Late Breaking: William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg, and Rob Wittig post from Notre Dame University on the &Now festival of writers and writing.
April 5-6, 2004
W: Compared to the Holocaust Conference going on up in Massachusetts this weekend, I think &Now was an especially fun place to be. The preisenters were freaks for the most part, freaks and Lydia Davis, from the fringes of word art. Those who write and have other people publish books of stories or poems were probably in the minority. There was abundant electronica, collaborative text-collage performance, multimedia performance fiction, text-image-sound, and even a critic.
Compared to AWP in Chicago last month (4600 in attendance), the frightening barren gothic oppressively mirthless tornadoproof Cambridge WWII Air Raid ambiance of Notre Dame University and small number of people in attendance ensured an opportunity to feel satisfied one had connected with a good number of other attendees without the distractions of being in an interesting city. FC2 was the largest and most mainstream publisher represented on the book table. Xexoxial Endarchy had the largest table. Except for the spooky Crucifix-encrusted hotel rooms with twin twin beds (did we have to show a marriage license to get a king-sized?) across the street from the happenings, the vibe was quite good.
Compared to E-Fest at Brown this February, the electronic work was presented in a fitting context: experimental literature, the focus being words rather than computers. Gone was the flavor of the dichotomy, print against electronic, "the End of Books."
Instead we see fires of enthusiasm burning across the country, their wires leading back to the ELO, Coover, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Experimental literature is also a better context to present electronic work than professional literature (as with the generally underattended freak show Web Fair at AWP). The Unknown was booed off the stage but we were totally drunk.
S: Don't believe the hype. The Unknown were stone cold sober, and warmly received by the six or seven folks attending our presentation (McCaffery's strip tease with House of Leaves was pulling from our draw, otherwise there would have been multitudes). Aside from that I totally agree with William. There was an exquisite vibe at the &Now conference and several exquisite corpses as well. It's the first time in a long time that I've been to a conference at which the writers outnumbered the critics.
In terms of a way to introduce electronic literature to literary culture, &Now was a near-ideal environment. Almost everyone at &Now was doing something well outside the mainstream: subversive fiction, fiction that involved combinatory and/or balloter techniques, fiction that was concerned with materiality in a way that most fiction is not: aggressively weird word-works. Nearly everyone there was writing in a way that is not taught in writing workshops. Perhaps because of that, there seemed to be an openness to new forms. Hypertext is just one of many strange things that writers can do with words to interesting effect. &Now was a gathering of writers who work in forms outside of the mainstream, and there was a remarkable spirit of simple curiosity. I only missed one morning session and wish that I had been able to attend all of the sessions. A bunch of writers were sharing their strange work with other writers. You felt compelled to attend, and listen, and watch. Although the principle medium was print, there were a variety of stories told in fragments (Lydia Davis' exceptional short short stories among them), stories that involved combinatory strategies, stories that were overwritings of other stories, stories that made use of aleatory material, stories that utilized multiple media (such as books published with audio CDs) or Debra DiBlasi's multimedia performance, stories that were authored by multiple collaborators, stories that used images, drawings, collages, and photographs as narrative material. One refreshing aspect of the conference was that there were no sharp divisions drawn between electronic and non-electronic work. Stephanie Strickland's e-poem "V:Inverse" appeared in the same session as work presented by two experimental novelists.
As William noted, one thing that is often lacking at gatherings of electronic literati is what for lack of better term I would call a literary context. While ELO, DAC, trAce, Hypertext, etc. conferences are always informative and often exhilarating and it's beneficial for those of us working in the field to get together on these occasions to share ideas and renew our sense of community, sometimes there's a sense of disconnect from writing and the arts made for other media. Likewise, when e-writing shows its face at professional gatherings such as the MLA and AWP, it often seems marginalized, something only begrudgingly included in the sub-basement of literature. &Now was a refreshing turn from that. Steve Tomasula did a great job of bringing writers working on margins together in South Bend.
The conference also got me thinking that one thing the ELO should do is help people like Steve who are interested in putting together such festivals to mobilize an e-writing contingent. While folks like Miekal And, Stephanie Strickland, Rob Wittig, Mark Marino, and The Unknown were present at &Now, Steve mentioned to me that he was hoping a few more electronic writers could show up. And it would be interesting to see other combinations: a festival of electronic writers and avant garde painters, a festival of electronic writers and designers, a festival of electronic writers and performance artists. While the combinations of electronic writers, theorists and critics; electronic writers, librarians, and archivists; electronic writers, and digital artists; and electronic writers and programmers that we see at the dominant conferences in our field are fruitful ones, it would also be refreshing to participate in more gatherings that are focused more essentially on sharing interesting work made for multiple media.
I think that the e-writers in attendance learned as much about making interesting work from Lydia Davis' generous asides about her writing process and her anxieties about creating as we do from any critical analysis of hypertext structures. Although her output of fiction has not been prolific, Davis has managed to create four landmark books, Break It Down (1986), The End of the Story (1995), Almost No Memory (1997), and Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2001), at the interstices of a literary career dominated by translations of French literature. Davis writes gems which, in their brevity, help us find poetry in the banal details of everyday life. Davis described writing as a kind of daily struggle - she said that she arrived at the short-short form by setting a constraint of writing two new "things" every day for a period. Some of the "things" developed into longer stories, others into aphorisms of only a paragraph or a few sentences. Davis also said that when she puts together a book, she does not restrict herself to new material, but digs deep into her notebooks to revive stories from her past. She doesn't necessarily see her books in a progression. Her books of short fiction are arrangements from a pool of writing that stretches back decades. She quite humbly described writing as a process very much like gardening, an activity which yields fruit over a long period of time. In response to a question by Rob Wittig, she said that she keeps notebooks obsessively - different notebooks for different activities and even in different rooms of her house, and that most of her published work originated in those notebooks, in observations jotted down in interstitial moments of her life.
Michael Joyce, the author of the legendary hypertext Afternoon, a story, was one of the writers in attendance. Joyce, having semi-publicly retired from electronic writing, is now working with artist Alexandra Grant on her paintings and wire sculptures which utilize texts by Joyce to create word-images and word-sculptures that transfer some of the ideas and structures of hypertext into a physical space. Although Joyce isn't writing for the electronic media anymore, in a way he is still writing hypertext. Like many of us, Joyce is using some of the ideas from his electronic work in a different medium. I think that Joyce's transition is emblematic of a dialogue that we all should be engaged in. What can game-makers learn from sculptors? What can e-poets learn from architects?
Ultimately it matters less that we are electronic writers or digital artists than it does that we are writers and artists, experimenting in forms old and new. Perhaps the division between electronic writing and print writing will eventually break down and we will simply create and study 21st Century writing, which manifests itself in different forms in multiple media.
R: I agree with William and Scott. Kudos to Steve Tomasula for a great gathering! It lived up to its billing - "festival" indeed!
DESIGNERS AND WRITERS
Stephanie Strickland, during a discussion of teaching-for-money and art-making-for-soul and design-world-compared-with-literary-world (over gigantic bloody-rare steaks), said it best: "Designers know how to play, and they get the conceptual stuff right away." There it is. The two points that keep me traveling back and forth between the literary and design worlds and matchmaking collaborations. Many solid experiments with such commingling were on display at &Now.
PERSONAL FIRST IMPRESSIONS
It's been a while since I've been in a literary setting (and this one was much more fun and lively than the usual). I tried to use that freshness to make some simple observations.
1_Not many of us are interested in this kind of writing.
2_Across the board, across age, medium, and strategy, there is a pretty consistent writing style here - a flat, pseudo-scientific or pseudo-historical prose with few rhythmic changes to break the smooth surface. Like a style that has forgotten that it began as a parody. Little variety in sentence structure. A specialized Literary Vocabulary used only in work like this. The flat style feels to me like it's used to distance writer and reader from emotion, as though emotion can only be handled through a heavy fire-suit with yard-long tongs. I was going: I want Speedos and bikinis! Hugs and kisses! I want confetti! Extravagance! Baroque style! Generosity! Jokes and stunts! Color and drumming! Silliness-and-seriousness, rather than seriousness-and-seriousness.
3_As people, the writers seem like a group of courageous shy people.
4_The Norwegian student who traveled all the way from Oslo for the festival was quite surprised that nearly all the writers earned their livings by teaching at the university level.
David Matlin (whose reading I missed, unfortunately) spoke eloquently over breakfast of the cultural energy of the Northern Baja California region of Mexico, particularly the cities of Tijuana and Mexicali. Adds to the list of clues that makes SW California / NW Baja sound very happening these days.
A wonderful discovery of the festival for me was the painting of Maria Tomasula, which some of us got to see during one of the two parties held on festival nights at Casa Tomasula. Precise, eerie, smart, haunting, the panels occasioned lively conversation and a chorus of oohs and ahhs. She has a show coming up soon.
Author Michael Martone read his hip-pocket definition of Postmodernism = the shocking of the avant garde by the middle class (e.g. Jerry Springer, et al.) Nice quip. It struck me overall at the conference that there was a danger of believing that one's education in historic avant gardes somehow confers automatic avant garde status on one's own work. For all the quirky craftsmanship and dedicated pursuit of weirdness in the &Now Festival writing, this particular avant garde still seemed to me to be pretty much in the caboose of culture. Martone also has developed a nice image of universities as "cold storage" for cultural practices (like the cold storage for nearly-eliminated diseases the government doesn't quite want to get rid of yet). Reminded me of my old vision of Grand Opera performances, and certain poetry readings as "historical reenactments" of a once-living art form (a la reenactments of Civil War Battles).
Eduardo Kac 's short, but punchy, presentation - a speculative list of possible bio-literary projects like texts written in bee-dance language for an audience of bees, or molecules created to spell words, or texts translated into DNA sequences and then read back generations later - was refreshing.
After a couple of decades of computing science being the pet scientific discipline of progressive writers - what one might call the Space Age - biology is now the pet scientific discipline of progressive writers; in particular 1) genomics, and 2) the neuroscience of emotion; Literature as an elaborate method for triggering the production of seratonin and dopamine.
What this may mean in practical terms is that presentations of computer-based or computer-assisted literature may no longer begin with descriptions of the technology, but will launch right into performance, mood, and story. The computer itself is moving into the background as a tool or substrate.
What makes Larry McCaffery different from so many critics is his ATTITUDE of CGP - Curiosity, Generosity, Playfulness.
W: One of the things I most admire about Larry as a critic is that, increasingly, he is less interested in literature than in the desert. And he's right: the desert is more interesting. He took us driving in Borrego, frightened us a bit, and at the &Now conference he always had something good to drop into the Q and A. He knew Lydia from San Diego circa 1980 when they would play Boggle together on the edge of things. He knows everybody. He's Vollman's chauffeur and Federman's caddy/archivist. Starting as a science fiction or Robert Coover scholar, he drifted along every cool fringe. His specialty may be his interviews, available in several volumes as well as many periodicals. His influence on FC2 led to the imprint Black Ice books, with its rigorous list, dedicated to a high weirdness-to-consumer-cost ratio. Among their titles is the malignant classic Hogg, by Samuel Delany. Larry has pushed criticism in directions that are fearsome, experimental, and strikingly nonacademic, including some wonderful essays on rock and roll. See his collage-essay in the Review of Contemporary Fiction (Barthelme number). Or see the recent issue featuring Japanese fiction, edited by Larry. In fact Larry's been all over the Review for quite awhile, and American Book Review, and the Journal of Experimental Fiction (Federman issue). See Storming the Reality Studio, the cyberpunk anthology, for a stinging taste of the 1980s. That was my first McCaffery. See the avant-criticism McCaffery Archive, updated when Larry feels nostalgic. But usually he's looking into the future.