I want my edition with the subtraction!
May 16, 2011 2:20 PM   Subscribe

In such a world maximalism and encyclopedism, erudite puzzle solving, simply feel like more of the same, and the last thing we need is more of the same. We need less, much less: we don't need fiction that cultivates the general noise in a slightly more erudite way but still plays by the same rules; we need fiction that strips its way down to our nerves and fibers, simulations that are willing to cut enough of our context away to let us step outside of our own increasingly simulated experience and to see it afresh, from without.
Brian Evenson, "Doing Without," an essay in The Collagist
(could also be titled "How a mistake in the digital conversion of a Cory Doctorow novel [see difference between print and electronic version] made me think about the meaning of innovative literature")

And in case you want to read the fantastic short story "Windeye" that Evenson mentions in the last section, it's online at PEN.
posted by jng (10 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks so much for posting this! (I'm the editor there.) I'm glad you enjoyed the essay.
posted by mdbell79 at 3:31 PM on May 16, 2011

Lovely points about Joyce. I read him in a class as part of a fully mediated experience.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:07 PM on May 16, 2011

This was a good read.

I keep coming across people who are turning away from maximalism. The best literary blogs I've found in the past year or two are a lot more interested in Beckett, Bernhard, Henry Green, or Maurice Blanchot than in the likes of Pynchon or DFW. I'm starting to think it's an actual trend.

(I was going to post a few paragraphs from the great Hugh Kenner about the importance of "subtractive gestures" in Ulysses, but I guess that would be furthering the mediation of a book that ought to be experienced firsthand.)
posted by twirlip at 5:21 PM on May 16, 2011

Fantastic essay! I wish I had more to say, but it was really well written and a great insight.

Also, QFT

About the writing of James Joyce: "Even when he's playing a polka we can't help but think it's the best fucking polka we've ever heard."
posted by Chipmazing at 5:34 PM on May 16, 2011

I guess that telling an otherwise conventional ("maximalist"?) story in a Twitter feed or something would be a very basic example of the minimalism that this essay advocates. There are stories like that, we've had threads about them. They do some pretty interesting things to convey action in a hundred-and-forty character limit.

At the conclusion, the essay suggests that the reason why we need more minimalist fiction is because we're so overloaded on maximalism in other contexts; and therefore maximalism sets up barriers between our experiences and those of others (and more generally between things and other things). But telling a story through a Twitter feed, though obviously a rather restricted mode of expression, certainly doesn't introduce any confusion about what the text is, or what it's trying to say.

So I think that property of fiction is really orthagonal to the minimal/maximal dichotomy.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:26 PM on May 16, 2011

You've set up a straw man there, LogicalDash. A conventional story told via Twitter doesn't "strip its way down to our nerves and fibers" just because it's on Twitter. Part of the problem here is that Evenson never really links his point about formatting to the rest of what he has to say; he uses it as a starting point, and more or less abandons it once he gets to the stuff about maximalism, which is what really interests him.

I think Evenson is calling for something more like this:
All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one square yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just. Traces blurs light grey almost white on white. Hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle. Light heat white planes shining white bare white body fixed ping fixed elsewhere. Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white. Bare white body fixed white on white invisible. Only the eyes only just light blue almost white. Head naught eyes light blue almost white silence within. Brief murmurs only just almost never all known. Traces blur signs no meaning light grey almost white. Legs joined like sewn heels together right angle. Traces alone uncover given black light grey almost white on white. Light heat white walls shining white one yard by two. Bare white body fixed one yard ping fixed elsewhere.
That's a very extreme example (it's from Ping by Samuel Beckett), but the point is that it's a "story" with no plot, no real characters, no attempt at showing off how clever he is by filling his text with puzzles or allusions or striking metaphors. Beckett does without all that stuff, resorts to the bare minimum -- a nearly empty scene, a trick of repetition -- and the result is incredibly powerful: it expresses, very simply, something fundamental about human experience that can't be adequately expressed in any other way.
posted by twirlip at 8:21 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Twirlip, thanks for sharing that Beckett piece. Great example. Heartily agree with your points. It is indeed the innovations in the subtracting of ornamental content (and content, period) that is the meat here, though perhaps you give a bit of short shrift to his thoughts on formatting (for instance his mentioning of Bernhard's non-paragraphing and arbitrary usage of italics to induce irrationality and ambiguity, though I guess that's more style than it is formatting in new media the way you're talking about?)

Just a few thoughts to add: What's great about Evenson writing this is that he comes at it from both ends. If I had to put him in one camp of the other, I'd say he's a subtracter, but he's also capable of writing stories that are the very epitome of maximalist literature. See for example the highly stylized Moran's Mexico, which features footnotes, foreign phrases, and real and made-up references (Otto quitzow verlag: real; critic Simon Bladlock: fake). But most of his stuff is much more allegorical and elusive; perhaps they are also puzzles to be solved, but there's so little to play with in some of these that they can often feel like just empty, white shells of rooms populated by disembodied voices, ones completely disconnected from our own world (one examples from same collection: Calling the Hour).

So I appreciate how he acknowledges that literature will inevitably bounce back towards maximalism at some point or perhaps splinter off into others; with statements like that, it seems as if he's not making a value judgment per se about whether watching an orchestra perform is better or worse than a man play a broken guitar in the dark; but after a couple decades of watching orchestras, the broken guitar just seems more appropriate for right now.
posted by jng at 11:11 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

jng, Evenson's occasional maximalism, though, seems to be tied to first person narration, and even in "Moran's Mexico" it tends toward the clarity and spareness of Jorge Luis Borges, both in plotting and language. That is, he's interested in the voice of the encyclopedia (or the too literal encyclopedist), but not so much its stuffings.

Coming down the mountain of a recent Evenson binge, I'm impressed by the range of effects he achieves with the kind of subtraction he talks about in this article. His stories about two nameless girls (and often their nameless parents, though one at least is usually out of the picture)--"The Ex-Father," "Girls in Tents," and "Younger" are the ones that come to mind--are remarkably tender, while also being chilling and wholly unsentimental. At the other end of the spectrum, his novel _Last Days_ pares down both the characters and the plot of the hardboiled detective story to achieve something like Beckett doing Mickey Spillane (or I suppose Dashiell Hammett, though the particular bloodiness and the protagonist's occasional stab at self-justification seems more like Spillane to me): everyone gets mutilated, everyone gets shot--there is no outside to escape to.
posted by Idler King at 4:50 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Idler, you nailed the Borges thing. Whenever I stumble on any encyclopedia stories or found document tales, I can't help but think of "Tlon, Uqbar, Obis Tertius," which is a real mindfuck--I'm almost surprised Borges wasn't mentioned in the article (or Nabokov for that matter) because they'd seem to fit right in in this conversation. But indeed, I re-read "Moran's Mexico" and you're right, it's way more spare than I remember. It's neat to think about how that story is innovative in the same way that he describes Joyce as being innovative--it just happens to have these bursts of ornamentation which sort of mask the underlying subtractive qualities of the story. All this makes clear that maximalism and its opposite need not be binaries nor that a piece of literature needs to be judged on some sort of linear Moh's Scale of Maximality. As exemplified by Joyce, fiction can inherit both qualities.
posted by jng at 7:46 AM on May 17, 2011

Oh, I too do love me some Brian Evenson. Here's some of his work online (though you should just go ahead and get The Wavering Knife, like, right now. And then Fugue State [which has a hilarious send-up of the book publishing industry, which hits me near and dear] and Altmann's Tongue, for sure, immediately after):

The Ex-Father (as mentioned by Idler, a holy shit I can't believe how messed up this is going and when you finish you just want to either a) crawl under your bed and shake or b) go home and hug your child tight)
White Square (philosophy, religion, symbols...)
The Intricacies of Post-Shooting Etiquette (does what it says on the tin; I laughed out loud in parts, which might make me a bad person...)
the aforementioned Windeye (and a video of Evenson reading it along with a few other stories)
Stung and Stockwell (unnerving!)

Two interviews with him: Gigantic and The Faster Times

And for Evenson news, you can usually count on Blake Butler's HTMLGIANT.
posted by jng at 8:08 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

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