A Dozen Dominants, part 2 (aka, “You used to know what these words mean”)

Posted by @ 4:22 pm on October 29th, 2011

I was really thrilled to read all the responses my last post generated; thanks to everyone who chimed in! And I wanted to post something that clarifies some of the things I wrote there, since it’s apparent I caused no small amount of confusion…

The Dominant

First things first. Dominants are not necessarily to be avoided. They are inevitable. In making an artwork, say a piece of writing, there will be Some Things You Want To Do, and Things That You Don’t Want To Do. The things you want to do—stylistically and formally—are your dominants. It’s impossible to have style without this. (The central text here is Roman Jakobson’s 1935 essay on the subject—one of my favorite essays of all time, FWIW.)

A dominant, thus, is a stylistic choice that then controls or governs your other stylistic choices. So if you decide that your story is going to be a single sentence, that will necessarily impact every other decision that you make. Or, if you decide to write a Shakespearean sonnet, you must then adhere to that form—you’ll need to use a set meter, and to observe a particular rhyme scheme. That controls your choice of words, your subject matter, the structure of your argument, everything. (This is why it makes no sense to discuss content without discussing style. The two are, ultimately, the same thing.)

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having a dominant, or with using any of the things I listed as dominants; I would never want to suggest otherwise. And there are millions of other things that can become dominants. My current focus is: what things are dominant now? What aesthetic pressures do we collectively feel, inasmuch as such things exist here and how in the indy lit scene? I listed twelve pressures that I know I feel tugs from every time I sit down to write, and that appear to be influencing a lot of the work I see around me.


There were some comments that tried moving away from dominants, and toward identifying categories that we could group writers under. That’s not my interest for various reasons. One, doing that will leave a lot of people out. Two, authors don’t always remain within single categories (and neither do individual works). Three—simply put, my end here isn’t to identify groups or movements or genres.

Rather (to put it a slightly different way), my concern is to describe those elements that I see most of the people around me—a majority, not a totality—valuing as non-sacrificial (dominant) in their writing. In other words, these are the things I see a lot of people Wanting To Do. Note that I’m not only describing fiction, but poetry as well. I think that’s valid because they often obey the same dominants, regardless of what group or movement or genre they end up belonging to (if any).

For instance, consider the Language Poets Lyn Hejinian and Charles Bernstein (click on those links for a poem from each). There’s a ton of difference between their respective bodies of work. Calling them both “Language Poets” gets you nowhere in terms of understanding those differences; it erases difference.

The more interesting question is: how are they both Language Poets? Well, for one thing, they share a common commitment to writing that foregrounds language as language (dominant #6), and that is as paratactical as possible (dominant #8). And we can see that both of the poems I just linked to are, indeed, very languagey and paratactical.

Now, having accepted those two respective dominants, what they do from there is their business—but every decision that they make stems from—is controlled by—that shared aesthetic commitment. They can’t start suddenly writing prosaic, hypotactic poems (and I by “prosaic” here I mean, essentially, “directly communicative”; it’s possible this isn’t the best word—but I do think we often use the word to mean that).

Meanwhile, a fiction writer like Jeremy M. Davies has, as far as I know, little to no interest in parataxis (it isn’t a dominant for him), but he is very committed to foregrounded, “languagey” language. The man can’t write a plain sentence if he tried!

After he hit her drunk one evening with the base of a brass lamp that she hadn’t found room for, ripping its variegated paper shade and twisting its tasseled pull strings into a knot, Danielle wondered too whether there might be a genetic component to Ephraim’s magpie behavior. Had some twenty-score-great-grandfather done the same? The surname would indicate he’d let himself be baptized to avoid expulsion from Spain under Ferdinand, in the annus mirabilis 1492. She could see him as a rich Marrano—a convert who’d kept his old religion in secret. Had he taken trades from like-minded neighbors for ready cash as the Inquisition bore down? Perversely increasing his load when he needed most to be unencumbered? She imagined this ur-Bueno’s own belongings waiting to be packed into trunks, mingling everywhere with those incursions from other houses, suggesting a man with twenty lives and families limp behind him like peacock feathers. Then the sullen ur-Bueno and estate on a rasping galleon, bound north by water from Cadiz, around the fingers of Europe, almost sinking the ship with his hoard. Lighting a taper to read by, he finds the nighttime deck so dim that his lamp and those of the sailors on watch seem to share one light between them, the waxing of one in the Atlantic breeze making the others dim and go out. Dani saw the legacy of this gray-maned charcoal sketch she’d invented stand out clearly in the gangly mantis she was all but married to. There would be no changing him. (Rose Alley, 84–5)

But Davies isn’t a Language Poet, not in the slightest. Neither is another of my favorite contemporary writers, Yuriy Tarnawsky, despite that author’s heavy commitment to both parataxis and foregrounded language in his (brilliant) 1993 novel Three Blondes and Death.

To recap: movements are, for me, a dead end. I learned that when I tried to survey New Wave music last year. The category morphs steadily before your eyes, taking in more and more as it evolves.

Speaking of which:


This term generated a ton of discussion, and I’ll post more on it soon. But here’s essentially what I mean by that term.

It has nothing to do with content. Twee was originally a term of abuse hurled against fans of indie pop, back in the 80s & early 90s. I’m talking here about folks who liked bands on Sarah Records and K Records and the like: Heavenly, beat happening, etc. (I FUCKING LOVE THIS MUSIC, BTW.) Eventually the indie pop kids took the term as a badge of pride, hence their “Twee as Fuck” buttons.

Twee no longer really means that. I’m sure there are still kids out there who consider themselves the twee / indie pop subculture, but for the most part that original movement has ended, and many of its aesthetics has gone mainstream. I identify 2003 as the year that finally happened—”The Year Twee Broke.” And a lot of the core aesthetic of Twee Proper of the 80s has been codified and commodified, and is now out there for the taking. Even if that means that twee is no longer an uber-plain, DIY movement. The same thing happened to punk. It’s capitalism at work!

Another way of looking at it:

This is what twee used to mean.

This is what it means now.

Again, it has nothing to do with content. The Television Personalities wrote songs about domestic strife; Belle & Sebastian wrote a song about not knowing how to deal with a best friend’s bulimia. That’s some heavy shit. Nonetheless, they still sounded like big kids playing little kids playing grown-ups when they did so—there’s the shared aesthetic commitment. (Mind you, I’m not knocking either of them; I FUCKING LOVE THOSE SONGS.)

I’ll write more on this anon. Until then, Zooey Deschanel and the Decemberists will continue their twin dance of death upon Tiger Trap‘s coffin.

Brevity / Minimalism

For the second dominant, I chose “brevity,” not minimalist. That’s because the term minimalist means a great many things these days, and in any case, I think brevity is the real pressure.

Minimalism doesn’t mean that things are short. Donald Judd sculpture series are (at least in theory) infinitely repeatable. A Philip Glass composition can be very long. Donald Barthelme’s single-sentence story “Sentence” is 2,565 words long (I once transcribed it; meanwhile, someone put it online here). Minimalism wasn’t about length. Rather, it had to do (as La Monte Young put it) with making art with a minimum of means. This often expressed itself in terms of repeated series of discreet units—a kind of modular art (which is what we see in the Young and Glass, at least).

That’s not what I see people doing these days, at least not in literature. Rather, I see an emphasis on actual brevity—in making things that are as short as possible. Hence the current interest in flash. Hence the current shrinkage in the size of books. Hence the emphasis in so many creative writing classes in cutting, cutting, cutting, and in being as economical as possible. Hence the tendency of lit journals to want stories that are 2000 words long, if not 1000 words long. And so on. (See? Barthelme wouldn’t be able to submit “Sentence” to one of those journals.)

Once you accept that your work has to be brief, or short, or economical—well, that’s an aesthetic choice that will dominate your other aesthetic choices, regardless of how long your sentences are, or your paragraphs, or the words you use, etc. (No doubt some clever rascal has written a 1000-word flash piece that uses extremely long words, so that the resulting thing is in fact dozens of pages long.)

OK! I hope this clears some things up some. I look forward to your comments on this second round! Meanwhile, I’m writing a post about twee (a particular interest of mine), and another post about a very intriguing comment that one Michael made about the modular vs. linear. Until then—

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