Literature, Materialism, and the Present Conjuncture: an Interview with David Winters

Literary critic David Winters, co-editor of 3:AM Magazine, has steadily developed a style and practice of review that can only be called materialist. Rather than “evaluate” a book, Winters qualifies its relationship to the broken and stultifying world from which it originates–not as an outright transcendence of that world, but as a moment, an effect, of its awful machinery, the gore and rancor of a history that has in many ways forgotten to bear a future. The book as such does not seek to solve the problems of the anima mundi but instead to put them on stage and in motion. So the work of literature, David argues, would not be the archangel of the everyday, but would try to give shape to its devastation, to the series of social splits and divisions whose conjunction make the novel possible, if not, David suggests, also threaten it with obsolescence. By focusing on this element of the book–its immortality and undead texture, its position as both a social given and a reflection of such givens–David has aligned materialist aims with a new form of criticism: a reading of the work as a weapon and not simply a code, and moreover, a weapon that can be trained on both itself and the present in which it is embedded. The following is an extended interview with him. Enjoy.

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Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch on Food Network!

Not really, but close. In this new episode of Emily Gould’s “Cooking the Books,” Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch make green juice and read from their collaboration Ten Walks/Two Talks. Along the way we learn that Cotner and Fitch met as 19-year-olds in Boston. They were both crashing on someone’s roof, and started talking. They’ve kept talking. We also hear some thoughts about Basho and zits.

Timothy Donnelly, who selected Ten Walks/Two Talks as a Best Book of 2010 for The Week, included an excerpt from Cotner and Fitch’s new project Conversations over Stolen Food in Boston Review‘s National Poetry Month celebration. The short piece is called “Spiritual Laws.” It takes place in a grocery store they call “W.F.” This excerpt moves from Emerson, to a kid who soils his shorts, back to Emerson, then ends with a discussion of anxiety and bicycles.


Gigantic Issue #3 Launch

New York City’s consistently innovative print/online journal Gigantic is launching its third issue (Gigantic Indoors) in Brooklyn on Friday 8-4:30 AM. Beer’d by Brooklyn Brewery, “live performance and installation by Newvillager,” and on the Williamsburg Waterfront (!)–all the trappings of a Williamsburg soiree (what my parents used to call a “function” or “gala”) without the constant discomfort and guilt. “Our people” don’t often throw such massive events on this side of the borough, so take advantage, please. Readers include: Chloe Cooper Jones, Joshua Cohen, Lauren Spohrer and John Dermot Woods. Admission is free for subscribers, and $10 for non-subscribers. Please RSVP here, on the Facebook. Attractive people will not receive free admission simply because they are attractive, easing the resentment that their less attractive friends already feel toward them.

Criticism and The Pale King

Elegant but problematic write-up on The Pale King in GQ by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Read it for the elegance, but I’d like to unfairly isolate the review’s conclusion, which alarmed me for the reasons articulated below. Quote:

Wallace’s work will be seen as a huge failure, not in the pejorative sense, but in the special sense Faulkner used when he said about American novelists, “I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.” Wallace failed beautifully. There is no mystery whatsoever about why he found this novel so hard to finish. The glimpse we get of what he wanted it to be—a vast model of something bland and crushing, inside of which a constellation of individual souls would shine in their luminosity, and the connections holding all of us together in this world would light up, too, like filaments—this was to be a novel on the highest order of accomplishment, and we see that the writer at his strongest would have been strong enough. He wasn’t always that strong.

Insightful, or regurgitation of the “humanist” DFW diet? At what point will critics realize that there is not one single sense to DFW’s work–that is, Wallace as what Kyle Beachy, ironically or not, called the “empathy machine,” the brain with a heartbeat? There is no question that this caricature of Wallace suits our time, but it nevertheless should be considered as just that: a pitiful reduction of what Wallace demands, and the ensnaring of criticism in the dangerous matrix of “human values”–as if he awoke from his postmodern slumber merely to mourn the “souls who would shine”–which is, incidentally, my answer to Blake’s recent post. Answer: a critic should be critical, a problem which will be the challenge and measure of reviewing The Pale King.

Analogous to what?

Via Adam Wilson‘s Facebook feed: a list of the “worst” analogies written by high school students, as selected by their teachers. As this blog post notes, the predicate of “worst” is an oversight, or at worst a condescending and misguided error–many of these analogies are sharp if not artful in what Adam, I think perceptively, called a “Lishian” way.

The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

Excess of bad poetry: an interview with Luna Miguel

Luna and I have been preparing this interview for five months–or, I should say, I’ve been lazy and bad enough to (with the swerving and errant dedication that is now emerging as my style) let this one sit, short as it is, raveled and incomplete since October, asking a question every few weeks, no doubt irritating Luna in bookish, unpromising bursts. Which is all so stupid, so feckless of me because of how much of a force–a clearly, as you’ll find out, erudite and redoubtable force–Luna is in contemporary literature. Eg, here she is in Elmundo yesterday. As one might expect, Luna writes with the irreverent edge of a Rimbaud, but goes beyond mere edge, beyond what one might call the chintz of aspiration, to the “elsewhere,” not of youth, but of style, which is the earmark of youth; she might be called one of those writers who is not ahead of her time, who in fact has no toehold in anyone else’s time, but rather is planted squarely in her own time, but precisely because she has founded it–not alone, but en bloc with her comrades, who are amply referred to below (in fact, what we have there is a catalogue for the future). Hers is the time of a new world poetry. Welcome her.

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You Are Not the Only One Writing About Mondavian Zookpeepers

This is one of about 30 “Random” posts on the front page, but here goes nothing: Chloe Cooper Jones conducts a pretty spectacular dialogue with co-stars George Saunders and Deb Olin Unferth over at The Faster Times. Inspiring considerations of the contemporary MFA program abound. George Saunders gives us the only googlable instance of “kicking entities,” which we ought to deem an idiom among idioms, even if I’m not sure what it means. Really, the hope here gets me giddy, and it’s something for sure of which this “literary culture” could use a more healthy supply. Deb Olin Unferth puts it beautifully:

You can look at any space, at any group of people, and see dreariness, self-absorption, the long trod to death. Or you can look at the same space and people and see longing, hope, heroism, and disappointment that will break your heart. If you squint just right at an MFA program, you see both. You see the lifeless side—maybe the student who isn’t finding her voice or the teacher who is just “going through the motions”—and the side that shines and beats.

book or else specter

Calling for a new type of submission: I’m starting this project, book or else specter, which basically consists of aphorisms on potentially any topic (sports, cars, Keynes, hunting, another aphorism). First and only aphorism so far is our own Jackie Wang, who I hung out and had a lot of fun with last week here in Florida. Aphorisms can take any form and reach any length. Either submit by emailing me (alecniedenthal@gmail.com) or through the Tumblr.

I don’t know, I think the aphorism is a form that demands new life and new flesh. (Maybe it’s like I’m asking you to donate to my charity or something.) If we’re too much measure and precision, where is the condensed flash and dissolve.

The drive for originality is also a big impediment to writing. On the one hand, we suffer from a sort of transcendental illusion. We (or I) think to ourselves that if we have an idea it can’t possibly be original precisely because the idea is familiar to us. It is not new to us. But writing is not for us, but for others, whether those others be our own future selves or the self we are becoming in the act of writing (writing has the magical power to remake you) or for the others who might read our scratchings on bit of napkins. On the other hand, originality cannot be anticipated. If originality could be anticipated it wouldn’t be originality. Rather, originality follows the logic of Lacan’s tuche or chance encounter. Originality is something that occasionally takes place, but if it does take place it can only be known as having had taken place, it can never be experienced in the moment. We only ever know that originality has taken place retroactively. As a consequence, it’s important to surrender the desire to anticipate originality so as to clear a space in which the event or chance occurrence of originality might take place.

Levi Bryant on writing.