June 10th, 2010 / 6:15 pm
Craft Notes

“She will continue driving down the Feather River Canyon from Portola to sit in front of the plant where Paul died with signs about work place safety as long as she feels the need”

“Friends and family of Paul Smith toasted him with his favorite drink — Coca-Cola — Wednesday at noon and remembered him on Facebook, exactly two years after he died in an accident at work.” — from the Mercury Register

Hi, reader. Writer of things to be read, probably. You, writer/reader, might have read, as I did, that interview between Jonathan Lethem and David Gates where they get anxious about “putting” the internet in their fiction. Or you might have read things about how brand names shouldn’t be “used” in fiction. Now I invite you to read a story about things that people do while they are trying to live, which may or may not help you to untangle these tough philosophical questions.

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119 Comments

  1. stephen

      maybe you’re misunderstanding me, alec. i’m not proposing that authors try to write “a timely story.” what i was describing are possible future consequences not explicitly intended by the author who uses what you call “dated elements,” which is preposterous, by the way, because MY VERY BODY AND SOUL IS MADE UP OF EXCLUSIVELY DATED ELEMENTS. it would be one part of what could be an extensive, comprehensive argument against any kind of anti-contemporaneity, “this is what Real Art is, and this is what it isn’t” type of bullshit. i think it’s small-minded and silly to think that there are such things as “successful stories” or especially stories that incorporate or integrate things “successfully.” What is this, a Model UN speech? Judge: “You successfully incorporated references to the ongoing effects of Maoist Thought in your speech on the tensions in modern-day China.” That kind of language reminds me of a stereotypical writing workshop teacher or a conservative or “this is right art/this is wrong art” (same thing?) type of magazine editor. there’s no such thing as a story that can only be told one way. no story exists until it does, and it can always be changed.

  2. Alec Niedenthal

      I mean, I don’t think anyone would argue that “MY VERY BODY AND SOUL IS MADE UP OF EXCLUSIVELY DATED ELEMENTS”–the only thing timeless is what is dated ahead of time. Being-towards-death etc. I’m not sure why you’re being hostile and slightly hysterical here. I’m not trying to prescribe a formula for fiction here, but if I’m a Model UN judge because there are some strategies that work for me and some that don’t, then whatever, so be it. I don’t necessarily think writing is all too different from a Model UN performance.

  3. Alec Niedenthal

      I meant to say I don’t think anyone would argue AGAINST your thing in all caps.

  4. stephen

      i’m also put in mind of kanye west, who says his albums are like time capsules, that he specifically got t-pain on his album during the “big t-pain year” bc A) He likes T-pain, and B) He wants ppl to look back years later and remember all the stuff from that year. also, kanye says he’s cool with wearing trendy-ass clothing even if he will eventually look ridiculous in photographs (or immediately).

      is that vain? of course! who cares?????????????? writing anything is vain. and no matter what kind of writing you do, it’s a reaction, subconscious or not, to what other people are writing at that moment and what other people have written in the past. so what??????????? you’re part of a community, whether you like it or not. i celebrate it. the more community the better. if it’s vain or not “Serious Art” to respond to being alive at a specific moment in time that will never happen quite the same way again, if it’s vain to do what feels good and cool and fun, whether it’s writing or picking out clothes, then bring on the charges of vanity and un-seriousness! all the guys writing post-Barthelme, post-barfcore, or whatever the hell people write these days, all you very serious writers, you’re like the guy who wears sensible but slightly cool tennis shoes because boots are too pretentious or hightops are “too black” or “Chucks are so mainstream.” do you think anyone ever excited or inspired people with their art by sitting around fretting about stupid, meaningless shit?

  5. stephen

      you just happened to be there, sorry, alec ;)

      i think writing is totally different from a Model UN performance. what of your personal emotions, your personal history, is in a competitive brainiac exhibition? you think writing is a competitive brainiac exhibition? see the later years of DFW. he realized that being the smartest guy didn’t satisfy him.

      what i am saying is that you and i are bodies in time. whatever you want to express on the page and whatever you want to mention as you do that is up to you, but you see that’s what i’m saying—it’s up to you! it’s not up to prescriptivists. it’s not up to authors who do interviews for PEN America and say, gee golly, i guess fiction always ends up going back to conventional realism.

      i’m not prescribing anything, whether it be contemporary references or anything else. i’m merely saying that there are no rules in art, and anyone who tells you how not to write is scared they’ve been doing it wrong. when there is no wrong.

  6. mimi

      Alec-
      I am going to go reread Dying with an eye out for Objects, and make a precise list of them, and figure out which ones I “know what they are” and which ones I don’t. So excited! Weekend!

  7. Alec Niedenthal

      That sounds like a really cool and worthwhile project, Mimi. Let me know how it turns out!

  8. Mike Young

      that is a good rebuttal, amy, especially the last bit about gates’s disinterest in the idea of the internet as simulacra and his willingness to concede that interaction with such technology might be part of peoples’ lives in a real way, even if he isn’t sure how, as he can only see it as distraction/fetish/etc. which, yeah, i didn’t give him enough credit for..

      in which case my point might be that the story linked—which i still think is more interesting than the interview—shows how the “how” is unexpectedly simple and obvious if we walk around a little bit on the ground we’re supposedly staying close to… and i still think i have a problem with the whole framing of it as “fiction writers staying abreast of the next newest technology..” that framing, which is popular, privileges some auteur-like duty to one’s own abilities of prophecy and philosophy, which seems very far from “the ground..” which i guess is the point of your last two sentences..

  9. Mike Young

      yeah, that is a good criticism alec.. that is why i have a problem with the whole idea of framing it as “use,” some accomplishment of contemporary incorporation, or, alternatively, rebellion against incorporation, which both reduce things to incorporation, which sort of seems too self-regarding and beside the point of just paying attention…

  10. jesusangelgarcia

      That’s a good point, Mimi. I have to think about this. I’m trying to be up-to-the-minute contemporary and also somehow out-of-time, a ridiculous ambition. If I reinstate MySpace and this other reference to the Commander-in-Chief’s grandfather’s connects to the Nazis, then it firmly places the narrative a few years back, which may be OK. Hmmm… thanks for making me rethink this. Still thinking…

  11. jesusangelgarcia

      That’s a good point, Mimi. I have to think about this. I’m trying to be up-to-the-minute contemporary and also somehow out-of-time, a ridiculous ambition. If I reinstate MySpace and this other reference to the Commander-in-Chief’s grandfather’s connects to the Nazis, then it firmly places the narrative a few years back, which may be OK. Hmmm… thanks for making me rethink this. Still thinking…

  12. Tim

      Melissa, I agree with you. I think writers should be careful about how thickly they pour in the tech references, but I get annoyed at the total deniers too. I had a story come back with an editor’s note that he couldn’t read past the word myspace on the first page and the more I thought about it the more annoyed I became. I was well aware, when I chose that word, of what it carried, but I chose it over “the internet” or “a social networking site” to avoid generic fluff and to convey a specific sort of shitty/amateurish/sketchy-this-person-i-met-online-is-in-my-homeness. I respect that editors can choose to be picky about that sort of thing if they want but if it’s such a hard rule maybe it should be specified in sub guidelines.

  13. Jason Cook

      He went swimming in the Gulf of Mexico

  14. Michael Fischer

      I’ve never understood the argument that writers shouldn’t include pop cultural references in their work for fear of dating that work, as if the best work merely sprinkles in pop cultural references as some sort of crutch or lazy shorthand. This argument, and even some of the counter-arguments, miss the larger point, which is that the writing must be convincing. Many of my favorite stories and novels include references to stuff I know nothing about it, but it doesn’t matter because the writing is convincing enough to make me believe in those references without having to consult a dictionary, whether they be pop cultural, scientific, whatever.

      American Lit has been quite engaged with technology and science for over 100 years (post-Darwin). One could argue that modernism itself was founded upon an intense engagement with language and technology, as well as science. There’s also a clear relationship between aesthetic shifts the last 100 years and cinema/film technique, and Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” could easily be a text on writing fiction.

  15. Tim

      Melissa, I agree with you. I think writers should be careful about how thickly they pour in the tech references, but I get annoyed at the total deniers too. I had a story come back with an editor’s note that he couldn’t read past the word myspace on the first page and the more I thought about it the more annoyed I became. I was well aware, when I chose that word, of what it carried, but I chose it over “the internet” or “a social networking site” to avoid generic fluff and to convey a specific sort of shitty/amateurish/sketchy-this-person-i-met-online-is-in-my-homeness. I respect that editors can choose to be picky about that sort of thing if they want but if it’s such a hard rule maybe it should be specified in sub guidelines.

  16. Jason Cook

      He went swimming in the Gulf of Mexico

  17. Guest

      I’ve never understood the argument that writers shouldn’t include pop cultural references in their work for fear of dating that work, as if the best work merely sprinkles in pop cultural references as some sort of crutch or lazy shorthand. This argument, and even some of the counter-arguments, miss the larger point, which is that the writing must be convincing. Many of my favorite stories and novels include references to stuff I know nothing about it, but it doesn’t matter because the writing is convincing enough to make me believe in those references without having to consult a dictionary, whether they be pop cultural, scientific, whatever.

      American Lit has been quite engaged with technology and science for over 100 years (post-Darwin). One could argue that modernism itself was founded upon an intense engagement with language and technology, as well as science. There’s also a clear relationship between aesthetic shifts the last 100 years and cinema/film technique, and Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” could easily be a text on writing fiction.

  18. Luke

      Some time back I wrote a short hybrid describing a cultural dislocation-by-internet experience, an affect that was both imagined and real.
      Here, if you like:

      “Call for Intercession: OED”

  19. Luke

      Some time back I wrote a short hybrid describing a cultural dislocation-by-internet experience, an affect that was both imagined and real.
      Here, if you like:

      “Call for Intercession: OED”