Discussion → "The work I love explodes in every paragraph"

  • Flawntnewsmall.thumb
    Finnegan Flawnt
    Feb 16, 01:24pm

    "we need to write compressed stories that produce a ton of thought rather than elaborate stories that produce none." says david shields at the end of his recent interview in the rumpus:


    this and the rest of the interview resonates me big time. it answers a few questions i've had, including why i have such a hard time enjoying certain (= most) recent, very lushly descriptive books.

    his statement "We’re existentially lonely" is at the heart of everything i write. also, i suck at description so my endorsement of shields is self-serving.

    so - what do you think on the state of the novel with music played by shields in the background...??

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    Edward Mullany
    Feb 16, 02:45pm

    Thanks for posting, Finnegan...

    A good, recent long novel is 2666 (by Roberto Bolaño). It has none of the "throat-clearing" Shields mentions as something he objects to in much of today's long-form fiction.

    There are other exceptions to his suggestion that long, detailed novels will bore the contemporary reader (and Shields himself admits this), but he is on to something when he insists that writers must allow the current cultural conditions to reshape the form of their work. Readers sense the relevancy or irrelevancy of form even if they don’t know what form means.

  • Daviderlewine.thumb
    David Erlewine
    Feb 16, 03:05pm

    Interesting post and response here, Finnegan and Edward. Having just read 2666, I'm not 100% with you, Edward. True, I wouldn't call it throat clearing, but I felt about 100-150 pages of the 900 or so could/should have been reduced. I've read up that he didn't have a chance to finish edits before dying so I'm by no means taking a cheap shot (certainly not intending to) at Bolano. The book started strong for me but part 4 (which I'd heard so much buzz about) sort of began feeling more like an index to me. I didn't really feel the narrative pick up. But again I mainly read stories and, similar to what Finnegan says about himself, I struggle with descriptions. I think flash is what, if anything, I'll be writing for the rest of my days.

  • Frankenstein-painting_brenda-kato.thumb
    Sam Rasnake
    Feb 16, 03:41pm

    In terms of fiction, I find myself drawn more to compressed form - short stories and flash - and away from novels. Sometimes I wish I could write short fiction - but that's another story - no pun - all together.

    A fiction writer that I do enjoy a great deal - Jeanette Winterson - does use descriptive language, but not in a traditional sense - and certainly not "lush" as you mention Finnegan. I'm with you on that.

    But I'm no real judge - at least 75% - maybe 80 - of my daily reading material is poetry.

  • Pic.thumb
    Edward Mullany
    Feb 16, 04:17pm

    Re: 2666

    You make a good point, Dave, and maybe Shields would object to 2666 for what you aptly describe as “index[ing].”

    I do think there is a difference, as you suggest, between what we sometimes refer to as “throat-clearing” and the kind of indexing we see in parts of Bolaño’s novel.

    There is something about that book’s insistence on describing the crimes (isn’t there something like 100 of them?) that is antithetical to entertainment. But I think this speaks to an aspect of long-form fiction that Shields might underrate. What is required of the reader in these sections is a sort of sustained concentration that is, at least incidentally, a measure of the reader’s capacity to experience boredom. This might sound odd, but I think this kind of 'testing' is actually one of the purposes of long-form literary fiction.

  • Darryl_falling_water.thumb
    Darryl Price
    Feb 16, 04:24pm

    I think what you are seeing is a postmodern symptom of living in our own strangely mutating time. Things are happening fast. Unless you're an Avatar the life of a movie is probably about two weeks, more or less. We see bombs exploding as they go bang anymore. It's not like your father's Vietnam footage or your long-term musical advancement of a career either. Groups stick or go down. You either deliver the news,the goods, or get switched off.And a novel is usually news of the most serious kind to get--if you're lucky. The mind is a funny thing. I think it craves deep, engaging material whenever it can get it,be it in book form or not, but the mind wants to think it's hip and up to snuff. We're becoming more robot by the minute--with everything becoming an extension of what used to be our bodies, our minds, our souls. It's easier to let someone or something else do the quick thinking--the heavy lifting--for us while we eat ourselves silly and get solidly entertained with the ease of a little round button.I can think of at least one button that's almost always a lot more fun to play with.

  • Tux.thumb
    Gary Percesepe
    Feb 16, 04:42pm

    somebody once put phil (the scotter) rizzuto's baseball broadcasts of the Yanks to verse--

    can be fun

    just using the delete key i found dp's usual poetry at work in his post--

    which is more fun than reading shields--

    as so:

    Things are happening fast/ Unless you're an Avatar the life of a movie is two weeks/ We see bombs exploding as they go bang/ Like your father's Vietnam footaeg/ Groups stick or go down. You deliver the news/or get switched off/The mind is a funny thing/ It craves deep material when it can get it/ but wants to think it's hip and up to snuff/ We're becoming more robot by the minute/everything an extension of what used to be our bodies/It's easier to let someone else do the heavy lifting/while we eat ourselves silly/ and get solidly entertained/ with the ease of a little round button./At least one button's a lot more fun to play with.

  • Flawntnewsmall.thumb
    Finnegan Flawnt
    Feb 17, 05:04am

    oooh, i like it gary, i like what you did with darryl's exquisite post (love it like i love playing with buttons). i think he owes it to us/you to post this...

    i think the point that most resonated with me in the shields interview was his highlighting the lack of ideas and potentially scary ideas grounded in the big existential questions. in germany, where i regularly look over the new books, i see very little of that and it doesn't hang on the novel as a form - everywhere, little boys and girls write about their morning poop - often with quite a bit of cerebral surprise and a lot of musical dexterity, too.

    i also would not insist on emotional passion - that gets as tiresome as celebrating the cerebral throughout - what i insist on (and i may be augmenting rather than interpreting shields here, i don't know how deeply he really looks) is passion as an attitude of wanting to solve the problems of relationship, death and solitude. in every line in fact. dostoyewsky does that and tolstoy, even when he's sweeping across a battlefield or a meadow, or the morning dew, never loses sight of it.

    (sometimes i think english is not the most existential idiom on the planet. my mother tongue, german, is actually more suited to philosophical existential discourse (as is french when it comes to aesthetic questions) but, alas, i can't do it in german. perhaps i can't even do it in english, but i shall give it my best shot.)

    as for 2666 - i read the first couple of chapters only and it did not satisfy me much by way of ideas or depth. the writerly approach fascinated me at first but my soul quickly ran out of things to feed on. (my sister sent me this book as she sends me almost every fiction book from the US. maybe i dismissed it too early as an act of sibling rebellion.)

    nice playing, everyone!

  • Daviderlewine.thumb
    David Erlewine
    Feb 17, 08:22am

    "There is something about that book’s insistence on describing the crimes (isn’t there something like 100 of them?) that is antithetical to entertainment."

    So well put, Edward. I've been meaning to read some reviews of 2666 and see what other folks took from Section 4. I assume that partly it's the idea that each murder counts in full and must be honored....sort of fighting off the Stalin quote ("one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic"). I get that, for sure, but what surprised me was that I really struggled to find any greater meaning/power in Section 4 than I did. I kept waiting for an "aha!") moment where things began to make sense. I will say that 2666 is a book that should be read straight through (without reading other books at the same time). I failed in that regard, reading a number of other novels/SS collections b/w starting and finishing 2666. I think something was lost by doing that.

    In any event, Finnegan, your "sibling rebellion" line cracked me up. I know a number of folks who stopped reading this book well before finishing it.

  • Daviderlewine.thumb
    David Erlewine
    Feb 17, 08:24am

    "What is required of the reader in these sections is a sort of sustained concentration that is, at least incidentally, a measure of the reader’s capacity to experience boredom. This might sound odd, but I think this kind of 'testing' is actually one of the purposes of long-form literary fiction."

    Edward, this is fascinating. I'll give it some more thought. Very curious what others think, too. I do know that my reading is done at odd hours and in b/w changing diapers and a million other things. Amber Sparks mentioned taking a week off with her husband to do nothing but barricade themselves and read. I would love to do that and hope I make good on my promise to.

  • Darryl_falling_water.thumb
    Darryl Price
    Feb 17, 08:40am

    Things Are Happening Fast

    for Gary and Finn

    Unless you're an Avatar the life
    of a movie is two weeks.
    We see bombs exploding as they
    go bang.Like your father's Vietnam
    footage groups stick or go down.

    You deliver the news or get
    switched off.The mind is a
    funny thing.It craves deep material
    when it can get it but
    wants to think it's hip and
    up to snuff.We're becoming more

    robot by the minute--everything an
    extension of what used to be
    our bodies.It's easier to let
    someone else do the heavy lifting
    while we eat ourselves silly and
    get solidly entertained with the ease

    of a little round button.At
    least one button's almost always
    a lot more fun to play with.


  • Flawntnewsmall.thumb
    Finnegan Flawnt
    Feb 18, 02:37am

    in response to ed's interesting thought:

    i cannot remember a piece of long-form literary fiction where i experienced periods of boredom because i would not have finished such a book. i would concede that there are many books like that, which need to be "unlocked", where the pleasure of reading doesn't come to easy. but "boredom" is never a pleasure. are you, or were you, ever bored during a dream? i guess not.

    with john gardner (novel as dream), you should not break the reader's dream, ever. boredom most likely will achieve that. as do, interestingly, story-building attempts intended to keep the reader reading - often inserted in the novel during editing - they send the signal, by the manipulative writer: look how pretty i write now!

    the reader might respond gratefully (if the building element is artful) but he'll be distracted. this distraction will more often be an unconscious affair, since the manipulative writer (he who 'creates tension, buildup, surprise' and also 'boredom') is a clever bastard: he can make it look as if he's not leading the reader on. but the reader will notice.

    just like in real life, manipulated readers might buy your book and read it too, they might even agree on its literary value in society, but their soul will not appreciate it.

    the soul responds, i believe, to all the things dave shields highlighted in the interview: ideas that help the reader deal with his existence in one way or another, transported as a dream the reader can have himself as he reads.

  • Frankenstein-painting_brenda-kato.thumb
    Sam Rasnake
    Feb 18, 07:29pm

    Some readers are quite bored with Melville ... style, content, length. I'm not one of them - "Unlocked" is perfect word to apply to his novels.

  • Pic.thumb
    Edward Mullany
    Feb 19, 03:38pm

    I like Sam's mention of Melville in this context. There are chapters in Moby Dick that 'depart' from the story in order to classify the different types of whales. I wonder if Gardner would consider this an interruption of the "vivid and continuous dream."

  • Author.thumb
    Brian Mihok
    Feb 21, 02:25pm

    John Cage has a quote, "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all."

    I think this speaks to the idea that "boredom," while not every time, often says more about what we are bringing to a work rather than what it is bringing to us.

    When I first read this quote I had just been walking around an art installation. In fact, I remembered think about a few of the pieces, well this is kinda boring. Then I read that quote in gigantic letters at the top of a wall near the door. It struck me.

    Of course, this doesn't mean everytime you are disinterested it's your own fault, but that there is something to this "testing" Edward mentioned. I think I like that, Edward. Testing.

  • Flawntnewsmall.thumb
    Finnegan Flawnt
    Feb 24, 02:06pm

    brian, i love that quote by john cage. i met a friend a few days ago here in berlin who worked with cage in new york which is a nice synchronicity, and which brought my old fascination with cage's writing and work back to me. thanks!

  • Author.thumb
    Brian Mihok
    Mar 03, 12:01pm

    Yes! There was a tribute to him going on a big art space here called the Birchfield Penny in Buffalo. There was a weeks long program of different performances of different mediums inspred by Cage's work. It was pretty exciting.

  • Pss-cafe.thumb
    Philip Swanstrom Shaw
    Mar 09, 06:42pm

    Lush, good or bad, does not have to equal volume – and compressed OR lengthy can be rich AND economical.

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    Kane X. Faucher
    Apr 10, 08:57am

    I think what you describe in terms of maximum density in the minimum of space is precisely what can be called aphoristic writing. One wonders if it can be the aim of the writer to produce what I like to call "black holes" where, given density and mass, nothing - not even light - escapes.

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    Edward Mullany
    Apr 13, 03:47pm

    Kane's suggestion that the writer's work might be described as a "black hole" (see above) is a good one insofar as the goal of any artist is to exclude from his or her art object anything unnecessary. But my premise might be wrong - some artists might value the unnecessary.

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