June 14th, 2009 / 5:39 pm


chris higgs was nice enough to do an interview with me at my request.  here is the interview.  it is long.

(interview after break)

HTMLGIANT: to begin, much has been made of the distinction between “realism” and “surrealism” and the inherencies of both. give us your opinion on these inherencies, ie: artistic value, cultural resonance, invention, tradition etc (this question is a bit vague but i feel you can run with it)

HIGGS: For one thing, the idea of “realism” is fraught. Alain Robbe-Grillet famously said that all writers believe what they are writing is realism. The Russian formalist theorist Roman Jakobson argued that the term “realism” should always be considered contingent upon historical and cultural context. John Gardner claims realism should evoke a fictive dream in which the reader forgets they are reading. And so on, and so on, etc.

At any rate, the fast and dirty explanation of my position on realism can be illustrated by a shout-out to Susan Sontag:

In her essay on Eugene Ionesco, Sontag writes, “Ionesco calls for the scrupulous avoidance of all psychology, for psychology means “realism,” and realism is dull and confines the imagination.”

At a very basic level, there you have it. Realism is dull and confines the imagination. (As a caveat, I will say I disagree with the automatic conflation of psychology and realism.)

You know that painter named Thomas Kinkade? http://www.thomaskinkade.com/magi/servlet/com.asucon.ebiz.home.web.tk.HomeServlet You’ve probably seen his paintings at the dentist’s office or at the mall or the last time you stayed in a motel. Realist writers are the equivalent of that guy. Notice I didn’t call him an artist.

Next, I think it’s insane how the word “surrealism” gets bandied about all willy-nilly by fiction writers or fiction pundits to define anything that contains talking bears or singing vaginas or little penises with skullcaps smoking cigarettes or anything else that diverges from conventional realism; properly speaking, surrealism refers to a very specific artistic practice engendered by a very specific political/artistic/social movement in the early twentieth century. I know this may sound like cranky semantic snobbery, but it’s not. It’s an important distinction. Using “surrealism” as a synonym for “strange” is a shortcut to thinking. The funny thing is, it seems like poets tend to understand this concept; it’s the fiction people who continually muddy it up. In fact, I think there’s more to that observation than a chastising of prose writers, I think it’s actually indicative of a larger, more palpable difference between the genres.

Compared to the contemporary prose community, the contemporary poetry community actively engage in discussions of these issues quite rigorously. Look at Ron Silliman’s School of Quietude vs. Post-Avant vs. Third Way poetry debate. That shit sparks mad dialogue. Where’s the equivalent discussion between writers of fiction? Where are the Flarf fiction writers? Where are the conceptual fiction writers? Where are the Girlesque fiction writers? Those are things I’d love fiction writers to start talking about – rather than the relative differences between two terms they misuse anyway. You know what I’m saying? I would love to read a fiction equivalent of Cole Swenson and David St. John’s recent anthology American Hybrid, which attempts to articulate a new way of thinking about poetry that moves away from the stale binary of traditional vs. experimental.

HTMLGIANT: what place does the actual invention of writing occupy in the realist/surrealist spectrum? Meaning, in the act of thinking/creating the image of a man with a hot air balloon for a head, is there not a real life adjunct in the consciousness of the writer? For instance, let’s say I am sitting on my bed about to shoot myself, and the feeling makes me think of lightbulbs exploding in the sky. The lightbulbs exploding in the sky to me, at that moment, represent the feeling. Considering this element of writing, is there anything that isn’t real, except for the attempt to faithfully recreate real life? Meaning, wouldn’t anything singular/implausible I come up with, more faithfully recreate a real, authentic life, than would an attempt to convey the same ineffability to another human, with the pretense of it being real to us both?

HIGGS: I think my answer is yes, but I’m not sure. Part of what you’re saying seems to rely on the distinction between symbolic correlations between distinct subjectivities, e.g. your suicide analogy. To you that experience evokes light bulbs exploding in the sky; but if you wrote down that image out of context, the likelihood of another person making the connection between that image and the act of considering suicide would be – I imagine – fairly slim. My point would be: regardless of the question about whether or not there is anything that isn’t real – an unanswerable debate anyhow – the concept/image of light bulbs exploding in the sky is more imaginative (and implausible) than the concept/image of committing suicide, therefore, to me, more interesting. I think that means I agree with you, or have I completely misunderstood?

HTMLGIANT: i seem to remember you commenting on the idea of “hipster irony.” can you explain this phenonmenon and the phenonmenon of the hopster in general, mainly in regard to writing and the internet.

HIGGS: When I talk about “hipster irony,” my intention is to distinguish a particular incarnation of irony distinct from other forms of irony (verbal, dramatic, situational, etc.), that can be directly linked to the cultural zeitgeist known as hipsterdom.

I see the ethos of hipsterdom as the valorization of phoniness. I see the aesthetics of Hipsterdom as the glamorization of the unglamorous. It is my contention that these values have entered the domain of literature. As a reader, it pisses me off. As a literary scholar, I am interested in explicating the phenomenon and theorizing the implications. At this point, I am still in the research and development phase, but I hope to have a presentable draft of my thoughts and initial findings by this fall.

I do think a link exists between the rise of hipsterdom and the proliferation of the internet because the internet introduced virtual reality, which in turn produced the conditions whereby people could begin to take seriously the notion of recreating themselves in whatever capacity they desired: i.e. becoming phony.

Being “real” (as Baudrillard has convincingly shown) is no longer possible. But what does that mean? And more specifically, what does it mean for authenticity in the arts? If hipster irony has infiltrated literature, what are the ramifications? Will this trend contribute to the historical definition of this era in literature similar to the way the beats help define the literature of 50s-60s, or will it be even more profound, perhaps defining a meta-shift, i.e. romanticism to modernism to postmodernism to hipsterism? These are some of the questions I’m exploring.

HTMLGIANT: when I think of hipsters, and the hipsters I have met, the main thing that recurs is the sense that identity is something presupposed. Meaning, I am a hipster, therefore I dress like this, think like this, read this, etc. it seems like giving up on a large scale. I am thinking “last man.” Another thing I think is, “how is this different than hippies, punks, or any other cultural precedent.” What are the qualities you see most recurrent in hipster literature or the literature that occurs today under what you call “hipsterdom?”

HIGGS: Well, one distinct quality of hipster literature is equivocation. Hipster literature, like hipster culture, is predicated on the fear of being vulnerable. Hipsters are so bloody insecure; they resist the act of taking a position or making a sincere claim to liking something because if they did that then someone could come along and make fun of them for liking it. Therefore, they only advocate things that are obviously buffoonish, to ensure a buffer for their fragile self-esteem. Same with their literature. In what exact ways? I’m not completely sure yet.

HTMLGIANT: as a writer yourself, are there any directives you employ? (not necessarily for others but for yourself)

HIGGS: Yes, I have a few directives that are important to me as a writer. Here are two particularly vital ones:

The first (and most important of all) is from John Hawkes, in an interview with John J. Enck, which you can find in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 6, No. 2, (Summer, 1965), pp. 141-155:

“I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting, and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained.”

The second comes from the opening of Jacques Derrida’s essay “Plato’s Pharmacy,” which you can find in his book Dissemination (1983):

“A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game.”

HTMLGIANT: what do you feel are some signs of the internets impact as method of production? has it sped up “planned obsolescence?” what are the ways you see this medium directly impacting the creation and distribution of writing.

HIGGS: Your mentioning of planned obsolescence is really very interesting. I have for some time now thought about the ways in which things get hyped on the internet and then quickly get devoured by the next big thing. Everything is so rapid, as a writer you get a window of opportunity to shine and then you are eclipsed. Here’s a new book from so-and-so, here’s a new issue of this-or-that, here’s this, here’s that – it’s like a monster that births a baby and then devours it only to birth another baby and devour it, or like a tickertape, or like stars constantly supernoving, or like mass produced chicken fingers.

If you aren’t constantly plugged in, constantly consuming, you will miss out. I think it makes for a frenzied literary society. Oh my god I have to get in this journal, now this journal, now this journal, now there’s a new journal, now another new journal. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. Gotta get a book published, gotta get a chapbook published, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.

HTMLGIANT: how does someone combat this rapid generation and consumption? And does it impact the form of writing/subject matter/tone or whatever else?

HIGGS: I don’t think it can (or should) be combated. Adaptation is the name of the game.

In terms of impact, yes to all three of those things. Besides the aspect of rapidity, one factor that intersects all three of those issues is the way in which the internet promotes brevity. Attention spans are shorter. Options are more abundant. And competition is far greater than ever before, given that anyone with a keyboard and a third grade education can get involved.

HTMLGIANT: given your love of continental philosophy, explain some phenomena of the internet in regard to the heideggarian concept of the “they-self” and nietzschean “ressentiment/slave value.”

HIGGS: My wife, Caitlin, is the Heideggerian scholar in our house, so I fear to tread on that water lest I make a fool of myself. Best I stick to what I know reasonably well, which includes Nietzsche, but when I think about the intersection of theory and the internet I think of Deleuze. Granted, I think about Deleuze in most cases; but I think what he brings to the table vis-à-vis the phenomenon of the internet seems to be the most timely, relevant, and compelling of all continental philosophers.

For one thing, Deleuze (in association with Felix Guattari) introduced the concept of the rhizome – which, btw, is at the heart of my literary scholarship on experimental literature – a concept particularly salient in any discussion of the internet. I mean, what better way to describe the internet than as a nonhierarchical assemblage of interconnected nodes? And that’s just for starters. Independently, Deleuze has some brilliant thoughts on virtuality that seem especially applicable to the internet, written decades before the invention of personal computers, let alone the world wide web.

HTMLGIANT: When I think “they self” I think of the behavior of people on the internet. Meaning, without citing specific examples, there seems to be group behavior that establishes itself through numbers. I don’t think anyone argues the similarities in some writing, regardless of origin, there are similarities. This continues with such things as defenses/celebrations of authors on the internet. The behavior is always the same, and generally takes place on a reactive level. Meaning, when an author is criticized, it is generally a reactive event, propagated by more reactive behavior from said author’s defendants. Here’s an example, someone says something shitty about dave eggers, and then someone defends him. Someone says they love bukowski, someone decries him. There seems to be very little middle ground wherein an individual can possess an opinion and not have to worry about petty squabbles. This continues with values. Meaning, people look at major publishers as “bad” therefore smaller publishers are “good.” Why are people so insecure on the internet?

HIGGS: Insecurity is one of the most predominant forces in contemporary culture. Entire industries, from health to finances to entertainment, thrive on this force. Not to go all fucking Marxist, but capitalism encourages insecurity for the simple reason that an insecure consumer is easy prey. Couple that with the psychological desire of the human animal to assimilate, to feel accepted, to feel as though they are loved and wanted and needed and valuable and significant and worthy of the life they have been given, and you have a society that would rather follow than lead, a society that would do anything to avoid rejection. The internet is no different. Someone who claims to love Bukowski desires validation. The person who decries Bukowski equally seeks validation. The only difference between them is surface difference: pro vs. con. Underneath each of those superficial stances, the underlying desire to experience validation is the same.

HTMLGIANT: what are some journals that embody your aesthetic and how so?

HIGGS: I remember the first time I came across a literary journal that seemed to harmonize with my aesthetic. My friend Dave had returned from AWP (maybe this was 2003?) with a copy of 3rd Bed, which he loaned to me. It was awesome. I wish 3rd Bed still existed. The reason I loved it so much was because it gave me permission to continue writing the crazy shit I was writing. I needed that kind of validation or confirmation that what I was doing was feasible or valuable or viable or something because I was in a creative writing program that was openly hostile to experimental writing and I was feeling like the struggle against the hegemony was futile. 3rd Bed came along and gave me encouragement. This has always been the most fundamental aspect of what I admire in literature as well as literary journals: the ability of the work to galvanize new creative opportunities or else give permission/inspiration/encouragement to new creative conditions/ideas.

I didn’t really answer your question, did I? Sorry.

HTMLGIANT: no, you didn’t, fuck you.

HIGGS: Okay, okay. Here’s a more direct answer: in print, I think Fence and Black Warrior are two journals that foster innovation (yet continually reject my work), and online I think Abjective and DIAGRAM and Lamination Colony are three places that consistently publish permission/inspiration/encouragement-giving material. (Thankfully, those online venues have welcomed my work.)

HTMLGIANT: what are some elements in a piece of writing that immediately make you want to stop reading and possibly bury the writing under a rock that is on the moon.

HIGGS: The short answer is: mimesis, verisimilitude, and bucolia. Anything plebian, anything common, anything mundane; and especially anything that focuses on communicating a story.

The long answer is: I read literature for the experience of aesthetic pleasure, not for entertainment. I read to think, not to turn off my thinking. I read very slowly, word by word, and often stop to consider the construction of a sentence and its relationship to its fellow sentences. I am interested in technique, in literary devices, and grammatical/syntactical constructions. I am interested in the sounds words make in isolation and in partnerships with other words. Most of all, I am interested in spectacle.

As a methodology, I approach texts like an asshole with a bone to pick, with a guilty-until-proven-innocent policy. I want to stop reading everything I pick up. I am just waiting for a reason to stop reading something. I read the first sentence and if I am not completely astounded then I start thinking about abandoning it. Usually I give prose work one paragraph. That’s it. If it fails to present something interesting or provocative or something I have not previously experienced in that amount of space then I’m not interested. If it presents a sentence that I have already read somewhere else or that sounds like something I have read somewhere else, I’ll stop reading. If it’s a transcript of something that could plausibly occur in our shared reality that fails to defamiliarize the language, I’ll stop reading.

I don’t think that’s unfair. I think it should be significant if something impresses you. If you’re impressed by everything then you obviously lack discrimination. Maybe that’s a nice way of putting it: I like to think I have a highly developed sense of literary discrimination.

Besides making me sound like an elitist prick, does that seem completely unreasonable?

HTMLGIANT: it does seem reasonable. Can you differentiate your ideas of entertainment and aesthetics? That seems important.

HIGGS: I believe aesthetic pleasure is an end in-and-of-itself, not a means to something else. Entertainment, on the other hand, is not an end in-and-of-itself. Entertainment is a means to something else: avoidance.

An analogy that comes to mind involves gardening. You can plant flowers or you can plant lettuce. Flowers are an end in-and-of-themselves: aesthetic pleasure. Lettuce is a means to something else: food. Literature, for me, is like flowers, not like lettuce.

HTMLGIANT: last book that you read and love. last book you read and hated.

HIGGS: Following the previous question, if I hate something I stop reading it. I never finish something I hate, even if I am assigned to do it. There are too many books in the world and unfortunately we humans are still condemned to death, so time is short.

Examples: recently I read the first 250 pages of Moby Dick and put it down because I was pissed that I had to wade through that whole boring love story between Ishmael and Queequeg to get to the cool whaling stuff. At Christmas time I read the first 100 pages of Dickens’s Bleak House and put it down because I got tired of the first person parts and wished the whole book was just those badass omniscient parts. I read the first 100 pages of Blood Meridian and put it down because it felt too repetitive.

I put books down all the time, probably more often than I finish them. In fact, many times I don’t even finish books that I love – Mark Danielewski’s Only Revolutions is a good example: I loved it so much I couldn’t finish it. It was too good to finish. Ben Marcus’s Notable American Women is another example: too good to finish.

This doesn’t mean that if I finished a book then I didn’t love it. I finish plenty of books I love. I recently finished Gerald Brun’s On the Anarchy of Poetry and Philosophy and loved it. Same with H.L. Mencken’s Chrestomathy. I recently finished Chelsey Minnis’s Poemland and loved it. Oh god, I absolutely loved Deleuze’s book on Nietzsche – a must read, man! – finished that one recently and wanted to turn around and read it again.

HTMLGIANT: back to the realism debate, i remember reading of your basketball game analogy. in some ways i agreed with this, ie, that realism seems to be the most prevalent and sometimes boring type of writing. however, in the basketball game analogy, you compared realism to a play by play. this is where i had a hard time understanding the comparison, as in a play by play all the moves and occurences are agreed upon in advance. meaning, if someone says, “kobe just slam dunked the ball” i will immediately knnow what happened without even looking. however, to bring this analogy back to the element of writing, not all human experiences are compatible. additionally, the act of creation in a realist piece, or any other piece is yet another variable. meaning, yes, if given all accounts of an event, there might be much overlay, but given the right approach the situation could be entirely different. so i guess what i am saying is that i agree with the abundance of realist writing today, and how a lot of it, to me, is not as appealing, i would like to hear more about your inclination towards more, surreal writing.

HIGGS: The estimable Matthew Savoca called me out on that Lakers analogy. He said, “That analogy doesn’t work…it’s more like someone is telling you something that could happen in a Lakers game that you aren’t watching.” Which I thought was very perceptive, but ultimately my position remained the same: why would I be interested in someone’s hypothetical Lakers game when I have access to a real Lakers game?

When it comes to literature, I am interested in other people’s imaginations, not other people’s versions of reality or hypothetical realities unless those hypothetical realities are inconsonant with our shared reality. The example I used in my response to Matthew Savoca was: if, for instance, someone began to tell me about a Lakers game in which Kobe began to fly and Pau grew tree trunks out of his hands and Lamar’s head swelled to the size of a hot air balloon and Derek Fisher mutated into a robot capable of hitting his threes, then we have left the realm of the plausible and entered the realm of imagination.

I think that is the key distinction: if it could plausibly happen, then who gives a shit? I’ll just wait around for it to happen or pick up the newspaper and read about it happening to someone else. Yawn.

But if, on the other hand, it could not plausibly happen, then I experience something outside or beyond the limitations of this reality and therefore momentarily transcend this mortal coil, if only through and in my imagination.

HTMLGIANT: plausibility seems interesting here. Meaning, it is not plausible that kobe could fly, but it is plausible that someone could think that. I like realist literature and I like non-realist literature. I think the main component for me, when thinking of plausibility, is, “is it plausible that I would’ve thought that.” And if not, then I am not interested. Meaning, if someone writes a realist piece about an experience they had, and do so in a way I would not have considered, then that’s as implausible to me as a story wherein a man has like, eyes that are spiders or some shit. I guess I apporoach these things from the point of view of, “could I have thought of this?/is this a world I know or not?” what do you think of this in terms of plausibility? It seems like this debate, somewhere deep inside its threads, is about the value of reality. Like, if I write a story about a man who dies of cancer while teaching his son valuable lessons, then that is more important than a story about a man who becomes a shoe. It seems like the value of realist literature has undergone an almost religious transformation. Sometime long ago, people decided that the recreation of human events on a page is worth more than the sensations represented in a non-realist piece. What I am getting at, is, to me, there is no difference in human emotion. A piece about a man becoming a shoe, can have the very same resonance and “meaning-to-someone” as a story that recreates the very same emotions it tries to explain. Is it political? It seems didactic.

HIGGS: Yes! Yes! “Sometime long ago, people decided that the recreation of human events on a page is worth more than the sensations represented in a non-realist piece.” You are spot on! That time long ago that you speak of was ancient Greece, and the person responsible for codifying that perspective is Aristotle. Bastard.

Your position on something being implausible because you hadn’t thought of it, or because it was written in a way you would not have considered, being equal to something that is logically implausible is very interesting. Like Matthew Savoca, you have problematized my position in a very ingenious way. What I hear you asking is: can’t someone’s imagination be used to express an unfamiliar version of reality. This is, in a way, the same kind of question Matthew Savoca asked. But it requires a different answer.

I think the crux of my position here has to do with the distinction between that which is within the limitations of our shared reality and that which is beyond those limitations. If someone conceives of an event that remains within the limits of our shared reality, even if it is an event I had not personally conceived of, it is still plausible. If, on the other hand, someone conceives of an event that exceeds the limits of our shared reality, then it is no longer plausible. I should also add that I mean this in terms of form and content, not just content.

HTMLGIANT: what is your definition of authenticity in a piece of writing, regardless of genre.

HIGGS: Authenticity is another word fraught with baggage. I suppose for argument’s sake I would define authenticity in literature as the manifestation of singularity: the presentation of a unique rather than ubiquitous experience: be it in form/content.

Maybe this leans too heavily on the existentialist (i.e. Sartre’s) position but I guess it’s suitable and certainly a position worthy of defending.

HTMLGIANT: in what ways does writing reach up (thinking wittgenstein here) as a picture of the real life and or culture. does writing have a role or responsibility to do so? can it avoid doing so? more, given the highly categorized world of writing, (both in terms of style and in terms of subject matter (queer theory, colonialism, american exceptionalism etc) are there still binding threads or is the segregation necessary?

HIGGS: Dude, you are the Dread Sovereign of labyrinthine questions and follow-ups. I love it!

“Writing” is too broad a term. I’ll narrow things down to literature: works of art. Like all works of art, literature has absolutely no responsibilities to anything whatsoever. Anyone who claims that art has a moral or ethical or social or fill-in-the-blank roll to play in society is either a time traveler from the dark ages or an idiot.

As usual, I’m purposely being provocative. But I’m also being serious. This argument goes back at least to Plato’s Ion, and probably even earlier. Horace, of course, proclaimed that art should both delight and instruct — a sentiment that traveled up through the history of art/literary theory through many other thinkers/writers including Matthew Arnold and unfortunately still today retains acolytes.

For my part, I totally disagree. There is no such thing as “the real world” – only various manifestations of shared reality – therefore no pivot from which to form didactic imperatives nor center such disjunctive categories as you’ve described.

HTMLGIANT: one thing i have read about a lot and heard a lot, is something along the lines of “a man cannot write a female character/a white cannot write a black/and any other identity incompatiblity” what do you think of this? is this an example of politics adversely impacting writing?

HIGGS: About three years ago I finished a very marketable novel called The City of Floating Seashells, which was inspired by my brief experience in the Peace Corps in West Africa. The book revolves around a community of black Africans dealing with the encroaching specter of Islamic fundamentalism. Fortune blessed me with the enthusiastic interest of a literary agent, and so the manuscript began the rounds.

To give you an idea of why I received over twenty rejections, here’s one of the responses I got from an editor at a major New York publishing house – direct quote: “I thought the way this novel made use of African folklore and magic was very interest and fresh… but it’s simply too difficult to sell an ethnic novel by an author who is not of the ethnicity that he’s writing about. I don’t think readers would be receptive to a novel set in the West African tribal world written by an American author who is not of African background.”

Isn’t that complete fucking insanity? I mean, could you imagine an editor responding to a black writer with, “Hey, loved your book but it’s about white people and I just don’t think readers would be receptive to a novel about white people written by a black person.” Or a woman writer with, “Really loved your Bromance, but it’s about men and I just don’t think readers would be receptive to a novel about men written by a woman.”

HTMLGIANT: again, doesn’t all this presume that what is on the page represents “real life?” I don’t necessarily disagree with the idea that a man can’t write a woman and all other incarnations, but I mainly agree with it in real life situations. Meaning, I don’t think a real life man, with real life experiences, can fully understand a real life woman, with real life experiences. However, I think the same about any combination of humans. Meaning, I don’t think you, chris higgs, as a fellow man, can understand me, and I don’t think I can fully understand you. Bringing this back to writing, there are no real life people in writing. A man cannot write a woman, but a man can write woman-idea on paper. Everything is real once it’s written. It’s all a context. although i do believe that most experiences reach across gender/race/whatever lines. there is a commonality. Not sure I have a question here. How about this, do you like candy?

HIGGS: I love candy. Mr. Goodbar is my favorite, but I also like Twizzlers with popcorn – also Junior Mints with popcorn. I don’t fancy plain chocolate bars – too boring. I like Snickers and Almond Joys, but not Mars bars or Three Musketeers or Mounds. I like sour candy. I like peanut butter cups but only in the mini size for some reason.

HTMLGIANT: what are your thoughts on the cliche “nothing new under the sun?” is this a genuine idea or something that limits capability and progress?

HIGGS: Speaking of Nietzsche and the slave mentality – there you go! Straight from the source: Ecclesiastes. Slave mentality 101. Emerging from the spirit of negation rather than affirmation, “There is nothing new under the sun” is a prime example of the ressentiment that Nietzsche was trying to explain in The Genealogy of Morals. It continues to be evoked today by those who fail to invent and wish to console themselves by explaining away their inability with slave think. It arises from negativity, from resentment, not from affirmation, not from creativity.

HTMLGIANT: yeah, I never understood this idea. Surely, there are going to be simliaritites, but with the movement of time comes change and difference right? Right? Am I right? Tell me I am not crazy chris? Gahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

HIGGS: I think you might be crazy, but you’re also absolutely right.

HTMLGIANT: what is your idea of the place of humor in writing?

HIGGS: You know, come to think of it, I rarely laugh when I’m reading. It takes a lot to even make me crack a smile. (I suppose all that really illustrates is how much of a humorless bastard I am.) The one book I remember reading and laughing out loud many times while reading was John Kennedy Toole’s The Confederacy of Dunces. But that was ages ago.

The more I think about this question the more I think it’s very interesting.

As a reader, I guess I generally approach a text with the assumption that it is to be taken seriously. I hardly, if ever, approach a text thinking that it’s going to be funny – unless, of course, the conditions have been preset: i.e. if I’m reading something in The Onion or something on Adam Peterson’s blog. My default mode is serious. I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it like that.

Do you have a default reader mode?

HTMLGIANT: not sure I have a default reader mode, in fact, I think not having one, then meeting with what I think is a well balanced piece of writing, that is the ideal condition. Meaning, if I am constantly redirected, emotionally destroyed and left with no clear pronouncement, then I am happy. For instance, I think humor works if it is balanced with its opposite. Likewise with dark material, depressing material etc. it seems human to be conflicted and to represent all things. For humor, I think humor is one of the most powerful things to include in someone’s life. Laughing is satanic. Laughing while you’re alive is a huge “fuck you” in my opinion. Given, laughing all the time/humor all the time, is weak, to me. But laughing is like, a few seconds that everything slips into something you can’t control but love. Also, don’t you think humor can be serious? I think I want to know more about your idea of seriousness here.

HIGGS: I don’t know what I think about your balanced idea. I’d have to think it over for a while. It seems reasonable, but then so did Nicorette Gum until they discovered that it too causes cancer.

Humor can of course be serious, that’s the whole racket of satire. But what I’m talking about is that I think when I pick up a text for the first time I begin to read it with the assumption that it’s a drama not a comedy. Why do I do that? I don’t know. I would love to sit here and say I always suspend my judgment when I start reading something, that I always try to let the work teach me how it should be read, but that’s not typically the case. If something is funny it reveals its humor to me as I’m reading. Sort of like how I said earlier that I approach texts as if they are guilty until proven innocent — for me texts are dramas until they prove themselves to be comedies.

HTMLGIANT: is there any way to be ironic anymore?

HIGGS: One can always be ironic. The question is: why waste the time?

HTMLGIANT: best book of literary criticism/philosopy. why?

HIGGS: Very clever move, Sam Pink, ye olde trickster, attempting to coax me into making a hierarchical claim of univocal supremacy. I nearly took the bait!

Instead, I will stick to my pluralist guns. Here are ten literary theory books I have found particularly thought provoking [I have purposefully rearranged these titles several times, in order to guard against any perceived preference]:

Carole Maso – Break Every Rule

Gerard Genette – Figures of Literary Discourse

Mikhail Bakhtin – The Dialogic Imagination

Franco Moretti – Atlas of the European Novel

Deleuze & Guattari – Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature

Gertrude Stein – Lectures in America

Jacques Derrida – Of Grammatology

Roland Barthes – S/Z

Raymond Federman – Critifiction

Alain Robbe-Grillet – For A New Novel


HIGGS: Yes! I loved MYTHOLOGIES. I love all of Barthes stuff, even the stuff I disagree with. He was a thinker’s thinker, a real intellectual catalyst. That Austin book you mention sits on our bookshelf – Caitlin has read it but I have not. Do you recommend it?]

HTMLGIANT: “how to do things with words” is awesome. moving on, writers in the independant literature world that you are excited about. why?

HIGGS: There are a bunch. (And so as to avoid any misconstrued ass-kissing, I’ll limit my list to non-Giants.)

I think Josh Maday’s work is remarkably exciting because of the way he mashes theory and fiction. I have also been impressed and inspired lately by the experimental prose of Joyelle McSweeney, Joshua Ware, Matt Bell, Darby Larsen, Thalia Field, Sean Lovelace, Michael Jauchen, Jenny Boully, Matthew Kirkpatrick, and Jeff Crouch. Many other important names are currently escaping my memory.

HTMLGIANT: you have kids. is it nice? i keep thinking about having kids now. thumbs up, thumbs down?

HIGGS: I actually don’t have kids yet. Maybe you thought I did because I said in that Ryan Manning interview that I aspire to be a good father, which was/is a future aspiration. We’re planning to wait until after we’ve both finished our PhD coursework. But I am super freaking pumped. I’ve already begun compiling a comprehensive introduction to the musical arts from Bach to Boredoms, as well as an overview of world cinema, in order to make sure they learn about the important things in life as thoroughly as possible; now the question will be, which bedtime story do I read him/her first: Yum Yum I Can’t Wait to Die or I Am Going to Clone Myself Then Kill the Clone and Eat It?

HTMLGIANT: no, you do have kids, check underneath your bed. I want you to read them some of my plays. It will make them happy.

lastly, here are three link locations higgs provided:

1). Digital Archive of Literary Narratives

A three-part literacy interview, filmed last summer, in which I
discuss my history as a reader:

2). Project Narrative Panel Discussion on Experimental Writing

Streaming audio of a panel discussion of the fiction of Brian Evenson
vis-a-vis theories of contemporary experimental writing. The
discussion took place on April 9, 2008, and featured Jan Alber, Me,
Paul McCormick, and Caitlin Newcomer:

3). He-Man & Battle Cat

A picture of He-Man and Battle Cat:

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