With My Back to the World

Agnes Martin, “Agnes Martin: the Artist Mystic who Disappeared into the Desert” by Olivia Laing, The Guardian 22 May 2015

“I paint with my back to the world,” she declared, and what she wanted to catch in her rigorous nets was not material existence, the Earth and its myriad forms, but rather the abstract glories of being: joy, beauty, innocence; happiness itself. (…) Forget confessional art. This is withholding art, evading disclosure, declining to give itself away.

We Feel the Flux

“The flux of the body is generative for me, it’s all through my work. This is among the ways I’m grateful to be a woman. A woman’s body is always reminding her that something beyond, and bigger, is happening. We feel the flux. We can’t help it. Women get a good deal of practice submitting to what is, witnessing the body unadorned.”
Noy Holland, “Unworded Intensities: An Interview with Noy Holland, Author of Bird” by Vincent Scarpa, Electric Literature 31 December 2015

Writing a Story is Destructive

Noy Holland, “Unworded Intensities: An Interview with Noy Holland, Author of Bird” by Vincent Scarpa, Electric Literature 31 December 2015

I know I’ve felt it, feel it — the premonition of loss before I’ve set forth. Between grief and nothing I hope always to choose grief — I am borrowing, I think, from Faulkner here. The grief needn’t be grand or dramatic, just the simple grief of the almost right word. The persistence of failure. Fail better. Yes. To write a story, to set down the words, is destructive. It is never enough. It makes of something fluid something static. To stand up and live through something, to withstand the presence of the thing we want, is reckless and thrilling and heroic, and very quickly it is something like work. Yes? We can only in an instant be answered. But that instant, whoo boy, that ecstasy — this is what we work and live for. In my view, it’s what we get of God.

Anything For a Quiet Death

Adam Mars-Jones, “Chop, Chop, Chop,” London Review of Books 21 January 2016

The problem with a book about the impact of death, like Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, is that closure isn’t something the bereaved can expect, but it’s a reasonable hope for readers. Death translated into a body of words is no longer death. The idea of progress in the grief-work keeps coming back. …

Yet the need for resolution never goes away. In the last section of the book the conventions start to be reinstated. Dad and the boys scatter the dead woman’s ashes, though there’s been no previous mention either of cremation as an event nor the urn (actually a tin) as an object. After the scornful dismissal by Dad of the idea of moving on, it turns out that narrative — and even quasi-narrative — has an atavistic need for resolution, however much the writer may try to resist it. This shift towards closure in the dying pages of the book is less like an atheist’s last-breath conversion to novelistic orthodoxy than a terminally ill patient’s weary concession, faced with family pressure, that the forms be followed if it makes everybody happy. A few hymns and a blessing, where’s the harm? Anything for a quiet death. But a rite of passage of some description seems to be a requirement in this context.

… When even an imaginary crow can’t abide by the logic of a meaningless death, it’s clear that the need to find significance at the moment life ends runs deep.

Famous last words need an audience. Someone must hear what is said, and must write it down – it would be embarrassing to admit that you weren’t certain of the phrasing. Someone needed to transcribe Keith Vaughan’s last words, and to decide at what point exactly they became illegible. The deathbed scene is a highly literary artefact, with editorial interventions both at the time and subsequently, when it is written down. …

Secondhand Avant Garde

Geoff Dyer, “‘Based On a True Story’: The Fine Line Between Fact and Fiction,” The Observer 6 December 2015

The dizziness occasioned by WG Sebald lay in the way that we really didn’t know quite what we were reading. To adapt a line of Clint Eastwood’s from Coogan’s Bluff, we didn’t know what was happening — even as it was happening to us. That mesmeric uncertainty has diminished slightly since the Sebald software has, as it were, been made available for free download by numerous acolytes, but a similar categorical refusal informs Ben Lerner’s 10.04, “a work,” as his narrator puts it, “that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them”. The flicker is sustained on an epic scale — in a thoroughly domestic sort of way — by Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle series. A side-effect or aftershock of Knausgaard’s seismic shakeup was to make us realise how thoroughly bored we had become by plot. Rachel Cusk addressed and exploited this in her wonderfully plotless novel Outline, which was shortlisted for last year’s Goldsmiths prize.

Seeking to reward innovation and experimentation, this prize is a good and timely thing — but it’s unfortunate that it’s limited to fiction. While last year’s Samuel Johnson prize went to Helen Macdonald for her beautifully novel H Is for Hawk, much so-called experimental fiction comes in the tried-and-tested form of the sub-species of historical novel known as modernist. Had they been LPs rather than books, several contenders for last year’s Goldsmiths prize could have joined Will Self’s Shark in that oxymoronic section of Ray’s Jazz Shop: “secondhand avant garde”.