POP: A Polemic on a Contemporary Language-Based “Objectivity”
I do not like metaphor. My personal education pertaining to literature takes a very French bent, and it is here that Robbe-Grillet himself, king of the nouveau roman one could say, has denounced metaphor, preferring, I suppose, some sort of metonymy, but–if anything–participating in the creation of a style of fiction in which the surface is more important than a subtext.
I think that this adherence to the surface, at least in terms of language, is good, positive, because it removes an additional level of signification, which brings us, as a reader, closer to the experience the language itself is hiding, carrying, revealing. Though often, in the creation of atmosphere, metaphor can be adequately used to help evoke a mood, I feel like there are often more interesting ways to do this (and I suppose that here, by “interesting,” I mean “heterogeneous, diverse, wildly more creative”).
What I’d like to establish, before I dive into the meat of this post, is that I feel like there is a wide range of literary tools available that create modes of writing that exist outside of a binary between “concrete details” and “metaphor,” at least in terms of the way language is working, whether it be in the creation of narrative, the creation of affect, or simply that of emotion.
What I’m saying is, basically, this sort of internet-culture based movement towards flat, emotionally blatant poetry and fiction really speaks to me more in the favor of self-indulgence and laziness than any sort of wildly revolutationary tact (and I feel like I can lay this claim without using the word “rhetoric” in every other sentence, as it seems like many proponents of the ‘style’ are prone to doing).
The first thing that warrants being established, in my view, is to determine what exactly I mean by ‘objective’ or ‘concrete’ writing, especially as established as both “contemporary” and “language based.” First of all, I want to distinguish a distance between what I’m talking about and the historical idea of “Concrete Poetry,” which, while possibly sharing a similar ‘point-of-departure’ in terms of ideas, in practice is a remarkably different beast. I am talking about stories & poems that are written in what, as I suppose named by “haters” in the comment section here on HTMLGIANT, could be considered “muumuu-style” writing, referring of course to the writers associated with Muumuu house. The post-Eeeee Eee Eeee fiction of Tao Lin, Brandon Scott Gorrell’s poetry book, Zachary German’s Eat When You Feel Sad, everything written by Jordon Castro ever, portions of Poncho Peligroso’s manuscript The Romantic, and so on.1
I am invested in ideas of “innovative” and “experimental” and (fill in the blank with whatever term you prefer to use for “progressive writing”–and by that I mean writing that pushes itself forward as an art-form, not necessarily in a well-defined narrative arc, but rather as something exploratory that avoids becoming stale) writing. This, alone, finds me taking issue with the aforementioned mode of writing. I say this because to me, this “objectivity” has already been explored in fiction. Arguably this “objectivity” is what the new novelists of France in the 50s & 60s were generally known to be exploring (it is possible to argue that this is not what the nouveau romanciers were actually doing, and you would be right, but there is a level of this that is definitely present within said moves). The difference here, of course, is that while Robbe-Grillet, for instance, was exploring an objective & highly articulated in terms of description realm of fiction, he was specifically an anti-realist writer. Robbe-Grillet was turning attention to material detail and using it to construct (literally in some cases) an artificial world for his violent sexual fantasies to play out it.
Take, for instance, Robbe-Grillet’s short story “The Secret Room”, from his collection Snapshots. Within the story, Robbe-Grillet pays specific attention to describing, with a somewhat intense attention to detail, the architecture of the titular room. Everything about the room, and everything within the room is described to a T. This, arguably, is a grasp at “objectivity,” in the sense that there is little provided in the realm of subjective response or any sort of psychology of character. The tension, and what it is that makes the “objectivity” interesting here, lies in the fact that the scene that Robbe-Grillet has presented is a scene of sexualized violence. There’s contrast between the clean detailed oriented nature of the story & what seems to have happened within the described space. This avoids not only romanticizing what could arguably be considered the ‘subject matter,’ but also avoids psychologizing the subject matter at all. Within the level of the text itself, there is no judgment passed. We have to move to an extra-textual level, literally judging Robbe-Grillet as the author himself, if we want to assume any judgment whatsoever.
In contrast, the aforementioned authors & poets seem to have a tendency to borrow this “objectivity,” though they remove the tension by using it inside of a world completely divorced from the fantastic; namely, a ‘realist’ world. Let’s consider the Tao Lin story “We Will Drink our Coffee and Complete our Novels and Lay in Sunlight and Sit in Darkness”. This story displays an obsession with detail that is similarly present in Robbe-Grillet’s story, although there’s a real obvious difference. Lin’s language here, really just a list of concrete details that could be perceived as funny (“poetry about llamas”), is perfectly suited for the subject of the story. The subject here seems to be, basically, a realistic, “relatable,” romantic reverie. As readers we assume that the “you” of the story is not literally us-as-readers, but rather a specific “other” that Lin is addressing. Where Robbe-Grillet’s story opens up a space of mystery & intrigue via concrete details, Lin’s story denies any sort of depth in favor of being “cute.”
What’s interesting to me is that, arguably, both Lin & Robbe-Grillet are using concrete details in order to turn personal fantasies into literature. Aside from the ethical difference in these fantasies (sexual murder is illegal, kissing a girl in a supermarket at 3am is not), it’s interesting to me to speculate as to the motivations each author holds. Both are, of course, selfish in their own right, seeing as they are both presenting fantasies tied to sexual desire (Robbe-Grillet’s being purely lust, “primal” if you will, Lin’s being what I could see being described more as a “fulfilling relationship,” which I suppose ultimately relates to lust as well). Lin’s story is more immediately easier to relate to, at least in terms of a hegemonic approach to desire, especially within the age-group the story is targeted at. Both stories will seem ridiculous to certain people if approached as paeans to desire: Robbe-Grillet’s interest in sexual-violence will be alien to someone averse to sadism, and Lin’s interest in twee midnight ‘adventures’ is going to seem ridiculous to someone without any interest in…well, twee midnight ‘adventures’ I guess.
Tao’s story is arguably “more fun” to read. However, before writing this entry the last time I had read “The Secret Room” was four years ago, and I remembered it precisely. I read Tao’s story a couple months ago and literally had no memory of what it was about until re-reading it (I picked it based on the fact that the Pop Serial website is new & I knew Tao had a story in there). Is this entirely subjective on my part? Am I prone to remembering the Robbe-Grillet story over the Lin story purely out of the fact that, personally, sexual sadism is more exciting than a twee midnight adventure? Well, yes, but I think the point is generally that “good writing should transcend its subject matter” or something.
I have no interest in saying what is good and what is bad literature, but what bothers me about a lot of the recent wave of “internet writing” is how fun it is versus how much I find myself invested in it. This is of course still entirely subjective I guess, I mean I’m sure there are other people that find themselves far more invested in it than me, but, really, I think this is ultimately symptomatic of all art that relies almost exclusively on the ability of the audience to relate to it instead of probing anything deeper. I guess what I’m saying is that a lot of this shit tastes like candy. It is pop, of course, but it’s an antiquated idea of pop. If you look at actual pop today, there’s a lot more going on than a saccharine sweetness.
There is an implied goal in pop music, of course, to be as widely accessible as possible, to appeal to the largest number of people, to make the most money possible. Pop music as a genre has eschewed specifically addressing these mandates (to some degree there has been a systemic indoctrination of the general public via the media to the point where these “things” no longer even need to be addressed, they are just presumed via the larger system that late-capitalism is operating under, but that’s not specifically my point here), instead working as a new route of subversion (though I will be the first to say that subversion on its own isn’t enough to be interesting). What I’m saying is that pop-music has more depth lately than pop literature. Contemporary, late-capitalist pop music has a lot more depth than 80s pop music. There’s an entire journal related to addressing Lady Gaga. The relative locus of popular culture has been taken up by all sorts of members of the intelligentsia, from the contributors of Montevidayo to (everyone’s favorite diva) Zizek himself.
So here I am: I enjoy something, but it almost specifically refuses any further thought. What’s there to do about this? Should I deny any interest in this sort of writing based on the absence it leads to me finding myself within? I’ve found most of my attempts to engage further with this kind of work futile, with rare exceptions that already find themselves denying the confines of what the “concrete emo” style seems to hold.
I refuse to insist that it’s “not literature,” or that it’s something that’s “not worth reading,” because there is pleasure to be found in it, whether or not the pleasure holds, or even affects to any large degree.
I almost feel like right now, as a stylistic trend, this ‘mode’ of writing is operating almost specifically as networking. Writers will write in this style until they have more friends, or connections, and then move on into writing something that surpasses the pop. Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong. Who knows.
(1) I should note that I have no interest in approaching this subject from a “shit-talking” perspective, which is often how discussions surrounding these authors end up.