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March 31st, 2010 / 5:38 pm
Craft Notes

Against Good Stories: A Rebuttal

Earlier today Roxane posted about the merits of what she called “good stories.” She also invoked a discussion of the conventional/experimental split. I have just read her post and feel compelled to respond.  (Thanks, Roxane, for providing such a provocative post!)

Let me admit right up front that this post is going to be impromptu, and therefore the organization of my thoughts will presumably be scattershot, and in no way comprehensive. I am not going to edit this post; I’m just going to type off the cuff and then post the post. I have to do it this way or else I’ll do like I always do, which is to say that I’ll tell myself I’m going to write a post responding to Roxane’s post, but then I won’t ever get around to doing it.

So here goes my thoughts as they occur to me…

[I’m going to write this response in third person, Roxane, I hope you don’t mind…I wrote two sentences in second person, as like an address to your claims, and it felt too confrontational or something…seems like more of a discussion/debate/conversation/etc. if I do third person...]

Okay, so Roxane offers a common accusation leveled at experimental writers: “they just don’t give a damn about audience.” Objection! This claim is patently false. If anything, it is the conventional realist who has scorn for the audience because they pander to the lowest common denominator, whereas the experimental writer respects the intelligence of the audience; and unlike the conventional realist, the experimental writer invites the reader to participate in the construction of the text. Conventional realists are fascists. They alone hold control over the text. They alone hold the power of “storytelling.” They do not care about their audience, all they care about is projecting their “good stories.”  They require that you turn your critical skills off (they call this “suspension of disbelief”) and, in the words of John Gardner, fall into the fictive dream.

As far as “good stories” go…I have said this elsewhere, but it bears repeating: there is no such thing as a “good story.” There are stories with greater or lesser popular appeal, there are stories with greater or lesser reliance on convention (familiarity) or experimentation (unfamiliarity), there are stories whose material is situated within a particular tradition and can therefore be compared to other stories within that tradition, there are stories that foreground propaganda or social issues over Art, there are stories that value communication over personal expression and vice versa. But none of those categories intersect “The Good.” This is a ubiquitous mistake made by folks who forget that philosophy directs our attention to three discrete categories of inquiry: The True, The Good, and The Beautiful. Art aligns with the last of those three: The Beautiful. Properly speaking, Art does not belong in a discussion of either The True or The Good. Those categories are for things other than Art. So, if you concede that literature is art, then you should also concede to leaving literature out of the realm of The True and The Good.

I encourage anybody interested in reconsidering the notion of “good stories” to check out the critical work of Theodor Adorno. In particular, check out his book called Dialectic of Enlightenment, which he co-wrote with Max Horkheimer (esp. the chapter called “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”), and also his book called Aesthetic Theory. I should preface by saying that I don’t wholeheartedly subscribe to Adorno’s position, not least because he valorizes negation and is a Marxist (yuck!), but I do think he makes some salient points worth considering about the value of “good stories” – which I will conflate here with the term “conventional realism” for the purposes of this response.

For Adorno, and this is where I’d agree with him, conventional realism is bankrupt because:

1) It atrophies the imagination
2) Instead of challenging us to think critically, it works to reinforce our prejudices
3) It does not offer alternatives to the status quo, because it reinforces the structural paradigm of the status quo

I wish I had those texts in front of me so I could quote particular passages, but I don’t. Suffice to say, conventional realism attempts to present “real life,” which is a concept that has no basis in reality.

Just as there is no such thing as “real life,” there is no such thing as a story, as Roxane puts it, “without artifice.” The idea of “clarity” is a fallacy. Are we to believe that Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” written in what one might argue to be “clear” prose, is not actually a work of high artifice? Furthermore, the whole notion of “clarity,” of a one-to-one correlation between the signifier on the page and the signified in “real life” is completely absurd! To believe otherwise is to have fallen asleep in 1933 and woken up yesterday, having missed out on the intellectual developments provided by deconstruction and poststructularism.

When Roxane writes “any writing that willfully (to my mind) obscures meaning” – she has already fallen into the trap of believing that meaning can be conveyed without obscurity! This is incorrect. Why? Because all communication between one subjectivity and another subjectivity is necessarily an act of obfuscation. Communication is impossible, yet we attempt it anyway, and the way we have devised our attempt to communicate is through the shitty operation of language. Language fails. Language is not reliable. Language is never enough.

What conventional realism tries to do is either ignore this reality or suppress this reality. Conventional realism is naïve enough to think that such a thing as “clarity” actually exists, when in fact it quite obviously doesn’t. (The proof of this will be in the comment section of this very post, when people attempt to communicate their ideas either for or against these words I am arranging on this cyber page.)

So I would argue that one of the reasons why people get so hostile to experimental writing is that experimental writing is pointing out the fact that language is futile – which is something that most people would rather never admit. Witness the extreme backlash against deconstruction – this is purely a reaction arising from fear, fear of the reality being exposed. We live in a world that is opaque, not clear. We live in a world where you will always misunderstand me, but that doesn’t stop me from attempting to convey my thoughts anyway.

Finally, it would be interesting to pose this argument, so I will: what if the reason Roxane remembers those Little House on the Prairie books is not because they were “good stories plainly told,” but because she read them at a point in her cognitive development when lobes of the brain responsible for building structural components hungered for input? What happened was that she read work which programmed her brain toward a particular foundational structure, which is the basis for her argument today. In effect, the argument for “clear stories” is a nostalgic (read: detrimental) desire to replicate the structural mechanisms developed at an early age.

In this way we can see how conventional realism is conservative. While experimental writing is progressive. Conventional realism desires to maintain the elements that make for “good stories,” by constructing rigid guidelines for what a “good story” either is or isn’t.  While experimental writing seeks to challenge these rigid boundaries.  Conventional realism is the form of hegemonic power.  Experimental writing is resistance writing.  Personally, I find the practice of conventional realism not only horrifically boring, but also extremely creepy and dangerous.  Long live experimentalism!

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