Friday, January 18, 2008

TRUTH or DARE with Michiko Kakutani et al.

Speaking of idiots. Each December a hoard of print and net publications put out their BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR list. Virtually, all of them sound like that novel you're working on.

This is not to say that all of the choices suck; they don't. And every once in a while an interesting book pops up on a Best Books list. But few ever rise above the pandemic of predictability and, thus, mediocrity. Really, how may of the Best Books of 2006 do you remember? How many did you read? How many of those that you read changed the way you think? Changed the way you think about thinking -- and not thinking?

To my knowledge, none of these lists come with an all-important disclaimer: Best Books of the Year THAT WE ACTUALLY READ.
And just how many books can one critic read? Let's use The New York Times book critic Mishiko Kakutani as an example. Because I like her hair. (I'm not choosing The New York Times book critic Janet Maslin because of her flagrantly pedestrian taste, and bully for her for at least not pretending to be interested in brain expanding books.)

If Michiko reads even three books a day, she's still going to complete only 1,095 books a year, so my calculator says.* Reading three books of superbly written literature per day requires speed reading.** And that's akin to trying to dissect the nuances of Beethoven's Fifth while listening to it at 5x the speed. Assuming (falsely) that Kakutani reads equally from all categories, she therefore consumes 365 books each of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. (365 books of poetry!?! Oh, that's a good one, yes, haha, that's a regular laugh riot! Oh hahahaha!) 2006 saw the publication of 42,076 fiction titles alone.***

Funnily enough, Kakutani reviewed Stuart Kelly's THE BOOK OF LOST BOOKS: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You'll Never Read. Writes Kakutani: "The books in Stuart Kelly's clever and highly entertaining new book are works of literature that have somehow been lost to posterity... As Mr. Kelly notes, 'Loss is not an anomaly, or a deviation, or an exception,' it's the norm.'" Damn straight. And Michiko, babe, you're not helping.

Nor are the teeming minnows of other critics who are tangled in a web of conventionality, of old directions retrod, and nary an offramp in print. But I'd rather see an avant-garde book go unreviewed than reviewed by a critic not educated enough to analyze it. And most critics lack the skills -- or simply are put off by how much longer it may take to adequately explore a work of avant-garde literature than a TV novel. Even though that extra time is spent magnificently, deliciously, sensually producing far more dopamine per page than 99% of the Best Books of any given year.

Therefore, readers: If you like drugs and/or alcohol and/or caffeine and/or running marathons you will enjoy avant-garde literature. If you like sex before marriage and even more after, you will enjoy avant-garde literature.

Therefore, critics: In this new year rife with possibilities, I challenge all of you everydamnwhere to play Truth or Dare:

Either (1) tell the TRUTH about how many books you actually read in 2008 or (2) DARE to read and understand avant-garde books outside of your tiny radar screen wherein the whole of society is crashing under your dopey gaze.

* I no longer to math by hand because I don’t have to! And one might ask: Isn't the refusal to do math by brain as lazy as a book critic refusing to read books that require more than TV vocabulary, even if it's HDTV? No, it is not. "Why not" is a forthcoming post.
** Don't expect me to get through more than 20 fiction titles a year. I read every single and hyphenated word. Usually two or three times. Sometimes four, if it is particularly fine.
*** 2007 statistics not yet available. Source

Sunday, January 13, 2008

What is "avant," who is the "garde," and why [should you] [you should] give a shit [?] [!]

You would have thought our evolution a certainty by now. That literary labels and classifications and genres and categories would have faded like cartographic borders between nations. Oh, wait. The ink boundaries on my atlas linger and the US-Mexico border is arising like a 3-D wall festooned with razor wire. Ergo: Here I am: Stuck in the middle with you.

Of all the literary terms thrown lumpenly about like WWF wrestlers, avant-garde is to me the best descriptor of writing that investigates new possibilities of narrative, whether prose, poetry, or something wondrously, nebulously in-between.

The expression, translated as "fore-guard" or "before the guard," originated in the late 1400 French military. Avant-garde soldiers explored unknown territories ahead of the main army (garde), mapping topography, identifying enemy outposts, and providing attack strategies. Today Americans call the task recon (reconnaissance).

The literary garde is the old guard: writers, editors, publishers, and readers unwilling and sometimes unable to trek into new literary landscapes. (Yes, reading requires practice, too, and some readers are simply more talented than others, as a conversation with the odd lit professor or editor reveals.)

Though I find authentic military hawks akin to barbaric chimps with psychopathic and carnivorous impulses, the battlefield implication of avant-garde is pleasingly appropriate in contemporary literature. The publishing industry as manifested in the early 20th Century continues to be a capitalist venture, and avant-garde books continue to be considered unprofitable "products." Less than a thimbleful of goliath publishers have figured out the long-term profitability of keeping a backlist of avant-garde books that will likely become classics, representing innovations of their respective eras, and thus will be required reading for a majority of the annual 18 million college $tudent$. The rest of the publishers are idiots.

So it is a battle, many battles for avant-garde writers:

a battle to be published

a battle to be reviewed

a battle to be read

a battle to be read intelligently

As an avant-garde writer, I have the battle scars -- and pseudo-post traumatic stress disorder -- to prove just how fucking painful and exhausting it is to publish and promote writing that takes risks. But the times, sweetmeat, they are a-changin'. Sez me. And so are readers: for good and bad.

Gertrude’s Basket shall report on these times and those to come. I'll apprise of and appraise avant-garde literature for non-academic readers interested in learning why new narrative forms, including those using the latest technologies, are relevant to our lives.

My focus is (1) why avant-garde literature exists now, (2) how -- and if -- it reflects significant aspects of the broader American or global culture, (3) my subjective interpretation of avant-garde works and the societal muck from which they arise, and (4) whether they succeed at whatever investigative attempts they make. I promise that esoteric language and theory shall be avoided as much as possible, though now and then I’ll try to tell you where to find esoteric language and theory.

Think of me as an unarmed photojournalist trudging behind the vanguard, viewing and reviewing the authentic war front through both the naked eye and the camera's lens.

Watch out for IEDs.