October 29th, 2011 / 4:22 pm
Craft Notes

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

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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  1. John Minichillo

      Yes, yes. Thanks for this. I think the way the original formulation was written, it made me see minimalist as equated w/ brevity and maximalist w/ long, but I can see now that’s not what you meant.

      Now how do we dial back some of these dominants so the indie scene is more stylistically inclusive?

  2. A D Jameson

      Another way of looking at the minimalist/brevity distinction (which is on my mind because I went to a lecture on Robert Morris at the MCA last night): 1960s and 70s minimalism often understood itself as objecthood (following upon Michael Fried’s infamous art/objecthood distinction). The cubes and repeated series weren’t there in their capacity to mean anything, or any one thing: they were objects meant to create an experience for the viewer. Hence Robert Wilson’s insistence that the opera Einstein on the Beach (1976) “didn’t mean anything,” but was, rather, like looking at activities in a park.

      Brevity has nothing to do with objecthood.

      As for your second comment, there are many ways to do that:
      1) Make work that employs different dominants.
      2) Make journals or presses that publish work the employs different dominants.

      But these are complicated things. For instance, consider the “languagey” dominant. I hear all the time—all the time!—from fellow writers the complaint, “I couldn’t read that, because the prose was too awful.” Hence, for instance, the odd looks they give me when I say I like Dan Brown. So there’s one dominant you’re going to have a very hard time overturning. For more on that, see my older post “The Barthelme Problem.”


  3. bartleby_taco

      yooooo big ups to Television Personalities !!

  4. A D Jameson


  5. John Minichillo

      Yes, saw that referenced and agree w/ the Barthele problem. When people tell me they like to read trash, to keep it light, I just can’t. Reading is work, and should be rewarding. I think the other aspect of this is that becoming a writer also changes how we read, to more critically.

      Re: #2 I agree these dominants are the result of editorial pressures and have less to do with reader’s tastes. For example the influence of the web on brevity is undeniable.

      We all do #1 (I don’t think anyone sets out to fit in aesthetically, but they write to what the piece seems to need) but writing against trends probably doesn’t really change trends. Probably it leads to being silenced for the decade.

  6. alan

      So “languagey” is what? Anything that reflects a concern for style?

  7. Monalisa

      “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).”

      This is interesting Roxane, but the language is really starting to creep me out. “The dominants”? You really think about this before you sit down to write?

      When I sit down to write I think about drew barrymore in firestarter and ‘fuck you all. die! die!’…stuff like that…

  8. Monalisa

      my bad, “ad jameson”

  9. deadgod

      To be empirical, “Brief” and “Minimalist” were both “chose[n]” to describe 2., the latter a translation of the “essen[ce]” of the former.

      Why not propose two distinct pairs of dominant/recessive genetic material?  (–that is, expressed as variant characteristics ‘naturally selected’ in response to different communal and historical pressures as experienced by (or filtered through) particular writers.)

      One would be “Brief vs. Long”, as 2. already is:  concision vs. expansion, with the ‘cut’ or the ‘span’ generally chosen at whatever module (word, sentence, paragraph, chapter, ‘size’ of whole piece).

      The other, “Minimalist” vs. “Maximalist”, would have to do not with the size or number of parts, but rather, with their (relative) similarity to or difference from each other within the eventual whole of the piece:  rearrangement within vs. accretion from without.

  10. A D Jameson

      No probs on the name.

      “The Dominant” is just a technical term dreamed up 100 years ago in Russia. Call it “The Influencer” or whatever if you like. Or “The Central Concern.” I use it here because it’s a fine term, as fine a term as any.

      Thinking about these things does not preclude thinking about Drew Barrymore in Firestarter. And wanting not to do things (“fuck you all. die! die!”) is also a way of thinking about dominants, even if indirectly.

      For example I hate similes, hate them passionately, because so much of the garbage writing I see around me uses them unconsciously and stupidly. So about ten years ago I said to myself, “Fuck similes!” And I have rarely used them in my writing ever since. Indeed, I rarely use metaphor at all.

      Well, that’s an aesthetic decision, even if I don’t call it “an aesthetic decision.” (At the time I just called it “not doing a shitty thing I see a lot of other writers doing.”) And it’s an aesthetic decision that’s had consequences for my writing. If I don’t want to use similes or metaphors then…what do I want to do in their stead?

      Again there are a lot of ways of thinking about this kind of stuff when one sits down to write.


      P.S. Some writers use similes well—Davies and Tarnawsky being two obvious examples. I wish I could do what they do; I can’t.

  11. A D Jameson

      “Languagey” = writing that, by means of elaborate style, ornateness, technical virtuosity, or some other means emphasizes its artificiality as language, in opposition to being more straightforwardly, directly communicative.


      Renowned curator Jacques Sanuière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

      As he had anticipated, a thundering iron gate fell nearby, barricading the entrance to the suite. The parquet floor shook. Far off, an alarm began to ring.

      Those are the first two paragraphs of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003).


      It’s confession time, Catamounts.

      It’s time you knew the cold soft facts of me. Ever since Principal Fontana found me and commenced to bless my mail slot, monthly, with the Eastern Valley High School Alumni Newslettwe, I’ve been meaning to write my update. Sad to say, vanity slowed my hand. Let a fever for the truth speed it now. Let me stand on the rooftop of my reckoning and shout nought but the indisputable: I did not pan out.

      Those are the first two paragraphs of Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land (2004).

      For more examples, see here:


  12. Frank Tas, the Raptor
  13. deadgod

      you must then adhere to that form

      What aesthetic pressures do we collectively feel[?]

      “You” don’t physically ‘stick to’ the conventions of a poetic form.  Nor do “we” physically feel a ‘push’ towards fitting in with (and reproducing) a communal sense of formal rightness.

      Indeed, unconscious and stupid writing is not material “garbage”, nor are unconscious and stupid writing decisions excretorily “shitty”.

      Avoiding metaphors is like avoiding metaphors.

  14. A D Jameson

      No, I hadn’t. Ugh, that’s awful. Very, very sorry to hear that…

  15. A D Jameson

      Whatever, dude.

  16. Lisamona

      Hi AD

      “The dominant” seems like an unfortunate translation to me, and I did think your language was becoming a bit overbearing, like ‘these are the rules for being an indie writer’…I was just goofing to provide a counterpoint to this. And that’s not to say that taxonomising can’t be useful or fun…

      I do think, however, and perhaps you agree, that one also should just forget all this shit when one actually ‘sits down to write’. Not the rules of your own poetic forms, of course, if that’s how you go about things, but the rules of ‘the game’ as it is. Unless, of course, your goal is to create the ultimate public work that everyone likes.

      I’m not sure if this is what deadgod “means,” but here are some quotes from the wikipedia entry on  ‘stupidity’ – just for fun:

      “It may be innate, assumed, or reactive – ‘being “stupid with grief” as a defence against trauma'”

      “Evolutionary psychology maintains that ‘creative stupidity and able misfits prove the existence of the human learning instincts…can exist because instincts are highly independent’.”

      “The root word stupid,[5] which can serve as an adjective or noun, comes from the Latin verbstupere, for being numb or astonished, and is related to stupor:[6] in Roman culture, ‘the stupidus of the mimes’ was a sort of ‘professional buffoon – the “fall-man”, the eternal he-who-gets-kicked’.”

      “Doris Lessing argued that ‘there is no fool like an intellectual…a kind of clever stupidity, bred out of a line of logic in the head, nothing to do with experience’.”

      “In the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, a valorisation of the irrational, of the foolish and stupid, emerged, epitomised for example in William Blake’s dictum that ‘if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise’. A century later, Jung would emphasise that ‘it requires no art to become stupid; the whole art lies in extracting wisdom from stupidity. Stupidity is the mother of the wise, but cleverness never’.”Postmodernism would take up a similar theme, noting regretfully how ‘categories…guarantee our intelligence and form the a priori of excluded stupidity’, so that (in order to profit from the excluded) ‘the philosopher must be sufficiently perverse to play the game of truth and error badly…to persist in his confrontation with stupidity, to remain motionless to the point of stupefaction in order to approach it successfully and mime it, to…await the shock of difference’.”Cheers,Lisamona

  17. deadgod

      ?  This problematizing (or defense or rehabilitation) of “stupid” isn’t what I meant or (as far as I can control them) ‘meant’ or “meant”. 

      –It’s an interesting deconstruction:  to understand ‘knowledge’ as a symptom of stupefaction, as a disclosure, not just that there is ‘unknown’, but also of the sometimes-discernible processes limiting ‘knowing’. 

      –though you’d want a celebration of “stupidity” not to be by way of making a virtue of a necessity.

      I take Adam’s dichotomies seriously–not as generators of art or thought (much less of quality or effectiveness), but rather, as tools and occasions for thought about art and thought (and, perhaps, about observer-independent reality).

      Seeing things in terms of a variety of dichotomies (in this case, with a dominant and a recessive term in each pair):  is that really so alien?  Is it even avoidable?

      (I wonder if you’re mistaking ‘sitting down to think out loud’ with ‘sitting down to tell a story’.  Surely the same person can do each – though probably at different times.)

  18. A D Jameson

      Hi Lisamona,

      I don’t know what actual Russian term Jakobson et al used, but I don’t think “the dominant” need sound oppressive or anything. Personally, I think it’s a good term, because it expresses the sentiment well. It basically means that there is usually one formal concern that governs or controls all other concerns a writer (or artist) has. I think this is generally true, regardless of whether the writer/artist is aware of it or not. That is to say, there is usually something inviolable in the artwork—something the artist wants to do, that he or she would never want to take out, or stop doing. That thing, whatever it is, is the dominant.

      I have no interest here whatsoever in listing rules or writing prescriptively. If anything, my interest is exactly the opposite. I am trying to map out or describe things that I see many writers around me doing. As for whether they want to keep doing that, that is their business. But of course some part of me also hopes that, by identifying what is so common, more options will open up. But, ultimately, what other writers do is their business. (If you look at my own fiction, I think you’ll see that I myself don’t obey a lot of the dominants I listed… although I still do feel their influence when I sit down to write).

      I do think, however, and perhaps you agree, that one also should just forget all this shit when one actually ‘sits down to write’.

      I think that people should ultimately find what works for them, then do that. And that they should do it for whatever reason makes them happy. I aim to be as non-prescriptive as possible (although of course I do have my own ideas as to what I want to accomplish in my own work, and how I want to accomplish them).

      I never have any idea what deadgod means. But I also don’t think deadgod is all that interested in communicating with me, so that’s cool. I assume he/she/it is amusing him-/her-/it-self.


  19. Lisamona

      Good luck and goodnight Sammie. 

  20. Lisamona

      Hi AD

      I think ‘the Influencer’ sounds way more badass, and less like the writing field is actually an s/m dungeon, but oh well. I suppose it is just a tiny mirror of the world after all.
      I accept your intentions as being non-prescriptive. It sounded like it was heading that way, and that’s really the only reason for my smartass offhand comment, but thanks for engaging.

      If I thought Deadgod was ingenuous in any way I would engage some of his semi-interesting thoughts, but its not, so I won’t. 

      I was an atheist before god was dead, or however that goes.



  21. A D Jameson

      Yes, non-prescriptive. Purely descriptive. I can only describe what I see others doing around me.

      I know nothing about deadgod’s ingenuousness, and don’t really care to. But trying to communicate with someone who’s so obviously uninterested in communicating is obviously a total waste of time.

      I’ve heard of religion, but try not to pay it any mind.


  22. deadgod

      –and good luck to you in your wikipedia transcriptions, pet.

  23. deadgod

      Ha ha ha!  Proofing yourself against “communication” is obviously a dominant.

      You write an evasive and often unfounded lecture, but you mention interesting things, and that is cool.

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