The second volume of The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing is a twin set: one book, two parts, bound together in opposing orientations. There is one side, and then there is an other side. As editor Davis Schneiderman informs us in both introductions, “these ‘sides’ mirror each other, except when they do not.” Craig Dworkin’s “The Cube” on one side mirrors, on the other, a cube-shaped stamp story by Alissa Nutting. Kate Durbin’s appropriative “Anna Nicole Show” corresponds with Joe Atkins’ appropriative “Boxxy Foar 4DD1@!!!!1!!” Visual poetry shows up in the same slot on both sides, Nico Vassilakis’s STARINGS matching up with A.J. Patrick Lisziewicz’s Alphabet Man.
Then there are pieces that don’t (seem to) match at all, but whose correspondence contrives a relationship anyway. The split design comes across as both arbitrary and quite savvy, a description that could easily be applied to the anthology itself—probably to anthologies generally. How does one archive “innovative,” or any category of, writing? Through a book that might as well be two books. Through inverse relationships. Through matches and clashes. There are two sides to innovative writing, the anthology suggests: more than two, obvs, but alas, we must surrender to the limitations of the book.
The &NOW Awards doesn’t purport to claim anything about the “best” innovative writing except that the field is diverse: this is its best feature. It inhabits the “best of” anthology coyly and subversively, and it casts the net far and wide—vastly more so than, say, Houghton Mifflin’s staid Best American Series. The &NOW series is uninterested in genre boundaries, and offers a richly diverse, if necessarily selective, archive of (mostly) US-based contemporary literary writing. Whereas the first &NOW Awards, published in 2009, collected mainly writers who are or have been associated with &NOW as an organization and biennial festival, Volume 2 spreads out more both aesthetically and demographically. This edition includes more writers unassociated with the festival, more poetry, and more variety overall, including several pieces designed to be read on a screen, and, especially welcome, a number of works recently translated into English: for instance, excerpts from three novels written by radical French writer Antoine Volodine (a pseudonym) and two of his heteronyms, translated from the French by Brian Evenson and Antoine Cazé; and an excerpt from Song for his Disappeared Love by Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, originally published in 1985 and translated from the Spanish by Daniel Borzutzky.
The anthology’s dominant mode is arguably appropriation-based writing. Gretchen Henderson opens one side with a metappropriative work: an essay in fragments, On Marvellous Things Heard draws from a selective inventory of literary appropriations of music. On the other side, David Shields opens with an excerpt from Reality Hunger. According to the prefatory statement, &NOW was permitted by Knopf to republish only those parts of the book written by Shields; given that the whole text is a collage of other texts, they republished the Shield’s introduction to the appendix, and the appendix itself, which lists all of the book’s sources. “Who owns the words?” Shields asks. “We do—all of us.” Except we don’t, as Knopf’s restrictions remind us.
These opening pieces foreground concerns central to the anthology overall: issues of authorship, ownership, (un)original writing. The volume is an intertextual feast, or an anti-authority riot, with authors lifting from a broad range of texts, many of them canonical. In her excerpt from The Whiteness of the Foam, Evelyn Reilly amalgamates Moby Dick with a nano-fuel price list and diagrams of synthetic materials to structure a study of literary and environmental immortality. K. Silem Mohammad combines canonical appropriation with web-generated and constraint-based writing in his Sonnagrams, which rework Shakespeare’s sonnets after feeding them line by line into an internet anagram engine. Noncanonical sources show up as well: Kate Durbin chillingly transforms the notorious clown video used in court as evidence against Anna Nicole Smith’s boyfriend and attorney Howard K. Smith; Ken Taylor writes a cento composed of Charlie Sheen quotes (“there are parts of me/ that are dennis hopper”).
There is more poetry represented here than in the first &NOW Awards, and the result is less prose, and very few prose pieces that are not excerpts. Among the handful of complete prose pieces are a number of stamp stories written in fifty words or less: these are republished from Mud Luscious Press’s 2011 anthology of stamp stories. It’s bittersweet to see these and other contributions from Mud Luscious (RIP); they’re a reminder of how difficult it is for small presses to survive, and how important is the work that they’re doing.
In addition to Mud Luscious, the anthology samples from an army of US small presses, including Jaded Ibis, Dorothy, Nightboat, Action, Fence, and so on (as well as many journals), a testament to both &NOW’s roots as an organization and publishing project, as well as to the publishing environment for innovative writing. By archiving our recent pasts, the volume provides a much-needed record of that environment. All of these selections were previously published between 2009 and 2011; reading through them, I was surprised by how many well-loved works I encountered that already have the feel of historical landmarks (Schizophrene was published just two years ago—what?). I was also glad to be reminded of all the books—so many books!—I’ve wanted to but haven’t yet read. After reading Amira Hanafi’s heart-wrecking excerpt from Forgery, I searched for my copy and read it in full; and, oh right, forgot to order Fra Keeler.
As we know, “innovative writing” as a category is endlessly troublesome. In his introductions, Schneiderman sidesteps any defining or theorizing of the term. We could go back and forth, around and around on how to shape the category, what does and does not belong; or we can toss a bunch of examples inside, put it on and wear it, make it work for us. The &NOW Awards makes it work for us.
Disclosure: I will be editing Volume 3. Submissions are currently open. See the Call for Submissions for further details.
Megan Milks is the author of Kill Marguerite and Other Stories, forthcoming from Emergency Press in January 2014, and most recently the chapbook Twins (Birds of Lace, 2012).