How much validity is there in the idea that a piece of literature (or art) can be, as Gertrude Stein supposedly once said of Ernest Hemingway's early short story 'Up in Michigan,' "inaccrochable" - that is, "like a picture that a painter paints and then he cannot hang it when he has a show and nobody will buy it because they cannot hang it either"?
...from 'A Moveable Feast'
Stein believed the story "Up in Michigan" was unpublishable because it was so controversial at the time - the subject being date rape.. from what i understand. NO market, nobody to read it... if a tree falls in the forest??? Is the question about whether art is validated by the market?
Well, here's another question! What IS too controversial now? Is ANYTHING? I honestly can't imagine what would be? I mean, there are stories about alien midget lesbians having sex, ear lobe fetishism, uh... and so forth... you know? Hey, possibly fiction concerning mild, unviolent, unsexy old people having lunch! Now that may be unaccroachable...
I've published stories about tweak addicts having sex, men who want to be infected with HIV, all sorts of things that might have been considered too risque at the time Hemingway made that statement.
But I've honestly had very little trouble placing stories with potentially off-putting subject matter. Indeed, I've received comments from editors that some of the stories I've written that have failed to find homes may not have been controversial enough!
I prefer the inaccrochable. (Is that really a word?) Unless Meg is right, and she probably is. Being boring is the most inaccrochable thing you can do.
meg is on it, as usual. (aside: has meg become ubiquitous; become, in a sense fictionaut? her stories, and now her questions, fill the room with light; perhaps this is her salon?)
the inaccrochable (a word too ugly to be expropriated) today is the story of a happy family, as tolstoy perceived, in one of the greatest first lines of a novel ever penned:
~All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.~
we do not wish to read of happy families, and stories about them cannot be hung on the wall.
Although I want to believe that there is no such thing as an "inaccroachable" work today, there is a part of me that indeed feels that there are certain places that many (if not most) readers in our culture do not want to be taken. As someone pointed out earlier, what is considered a "painting that cannot be displayed" in 2009 is different from what would have been considered as such in Stein / Hemingway's day (need I mention Nabokov and his cute little novel filled with Joycean wordplay and allusions, Lolita, which was first published in France by Olympia Press -- a publisher of erotica -- because it was deemed too taboo for the American market, despite the fact that there is very little description of any sexual acts in it? yet today, it's considered a classic...).
In any case, there are certain works of art that will always remain "underground," I think, which is not to say "unpublishable." I myself have written a few pieces I consider to be "inaccroachable," though it's possible that such work would quickly find a home were I to start shopping it around; I simply choose not to. In any case, I suppose it all depends on one's perspective. How many who have seen the film "Irreversible" would label it unwatchable, I wonder...?!?
I too like Meg's point--the mild old folks. Penelope Fitzgerald could, of course, make them eminently interesting, no matter how unviolent and unsexy they might be. Of course Penelope's skill with words was very very high.
Is it really impossible to make the happy interesting? I don't know if the old basic plot formulations are still taught to teenagers or not: man vs man, man vs nature, etc. But I think any of them can work and be interesting, even if about 'happy' people: 1] great intelligent language and 2] a different basis for conflict, an intellectual puzzle, for example, or an 'adventure' of some sort, a challenge which is not rooted in emotional states. Maybe I'm playing with the definition of the idea of happiness, or maybe I'm arguing for genre themes elevated to the level of art.
Inaccroachable in 2010:
- short story where all the characters have an awful sense of humor and the 3rd person narrator thinks they are hilarious
- fat ugly vampires
- short story where protagonist becomes a Christian at the end
- a sandwich submitted as a short story when it is clearly a sandwich
- short story that's 11,000 words
- dog POV
ok, i draw the line at the dog exclusion. woof.
I think that while certain story types--and this may include the happy family, old timesy tales--won't make the mainstream lit lists, there is always a time and place for every topic. Look at "Story of O" or "My Secret Life" in their time; they certainly survived underground long enough to make their re-emergence when the reading public was ready.
The writers here appear to have a good grasp of what's wanted and what's a hard sell. At the two ends of the spectrum are the overly sweet and spiritual versus the overfucked and angry. I think we actually help each other become better writers here because we keep ourselves aware of good story by reading each other's work.
It's also a case of knowing the audience for each particular story; university lit journals are being run by MFA majors in their early twenties and they will be more edgy and youth oriented in subject. On the other hand, a smashing story will override much.
what an interesting thread, thanks edward, for the ride. i have a rudimentary political and a metaversal view on this.
they lead me to opposite answers to your brilliant question.
ms flawnt and i last night talked about the truly subversive and we agreed, cuddling up in our soft beds, comfortably ensconced in a life of the mind (how easy it is, then, to consider barking up a tree when your head is warmed by plush pillows!) that the spirit of the 60s was gone for good. ms flawnt: "'Steal this book' was pure subversion of the system." (a 1970 title by abie hoffman). that we were living in an age of (more or less) overt corporate fascism and that the subversive, if at all, could only emerge in a severely coded form, not easily identifiable by ubiquitous CCTV, database searches, google and all the electronically enabled ogling that makes our lives more transparent than ever before in history. (here: trumpets from the conservative right. booing from the left. or vice versa.) the total control implied in our total information-based fascism is both fascinating and offputting: half of my students when free to choose a project topic, will choose something like: "loss of privacy", "data mining", "collective brain", "the google threat" etc.
incidentally, ms stein knew all about making it through fascism (first in the mild form of anti-modernism - nobody would hang her art! - then in the shape of literal fascism living in a small village surrounded by nazis) by devising a code of her own, a code of genetic genius that enabled a generation of writers (and even composers) to create their own codes without copying stein. she wrote. "Everything is so dangerous that nothing is really very frightening." sweet sweet sweet subversion coded like sweet candy.
end of political rant on fascism. i dont understand it anyway. i have been around the block a few times though and i understand the metaverse, i think, with its great dual promise of danger and liberation. danger: because it is an extension and a key element in the control of the masses. liberation: for reasons much discussed everywhere...mostly on terms of political liberation. but I believe there is an important artistic angle to it: „hanging your art“ or putting your „silly stuff“ (stein: „You mustn't write anything that is inaccrochable. There is no point in it. It's wrong and it's silly.“) has become so easy, we're back to the 60s in an unexpected way: „Let a thousand flowers bloom“ (hippie slogan appropriated from a 1957 speech of mao zedong, who didn't really mean it, in the end) is the name of the game, and i personally find it immensely liberating to not only observe but partake in the metaversal landscaping where professional gardeners work side by side with people, who feel a calling and others, who created something simply because they were bored, the emerging and the established. a new eden, if you ask me. and fictionaut is one of its prophets.
all in all then: there is, for me, little validity in stein's original statement with respect to our possibilities today and, actually, she didn't live it either. maybe my beloved gertrude was simply jealous, or scared by the earnest heming way, so different from her own, both sexually and stylistically.
when it comes to subversion as a political extension or interpretation of „silly and pointless“, however, making a statement that nobody wants to „hang or buy“ because it's just too subversive or threatening to the system, the playing field has become a bloody battle ground once again. the examples given by you in the thread so far are no threats in my view (cute as they are). you know you made a subversive comment when, writing the last period of your story, the hair in your neck stands up and a hitherto unknown angst attaches itself to your heart because you imagine a bunch of homeland security gentlemen taking you out to a friendly chat. chances are, to avoid the feeling you're already coding, and by way of the metaversal channels of publication, you have, or you will find your audience among any number of millions out there, hoping for that jolt to their jadedness.
just saying, virtually code-free. now, hang me.
I'll add another "un-hangable": religion.
Unfortunately, that's what I write about. In Hemingway's prime, he lived within a time historians have coined The Greatest Generation. As a nation, we tried to sweep those poor saps from WWI (the Lost Generation) under the rug and carry on with our new utopia. There was no room for the misguided or disturbed. Folks like to think that times now are more "open" and/or volitile than in that time. I'd contend that it's only because now we are more willing to hear about it, and people love the stories. The frequency is the same.
Religion, oddly enough, is the same way. It's the oldest subject in the book and never loses steam in debate, but for some reason it's taboo to speak of it. Take a look at the Muslim situation in America. It happens to be a cultural peg on which our nation hangs (mostly in controversy), but the moment someone writes a story or makes a comment in the negative or asks a reader to think on the issue, they are branded as hate-mongers. Not so with Christians. We all know a good joke there. Personally, I'm having a hard time placing a story based on Muslim affairs and I think it's because it might come off as offensive.
Or perhaps my writing sucks.
Anyway, I think Hemingway showed us something by way of writing; that is, to be true to yourself no matter what. Otherwise we're frauds. He changes literature as we know it because of that stand. Don't bow out.
andrew, that is very interesting, especially the fact that you're riding the fence with your own writing. i'd love to read that story "based on muslim affairs". i dont have the code or the depth for that. when i wrote a flash this month on a similar topic, i was careful to include all religions - and i knew what i was doing: http://bit.ly/8tq8NT - i bowed out in a way.
great plight, thanks.
brilliant reflections, ff---thank you
if what stein meant at the time was that the story was too controversial then i think if the we want to use the term inaccrochable now we have to move on to some new idea of it. when things were controversial back then, this meant something, it had a power to shake society and the inside of the head. it wasn't just that the subject was taboo, it was that new art was being created in the process of writing that story. controversial doesn't have that power anymore, controversial doesn't make new art anymore [and it probably never did, on its own. the pulp novels or tabloids then were as full of sex and guts as ever. if the hem story truly was unhangable then it was b/c of more than the subject matter]. in any case, we now fully understand controversy, it's everywhere, the market produces controversy like a product, controversy sells. an unaccrochable art will have to be something we don't understand.
I remember reading this gem of yours and enjoyed it. I think you did a nice job of capturing this story in light of the visual prompt. Careful? Why should one tip-toe on issues that run so deeply in our society? Writers must understand that our jobs are not only to entertain, but to offer a perspective into our times for generations ahead.
Here is that story: http://www.fictionaut.com/stories/scott-bowen/to-hit-a-woman-lightly-2
It's part of a "private" workshop on here. If still interested, let me know if you have problems accessing it.
Joseph, I think you are correct in that controversy now is more like a product and tag line instead of a rare event. In fact, NOT having one splattered across the headlines everyday might, at somepoint, become the new controversy.
by the way, it's self flattering to think we, because we're artists, will understand inaccrochable art as such and recognize its artistic value. if it's inaccrochable, then not only will broader culture find it that way but so will the artistic community, that which will deem it 'unhangable.' what do you, what do i, despise in writing? is that the unaccrochable?
In the same passage Stein talks about wearing old clothes so she can afford another beloved Picasso. It's not too hard to recognize true genius when they live on the same block, and I don't doubt the young Hemingway paled by comparison.
FWIW incrochable isn't in the OED.
Yes, FF, I had to take a break halfway through your post. Wow.
Me and the Mrs. were also talking about the value of art. How a visual artist has to be a little more daring and out there, the faith to believe that paint on a canvas can matter - but how they can also be easily subsumed into the corporate system. Someone must package the widgets, eh? Our logos need flourish.
There's a lot to be overcome with the mainstream, even by those who think of themselves as fighting it. Students will often view ideas with a narrow perspective, but when freedom is encouraged, when artistic and intellectual freedom is a possibility, watch out, because we may lose our place as instructors. I teach at a U in the middle of Tennessee (in fact, that's what it's called, and I've always been astounded by the ordinariness of the name, Middle Tennessee State U) and the fine arts building is incredible. Lots of undergraduate artists are regularly doing amazing things when left to their own devices. Here in the middle of nowhere, a place where art shouldn't really matter. And so I'm one who believes everyone has creative potential, though I try not to be too forgiving or precious about it. It does take discipline, it takes awareness, it needs to be nurtured. In fact, this notion I have that everyone has creative potential is probably quite tragic, because too few of us see that potential within ourselves, and we define ourselves in limiting ways. We see coloring with crayons as kid's stuff. Adults buy things. Adults by exotic foods and talk about the news. So I am also uplifted by walking the halls of Fn. I love love love that there are so many of us who are good at doing this here thing.
Back to the question...
As far as I understand it, the value of art is 99 cents, to be divided many ways. And as FF points out, we are just lucky they let us walk around. Because somewhere along the line the power of art lost it's politics, and the power is now probably personal, or purely aesthetic (wasn't that one of your other questions, Ed?). So they decided we weren't worth the trouble, and that we would figure out that we'd be better off designing logos, for the insurance benefits, for our families, and then we could do whatever we wanted for our hobbies, if we had time, that is. Play with clay all you like.
And what sells can certainly be depressing: Vampire stories, or kids going to school to master witchery, and yes, dog stories. Because I shouldn't have to say it, because whatever else you want to say in defense of those stories or those authors, that stuff just lacks imagination.
Does it matter what has already been done? I feel like it does. So in 1988 when Perry Farrell declared "Nothing's Shocking" it was already an old notion. Others have pointed out, we compete with "reality" now, you know infotainment. Could any of us have come up with a story about a guy who makes a balloon shaped like a UFO and he tells his kid to lie about his brother being up in it - so they can be on TV? Probably, yes, we could have, but that's what we compete with now. So anything too close to that is seen as already been done. And so it's not just that all the fetishes have been explored, but so many other stories have been viewed with the added weight of "reality" that it pushes us back a bit into the recesses of literature.
I think we stand aside and comment. Or we get smaller and smaller with our subjects. Or we figure out new twists or combinations on very old stories.
Could there be a new Picasso, or even a new Hemingway for that matter? I wish I knew. I wish, like Stein, I could see it coming. Because I'd love for things to be turned upside down just once more before I finish my go. But I have a feeling the reigns of control won't be wrenched loose anytime soon. And it would take more than true genius anyway.
You hit something there with the reality phenom that's become so viral. My question has always been, "What's so F-ing real about this show?" There isn't none of it reflects what really goes on, yet our society woofs it down like a Happy Meal to add on to our cultural obesity. A rant? Sure, because if it walks like a duck...
The other side of the coin is that indeed, one must take what we have (an over-exposed, desensitized audience) and try to mutate old yarns into something vital. There is a fine line between an artist creating something because they are being true to self and an artist pushing the limits just to get some attention. Where is the frontier now? What makes hero? A villain? The flawed hero becomes darker by each story until we can't tell one from the other.
I too hope I live long enough to see what comes out on the other side. Perhaps the Leave it to Beavers and Gilligan's Island will become the shocking and avante garde of the future.
In matters of what is hangable or unhangable -- or, in that unlovely formulation, "saleable" or "un-saleable" -- I defer to Joe Gillis, Sunset Boulevard's doomed screenwriter:
"So I sat there, grinding out original stories, two a week, only I seemed to have lost my touch. Maybe they weren't original enough. Maybe they were too original. All I know is ... they didn't sell."
We're an online literary journal that publishes works of short, indeterminate prose and accompanying criticism. We feature one author every posting period (every two weeks). Every so often a question related to the form and function of fiction will be posted here for discussion.http://www.matchbooklitmag.com