Against Answers: A Conversation with Kyle Minor
Last week I mentioned that I had asked Kyle Minor (author of In the Devil’s Territory, Dzanc 2008) to participate in a public conversation about our differences of opinion vis-à-vis literature. He was kind enough to take me up on the offer.
HIGGS: Let me start by saying thanks for taking time to discuss a topic I know we are both passionate about but approach from different angles: the creation of prose.
MINOR: We’ve been discussing it for a long time. I’m glad to finally do it in a more public manner.
HIGGS: Prose writing, for me, is first and foremost a form of art. I have this commitment to preserving the autonomy of art, i.e., art for art’s sake, which I think you don’t share with me.
MINOR: I agree that prose writing is a form of art. I also believe that it is a form of communication, and that on the other side there is a reader. I don’t think that the writer who believes in the reader is necessarily acceding to the tyranny of some particular imagined reader. But I do think that, for me at least, literature started in reading, and one of the things I aim to do when I write is to deliver to the reader pleasures akin to the pleasures that other writers delivered to me.
HIGGS: So when you sit down to construct, are you consciously thinking about the reader?
MINOR: Not when I’m really going. What I’m usually thinking about it the consciousness I’m inhabiting, an idea about narrative shape or form, the next sentence, the next word. But I have integrated into my process some disciplines that I think are meant to be kind to the reader. And by the reader, I don’t mean anybody who is reading at a fourth grade level. I imagine that I am writing for intelligent people who enjoy literature and who are interested in inhabiting a consciousness not their own for awhile. So toward that end, I don’t write to pander, but I do try to manage information, for example, in a way that doesn’t inhibit the reader’s ability to enter seamlessly into the story I’m writing. And here, maybe, is where we part ways a little, because I know from past conversations we’ve had that you don’t care much for story. When I say story, though, I mean it in the broadest sort of way. So before we go down that road, I want to say that I’m uncomfortable with the parameters that usually inform this sort of conversation. One reason I was afraid to have this chat with you publicly is that I’m wary of dividing up literature into competing camps and then fortifying from either side. For one thing, I don’t think that there are clear delineations between or among the various camps. I think there’s a spectrum, and it’s not a two-dimensional spectrum running between story writers and language-y writers, either. We also have the tension between the intellectual and the visceral, between the pleasures of the minimal and the maximal (at the level of the sentence and also in regard to the conception of the work), between the formally rigorous and the organic, and between the idea of language as a representation of life and the idea of language as a thing abstracted from any other thing except itself. Writers of all sorts find themselves taking different positions on these matters, and many of the writers I like best take different positions on these matters from poem to poem, story to story, book to book, operating out of whatever idea of literature invigorates the work for as long as it continues to invigorate the work, whether it is intellectually defensible (or even understandable) or not. I find plenty of evidence of the narrative impulse beneath the most lyrical thises and thats, and I find plenty of formal daring and to-die-for sentences in the work of our most beguiling storytellers. One reason I like Gilles Deleuze (a writer to whom you first introduced me) is his talk about the rhizome, which, if I’m reading semi-intelligently, seems to be about the dissolution of hierarchy as the primary sorting-and-meaning-making apparatus, and replacing it with a more multi-pronged analysis of the ways things are interconnected. I think if we’re going to talk about what literature is or ought to be, we ought to start in a place that offers all of literature’s participating parties (here we go with that camps talk again) a place at the table of conversation, and whomever gets the first word ought to invoke what I think is the wisest thing Zadie Smith ever posited, which is that literature is a big tent.
HIGGS: I share your anxiety over dividing up literature into camps, but one of the things that most interests me about literature, about all art for that matter, is difference. To acknowledge that differences exist and then try to explore the boundaries that separate legible distinctions seems like a worthwhile endeavor. But of course avoiding the easy (reductive) binary: conventional realism/experimentalism is the goal.
MINOR: I worry the usefulness of even articulating that binary. Whenever I hear discussions of conventional realism, where conventional realism is used pejoratively, Alice Munro is often invoked as the villain, mostly because, I suppose, her prose is plain and often flat and it’s a slow burn. But among contemporary realists, I find her to be among the most experimental with regard to structure, point of view, the endings of stories, and so on, especially in the period between her books Friend of My Youth and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. And among contemporary writers deemed experimental — a category I read eagerly and often — I see the same tropes and forms again and again, many of which seem to be lifted from writers like Gary Lutz, Thomas Bernhard, or, more recently, Ander Monson. And among writers who reject the ideas at the core of conventional realism — narrative and verisimilitude — I see two prevailing patterns. One is that there are no rules and no chance at meaning except in the most abstract way, after the manner of abstract expressionism. The other is that the text requires an ideal reader to appreciate it in all its complexity. The first I reject, I suppose, because I’d rather look at a really interesting piece of visual art or go to music for that level of abstraction. (And even here the analogy might be false, since music and visual art have their own vocabularies of color and texture and timbre and so on, and these work on the viewer or listener in nonverbal ways that nonetheless seem attached to meaning and emotion.) The second may well be true of everything, but to me it seems to imply if not an acquaintance with verisimilitude, at least an acquaintance with narrative, because there’s some kind of story or story-like element to almost any piece of prose that means to organize itself, and experimental writers, most of them, seem obsessed with organization. I’ve got a pre-ordered copy of your new book, to give one example, and I’ve spent some time in it. I can’t claim to understand everything about it yet — there’s plenty more work to do — and on the first read of anything, I want to give myself over to the pleasures of whatever washes over and avoid reading as an analyzer. But I wonder if I would enjoy your book so much on the first read if it did not have the title The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, because now we’ve got a character or not-character or author or not-author to push against before we’ve got to page one, and that’s a narrative virtue. It’s an intellectual pleasure, to be sure, and one a reader like me is predisposed to welcome thanks to my time with Nabokov and Kundera and Calvino and so on, but it’s still a narrative virtue that rises from the title. I think that all the experimental writers I really care about have something like that tucked away somewhere, whether it is foregrounded or not.
HIGGS: Yes, you have hit on an important aspect of experimental writing that I have only recently come to recognize as significant: this notion of organization. I think for a very long time my approach was to blow shit up, to explode forms, to destroy, to react, to go against. It’s not hard to see why, given that most of the discourse surrounding the avant-garde is framed in negative terms, right, experimental writing is anti this or that…but what Deleuze has taught me, his reading of Spinoza’s ethics: that which is good is that which affirms, his reading of Nietzsche: in particular the affirmation found in The Genealogy of Morals…suggesting that reactionary motives are weak motives…couple those ideas with my growing realization that experimental writing is most effective when it attempts to expand the boundaries of convention rather than destroy them, and that in order for experimental writing to be effective it must remain legible. That’s a tough thing to accept for someone who spent a good amount of years wanting to erase all legibility. But you brought up another interesting thing, this idea of repeated tropes in experimental writing, as if to say that even experimental writing can become conventional, or its own convention. That’s interesting. Returning to Deleuze, I am reminded of the distinction he makes between the molar and the molecular, that once an assemblage crystallizes it becomes dormant, molar, and so long as the assemblage continues to be active, morphic, then it remains molecular.
MINOR: That’s an idea that interests me as it relates to process. But as much as I’m daily engaged in the process, I’m also ultimately engaged, I think, in the act of making the product. And here I was going to say I don’t mean product in the sense of consumer product, as a thing to be consumed. But I guess I do mean product in the sense of a thing to be consumed. You make the thing and the thing is made and then someone reads or consumes the thing. You’ve released the thing from process to consumption, and now it’s away from you. So this idea of Deleuze’s that you’re talking about, like many matters that rise from critical theory — to me it seems useful so long as it’s useful in helping me to make a thing, and then when it’s not, I want to discard it. And the matter of its usefulness or not usefulness is a matter that’s divorced, for me, from its philosophical soundness. I want to be open to misreadings of texts that enable me to make something I’ve not been able to make before. And I want to avoid like crazy any kind of theory or philosophy that puts me in a state of paralysis with regard to the making of things, even if that theory or philosophy might be true. It’s one reason, I think, many writers avoid psychoanalysis. If there is a way to quell the trouble, then how will one make the things that traffic in the trouble? (The other reason, for a writer like me, is that I’m distrustful of the reductive nature of psychoanalytic discourse. But I digress.) How does this talk strike you? Because it seems to me like maybe you’re given to a greater degree of purity in your relationship to critical theory. You’re a seeker for what it might offer most purely. Whereas I’m reading Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, and what interests me most is what I might steal from the book’s design, its organization into chapters that are headed by temporal markers paired with interesting narrative language (November 28, 1947: How Do You Make Yourself a Body Without Organs?, or 1914: One or Several Wolves), and then I read what’s in the chapters, and I don’t really understand it entirely, but I’m scribbling all kinds of things that rise from the intersection between the talk D. & G. are talking and my own material, and before I know it, I’m well into my own work, and I’ve abandoned A Thousand Plateaus. I feel like the book has given me the liberty to do so, since it’s so dispensed with a linear reading plan, but then I think how I don’t want my reader to feel the same freedom. I want them to read every goddamn word, and in the order I’ve ordered. So then I don’t want to write like Deleuze and Guattari, but I sure as hell want to keep reading them.
HIGGS: Hahaha. I know what you mean about wanting the reader to read every goddamn word. Even as someone who does not think about the reader at all when composing, once the piece has been constructed I become the fascist that Guattari claims we all are. In terms of your approach to A Thousand Plateaus…I think that’s a great way to utilize the text. For me, there is no “right” way or “wrong” way to approach theory, there are only more productive and less productive ways. I think trying to “understand” something (and this goes for theory and art and relationships and everything else in the world) is unproductive. Answers close doors. Questions open them. Answers shut down, turn off, end. I am against answers. And I think this is one of the reasons why I am averse to literature that attempts to provide answers, that attempts to explain things, to make things clear. I like opacity. I like not knowing.
MINOR: I don’t like the provision of answers in fiction, usually. But I also don’t like opacity, usually. I like not knowing as a compositional process (but not always — sometimes I like starting with a design or working toward a last line. But even here, everything else is not-knowing, and often as not what you feel your way onto in the dark leads to the thing that breathes vitality into the thing you’re making.) But I disagree about opacity. I think that opacity often as not closes doors as much as answers will. Opacity and didacticism, it seems to me, are two sides of the same coin, paired in a manner not dissimilar to love and hate. They both are at a remove from the questions, and they both are safe to the maker because the maker’s dominance can’t really be questioned in regard to the work when there is only the singular resolve to either an answer or an opaque. For me, the better work, whether conventionally realist or surrealist or experimental or what-have-you, is the work that engages particular questions in all their complexity, and which simultaneously gnaws at the primal things that attach to these questions, most often love or death or meaning or existence or survival or the elemental. Writing these words, though, I feel like maybe what we’ve knocked up against isn’t so much a disagreement about opacity as maybe a definitional difference in how we’re using the word. What say you?
HIGGS: I think it goes back to this idea of legibility. For me, a work of literature succeeds when it remains hidden, but traces of its existence need to be legible. I have to be able to comprehend the boundaries in order to recognize what I am experiencing. So by using the word opaque I don’t mean incomprehensible, I mean blurry, resistant to reduction, elusive. I like texts that play hard to get — what Barthes calls “the writerly text” versus “the readerly text.” I want to struggle, I want to work for it, I want to participate in the production of the text. When I begin reading a sentence that I can easily comprehend I get bored. When I read a sentence that I understand, it loses its appeal. Does that make sense?
MINOR: It does make sense, but I don’t like it. I do like plenty of writing that works in the way you are describing. But I feel like my range of possible pleasures would be so unnecessarily limited if I also were bored by a sentence I could easily comprehend. Here’s the thing. I’m am intensely attuned to the pleasures of language, and also, in a very intense and cultivated way, to the pleasures of form in all its permutations — the traditional three and five act structures, formal experiments in the direction of extraordinary discipline and labor (Perec, Calvino, Mathews), and formal experiments that run in the direction of formal anarchy (Frank Stanford, Whitman, hell, even “Howl.”) I read everything I can, and I try to be open to everything I can, but when all’s said and done, and I’m lying in bed at night and not thinking, what rises is the thing that undid me, and the thing that undid me is hardly ever the storyless thing, unless that storyless thing is a projection of a singular consciousness driven by the same things that drive narrative, by which I mean old-fashioned want, need, desire, fear, shame, and so on. This isn’t an argument for realism or for traditional narrative by any means, nor is it a rejection of them. It’s an argument for, I suppose, the primacy of the heart over the intellect, even and especially when the intellect is firing on all twelve cylinders. And coming from that place, I could say that Alice Elliott Dark’s “In the Gloaming” and Barry Hannah’s Airships and Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” and Donald Barthelme’s “City of Churches” and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater and Blake Butler’s “The Gown from Mother’s Stomach” and John Williams’s Stoner and Frank Bidart’s In the Western Night and Andre Dubus’s “Voices from the Moon” and Stephen Dixon’s I. trilogy and William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and Peter Markus’s Bob or Man in Boat and Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” and Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” and John McPhee’s Levels of the Game and Kathy Acker’s Kathy Goes to Haiti and Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe and Philip Graham’s The Art of the Knock and Richard Price’s Bloodbrothers and Harlan Ellison’s teleplay The City on the Edge of Forever and Eudora Welty’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” and Rick Moody’s “The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven” are all of a piece, because whatever the intentions of their authors with regard to authorial stance or language or story or what-literature-is or whatever, these are works that nonetheless stoke in the reader an emotional dissonance that begins in transcendence (while reading) and then never really fades entirely. You read them and then they become part of your vision of the world, and by your I mean mine, and that vision of the world is getting mighty contradictory, and that seems right. When I think about the function of language and story in making that happen, they’re not really separable. If the language isn’t serving the overall effect, there’s no provoking any response from me except to put the book down or worse. But here, I think is where we maybe part ways: If the language serves no particular end except language, then there’s not much there to engage me beyond the pleasure of the single reading. And if the language is muted in service of the story, as in, say, the better fictions of Alice Munro or Christopher Coake or Jane Smiley or Anne Tyler or Richard Russo, then I’m going to stay with the story anyway, because past experience has taught me that the pleasures the story will deliver are worth the occasional labor and, yes, the occasional muddling, that the muted prose can require of the reader.
HIGGS: Yes, that is one of the ways we differ. I just don’t connect with literature on the level of story. In most of my reading experiences, stories get in the way of my enjoyment, they bog things down. To tell you the truth, I forget stories as soon as I read them. What stays with me is a turn of phrase, a word combination, a thought, a pleasurable experience of something formally unfamiliar. The heart thing you mention doesn’t really engage for me when I am reading a text. My heart engages when I watch romantic comedies, or when I talk to someone I love, but literature (all art, really) for me is a cerebral activity. I think, though, that when you say, “You read them and then they become part of your vision of the world” I can agree wholeheartedly, it’s just that what becomes part of my vision of the world is not connected to story or content, but to form and structure.
MINOR: Do you think these differences are fundamentally temperamental? Do you think you will always feel the way you do now about story qua story? Do these ideas extend to forms not made primarily of words? Does it make it difficult for you to enjoy, say, television, or a sports game, or do you enjoy these in similar ways (i.e., you don’t care if the Lakers win the game, but you are extraordinarily attuned to the arc of Kobe’s arm as he power-dunks)?
HIGGS: Oh hell no, I always care if the Lakers win! But I view the Lakers as entertainment, not art. I make this distinction. Just as I watch romantic comedies as entertainment. I don’t read literature for entertainment. Do I think my mind will change? Yes, I’m certain of it. That’s what makes life interesting! How about you? Can you see yourself ever becoming a crotchety old aesthete like me?
MINOR: Except for the exclusionary element, you’ve already won me over. When we first started these conversations four years ago, I didn’t read much experimental literature except Pynchon and the Lish students and Stephen Dixon, and I certainly had an aversion to the very thought of Continental philosophy. But my life has been enriched by the choice to give all of it a go, and I’ve found a new freedom in my own work to try new forms and to experiment more broadly. By now I’ve written some fictions whose pleasures are more aligned with the intellectual, or whose language doesn’t give itself up so easily. But as time ages these things, and I survey what I’ve read and what I’ve made, I find the deepest pleasures in stories wedded to the form and the language that seems to best suit them. So I guess in that way, I’ll probably keep becoming a crotchety old aesthete like me, rather than a crotchety old aesthete like you.
Tags: Kyle Minor