Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (prologue) D.J. Waldie, Holy Land Joe Wenderoth, Letters to Wendy’s Geoffrey Wolff, The Duke of Deception See Also: Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built from Scraps

A Year in Reading: David Shields

Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist (there are passages in this book that I love as much as anything Baker has ever written--which is saying something) Grégoire Bouillier, The Mystery Guest (I reread this book seemingly monthly, attempting--futilely--to figure out how he managed this brief, perfect magic trick.) Joe Brainard, I Remember (I'm very late to the party on this book, but it's an extraordinary assemblage of seemingly unconnected--in fact, profoundly interconnected--sentences) Albert Camus, The Fall (see The Mystery Guest) Robert Clark, The Angel of Doubt (an as yet unpublished manuscript; a gorgeously written, deeply felt, and relentlessly smart sequence of intereconnected essays about religion, art, and sex, not necessarily in that order) Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave (see The Mystery Guest) John D'Agata, About a Mountain (a beautiful embodiment of what is to me a central principle of great nonfiction: it's not remotely about what it purports to be about) Amy Fusselman, The Pharmacist's Mate (see The Mystery Guest) Simon Gray, The Smoking Diaries (4 volumes of diaries; read together, they dwarf his plays and are commensurate, I swear to god, with Proust) Spalding Gray, Morning, Noon, and Night (see The Mystery Guest) David Kirby, The House on Boulevard Street (very late to the party on Kirby, too; I love his work; "poetry as well-written as prose," as good ole Ez said) Phillip Lopate, Notes on Sontag (I disagree with Lopate's assessment--in my view, too generous--but I love the book) Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay (one of the least sentimental and most deeply emotional books I've ever read) Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain (see above) Maggie Nelson, Bluets (utterly brilliant) Brevity: Blaise Pascal, Pensées; Don Patterson, Best Thought, Worst Thought; François Le Rochefoucauld, Maxims Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima Mon Amour (the screenplay; the best book she ever wrote) Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (where it all started and ended) More from A Year in Reading