Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fiction International Issue #41: Freaks

Fiction International Issue #41, Freaks, is now available, containing my short story "The End of the World" and many other works of innovative and non-mainstream fiction. If the freak who is the main character of my story is certainly not the most obviously freaky freak in the collection, he may very well be a more common type than we are all comfortable recognizing.

Fiction International is perhaps the main, if not quite only, model for what I called "Submodern Fiction" in the three issues of the fiction magazine of that name which I co-edited along with K. Lorraine Graham. FI features work by writers who are in the main not household names and whose work puts most of them outside the industry of realist fiction that along with genre fiction still dominates American literary culture.

I'm reprinting, here, my introduction to the initial issue of Submodern Fiction in 2003. The environment I describe has changed somewhat since then, especially in terms of community in fiction, but much of the rest of it remains quite similar to what we see now.


Why publish a small magazine devoted to alternative forms of prose narrative?

Anybody who has followed the condition of published fiction in the United States in the last decade knows how bad that condition is right now. Major publishing houses have narrowed the range of the work they will publish, kicking many of the best writers off their roles. A few well established writers of non-traditional narrative, most of whom are nearing the end of their admittedly impressive careers, find their books labeled “postmodern” and mixed with novels highlighting themes well-connected to the niche market that fiction publishing has become--a market that features realism almost exclusively

Of course, the variety of such realism niche markets has grown considerably. Along with upper class realism of manners, realism about urban professionals looking to make a career of love, and realism about steadfast rural families, there are now niches for most major recognizable American cultural categories: a market for the African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American realist novel, a market for realist novels about the urban and rural poor, a market for gay and lesbian realist novels, realist novels about people struggling with illness or disability. And there are markets also for international identity niches as well, and sometimes, as in the case of magical realism, these niches allow for different ways of writing. In and of itself, this variety is a great thing: we certainly need subject matter that challenges the dominance of white heterosexual capitalist culture, and the best of these novels provide complex and important critiques.

At the same time though, too many of these novels, in order to get published, follow not only the dullest of story-telling norms but replicate the central theme of capitalist realism generally: the story of an individual or a family overcoming great obstacles in order to live a successful life, or at least to come to a better understanding “of the vagaries but resilience of the human heart,” as one professional book review after another tells us. These days, everybody can have heart, and that’s a great improvement over eras that believed that heart belonged to some people and not others. Most radical cultural critiques and non-realist forms of writing, however, still get lost. Unfortunately, if there are more cultural categories, there are less things possible to say about them, and less possible ways to say them.

But perhaps these facts are not so surprising. It is capitalism we’re talking about, after all. Can we really expect Random House to come to the rescue? Besides, when thinking about capitalist publishing houses, fiction can hardly claim special levels of persecution. In many ways, it still remains privileged. Most of the best imaginative and critical writing has long since found itself in smaller presses, and obviously much of the most challenging fiction has been doing and will have to do the same.

But fiction, novels especially, presents a different set of problems for the small presses than, say, non-mainstream poetry. It takes a lot more time and money to publish a novel than it does a collection of poems, and few small presses have the necessary resources. Furthermore, the fact that marketplace success remains a possibility for novelists that it is not for poets means that, as Ron Sukenick once said to me after giving a reading, “Most novelists are still invested in the idea of going it alone, because big breakthrough sales are possible for them.” Fiction writers, that is, have not automatically been forced to develop community in the way that non-mainstream poets have: there’s still the sense (which is some combination of freeing and selfish) that it’s possible to succeed on one’s own terms without the help of other writers. As Sukenick pointed out too, though, such a possibility seems increasingly false. These days, writers of alternative narrative need community easily as much as poets. Maybe more so, because right now, those communities don’t always exist.

These problems of community are made worse by the attitudes of many non-mainstream poets, who might seem obvious allies but don’t always think of themselves that way. Most such poets read fiction only for fun, if they read it at all, which many don’t. Poetry, theory, and criticism seem the important work: fiction gets critiqued, even resented, for its continued ties to capitalist production, and not everybody pauses to make distinctions, either on the subject of specific fiction writers or ways of writing it. The fact that the last 20 years of avant garde poetic theory have often labeled narrative as an essential enemy of socially engaged writing has hardly helped matters. There are of course many exceptions to this social division, writers whose fiction moves close to poetry or whose poetry uses alternative ideas of narrative, readers whose eclecticism undermines the self-protection of genre. But however unfortunate and unnecessary it may be, the division remains real.

Even given all these problems, though, it also remains true--importantly--that alternative fiction is far from dead, even if its public profile is lower than at any time since the 1950s. Some structurally challenging writers still manage to find major publishing opportunities: Lydia Davis, Richard Powers, others. Magazines like Conjunctions and Fiction International provide opportunities to publish short alternative narrative. Presses like Fiction Collective II, Burning Deck, Asylum Arts, and Avec Books with its Pivotal Prose series have published excellent books of very risky fiction in recent years. But these worthwhile efforts, surviving however they do, and all of which deserve more critical attention, stand also as examples of how much more can be done. Right now, many writers of alternative narrative have very few places--sometimes none--to publish their work in a country in which hundreds of trash novels are produced yearly.

Of course, a little magazine like this one, featuring a few stories and a few pieces of criticism, can’t do much to change these broad social realities. But my hope is that it can provide at least a small forum for communication among at least a few writers who don’t have such a forum at this time. It can provide an example of what, on a larger scale, there should be more of. Even if this magazine can create nothing more than a conversation and a sense of community between a few friends and anybody else who would like to be interested, I think it can also help create a new model (along with those existing publications that already do so) of what alternative fiction writers might do to survive as creative thinkers.

Poet Rod Smith has been talking for a few years now about his idea (taken in part from Guy Debord) of “submodernism”--the notion that writing in the traditions of modernist experimentation has been surviving in the most recent decades of international capitalism primarily through small publications that cruise underneath the radar of capitalist oversight, even as they remain subject to capital’s power. I think of this magazine, then, as a call for alternative fiction to go submodern, for writers of such fiction to recognize that for most of us, we’re going to survive this way, or not at all. Try to get under the radar, folks, and cruise.


Anonymous said...

Critics, schmitics: I like the way the Mayan priests handled the vagaries and resliliences of the human heart.

Good analyais of the current avant fiction scene.

Recently, on another blog, I saw someone advise writers to get an agent. This is the worst advice to anyone who writes stuff that isn't blatantly commercial, but it also ratifies Ron S's observation of fiction writers who are out for themselves, as if they could still hit the big score.

Doug said...

well said.

josephsdsu said...

Doug: Some critics aren't all bad, are they? One, I know, had a nice thing or two to say about a certain Oulipo-esque collection by bespectacled, wolf-like poet.

Mark: I'm teaching a grad class called Freaks, Tricksters, and Iconoclasts in Children's Literature this semester. I think you might dig the reading list. I also have your "On Pompous Moral Judgment" blog post on the reading list (linked to via Blackboard). Great stuff in it, and your argument regarding laughter judgment fits perfectly with some of the themes we'll be developing.

I'm hitting up Hal for a copy of the freaky new Fiction International, and plan to have a student present on it in the coming weeks. Anyway, dig this syllabus (you too, Doug--you might find it groovy as well):

Oh, Katie and I apologize for missing your party, Mark: it hit just at the worst time for us, with her teaching gig at South Western getting underway, alongside courses at UCR beginning, and my semester starting this week... the long weekend was used getting my syllabi together and finishing this chapter on aesthetics for a NYU Press collection called Keywords in Children's Literature and Culture--the deadline is the end of Jan, so, if I was going to finish the damned thing, I needed to get a lot done before the semester got underway. Sill not finished, but closer...

Much love to you both, and to Doug,

Carol Novack said...

Hi Mark - So let's call for a national vote of writers (sponsored by Random House) to determine whose freak is freakier, though my freak is a Freudian's dream, a Jungian archetype, and every woman's nightmare.

Nice little essay. Yes, where is an OPEN community of alternative narrative writers?

Suffering dreadfully under the yoke of uber realism. So so so boring. When will the beast be put to pasture?

-Betwixt a hic and a cup,

Yr Madhatter Friend

Jeff said...

Hi, Mark!

There is a community of prose writers. For the last 3 years I've gone to the FC2 Workshop in Portland. It has been very friendly and useful. Experimental fiction writers seem to be no less friendly than experimental poets. &, I must say, as a group we experimental writers are probably friendlier than people who make tons of money by supervising and administering the placing of breakfast cereal in boxes.

To choose experimental writing is to accept obscurity. Yes, there some people are 'scalers', and are ridiculously competitive and see this writing world as a pecking order. But I've noticed two things: they are the distinct minority, and the writers I like best usually are open, curious people. Being a driven snob gets in the way of that.

Carol Novack said...

I disagree, Jeff. I attended one of the Writers' Edge workshops a few years ago and can hardly afford to attend another on the west coast when I live on the east coast on a budget, without a university or college to pay travel and lodgings. Now, isn't the next in Mexico? Truly, it is not within many gifted writers' means to attend these workshops.

Anyway, I think that a yearly workshop produced by a couple of presses and mainly featuring their published authors doth not a community make. I also went to &NOW (both poetry and prose).. this past year - again on the west coast. Enjoyable and stimulating, with a great variety of writers and presses present, and not organized by any one community.

But -- both of these events last only a few days and are crammed with activities. It's difficult to forge communities under such time constraints.

Tis true that one can meet intriguing, alternative prose writers with whom one finds kinship (I shun the word "experimental" as too vague and subjective)at these events, and stay in touch with them by email, but where's the community? In NYC, there's no alternative prose writers' community. Perhaps there are regional pockets, but not here.

Perhaps we need a Prose Writers' Facebook. :-)