Reviews

Blank by Davis Schneiderman and Working Toward an Understanding of Experimental Literature

I can openly admit I struggle, at times, with experimental literature, understanding how it works, what a given experimental text means, the significance of the text. I’ve been reading Christopher Higg’s series with great interest in the hopes that his thoughts might help address some of the intense confusion I feel. His posts have indeed helped but I’m still struggling.

At AWP, I had the opportunity to pick up the book Blank, a novel by Davis Schneiderman, published by Jaded Ibis Press. I had received some press materials about the book in the preceding months so the title was familiar and I had also recently met the author so I thought I would buy the book and see what it was about. I didn’t pay close attention to the press materials so nothing could have surprised me more than to realize that Blank is actually blank. I probably should have but that’s a different matter. There is no text in the book save for the copyright page, the Table of Contents, twenty chapter titles, an About the Author page and an About the Artist page. There is also artwork, by Susan White, what appear to be pieces of pictures of water, clouds, snow—it’s difficult to make out what some of the imagery represents.

That night in my hotel room, I opened the book and realized it was blank and felt angry about the $15 or so I paid for the book. I ranted something incoherently at my roommate then angrily shoved the book into my suitcase. I may have used the word, “Seriously,” with a tone.

I served on a panel at AWP ’11 about Hint Fiction and during the Q & A session, a young man asked about whether or not a writer could tell a story without words using a character or symbol, for example.  Michael Martone, one of my co-panelists, said absolutely and gave some useful examples and I said something about stories that incorporate symbols as part of the narrative because that was the best example I could come up with. I had not yet purchased Blank. As I have “read” this book I’ve thought about that young man’s question and whether or not I was actually reading a story.

In the ensuing weeks, I have struggled to understand the why of this book. Why publish a blank book? And if you’re going to go with the blank concept, why include the About the Author page? That seems to directly contradict what I perceive as the ambition of the project. If the text is blank, should not any information about the creators of the text also be blank?

In his first post, Christopher wrote that there is no such thing as an experimental text but rather there are texts that tend toward experimentation. I get that and if such is the case, this is a text that tends toward experimentation a great deal. The publication of a blank book has a performative feel to it I appreciate and there’s definitely an element of play at play  but then what? The experiment feels finite which brings me to the idea of open and closed texts.

In that first post Christopher also discussed closed and open texts and how closed texts tend toward the conventional while open texts tend toward the experimental. As I’ve tried to apply that thinking to Blank, I’ve thought this book might be both a closed and open text and in that case, what does that make the text? The text feels rather closed in that we are directed to a certain reading; we are directed, in fact, to having nothing, save for the chapter titles, to read. At the same time, there is a vast openness to the text. There’s room for all kinds of interpretation about the text (or absence of a text), the author’s motives, etc.

In the second essay on the question of experimental literature, Christopher wrote, “What I am proposing is that one way to think about experimental literature is to conceive of it as that which experiments on/with Aristotelian prescription.” In thinking through Blank, there’s nearly no trace of anything remotely Aristotelian. There are none of those hallmarks of convention save for the chapter titles. The inclusion of these chapter titles might, indeed, be the clearest manner in which Blank does experiment with Aristotelian prescription. The chapter titles seem to deliberately taunt the typical narrative arcs we see in fiction with titles like, “Chapter 1: A character,” and “Chapter 2: Another character,” and “Chapter 3: They meet,” and “Chapter 8: They fall apart,” and “Chapter 14: They reunite.” The titles are  smart, witty and I chuckle every time I read the Table of Contents. I think about the commentary the titles might be making on modern fiction, about how many stories actually do follow the outline implied by the contents and how given how standard that outline is, it might not really matter what’s on the actual pages of the book because so much fiction is simply telling the same old story. That’s just my interpretation though. I could be way off base. Is this interpretation what the author intended? Does it matter what the author intended? Is the creator of a blank book an author?

I have no idea what to make of the artwork. I cannot begin to make sense it, torn pieces of pictures (that’s how I see them anyway), placed throughout the text at intervals from which I find no discernible pattern.

As I try to make sense of a blank book, I have lots and lots of questions like the ones above but also, what is a book? How does someone review a blank book? What is the value of this kind of experiment? How many people are using the blank pages to write their own story? Or grocery lists? Or a phone number? I suppose this must be the point of experimental work, or work that tends toward experimentation—the kinds of questions the work inspires about writing and how we interpret writing.

I certainly have questions.

134 Comments

  1. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      You’re totally right, I realized pretty quick after posting that yesterday that I was off and sorta figured somebody would call me out.

      I mean, I stand by the idea that there may be value in transitory or forgettable art, or at least in an artistic practice which challenges the presumed value of timelessness, but Cage is not a good example.

  2. Fcfyt

      vipstores.net

  3. deadgod

      [below, in reply to “reply to darby”]

  4. deadgod

      To go by the photo, aside the first paragraphs of the blogicle, of the cover of the book (which is what one would see on a table at a literary convention), Blank definitely “pretends to be a regular novel”.

      I imagine that most people know what it is, without knowing the particulars of its packaging, art, chapter titles, etc, before picking it up.

      Really? – without having been forearmed with that “know[ledge of] the particulars”, how would anyone, much less “most people”, know that the book is mostly “blank”??

      To fake-answer the question you ask (me) above by asking it of you: how did you understand the gimmick – before and then after you leafed through the thing? What knowingness, what membership in ‘the know’, enabled you to get it?

      Let me emphasize that, to (and so from) me, “joke” and “gimmick” are not, by themselves, pejorations.

      In terms of conceptual art, I understand a ‘gimmick’ to be of the order of an aphorism – no mean category of “literature” (or “literary philosophy”), eh?

  5. deadgod

      “[B]ut”? A comparison of market-demonstrated exchange values would be irrelevant to a consideration of the Pet Rock as a category-companion to Blank (unless one were comparing the political economies of the ’70s and now in small). And you can turn over a Pet Rock in your fingers, looking at and touching its texture, and heave its heft it in your hand.

      Pet Rock : pets and rocks :: Blank : novels and blankness

      (- except that, for the literalism-crippled, Blank just isn’t “blank” enough)

  6. deadgod

      “[B]ut”? A comparison of market-demonstrated exchange values would be irrelevant to a consideration of the Pet Rock as a category-companion to Blank (unless one were comparing the political economies of the ’70s and now in small). And you can turn over a Pet Rock in your fingers, looking at and touching its texture, and heave its heft it in your hand.

      Pet Rock : pets and rocks :: Blank : novels and blankness

      (- except that, for the literalism-crippled, Blank just isn’t “blank” enough)

  7. OBarrett

      the pet rock will sit on command, though, and so will Blank. They are both obedient.

  8. OBarrett

      Well, here is a short bit from the web site:

      “Davis Schneiderman’s 206-page novel, Blank, contains only compelling chapter titles. The story is – as it always has been – up to the reader. White-on-white pyrographic images are by notable artist Susan White. The fine art edition is shrink-wrapped and enclosed in a wooden box that is fully encased in plaster and can be opened with a pull-tab. Once opened, the box cannot be re-encased. Music will be composed and performed by renowned experimental hip hop musician, Paul D Miller aka DJ Spooky.”

      So, anyone looking it up would see that, I imagine.

      So, yes, someone might see the cover at a book table, and I suppose if they bought the book without flipping through it or without someone at the Jaded Ibis table telling the book-buyer….

      Yet, in the few minutes I spent at the table at AWP, I was clearly told about the book and I flipped through it. I cannot say for sure, but even though the book has many bibliographic codes that make it look like a regular word-filled novel, I don’t think the book is trying to put one over on the consumer. Rather, in a conceptual work, the marketing and press materials, including the web site, are part of the work.

      As for the final questions, I enjoy this sort of literature, and I don’t see conceptual work outside the realm of literature at all. Rather, I see it as simply a different approach to the same basic ideas: that language is more than merely communicative in a literary or conceptual work, whether present or in this case absent.

      This is not so much a gimmick to me–which implies cheap device–and rather an aetshetic choice along a spectrum of aesthetic choices. Yes, some will read it as a gimmick and it may very well be funny (I think it to be), but I don’t think the book is a prank or a joke or any of those things primarily, or at least, and perhaps here we agree, as perjorations. That stuff is there, but this is more than what another commentator noted–the book about what men know about women, which was blank.

      perhaps we disagree on what may fall under the umbrella of “literature,” but I’m ok with that.

  9. OBarrett

      sorry–a new comment in reply to Darby? Getting lost in the thread.

  10. deadgod

      a new comment “in reply to ‘reply to darby’ [of yours]”

  11. deadgod

      What you said (that I contradicted) was that “most people know what [Blank] is without knowing [its] particulars […] before picking it up”.

      Now you say that if people look up the promotional info on the web site for the book/author/publisher (before or after they see the book on a table at a litcon), they’ll find out “what it is”. If they pick up a non-“fine art”, non-“shrink-wrapped” edition from a table and leaf through it, they’ll be exposed to “what it is”. If they chat for a moment at that table with representatives of the publisher, they’ll learn “what it is”. If they consult “marketing and press materials” in any format, they’ll come to know “what it is”.

      OBarrett, in the case of each of these ‘ifs’, the person will have been told the book’s “particulars […] before picking it up”, or will have learned its “particulars” by way of “picking it up”.

      If someone saw the book’s cover without having been told “what it is”, why wouldn’t they think it was a conventional “novel”? — which is what the cover seems to introduce: “BLANK a novel by [X]”.

      – which misdirection is elemental to the thing’s ‘concept and/or experiment’, no??

      I agree that “conceptual work [is inside] the realm of literature” – that’s what I meant by saying that literary ‘conceptual art’ is, to me, not less literary than aphorisms are. Imagine a story – in a book – (like Eggers’s “hunger” provocation) titled “This Title and No More” and followed by a few blank pages. That story-or-‘story’ seems as literary to me as many of the medium-quality aphorisms of Montesquieu.

      So I’m okay with agreement on that last!

  12. Tadd Adcox

      I was just about to ask why art should have anything to say about the life of the creator, why we care about the creator aside from the art. Good job getting to that one.

      I’d also note, though, that from what I know from Davis’s work that the two pages that are most not-blank–the copyright page and the “about the author” at the end–are the pages that, in many ways, are central to what he’s doing.

      I’d also note, in response to deadgod, below, that the fact that the book isn’t blank at all is part of the game/point. Davis is definitely aware that completely blank books have been written before. That’s just not exactly what he’s doing here.

  13. Tadd Adcox

      EFF YES SYMBOLOGY. I AM GETTING A DEGREE IN SYMBOLOGY FROM HARVARD. SOON I WILL BE THE WORLD’S TOP SYMBOLOGIST.

  14. Tadd Adcox

      A big part of Davis’s project overall seems to be about copyright and, more broadly, authorial rights. I’d say that the copyright page and the “about the author” page were both probably things that he thought of as integral to shaping the meaning of the text.

  15. darby

      and, deadgod, a comment on a new comment “in reply to ‘reply to darby’ [of yours]”

  16. darby

      and, deadgod, a comment on a new comment “in reply to ‘reply to darby’ [of yours]”

  17. darby

      oh it didn’t work. im so drunk.

  18. darby

      oh it didn’t work. im so drunk.

  19. stephen

      …and so I say:

      Duchamp: “I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists.”

      Joyce, the universal in the particular: “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world.”

      Representation/description in words, characters, all that is limited, but what I think of as the experimental cipher, the cardboard pronoun to shuffle through the misery maze, the rejection of any attempt at expressing or creating or gesturing at “actual” particularized human life, in its limitless forms, is to me anti-humanist, and I see no joy or wisdom to be had in lying in a bath of self-loathing until I die. What I’ve just described is not Beckett, by the way. Many people I think try and fail to be Beckett. They don’t get it, they don’t know his beautiful shit-grinning nothing. I believe all art aspires to the condition of music, and even the saddest or the blackest music makes me feel more alive, more human. Life sucks yes, but how exactly does it suck and what and who along the way to the final suckhole do you care about. Let me repeat ad infinitum Beckett realized what a fool he’d been and began to write what he felt…

  20. OBarrett

      very human-centered, rather than humanist, I suppose. nothing wrong with that.

      so, stephen, which side of this does Blank fall on for you—Beckettian wonder or joyless chain-yanking? I see it as the former, but am not sure what you are suggesting….

  21. stephen

      i was vaguely responding to Adam and Tadd above and to what I think is a recurring refrain on htmlgiant of “the author and his/her life doesn’t matter,” or some kind of anti-humanism-in-art.

      i haven’t looked at Blank, so i don’t have an opinion on it. Davis is nice, though, and interesting to talk to, and a fun reader live

  22. stephen

      i was vaguely responding to Adam and Tadd above and to what I think is a recurring refrain on htmlgiant of “the author and his/her life doesn’t matter,” or some kind of anti-humanism-in-art.

      i haven’t looked at Blank, so i don’t have an opinion on it. Davis is nice, though, and interesting to talk to, and a fun reader live

  23. stephen

      i was vaguely responding to Adam and Tadd above and to what I think is a recurring refrain on htmlgiant of “the author and his/her life doesn’t matter,” or some kind of anti-humanism-in-art.

      i haven’t looked at Blank, so i don’t have an opinion on it. Davis is nice, though, and interesting to talk to, and a fun reader live

  24. stephen

      i was vaguely responding to Adam and Tadd above and to what I think is a recurring refrain on htmlgiant of “the author and his/her life doesn’t matter,” or some kind of anti-humanism-in-art.

      i haven’t looked at Blank, so i don’t have an opinion on it. Davis is nice, though, and interesting to talk to, and a fun reader live

  25. What is Experimental Literature? {pt. 4} | HTMLGIANT

      […] Roxane’s recent post on Davis Schneiderman’s novel Blank engaged so thoughtfully with my ongoing “What is […]

  26. OBarrett

      i hear that. poststructuralism can be a downer. at the same time, i agree with tadd and adam here–but don’t necessarily see this as anti-human, but rather post-humanist. maybe post-Romantic….the ideas of some authors being more special human beings by virtue of their ability to write a poem seems linked to a some of the copyright-related things that tadd thinks (and I agree) may be important in blank.

      anything that makes us question the human belief that our artificial tools (language, visual art, etc) make truth and beauty seems to be useful. Se Brecht or Tadd’s cool journal,. which I saw for the first time at AWP, Artifice.

  27. matt

      “There is no text in the book save for the copyright page, the Table of Contents, twenty chapter titles, an About the Author page and an About the Artist page.”

      This is why the book is cool, imho. In the absence of a text, it’s asking you to focus on the meaning of the remaining elements you listed. It’s attempting to open up a shift in perspective concerning the paratext.

  28. Frank Goodish

      Haven’t read all the comments but if a book is seriously “blank” and you paid $15 for it, that is horseshit and you should be afforded a refund. Then again you should have known from the title to at least take a peek inside. If I read your post right, and in fact the “book” is completely blank, that is horseshit and moronic and embarrassing to writers out there.

  29. Frank Goodish

      Sorry, I stepped in a pile of horse shit this morning and apparently haven’t “let it go.”

  30. Frank Goodish

      Oh, I just re-read the post and there is some “artwork” in it. Gotcha. Sounds like the “coffee table” book Kramer wrote or maybe the book that old fart wrote in “Throw Momma From the Train” about the models he’d like to “pork” – each chapter had two words – the woman’s name – maybe an occasional three.

  31. Andy Devine vs. Davis Schneiderman | HTMLGIANT

      […] to ask questions in a way that points to how much content exists within a book that has no words. Roxane wrote about the book here, should you want […]

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  33. An Interview with Roxane Gay

      […] you have made no secret of your literary tastes as a reader, and your own propensities as a writer. You have admitted that you struggle with “experimental” literature. Yet here, in “Glass,” you tell a story that is structurally experimental and provides a number […]

  34. Davis Schneiderman | Davis Schneiderman: The TNB Self-Interview | The Nervous Breakdown

      […] (with help from Adam Robinson) interviewed you at HTMLGiant.com in the wake of Roxane Gay’s review of BLANK and Christopher Higgs’ contextualization of BLANK in a long-tradition of possibly similar works. […]