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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Too Tired for Demanding Literature

In his introduction to the book I am now reading, Rob Stephenson's excellent Passes Through, Lance Olsen notes that the book "is the opposite of an easy or fun book, at least by current Oprah-ized standards. It is, rather, a limit text — one that takes writing to the edge of readability, then challenges us to invent new ways to speak about its strangeness."

I love literature that does this sort of thing well, as Stephenson's does. I hunt for good examples of such writing to highlight on this blog (I rarely write about books I dislike.) But there is a practical problem most people have with reading such material: It isn't that they can not learn how to read it if given some instruction and time, it's that they are too damn busy and tired to read anything but Oprah-ized books.

I know. I feel an urge to read those books, or just watch tv, when faced with Stephenson's. I worked on computer web pages for seven hours today. I am exhausted, my eyes are tired, and doing more 'work' with my brain or my eyes is out of the question. How can I read Stephenson's book?

It is a question we who work in this field need to ask ourselves. While Lance, of course, is not accusing anyone of being lazy in their reading habits, he is implicitly pointing to the energy we expect of our readers. It's not unfair — nobody has to read our books. But is it impractical?

The answer is a resounding yes. Experimental literature is impractical to its very core; in fact, that may be one of its reason to exist. To display the limits of practicality.

But it is a privileged position to be able to question practicality. So many of us are so ensnared in it that we have little hope of participating in any more than a tangential way in the literary world. I suppose it is true that everyone involved in the literary world feels some alienation from it. But it is clearly true that some more than others feel this, and it has an impact on how we read and write.

The ironic thing is that this alienation may in the end be a blessing more than a curse. As Stephen Kuhn's Structuer of Scientific Thinking points out, a lot of new discoveries in science come to those new to the field. In other words, people for whom the dominant paradigm is known, but who still have not fully become ensconced in it. Creativity occurs in the gap between the dominant paradigm and the gradual awareness of its full implications.

Science is very different from literature, and its ways of knowing are much more rigidly policed and institutionalized. But there are similarities. And the liminal space of being in and out of the practical world, in and out of literary world, and so on, creates the space for some spectacular creativity.

But the problem is time and energy. The practical world, the very practical world that offers so much to what could be a good engagement with writing, can suck you dry, leaving any creative reading or writing unfinished.


  1. I enjoyed this post; thanks for writing! You said some things very succinctly that I wrangle with pretty frequently. Most especially I mean the bit about feeling an urge to watch TV when faced with brain fatigue.

    I'm curious to know what you think about experimental writers of the past (most notably people like Kerouac or Burroughs) and their effect on contemporary literature?

  2. Your question about Kerouac and Burroughs is an intriguing one, but I don't feel equipped to answer it. What type of contemporary literature are you talking about?