Soft Links of Innovative Narrative in North America
The recent anthology Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative acts as a companion to the online collection Narrativity: A Critical Journal of Innovative Narrative. The editors, Mary Burger, Robert Glück, Camille Roy, and Gail Scott, create a space for a much needed discussion of the radical experiments in narrative that have been happening across North America over the last twenty-five years. The collection's innovation of narrative also crosses over into a refreshing innovation of the anthology genre itself. Unlike traditional anthologies that categorize literature as a method of canonization, the pieces collected in Biting the Error enact the inverse by imploding genres of writing and identity to eschew categorization. The essays traverse the genres of fiction, poetry, theory, and autobiography to enact, rather than describe, the narrative experimentation they discuss. Rather than collecting pieces by writers of a particular nation or identity, the anthology maps a series of intersecting literary communities located in different North American cities all engaged in erring the narrative form, including among others: San Francisco, Montreal, New York, Vancouver, and Toronto. The book collects many pieces originally published in Narrativity, new pieces written for the occasion of the anthology, as well as older essays by writers such as Robert Glück and Kathy Acker. The forty-eight contributors do not coalesce into a single identity category and represent a diverse range of approaches to narrative; they include: Aaron Shurin, Pamela Lu, Kevin Killian, Nathalie Stephens, Chris Kraus, Jeff Derksen, Steve McCaffery, heriberto yépez and Carla Harryman.
Biting the Error is reminiscent of other important anthologies, such as Collaboration in the Feminine: Writings on Women and Culture from TESSERA (1994) and The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (1984), which document journal publications as sites of literary production and community to expand and continue conversations with wider audiences. These two prior anthologies, although different from one another, also directly influence the aesthetic and political concerns of the many of the writers in Biting the Error. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (1984) edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, which collects issues of the journal of the same title and establishes an identity for Language writing in North America. Many of the writers in Biting the Error acknowledge that they want the same kind of recognition by scholars that Language writing has managed to gain as a literary movement.
The New Narrative movement started by Robert Glück and Bruce Boone in San Francisco as a reaction to Language Writing is positioned in the opening section "Approximate: Past Present" in Biting the Error as one of many originary moments for contemporary prose experimentation. Centered around queer and feminist politics, the New Narrative writers position their project in opposition to Language Writing as more urgently political. They agree with the deconstruction of language's semantic capabilities in Language writing, but they also maintain that the meaning of personal experience needs to be communicated and that this need demands the invention of new narrative forms. Robert Glück articulates this struggle in the following question: "How can I convey urgent social meanings while opening or subverting the possibilities of meaning itself?" (27) New Narrative hovers on this paradox of the political need for language as representation, along with the recognition by Language poets that the representational capabilities of language are fraught with problems. Most importantly, New Narrative writers insist on making emotions and the experience of the body, both of which Language Writing seems to eclipse, the material of their stories.
Translating the experience of the body as an innovative writing praxis is also a common thread in many of the contributions in Collaboration in the Feminine, another key influence on Biting the Error. This anthology collects pieces from the Canadian bilingual feminist journal Tessera published in the 1980s to promote and develop the experimental feminist writing community in Canada. The anthology celebrates the coming together of Francophone and Anglophone Canadian women writers. The most direct connection between Collaboration and Biting the Error is the Montreal writer Gail Scott who is one of the founding editors of both Tessera and Narrativity. In her contribution to Biting the Error, "The Virgin Denotes," she highlights Quebecois 'fiction/theory' as another point of origin for North American experimental prose:
Not long after Bob's [Robert Glück's] seminal New Narrative workshops started in the late seventies (as a queer response to the absent author of late-century avant-garde poetics), Montreal's 'fiction/theory' group took issues of writing-in-the-feminine (l'ecriture au feminin) in response to French formalism's death of the author" (11).
Both groups foreground the writing subject as a subject-in-process in order to examine the ways identity can be formed and (de)formed by narrative. By dispensing with the ideology of national literatures, Biting the Error removes the borders between Canadian and American writing to engender a consideration of the commonality between fiction/theory and New Narrative.
What makes Biting the Error exciting is that it explores how urban literary communities form and prosper within a context of globalization. The anthology does not assert a national Canadian or American literature, nor does it seek to establish narrative experimentation under the rubric of a particular aesthetic school. The editors express a desire to "jump-start a community of discourse" (Roy 8) across different cities on the significance of storytelling in the postmodern context of global North America. In Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson argues that "the cultural forms of postmodernism may be said to be the first specifically North American global style" (xx). The editors of Biting the Error open up a space to investigate the possibility of this proposition by Jameson by bringing together Canadian, American, and Mexican writing that is politically engaged with issues of style and form.
It is important to note, however, that even though the anthology proposes itself as spanning from Tijuana to Montreal, on the back cover its only Mexican contributor is heriberto yépez and its only Quebecois contributor is Nicole Brossard. The editors gesture to include those from "North America" still leaves out significant groups of writers from across the continent. The monolingualism reinforces the hegemony of English in North America and excludes writers of other languages like French and Spanish. However, I would argue that it is still more inclusive than most anthologies in its representation of North American writers from different locations regardless of nationality.
The editors lament a lack of community for experimental prose as compared to poetic movements, most specifically Language Writing. However, reading the anthology, I feel as if I am entering conversations already in motion and the impetus by the editors to jump-start a community seems misplaced. By representing a diverse range of writers from various urban locations whose conversations and aesthetic projects intersect, the editors map a range of urban literary communities not subordinated to the imagined community of the nation. Biting the Error documents not only a re-imagining of how narrative works, but also how collective literary production takes place,within a postmodern context of decentered fluidity.
The problematic nexus of community, location, and narrative is expressed in the following sentence from Camille Roy's contribution: "I'm supposed to write about narrativity but these problems of locality are where I get started" (179). She cannot begin to talk about narrative form without first addressing the issue of locality. I understand locality as the subject's ability to locate herself in a place through a sense of community or connection with those around her. Jeff Derksen notes in his entry, "Text and the Site of Writing," how globalization does not efface locality completely, but rather make it fraught with contradiction. In other words, narrative discursively produces locality, while at the same time a located subjectivity (a place to speak from) is necessary to produce narrative: "The place of writing then becomes imagined as a site of intersecting discourses and lived histories: not groundless and fluid but both determined and determining" (Derksen 111). Our subjectivities and alliances with one another are determined by narrative, and the essays in Biting the Error explore how the act of writing can intervene and participate in that determining in the making of ourselves and our communities beyond nationalism. heriberto yépez writes, "experimentalism means 'identity in crisis' (158). The need to experiment with narrative form is motivated by a need to find structures to makes sense of how the postmodern self functions as a relational link in a community. How does the singular self that becomes fractured and multiple join with others and act with others? Leslie Scalapino understands the narrative function as joining the interiority of the subject with the exterior world of action: "The incommensurable relation between outside action (in the world) and interior action mind phenomena - is overtly the subject" (Scalapino 155). Narrative forms the mode of agency for translating a subject's interior thinking action with action in the world. The innovation of narrative structure creates ways for making different forms of collective action possible. By in large the writers in Biting the Error assert their compositional praxis as concerned with the intimate politics of the body, those of gender, sexuality, and race. The problem of locality, which Roy articulates, begins for many of these writers with a mapping of their bodies as the primary location of their subjectivities.
As I previously stated, Biting the Error innovates the anthology genre because it documents and maps routes between different intersecting literary communities beyond an implied or explicit nationalism. The cover image by Chris Johanson, which is a series of hand written words with blob like borders around them that overlap to form a larger splotch, conveys this preoccupation with language as a medium to map porous lines of connection. In Nicole Brossard's one page contribution, "Soft Links," she envisions "soft links" as a metaphor for how narrative joins things and people together within a postmodern context. Soft links "oblige us to stick together" but do not bind us into rigid positions:
...stretching as far as the eye can see making us lean over the void, stretching like cats in the morning these are the words that make one stay awake till dawn or take a taxi on weeknights when the city falls asleep before midnight and solitude sticks in our jaws like an abscess (148).
The act of stretching like cats combined with the metaphor of cities falling asleep conveys that "soft links" are motivated by an embodied desire for connection across urban times and spaces. "Soft links" become activated by the nomadic subject in motion in the landscape of the city. Soft links are the "words" of narrative "that make one stay awake till dawn." They enact both the desire for a link with the other and the link itself. Words join words to join people to resist "solitude," and form collectivities that are porous and mutable. The horizon of the gaze "stretching as far as the eye can see" juxtaposes the limited embodied gaze bound by one's location in space and time. This limited embodied gaze contrasts the limitless horizons of global networks that can create a sense of disconnection, "a void," for the embodied subject. This refers to "the problem of locality" in globalization that Derksen and Roy discuss. Brossard proposes that narrative language can stretch over that void. In other words, narrative becomes a key agent in forming social connectivity.
The writers in Biting the Error lean over the void created by globalization to question how literary communities might "stick together" beyond a common locality in time and place, a modernist notion of an aesthetic school, or an identity politics configuration. Many of the contributors, such as Brossard, envision narrative as a form of mapping which can form links between people. Aja Couchois Duncan makes the analogy of narrative as cartography most directly in her essay, "What Story Will You Love Like I Do?" To make this comparison she re-imagines cartography beyond the Western colonial model of mapping to mark and master territory. She notes that writing from an embodied location involves finding methods to draw maps, while still remaining part of the landscape (270). If narrative, as a form of mapping, is employed to join people together rather than separate, how can one draw maps without making lines that create borders? What are the "soft links" that can join different aesthetic projects and more importantly political struggles of resistance in our globalized moment?
Rather than offering answers, the writers here continue to narrate the shape of these questions which in turn invites the reader into its open and expanding circle of discourse. One of the only shortcomings of Biting the Error is that it is primarily an anthology written by and for writers. Even though the book forms an open circle of conversation, it may be difficult for someone who is not already aware of the issues and aesthetic concerns to join in the dialogue. Many of the pieces expect the reader to already have an awareness of North American avant garde writing before entering the terrain of their discourse. But with or without maps, readers will recognize that innovative prose practices in North America form a diverse and thriving body of writing worthy of attention.
Andrews, Bruce and Charles Bernstein, eds. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.
Brossard, Nicole. "Soft Links." Burger, Glück, Roy, and Scott. 148.
Burger, Mary, Robert Glück, Camille Roy, and Gail Scott, eds. Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2004.
Derksen, Jeff. "Text and the Site of Writing." Burger, Glück, Roy, and Scott. 108-112.
Duncan, Aja Couchois. "What Story Will Love You Like I Do"? Burger, Glück, Roy, and Scott. 269-273.
Godard, Barbara, ed. Collaboration in the Feminine: Writings on Women and Culture From Tessera. Toronto: Second Story P, 1994.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University P, 1991.
Roy, Camille. "Experimentalism." Burger, Glück, Roy, and Scott. 174-179.
Scalapino, Leslie. "Narrating." Burger, Glück, Roy, and Scott. 152-155.
Scott, Gail. "The Virgin Denotes." Burger, Glück, Roy, and Scott. 19-24.
yépez, heriberto. "on character." Burger, Glück, Roy, and Scott. 158-168.