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.


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.


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


Contemporary Fictional Surrealism

I’m not sure how many of the 21 stories in the current issue of Gone Lawn  — stories I explored briefly in my last post — can be categorized as surrealist, or dadaist, or absurdist. My sense was that most of them manifest one or more facets of what I think of as surrealism. What are those facets; how many facets does each story manifest? I could build an algorithm and run it on each of these stories separately; I could compute an aggregate Surrealty Score to the stories collectively. I was going to say “I could, but I won’t,” but I won’t. I might go ahead and generate the algorithm, run each story through it, compute a score for each and for all. The exercise would keep me focused, grounded in actually existing fictions rather than abstracting to fiction generally or contracting into my own fictions — the ones I’ve written or might write in the future.

What variables could be incorporated into the Surrealty calculator? Plenty of surrealist manifestos were written nearly a hundred years ago, but their authors were attempting to dictate what should happen, not to document what had already happened. Besides, I’m not sure whether contemporary fiction writers consciously regard themselves as surrealists, either through exercise of an idiosyncratic aesthetic or through participation in a more widespread movement.

In August 2017 the Washington Post published an article by Elizabeth Bruenig called “Why is millennial humor so weird?” I don’t have access to WaPo online, so I’m reading the article on my wife’s mobile device. I won’t put up a link, but I will excerpt freely. Bruenig regards contemporary surrealism as a kind of affect-laden subjective orientation to the world, an orientation that seems widespread:

I am not a nihilist, but a mood of grim, jolly absurdism comes over me often, as it seems to come over many of my young peers. To visit millennial comedy, advertising and memes is to spend time in a dream world where ideas twist and suddenly vanish; where loops of self-referential quips warp and distort with each iteration, tweaked by another user embellishing on someone else’s joke, until nothing coherent is left… In this weird world of the surreal and bizarre, horror mingles with humor, and young people have space to play with emotions that seem more and more to proceed from ordinary life — the creeping suspicion that the world just doesn’t make sense.

“Grim, jolly absurdism.” Is that three variables, or one? Arguably all humor has a dark side: funny and cruel, funny and sad, funny and humiliating. There is a butt to the joke, even if it’s the jokester. But “grim” seems less interpersonal — a mood that’s more austere, serious, veering toward depressive. And “jolly” is a good-natured kind of funny; not laughing at or even laughing with, jolliness is more of like a personality trait, an open happy orientation to the world and its occupants.

It might be a mistake to characterize both “grim” and “jolly” as subjective states. The world can be grim — or, perhaps more accurately, the world can “afford” grimness, can create situations that provoke a grim mood in those who participate or witness such situations. The world can also afford jolliness, can generate situations that prompt amusement, even ebullience. Grimness and jolliness aren’t just emotions, nor are they objective features of the world; they’re ecological, generated in the interactions between people and the world they occupy. Heidegger regarded being in a mood as being attuned to the world, as being-there.

A situation doesn’t necessarily generate the same mood in everyone. In part that’s because individuals often respond differently to the same stimulus; in part it’s because situations aren’t univocal in their affordances. A situation can prompt both grimness and jolliness in the same person. How do you reconcile seemingly opposite and incompatible moods? You can eliminate the dissonance by turning up the volume on one while muting the other. Or you can try to find a middle ground: neutral indifference, for example. Or you can try to remain attuned to both poles at once, immersing yourself in opposite moods at the same time.

Maybe that’s what defines the absurd: simultaneously being attuned to opposite affordances from the world and being immersed in opposite moods. A second-order way of being-there.

That Bruenig explicitly disavows her own nihilism suggests strongly that the absurd mood she identifies in herself and her fellow millennials is associated closely with a sense of meaninglessness. Again, where does meaning reside: in the world, or in the head? Neither and both. Meaning too is an affordance, a subjective attunement to objective features of the world. Meaning could be a way to reconcile contradictory affordances like grimness and jolliness, but that would necessitate that the meaning be univocal, unambiguous. What if the same event, the same situation, can be embedded in multiple systems of meaning simultaneously? Now the failure to achieve a unified attunement to the world results not from the absence of meaning but from its surfeit — an overload of mutually contradictory meanings.

Some of those meanings are themselves meaningless — affordances generated not by the world itself but by those who would manipulate the world for their own gain. Bruenig again:

Yet the world is full of noise. Information is both more accessible (and perhaps more oppressively omnipresent) than ever and also less reliable; people select their own facts, and business-funded think tanks produce reports indistinguishable from hard data, except that they are not remotely true. Brands pose as friends on social media, especially to millennials, and if the line between real and artificial isn’t obliterated, it certainly seems to matter less than it once did.

How does this “mood of grim, jolly absurdism” manifest itself in fictional form?

To visit millennial comedy, advertising and memes is to spend time in a dream world where ideas twist and suddenly vanish; where loops of self-referential quips warp and distort with each iteration, tweaked by another user embellishing on someone else’s joke, until nothing coherent is left… In this weird world of the surreal and bizarre, horror mingles with humor, and young people have space to play with emotions that seem more and more to proceed from ordinary life — the creeping suspicion that the world just doesn’t make sense.

Dream world? Well, we are talking about fictions after all, even if they do stem from a mood induced by real-world contradictions between grim and jolly, between empty and oversaturated. The implication though is that these sorts of absurd fictions aren’t realistic but dreamlike, suggesting that millennial comedy, and perhaps other millennial fiction induced by the contradictory meaninglessness of the contemporary world, constitutes not an artistic depiction of that world but an escape or exit from it: not a being-there but a being-elsewhere.

Amid these trends, a particular style of expression has spread among young people. Rather than trying to restore meaning and sense where they’ve gone missing, the style aims to play with the moods and emotions of an illegible world. In a way, it’s a digital update to the surreal and absurd genres of art and literature that characterized the tumultuous early 20th century.

Surrealism in its original manifestation was an attempt, through the juxtaposition of radically disparate elements, to bring together the actual and imaginary worlds, the waking and dreaming states, the conscious and unconscious minds, into a single super-reality. The presumption was that these two aspects of sur-reality had been artificially divided, and so it was the task of the artist to bring them back together. Can the same rationale be inferred from today’s neo-surrealists, who jam together in preposterous admixtures the grim and the jolly, emptiness and excess, information and noise, meaninglessness and supersaturated meaning?  Do the incommensurable fragments cohere into a super-reality, twisted, incoherent, and weird though it might be? Or is the opposite impulse at work, demonstrating that even the most ordinary aspects of life become incongruous when pried loose from ordinary reality, left to dangle in metaphysical isolation or else grafted into an alternative reality? Instead of unifying the fragments into a single super-reality, the new surrealists might be bent on fragmenting the seeming unity of the everyday world, revealing that there is either a plethora of realities, or else no reality at all.

And then there’s the absurd humor it all:

this giant emptiness of meaning… this giant race to the bottom of irony… [Absurdity with humor] lol nothing matters, but things might turn out all right anyway… After all, the weird — even the exceedingly weird — doesn’t have to be purely distressing… …millennial surrealism intermixes relief with stress and levity with lunacy.

Does Bruenig’s thesis fit the short fictions in the latest issue of Gone Lawn? Tomorrow or the next day I’ll go back through each story and see.











Short Stories from Gone Lawn 30

This time I’m not using the random number algorithm to select stories, not going to notify the authors that I’ve written something about their recent works. Having previously read a story by Sal Difalco in Gone Lawn, and having read two or three other stories in that same issue, I’d tentatively slotted this magazine as encouraging short fictions that cultivate literary aesthetics without evincing strong commitment to or implications for material reality as it is, was, or could be. Unpredictable but not jarring, these stories trace strange patterns across surfaces that shift rapidly from is to could be to impossible. Maybe call it art for art’s sake, in the modern traditions of surrealism, dadaism, and pop but without the self-conscious lamentation over loss of meaning. Playful, decadent, nihilistic, absurd. Do I like it? Sure. Do I want to practice it? Not so sure. What do I think about it? That’s why I want to read the whole current issue’s worth of Gone Lawn short fictions in one go.

*  *  *

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

Already with the first story my assumptions about this magazine’s aesthetic are violated. It’s realistic, relational, introspective, spanning the duration of two lifetimes, lamenting loss of meaning both in the world an in one’s perceptions of it. The author is Greek. I just finished Outline, a novel assembled from story-length autofictions that takes place in Greece; it too is realistic, relational, introspective, lamentational. Maybe it’s Greek, or Mediterranean, or European, to uphold the longer and deeper traditions of realistic fiction. The author is a neurologist: I wonder if she practices this medical specialty, or if in referring to herself this way she enhances the credibility of her writing, especially when it takes her under the skull and into the cranium, as in this story where the first-person narrator is succumbing to dementia.

“White Tigers,” by Emi Benn

So yeah, this is what I’m talking about. First sentence: “My girlfriend’s pelvic floor is stuffed with flowers, perfume, silver talismans, strange buildings, and a sweater she saw once while she was travelling that she regrets she didn’t buy.” It’s flash, so it could hold onto the absurdity right to the end if it wanted to. It doesn’t want to. Last two sentences: “My girlfriend stuffs all her happiness into her pelvic floor. It shines so bright but far enough away from her brain that she can’t see its purplish tinge—regret mixed with sorrow, betrayal and hope.”

“Three Anomalies,” by Mike Carrao

This one leans hard into poetry. It’s also and immediately metafictional, reflexive: “the ekphrastic man” follows an instruction; “world devoid of footings we are used to;” “resembling a cubist.” Cubism — there’s another art genre reflected in these multiply fractured fictional surfaces, the interfaces and angles generating a simulacrum of depth. “Nightshade growing from his nostrils. Arms made from recycled dust and clothing made from papier-mâché. Body of fragile materials kissing the face of the ground.” And abstract expressionism, a successor of cubism, shapes and lines and angles decoupled from the original unifying form: “Feet locked in the horizontal bend of the green brick.” What is this art school; I recognize it more from philosophy: “He tries to see with the nerves inside of his skull — they grow and mutate into a more complex system. A network of new peripheral senses.” This too: delving under surfaces to encounter not depth but a different layer of intricacies, a subsurface. And maybe this too is part of the point: “He moves along the surface like a wheel. Curling against gravity. Arriving in an unfamiliar place. Unfamiliar in its return to familiarity.” The mundane torques into the fantastic, prompting neither horror nor awe but acceptance, gearing old adaptive mechanisms to the bizarre, crafting new routines in order to keep existing. “No longer an ekphrastic shape, the second anomaly does not resemble anything.” So now presumably the attempt is to generate text that no longer represents prior schools of the plastic arts. Narrative coherence, already tenuous, unravels. Still, almost immediately there’s a reference to “a superstructure hidden under the mask of Marienbad garden geometry” — modernist art-house cinema. And the characters are walking a stone labyrinth; “they play out the theseid like a troupe of performers.” Ancient mythic theatre. “One reaches for the altar and begins to chisel his name… But the altar is void of contents.” This isn’t a quest; it’s an expedition: simple as a quest, though it “suffers from vague goals.” Organics that are also minerals; structures that are processes; “entities that are also places.” Everything is falling apart, scrambling, intractable. “Act three is where Someone no longer resembles someone… the world is made from meat and computational errors… Someone is no longer someone or anyone, they become object-oriented.”

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

It’s a folktale, a faerie story, in which the last girl standing isn’t human but fey. Straightforward storytelling, it has its funny moments but mostly it’s sad and wistful, with a moral. This writer lives in Italy.

“Meeting Place” and “Animate Objects,” by Julie Gard

Both prose poems comprise 4 numbered paragraphs. The first is about people and a river; the second, about toy creatures crafted by artisans from porcelain, wax, plastic, clay, but sentient. Nostalgic, mournful, an awareness that the inanimately made outlasts the living even after its purpose in the human world has been lost.

“Empire of Light,” by Melissa Goode

A couple, walking at night, a waking dream. It ends with wistfully reflexive intimations of mortality: “We are a blip in time and space, nothing compared with matter and history, but that does not diminish a single thing about us.”

Aftermath, by Alyssa Greene

A haunted house story, splintered and charred, told in 15 quick-cut short takes, the cinematic style acknowledged in the first scene: “No one wonders what happens after the credits roll.” Ending in regret: “Asking how far back would I go to undo it, to unlive it all.”

“In a Country East of South Chicago,” by Rich Ives

“Cubists are attacking,” I’m told in the first line — from different angles. Each sentence stands alone as a facet, a kind of aphorism, surreal, absurd, dadaist. “There’s a beauty of abandonment if it’s duly witnessed. You see, once you arrived, and I smelled your appearance, I sent you away. It was a mistake, of course, but what can you do when you’ve been surrounded by the most accomplished imitations. You get practical, and you don’t choose, you process, as nature does. From here to there is the way the wind thinks.” Then a series of disconnected scenes, each bizarre, with denizens uttering occasional remarks mostly incongruous yet spoken with an assurance verging on the confrontational. The narrator addresses me: “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, but I’ve noticed how a lot of us around here just act like well-trained chairs, and I want you to think of me as a surprise, like drawers full of crayfish and rows of butterflies and beetles pinned to the wall above the bed.”

A shift into narrative, one paragraph at a time, fragmentary and fantastic, surreal cubist incursions. Derby hats and pinstripes, coffee and cigarettes, limousines and sadistic dental tools — is this the Chicagoland of the thirties introduced in the first sentence? Jazz and abstract paintings, TV in the back seat, “psychedelic disco club with Dixieland overtones,” Giorgio and ragtime blue guitar: temporal cubism. Pince-nez and absinthe,  Gothic castles and gargoyles, clock towers and sundials, metalsmiths and woodworkers. “The pinstripes continue riding in the limousine, never arriving.” Village square on market day. “A surprisingly large battery of French Country Folk begin dancing about on the frontispiece.” Surreal cubist mummers, “born near Newark, New Jersey in what appeared to be a Martin Scorsese accident.” A return to the water, entering the stream, dissolving the strange. “Think of it as I do, one scene at a time, as if a roomful of the curious were watching lantern slides projected on the wall by the old man who collected them, the room as silent as the night they found the body of the first young boy.” What young boy? Perhaps we’ll find out. Cubist thaumaturgy, bringing life back from pieces of the dead, animating monsters from an assemblage of inanimate components. Photographs of components, edited together on television. Alice arrives, or someone like her, a princess of the surreal. “She falls past shelves full of ceramic dolls and soldiers” — is this intertextual magic, extracting components from “Animate Objects” by Julie Gard, a story also appearing in this issue of the litmag?

“I know who I am, but not what I am… The emptiness in my bones grows heavier with marrow from the results of my self-seeking journey. Each step brings me closer to a different version. The darkest part of the journey is not just before the end. It is the end.” Thaumaturgy invoked by spells, creation with language, words solid as rocks, or as insubstantial. “I guess I was about up to the edge of it, and I wanted to see what was on the other side. I wanted to get closer to the danger. This thing I do, with words, it’s a little like talking to clouds, only dirtier, and it keeps me busy.” Does it work? Is it important? “I’m trying to say that there’s something final about what I’m saying if I could ever say what I’m saying right, and 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.”

“Instructions for Specimen,” by Jennifer Kudō

Fingers, legs, lungs, genitals: some disassembly required.

“This,” by Chad Miller

This is a story about writing., about being a writer, about being married. A tight and clean narrative, it dangles the possibility of metaphor: I try to reject it, but fail. Crouching death issues its hypnotic invitation.

“Flipping,” by Gary Moshimer

Okay, the metaphor is made explicit as hell: “But they realized they were in over their heads, not merely in charge of flipping properties, but of flipping some in their graves.”

“Phantasmagoria Haibun,” by Mark Murphy

No more metaphors: “You are unable to rationalise your exit, the nurses are discussing your options, now the ward team are voting on life or death. You figure at least three of these bastards want you dead.”

“A Family Reunion,” by Joseph Pfister

Dead but not gone: “‘I’ll just throw a comforter over her, Dad suggested. ‘That ugly one she crocheted? That should get us to Christmas.'”

“Malanoct,” by Brian Randall

Bad night, becoming it.

“Various Births VI” and “Various Births VIII,” by Cindy Rinne

Death, rebirth as something else, something mythic, hidden and disguised in what remains of the world.

“Perihelion,” by Kelly R Samuels

Another grandmother quilt, warming in a frozen world. I guess the title is metaphoric love.

“Six Things You Can’t Give Up,” by Alina Stefanescu

Agency of objects and fragmentation of subjects, but rage, seriousness, dissent, love, truth, a central European putting up resistance to quotidian America.

“It’s Called Deception,” by Jan Stinchcombe

An ironic deathy parable decorated by a farcical surfeit of metaphors.

“Post-War,” “Allegheny Gremlins,” and “Snallygaster,” by Vivian Wagner

“Once upon a time…” Violence, cruelty, fear; the stories were meant to enlighten, to provoke, to warn. What are the stories good for anymore?

“Thunder gods.” and “Sky gods.” by Sanna Wani

“Do you understand?” asks the fox-dog; the narrator does.

“Bird Bones,” by Tara Isabel Zambrano

The author is a semiconductor chip designer; in the story old technologies serve as havens, as compulsions, as death traps, as paranoiac delusions.

*  *  *

That’s twenty-one short fictions. Not all of them meet the criteria I was after, but enough of them do. I’ll give them further thought, maybe tomorrow.