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Finding Traction

by Sven Birkerts

I seem to do most of my thinking about the future of literature on weekday mornings between nine and ten, sitting in a cloth-covered roller chair in a musty second-floor office that even Bartleby would have thought to spruce up a bit—which is to say, as I work through the most recent accumulation of AGNI submissions. Though I have described the process before in this column, I don’t feel that I’ve even begun to exhaust its implications, especially as they apply to the larger literary questions. For in truth I find it impossible to simply screen for interesting contents and not carry on a secondary meditation at the same time. Each new manuscript pulled from its envelope renews at some level the age-old questions about aesthetics and preference. Taking from the top of the fiction pile, for instance, I read: “John Maloney hunched his shoulders against the bitter wind coming off the lake.” I stop and respectfully slide the pages back into their envelope. The piece will be returned to its author.

Why? I could say a number of different things, and I will—because I voice them to myself and they seem to the point. I say (putting sentence- thoughts now to what would appear to an outside observer as a sequence of flinches, grimaces, and grumbling head-shakes), “This story is wooing me with a regular-guy protagonist. John Maloney—a name out of literary ‘Central Casting.’ The writer is making the enormous assumption that a common world exists and that he need only set John Maloney loose in it. He hits me right off with a trite exaggerated middlebrow verb in order to inject drama, but the word—‘hunched’—tells me that he has a secondhand, a ‘literary,’ idea of what a story is or might be. He is either young and inexperienced, or experienced and lazy. When a reader reads those words, she sees and feels absolutely nothing, or maybe gets a dull memory echo from the hundred thousand hunched shoulders she has met with in a lifetime’s reading. There is no attempt to welcome her to the Never Before.”

Of course, three words aren’t much of an indicator—anyone can fumble a handshake—and editors as well as readers are likely to extend, if only briefly, some benefit of the doubt. But the encounter with the adjective “bitter” takes care of that, telegraphing faster than anything that “hunched” was not a fluke, that this is not an invented but a received world, and that the writer is responding not to his perceptions or fresh imaginings, but to an idea of what writers sound like. This idea is very likely derived from an uncritical involvement in the middlebrow fiction that is the noise against which any real signal hopes to be heard. It is—and I harp on this because so much of what I read fits the description—as if the writer were hearing not the prompt of the creative Muse, but a voiceover track, or as if he were somehow already reading himself as he wrote. “John Maloney hunched—” That’s the stuff!

This is a negative way to begin, I know. Let me stress that my main impulse is not to poke fun (the sentence, by the way, is a pastiche, not part of an actual submission—though a pastiche based on the sentences I read morning after morning), but rather, to give a better picture of an editor’s mind state, vis-à-vis fiction in this case but really relating to the literary in general. Keep in mind that while making selections appears to be a process of saying yes, editing is much more realistically an almost continuous search for reasons to say no. One becomes a philosopher of the art in spite of oneself, for after there has been enough of saying no, the realization strikes—as sketchily suggested above—that while I seem to be responding on the basis of taste, of “I like this, I don’t like this,” the taste itself is conditioned by deeper aesthetic biases and valuations, and some reflection on these quickly exposes assumptions about what is viable—needed—in the literary culture, which is in turn a thinly veiled way of pronouncing on the outlook for meaning in general. Quite a jump, from John Maloney to the problem of meaning, but I make it dozens of times most mornings, which may explain why I feel so tired in the afternoons.

I will grant that I react differently to a piece of writing—and therefore think differently about the outlook for writing—when I’m responding to a great many samples at one go than I might in another context. But rather than dismiss my situation as anomalous, I value it as offering a particular kind of intensification, not to mention conferring certain insights not as readily available otherwise. The most salient—and to me, most interesting— has to do with what I think of as traction. “Traction” is my code for the way that a sentence or a paragraph or a page of prose lands, how it does or does not anticipate and then address the resistance of the open attention.

It may seem strange, if not outright perverse, that I would describe attention, a fundamentally receptive, hospitable state, using the idea of resistance. But if I am honest, this is exactly how the process feels. When I sit down with a huge stack of envelopes, each one containing some hard-won, deliberated expression, I am not the tabula rasa—the fantasied clean slate—that I perhaps ought to be. No, I am a man of my time, a besieged reader, creating a specific occasion within what is, day in and day out, for me as for most everyone, a near-constant agitation of stimuli, an enfolding environment of aggressively competing signs and mean-ings. And my attitude, when I remove a clump of print-covered pages from their envelope, is not “Send me more and more new information” but “Reach me, convince me that this news is different, that this is the news I need.” It is, as you see, a kind of receptivity, but a very qualified kind.

Because this is the editor’s—and in a way, all of our—situation, it is absolutely vital that the work, as I phrased it earlier, “anticipate and address” it, or at least write within the awareness of it. Most work does not, and I can tell right away when writing does, with whatever degree of success. This accounts for the fact—miraculous, but also downright suspicious to many—that I can go through a foot-high pile of submissions as quickly as I do. Keep in mind that I am not, initially, screening for thematic value—that is a second-stage deliberation. When I first run my eyes left to right down a page of prose I am looking, as reader, as editor, to see whether the writer understands that literary culture—culture in general—is no longer what it used to be, that the situation has changed completely from whatever it was even a decade ago. I check in to see whether the prose somehow records this primary recognition—if in no other way than by avoiding the myriad approaches and attitudes that no longer work.

To talk about cultural change at the level I need to is very difficult. In part because there is no obvious independent place to perch, but even more because no one believes that anything has changed at a deeper level. When it comes to the things that affect us at that level, everyone seems to be from Missouri. Not many people will own that in the last decade, by degrees but inexorably, the digitized mediated world has closed up around us, making the seal complete, installing layers of signal between ourselves and the former world, and that in the process the basic nature of our experience has altered. Not in a point-to-it obvious way, more in a “God is dead” kind of way—at the level of the transparent ground of things. Which is not to say that most Americans don’t still believe in God-the-Father. But we have to believe that artistic necessity evolves.

And our situation? As data and image supplanted the authority of the actual, foreground and background collapsed into each other; we entered what writer G. S. Trow years ago dubbed “the context of no context,” a zone of relativism untethered to the old material world and its various orders. And with that change our relation to the former world—to history, to literature—altered, subtly but absolutely. All interactions and transactions now take place in a different gravitational field, and if the man on the street won’t acknowledge it, the artist has to.

Postmodernism had the inkling and offered the first conspicuous response—postmodernism with its manifold ironies and its endless play with recycled narratives. But postmodernism is gone, and a great deal of writing seems to be working in the spirit of the status quo ante—as if there were any going back from such re-castings of reality. I don’t feel smart enough to think the whole business through—the totality of the situation is too daunting. For my part, I measure the extent and nature of change by monitoring my responses to things on (and off ) the page, by noting all the former approaches that no longer seem to work and then wondering why. Like a man tracking an eclipse through a cardboard pinhole, I measure the transformation of culture by zeroing in on what can and can’t be said—rather, what I do and don’t respond to.


Obviously I’ve gotten onto an enormous topic now, one that a short editor’s introduction can only brush up alongside. I can’t go into all the reasons why things have come to such a pass, nor can I prove that they have (if what I have written so far makes no sense, then what follows will not bring you around), nor can I enumerate which strategies are in my view now defunct. But I can, maybe, touch a little more on this question of “address” and the ways that I think about it.

Basically—short version—a work of prose (or poetry) can no longer assume continuity, not as it could in former times. It cannot begin, or unfold, in a way that assumes a basic condition of business as usual. The world is no longer everything we thought was the case, and the writing needs to embody this—through sentence rhythm, tone, camera placement, or some other strategic move that signals that no tired assumptions remain in place. This writing must, in effect, create its own world and terms from the threshold, coming at us from a full creative effort of imagination and not by using the old world as a prop. Now, this last is a tricky assertion and it will be very hard to make clear, not to mention binding. I don’t mean for a moment that the world as we know it cannot be invoked, or used, or dissected. Of course it can. But it cannot be taken simply on faith, as unproblematic, treated as a natural signifier; nor can it be cashed in as if it were a treasury bond from the literature of a former era.

That’s another problem with “John Maloney hunched his shoulders against the bitter wind coming off the lake.” The sentence acts as if writing were just a matter of supplying the declarative sentence in the old straightforward manner of Hemingway. But—never mind the time warp of the high school English class—between Hemingway and ourselves falls the shadow. Of the transformation of the world. Of the transformation of our consciousness of the world and of the language structures that reflect that consciousness. The old naively asserting sentence is on the endangered species list; it can no longer be used with simple reference to a common reality. That sentence, with all of its encoded assumptions about the world, must now create its terms before it can be put to work. We are back to the blizzard conditions of the white page, and the writer’s terrible anxiety about what might hold fast on that page. I cannot propose what will, I can only say that the acute recognition of what cannot determines my sorting morning after morning.

“John Maloney shrugged” cannot make a place for itself, except as an obvious parody of a former mode. There is no plain reality such as the one John has been placed in, and there is no more “shrugging”—if there ever was to begin with. At least not of the hammer-hits-the-knee-and-the-leg-goes-up variety. For a writer to create the coordinates of a reality with these markers, though it’s done all the time, is a lie, if a benevolent one, and for that writer to then pass it off as a representation of human action in our world is a compounding of that lie. I exaggerate, of course. Poor John Maloney has done nothing but shrug his beefy shoulders, and I’m already declaring a literary crisis. Bear with me. I’m quite serious. It’s not just that John Maloney’s shrugging is wrong, planting us in the illusion of an old continuity, but the assertion is also not enough. The phrase has not used language to cut into the world, to scratch the resistance, nor does it indicate in any way that it knows what it is trying to slip past us.

Writing that works in our day finds ways to indicate that the writer gets it that from now on creative verbal expression is understood as problematic; that it is understood as a gesture undertaken in the face of saturation, in a world that no longer assumes automatic correspondence between word and correlative object or action; that the writer recognizes that expression must in one way or another muscle against the data stream, must create a context for itself in the context of no context.

We should be alert, but not despairing. The job can be done, is being done. Writers are ingenious, and the pressure to mark the self on the world, how ever inhospitable that world has become to such marking, is very great. Fresh good work breaks through again and again—I can testify—each piece finding purchase and launch in its own way, and if you want to get a heartening sense of ongoing possibility, I invite you to take a close look at the work assembled here. I can shill for it freely because it is not my own work. But I can also ask it to help make my argument for me. Keep these critical musings—this declaration of literary emergency—in mind as you read, and see if you do not agree: that no matter the setting, situation, or characters (or, for nonfiction, the premise), these pieces have connived to bring to life the world they invoke and use. They confirm, for me, the continuity of the venture (as do the poems, though that is another subject, another introductory essay) and give evidence that the new order of things can still allow for complex responsive art. This—coming across some unexpected new thing, seeing reality refracted in ways I’d never imagined—is what continues to make editing a job to wake up for; it more than redeems the seen-better-days atmosphere of my immediate surroundings.


Sven Birkerts is editor of AGNI.

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AGNI Magazine :: published at Boston University ©2008 AGNI