continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 2.1 / 2012:

An Interview with Lance Olsen

Ben Segal

continent. 2.1 (2012): 40–43.

Lance Olsen is a professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Utah, Chair of the FC2 Board of directors, and, most importantly, author or editor of over twenty books of and about innovative literature. He is one of the true champions of prose as a viable contemporary art form.

He has just published Architectures of Possibility (written with Trevor Dodge), a book that—as Olsen's works often do—exceeds the usual boundaries of its genre as it explores his interests in narrative theory and pedagogy. The book is a kind of “anti-textbook;” a performative polemic against the stale, conservative and monolithic conception of the literary that so often dominates institutional discourse around creative writing.

The following interview takes the occasion of AoP's publication as a chance to speak with Olsen about the book itself as well as to engage with larger, unanswerable, questions about the futures and intersections of literature and education.

—Ben Segal

INTERVIEW:

1) First, I want to start before the beginning, with the title. I’m really fascinated by the concept it conjures. Can you say something about innovative/experimental/(choose your adjective) literature in relation to both ideas around architecture and possibility?

Innovative or experimental are tremendously fraught adjectives, needless to say. But for the purposes of my book, they modify a fiction concerned with the questions: What is fiction? What can it do, and how, and why? Now, of course, what looks “innovative” or “experimental” to one at 17 may not be what looks “innovative” or “experimental” to one at 27 or 57, and what looks “innovative” or “experimental” in 1812 may not be what looks “innovative” or “experimental” in 2012. A certain existential and historical perspectivism is always at work.

But I think it’s fair to say that innovative and experimental usually refer to a narrativity that includes a self-reflective awareness of and engagement with theoretical inquiry, concerns, and obsessions, as well as a sense of being in conversation with fiction across space and time. One can't create challenging writing in a vacuum; it has to challenge in relation to something. So contemporary writers interested in the subject are not only in pursuit of the innovative, but are also always-already writing subsequent to it—writing, that is, in its long wake.

Architectures of Possibility conceives of creativity as a possibility space, a locale just outside our comfort zones where we can and should take multiple chances in order to imagine in new ways, explore fresh strategies for finding and cultivating ideas, re-view what it is we’re doing and why, better understand what Samuel Beckett meant when he wrote: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It reminds us that there are other ways of narrating our worlds and ourselves than those we have inherited from the entertainment industry, the government, academia, previous writing, and so on.

2) AoP seems to be directed at several audiences (and purposes) simultaneously. What I mean is that it seems at times a polemic in favor of innovative literature, at other times a creative writing textbook, and still other times a guide to the network of publishers, journals, and programs that make up the current world of non-mainstream literary art in the U.S.

In my mind, Architectures is a theorized anti-textbook about writing. Most textbooks on the subject (think of Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, taught in most creative-writing classroom across the country) orchestrate how to construct conventional stories. They instruct from a place of power how to generate familiar stories that are repeated so often that many of us begin to take them as the primary model for narrativity, if not unconsciously as a kind of truth. The result, as Brian Kiteley points out in 3 A.M. Epiphany (one of the only other alternative textbooks about innovative writing around, by the way, and a tremendous repository of exercises), is merely competent texts.

Architectures problematizes that gesture by outlining what conventional narrativity looks like, urging writers to think about its ideology of form as well as content, and invites them to imagine writing, not as a set of relatively stable conventions, but, rather, as a possibility space where everything can and should be thought, tried, challenged. It thereby rhymes with Roland Barthes’s definition of literature: the question minus the answer—which is to say Architectures poses complications to the act of writing rather than solutions.

3) One of the most notable things about the book is the use of interviews. This is also one of the reasons that I think the book works so well for a variety of audiences—that anyone with even a passing interest in the state and future of literature will have an interest in your conversation with people like Ben Marcus, Samuel Delany, and Lydia Davis. I was hoping you could just talk a little about how you chose these subjects to interview, how you edited the interview material, and which answers you received struck you the most.

Experimentalism, like realism, wants to appear in the plural. The idea of gathering more than forty interviews (with the help of my awesome collaborator, Trevor Dodge, himself a fine innovative author) represents an attempt to suggest that: the wide, rich, exciting opportunities inherent in the term. There are interviews with younger writers, elder statesmen in the field, publishers, editors, hypermedia artists, comic book makers, and so on: Joe Wenderoth, Carole Maso, Scott McCloud, Nick Montfort, Kathy Acker, et al.

Trevor and I decided to do flash interviews: short, concentrated Q&As, each focusing on a particular troubling of writing. We only lightly edited the results to match the manuscript’s overall style, and every interview arrived as a surprise housing several unexpected insights.

Three brief examples:

Michael Mejia, when asked about what he dreads when setting about writing: “Dread is an interesting word here. I associate it less with loathing or aversion, I suppose, than with a kind of productive fear. Do I dread a project’s failure? Sure, who doesn’t? Who wants to waste time on something that comes to nothing, or is unreadable? But then, what do these terms mean, and who or what defines a work as a ‘failure,’ as ‘waste,’ as ‘unreadable’? Should a work actually try to interrogate and exceed these conceptual limitations? My tendency is to write into dread in order to reveal to myself, as much as to any reader that may come after, the varied complacencies that make other, mostly more conventional writings, readable. It’s at the frontier between readability (security) and unreadability (terror) that I want to live creatively.”

Carole Maso, when asked what she’d like a sentence to accomplish: “I think a sentence can if allowed carry emotional and intellectual states as they flee, as they come and go, an escaping essence difficult to hold in other ways. In this way I think the sentence can work as a phrase of music does, sounding something large and elusive in us. Alternatively it can provide sometimes a stability, an essence, a moment of being. Unlike music the sentence also of course carries language with all its potential for meaning making and memory traces and association with it as well. I probably love the accretion of sentences most—those patterns, that shimmer, that resonance.”

Shelley Jackson, when asked what is innovative about the innovative: “The purpose of the innovative is, I think, to wake us up. We are not quite alive, most of the time; we occupy a sort of cartoon version of our lives, its lines made smooth by repetition. Writing can open the seams in that world, reintroduce us to the real lives that we have forgotten. Maybe all good writing is innovative in some sense, in that it shows or tells or makes you feel something you never felt before—something for which you have no cartoon ready.”

4) You talk a little about N. Katherine Hayles’s concept of Media Specific Analysis and propose the supplemental notion of Medium Specific Generation—basically taking Hayles and applying her thought from the perspective of the writer. I’ve been trying to develop somewhat related theoretical frameworks, so I was really excited to come upon this section of the book. I’m wondering if you can talk a little more about this idea and, in general, about the potentials that you see as being opened up by writers engaging with and exploiting different media as literary platforms?

“Lulled into somnolence by five hundred years of print,” Hayles urges in her (at least for me) transformative 2004 essay, “Print is Flat, Code is Deep,” “literary analysis should awaken to the importance of media-specific analysis, a mode of critical attention which recognizes that all texts are instantiated and that the nature of the medium in which they are instantiated matters.” She goes on to argue critics should learn to become more attuned to the materiality of the medium under investigation—which is to say a story isn’t a story isn’t a story. Rather, the “same” story remediated through film is intrinsically different from that story remediated through conventionally printed books is intrinsically different from that story remediated through hypermedia.

“Materiality,” Hayles goes on, “is reconceptualized as the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies, a move that entwines instantiation and signification at the outset.”

My point in Architectures is simply to emphasize Media Specific Generation: the idea that when writing you should be cognizant, not only of the thematics of the text you are working on, and, as it were, the internal components of its narrativity (character, language, plot, etc.), but also of the material embodiment those components take, and, perhaps more important, the material embodiment those components can take.

The idea that the way texts matter matters isn’t something usually addressed in any significant way in creative-writing classrooms and textbooks. It may almost go without saying such experimentation with typography, layout, and white space has a long tradition—certainly one that tracks back at least as far as Guillaume Apollinaire’s early twentieth-century Calligrammes, Laurence Sterne’s textually ribald eighteenth-century Tristram Shandy, although one could arguably plot a hypothetical trajectory that reaches to ancient Greek romances like Achilles Tatius’ second-century Leucippe and Clitophon.

Experiments into atomic materiality and digital immateriality bracket the definition of “book” at the same time they highlight Michael Martone’s prediction of its present future as increasingly viral, collaborative, and ephemeral. Or, as Matthew Battles points out: the future of the “book” has already arrived, and it is “ethereal and networked” rather than “an immutable brick.”While conventional writing and reading practices are conceptualized as private, individual, relatively fixed experiences, many of the new forms indicate that writing and reading—from production through dissemination—are rapidly becoming public, collective, incrementally unfixed experiences. That strikes me as an astonishing set of opportunities for a writer to investigate.

5) Another concept you elaborate in AoP is that of limit texts, basically texts that, once you read them, change what you imagine as the shape/horizon/potential of literature. You provide a fantastic reading list of limit texts at the end of AoP. I was hoping you could talk about a few of them in terms of how they specifically operate as limit texts for you—how they expand your understanding of what literature could be or do.

Karl Jaspers coined the word Grenzsituationen (border/limit situations) to describe existential moments accompanied by anxiety in which the human mind is forced to confront the restrictions of its existing forms—moments that make us abandon, fleetingly, the securities of our limitedness and enter new realms of self-consciousness. Death, for example.

Limit texts are a variety of disturbance that carries various elements of narrativity to their brink so the reader can never quite imagine them in the same terms again. Once you’ve taken one down from the shelf, you’ll never be able to put it back up again. They won’t leave you alone. They will continue to work on your imagination long after you’ve read them. Simply by being in the world, they ask us to embrace difficulty, freedom, radical skepticism.

One of the most important for me is Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable. Instead of establishing conventional setting and building traditional character, from its first words it unsettles both: “Where now? Who now? When now?” That first trio of question marks broadcasts the thematics of the writing (“novel” may be too strong a word) that will follow: it is all about a voice (or, perhaps, voices, about the grammatical mistake of the first-person pronoun), a consciousness (maybe, again, too strong a word), often genderless, removed from place and chronology and socioeconomic reality, hovering in a state of perpetual aporia. All it knows is what it doesn’t know, and its not-knowing is blackly, sardonically comic. The Unnamable is the embodiment of an unreliable narrator—a subject position that can’t trust itself, let alone be trusted by a reader. It contradicts, takes back, digresses, undoes what it just did, forgets, lies, hallucinates gloriously.

The language is abstract, disembodied, devoid of sensory data, grayish rather than painterly in texture. Without knowing this passage is from a novel, a reader might well conclude s/he were reading a patch of (anti-)Cartesian philosophy. It might be helpful to conceive of what Beckett is doing as post-genre writing, then, or perhaps what Raymond Federman referred to as critifiction—a mode that blurs conventional distinctions between theory and narrative.

In completely different register, and much more recently, Anne Carson’s Nox blew me away. It takes the form of an elegy for her older brother, whom she didn’t know well and who died unexpectedly while on the run from the law in Europe. The thing itself arrives in a box that simulates a thick book, as well as the brother’s textual coffin. Open it, and inside you discover, not a codex, but an accordioned series of “pages” that folds out into an arrangement that suggests an ancient scroll (Carson is, perhaps illuminatingly, a professor of classics) made up of shards of her brother’s letters, old photographs, tickets, Carson’s observations, Catullus’ poem 101 (the one addressed to the Roman poet’s dead brother, a doubling of Carson’s situation), and extensive dictionary entries on all the words that compose that poem. The aggregate produces a collage about the impossibilities of aggregates, the impossibilities of understanding fully, of capturing absences in language. At times Nox feels less an example of what most readers consider a book than something closer to a three-dimensional work of assemblage art. It’s a beautiful mechanism for contemplating Media Specific Analysis, for urging us all to be more extreme.

6) Finally, I want to talk a little about pedagogy and institutions. I’m less interested in questions like “Are MFA programs good for writers?” than in questions about how your role as teacher informs your understanding of literature and your writing practice. I’m also very curious about your take on how commercially marginal literary art is largely patronized by large state institutions and at the same time often imagines itself as a critical and even possibly revolutionary practice. How have your own positions within universities and university-affiliated organizations shaped your thinking about them and about innovative literature? I can imagine in many ways it might make you even more critical. And (I know, another ‘and’...) how does AoP (especially given its relation to Rebel Yell, your previous text on creative writing) reflect your personal history and experience as a teacher and member of communities that are largely defined by institutions?

In the classroom, I try to generate the pedagogical field I would have liked to have inhabited as a student, but didn’t. Roland Barthes has a lovely line about this: “We need to substitute for the magisterial [classroom] space of the past (the word delivered by the master from the pulpit above with the audience below, the flock, the sheep, the herd)—a less upright, less Euclidean space where no one, neither teacher nor students, would ever be in his final place.”

Easier said than done, of course, but an important life project for all who think of themselves as educators. My own classroom, my own writing, and Architectures of Possibility itself attempt to create the sort of possibility space where, as I mentioned at the outset of our interview, everything should be thought, tried, challenged; where everything rhymes with Roland Barthes’s definition of literature: the question minus the answer.

I’m not sure I could write what I’m writing now without the conversations I have almost daily with my students, the conversations they have with each other, the conversations we all have with the texts we study.

Especially in light of the paradigm shift over the last, say, quarter century from academia as intellectual exploration to academia as McDonaldized trade school, the irony isn’t lost on me concerning the discrepancy between the safe harbor innovative authors find there and the cultural critiques those authors launch through their writing and pedagogical work. In 2001, I quit my full professorship at one institution precisely because of my disappointment over what had happened to the learning environment there. I had no intentions of reentering the field. In 2007, however, the University of Utah approached me, and I found myself in an environment much more hospitable to the sort of work I want to do—teaching experimental narrative theory and practice.

It isn’t by any means a simple irony. One could easily argue innovative writing and pedagogy represents the trace of the paradigm Barthes suggests, and that trace is tremendously productive in all kinds of ways. Innovative writing has never and will never change the world in any large, macrocosmic way. But we’ve all had our lives changed, one by one, by an encounter with a difficult, rich, resonant piece of prose, poetry, music, art, you name it. We’ve all had our lives changed at the ahistorical, microcosmic moment by a class we’ve taken, a teacher we’ve studied with, to such an extent that we became, quite literally, different people.

I just came across a stunning set of sentences from Derrida on the topic: “What is education? The death of the parents.” That’s what we’re all up to in the innovative, be it in written texts or the texts we call our classrooms or the texts we call our politics: trying to disrupt what both can and can’t be disrupted, trying to undo what both can and can’t be undone, continuously.

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