“A Dozen Dominants: The Current State of US Indy Lit”

[Update: Some reader comments below prompted me to write a follow-up post.]

I was asked over the summer to contribute a critical article to the online UK journal Beat the Dust; they wanted me to write on the current state of US literature. I “narrowed that down” to indy lit (small press publishing, whatever you want to call it)—still an impossibly huge topic, of course. So I ended up proposing twelve dominants that I’d argue govern the current indy lit scene (at least as best as I can see things from where I’m sitting—Chicago, USA, 2011).

Dominant” is a term I stole from the Russian Formalists; it essentially means a feature or aspect of a text that most people feel that the text, to be valid, should demonstrate or otherwise include. (e.g., rhyme was often a dominant in English poetry until the 20th century and the advent of free verse; now the situation is mostly the opposite.) (See also this.) Below, I’ll list “my twelve” dominants, but please see the full article for a more thorough explanation…

So here are The Twelve (slightly revised). As a bonus, I’m also including their “opposites,” which is something I’ve been thinking about since (and thanks to Anne Shaw for her help in thinking through those):

  1. Ironic vs. Sincere
  2. Brief vs. Long (essentially a Minimalist/Maximalist distinction)
  3. Twee (Precious) vs. Ephemeral/Disposable
  4. Clean vs. Messy/Careless
  5. Nostalgic vs. A-historic/Present
  6. “Languagey” (Ornate) vs. Prosaic/Plainspoken
  7. Conceptual vs. Organic
  8. Parataxical vs. Hypotactic/Syllogistic
  9. Collage vs. Homogeneous
  10. A-narrative vs. Narrative/Anti-narrative
  11. Vulgar (Profane) vs. Classical/Mystical
  12. Confessional vs. Mediated

And a few explanations/caveats:

  1. The qualities on the left are the ones that I find to be (currently) more valued, but that’s not to say that everyone then accepts them as dominants in their own work. But I do think that these qualities exert a real pressure on all of us. (I know I feel them.)
  2. In other words, the easiest way “to get by” right now is write work that features some or all of the qualities on the left. (Note that it may not be possible to include all of them; I am surveying a pretty large scene which is itself comprised of lots of different scenes. Part of what I found challenging about writing the article was that it was asking me to summarize a lot of disparate writers, when I tend to favor a more thoroughly analytical approach.)
  3. Obviously—but I feel this bears repeating—this list is subjective and contingent. (I’d be happy to hear about what elements you feel as dominants.)
  4. Also obviously there are alternatives other than the simple binaries I’ve presented here—but, again, I think that these binaries do exist “out there,” and are strongly felt.
  5. See the original article for a more thorough explanation of all of these. (Although not that thorough: I was told I had to stay under 2000 words, preferably closer to 1500—there’s that pressure toward brevity!)

And because I want to better explain/test all of this, let’s try applying these concepts to Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel (2009). Now, I have no idea what Lin was thinking/feeling when he set down to write that novella. But it now exists, and is part of the literary landscape, and as such it in some ways helps configure that literary landscape. And a lot of indy writers are influenced by Lin. So what are Shoplifting‘s qualities as per the above list? That work is, I’d argue:

  1. Sincere (although people may disagree with me there—but I feel as though Shoplifting marked a big move away from irony in Lin’s writing; compare, for but one example, its ending with the ending of Eeeee Eee Eeee)
  2. Brief (it’s a novella and favors short episodes)
  3. Twee (Precious)
  4. Clean
  5. A-historic/Present (the disappearance of nostalgia is one of the reasons why this novella reads differently from Eeeee Eee Eeee)
  6. “Languagey” (Ornate) (some may dispute this, but I think the prose is very wrought)
  7. Conceptual (this one less so than the others, whereas Richard Yates is very conceptual) (and I may be wrong about this one; this is a place where the binary, when applied, breaks down)
  8. Parataxical (it’s extremely parataxical)
  9. Collage (the style is homogeneous, but the style includes radical elisions)
  10. Narrative/Anti-narrative
  11. Vulgar (Profane) (i.e., it’s realist)
  12. Mediated (of course, other work by Lin is extremely confessional—but in Shoplifting, despite its autobiographical elements, the narrative distance between Sam and Lin’s third-person narrator is crucial) (I think that the novella’s sincere + mediated + present qualities may be mistaken for irony)

…Although, again, a caveat: this is more an illustration of the concept than anything; I didn’t create the list suggesting that it could be applied willy-nilly to texts or writers. Rather, it’s meant to point out pressures that exist in the current indy lit landscape—qualities we’re drawn to by other works, our peers, commercial pressures, the infrastructure of publishing, more.

And this is a work in progress; I welcome your thoughts! And I plan to write more about all of these (and/or other) dominants…in the future!

Update: There’s a story by Roxane Gay in the same issue. Which was guest-curated by Jarred McGinnis. And which was edited by Melissa Mann.