THE ATTACK OF DIFFICULT PROSE
I cop here the title of Charles Bernstein’s essay Attack of the Difficult Poems to talk briefly about Difficult Prose. I am not inclined to use the word fiction; if there is fictional transformation in certain prose that I and others make, it borrows heavily from poetry and collapses distinctions between text and commentary. Nor is this prose part of the wave of currently much discussed aggregate computer generated text, although all work--even when falsely parading under the rubrique of individual artifact--is now generally acknowledged to be dependent to some degree on some form of collectively generated language. But then any work has always been dependent on some degree of collective generation--which is why sometime in the early 20th, well before the intersection of the making of art and digital technologies, people started questioning the position of the hero author. It is important to remember that that questioning of authorship was enhanced in the heat of the collective radical politics of May 68, etc. So why, of all “creative” writing forms, does the novel still dominate the collective literary palate with requisite author and narrator heroes or anti-heroes, gathering reader energy into the transparency of their imposing narrative arc? I want to say--actually I want to scream--when I try to read media reviews—inevitably about novels ultimately programmed to passify or distract, marketed with tags of “brilliant,” “soaring,” “poignant”--I want to say: take your thumb out of your mouth. Marguerite Duras is more elegant: There are often narratives but very seldom writing. And Bernstein, more empathetic: …I see the fate of all of us as related to a lack of judgment, a lack of cultural and intellectual commitment, on the part of the PWC (publications with wide circulation). It is possible that online media is already ringing mainstream market-oriented criticism’s death knell. Still, I long for the time when writers thumbed their noses at bad “criticism.” There is a hilarious interview of Margaret Atwood, dated 1977 in the CBC archives, suggesting on national TV that interviewer Hana Gartner would be better off reading Harlequin romances. This, in response to Gartner’s gripe that she cannot empathize with Atwood’s depressing stories. Atwood is no difficult writer but she is a rare Canadian literary figure who has not hesitated to don the mantle of bitch when the situation required.
I am fascinated by the question of intersections between codes, languages, genres, genders, classes—if there is an intersection, there I am in the middle. To think about the little-travelled crossroads where Bernstein’s fated “us (poets/difficult writers)” intersects with a sparse public uninterested in writing that is formally or otherwise strange-making is to underscore how to write is to converse, whatever the platform. The enviable conversations I imagine among such Canadian poets as, say, Wah, Zolf, Robertson, Bök, Cree poet Halfe, Neveu, and so on re: form, practice, politics--has little parallel in Canada’s small dispersed experimental prose field. Fortunately the digital revolution allows for countless variants of aggregate authorship--including nurturing influencies across geographies. My writing and thinking about prose is continually renewed as a result of immediate textual connections and displacements with experimental prose writers mostly to the south. These writers, in their writing and in their criticism (Renee Gladman, Bob Gluck, Stacy Szymaszek, Carla Harryman, Rachel Levitsky, to name a few) are, one way or the other, lifting the novel, a heavy thing, into a space closer to both poetry and the essay. But conversations across borders do not a critical milieu make as regards the cultural specifics and issues in the corner one occupies ; I worry that the fragmented nature of culture north of the 49th functions as an impediment to a form of prose potentially heuristic regarding notions of citizenship here.
It is true that I have a very specific notion of what makes prose experimental--and that is the formal dispersal of the writing subject. On either side of the border, queer, feminist, and anti-racist concerns have borrowed poetic and rhetorical devices to challenge the old fashioned and politically questionable (anti-)heroics of the official novel; and, on both sides of the border, there is a serious reader-reception problem. As the younger gay New York writer Douglas A. Martin writes: "In reviews of my I-driven works, I am put to defend my use of (a) conceptual self, provisional, in a way a poet would not be...." Ergo, the reader (hugely abetted by PWC criticism) will not tolerate language that gets in the way of reassuringly transparent identitary-in-all-senses-including psychological narrative logic. Curiously, the intersection of queer/feminist and other minority issues with aesthetic and literary genre issues has opened a post-identitary prose space in which the subject, the speaking ‘I’, the “narrator,” is in fact not stable, has at the very least burnt edges, is shredded, is hopelessly porous, is conceptual. In other words, Martin, in his writing, positions his writing subject in diagonal to his personal identity issues. In my own work, in all my novels since Heroine, the breaking down of the writing subject has been critical to the shape of the work. It is a mighty struggle to accomplish this “poetic” writing subject when working with a sentence, including a sentence not necessarily contiguous in the narrative sense. But some of us feel this effort is a socially and aesthetically essential exercise in our era. I am drawn by the elegance, the rightness of that writing that both searches out [reflects on] BUT ALSO devours [destroys] its identity issues, which are its every day.
To work with sentences is to imply a wish for some kind of “working out” over the length of the text—a working out that vaguely suggests a somewhat embodied subject. But it is to be stressed that “character” and “narrator” in the prose I am talking about are written into the structure, the grammar, the syntax of the work—they intersect with rather than represent or describe the “real.” I find the poet Rilke’s experiments with reading coronal suture, as reported by media theorist Friedrich Kittler, a useful figure for the author of experimental prose. A trace or a groove appears where the frontal + parietal bones of the suckling infant have grown together, wrote Rilke. As if, commented Kittler, the discoveries of Freud and Exner had been projected out of the brain onto its enclosure, so that the naked eye is now able to read the coronal suture as a writing of the real. All you have to do is apply a gramophone needle—I am thinking here of the needle as a writing tool--to these coronal sutures, or to any anatomical surface (says Kittler) and what they yield, upon replay, is a primal sound without a name, music without notation, a sound ever more strange than any incantation for the dead for which the skull might have been, originally, used. Instead of making melancholic associations using the skeleton as metaphor, like, say, Hamlet—the sounds—initially traced by Rilke as markings on a cylinder, could then be reproduced analogically. These physiological traces implied, for me, in the wake of Rilke, that our own nervous system, “our own body is a map of the outside world.” With its street markings, its dark corners, its multiple identities, its white noise from the past; and its repressed, denied, sometimes scurrilously resuscitated desirata, my so-called narrator, ever on the cusp between “inner” and “outer,” is destined to be endlessly recomposing as she ostensibly moves towards a future novel end. In what we are currently calling experimental prose, the projection of a conceptual-provisional speaking subject still rubs, both in pan-national and minority discourses, against an apparent need for solid identity tropes. As a poet friend, who is also an arts adminstrator, put it recently:
I used to think poets had it bad. Now I believe that experimental prose writers are at the bottom of the barrel.
Gail Scott writes experimental prose and essays and Fred Wah calls her a poet. Her last novel The Obituary was a finalist for the Grand Prix du Livre de Montréal (Montréal Book Prize).