Category: D’Agata, John

in defense of something or other and offense of something else

Read this fun hatchet job on John D’Agata’s essay anthologies in the ATLANTIC.

I remember noticing how he mis-quotes the opening of “Once More to Lake.” Other factual glitches made me go, huh? But I chalked it up to some experiment, or alienation devices. After all, he’s got the authority of Graywolf Press and Iowa Workshop behind him. I like being a forgiving reader, even if it means occasionally being played for a sucker.

I identify this upswelling of discourse against playing with fact and fiction, against the “post-fact” landscape, as an effort from the conservative or soft left wing of the humanities against, not so much Trumpism, but against work of critical theory over the last couple of generations.

William Deresiewicz himself couldn’t care less about this conflict. He’s condemned the elite university systems in toto, and I say hear hear to that. But his position here, as I see it, is classically liberal. Postmodernism is an empty signifier; these days I only hear it from old white heterosexual men, like the ones in the comments, too busy defending what little cultural authority they have left to seriously investigate what’s really going on here.

I suppose that is why I’m writing this post. I can’t stand bad (ie liberal) arguments for positions I agree with.

And I take this review as a quarrel within a liberal framework of cultural studies.

See, I’m into playing with the boundary between factual and creative writing. The most interesting of the mainstream writers, like Anne Carson or Laszlo Krasznahorkai, have been writing short story essays and essayistic short stories. Vollmann’s novels are more thoroughly researched than one of D’Agata’s intercalary texts in his anthologies. Blanchfield’s PROXIES is after the same risk of inaccuracy, but in a much more responsible way.

Blanchot misquotes Holderlin in his famous essay. Did he do it on purpose? Was he lazily relying on his memory? Whatever the case, it’s a re-inscription that we have to work with.

Remember that the hard line between facts and fiction is a recent development, a bourgeois development, in the history of writing. We can go way back to the Jewish mystical writers, taking down knowledge from the angelic library in the higher realm in their mystical trances in Catalonia. They freely mixed quotation from the standard medieval literature but also made up other sources without differentiating them. It was a perfectly acceptable idea for centuries that truth can emerge via fictional writing.

Granted, John D’Agata is no Moses de Leon.

The problem as I see it is that D’Agata and many contemporary writers and artists like him go about this respectable tradition the wrong way. (I haven’t read the AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FACT project, but everything I hear about it makes it sound like total bullshit.) They do it within the framework of authorship and private property. The old mystics and the classical novelists often elided their own authorship, because it gave their texts more power, in a way. The new guys are just “appropriation artists.” Kenneth Goldsmith’s stuff only seems interesting to the extent of how offensive it can be; maybe CAPITAL is good.

I was struck by Deresiewicz’s hostility toward the more modern and experimental pieces D’Agata picks. Gimmicky? the great Barthelme? The texts that do the most to break out of the conventional form of the essay are “formless, monotonous, self-indulgent, and dull”? D’Agata probably didn’t pick the best examples, going for a personal journey approach, which I kinda admired.

Deresiewicz has a conservative definition of the essay as a genre that fundamentally holds an argument and conclusion. I’m more sympathetic to the definition in the QUARTERLY CONVERSATION’S review; the essay as a representation of the rhythm of thinking. I’d merely define it as the representation of ideas, and they can be conclusive, suggestive, disjunctive, discontinuous, totally scatter-brained.

Why this hostility to the promiscuity that’s been going down in avant-garde writing for the last half century? The boundaries between poetry and prose, between the fiction and the essay, are bourgeois constructs meant to repress the inherent multiplicity of writing — not literature, writing.

“The multiplicity of writing” is the title of a short chapter in Raymond Williams’s amazing book MARXISM AND LITERATURE, and I can’t get over some of its insights. The novel/short-story and the essay are by definition hybrid genres. They can sustain any number of pre-existing prose forms: letters, Socratic dialog, history, biography, Romance, and so on. They do have something fundamentally in common in their mechanical workings, and Williams calls it the “Series.” The Series is specifically a series of conceptual propositions:

what really happened; what might (could) have happened; what really happens; what might happen; what essentially (typically) happened/happens. (148)

You can re-formulate this to talk about existence, what really existed, what could have existed, etc.

When was the last time any critics or theorists talked about the series? I think Williams’s analysis, and his old-school Marxism, deserve a comeback in these times.

Moreover, fiction and nonfiction as fields of writing each hold a paradox in their secret hearts. Nonfiction is conventionally subjective, but we expect it to be factual. Fiction is objective, that is, an objective world created by its author, but we value it for the truth it can reach.

The range of actual writing similarly surpasses any reduction of ‘creative imagination’ to the ‘subjective’, with its dependent propositions: ‘literature’ as ‘internal’ or ‘inner’ truth; other forms of writing as ‘external’ truth. These depend, ultimately, on the characteristic bourgeois separation of ‘individual’ and ‘society’ and on the older idealist separation of ‘mind’ and ‘world’, The range of writing, in most forms, crosses these artificial categories again and again.

So I post this partly as an effort to do better, as W.D. calls for at the very end of the review.

But this is also a basic plea, the same plea that under-girds this whole blog.

Please, folks, don’t hang up modernism just yet!

the making of the experimental essay(?)

John D’Agata ed.
Greywolf Press, 2016

“Brooklyn Is” by James Agee. D’Agata warns in the intro that “it is ten thousand words long, opening with a series of claustrophobic assertions that give us very little by way of a context. But then, very slowly, those assertions give way to observations, and those observations to scenes” (429).

The first assertion is that the masses of Brooklyn have a look “of drugged softness or narcotic relaxation” (433). More narcotic than the look of people on Manhattan. The island can be seen from Brooklyn, so they may appreciate what they have escaped by keeping it close at hand (with a dark analogy to the traumatized soldier who, on hearing thunder, is compelled to return to “what he has left in France”). Thesis statement: “All escapes are relative, and bestow their own peculiar forms of bondage.”

Agee has an excessive rhetoric and diction. He points out that urban life is host to many “horizontalities” and provincialism, but follows up with a jawbreaker sentence:

And again, this small-city quality is confused in the deep underground atomic drone of the intertextured procedures upon blind time of more hundreds on hundreds of thousands  of compacted individual human existences than the human imagination can comprehend or bear to comprehend. (434)

Yes, tons of people live in a close space in the city. The sentence overwhelms the prior insight, that a small-town dynamic exists in your city life (you go out and see the same doorman in your apartment, the same folks working the pizza joint around the corner, the same woman behind the desk at the local library branch etc).

“Deep underground atomic drone,” “intertextured procedures upon blind time,” “compacted individual human existences…” The third phrase could be easily condensed; the other two are verbose in a way that pushes from a philosophical gloominess into a near Lovecraftian scale of horror. This is why we love Agee.

Excess is the word. And I don’t just mean excess to describe his following sentences, all strung together by the conjunction or, often solid blocks on the page. There is also an excess of his language beyond his topic. Such an excess would be expected from the literature of Agee’s time, but if literature goes after an aesthetic “truth,” nonfiction of a journalist tradition has to get the facts — wouldn’t the techniques and rhetoric of literary prose get in the way?

Of course this is a false dilemma.  We know newspapers are often full of shit. And while we expect novels to be imaginative, they can also stuff themselves with facts, making them a welcome component of their imaginative projects. When Agee gives us a multi-paragraphed parenthesis,

(Observing the subway stations, in any part of Brooklyn, not in an hour of rush but in the leisured evening, you see this; how, wherever there is a choice of staircases, one toward Manhattan, one away, without thought or exception they descend the staircase toward the island. An imaginative designer would have foreseen this and would have omitted the alternatives entirely. [435]

I feel teased. So far Agee has given us this scientistic top-down yet opinionated view, and now moves into over-intellectual travelogue. No, having the Manhattan-bound and Brooklyn-bound lines in the same station is convenient. Just because the “fact” exists that Agee’s seen more folks using the island-bound stairs does not necessarily contain a normalizing “imaginative” value of island-bound stairs only. So this tease opens up the fact/value problem, which I think any reflective or experimental essay would touch on.

D’Agata tells us that Agee wrote to a friend (but he doesn’t cite it and I can’t find it elsewhere) that he has “a total suspicion of both ‘creative’ and ‘reportorial’ attitudes and methods, which therefore will require the development of more or less an entirely new form of writing.” Perhaps his beef was that the “creative” and the “reportorial” emphasize one or the other — too easy a solution for this dialectical relationship.

That new form may be a more eclectically structured essay, like the ones written by Susan Howe. They don’t have the rigor of theory or philosophy, but to use theory jargon, in their disorder they illuminate the materiality of lived experience.

The new form is like Agee’s description of Brooklyn: “though it has a ‘center,’ and hands, and eyes, and feet, it is chiefly no whole or recognizable animal but an exorbitant pulsing mass of scarcely discernible cellular jellies and tissues; a place where people merely ‘live'” (434).

And so he gives us information, but not in a way that adds up to a body. The info tumbles by in massive sentences, paratactically, with words like “gracilities,” referring to the animals in the Brooklyn zoo. It’s not an archaic word, just formal beyond belief (and the exact opposite of Agee’s style). It’s beautifully written information, but if people read nonfiction for the information, is the style superfluous at least for some? Maybe this question needs a reader-response theory, and I may have to close the books by dead smart people and head out to where people merely live.

gradual making


Ordered these two used anthologies some weeks back, but it’s D’Agata’s book this post will focus on.

The table of contents raised my eyebrows enough that I had to check it out: John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing”? one of Dickinson’s letters? pieces from works of fiction like MOBY DICK or Irving’s satirical “History of New York”? There’s an implication that the essayistic can exist in any other prose form.

Of course, D’Agata is at pains to emphasize the creativity of nonfiction, making is drilled home as the central concept and it was only almost annoying. Three imperative epigraphs from Whitman, Pound, and Ashbery: Make it simple, make it new, make it sweet again.  Yes, there is an irreducible element of fiction in the writing of history or essays. But D’Agata’s introductions to each essay seemed reticent to develop this insight further. I started to feel like the idea was intended to seem more controversial than I thought it was.

But the aspects of this book that frustrated me are also what make it interesting as an experimental kind of anthology. Traditional pedagogy doesn’t seem to be on the book’s agenda. Sure there’s canonical things like White’s “Once More to the Lake” and Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” but also terribly obscure work: it was interesting to go with “Portrait of Picasso” rather than something meaty from Stein’s Lectures in America, or a sports piece from Baldwin instead of “Notes of a Native Son.”

D’Agata’s introductory pieces could be coyly ambiguous, even subversive. There’s one intro for a non-existent essay. His remarks for Mark Twain’s book length essay “Letters from the Earth” amount to two sentences explaining the maritime meaning of “mark twain.” It’s not until later (I’ve read all the introductions before reading all the pieces) that D’Agata more explicitly connects the pieces — they are a fragmented essay stringing along these essays, in chronological order, from personal narratives and aphorisms to modernist avant-gardeism to new journalism.

A few of them explicitly provide context for the essays, but the vast majority of the time they only indirectly address the formal concerns of the essay or its historical situation. The book is divided into years, but they don’t seem to correspond to when the pieces were published. One inspiring intro comes before “In the Fifties” by Leonard Michaels, a paratactic string of sentences with nothing in common except they refer to things in the fifties. D’Agata discusses the historical amnesia rapidly enforced by US society after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, before finally ending with the journal of the Enola Gay’s bomber, which he apparently auctioned off for big money:

They are observations that appear to be unrelated on the page — his nots about the clouds, temperature, time, speed, his view of a city from thirty thousand feet, and then his view of smoke rings expanding out of the rubble…

Parataxis here is “a style of writing that levels everything in it equally, refuses to assign significance, and refuses responsibility.”

I also admired the climax at the end of the intro to James Agee’s “Brooklyn Is,” in which he brings up the old Penn Station’s great hall.

Maybe the building squeezed you down as it sucked you toward its gut, and maybe this was intentional, a stylistic trick to prepare you for that moment when the tunnels disappeared and the ceiling lifted up and the walls widened out as you flashed into a gleaming white atrium of light, its thin iron archways supporting a glass ceiling that was seven acres wide — a roof of pure sky — the largest indoor public space anywhere in the world, and one that felt so suddenly unburdensome to travelers that moving from that foyer to the Great Hall, as it was called, physically felt like having something lifted from our shoulders, the architectural equivalent of traveling, in other words, and the literary equivalent of being inside a sentence that is held aloft by language, by a vim of curiosity, and maybe by a little bit of fear of what comes next. 

There might be some confusion: shouldn’t the experience of a long sentence itself be the literary counterpart to the experience of the great hall? But still the performance is cool, demonstrating the value of Agee’s high-level rhetoric, using “And” as a way to make the aesthetic value and the discomfort of Penn station not become a contradiction, and repeated conjunction gives the sentence an American flavor.

The wide terrain of the essay genre in the hands of US writers presented here is galvanizing. Reportage is mixed with memoir and amazing experimental exercises. (Stein’s Picasso portrait was a special treat.) I feel his own essay, which encompasses the other essays, bears witness to how intertwined fiction and nonfiction, the traditional form of literature, are, while also acknowledging their autonomy. History is made by legions of people, and innovation comes gradually.