essay canon bonus B — “Rupture, Verge, and Precipice, Precipice, Verge, and Hurt Not” by Carole Maso

The Puppetmaster by Hao Hsiao-hsien, found here
The Puppetmaster by Hao Hsiao-hsien, found here

[CN: Sexism, assault]

It seemed to be everywhere in the texts from the 90s. Endless think pieces and interview snippets from the literati as it contemplated its impending demise. The meanie bo-beanie feminists and theorists taking over the University, vandalizing Harold Bloom’s precious *~Western Canon~* and pasting “check your privilege” signs on the walls. Jonathan Franzen is perhaps the most shameless of these voices, persisting into the new millennium (with a great counterblast by Ben Marcus). But even David Foster Wallace, in a really enjoyable review essay on Dostoyevsky and Joseph Frank’s biography, cant help but throw in a bit of culture war curmudgeonry at the end.

Woe is them; the novel and the printed word are dead; the kids these days don’t read literary fiction anymore; the image dominates society; theory and PoMo weirdness have fucked up the American novel beyond redemption, draining it of the human subject these cishet d00ds were so used to seeing reflected back at them; we’re looking at the post-literate generation; yadda yadda yadda. (And i write this as someone who reads DWG [dead white guy] literature all the time and with relish. And im saying the DWG canon is what it is.)

There’s a lot i could say in response to this, but why bother when the last word was so perfectly stated in a 2000 experimental essay by Carole Maso?


You are afraid. You are afraid, as usual, that the novel is dying. You think you know what a novel is: It’s the kind you write. You fear you are dying.

Who is the “you?” Middlebrow realists like Franzen? The experimentalists with a straight-is-hip attitude such as DFW and John Barth? The cultural gatekeepers and taste makers like James Woods, taking a dump on anything interested in challenging naturalism or the authenticity of human experience? All of the above and more, i suspect. Maso disputes in toto the framework of the discussion, highlighting its pretenses to a neutral, overseer perspective, its dangerous false dichotomies.

You say hypertext will kill print fiction. You pit one against the other in the most cynical and transparent ways in hopes we’ll tear each other to bits.

The “you” is the menz who keep on ruling the world, and not just the world of letters. It’s the men who brought forth the horrors of the atomic bomb after an atrocious world war, and then toppling democratic societies in Africa and Latin America as part of the Cold War game; the men who invaded Vietnam.

You who said “hegemony” and “domino theory” and “peace with honor.”

Maso’s thrilling style of atomized lines puts in the foreground the disparate concepts she’s mixing together (the culture wars, the Cold War, “six million dead”) in order to sustain their disparate nature. It’s not just bc it’s weirder this way, or bc “this is how our subjectivity really is, maaan,” but actually to hold more true to the material that she’s working in; like she wants to keep it dis-integrated rather than synthesize it for us and spoon-feed us the same myths that we get from conventional messages. The New Yorker story “belongs in a museum.”

She gives the lie to all this cultural elegizing — it’s really the boys being upset that they’ve lost control over the circle of belonging; that they can no longer police literary merit. She highlights the misogyny of the status quo:

All the dark deserted roads you’ve led me down, grabbing at my breasts, tearing at my shirt, my waistband: first date.

Second date: this is how to write a book.

Third date: good girl! Let’s publish it!!!

Fourth date: will you marry me?

White men really don’t like it when they realize that they’re being ignored. It’s not like the canon has gone anywhere (not at my alma mater anyway). These guys value the DWG canon bc to them it helps construct the pleasures and virtues of human citizenship. There’s just now a lot of marginalized people, who have always been here, who are now talking to each other and the finding voices that the canon does not enunciate. It seems to me that these guys are saying it’s the fault of TWoC and the rest of the marginalized that at the end of the day ~Teh Canon~ has less to say to them than “second-rate” work.

DFW said that fiction explores what it is to be a fucking human being. Sure. And there is folx who dont have the luxury of being a human being in the lens of normative citizenship. The violence of misogyny and transmisogyny and white supremacy are in part an aggressive response to the unintelligibility of Black people, of TWoC, of gays (who aren’t cis white men). They’re outside the definition of human, bc the default human as sketched by Enlightenment philsophy is a cishet white d00d. The privileged can blow this off as “petty politics,” that we’re all stupid for choosing something else over the klassics bc “we disagree with them.” For me this text highlights the glorious possibilities of literature which constructs for us the images and symbols that can frame the liberation of the people.

Saving the best of what was good in the old. Not to discard indiscriminately, but not to hold on too tightly, either. To go forward together, unthreatened for once.

The future is Robert Wilson and JLG. The future is Hou Hsiao-hsien. The future is Martha Graham, still.

Maso is emphatic that there’s room in the canon for adjustment, for more artists; that it’s only you d00ds who see more inclusion as a threat of their own exclusion.

April 1995 in New York City and the long-awaited Satyajit Ray Festival begins. For years he’s been kept from us. Who decides, finally, what is seen, what is read, and why? And how much else has been deleted, omitted, neglected, ignored, buried, treated with utter indifference or contempt?

Some of Maso’s “you” likes to scapegoat the avant-garde. But naturalism is still king. Franzen proves himself wrong every time a new novel about a white middle class family in the Midwest becomes a seller and a critical darling. Some of the anti-anti-realist think pieces i inflict on myself are really something: they draw back in horror from the experimental like it’s the bogey man out to destabilize the institution when print literature is already dying (words like “rabid” and “irrational” have been thrown at Zadie Smith, gross! right?), and then, seemingly in the very same line, gloat about how “small” and annoying these small press books and manifestos are.

Granted the new century with its internet and high-quality TV dramas have created stiff competition for words that appear on pages or e-readers. But these same technologies have expanded people’s imaginations about what literature, authorship, and intellectual property can be. “Postliterate” is an odd label for the generation that has produced the longest continuous narrative in English. The kids these days are reading, if not mainly literary novels; they’re reading fan fictions, and DIY anarchist zines, and continental philosophy, and ground-up theory, science fiction, erotic poetry, micro blogs, and creepy pastas. (And quite a few of us still find room for DFW.)

There are some beautiful passages toward the end of the piece, and they were my first choice for an excerpt. Instead im going to the middle of the text, where among other things Maso depicts a woman on a train. The moment seems to be reaching for a quasi-utopian space that levels racial and gender privilege. She evokes a matriarchal canon of innovative woman authors. It’s an optimism of taking advantage of new technology to bring recognition to the margins of literary art, and in so doing revise the established notions of “good” and “great.”


“Rupture, Verge, and Precipice, Precipice, Verge, and Hurt Not” by Carole Maso

The future is feminine, for real, this time.

The future is Emily Dickinson and Emily Bronte and Gertrude Stein still. The future is still Maya Deren and Billie Holiday.

Language is a rose and the future is still a rose, opening.

It is beautiful there in the future. Irreverent, wild.

The future is women, for real this time. I’m sorry, but it’s time you got used to it.

Reading on a train by the light the river gives. The woman next to me asleep. Two plastic bags at her feet. Lulling, lovely world. And I am witness to it all—that slumber—and then her awakening—so vulnerable, sensation streaming back, the world returned, the river and the light the river gives, returning language, touch, and smell. The world retrieved. I am privileged to be next to her as she moves gracefully from one state to the next, smiling slightly. I recognize her delight. It is taken away, and it is given back. The miracle and mystery of this life in one middle-aged black woman on the Metro North next to me. The Hudson River widening.

Let all of this be part of the story, too. A woman dreaming next to water.

The future: all the dreams we’ve been kept from. All the things yet to dream.

An opening of possibility. A land of a thousand dances.

I want sex and hypersex and cybersex, why not?

The river mysteriously widening, as she opens her eyes.

We can say, if we like, that the future will be plural.

Our voices processed through many systems—or none at all.

A place where a thousand birds are singing.

“The isle is full of noises. . . .”

A place without the usual dichotomies. No phony divisions between mind and body, intelligence and passion, nature and technology, private and public, within and without, male and female.

May we begin a dialogue there in the future. May we learn something from each other. Electronic writing will help us to think about impermanence, facility, fragility, and freedom, spatial intensities, irreverences, experimentation, new worlds, clean slates. Print writing will allow us new respect for the mark on the page, the human hand, the erasure, the hesitation, the mistake.

Electronic writing will give us a deeper understanding of the instability of texts, of worlds.

Print writing will remind us of our love for the physical, for the sensual world. And for the light only a book held in one’s hands can give. The book taken to bed or the beach—the words dancing with the heat and the sea—and the mouth now suddenly on my salty neck.

Electronic writing shall inspire magic. Print writing shall inspire magic. Ways to heal.

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