25 Points: Uncreative Writing

Uncreative-Writing-Goldsmith-Kenneth-EB2370004184746Uncreative Writing
by Kenneth Goldsmith
Columbia University Press, 2011
272 pages / $23.95 buy from Columbia UP








1. Uncreative writing is situating. A détournement. A patchwriting. Goldsmith: “context is the new content.”

2. A portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé with “A Throw of the Dice” inserted three times:












3. Uncreative writing is language as pure material. Quantity over quality. The digital-age inheritor of Stein, Concrete Poetry, Mallarmé, Herbert, Apollinaire, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. It sees the internet as language abundant, language swim, all text thrum. Goldsmith: “What we take to be graphics, sounds, and motion in our screen world is merely a thin skin under which resides miles and miles of language.”

4. Much of what Goldsmith says uncreative writing is is stuff I already know. Through Flarf, through FC2 and Les Figues Press, through Goldsmith’s own work like Day or Traffic or Sports, through Walter Benjamin and Gertrude Stein and Vanessa Place, through this blog, through Ron Silliman’s blog, through David Markson, through any number of conceptual writers working today.

If you’re familiar with these things too, you’ll nod your head and move along through a number of the early essays here. If you’re not familiar with these things, this book’s a solid place to begin.

5. But I’m not sure Goldsmith thinks he’s saying anything radically new with these essays as much as he’s articulating (again) a stance toward language that should be obvious to anyone writing, but still, for some reason, isn’t.

A sense of perplexity—maybe even frustration—about a large segment of contemporary writing runs through the early essays here.

Goldsmith wonders: What happened that made most 20th and 21st-century writers miss the work of Duchamp, LeWitt, and Warhol? Why did conceptualism take off so readily in the visual arts and not in the literary? What is taking writing so long to mine the possibilities of the conceptual text? What’s with all the holdover from literary Romanticism? The stuff about genius? The stuff about ego and originality? All that stuff about having a voice?

Still worthwhile questions.

6. Here’s Goldsmith’s annotated copy of Charles Bernstein’s “Lift Off,” a piece of uncreative writing Bernstein built by transcribing the characters from the correction tape of his manual typewriter.

Here’s a recording of Goldsmith performing it.

I like this poem because it’s hard to see it being made today. I like this poem because of its impossibility.

And I like Goldsmith’s performance of it because, even with all that, he shows how the thing’s still legible.

7. When’s the last time you typed another writer’s story word for word?

8. Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein with excerpts from The Making of Americans inserted:


















9. My undergraduate students, all digital natives, tend to balk at the uncreative exercises—cut ups, fake translations, Oulipo-inspired obstructions—I give them.

When I tell them I retyped Carver and Hemingway stories as an undergraduate, they look at me as if I didn’t have enough to do when I was 19.

When I tell them to give their poem to a classmate to cut it up and remix it, they don’t like to do it.

They treat each other’s words delicately. I think a large majority of them are afraid they’re going to break their partner’s poem.

During office hours, many of them tell me they want to find their voice. They feel they have stories to tell, something to say, a deep corner in themselves they want to express. They’re hoping creative writing will help them find out who they are.

10. Invariably, it’s the uncreative exercises I assign that lead to a class’s moments of best language, the moments when words get renewed, where surprise happens, those moments when my students put words together in ways that would be unlikely (or impossible) outside the confines of the assignment.

But most of my students remain most doggedly invested in their creative assignments (i.e. “Write any story you want”). When they read these to the class—the domestic drama narrated by the family cat, the child as secret serial killer, the priest revealed as a pedophile in the story’s last line—they read them seriously, passionately.

In these kinds of exercises, the students own the words. Or at least they think they do. And it’s that ownership, that authorship, they think, that makes the words good.

11. In the classroom, I many times feel a similar sense of perplexity as Kenneth Goldsmith.

12. A portrait of Georges Perec with the opening lines of Species of Spaces inserted:













13. The later essays here are especially good. Goldsmith is really smart about The Arcades Project, about Andy Warhol’s Diaries and his novel, a. Lots of great stuff on James Boswell, too. Goldsmith is best when he’s reaching for concise definitions, when he’s looking to name the aims of uncreative and conceptual writing with exactness.

I especially like the times when Goldsmith overreaches a bit.

14. For example, “Uncreative writing is a postidentity literature.”

15. A big claim to make, though I understand the impulse. A stated goal of a large swath of conceptual writing is the removal of the author; the text that creates itself, a text that originates solely in the combinatorial possibilities of language, a text without the trappings (and nagging metaphysical implications) of authorial inspiration.

A text like Christian Bök’s The Xenotext Experiment.

But the claim’s also troubling in that it diminishes the ways identity and subjectivity can’t help but inform language. To speak of a postidentity literature still seems steeped in inescapable questions of authority and power.

(This, by the way, is also a claim conceptual writing isn’t necessarily clear on itself. For example: Les Figues’s I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women. There was a great series of essays about this collection on HTMLGIANT last summer. Lindsay Turner also has a great review of it in a recent Boston Review where she confronts the problems of an anthology of conceptual writing that uses gender as an organizing device.)

16. Or, midway through the book: “But uncreative writing is truly populist.”

Then toward the end, about the class, “Uncreative Writing,” Goldsmith teaches at Penn: “But I do wish to raise a red flag: I work at a privileged university, perhaps one of the most privileged in the world. […] The students, as a whole, come from economically empowered backgrounds; those who aren’t are well subsidized by the university. They arrive in class with the latest laptops and smartphones and seem to have every imaginable piece of the latest software on their machines. […] In short, it’s an ideal environment in which to practice the sort of techno-utopianism I preach with enabled students ready, willing, and able to jump right in.”

17. I’m not faulting Goldsmith at all for these moments and contradictions. If anything, I like these problems because they show conceptual writing’s still thinking seriously about itself, which is more than I can say for a lot of contemporary writing.

18. I wonder if conceptualism is ready to give up the author. Is that proposition still too frightening? Is that proposition even possible? Is there really that big of a difference between an “authorial hand” (a term Goldsmith uses) and an “author”?

(Cf. “May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?” “No, it did lots of other things too.”)

19. Another example: When I was in graduate school, Christian Bök visited to read from Eunoia (a book I love) and to perform a number of sound poems. During the Q&A, an audience member raised her hand and shouted a long string of gibberish at Bök. I saw it as an obvious and playful nod to Bök’s reading.

I was surprised when Bök didn’t take it that way. He looked like he took it as an affront to his person. He looked mocked and hurt. Then, without offering any response, he went on to the next question.
The very next question: “Mr. Bök, I’m really interested in your writing process. Can you tell us a little bit about that?”

And he did.

20. To contrast: The steel elegance of Vanessa Place’s work. Her Dies: A Sentence. The simple appropriative act behind her Statement of Facts, a 400-page sampling of court case documents she’s collected during her day job as an attorney.

It’s Place’s clinical stance toward what she does, her distance from being “a writer,” that appeals to me. She’s cold and formal as a reader, often wearing a nondescript gray business suit. Her voice refuses any noticeable modulation or emotion. But the effect is powerful, disarming. It’s like the words have been there all along and she’s just the bureaucrat hired to report them. Like she could be anyone. Like she doesn’t even need to be there at all.

21. Kafka: “…the best of what I have written is based upon this capacity to die content.”

22. A portrait of Andy Warhol as an acrostic of “Ondine.”













23. Can uncreative writing really exist at a university? Is subversive recontextualization something I can teach?

Can we see Duchamp taking questions about his grading rubrics during office hours? Can we see him succumbing to departmental pressure to join an ad-hoc subcommittee on non-traditional learning opportunities?

Aren’t I the dominant context my students should be resituating?

24. Should a conceptual writer even have a name?

25. Tan Lin: “There should be no ecstatic moments of recognition.”

Goldsmith: “No matter what we do with language, it will be expressive. How could it be otherwise?




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  1. Alex Kalamaroff

      Dear Mr. Jauchen,

      This is a great piece! I’m really glad I had a chance to read it. I’ve read some of the writing you talk about–Markson, Stein, Arcades Project–but I’m not familiar with a lot of the other more recent writers you mention and this was a great, let’s say, compilation of people involved with conceptual writing.

      It’s interesting when you talk about your work in the college classroom, where your students earnestly hold onto their stories and poems and don’t have much of a mindset to dissect, mash-up, mix together, and get funky with their and each other’s writing. Are you able shake them up? Get them a bit loosey goosey?

      It seems like one fundamental belief that’s prevalent in the arts/literary talk today (and consistently throughout the past) is: That each author has a singular voice and that voice, to be pure and shine through, is not to be fucked with. This seems rather drab, especially when I think about it from this conceptual perspective.

      At the same time, I’m wondering when you write about Goldsmith’s question–
      “Why did conceptualism take off so readily in the visual arts and not in the literary?”–is this because a lot of conceptual writing, especially for the unprepared, can be extremely difficult to read? (At least it feels that way to me some times and I like this stuff!) That visual arts can be quickly taken in by the eye, but a book, like Warhol’s novel for instance, takes ton more work to take in. Does that make sense?

      Anyway, thanks for the great read. Best! –Alex K.

  2. A D Jameson

      9. My undergraduate students, all digital natives, tend to balk at the uncreative exercises—cut ups, fake translations, Oulipo-inspired obstructions—I give them.

      Not to climb back on an old warhorse of mine, but why do you include “Oulipo-inspired obstructions” with “uncreative exercises”? Aren’t Oulipo constraints in fact the opposite of Goldsmith-style conceptual writing?

  3. deadgod

      10. Renewal and surprise and unlikelihood are conventional values and are preconditions and products of being an author.

      17. Serious thought makes or premises a conventional author of the thinker.

      23. Subversive recontextualization is a conventional ambition and a conventional achievement.

      25. No matter what we teach, we teach self-sufficiency and self-undermining. How could it be otherwise?

  4. Mark Pritchard

      WTF — What writer, trying to sweat out their story and make it original, has time to think about this stuff?

  5. Christopher Higgs

      Enjoyed reading and thinking about this, Michael. #23 especially hits home.

  6. HolidayInnExpress

      “23. Can uncreative writing really exist at a university? Is subversive recontextualization something I can teach?”

      I don’t see why it can’t, if you’re worth a damn as a teacher. Isn’t all writing “subversive recontextualization”? Isn’t that a basic convention of creative or uncreative or whatever writing, as DG says?

  7. KLH

      Enjoyed this.

      The postidentity direction that Goldsmith is describing is already happening everywhere on the internet. It seems to fit the new mediums better than the old.

  8. Kent Johnson

      By the way, speaking of Authorship and Conceptual Poetry: In his
      Introduction to Against Expression, Craig Dworkin attempts,
      at considerable length (though without direct reference to it!),
      to reject the conceptual validity of this “unauthorized”
      sublation/repurposing of Goldsmith’s DAY.

      Upon my book’s appearance, The Figures Press and Goldsmith immediately
      raised the price of the “original” version of DAY to astronomical levels so as
      to block purchases of copies by the [re]publisher for paratextual restickering.
      Thus, only a handful of signed true copies exist. These dialectically improved
      objects now command very high prices among rare-book
      collectors–much higher than does any edition directly tethered to the Kenneth
      Goldsmith Author Function pole, in fact. I’ve been told the artist Richard
      Prince has one of the copies for sale at his NYC bookshop of oddities for

      I’ve got one single copy myself, if anyone would like to buy

  9. Scott Carver

      7. When’s the last time you typed another writer’s story word for word?

      I remember an anecdote about David Peace (forgive me if I butcher this, but I can’t find reference to it now – maybe it wasn’t even him)… He mentioned, in preparing himself for (presumably) the Red Riding Trilogy, retyping Raymond Chandler novels in their entirety to learn/internalize the tone and rhythm. Anyway, something like that. I always imagine it with training montage music – Einstein on the Beach or a 26 hour long version of Robert Tepper’s Angel of the City or something. Sometimes, he’s typing it underwater, ala Kickboxer. 26 reps of The Gold Bug or whatever. Clearly the anecdote, at this point, is more imagination than anecdote.

  10. Scott Carver

      Conversely – what reader who’s interested in notions of creativity, authorship, identity, voice, etc., has time to read things that /don’t/ think about this stuff?

  11. Kent Johnson

      Actually, and as the article I link to below shows, the notion of Goldsmith engaging in the numbing, “heroic” labor of *retyping* the entire issue of the NY Times into DAY is a myth–one he’s been eager, of course, to foster. Nearly all reviewers and critics have repeated the story, including critics in prominent art magazine. In fact, most of the text was directly *scanned* and then formatted.

  12. Kristin Randolph-Pepsi Hayter

      i luv kenny. great piece, sir michael.

  13. Henry Gould

      This kind of thing always makes me depressed. The whole theory (uncreative writing) is based on a triple denial : 1) the denial that works of art have unique, integral coherence, 2 ) the denial that experience/reality/truth can be encountered on terms of a specific (“local”) integrity of time-&-space; and 3) the denial that the human person has an integral identity, which both entails responsibility and deserves respect. One consequence of this approach is that students and newcomers to poetry are instilled with a suspicion of their own innate capacity to respond to reality (as experienced from the pesrpective of their own irreducible, unique situation). Moreover, they are cozened and encouraged to make up for their own powerlessness by means of slick and pseudo-sophisticated theoretical sleights of hand : to practice mild forms of fraud as a substitute for honest creative labor.

  14. Kent Johnson

      But that can’t be right, can it? Because my DAY, however more conceptually
      advanced it may be, is *obviously* “directly tethered to Kenneth
      Goldsmith’s Author Function.” It’s wrapped around it, even, in a kind of loving entwinement… How silly of me not to see that!
      So I pledge, if anyone cares to buy my personal Author’s copy of DAY, to
      honor Goldsmith’s early, honest effort, and to give him half the proceeds from
      the sale of said copy, which he certainly has coming, given
      that his Post-identity name on the cover is really still there, covered over by
      mine. The price I am asking is only $1,000, which is less than the price at
      least two other copies of my book have fetched, and much less than what Richard
      Prince is apparently asking. I further promise to donate my half of the profits
      of any sale to the Poetry Foundation, steadfast champion of Goldsmith’s work, to
      help fund the 2014 conference they are co-sponsoring with the MoMA: “How to Call
      the Cops on Poets and Artists Who Peacefully Protest at Your Headquarters and
      Get Away with It.”

  15. Ethan

      “You see, we are faced with a situation in which the managing of information has become more important than creating new and original information. Take Boing Boing, for instance. They’re one of the most powerful blogs on the web, but they don’t create anything, rather they filter the morass of information and pull up the best stuff. The fact of Boing Boing linking to something far outweighs the thing that they’re linking to. The new creativity is pointing, not making. Likewise, in the future, the best writers will be the best information managers.”

      from an interview with Kenneth Goldsmith:

  16. Scott Carver

      Of course!! – one of the more enjoyable things about DAY (and similar projects) is the way they pick at the stitches of the book-object… It’s lovely and scary, the extent to which book-objects are still able to (very successfully!) project a particular image of labor, artistry/artisanship, knowledge, attention, etc. etc. etc. – an image with tendrils stretching hundreds of years – even at a point in time when the component parts of that image may have little/no presence or necessity.

      I mean, the (scare-quote) glaring contrast between Goldsmith’s non-labor and the inky black NYT journalist-sweat is just as strained, considering the political economy of journalism – since much of the text that G non-labored over was likely non-labored over by any number of other automated machineries (or actually-labored over in ways much more problematic than the extra-extra myths we’ve all got bumping around). Strain! Strain!

  17. Don

      “What’s with all the holdover from literary Romanticism? The stuff about genius? The stuff about ego and originality? All that stuff about having a voice?”

      You don’t think genius and originality exist? That’s wild. How do you account for Shakespeare? I used to be on-board with the whole death-of-the-author stuff, but it doesn’t make sense to me anymore, not in the face of singular, brilliant writers.

      Also, most (all?) conceptual poetry I’ve read is unpleasant and tedious. Give me the old egos and geniuses and Romanticism of the past. The poetry was better.

  18. Mitch Tillison

      I took a Professional Writing course at my university last semester in which we discussed at length goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing. He poses lots of interesting questions that when combined with Remix make for a powerful discussion about writing in the digital age. And digital is no longer the future of reading, it’s the here and now. The Internet and its vast domain have already rendered Goldsmith’s argument a relic of the past, the rumblings of a lost prophet. Perhaps that is why the author of this article felt a bit ho-hum about the early essays, and less than blown away about the rest. Much of what Goldsmith discusses as possibility has already begun a turn toward the mainstream. Read today his work isn’t a questing for something new, so much as an explanation for what is happening.

      At least that was my take.

  19. Michael Fischer

      What a load of myopic, cowardly horseshit.

  20. Jake Levine

      He read at the White House. Why is anyone still talking about him. He’s old dada hat. For someone so against originality, his fashion sense “appropriation of materials” is radically Wonka-esque. When I saw him read, I was most impressed by his shoes. That’s all I remember. His shoes and Cole Swensen’s bowl cut.

  21. Jake Levine

      he’s so unoriginal, even his ideas about unoriginality are unoriginal.

  22. deadgod

      a) But the “fact of Boing Boing linking” is not the fact of a bare or random link–it’s a chosen link. Just as with say, FauxNews, the “fact” of a link is the fact of a context. ‘Linking’ itself – contextualization – is not a new thing, is it?

      b) And the content of each link, entirely coordinate with its having been chosen and placed where it’s found as a link, is what gives linking – ‘communication’ – its weight. At the other end of Boing Boing’s links aren’t other links, in a chain of links only ever to other links–which would be novel–, but rather, are stories written by journalists, reporters, pundits, professionals, and so on.

      I think Goldsmith is (perhaps interestingly and even entertainingly) fascinated by this new package of the old “fact” of linguistic mediation.

  23. Alexander J. Allison

      This was excellent

  24. Uncreative Writing « Covertext
  25. China Doorknobs

      […] (plug in any name that fits for you: for me it would be one of the Languish Poets or one of those Kenny Goldsmith clones) fails in a singularly uninspired way: failure as a kind of grotesque mannerism rather than a […]

  26. Poetry as Recovery | The Broken Muse

      […] The un-creative impulse is nothing new, but it has become a massive problem. People can get away with not even trying be good artists. The sad thing is, these people get read, or at least talked about. I’m talking about them now. However, this is not good. Where is the good poetry? I think one of the reasons why so much mediocre stuff is being published is thanks to the bar being set so low. If I have the option to write a piece that is just a tad better than Day then I really don’t have to try too hard now would I? […]