October 27th, 2011 / 2:37 pm
Craft Notes

“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.

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  1. A D Jameson

      How so? I mean, whether you and I like it or not, it’s no longer the 80s, and twee now refers to something more than Sarah Records.

      I mean, just do a google image search on the word:

      Not a single K Rec shield to be seen!

      I know what the word twee means, and has meant, and I’m using it very deliberately to refer to an aesthetic that;s very, very common these days, and which has its roots in 80s and 90s indie pop. But that is not the same thing as that indie pop. Like it or not, twee has gone mainstream, and become something different in the process (just like what happened with punk, which now refers mostly to a commercialized aesthetic, and not, say, DIY—you can buy the shit at Hot Topic!).

  2. A D Jameson

      A general survey of as much of the North American English-language indie lit scene as I can see. Which may turn out to be a very small portion of it; I feel as though I will find that out only by sharing my impressions of it.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. A D Jameson

      Parataxis is often a fellow traveler of minimalism, but the two don’t need to go hand in hand. You can have maximalist works that are parataxical, and minimalist works that are a singly hypotactic sentence.

  4. A D Jameson

      Certainly there are other ways of analyzing the scene. I think there are more than just three camps, though. And for my own purposes, I prefer to approach things this way, by means of the dominant, and not in terms of “schools” or “camps.” One, because I think a lot of artists exist between or over many schools and camps. Two, because there are lots of sub-groups and sub-camps. Three, because I’m ultimately less interested in groups/camps than I am in the aesthetic pressures that exist in the landscape—which groups and camps play a role in defining, but are not, from this view, the be-all and end-all.

      I’m glad to see you include experimental realist on your list, though. That’s a movement that too often gets left out in most taxonomies.

  5. A D Jameson

      Minimalist, stylistically, can apply to a great many things: sentences, paragraph length, book length, hell, word length, more. And in any case, I’m using the word “brief,” because I think the current dominant is “brevity,” not “minimal.”

      Donald Judd sculptures are infinitely repeatable. A Philip Glass composition can be very long. Minimalism was about repreated series of discreet units, ultimately—a kind of modular art. 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:

      1. shortness of time or duration; briefness: the brevity of human life.
      2. the quality of expressing much in few words; terseness: Brevity is the soul of wit.

      Hope that clarifies,

  6. A D Jameson

      I’m not only describing fiction, but poetry as well. Where would the Language and post-Language writers fit in terms of these three categories? And returning to fiction: how about Joshua Cohen or Jeremy M. Davies? There isn’t room for them; Or consider the differences between Blake Butler and Ben Marcus. Are they both 3? That seems uber-simplistic. There’s a lot more out there than this.

      I really do think that categories or groups is the wrong approach; there’s infinite variety out there, once you really start surveying the field. Even within groups, artists don’t always line up very well. Look at the Language Poets; there’s a ton of difference between, say, Lyn Hejinian and Charles Bernstein.

      So how are they both Language Poets? Well, for one thing, they both call themselves that. But why do they do that? Because they share a common aesthetic: they are both committed to writing that foregrounds language as language, and that is as parataxical as possible. They share two of the above twelve dominants, in other words. Now, what they do from there is their business, but every decision that they make, and that they have ever made, stems from that shared aesthetic commitment.

      Meanwhile, someone like Jeremy M. Davies has little interest in parataxis, but he is very committed to foregrounded, ornate language. Man can’t write a plain sentence if he tried. But he isn’t a Language Poet, not in the slightest.

      And so on.

      I hope this clarifies my approach!

  7. A D Jameson

      Miranda July is very Twee.

  8. A D Jameson

      Exactly. Minimalism has nothing to do with sentence length! Donald Barthelme wrote a short story that is a single long sentence, “Sentence,” and that’s in many ways a minimalist work: he was trying to reduce one of his tools (the sentence) to as small a number as possible. In that case, he was using La Monte Young’s notion of minimalism: “art made with as few components as possible.”

      Which is only one definition of minimalism. And Minimalism in 70s/80s fiction means something different; I have nothing to say about that movement here. If I use the word minimalist, I use it in its broader sense, which cuts across numerous art forms, and has been doing so for well over a hundred years now.

      And, in any case, the dominant I mentioned is “brevity,” not “minimalist.” Because I think that brevity is more of an aesthetic compulsion these days than minimalism is. Of course I may be wrong about that, but…

  9. A D Jameson

      The thing is, dominants are not necessarily to be avoided. They are inevitable. In making an artwork, say a piece of writing, there will be Something You Want To Do, and Things You Don’t Want To Do. The things you want to do are dominants. It’s impossible to have style without this.

      There’s nothing wrong with using any of the above things as dominants; I would never want to suggest otherwise. And there are millions of other things that can become dominants.

      My concern here is only to describe those elements that I see most of the people around me—a majority, not a totality—valuing as non-sacrificial in their work. In other words, these are the things I see a lot of people Wanting To Do.

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  11. Michael

      I understand–you’re using it more broadly. I still find, however, that people (not necessarily you) use the term as shorthand to describe “a certain kind of writing” that’s influenced from that particular era. 

      I also find it funny that people rarely use “maximalist” in a broader sense, even though plenty of contemporary fiction could be described as such. 

  12. M. Kitchell

      i think this is where we have to objectively admit that binaries fail us.  heterogeneous seems like a better binary paired with homogeneous, but we could still, perhaps, place monsieur tao lin as homogeneous in [virtually everything except internal juxtapositions that are seemingly used to the same effect whenever they arise thereby self-rendering as homogeneous] when looking at a text like compact by maurice roche or [anything that actually displays a verisimilitude of forms/content/whatever]

  13. M. Kitchell

      will somebody read my writingz and tell me what i am

  14. deadgod

      –perhaps best then to detach the parenthetical minimalist/maximalist “distinction” from #2! 

      –I mean, if what you mean by it is the dichotomy “brevity”/expansiveness.

      As to “repeated series of discrete units”:  perhaps “modular” vs. barnacular.

      Sealed vs. porous?  (Meaning ‘rearrangement within’ vs. ‘accretion from without’.)

  15. deadgod

      It’s important to check Adam’s key caveat (as it was when Higgs was referring to / employing dichotomies):  the pairs are neither exclusive of each other nor to be found alone in ‘nature’.  Each ‘side’ is a tendency, perhaps a primacy, or preference–but not a prescription.

      What do you want your writingz to be or to feel like?  –I mean, other than elusive of all “binaries”, ha ha –

  16. A D Jameson

      Binaries will always fail us, sure, but that doesn’t mean they’re also not useful.

  17. Tatertots23

      Such a cheesy response. The general aesthetics of a style or movement are not defined by its outliers. Try again. 

  18. Tatertots23

      I “toured” it as well for a long time. Twee took some cues from DIY punk, but so did a million other genres of music. That doesn’t make it DIY punk. It was a different thing with a different aesthetic. It took more cues from power pop and pop music in general, musically and aesthetically, even though it had something of a DIY sense to it sometimes. 

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