Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Art of Theft.

An Amazon blurb, stolen in total:

"I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels," David Shields acknowledges in Reality Hunger, then seeks to understand how the conventional literary novel has become as lifeless a form as the mass market bodice-ripper. Shields provides an ars poetica for writers and other artists who, exhausted by the artificiality of our culture, "obsessed by real events because we experience hardly any," are taking larger and larger pieces of the real world and using them in their work. Reality Hunger is made of 600-odd numbered fragments, many of them quotations from other sources, some from Shields’s own books, but none properly sourced--the project being not a treasure hunt or a con but a good-faith presentation of what literature might look like if it caught up to contemporary strategies and devices used in the other arts, and allowed for samples (that is, quotation from art and from the world) to revivify existing forms. Shields challenges the perceived superiority of the imagination and exposes conventional literary pieties as imitation writing, the textual equivalent of artificial flavoring, sleepwalking, and small talk. I can’t name a more necessary or a more thrilling book. --Sarah Manguso

I cited Sarah Manguso, which feels like a mistake after having read such a provocative summary. I'm putting this book on my "to steal" list.

So, what do we think of this? How do we feel about Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music?" It's not exactly open-source theft, but, like MMM, Shields' book seems to be an affront to an established norm which is the type of incendiary idea that really gets the wheels turning. Why can you reappropriate visual media into art? Why can music use samples to form a new whole, a new cultural reference point? Is it perhaps that the rap listener is less interested in the origin of a dusty old guitar lick than a literarily-minded reader is in a particularly familiar idea/turn of phrase/plot/form/etc? Why can poetry be found, but not a novel? I have to craft mine from scratch, using the same antiquated form that's been around for hundreds of years as my roadmap, and I am implicitly required hide my artistic inspiration (re: theft) as deeply in the text as possible. Why not celebrate our inspirations by savaging them, cutting them to pieces, reconstructing them as we see fit in order to express a truly unique vision out of the familiar?

I'm not of the opinion that novels have become tiresome. I can tell you this:
1) I gravitate more toward established classics than newer work. Why is that? It's not that I think new authors are not worth my time. But perhaps there is a weariness there that I have not acknowledged, and have not really explored. I don't exactly know its cause. This is an age-old argument, old vs. new. Who's the best quarterback of all time? Arguments suited for a barstool. Er, coffeehouse stool? Let's go to the bar. You're buying.
2) Short fiction is far more likely to blow my mind simply because it does not seem bound in the strict traditions of the novel. Our literary lives were built on these traditions that, even when seriously bucked by writers like Faulkner and so on, still remain pretty rigidly intact. When a tornado takes out your house, for example, you don't all get together as a community and magically come up with new kinds of houses. There's one house we know-- when the tornado passes, we rebuild the house as we knew it, and get on with life. I'm not saying the novel is a boring form-- you can put all kinds of cool stuff in a house-- I'm just saying, wouldn't be cool if we weren't limited to that structure?

But then again, to follow Shields' example, I suppose the "new" house would be simply to rip off the designs of all the best houses already out there. And that would be the new house. He shouldn't have written a book at all. He should've skywritten it or something. Broke into Mike Tyson's house and tattooed it on his face. Faked his death and had the book performed via video will by mimes. That's the new form I'm looking for-- mass fake suicides + mimed video wills. The future is today.

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