Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity

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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

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