“When I begin to think at all I get into states of disgust and fury at the way the mob is going on (meaning by mob, chiefly Dukes, crown princes, and such like persons) that I choke; and have to go to the British Museum and look at Penguins till I get cool. I find Penguins at present the only comfort in life. One feels everything in the world so sympathetically ridiculous; one can’t be angry when one looks at a Penguin.”
John Ruskin, letter to Charles Eliot Norton, 4 November 1860

Writing as Postponement

Andrea Scrima, Rev. of The Walk by Robert Walser, The Rumpus 23 July 2012

Throughout Der Spaziergang, walking coincides with the act of writing, of telling a story; it also serves to deflect attention from the essential matter at hand, which becomes clear in the book’s closing pages. And so writing becomes a means of escaping life, its method continuous postponement.

The Blanks Have All Been Filled

Joshua Cohen, “Four new Messages: Six Questions for Joshua Cohen” by Ramona Demme, Harper’s Magazine 31 August 2012

In “Emission,” I include that brief quote about Raskolnikov: “His face was pale and distorted, and a bitter, wrathful, and malignant smile was on his lips.” That’s the most notable physical description of him in all the hundreds of pages of Crime and Punishment. If you read through the history of literature, it’s difficult not to note this slow, but seemingly inevitable, seemingly even conscious, accretion of detail. Characters in the oldest literature — Sumerian lit and the Bible, fables and folklore — are almost never physically described, and, of course, God “Himself” is never physically described. But then as you approach Antiquity, you encounter characters described by epithets, where one quality, frequently not even a physical quality, distinguishes them, rendering them an archetype for same. As you read on and into “fiction,” you find increasing physical description — archetypes profaning into types, characters aware of their own bodies (which is to say, psychology: mental or emotional description) — and with that comes, seemingly inevitably, seemingly consciously intended, a perceptible decrease in the reader’s imaginative opportunities. There’s just less space, less of a place, for the reader to co-write the book by filling in the blanks — the blanks have all been filled.

Take one of my favorite describers, Nabokov — who hated Dostoevsky, and regarded him as incompetent. Lolita prevents you from imagining Humbert Humbert and Lolita, and compels you instead to just see/hear/synestheticize how Nabokov himself intends them to be seen/heard/synestheticized—not just that, but Nabokov gives you “his” Humbert, and “his” Lolita, alongside “Humbert’s” Lolita and even “Lolita’s” Humbert. The reader, then, is exiled if not from the book then from his or her own importance to the book. Forget becoming involved with characters; the reader’s better involved with the author: the true hero, and heroine, turns out to be Nabokov — naughty Volodya!

Yet Another Failed Novel

Lee Rourke, “A Conversation with Lee Rourke” by Amber Lee, Necessary Fiction 4 September 2012

How do you decide when a piece you’ve written is “finished” enough to publish?

When a good editor tells me it is. I’m not precious about my writing, or literature in general. Good writing needs a good editor to turn it into a good book. But, you know, it’s never really “finished” as I truly believe fiction doesn’t work. So, it’s never what I want it to be. It never happens in the way it should. Luckily I let go of it, and allow it to exist as yet another failed novel.

An Attempt at Exhausting Negation

Scott Esposito, “Negation: a Response to Lars Iyer’s ‘Nude in Your Hot Tub’,” The White Review September 2012

I do not know whether I have anything to say, I know that I am saying nothing; I do not know if what I might have to say is unsaid because it is unsayable (the unsayable is not buried inside writing, it is what prompted it in the first place); I know that what I say is blank, is neutral, is a sign, once and for all, of a once-and-for-all annihilation.
— Georges Perec, W, or the Memory of Childhood

[…] One important thing Perec helped commodify was negation. Negation was a huge thing in the 1960s, when Perec began to write. It informed and empowered the groups then fighting against capitalistic culture. … Perec was one of those writers who, in part, made literature from the irony and ridicule of consumer society. … Yet there is much more to these books than a critique of mass culture. These are books built around missing pieces, feelings of emptiness, unsolvable quests. The same irony that ridicules Anne’s fad diet [in Life A User’s Manual] also gestures toward a heavy, existential sense of void. (Dieting is perhaps the single most widespread, obsessively unsolvable, mass-produced quest of post-capitalist existence.) For instance, in Things the protagonists go to Africa to find a meaning to life that they can’t in France. In A Void the absence of the letter e comes to represent the absence of some essential quality in modern life that gives rise to malaise. Reading Perec, one senses an artist self-consciously working on a grand scale to generalise this quality of negation to as many forms as possible — an effort to exhaust negation. Such ambitions are of a piece with the Oulipo manifestos, despite the fact that the manifestos are written with a clear sense of optimism. Aware of the exhaustion of art’s old forms, Oulipo strove to find new paths for the novel. Perec’s optimism in the face of negation is due in large part to how he fought to make negation itself an engine for innovation.

The Loss of a Loss

Alec Niedenthal, “Literature, Materialism, and the Present Conjuncture: an Interview with David Winters,” HTML Giant 6 August 2012

[…] We might say that literature is the self-effacing object of criticism, its object whose total existence is the mark of its vanishing. So perhaps a materialist criticism needs to begin to defile and, as you say, humiliate literature because it cannot touch it — because, for it, literature is not. In its stead we find a formal aperture, a hole that invokes what has gone away, that allows criticism to begin. What is in question would then be a discourse that has lost its object. But because literature is already a loss — a loss of the world, at the site of representation — criticism could be called the loss of a loss, the loss of what itself already annihilates the world on whose border it hangs. This is where I find the utopian kernel in criticism, that it can lose the loss of which literature is culpable: the loss of the everyday object, that stagnant dumb stuff which modernism once tried to recuperate by convincing itself that the object already and always is marked by art. It is only through this double loss that a new object, an object beyond the literary Ding, can be brought to bear upon thought — not the form already contained in the mundane but the mundanity of literary form itself.