If literature were a person, it’d be in a vegetative state. Nothing new is said, nothing new is to be learned, nothing new is offered—the appearances might change but the forms remain the same.
A cliche persists in our culture that if you want to change the system you must first become part of the system. This is an illusion meant to persuade people to embrace the system; it’s designed to inculcate conformity.
Like our culture, literature itself is homogenized while taking on the appearance of heterogeny.
In an image-obsessed culture, appearances are everything.
Another cliche with which we’re familiar warns us to refrain from judging a book by its cover. In reality, we should judge a book by its form. Form should supersede appearances. But in accordance with our species, a peculiar mammal with the cognitive ability to process and model information linearly, the form remains the same while the appearances change.
In an age of movies and television, video games and the internet, things must change. Literature cannot excel at telling linear stories the way visual media can; instead, literature should transcend the simulacrum and represent new and alternate ways to experience simulated or emulated realities.
And that is what literature does: it emulates or simulates realities. Contrary to early Wittgenstein, language does not picture reality; instead, it provides instructions for your brain to construct models. Continue reading
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step into any bookstore or library and you’re bound to discover at least one book professing to be capital-t the underscored book to learn how to write a book that publishers and agents and readers and Hollywood producers and the Dalai Lama and maybe the Pope or some low-rent Mafioso will recognize and idolize and adore. Fiction, according to the reality in which these writers write, is an algorithm. Replace variables with values and, viola, book is done. Sale is imminent.
And that might work for some people. But if you have any ambition and integrity, then you should buy or borrow that book, tear out each and every page, and use those pages to roll cigarettes or joints. Smoke that inhales the words fermenting on the pages. Those rules are better to inhale and exhale, they’re better as permanent scars on your lungs, than they are to absorb and incorporate into your writing.
Now let’s make a distinction. Some rules are useful, such as word economics or showing in lieu of telling. I’m talking about structure. I’m talking about form. I’m talking about what information is necessary, what isn’t—but I’m modifying it: ambiguity and disconnection constitute important information as well. I’m talking about the algorithms writers and agents and editors and authors of ‘How-to’ books drill into your head. The algorithm of fiction is what we want to avoid. How else are we going to invent new ways of storytelling—and new ways of seeing ourselves—if we stick to the same tired rules?
Which leads to a question: How do we invent new forms of storytelling?
Which leads to Tip #1:
Experiment. Break the mold. Try to write in new ways, try to shake things up, to use a cliché, try to change how sentences and paragraphs and chapters flow. Try to alter what information you find necessary and what information you don’t find necessary. Continue reading
The Long, Slow Death of Avant Garde Fiction
The state of popular fiction, especially mainstream “literary fiction,” in the second decade of the twentieth century is one of complacency and uniformity. It’s as though someone filtered the concept of fiction and literary fiction through a sieve, and homogeneity is all that largely remains.
Literature has struggled since the advent of movies and television, with the introduction of interactive entertainment—what some people still call videos games—and the internet. In a culture marginalizing fiction and literature, the industry is rapidly transforming into a game of monkey-see monkey-do. In this world, the avant garde, historically on the margins, is being further marginalized—to the detriment of our culture.
Fiction and literary fiction in this hyper-real, digital age, an age in which the line between “reality” and “simulacrum” is vanishing, suffers the same existential crisis that visual art—paintings and sculptures—suffered with the advent of the camera.
Over the past two decades, films and television, interactive entertainment and the internet have collided with the nuances of everyday life. As a culture, we’ve moved from the digital age into a sort of hyper-digital age, a period in which we’re experiencing the merger of the digital realm and the physical realm. This new period is revolutionizing the way we communicate, and consume entertainment, even more so than it did a decade or two ago.
Unfortunately, fiction, especially literary fiction, zigged when it should have zagged. In lieu of revolutionizing the form, the way Picasso did with les Demoiselles D’avignon, the publishing industry instead chose to alter the delivery system, transitioning from hard copies to digital copies, without altering the form. That is, they’re in the process of changing their appearance—and nothing more. Continue reading