Theory of Prose & better writing (ctd): The New Sincerity, Tao Lin, & “differential perceptions”

In the first post in this series, I outlined Viktor Shklovsky’s fundamental concepts of device (priem) and defamiliarization (ostranenie) as presented in the first chapter of Theory of Prose, “Art as Device.” This time around, I’d like to look at the start of Chapter 2 and try applying it to contemporary writing (specifically to the New Sincerity). As before, I’m proposing that one can actually use the principles of Russian Formalism to become a better writer and a better critic.

Chapter 2 is titled “The Relationship between Devices of Plot Construction and General Devices of Style,” and it covers a lot of ground. Shklovsky begins by asking why certain plots and motifs can be observed throughout literature, even when that literature is vastly separated by time and space. He dismisses the idea that the plots and motifs are being passed along, and proposes instead that they are being independently invented or (re-)discovered time and again. By his reasoning, since literature is made up of devices—that’s all that literature is—there are patterns that govern the ways in which those devices get put together, and people keep exploring those patterns. As he puts it:

The story disintegrates and is rebuilt anew. […] Coincidences can be explained only by the existence of special laws of plot formation. (17)

From there, he sets out to describe those special laws.

But first Shklovsky circles back, providing a fuller account of defamiliarization in light of this new proposal. There are two points to take in here.

1. Context

Shklovsky first notes that artists are necessarily always working in relation to one another, and to history:

I would like to add the following as a general rule: a work of art is perceived against a background of and by association with other works of art. The form of a work of art is determined by its relationship with other preexisting forms. The content of a work of art is invariably manipulated, it is isolated, “silenced.” All works of art, and not only parodies, are created either as a parallel or an antithesis to some model. The new form makes an appearance not to express a new content, but rather, to replace an old form that has already outlived its artistic usefulness. (20, emphasis in the original)

This is a very dense quote, so let’s take it one step at a time. First, what counts as defamiliarization is contingent on time and place—on whatever devices and patterns of devices count as familiar.

Let’s try out this thought on an example from contemporary letters: the New Sincerity. Very briefly and very broadly, the NS started as a half-silly, half-serious movement launched c. 2004 by Joseph Massey, Andrew Mister, and Anthony Robinson. They wrote manifestos and blogged a lot and called for a poetic return to earnest self-expression and sincerity. Other writers since have either fairly or unfairly come to be identified with this philosophy and style: Dorothea Lasky, Matt Hart, Nate Pritts, Tao Lin and the Muumuu House scene, Marie Calloway, Steve Roggenbuck—and many others.

I have a lot to say about the New Sincerity, and intend to discuss it at length in future posts and articles both here and elsewhere. But for now, permit me to stick with this oversimplification. (I think we can agree that the writers I’ve just mentioned, despite their palpable differences, all share at least something or things in common, stylistically—as opposed to, say, Vanessa Place, or Joshua Cohen, or Dodie Bellamy, or Jonathan Franzen.)

If I’m right, and if Shklovsky is right, then what gives the New Sincerity its overarching identity is the fact that a (loose-knit) group of writers are using some number of shared devices and patterns of devices. Me, I think that’s absolutely right. With apologies to Elisa Gabbert and Mike Young, here are some of the New Sincerity’s moves:

  1. Lots of autobiography (lots of lines starting with “I”), which is itself often confessional. (Certain subjects, such as one’s emotions and actual life experiences, are considered “more appropriate” or “better” content.) Sometimes this autobiography is masked (Richard Yates, Marie Calloway), but only thinly.
  2. Apostrophe (in the poetry).
  3. Minimal punctuation.
  4. In the poetry, stanza and line lengths are often irregular.
  5. Long, rambly lines or steady paragraphs of even, neutral lines. Note that the purpose here, and in 3 and 4, is to create the sense that the work is artless (i.e., neither artificial nor contrived).
  6. Self-revision; fumbling about for words (Lasky: “I think poems come from the earth and work through the mind from the ground up. I think poems are living things that grow from the earth into the brain, rather than things that are planted within the earth by the brain. I think a poet intuits a poem and a scientist conducts a ‘project.’ I don’t know. That seems wrong, too.”) (See also Lin’s maximal use of scare quotes.)
  7. Similar to 6: A tendency toward conversational/discursive tones. (Note that this is still a matter of rhetoric!) This gets at a shared fondness for Facebook/Twitter/Google Chat/etc., which are essentially endless conversations.
  8. A professed hatred of irony and overt cleverness. (“Enemies” here include Language Poetry, Conceptual Poetry, and “formulaic” MFA lyricism that “deadens” language.) (See also Tao Lin’s current “Not Trying” period.)
  9. Favorite subjects: childishness, mental illness, emotion and the lack thereof, as well as the sudden upswell of uncontrollable emotion (anything that evades governing consciousness).
  10. A fondness of sans-serif fonts / ampersands / text-speak (all of which “feel more contemporary” or “more spontaneous”—less traditionally literary.

N.B. This is far from a definitive list, and I’m not arguing that every New Sincerist work will employ every one of these devices. Nor am I trying to say that all of the writers mentioned above are all doing “the same thing.” I’m just sketching out a general style that has been increasingly observable in poetry and then fiction between 2004 and the present (as opposed to Language Poetry, Conceptual Poetry, MFA lyricism/realism, others).

Overall, the goal of the NS style seems to be to write poetry and prose that produces the effect of somehow being sincere/real/transparent/artless, and less theoretical/abstract/mediated/artificial. (For more along these lines, see Jennifer Moore’s recent article in Jacket2, “‘Something that stutters sincerely’: Contemporary poetry and the aesthetics of failure.“)

Now let’s look more closely at Tao Lin. Certainly his work is popular. There’s also been a lot of ink spilled over the past six years or so as to whether his work is “legitimate,” vs. some kind of put-on or hoax. “He’s just transcribing G-chat conversations” is an oft-heard criticism (I know I’ve often heard it), and the implication of that criticism is that Lin’s work is artless and easy. For two examples, see reviews of Richard Yates by J. A. Tyler (at Big Other) and Joshua Cohen (in Bookforum), both of which effectively accuse the work of being artless and therefore not worth taking seriously as literature. Here’s how Josh put it:

Total transparency will always resolve itself in reduced expression (short paragraphs, “sentagraphs,” short sentences), as subjects like boredom become objectified in prose. Instead of encountering the syntactically strange, or a project of genuine depersonalization or fracture, Lin’s readers are stroked by a continuous stream of neutral declaratives. If Lin retains this transparency there will literally be no other way he can write; his style, once electively autistic, will become a disability, the dictator of his thoughts (it would be impressive if Lin went all Fernando Pessoa on us and wrote heteronymously). Literature is made when a writer exploits different rhetoric in an attempt to manipulate a reader; Lin’s “literature” is the account of his manipulation of his girlfriend in a prose that is interchangeable with anything online written by the under thirty commentariat.

I would argue that Josh is making several crucial mistakes:

1. His first sentence doesn’t follow logically. What the New Sincerists wonder, ultimately, is “what devices in the here and now give the impression of transparency, of artlessness, of pure unmediated sincerity?” Those devices need not be what Josh claims they are. Indeed, many NS writers use long sentences and long paragraphs. But Josh repeats this mistake throughout the paragraph. (“If Lin retains this transparency there will literally be no other way he can write.”)

I wrote in Part 1 that there are no experimental devices, just experimentation with devices. Similarly, there are no devices that eternally “feel sincere,” and no writing that will always count as sincere. What feels visceral and non-contrived at any given moment will always be measured against whatever currently feels bloodless and contrive, and this is always in flux. (Familiarization is always at work on literature.)

2. Josh claims that “a continuous stream of neutral declaratives” can’t be “syntactically strange, or a project of genuine depersonalization or fracture.” In other words, he’s claiming that such writing (Lin’s in particular) lacks the power to defamiliarize. Here he’s making the same mistake that Chris Higgs does: claiming that certain devices can/can’t be used to produce defamiliarization. I hope that my arguments here and in Part 1 sufficiently demonstrate why I think this is completely, utterly wrong.

Language Poetry, for instance, often consists of “a continuous stream of neutral declaratives”— see e.g. Lyn Hejinian’s My Life (1980/87):

You spill the sugar when you lift the spoon. My father had filled an old apothecary jar with what he called “sea glass,” bits of old bottles rounded and textured by the sea, so abundant on beaches. There is no solitude. It buries itself in veracity. It is as if one splashed in the water lost by one’s tears. My mother had climbed into the garbage can in order to stamp down the accumulated trash, but the can was knocked off balance, and when she fell she broke her arm. She could only give a little shrug. The family had little money but plenty of food. At the circus only the elephants were greater than anything I could have imagined. The egg of Columbus, landscape and grammar. She wanted one where the playground was dirt, with grass, shaded by a tree, from which would hang a rubber tire as a swing, and when she found it she sent me. These creatures are compound and nothing they do should surprise us. I don’t mind, or I won’t mind, where the verb “to care” might multiply. The pilot of the little airplane had forgotten to notify the airport of his approach, so that when the lights of the plane in the night were first spotted, the air raid sirens went off, and the entire city on that coast went dark. He was taking a drink of water and the light was growing dim.

And here’s the start of the opening paragraph/chapter of Yuriy Tarnawsky’s Three Blondes and Death (FC2, 1993):

It was in the middle of May. It was unusually warm however. As a consequence it felt like the middle of June. It was a Sunday. Hwbrgdtse was with a friend. The friend was a man. His name was Valentin. Hwbrgdtse and Valentin were going to horse races. The races were held out in the country. The racetrack was far away from the city. Going to the races therefore Hwbrgdtse and Valentin saw a lot of the countryside. It’d been unusually warm all of that spring. The vegetation was much more advanced than usual. It really looked almost as in the middle of June. The grass was thick. It was bright green. It covered the earth like a thick layer of paint. The paint looked shiny. It seemed still wet. It seemed to have been poured out of a can and to have spread over the earth. It seemed to have spread by itself. The earth therefore seemed tilted. (13)

There is always some normative way or ways of employing a device, and as such there are always a non-normative way to defamiliarize it (especially when those devices start getting assembled into patterns and forms).

(My ultimate argument has always been with anyone who would claim that writing need be done a certain way.)

3. What’s more, I’d argue that Lin’s writing is plenty defamiliarizing—hence the very tendency of reviewers to refuse to take it seriously as literature! I myself would argue that Lin’s a fairly experimental novelist, because in Shoplifting and Richard Yates he so defamiliarizes so many devices—he deforms the works so thoroughly—that many have had trouble accepting them as novels.

(Experimental writing and realism are not opposites! Some devices and patterns, in a given time and place, will read as having a more “realistic” effect than others, but all is still artifice. Meanwhile, one can experiment with any device, any pattern.)

4. While it’s somewhat unclear what Josh means by “different rhetoric,” I think he’s basically arguing that Lin’s style—Lin’s devices—don’t count as literature. That’s nonsense. As unfamiliar as Shoplifting and Richard Yates may look, they’re also demonstrably novels. Richard Yates even announces itself as partaking in an established literary tradition: the suburban realist novel, a la Richard Yates’s own Revolutionary Road (1961).

Miserable couples will be with us always. The suburbs, God help us, may also be with us always. So the pertinent question is: How does an author in 2010 describe the miserableness of those suburban couples in a way that feels contemporary and real? Many of the devices and strategies that Richard Yates the man used fifty years ago no longer help; they have become too familiar. (They don’t feel stony.)

And so Richard Yates the novel must use different ones. Lin’s success in this comprises a large part of his novel’s brilliance.

5. If Lin’s writing is similar to other writing out there (“anything online”), then that is the result of shared conventions—the employment of similar devices. But Josh goes too far when he claims that Richard Yates is “interchangeable” with such. Lin, rather, is crafting his prose in Richard Yates to give the impression that it is like online prose—that it is contemporary, unmediated, and sincere. But that’s a rhetorical effect—and the novel is more than just that. (You can see this even in the examples that Josh has cherry-picked.)

In summary, Josh mistakes Lin’s writing for “transparency,” and therefore something artless. What he’s missing is that this seeming transparency and artlessness is entirely the product of rhetoric—of devices.

… Where does this lengthy tangent get us in terms of Shklovsky? Or where does Shklovsky get us in terms of all of this? Quite simply, Tao Lin provides us with a very useful example of that paragraph I quoted above:

I would like to add the following as a general rule: a work of art is perceived against a background of and by association with other works of art. The form of a work of art is determined by its relationship with other preexisting forms. The content of a work of art is invariably manipulated, it is isolated, “silenced.” All works of art, and not only parodies, are created either as a parallel or an antithesis to some model. The new form makes an appearance not to express a new content, but rather, to replace an old form that has already outlived its artistic usefulness. (20, emphases in the original)

I hope it’s clear by now why I think the New Sincerity is a response to preexisting literature (because it, uh, is!). But what in turn has transpired since 2004?

When Lin and other New Sincerists began writing the way that they did, the work “felt sincere”—it often felt so transparent and unmediated and unaffected that many have failed to see the devices at work.

But such writing has also become increasingly commonplace. Due to the New Sincerity’s popularity—and especially due to Lin’s publishing success—a lot of people, especially younger writers, are busy imitating him. (Mind you, I hardly think this is a bad thing; imitation is how and where we all begin.) This newly sincerely stony realist style is right this second becoming codified and familiarized. Later writers who want to make use of it—those who want to produce texts that still feel sincere, unmediated, transparent, rock solid—will need to find new variations on these current forms, and eventually find new forms, and new devices.

In twenty more years, Lin’s writing, as well as most New Sincerist writing, will look just as mannered and artificial as the minimalist realists of the 1970s and 80s—Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, Joy Williams—do to you and me.

2. “Differential Perceptions”

This post has already claimed much I think others might find contentious. (It will be my pleasure to discuss any of this further in the comments section / subsequent posts.) But before I sign off, I’d like to discuss the other point Shklovsky makes about defamiliarization’s contextual aspect. To this end he quotes a long passage from Broder Christiansen (misspelled as V. Khristiansen) regarding “differential perceptions” (20–2). This is a dense little section well worth lingering over, though I’ll try being brief. Consider this excerpt (from Christiansen):

Why is the lyrical poetry of a foreign country never revealed to us in its fullness even when we have learned its language?

We hear the play of its harmonics. We apprehend the succession of rhymes and feel the rhythm. We understand the meaning of the words and are in command of the imagery, the figures of speech and the content. We may have a graps of all the sensuous forms, of all the objects. So what’s missing? The answer is: differential perceptions. The slightest aberrations from the norm in the choice of expressions, in the combination of words, in the subtle shift of syntax—all this can be mastered only by someone who lives among the natural elements of his language, by someone who, thanks to his conscious awareness of the norm, is immediately struck, or rather, irritated by any deviation from it. (21)

Here succinctly summarized is what we find so endearing about the speech of children and non-native speakers. Whole bodies of work—those of Bill Keane and the folks behind Engrish.com, to name but two—are rooted entirely in such perception:

The phenomenon known as Outsider Art also takes this principle to heart (and into the gallery).

Now it must be noted that differential perception is not synonymous with defamiliarization. Rather, defamiliarization is the artistic application of this principle. The artist manipulates a familiar aspect of the work (a device) such that it is perceived differently—and thus perceived. We see precisely this progression (differential perception -> defamiliarization) in the Oulipo’s famed n+7 technique:

  1. The cat wants to jump up on the table.
  2. The catastrophe wants to jump up on the taboo.

… and in many other places as well, such as the Oulipo-inspired technique I wrote about last week, “dictionary expansions.”

Note also that it takes only a minor alteration to render an otherwise banal sentence odd:

  1. The cat wants to jump up on the table.
  2. The cat wants to jump up to the table.

The writing of bizarre language, and the production of defamiliarization in general, need not be anything strenuous.

There’s so much more we could observe here—for instance, why advertisers and companies so frequently misspell words (to stand out, duh), and why expressions like “I’m lovin’ it” can become catchphrases (“to love” is a stative verb and as such doesn’t normally form the progressive). But let’s instead wrap up. What matters is how a piece of writing is perceived against the norm; that norm simultaneously being internal (the devices and patterns the work employs) and external (the background context provided by other works).

This post has now run far too long, and there’s still a great deal in Chapter 2 to talk about—namely the specific rules of plot formation Shklovsky identifies. I’ll pick up there next time. Until then—

—just you try being sincere.

See also: