Architectures of Possibility: An Interview with Lance Olsen
Lance Olsen is the author of more than 20 books of and about innovative fiction. He acts as Chair of the Board of Directors for the Fiction Collective 2 and teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah. What follows is a conversation with him about his newest book, Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing.
Q: Would you talk a bit about the book in relation to its title? Why the words “architectures” and “possibility”? What about the phrase “after innovative writing?” Are we now in a post-innovative literary world?
A: Let me take your last two questions first, and argue that the history of writing (think Petronius’ Satyricon, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Joyce’s Ulysses) has been, not one of dogging conventions, but of continuously undoing them, experimenting with and beyond them, continuously redefining them, exploring the boundaries of the writerly act, of how we might tell our narratives—and hence ourselves, our worlds—differently. So-called conventional acts of writing, then, are the uninteresting detritus of literary history. Innovation is where literary history takes place.
If that’s the case, then contemporary experimentalists are not only continuously in pursuit of the innovative, but are also always-already writing subsequent to it—writing, that is, in its long wake. Hence my pun in the title on the word after.
And so to your initial question: for me, innovative writing represents a possibility space where everything can and should be attempted, challenged, thought, where every architecture should be explored. In other words, we’re talking about the ideology of form here. Another way of saying this: meaning suggests meaning, but structure suggests meaning as well. To structure one way rather than another is to convey, not simply aesthetic preference, a matter of taste, but a course of thinking, a way of being in the world, that privileges one approach to “reality” over another. One of the jobs of the innovative is unceasingly to challenge the dominant cultures’ narrativization of “reality,” to remind us that there are always other ways to construct the text of our texts, the texts of our lives, always the possibility of effecting change in both.
To write within the innovative, then, is much more than a creative choice. It’s an ethical imperative.
Q: The two ubiquitously used classroom texts by Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft and Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, focus, as their titles suggest, on the craft of creative writing. Architectures of Possibility extends its reach past the craft of writing and the borders of the classroom to include topics such as publishing pragmatics, the literary marketplace, and what you term the “tribal ecology” of contemporary writing communities. Would you please talk a bit about your decision to include such subject matter? What is the relationship between craft and community?
A: Architectures of Possibility isn’t interested, as Burroway’s books are, in perpetuating certain truisms about “craft,” but rather problematizing them, theorizing and questioning the often unconscious assumptions behind them, troubling such traditional writing gestures as, say, temporality, scene, and characterization in an attempt to expand our notions of narrativity, ask ourselves what the consequences might be of writing one way rather than another.
But, as you point out, Architectures of Possibility is also interested in a number of other things, including asking what it means to be an author in the 21st century. Part of the answer is that here, now, there is no longer such a beast as the isolated writer. That species and the myopic Romantic myth that cultivated it have gone extinct. (Of course it never really existed; all writing has always been collective: to set pen to paper is to engage with a tradition of genre, with authors throughout history who have shared or are sharing your obsessions, with the person who made your pen, the one who made your paper, etc.)
Rather, to exist as an author is to exist as a literary activist—as someone who understands the corporate paradigm of composing-as-competition has been challenged by one celebrating collaboration and support. Distinctions between editor and writer, critic and poet, reviewer and novelist, academic and publisher, blogger, tweeter have become incrementally more fused and confused … to wonderfully liberating effect.
Now, an author is a person who authors, yes, surely—but she or he is also a person who does a tremendous amount more. An author in the 21st century is somebody who helps make literary culture happen. For the literary activist, writing is only one creative act among many that comprises his or her textual life. Others include editing and bringing out fellow writers’ work in online and print journals and through book publishers, reading and reviewing that work, writing essays about it, teaching it, talking it up, urging others to launch journals and indie presses, running reading series, laboring in arts administration, coordinating innovative writing conferences, launching local writing groups, posting about authors and texts they love on their blogs or via other social networking media.
Which is to say: in 2012, ask not what publishing can do for you; ask what you can do for publishing.
And so we are talking about a new paradigm, which I call tribal ecology, where authors easily move among multifarious clans and loose coalitions based on various forms of aesthetic and existential kinship that attempt existing outside (and not infrequently in direct opposition to) the dominant cultures’ models. The tribal ecology is intent on inventing possibility spaces for possibility spaces.
Q: It seems like one of the big distinctions between Architectures of Possibility and more traditional writing manuals like Writing Fiction is the lack of a prescriptive language toward writing. In many ways this distinction is evident even in the titles: the idea of a possibility space versus that of a singular fiction which one “masters” the “craft” of. The latter is obviously problematic, yet many students seem to crave—maybe even require—its clarity and prescriptiveness. Would you describe some of the strategies you used to avoid prescriptive language and yet remain instructive?
A: This goes back to my point above about the ideology of form. By speaking prescriptively about craft, Burroway leads students to believe there really are rules for writing, that those rules are quantifiable and articulable, and that they are somehow a-cultural and a-historical. None of those assertions is the case. My interests, in part, lie in disrupting the seeming stability of her position by asking about those assertions’ underlying assumptions.
For example, I spend one chapter talking about how conventional notions of characterization are essentially Freudian in nature in that they privilege the idea that past traumas account for present action. They also therefore assume a unified identity through time. And so on. I begin the next chapter, however, by asking if it is conceivable, and, if so, how, to invent paths into character formations (and deformations) that make us feel more like (and thus help us think more about how) we feel on this side of the age of uncertainty: i.e., mediated, remediated, illegible, dispersed? Something closer, by way of illustration, not to Freudian interpretation, but Baudrillardian: schizoid selves as pure screens, switching stations for all the data networks flowing within us and without? What would such a “character” look like on the page? What would the page on which “he” or “she” existed look like? Would such a page necessarily be gendered? Why? Why not?
I go on to talk about a number of texts that respond to this problematization of characterization, including Beckett’s astonishing Unnamable, the anti-narrative about that indeterminate, disembodied subject position (“character” is far too strong a word for he/she/it), uncertainly human, pulsing in and out of existence between gender and genderlessness, thereness and nowhere/nowhenness. Its modes of expression are hestitation, skepticism, and comma-spliced syntactic entropy. “But enough of this cursed first person,” it announces at one point in its self-canceling word cascades, “it is really too red a herring. . . . Bah, any old pronoun will do, provided one sees through it. Matter of habit.” And, later, almost an aside: “I. Who might that be?”
Beckett’s limit text serves as a penetrating reminder, in a Nietzschean/Derridean vein, that the pronoun (the heart of the heart of character) is, at the end of the day, a sort of hoax foisted upon us by the culture’s language. That character, self, and identity are quantum fields rather than Newtonian nuggets. The rules of grammar, Beckett’s “novel” undertakes to perform, have been repeatedly misunderstood by philosophy and fiction as a metaphysics.
In other words, I don’t pose components of writing in prescriptive terms, but as a series of potentials and complications that I hope will challenge each writer to think about and answer in her or his own way.
Q: Even in departments that champion innovative writing there seems to be this idea of a graduated pedagogical standard—sort of like in Scientology: there are the teachings and then there are the Teachings. In other words, you have to learn the Balzacian mode before you can unlearn it, or learn past it, whichever the case may be. Do you think this is necessary? Was Architectures of Possibility designed for introductory or more advanced fiction courses?
A: If one isn’t familiar with the literary tradition one is writing within or against, one is always in danger of repeating it, of simply and myopically reinventing the wheel. So to a great degree I believe it important to understand as many modes of writing as possible—not only the Balzacian mode, of course, but also the Sternean, the Steinian, the Joycean, etc. That way one can begin to discover one’s own mode, can begin to become who one is, rather than believing that the only living writing is that which wants to be a film when it grows up.
One should, I think, give one’s self over to the long conversation across time and space called literary history—not in order to embrace it, necessarily, but rather better to understand it and position oneself with respect to it.
Architectures of Possibility is designed to function effectively (I hope) at either introductory or more advanced fiction courses, since it both lays out the basics of conventional narrativity and simultaneously brackets those basics. The idea is that, when it comes to writing (not to mention living), answers are never as engaging or productive as well-placed, well-thought-out questions.
Q: Architectures of Possibility includes at its end a list of 101 “limit texts” that have influenced you to become the innovative writer you are today. By way of this list, you ask the reader to compose her own tenuous, ever-changing anti-canon of limit texts. In addition, Architectures includes an astounding number of interviews with contemporary innovative writers in places where one familiar with the standard creative writing textbook format would expect to find full-length excerpted examples of stories, poems, and essays. First, what is a limit text? And second, would you talk a bit about the decision to include interviews and a suggested reading list, rather than full-length examples of innovative writing?
A: A limit text is a variety of writing disturbance that carries various elements of narrativity to their brink so the reader can never quite think of them in the same terms again.
Karl Jaspers coined the word Grenzsituationen (border/limit situations) to describe existential moments accompanied by anxiety in which the human mind is forced to confront the restrictions of its existing forms—moments, in other words, that make us abandon, fleetingly, the securities of our limitedness and enter new realms of self-consciousness. Death, for example.
If we carry this notion of Grenzsituationen into the literary domain, we find ourselves thinking about the sorts of books that, once you’ve taken them down from the shelf, you’ll never be able to put back up again. They won’t leave you alone. They will continue to work on your imagination long after you’ve read them. Merely by being in the world, limit texts ask us to embrace possibility spaces, difficulty, freedom, radical skepticism. Which writings make up the category will, naturally, vary from reader to reader, depending on what that reader has already encountered by way of innovative projects, his or her background, assumptions, and so on.
As far as building Architectures of Possibility as much around interviews (conducted in good part by my collaborator, Trevor Dodge) and suggested reading lists as chapters—that was essential to the vision of the project. I wanted the interviews and lists to suggest by their very form that approaches to innovative writing comprise a conversation, not a monologue. So there are more than forty interviews with innovative authors, editors, and publishers (Robert Coover, Lydia Davis, Brian Evenson, Shelley Jackson, Ben Marcus, Carole Maso, Scott McCloud, Steve Tomasula, Deb Olin Unferth, Joe Wenderoth, Lidia Yuknavitch, et al.) working in diverse media, all designed to present various perspectives, harmonies, and counterpoints to my own position(s).
Again, the idea isn’t to speak from some magisterial space of the Teacher, but rather to generate a zone of opportunities, contentions, inspirations.
Q: One of the things that keeps coming up on the threads devoted to experimental writing is the question of novelty, or newness. In The Higgs-Jameson Experimental Fiction Debate, for example, AD Jameson defines experimental fiction as “that which takes unfamiliarity as its dominant—even to the point of schism.” One of the points in question then is whether or not methods such as the Cut-Up can still be thought of as experimental, given their familiarity in literary history. We’re wondering just how important newness is to innovative writing? Or perhaps another way of asking would be: what role does tradition play in the formation of innovative literatures?
A: The question of “newness” is a terrifically complicated one. “Newness,” after all, to whom, and when, and where? Is there an aesthetic object that can exist as something wholly novel? The idea strikes me as too simple by half.
In certain ways, the issue of “newness” is wrapped up with questions concerning the stability of identity and the problematics of historicity. What I mean is this: where and when one stands with respect to a so-called “innovative” text will inform how one reads its “innovation.” If one’s thirteen, for instance, and has never experienced Cut-Up before, then coming across Burroughs’ Naked Lunch may well turn out to be a life-changing event. But surely one reads Naked Lunch differently at 13 than one does when one is 27, and differently again when one is 47. This is because one is reading it through the lens of all the texts that have come in between all those years, all the lives, all those thoughts, all the geographies. In what sense can we even say the same person is reading the same book? Such an assertion strikes me as a kind of grammatical mistake.
Moreover, each time “one” (and now I use the term increasingly loosely) reads Naked Lunch, presumably “one” does so with an ever-increasing sense of literary history, of the novel’s own place within that history, which is composed, not only out of a series of disruptions, but also out of a series of continuities. The “newness” of Naked Lunch becomes less “new” than “one” originally assumed when “one” discovers that writers like Eliot and Tzara were experimenting with versions of Cut-Up decades before Burroughs. Does that change “one’s” perspective on the topic? Of course, but how? Naked Lunch remains new, and not new, and not not new, all at once. A complex sense of “newness” exists as both present and absent in “one’s” experience of the text.
One more problem with respect to this question. Let’s say that at some point in “one’s” life “one” stops reading Naked Lunch as a text somehow embodying “newness.” Does that mean the technique that operates within it can no longer be perceived as “new”? Of course not. “One” often experiences Cut-Up as “new” when “one” confronts it in a fresh context—in an unexpected moment, say, in Michael Mejia’s novel Forgetfulness, or in Kenneth Goldsmith’s reimagining for the technique in Soliloquy.
Q: Chapter 19: Literary Activism and the Tribal Ecology offers readers an introduction to the importance and uses of literary community, from publishing to readings, writing reviews, and also giving interviews. Regarding the latter, you offer this advice: “It isn’t a bad idea to approach each [interview] with several topics you would like to see discussed and to guide the interviewer toward them.” Is there anything we haven’t covered in this interview that you’d like to get off your chest?
A: Just this quote by Nietzsche, which I have taped above my computer: “In heaven all the interesting people are missing.
Lance Olsen is the author of more than 20 books of and about innovative writing, including the novels Calendar of Regrets, Head in Flames, and Nietzsche’s Kisses. His short stories, essays, poems, and reviews have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies, such as Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, Fiction International, Village Voice, BOMB, McSweeneys, and Best American Non-Required Reading. He serves as chair of FC2’s Board of Directors and teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.
Nick Kimbro and Rachel Levy teach and study writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder.