May 21st, 2012 / 8:01 am
Craft Notes

Viktor Shklovsky wants to make you a better writer, part 1: device & defamiliarization

When I was finishing up my Master’s degree at ISU, I worried that I still didn’t know much about writing—like, how to actually do it. My mentor Curtis White told me, “Just read Viktor Shklovsky; it’s all in there.” So I moved to Thailand and spent the next two years poring over Theory of Prose. When I returned to the US in the summer of 2005, I sat down and started really writing.

I’ve already put up one post about what, specifically I learned from Theory of Prose, but it occurs to me now that I can be even more specific. So this will be the first in a series of posts in which I try to boil ToP down into a kind of “notes on craft,” as well as reiterate some of the more theoretical arguments that I’ve been making both here and at Big Other over the past 2+ years. Of course if this interests you, then I most fervently recommend that you actually read the Shklovsky—and not just ToP but his other critical texts as well as his fiction, which is marvelous. (Indeed, Curt has since told me that he didn’t mean for me to focus so much on ToP! But I still find it extraordinarily useful.)

Let’s talk first about where Viktor Shklovsky himself started: the concepts of device and defamiliarization.

Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984) was, among other things, one of the founders of the intellectual movement that we today call Russian Formalism. (Other participants include Boris Eichenbaum, Roman Jakobson, Vladimir Propp, and Yuri Tynianov). Broadly speaking, they wanted to understand artworks by breaking them down into their constituent parts, or devices (priem)—what we might call tropes or techniques or mechanisms. Different members of this circle studied different devices, and they didn’t always agree as to which devices mattered most. Rather, what unified them was their dedication to identifying devices, then explaining how those devices worked in concert with one another—as well as how those arrangements changed over time.

Theory of Prose was originally published in 1925, but not published in English until 1991. (You can read a lot of it online, here.) It begins with a literal account of the above paragraph: “Art as Device.” (This title is sometimes translated as “Art as Technique”; this is of course that word priem—прием—which means many different things, including chess strategy.) Shklovsky spends some time discussing other accounts of art that people before him have proposed, mainly so he can dismiss them. (He was a fierce critic.) And a lot of new readers get tripped up in these first few pages, but the essential point is that Shklovsky is defining art as device: an artwork is, formally speaking, the sum of its techniques. What’s more, those devices are artistic devices:

In a narrow sense we shall call a work artistic if it has been created by special devices whose purpose is to see to it that these artifacts are interpreted artistically as much as possible (2)

In other words: art for art’s sake! (We don’t judge or evaluate a sculpture by the same criteria we judge other objects—such as iPads, which, despite whatever aesthetic qualities they might possess, ultimately have mundane, utilitarian functions.)

Shklovsky next proceeds to a broader defense of art, and an argument as to its purpose. This is the most famous thing he ever wrote. First, Shklovsky relates a passage from Tolstoy’s diary, in which the author recounts how, after dusting his living room, he couldn’t remember whether he’d cleaned his sofa. This causes Tolstoy to wonder how much of one’s life is lived unconsciously:

If the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been. (5)

Shklovsky next draws a distinction between “recognition” (“automatized perception”) and “seeing.” Recognition occurs when we look at things without seeing them—when dusting the sofa has become so familiar, we tune it out. (“I know I drove home from work, but I don’t recall doing it.”) Seeing, in contrast, happens when something makes us to look again, and regard a thing as though we’re encountering it for the first time. An example I’m fond of is that I lived in Chicago for five years, riding the CTA Blue Line constantly during that time, before noticing (actually seeing) the wood paneling that lines the inside of its train cars.

OK. Shklovsky next asks how we might escape recognition—whose dull teeth are ever at our throat—and return, time and again, to seeing. He goes on to write the most-quoted passage from Theory of Prose:

Held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war. […] And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By “enstranging” objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and “laborious.” The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to its fullest. (5–6)

Art is art because it shakes us out of our complacency, reminding us that we are alive and that things don’t have to be the way they are. It reminds us that anything is possible, despite the fact that we routinely convince ourselves that things are just as they are—the way we’ve inherited them. It is the job of the artist, therefore, to imagine what exists outside of prescribed reality. In a certain sense, art becomes a kind of experimental living.

But it’s important that we note how art, in fact, does this in Shklovsky’s account. Here we must return to our concept of device. Because, remember, for Shklovsky, art is device. And these devices can be cataloged and inherited and imitated—they can even assume the insistence of dogma. (“Show, don’t tell.”) They routinely get assembled in conventional ways—familiar patterns. How, then, can a thing as solidly formulaic as an artwork ever produce something other than automatic recognition?

Shklovsky’s answer is defamiliarization, or ostranenie (which is also often called “estrangement” or “enstrangement”; the Russian is “остранение”). And this is a concept that has been much misunderstood. (Here are two examples of literary critic James Wood completely botching it; mistaking it as being akin to metaphor.) Another common misunderstanding is that defamiliarization is anything surprising or novel in art (“Put the painting on the ceiling!”). But defamiliarization, at heart, is both simpler and much more powerful: it is the manipulation of an artwork’s devices such that the artist disrupts mere recognition.

Shklovsky provides an example from Tolstoy (his favorite author), the story “Kholstomer,” told from a horse’s point of view. What Shklovsky likes about this is not the narrator’s equinity (i.e., not some gimmick), but rather how that conceit enables Tolstoy to defamiliarize everyday customs and objects (and aspects of language):

Many of the people, for example, who called me their horse did not ride on me. Others did. These same people never fed me. Others did. Once again, I was shown many kindnesses, but not by those who called me their horse. No, by coachmen, veterinarians and strangers of all sorts. As my observations grew, though, I became increasingly convinced that this concept of mine was invalid not only for us horses but also for human folk, i.e., that it represents nothing more than man’s base and beastly instinct to claim property for himself. A landlord, for instance, says “my house” but never lives in it, concerning himself only with the structure and maintenance of the house. A merchant says “my shop,” “my clothing shop,” yet he himself does not wear any clothes made from the fine material displayed in it. (7)

Shklovsky then notes—crucially—that “the horse is killed off long before the end of the story, but the mode of telling the story, its device, does not change” (ibid). What matters is Tolstoy’s novel use of a stock literary device, which he pursues to the extent of warping both the story and our impression of everyday life.

For Shklovsky, then, art—while always a matter of conventional devices—demands that the artist resist automatic recognition by means of defamiliarization—that he or she make some unconventional employment of one or more of the artwork’s devices. Since he was a writer and literary critic, his concern is how this is done in literature. And so he spends much of the rest of the chapter discussing how euphemisms, erotica, riddles, and poetry produce this effect by impeding recognition:

In our phonetic and lexical investigations into poetic speech, involving both the arrangement of words and the semantic structures based on them, we discover everywhere the very hallmark of the artistic: that is, an artifact that has been intentionally removed from the domain of automatized perception. It is “artificially” created by an artist in such a way that the perceiver, pausing in his reading, dwells on the text. (12)

Poetry, thus, is not “thinking in images,” as others before and after have claimed, or even a prescribed way of writing. It is not metaphorical language, as many lyric MFA students have been taught; nor is it writing that resists semantic closure and thereby forces the production of meaning onto its audience, as the Language Poets would have it. Nor is it writing that is above all else sincere, as the New Sincerists and Muumuu House would have it; nor is it allegorical writing that results, mechanically and residually, from a motivating concept or procedure, as the Conceptual Poets would have it.

It is instead all these things and more; it is “the language of impeded, distorted speech. It is structured speech” (13). N.B. that structure and impedibility are not antitheses! The impeding is a function of the structure—indeed, it is impossible to make the reader pause without structure.

This principle gets at the very heart of my disagreement with Chris Higgs, seen most sharply here and here. (The rest of our debate is forthcoming!) It also underlies my criticisms of James Wood, and my many, many critiques of Christopher Nolan. I will try to summarize it as simply as I can:

  1. Art is formulaic; it is comprised of devices and patterns of devices.
  2. We desire, however, that art defamiliarize.
  3. Thus, the artist must employ some of those devices toward defamiliarization—through addition, subtraction, or substitution.
  4. That said, in order for us to be able to feel the effect of defamiliarization, it’s essential that other devices in the artwork be conventionally employed. (Total innovation is indistinguishable from noise. If everything bucked convention, how would we know we’re in the presence of an artwork?)
  5. Furthermore, we can never prescribe which devices should be altered, or in what way. What can be done with an artwork to make it “feel stony” is entirely contingent on the artist’s time and place.

Shklovsky is adamant on this last point, and concludes the chapter by addressing it:

There is such a thing as “order” in art, but not a single column of a Greek temple fulfills its order perfectly, and artistic rhythm may be said to exist in the order of prose disrupted. Attempts have been made by some to systematize these “disruptions.” […] We have good reason to suppose that this systemization will not succeed. This is so because we are dealing here not so much with a more complex rhythm as with a disruption of rhythm itself, a violation, we may add, that can never be predicted. If this violation enters the canon, then it loses its power as a complicating device. (14)

Christopher Higgs and James Wood are of course very different critics, but I’d argue that, as well-intentioned as they both are (they promote the writing they think the most artistic, which is noble), they both effectively make the same mistake. Chris (it seems to me) desires that writing be anti-Aristotelian, some hybrid of fiction and poetry that employs the devices he considers “experimental.” (Meanwhile, he considers other devices and patterns non-experimental.) James Wood, conversely, thinks the best writing to be realist prose, which he likes best when it’s written in the third person limited, employing free indirect discourse. These preferences lead Higgs and Wood to overstate the artistic importance and effect of what they personally like, to the point where those respective things are all that count for them as art.

[Christopher Nolan is a different animal entirely. I think he wants to be an artist—I believe he really does aspire to make today’s Godfather: Part II—and he even has some decent innovations (e.g., “tell the story backward”), although they’re never as defamiliarizing as he seems to think they are. But his real problem is that he relies too much on familiar convention, the commonest film techniques of the day, making movies wherein his 1% defamiliarization gets drowned out by the 99% of his rote, uninspired cinematic language—to the point where his innovation essentially becomes a gimmick. (Put another way, he thinks it cool that the narrator is a horse.)]

Returning to Higgs and Wood: it’s fine to have favorites, and I don’t fault them their preferences. But art has no favorite way of being made, and there are no experimental devices. One can only experiment with devices. There also aren’t any realist devices—rather, there are devices that, in a given time and place, produce the effect of realism. (This is why today’s most convincingly realist art is tomorrow’s stylized artifice. Can you believe that audiences once couldn’t see the artifice in classic Hollywood cinema?)

Furthermore, art is (necessarily) always a mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar. That mixture is not preset; nor is it a recipe or a formula that one follows. Any aspect of the artwork can be bent toward defamiliarization—and, in time, should be! Because what counts as art right now will very possibly not count as art tomorrow, except in some historic sense. We are always at war with the insatiable process of recognition.

This also suggests that the innovation of defamiliarization has nothing—nothing!—to do with originality or invention. Or, rather, arguments over originality and invention miss the larger point. When an artist disrupts a familiar pattern, it doesn’t matter if they’re the first person to do it, or whether they’ve stolen that idea from another time and another place (or whether they thought up on their own something that someone else already did). What matters is what effect the disruption produces in their specific artwork, in its specific time and place. For more on this principle, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and especially here.)

Finally, we can see that genre is no obstacle whatsoever to innovation. All writing, all art, is formulaic. Some of those formulas we call genres. Their familiar conventionality provides a serious artist with plenty of opportunity for innovation (aka, “The Stanley Kubrick Story”). Shklovsky: “Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant” (6, emphasis in the original).

“Art as Device” is a very dense fourteen pages, and serves as the foundation for the remainder of Theory of Prose. In the chapters that follow, Shklovsky provides extensive examples of devices and patterns of devices (taken from specific works), then demonstrates how authors can and do defamiliarize by manipulating the most conventional elements of literature. In the posts that follow, I’ll summarize some of that, drawing attention to the practical lessons I learned, and provide some more contemporary examples. (I’ll even explain how this relates to my recent series of posts on generating text!)

Until then—go fuck yourself!


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  1. Anonymous

      This is cool. I’m particularly interested in this idea:  “If everything bucked convention, how would we know we’re in the presence of an artwork?” Someone somewhere said that Basquiat became a star because he gave something new to art, to the eye, but what he was doing was still so easily recognized as art–that’s what you need to succeed, commercially, as an artist: newness, but only [or perhaps mostly?] when there’s no question that what you are looking at IS art. It’s interesting because, what happens what happens when an artist isn’t recognized as making art? Well, you either get a champion to help you out [Peggy Guggenheim], you wait it out and hope the world comes around [Alice Neal], you get all van Gogh about it, or nobody ever knows you made art [except Mom]. 

  2. Bobby Dixon

      I thought the picture of Nolan was pretty funny. It took me a few minutes to realize who it was. I even google image searched, french writer then russian writer, sure that it would pop up. 

      It seems kind of like defamiliarization is some how spiritually related to Unheimliche or The Uncanny, but I am getting frustrated trying to think of that relation.  

  3. A D Jameson

      I think Chris (Higgs, not Nolan) made that point about Unheimliche, albeit briefly, in our debate. I’m not a Freudian, though, so whether the connection holds or not isn’t for me to say. I’d love to hear someone trace it out, though!

      I actually think it a weakness in Shklovsky that he locates art’s power in a rather subjective effect that art can or can’t have. As many have pointed out, “Familiar (or defamiliar) to whom?” But I think there’s a way to make it more objective/predictable; the trick is to redefine defamiliarization less as a personal effect and more historically, in terms of what is normative/non-normative in the art in a given time/place.

      Which isn’t to say that personal reactions to art aren’t important; they are very important. I just don’t think Shklovsky needed to define ostranenie in terms of it (although you can understand why he did).

  4. A D Jameson

      Thanks! I’ve long been interested in the deformative power of the experimental or the avant-garde. How much can you buck convention until you’re no longer doing art? Can you buck all of the convention?

      I don’t believe you can, and yet many (most?) experimental/ag scenes are filled with artists whose rallying cry is, “Destroy convention!” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to recognize that cry as a perhaps necessary pep talk that inspires them to experiment with whatever conventions (devices) they want to experiment with even as they remain very solidly in contact and communication with the artists of the past. Heck, even the desire to “destroy convention” is rather a cliche of the avant-garde these days, a tradition handed down for over a century!

      For me, that’s not a problem. For them, it might be. TANGENT BEGINNING. At AWP Kevin Killian cornered me to complain that Dodie Bellamy is a more experimental artist than I’ve given her credit for being. This was in response to my having said that if her work Cunt-Ups is experimental (not the qualifier), then it isn’t because it uses the Cut-Up Technique. Because it seems to me that lots of artists these days think the CUT has some experimental power or force that I, honestly, think it has mostly lost. (It’s become very familiar.)

      But it also doesn’t matter to me, broadly speaking, whether Cunt-Ups is experimental, or whether Dodie Bellamy is an experimental writer. Nor do I think that being experimental is necessarily a good thing or a bad thing; it’s just a thing. And the way I define experimental writing, it’s a fairly objective thing. I mean, Dodie Bellamy could have also said that Cunt-Ups was a text she found while strolling one day on the moon, and I don’t think the text’s value would depend on whether or not that were true.

      Of course, I do think that folks like Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, and Chis Higgs have a tremendous amount invested in “being experimental.” They believe that’s the best way to be (if you’re a writer), and they locate the value of what they are doing in what they identify as their experiments. And so I understand why they’d take offense to someone like me coming along and saying, in effect, “You’ve mislabeled that. You’re actually rather reverential to Gysin and Burroughs, and quite conventional.” But their accounts of a lot of their own art are incorrect, I believe. (Note again that I don’t think this invalidates the art, necessarily. We don’t admire Yves Klein because we believe what he said about his own art to be true.)

      Meanwhile, the real questions are (and always are):
      1. What, today, counts as experimental? Does anything?
      2. What is the value in identifying those things?

      What counted as experimental in 1957 does not necessarily count as experimental in 2007.



  5. Anonymous

      oops, this is supposed to follow “I think Chris (Higgs, not…”

      “what is normative/non-normative in the art in a given time/place.”
      but it gets complicated in the world of the internet, in a fin de siecle enviro like ours, doesn’t it? where everything is available, and everything done? i mean, sure, there is what’s big in art [jeff koons, franzen], and subverting that might put you outside the art ‘industry,’ but that doesn’t nec mean you are outside the historical norm, since, for every franzen there’s a [fill in the blank], and a raft of people following that [fill in the blank] aesthetic.

  6. A D Jameson

      Yes, the context has certainly grown. No doubt about that!

      But there are also still smaller contexts. And people still locate themselves in communities, traditions. And what’s more, the internet might make people even more conventional—who knows?

      Two contemporary writers I consider very experimental are Tao Lin and Kenneth Goldsmith. Because lots of people I know don’t consider them to be making art—they have a great resistance to accepting that Day and Richard Yates should count as poetry or fiction, respectively. This is both online and off. And the people I know who don’t want to regard such work as valid have different reasons for doing so—but the effect is the same.

      Meanwhile, I think it a pretty simple matter to demonstrate that both Lin and Goldsmith are operating in what are pretty familiar traditions by this point (different traditions, to be sure). And they themselves are keenly aware of it. There’s a reason why Lin used to wear that Joy Williams shirt. There’s a reason why Goldsmith quotes Sol LeWitt every chance he gets.

      Art is very traditional and conventional even as it defamiliarizes and deforms. The defamiliarization and deformation is a result of art’s engaging with conventions. The defamiliarization is felt against the employment of existing convention—both outside the artwork (in other works), but also within the work. Shklovsky addresses this point specifically in his second chapter, and I’ll talk more about this in my next post.


  7. A D Jameson

      Oh and I of course looked for the most flattering picture of Nolan I could find :)

      I actually really like that photo. He looks a bit like Terry Gilliam in it.

      I promised a friend of mine that the next time I wrote about Nolan, I’d list all the things I like about his films. I do like Dark Knight OK.

      (Btw, I hid a clue in the banner to the names of the people in it.)

  8. Anonymous

      agree. i think what my point was mainly was that those ‘smaller contexts’ constitute a contemporal subjectivity, rather than a bunch of historical objectivities. 

  9. A D Jameson

      Yeah, I missed that when I read your comment. My mistake! I just got some coffee…

  10. Anonymojo

      A device can be form that bursts the shell of automated recognition and becomes seen or lets seeing happen.  A device can de-devise, “make the visible a little hard to see”.

      A groove made – not necessarily intended, but made – such that one bounces out of the ditch.

      A de-vise grip, a vise whose firmness releases.  Withy mesh, woven clefts that clasp apart.  A virtuous vine:  Dionysus!

      a)  Is defamiliarity a normal context or condition-for-the-possibility of “recognition”?  Is the strange constantly shimmeringly shot through normality?  Or is that a romanticizing fiction?

      b)  Does the intention to defamiliarize too often dilute or blunt or swing the blow wide?  (The conventionality of ‘experiment’.)

      c)  Desire is for the yet-unattained, the pressure of absence.  Between device and desire, which is the fuel and which the engine?

  11. Lincoln Michel

      Seems like I need to read Shklovsky, because this is pretty similar to how I’d always formulated things on my own. Also agree with the weakness in both Woods and Higgs’s conceptions. 

      Good post. 

  12. Bobby Dixon

      I really looked hard at the banner trying to figure what strange glyph or cluddle it could be, only again to feel like a dumb-dumb when the answer was as simple as Shklovsky-Higgs-Wood-Nolan.jpg

  13. A D Jameson

      Thanks! And Lincoln I have not forgotten about sending you some interviews… (OK, I forgot a little, but only because of school…)

  14. John Minichillo

      This really illuminated your previous posts/discussions for me, where you’ve used the term defamiliarization, and now I have a better sense of where it has come from and why.

      For myself there are only a few books / theorists that really went beyond criticism and helped me conceive of language and renewed my understandings and observations as a writer.

      One of these books is Mikhail Bakhtin: a Creation of a Prosaics by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson. The book begins with a lengthy critique of Formalism that I’m not prepared to discuss, but that you’d probably be interested in.

      There was tsunami of Bakhtin articles in English studies in the 80s-90s and all the sludge that came with it, probably as a result of scholars going straight to the translations of the primary texts, and I think a lot of it got a lot wrong. Ph.Ds at institutions were publishing articles about who happened to be hot at the moment. So I feel like from this distance of 20 years Bakhtin has gotten kind of an unfair wrap, and I don’t feel like he’s talked about all that much anymore.

      With the cultural distance and because of the way the concepts inform each other but also change over time, I would really recommend this secondary source to anyone who wants a good introduction to graduate school without having to pay for graduate school, or any writer who wants their concept of language potentially broadened.

  15. A D Jameson

      Thanks, John! I’ll check it out.

      I’ve read The Dialogic Imagination, but little else.

  16. A D Jameson

      I should add, too, that I think there are many ways to critique Shklovsky and Formalism. I alluded to one above; I think the concept of defamiliarization can be more formally redefined. I’ll try to do it in later posts in this series. Cheers,

  17. John Minichillo

      Morson / Emerson were the translators of a lot of the Bakhtin, including Diologic Imagination, which is 4 seminal essays w/o commentary (I think), the most read of the works. Creation of a Prosaics spans more, brings in context, interprets, and pulls in quotes in just the right spots. It tries to cover the lifetime works, so ther’s response to Formalism throughout, made explicit by the authors, whereas D.I. Might be read as its own thing. D.I. Gives a good sense of the perspective from which Bakhtin sees, enough to surely “get” Bakhtin, and both boks are in paperback.

      I looked into Bakhtin because I must have heard some random English professor mention him just before his name got lumped in with all the other theorists as abstracted codewords for the club of the educated. His biography fascinated me, as it did others in English, and then I came across this book and I was hooked. He’s not unknown but I think maybe too easily dismissed.

  18. postitbreakup

      i really enjoyed reading this

  19. A D Jameson

      Thanks! More is on the way! A

  20. A D Jameson

      I read him because Robert L. McLaughlin, a professor at ISU (where I did my Master’s) made me read him. In a class on Pynchon, if memory serves. (We read Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon.)

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  22. Healthy Young Animal

      ADJ, you’re quickly becoming the most consistently interesting and challenging HTMLG agent. Keep it up!

  23. deadgod

      πολλα τα δεινα κουδεν ανθρωπου δεινοτερον πελει΄

      Vielfaeltig das Unheimliche, nichts doch ueber den Menschen hinaus Unheimlicheres ragend sich regt.

      [Manifold is the Homeless, yet nothing looming homelessly stirs homelesslier more fulsomely than a person.

      There are many strange things–and than a person, nothing is stranger.]

      –from Hoelderlin’s Hymn “The Ister” (section 12, The meaning of δεινον., quoting and translating Antigone 332), Heidegger (Engl. transll. mine)

  24. A D Jameson
  25. A D Jameson

      I thought I already was!


  26. Bobby Dixon


  27. A D Jameson
  28. Bobby Dixon

      I liked the trailer :)

      I favorited it

  29. A D Jameson

      It’s a great trailer!

  30. Anonymojo

      Not yet.  I guess I should just buy the frisbee.

  31. Christopher Higgs

      I’m gonna get around to responding to this more thoroughly, Adam.  Don’t want you to think I was ignoring you/it.  At the moment I’m neck deep in dissertation writing — oh how I wish I would’ve remained on the creative writing side of things so I could be writing a novel right now rather than a critical study!  Ah, well. 

      Anyway, I think I’m happy to play the role of “the experimental avant-gardist”…but like I say, I haven’t had much time to give your article proper attention and consideration.  I’m just dashing this off while I wait for my next batch of coffee to brew, so probably I’m missing stuff and messing stuff up and sounding like an imbecile.  (Wouldn’t be the first, and certainly wont be the last time!) 

      The one thing I will say: it’s probably a good thing you used the silhouette of Mooney rather than a photo of me, or else it would’ve been a whole string of white guys.  Plus, I like the non-representation of my representation through the mediated figure of my creation.  Very good.         

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  34. Anonymous

      Writers who constantly stick their chests out and scream about the “experimental” and “innovative” nature of their work are typically insecure and merely arguing for their work’s right to exist (re: your “pep talk” comment, which I agree with), rather than allowing the work to speak for itself and having the confidence to allow the work to do all the big bad talking. Anyone with a semblance of historical perspective understands how superficial, lazy, and unsatisfactory these two labels usually are, particularly when one considers the non-critical contexts in which they are so often used. It’s funny, but some of the most anti-intellectual writers I know of are the ones who have “experimental” and “innovative” tattooed to their foreheads. 

      Also, your comments about Tao Lin and Joy Williams. I bet most of his fanboys/girls don’t even know who Joy Williams is, and if they did read her, would dismiss her as a boring realist, mainly because they are more interested in writerly personas, pop-culture namedropping, and hyper-literary posturing than brutally honest and raw writing.

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  36. LittleMikki

      I agree about Chris Nealon.

  37. A D Jameson

      No problem, Chris! Good luck with your diss. Also, I’m intending to get back into the debate file one of these days… Cheers, Adam

  38. A D Jameson

      (Good luck with the coffee, too! I’ve found adding ground cardamom to the grounds boosts everything 1000%.)

  39. A D Jameson

      It could be. Joy Williams wrote what might be my favorite short story ever, “Taking Care.” It’s the one I enjoy the most.

  40. A D Jameson

      Soon we’ll have quorum.

  41. A D Jameson

      The above is spam; don’t click.

  42. Anonymous

      That whole collection is a beast–hence, my name. It’s a very weird, strange book…and it’s “realism.” As I’ve gotten older and become more knowledgeable about literary history, I’ve realized how worthless most of these categories are because writers often use them with little historical or cultural awareness. Instead, as you eloquently suggest in your post, they are often used in ways that are disengaged from history, as mere shorthand to reinforce the writer’s personal preferences and aesthetic stance (some writers, it seems, need to create bogeymen in order to give themselves permission to write).

  43. A D Jameson

      I guess I’m getting older, too :)

      I do think that if things help people write, then they’re useful. So we’re probably doomed to have folks railing against history and tradition in a very historical and traditional fashion—but maybe we’ll get some good writing out of it?

  44. Richard Grayson

      Curtis White is an excellent underrated writer.

  45. Edmond Caldwell

      Agree on C. White, his fiction & nonfiction both.  Nice to hear him get some props.

  46. Another way to generate text #1: “The Spell Check Technique” | HTMLGIANT

      […] Viktor Shklovsky wants to make you a better writer, part 1: device & defamiliarization […]

  47. Marcus Speh
  48. A D Jameson

      Having only just skimmed the article—thanks!—my initial impression is that I agree with a lot of Shivani is arguing, or at least find myself profitably provoked by it. Certainly I share his antipathy to theory (“Theory”), even if I might express it in less hostile terms. (That said, I think he’s absolutely correct about its irrelevance, something that is only becoming increasingly apparent.)

      My concern is that I think that aesthetic formalism is a vital part of any robust critical practice—one part among many others, to be sure, but necessary. I also don’t know how important or even desirable it is for creative writers themselves to do that critical work. I think some might benefit from it, others will not. But writers need not be critics, and vice versa.

      Thanks again! I plan to reread the essay more carefully.


  49. A D Jameson

      I, too, agree! I love Curt! He’s taught me more about writing than any other living person and I will always be in his debt.

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

      […] the first post in this series, I outlined Viktor Shklovsky’s fundamental concepts of device (priem) and defamiliarization […]

  51. Anonymous

      Are there any pieces of theory that speak to Woods’ take on “the best writing?” More specifically, is there anything out there that addresses how the third person limited “employ(s) free, indirect discourse” as you explain it here? I absolutely align with what you are arguing here but I am intrigued with how theorists see this process panning out or, rather, the discourse that occurs between the author and the audience when these devices (or device, I’m not sure) are (is) employed. 

      Amazing article. I very much appreciate your time.

  52. What we talk about when we talk about the New Sincerity, part 1 | HTMLGIANT

      […] Tao Lin, others—who appeared to be working with similar motivations, exploring similar styles and devices. It’s easy to see why this was so, leaving aside the fact that every writer is of course a […]

  53. I am drinking gin & wrote about 18 long titles i randomly chose using wikipedia | HTMLGIANT

      […] to figure out whether that’s so, or will be so), then we should be able to identify the devices or moves that define it—that arguably make a piece read as being “New Sincere.” The […]

  54. Anonymous

      It’s great to see so much thought and attention paid to VS, thanks for this, & sorry I’m just stumbling across it so many weeks later.

      I think that, for a piece that argues that the “specific time and place” is so important, there’s a lack of putting VS in his own historical context here. S’s formalism is not art for art’s sake, a point Shklovsky is at pains to make in all his works, whether critical or memoir.  Throughout the 20’s OPOYAZ is often accused, and as often denies, that they are taking the position that art is autonomous from the social (a growingly dangerous accusation at that time in Russia).  It may be that VS was secretly a partial adherant of art for art’s sake in some ways, and merely had to walk his ideas back under pressure from political realities, including ultimately stalin himself, but i think we have to take what’s there as his view.  His “formal” point is that artworks are produced (by writers in specific times and places) from conversations taking place on the level of form and devices moreso than on the level of “content.”  However, the “sake” they are “for” is not art itself but defamiliarization (i.e. *social* disturbance).  This is consistent with VS’s own actions as a radical revolutionary (specifically: a “Social Revolutionary”). 

      One way to get a clearer picture of the above is to realize that, although Russian Formalism doesn’t end up with a set of accepted tenents, the common thread among OPOYAZ and the Moscow Linguistic Circle is the urge to make literature/the devices of literature/literary language into objects for *scientific* inquiry.  In order to do this, it seemed necessary to focus on formal features which could be catalogued, compared, measured, etc.  This is happening in many other disciples as well.  Remember this is the period in which linguistics is born, mostly via a move by Saussure to cut the formal features of language off from its “diachronic” elements by analyzing its formal system as a set of differential elements.  It is also the period of “scientific” socialism being put into practice in Russia.  While Saussure sometimes gets accused of a kind of language-for-language’s-sake autonomy from the social, Marx and Engles are generally held as the opposite, so it’s hard to untangle whether this or that idea in Russian Formalism is arguing for autonomy from the social when they try to construct a scientific object out of literature.  But there’s no question that VS is highly sensitive to the nuances, embroiled in them really, and would not easily just accept the parameter you have set up here, where “what matters is the effect the disruption process has in their specific artwork” ALONE (which is something like craft-for-craft’s-sake). To me VS is much more holistic than that, as his memoir works show so well.  You can’t read Third Factory or Sentimental Journey and come away with the feeling that specific social and political effects of art don’t matter to VS, only internal aesthetical ones.

  55. Repetition as rule, repetition as defamiliarization,and repetition as deceleration | HTMLGIANT

      […] promised, back to Shklovsky! In Part 1, we examined his fundamental concepts of device and defamiliarization. In Part 2, we saw how […]

  56. Another way to generate text #5: “synonym clusters” | HTMLGIANT

      […] Viktor Shklovsky wants to make you a better writer, part 1: device & defamiliarization […]

  57. A very pure example of deceleration: “Atomization” | HTMLGIANT

      […] today. To quickly recap the previous installments: Shklovsky posits that all art is built from devices (priem), which get put together in patterns. Those patterns can adhere to normative conventions, or […]

  58. The 2012 Realist Sex Novel Kerfuffle (a response to Blake and Stephen, involving also cowboys, Atlas Shrugged, and the Franzen/Marcus debate) | HTMLGIANT

      […] yes, dear God, I know I’ve already written a ton about the guy (here, here, here, here, here, and even more yet elsewhere), and so I won’t bore you by rehashing […]

  59. I’m sorry, Mario, but your cultural critique is in another castle: some thoughts on hipster irony | HTMLGIANT

      […] (Here’s more on what Shklovsky means by device.) […]

  60. 25 Points: Only God Forgives | HTMLGIANT

      […] to make something radical, it can be a good idea to start with something familiar and deform that. (This is pure Russian Formalism—Refn gets […]

  61. The Art of Defamiliarization - Next Level Writer

      […] to read your stories. Here's another website that you can use as another reference. And this website explains the history of how defamiliarization came about.  Question: Have you ever used […]

  62. 20 Points: When a Lady (Shakes Hands With a Gentleman) | HTMLGIANT

      […] tradition of de-automatizing perception, as outlined by Shklovsky, and broken down like a boss here by A.D. […]

  63. Viktor Schklovsky’s Defamiliarization | Out of Wonderland

      […] a good article by A.D. Jameson at HTML Giant (through Matt Bell’s Twitter – an invaluable resource) about Viktor Schklovsky and […]

  64. 20 Points: When a Lady (Shakes Hands With a Gentleman) | GIANT READER

      […] tradition of de-automatizing perception, as outlined by Shklovsky, and broken down like a boss here by A.D. […]