Still Stranded, But Maybe the Tide is Rising

A year and two days ago I started the Ficticities website, intending for it to serve as a laboratory where readers and writers collaborate in designing, building, and testing prototypes for an alternative postcapitalist fictional reality.” After three weeks of online theorizing and speculating I thought I was ready to go. The pilot project was to be called Strands. As I described it in a post from early December 2017:

Strands will be issued as a series of compiled volumes, each published as an e-book, in which contributing writers edit, select, and format one another’s manuscripts. Each edition will be organized around a unifying premise or thematic element – a “strand” – that spans diverse genres and styles. Incorporating a wide variety of texts into a thematically focused compilation can limn the intertextual vectors by which insular fictional zones are drawn together into cities, worlds and universes, linking writers and fellow explorers on collaborative trajectories that might not otherwise have been apparent. Writers are invited to contribute manuscripts in which one or more of the unifying strands is implicated in some way. All forms of text are appropriate: short stories, fragments of longer works, essays, reviews, memoirs, poems, plays, recipes, sermons, prophecies, ecstatic utterances, manifestos, jokes, fake ads, fake news, experiments, simulations, formulae, lists, outlines… The big-tent inclusiveness of Strands is compatible with the way fictions are already written, since arguably every novel incorporates non-fictional content. It’s also an attempt to recapture some of the broad original meaning of fiction as “that which is invented or imagined in the mind.”

The very next day I abandoned ship. I was concerned that the call for submissions would be nearly indistinguishable from so many others, and with no track record to draw on Strands would likely not receive high-quality manuscripts. That was before I began reading short fictions published in online open-access literary magazines. New litmags pop up continually, with no stronger credentials or vision than Strands would have offered, yet those magazines don’t seem to suffer from a shortage of submissions. But I harbored other, deeper concerns:

The main point of Strands isn’t to provide yet another venue for writers to publish their short fictions; it’s to chart an alternative course that leads toward the formation of writer-controlled syndicates for publishing long fictions. The Strands publication format is too cautious, too incremental, too concerned with veering so slightly from the main channel that writers barely have to adjust their trajectories. The alternate route needs to veer more decidedly off the main shipping lanes, and its intermediate destinations need to look more like anarcho-syndicalist publishing houses than do the nicely edited and formatted compilations of short fictions envisioned in Strands. Back to the charts and astrolabes…

At the time I deemed it important that would-be writers board the ship already understanding and endorsing Strands‘ explicitly postcapitalist and anarho-syndicalist charter. Subsequently I discovered how hard it is to find fiction writers who explicitly  entertain such notions. Just because NASA hasn’t found evidence of life forms on other planets doesn’t mean they’re not out there somewhere. As the old saying goes, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” There might be writers out there who would want to collaborate on designing and testing postcapitalist fictions, but I just haven’t been very successful at detecting them. I knew going in that I might have a hard time finding fellow travelers, mostly because I’m not well-connected with other writers and because I have no alluring authorial reputation of my own that would pull other writers into my force field. It’s entirely possible that many if not most fiction writers are as interested in postcapitalist alternatives as I am but are just as isolated, making them hard to find by me or anyone else. It’s also possible that I’m all but alone in the universe, one of the few writers who has much interest in conducting collaborative explorations of an imagined postcapitalist fictional universe.

Or maybe it’s just not that important to endorse a particular socioeconomic ideology when you’re trying to write a short fiction. I’d been busy designing a distinctly postcapitalistic project top-down from first principles but, as I observed in my last post, most open-access litmags and fictional texts are compatible with postcapitalism. Maybe it’s better to pursue a more inductive, bottom-up approach: set sail with a minimum of baggage, charting a general direction rather than a specific course and destination, then see how the winds blow and the currents flow.

Or maybe both top-down and bottom-up. Or middle-out. Establish a short-term destination and set a provisional course. If and when we arrive, figure out where to go next and how to get there. Or lower the life rafts and abandon ship.

Next post I’ll sketch out Son of Strands.

 

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Postcap Shortfic Litmags: Affordances

Aspects of a literary magazine that could generate affordances compatible with a postcapitalist ecosystem:

Open Access

Selling commodities one at a time to consumers is the essence of a capitalist economy. I’m not saying that writers and publishers shouldn’t be compensated for their work. Grants, contributions, co-ops that purchase on behalf of collectives — any number of alternative compensation schemes could be envisioned short of full-blown communism. Maybe one or more of those alternatives will take shape, at least on a limited experimental basis. Meanwhile, the decommodified open-access format for literary magazines is already up and running, with plenty of writers and publishers willing to work for no pay while offering readers free and unlimited access to content. Let’s go with that format, which would be compatible with most postcapitalist compensation mechanisms.

Vetting and Selection

Evidently it’s important to writers that the short fictions they submit to literary magazines be deemed worthy of publication by a qualified arbiter of good taste. It could be argued that upholding the protocol of “submitting” one’s work for judgment to authorities is antidemocratic and elitist — that readers individually and collectively are best qualified to decide what’s worth reading. But capitalism is already responsive to people’s choice — it’s called consumer demand. And the readers of short fictions published in open-access literary magazines are few and far between, with no feedback loops to tell the writers how many readers saw their work or what they thought of it. Of course the publishers, just like any other sort of boss, can be co-opted and corrupted: by tradition, cronyism, groupthink, power, ambition, laziness, incompetence… Besides, the tastes of tastemakers aren’t necessarily reliable — no doubt there’s a lot of variation between publishers as to whether a particular text is worthy of publication. The writers themselves should know whether their stuff is up to snuff, but in most endeavors people tend to overestimate their own excellence while simultaneously craving external validation.

Printed magazines face page constraints: each additional text selected for publication increases incrementally the costs of duplication, storage, and transportation — costs that either the publisher or the purchaser has to absorb. But online magazines aren’t hampered by these material limitations: the online platform or downloadable file can expand enormously with minimal impacts on storage space or access time. Yes, each additional published text requires more effort devoted to copyediting and formatting, but the vetting process that weeds out texts is time-consuming as well. Why not eliminate the artificial restriction on the length of each issue, which in an e-publishing context seems mostly a holdover from capitalistic practices of artificially limiting supply in order to increase prices? On the other hand, readers’ time is limited, so publishing every manuscript that’s submitted would likely prove overwhelming to the readers. For readers the vetting process serves not so much to limit supply as to focus demand, bringing to their attention those texts most worthy of their time.

So let’s tentatively accept that the submission/acceptance vetting tradition is something that most fiction writers and readers want, and that the process of evaluating merit needn’t be inimical to postcapitalism.

Periodical Compilations

The traditional publishing practice of bundling multiple short fictions into a single periodical issue emerged as a practical exigency: printing, copying, and distributing bundles of texts is more cost-effective than dispatching fictions to readers one story at a time. Online publishing obviates the logistical pragmatism of compilation, since individual texts can be posted as soon as they’re ready. And with open-access distribution there’s no need to impose a cumbersome per-story payment scheme on would-be readers.

Are there other reasons for a postcapitalist publisher to uphold the compilation rather than the individual text as the unit of distribution? I can think of two. First, if a compilation is assembled for thematic rather than pragmatic considerations, the publisher can explore ways in which a fragmented and libertarian fictional universe might converge on meanings and aesthetics that link otherwise isolated writers, readers, and texts. Second, by pulling multiple authors into a single compilation, some sort of solidarity, however short-lived, might be cultivated among writers, a solidarity that might give shape to an economy and an ecology that’s not dependent on investors and bosses to coordinate workers into production lines.

Ficticities

Short fictions published in online open-access magazines tend to take the form of stories — narratives about characters passing through situations. But of course fiction encompasses a much vaster territory than that. According to Wikipedia:

Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a whole fictional universe. The resulting world may be called a constructed world.

But worldbuilding isn’t limited to imaginary worlds; it happens in the actually existing world as well. There’s a material substrate to be sure, but humanity has built so many layers of artifice on top of it that most of us spend much of our time living in a reality that’s the product of countless imaginations. Sometimes I think the job of a postcapitalistic fiction is to write worldbuilding texts that can serve as simulations for replacing, in whole or in part, the actually existing world that we presently occupy and that seems on the verge of collapsing around us. In an early Ficticities post I wrote a couple of posts about fiction’s place in the world:

What happens to an idea once it’s been acknowledged as a fiction? First it will be dismissed as unreal, irrelevant to practical concerns. Then, maybe, the fiction will acquire entertainment value as a made-up story, to be read or watched as a temporary diversion from the day-to-day ordeal of grappling with the real world. Even serious fiction, so-called literary fiction, serves real-world functions: as a non-threatening way to practice empathy, for example, or as a means of gaining insight into the world, into the people who populate it and, perhaps especially, into oneself.

This partitioning off of fiction from reality is a death trap, not only for fiction but for reality as well. Fictions are transformed into coping mechanisms, like weekends and happy hours and self-help groups. Sometimes fictions operate as pressure valves to keep people from exploding, at other times as stimulants to help them avoid sagging into inertia. Fiction becomes incorporated into reality, assigned its proper subservient role in keeping things moving along smoothly. And with fictions partitioned off as entertainments, the what-is of actually existing reality becomes reified, immunized from the what-is-nots – the vast and depthless expanse of possibilities and improbabilities and impossibilities on which the actual floats like a rowboat on the ocean…

It’s not fiction’s job to be the scapegoat, reconciling society to its own unintended consequences, to the collateral damage it inflicts on the innocent and the guilty alike while trying to engineer a better world through goal-setting and action plans. Neither is it fiction’s job to entertain the reality engineers when they’re taking a break. It’s not fiction’s job to instruct its readers in how to be more successful reality engineers by illustrating what can go right or wrong in various hypothetical scenarios. It’s not fiction’s job to redeem the facts of the world.

At other times I think that postcapitalist fiction should acknowledge that resistance to the already built world is futile. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about absurdist fiction:

Kids don’t always play to win; sometimes they just play. No goal to be pursued, no tactics to accompish the desired goal, no instrumental agency for deploying tactics, no well-defined outcome, no exultation in victory or desolation in defeat, no lessons to be learned on how to play better and win next time. Aimless play — it seems to escape the boundaries of the training ground, where children acquire the skills and attitudes necessary to achieve success, not just individually but also for those who benefit from their achievements: parents, societies, investors. Jokes without punchlines, stories that diverge from well-defined linear plots and character development, activity without production. Maybe aimless play is a training ground for insurgents, exposing them to a different sort of game, a game where the rules aren’t constraints on play but are part of the game, to be altered at will or even discarded; where process is the outcome; where the play’s the thing, play for play’s sake, art for art’s sake; play staying play without getting co-opted into work; where the aggregate of all games isn’t a zero-sum killing field of winners and losers but a playground where everybody wins or, even better, where nobody wins or loses.

It turns out though that the insurgency playground, just like the competitive playground, is owned and controlled by the players of a larger game. They don’t have to win because they’ve already won, don’t have to resist because nothing stands in their way. You can play whatever games you want — in fact you’re encouraged to do so — but you always have to buy the equipment and rent the playing field, to defer to the refs and in the last resort to the Commissioner. Whatever game you play and however well you play it, you’re bound to lose. Even hammerspace is controlled by The Man, letting him rig the game to suit his own purposes.

The situation is ripe for random irruptions of surreal absurdities.

And finally, here are the last paragraphs of a book I wrote a long time ago about Genesis 1, which in a nutshell I interpreted as a narrative describing the creation of narrative worldbuilding:

Our world is suspended across time by a multiplicity of intertwined realities. A powerful engine is at work, weaving alternative futures right under our feet. Sometimes the push from behind is so strong it seems to be hurling us headlong into chaos. At other times it’s as though we’re riding through a flat and featureless landscape with nothing new under the sun. There are, of course, those who resist the collective lean into the future. They may cast their gaze backward upon a prior golden age, but they aren’t abandoning the future – they’re just looking for the right road to take them there. Leaning backward in order to gain forward momentum: sometimes a revival is just what we need to get the juices flowing again.

Some among us pull the slingshot back even farther, before the foundations of our modern civilization, to the era in which humanity first arose. What are the origins of the upright stance and the cerebral cortex, of consciousness and language, of individuation and society, of love and aggression, of motivation and habit, of innovation and its dissemination, of morality and belief? These are the questions that lure explorers back to the origin of our species. On their pilgrimage they peel away layer upon layer of culture that have accrued over the millennia, layers that becloud our vision of what natural man is “really” like. At last these time travelers return to the beginning, when as yet there was no formal government, no economy, no science or art, no architecture, no written language, no religion – in short, no systems of meaning, no realities. Stripped of culture man looks raw – a complex and unique sort of animal, but an animal all the same, sharing the same genes, the same drives, the same communal instincts as the other creatures.

Natural man, newly evolved, full of potential and devoid of artifice – it’s hard not to see him as more real than the civilized poseurs who surround us, who we ourselves are. It’s this very same ancestor of ours, this natural man, this protoman, who in the beginning witnesses the creation recorded in our scriptures. He has no advanced language, no complex thoughts, no distinctly human culture – yet. The ancient narrative documents the first movement of mankind out of the raw natural state. In associating thing with word and word with idea, natural man begins to make sense of the world in a way no other animal can do. He also comes to a realization about himself: I am someone who can make sense of things. The natural world becomes real for the natural man even as he separates himself from that reality. In this initial act of creation natural man becomes fully real, making of himself an artifact.

We have become a complex and pliable species, able to live in an extremely wide range of habitats and to overwhelm virtually all predators. But these aren’t permanent advantages. Complacent nihilism might undermine us until at last through our own artifice we blow ourselves up, at which point some other species will fill the void and take our place as the crown of creation. It’s all a matter of variation and selection and time. All the other species seem to get along fine without any higher or deeper understanding of themselves and the world. Have we reached the point where this insistence on “higher and deeper” is starting to get in the way, because we’re really just a flat and shallow species living in a flat and shallow universe? Maybe it’s time to slip out from under all this baggage so we can get back to who we really are.

But is it possible ever to make return passage across that first frontier without setting aside what makes us human, and perhaps also what makes us godlike? To position ourselves before the beginning, to take the place of the Witness, to watch as the beginning takes shape around us – do we dismiss the work of the Creator, the sheer nerve and imagination of his project, as just so much charlatanry and legerdemain, designed to distract our attention from the empty truth? Or, as in rapt awe we watch the rapidly-unfolding heavens and earth, are we startled to find ourselves walking in the footsteps of the gods?

In brief, the horizons of postcapitalistic short fiction are limitless, though in all likelihood most of them will never see the light of day.

Toward Postcapitalism in the Litmag Ecology

Contemporary open-access short fiction is already trending toward postcapitalism. Manuscripts are selected for publication based less on commercial potential than on artistic merit or the quirky tastes of the individual publishers and their readers. No fixed costs are incurred for printing, transporting, and distributing, so readers’ access to content is immediate and unlimited. And also free: these magazines don’t charge a cover price per copy — decommodified literature. While some open-access litmags generate revenues from grants and ads, it’s not enough to pay the publishers and editors a living wage, let alone generate a profit. Most writers don’t get paid, while the few receive a flat (and small) fee per accepted piece rather than a percentage of sales revenues generated. Still, there’s a slew of litmags out there, their numbers growing by the month, and by all accounts their inboxes are chronically stuffed with new submissions.

Are short fictions published in open-access litmags of lesser quality than those offered by commercial publishers that sell their issues one copy at a time to readers, pay the staff and the writers, and perhaps even turn a profit for the owners? In short, as a reader do you get what you pay for? I can’t offer an empirical comparison, having read only freebies this time around, but I can hazard a guess, and not a particularly controversial one: on average, the commodified litmags publish better short fictions than do their open-access compatriots. “Better” how? Is it literary artistry, or craftsmanship, or appeal to readers? Probably all of the above. Writers aspire to excellence, to recognition, to readership; a capitalist economy presumably rewards attainment of those aspirations financially. In the hierarchy of literary magazines, the ones perched on top are the most selective, charge the highest cover price, have the widest circulation, pay their writers the most money.

Better on average. Few mediocrities find their way into the pages of the prestigious literary magazines, but that’s probably the case also for works of startling originality. Litmags that charge a cover price are commercial enterprises, selling their issues as commodities in the marketplace. The market for literary fiction might be artier than the market for romance or crime, but the standards of acceptable artiness no doubt converge on what appeals to a paying audience for literary fiction: writers with established track records, especially those who’ve had their own books published in high-prestige outfits; writers with letters of commendation from big-name literary authors; writers with respectable academic pedigrees, as grad students and especially as professors; writers whose prose fits snugly within the aesthetic parameters already established as fashionable among the literary fiction tastemakers and buyers. While authors with firmly established reputations can push the boundaries, up-and-comers are advised to demonstrate mastery of the established paradigms if they hope to see their names in lights emblazoned across the marquee.

For literary aspirants the open-access magazines function as a kind of minor league, a way station on the ascent, a place to demonstrate the unique talents that make them worthy of promotion to the big leagues. And of course for the majority who never reach the upper tiers of acclaim, of popularity, of money, who presumably lack the talent, the drive, the resonance with the zeitgeist to hit the big time, whose artistic deviations from the literary norms are never embraced by the curators of high-prestige literary fiction, the minor leagues offer their own opportunities and challenges, their rewards and frustrations.

The demimonde of open-access literary magazines operates as a gig economy, where all the writers are independent contractors. Like other gigs, the writers have no long-term job security and receive no benefits. Like many other gigs, the writers work from home, effectively eliminating workplace relationships among workers and precluding the formation of worker solidarity in negotiating better contracts. Unlike most other gigs, the writers agree to do the work for no pay, and in many instances their bosses — the publishers — do too. Why do they do it?

No doubt the writing and publishing of fiction is for some a labor of love. In a sense the writers who submit their short fictions to open-access litmags are the independent inventors of the literary fiction industry. Energized by the spark of creation, the writers work for no pay, absorbing the up-front risks with no assurance of reward. The open-access mags function as startup incubators, vetting the inventors’ offerings and putting the winners on display for the publishing companies that can afford the packaging and the marketing required to turn the innovation into a mass-produced product, widely disseminating the writers’ textual innovations. Most inventions never make money for their inventions; most start-up entrepreneurs fail within the first few years.

At the beginning of this post I was prepared to regard the world of contemporary open-access short fiction as a forerunner of a postcapitalistic economy. But are the writers and publishers postcapitalist in the proactive sense of renouncing the old economic model while exploring alternatives that are more equitable, less exploitative, oriented more toward societal betterment than individual financial gain? Or are the writers postcapitalist by default, because the capitalist publishing industry doesn’t regard their labor or their creations as valuable commodities? Postcapitalist like tailings from a gold mine, like investment bankers who’ve been replaced by AIs, like crackpot inventors of impractical schemes. If so — if fiction writers have been deemed economically valueless — then maybe collectively they ought to board up the mine, abandon the factory, convert the R&D lab into loft space.

But the literary mine isn’t played out. There are still human writers, and some of them really do strike gold. The literary profession assembles itself along a radically skewed financial distribution, with a handful of big-name best-selling authors positioned way out there on the right tail while the vast majority cluster at or near absolute zero. It’s probably the case that most writers who seek publication in literary magazines don’t aspire to bestsellerdom. A stable midlist career, augmented by teaching and workshop and editing gigs, seems attainable. For some writers it is attainable, but even those midrange authorial slots, poised at the edge of financial precarity, grow scarcer as burgeoning supply competes to satisfy stagnant demand.

Suppose we were to partition off the top 1 percent authorial moneymakers and the next 10 percent of midlisters as the professional writers, focusing on the remaining 85 percent. No doubt many continue striving to climb the professional ladder, while many others are self-avowed hobbyists. Is there another sector of fiction writers who regard themselves as dedicated and accomplished literary practitioners but who have either abandoned hope of making a living at it or never entertained such hopes in the first place? Would these unpaid adepts collectively constitute a postcapitalist literary industry?

Gardening, cooking, decorating, tinkering, studying, meditating, politicking, fighting, teaching, caregiving — people don’t always do it for the money. And people who get paid don’t necessarily outperform those who do it for free. Some people take jobs that are less challenging, less inspiring, and less remunerative in order to devote more of their time and energy to their unpaid avocations. Passion, love, instinct, tradition, obsession, recognition, self-expression, self-discovery, competition, solidarity, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of obligation, the exercise of control over self or others, societal betterment, devotion to a higher power or a lower one — who knows why people do what they do. Is it postcapitalistic to work for non-pecuniary motivations, or precapitalistic?

Working for no pay in a capitalistic economy is no way to make a living. Even in a socialistic literary economy the supply of writers far outstrips the demand, stimulating fierce competition for a small number of small grants. If against all odds universal basic income were to become public policy, or if communism were suddenly to eliminate money altogether, then writers could freely write while writing for free with the assurance that, while they may never attain a life of luxurious decadence, they won’t be consigned to the stereotypical lot of the starving artist.

If some form of postcapitalistic economy were to take shape in some alternative universe, its realm of open-access literary short fiction might look a lot like the one that has taken shape in our already-existing actual capitalistic universe. Collectively the litmags configure themselves into a polyvalent space, a diverse ecosystem that extends affordances to novices and aspirants and arrivistes and established masters, to starving artists and artists of independent means, to hobbyists and meticulous craftsmen and radical experimentalists, to capitalists and precapitalists and postcapitalists.

Still, if one were to design a litmag that dangled explicitly postcapitalistic lures in the waters where the writers of short fiction swim, what might such a magazine look like? I’ll try to craft that thought experiment in the next post.

 

 

 

 

 

A Tentative Ecology of Literary Short Fiction

When I started this website I hoped to open a collaborative experimental space for exploring postcapitalist fictions. While the collaborative part hasn’t taken off, I have run some experiments of my own. In recent months I’ve read quite a few short fictions published in a variety of online literary magazines. Previously I’ve made some empirical observations regarding my efforts to interact with the authors; this time I’m hazarding some preliminary observations about the world of contemporary short fictions that I’ve encountered.

Most of the literary magazines I’ve dipped into are open access, so the publishers aren’t making money from readers’ purchases. Some mags are funded by grants; others are subsidized by universities with which they’re affiliated; no doubt some are labors of love. Few pay the authors of the texts they publish; still, there’s no shortage of submissions. For some short fiction writers, having their unpaid work accepted for publication enhances their market value as commercial writers, teachers, and editors; for others, authoring a published work is evidently its own reward. Few open-access litmags enjoy a wide circulation, so reaching a broad readership isn’t a likely motivator for the writers. Most published short stories enjoy only a short shelf life before fading into the unread archives, so the authors’ longing for literary immortality isn’t likely to be fulfilled by having their works appear in literary magazines.

Published short fiction writers surely read each other’s works, but the linkages among writers and texts are atomistic, with little effort evidenced by the magazine publishers to build interpersonal networks among authors or thematic connections across published pieces. While the online format minimizes barriers to reader access, it also exacerbates the emphasis on individual stories over the compilation. Many of these publications have abandoned altogether the traditional structure of the periodical issue, opting to publish stories online one at a time.

While not all of the stories I’ve read suit my personal tastes, most are well crafted, coherent, fluently phrased, interesting enough to hold my attention to the end. Nearly all of the published short fictions I encountered were stories, in the sense of hewing to the  narrative form. Most of the stories were realistic, though some were fantastic, folkloric, surreal; nearly all featured identifiable characters engaged in situations and relationships, though some of the stories took a more poetic, abstract, or expository shape; most set a serious tone, though many incorporated funny moments or absurd developments; most were literary fictions, though many veered into territories traditionally staked out by genre. My impression is that the world of contemporary published short literary fiction exhibits more variety in style and content than I typically encounter in contemporary American literary novels.

There are a lot of literary magazines out there; still, because there are also a lot of fiction writers, most of the mags receive plenty of submissions, so they can be selective in accepting manuscripts for publication. Most of the publishers don’t do much editing of individual texts, so manuscripts must already be in polished form when submitted. Because open-access publishers don’t rely on sales revenue, they can establish selection criteria that meet idiosyncratic rather than popular tastes, that value artistic merit above commercial potential. Authors who submit their work evidently embrace the publishers’ editorial standards. To be published — to meet stringent selection criteria by those deemed qualified to render judgment on literary fiction — is to be validated as a literary artist. Having a story singled out for publication means that the writer has won a competition — not unlike getting an “A” in an English class or getting accepted for admission to a selective liberal arts college, a college whose prestige doesn’t necessarily correlate with its graduates’ earnings. Authors seem less concerned about how widely their stories are read after publication, the presumption being that the magazine’s acquisition editor is a better judge of literary merit than are the magazines’ readers, just as a professor is deemed the best judge of a student’s work by dint of expertise and exposure to a large sample size.

In a subsequent post I hope to explore the possibilities for opening up postcapitalist experimental niches within the contemporary short fiction ecosystem .

Random Irruptions of Surreal Absurdities

On Friday I tentatively concluded that the introduction of radical anomaly into ordinary reality, with grim comic effect, is a literary deployment of hammerspace — a reminder that even a seemingly realistic narrative is, after all, imaginary. More aptly, a fictional narrative never corresponds fully to the real world; it’s a mongrel entity, combining aspects of both the actual and the imaginary. Roadrunner drawing a door on the face of solid rock and running through it, Bullwinkle pulling a roaring lion out of a top hat: even little kids who’ve grown accustomed to cartoon animals talking and scheming like humans respond with surprised delight when sheer impossibilities show up in cartoon world.

True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself is nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!

Thus spake the Cardinal in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 play Richelieu, or the Conspiracy (of course I’ve never seen or read it: that’s what Wikipedia is for). Writers of fiction can, like sorcerers, use words to conjure things in readers’ imaginations, can deploy imaginary objects metonymically or metaphorically or symbolically, can build up whole realities out of thin air. But actual little kids literally pick up pens and joust with them like medieval knights. The kids know that pens aren’t real swords, that they themselves aren’t real knights, that the loser lying slain and bloodied in the castle keep is going to hop back up for another round. It’s fun to pretend.

Is pretend play instrumentally useful, a kind of practice session for later in life when kids grow to adults, wielding real weapons in real battles or staging real theatrical enactments of imaginary battles? Kids often gloat when they win and sulk when they lose, just like adults do; kids try to get better so they can win another day, just like adults are encouraged to do. The justification of playground as training ground has been extended to “serious” fiction, the reading of which purportedly enhances language skills, or the ability to navigate conflicts, or empathy. Even kids though know that sometimes winning is beyond your control. You need a miracle, but you know you don’t deserve one. Or luck, but you’ve found that it tends to work in the other guy’s favor. You need hammerspace to open up a portal for you, like it does when Bugs Bunny needs to escape the clutches of Elmer Fudd. It’s kind of like cheating, but you’re not morally culpable. Hammerspace is the instrumental irruption of a surreal absurdity, letting you beat the odds and your opponent.

But kids don’t always play to win; sometimes they just play. No goal to be pursued, no tactics to accompish the desired goal, no instrumental agency for deploying tactics, no well-defined outcome, no exultation in victory or desolation in defeat, no lessons to be learned on how to play better and win next time. Aimless play — it seems to escape the boundaries of  the training ground, where children acquire the skills and attitudes necessary to achieve success, not just individually but also for those who benefit from their achievements: parents, societies, investors. Jokes without punchlines, stories that diverge from well-defined linear plots and character development, activity without production. Maybe aimless play is a training ground for insurgents, exposing them to a different sort of game, a game where the rules aren’t constraints on play but are part of the game, to be altered at will or even discarded; where process is the outcome; where the play’s the thing, play for play’s sake, art for art’s sake; play staying play without getting co-opted into work; where the aggregate of all games isn’t a zero-sum killing field of winners and losers but a playground where everybody wins or, even better, where nobody wins or loses.

It turns out though that the insurgency playground, just like the competitive playground, is owned and controlled by the players of a larger game. They don’t have to win because they’ve already won, don’t have to resist because nothing stands in their way. You can play whatever games you want — in fact you’re encouraged to do so — but you always have to buy the equipment and rent the playing field, to defer to the refs and in the last resort to the Commissioner. Whatever game you play and however well you play it, you’re bound to lose. Even hammerspace is controlled by The Man, letting him rig the game to suit his own purposes.

The situation is ripe for random irruptions of surreal absurdities.

 

The Jolly Surreal of Hammerspace

In yesterday’s post I explored three interrelated aspects of Elizabeth Bruenig’s WaPo piece on millennial humor: grim jolliness, absurdity, and nihilism. These three aspects can be regarded as moods: not just subjective emotions, but ecological responses to being-there, to being immersed in a world that generates these moods.

Comedy sketches, TV ads, short stories: they’re all forms of narrative fiction. Comic routines and commercials deploy grim-jolly absurd nihilism tactically, as a means of distracting their audiences from the darker manifestations of being-there. What about short stories: do they offer distraction or immersion, lamentation or cure?

Of the 21 short stories in the latest Gone Lawn issue, the most prevalent mood is serious nihilism. The characters in those stories are immersed in a meaningless world, instilling in them a sense of loss, anomie, isolation, drift, inertia, confusion, sorrow, rage, and other variants on grimness. Arguably this mood has pervaded serious fiction for a hundred years or more. When in these narratives the realism veers into absurdity, it often takes on a symbolic cast, with the world and its denizens literally falling part, fragmented into shards, becoming collections of inanimate objects that stand in isolation from one another rather than cohering into a whole. It’s the kind of artistic move away from realism that characterized cubism and, later, abstract expressionism.

In a few of the stories the absurdity twists toward dadaism and surrealism. Things aren’t just falling apart; they’re morphing, multiplying, hybridizing, reassembling themselves into bizarre configurations, filling up of the formless void, the nihil. Creative destruction: when the old rules no longer hold and everything collapses, then the constraints are relaxed, allowing strange mutant forms to explode across a grim and barren world. The explosion might be disconcerting — it might even signal the end of humanity — but it does offer some interest, and maybe even something like anticipation, that this incongruous congeries of mutation might assemble itself into an alternate reality that’s more fecund, more alive than the desolate and dying world in which we’re immersed. Maybe this new reality assembled from the detritus of the old might even restore some sense of meaning — or else meaning itself will fall by the wayside as no longer relevant, a dead aspect of the dying world it had once inhabited before being cast off.

The surrealistic explosion of mutant plenitude might instill curiosity, awe, abstract speculation, poetics, but what about jolliness? I don’t see it, don’t feel it in these stories. They’re abstract, literary, serious. Sorrow, regret, rage — the old negative affects might fall away with the collapse of the old reality, but so too do the old positive affects. Jolliness seems like a particularly archaic mood, the manifestation of a childish innocence and delight that’s been crushed under the weight of time. Jolliness feels a lot like nostalgia, a return of the old dying world to an earlier, more vibrant and surprising era.

Maybe that’s where the absurd jolliness shows up in the neo-dadaist and the neo-surreal — not in mass destruction, exodus, and burgeoning alternate realities, but in small unexpected interruptions of the preposterous. Grandma dies on the living room sofa, a grandson tosses an ugly quilt over the body, and life goes on pretty much as it did before. Eventually the family wonders what happened to Grandma. They shrug and carry on, looking forward to Christmas. Childish innocence? It sounds hard and cold, either autistic or psychopathic. But isn’t that how children deal with the disturbing, the annoying, the uncomfortable: throw a comforter over it and act like it’s disappeared? Hammerspace in reverse: throw something in and it’s gone. Of course Freud and a panoply of B horror movies have warned us about the return of the repressed, but as the severed hand in Evil Dead II demonstrates, even the return can be a laugh riot.

Not a succession of realities, the replacement of one with another, but the irruption of an alternate reality into the already existing one, a two-way hammerspace, a bidirectional portal tenuously linking ordinary everyday reality with an alternative reality. The juxtaposition proves dadaesque, surreal, absurd; it might be grim, but it might just as plausibly be jolly.

Does an irruption of absurdity, however limited and brief its appearance, reveal a gap in the matrix of the everyday, a gap that with attention and imagination can be widened until the whole artifice crashes? Or does the irruption offer an exit strategy, a way of stepping through the portal out of this reality into a different one? Or is it a reminder that any narrative, no matter how serious and how realistic, is an invention, an illusion, a fiction, no more real than hammerspace?

Surrealist Facets in Contemporary Short Fiction

Does Breunig’s interpretation of contemporary absurd surrealism apply not only to humor but to fiction? To find out, I’m revisiting the 21 short fictions in the current issue of Gone Lawn that I posted on earlier.

“How Would You Call Me if You Forgot My Name,” By Mileva Anastasiadou

My mind is stuck on this song, as if all meaning of life is hidden in it. I repeat it over and over. So there’s the meaninglessness, but it’s wrapped up inside the head of a character with dementia, for whom meaning, like memory and language and eventually life itself, gradually drifts away. It’s a subjective loss of meaning, but the narrator believes that the meaningfulness of life had begun to slip long before the disease set in. So I suppose there’s a kind of metaphoric nihilism at work here. What about the “grim, jolly absurdism”? It’s grim to be sure, but whatever jolliness there was is long gone, from the world and from the minds of those who occupy it. What about absurdity? Well there is an awareness that everything has become pointless, but there’s nothing incongruous or preposterous going on. Surrealism? Well, the narrator refers to herself and her partner as formerly being clouds, now transformed into trees, but it’s metaphorical — a transition from drift into rootedness.

“White Tigers,” by Emi Benn

Grim, jolly absurdity: check. Surrealism: check. Nihilism: not really; the perspectives are too subjective for evaluating the state of the world. But then the story ends with a “purplish tinge—regret mixed with sorrow, betrayal and hope”: a mood of nostalgic sorrow that retrospectively embeds the whole story in a more traditional inwardness or depth psychology.

“Three Anomalies,” by Mike Carrao

Decidedly nihilistic and absurd, there’s plenty of crazy incompatible stuff going on in this story. It’s self-reflexively cubist, which suggests multifaceted views of a recognizably meaningful subject, but the center cannot hold for long and the text veers onto full-on chaotic neo-surrealism. Grim? Serious to be sure, the story is too abstract and external to be grim. Jolly? To quote myself from my earlier post: “Not a funny one, this story; not just disorienting and disconcerting either. It’s fully aware that things are falling apart, that attempts to build alternate realities from fragments and components is doomed, that entropy will prevail. Not a lamentation, more an abstract expedition into the weird.”

“The Imp and the Bones,” by Joanna Galbraith

This is a folk tale, which provides a traditional premise for deviating from ordinary reality. There is a kind of grim humor interspersed at times, though for the most part it’s a serious and linear narrative. The story is meaningful; it even has a moral to the story. It is posthuman though — evidently the humans didn’t get the moral, didn’t heed the warning — which gives it a nihilistic edge.

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I realize in going through these stories a second time that I pretty well covered the neo-surreal aspects of each in my first post. I also see no point in building the Surrealty Algorithm and running each story through it. The idea of the stories’ “mood” seems more important, more pervasive than breaking it down into discrete variables and scores. Does the story itself generate affordances of grimly jolly absurdity? The other overriding consideration is the relationship between the world of the story and the actually existing world we all live in. Does the story, whatever fantastic and impossible contortions it describes and whatever imaginary reality it occupies, purport to offer commentary on or interpretation of the actual world?

On quick review I’d say that each of the 21 stories makes at least some commentary on the actual world. For two of them, the links to ordinary reality are particularly tangential. Still, the writers who create/discover/describe these fantastic worlds find themselves unable to escape their own humanity.

Carrao’s “Three Anomalies”: the title describes the relationship of the fantastic fiction to the actual world: anomalous. The text is self-aware; it notes its own trajectory of increasing deviation from normalcy. There are also explicit references to the text’s relationship to other artistic media, notably painting and film, drawing parallels to their previously executed exit from realism into fantasy, distortion, abstraction. While Carrao’s neo-surrealistic worlds might be born of nihilism, they’re anything but a formless void, overflowing with impossible hybrid entities exercising varying degrees of agency.  In the end: Someone is no longer someone or anyone, they become object-oriented: this could refer to a kind of computer engineering, but more likely it’s a reference to the online ontologies of the so-called “speculative realists,” who purport to describe objects as they are, independent of human ways of perceiving and knowing. These subjects turned objects will become meaningful in the way that Someone is not. Does this text enter a realm of meaning outside of human perspective? The text ends with this promise, or threat; it doesn’t elaborate on this new kind of meaningfulness. But isn’t meaning an all-too-human affordance; isn’t the insistence on becoming meaningful a concession, an acknowledgment that he can’t object-oriented enough?

Ives’s “In a Country East of South Chicago”: like Carrao, Ives invokes the plastic arts and the cinema as he veers sharply away from realism. Also like Carrao, Ives’s strange worlds aren’t empty but overflowing with content. Again like Carrao, Ives acknowledges his own inescapable humanity in these neo-surreal depictions, bringing him up short in his escape from the actual. Is there something else, some way of seeing or creating that isn’t human anymore? sometimes I get a glimpse of it, around the corner, going the other direction, but it’s not as hungry as I am, and it doesn’t need me. It’s got something better to do, and I want to know what it is. Wanting to know what it is keeps him from going over the edge, from exiting the human, from exiting himself — not unlike Carrao’s becoming-meaningful.

What about the grim jollity? There’s plenty of grimness in these 21 short fictions, along with other sombre variants: sorrow, regret, loss, anomie. There is some playfulness and wonder expressed, especially in the folk tales. There are some funny moments scattered here and there. Still, for most of these stories the overriding mood is a serious one. This is a literary magazine after all, meant for the showcasing of serious fictions. In only one of the stories does funniness figure as dominant mood: Pfister’s “A Family Reunion.” And it is a grim sort of funny, a nihilistic and absurd kind of funny. But it’s not a surreal sort of weird: the story remains resolutely embedded in ordinary reality, even when it’s past time for the denizens of that reality to acknowledge that something out of the ordinary has been happening. Kafkaesque absurdity, where someone ordinary crosses without fanfare the threshold into the realm of the inhuman.

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Why is this analysis meaningful? I forget; please discuss amongst yourselves.