Eye kicks and allophanes: the art of literature according to George Bowering

December 12, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

How I Wrote Certain of My Books. George Bowering; $19.95 paper 978-1-894469-55-5, 168 pp., Mansfield Press

In my early days as review editor at Quill & Quire, I received an e-mail from George Bowering complaining about the number of typos that had found their way into the magazine. In particular, he singled out a reference to “Columbia” as referring to the South American country. (The fact that a TTC subway ad for the sitcom Modern Family on CITY-TV made the same mistake some years later remains cold comfort.) While being suitably embarrassed about my lack of due diligence and attention to detail, I would be lying if I didn’t confess to being a bit chuffed that George Bowering not only read the magazine I help edit, but took the time to write to me expressing his disappointment. Behind the chastisement was a very real and abiding concern for language that is everywhere in the author’s published work.

It is easy to forget that when Bowering burst onto the scene in the 1960s, CanLit as we know it today did not exist. It was largely due to the efforts of the TISH collective – Bowering, along with fellow poets Frank Davey, Daphne Marlatt, and Fred Wah, among others – and figures such as House of Anansi Press founders Dennis Lee and David Godfrey that Canadians began to take their national literature seriously.

Bowering has always been one of the most outspoken, irascible, and determinedly experimental writers in the Canadian literary pantheon. In his book, The Only Poetry that Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing, Clint Burnham claims the TISH poets “contested” the avant garde tradition of Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, and Robert Duncan, but this throwaway description discredits the very real influence these poets – especially Olson and Spicer – had on Bowering’s developing aesthetic. (To be fair, it is possible, if not probable, that Burnham means “contested” in the sense of “competed with” rather than “disputed.”)

Bowering refers to both Olson and Spicer in discussing A Short Sad Book, his 1977 text that ABC Bookworld says “has been categorized as a novel only for lack of a better definition.” Along with Robert Kroetsch, Bowering is one of the Canadian writers most frequently associated with the term “postmodernism” (although Bowering has always cleaved more closely to the literary avant garde than Kroetsch ever did). Although he claims to have been writing under the influence of Gertrude Stein (who, “of all the great Modernist writers … was the one who seemed kind of postmodern”), Bowering credits Olson with introducing him to the word, meaning something “post-historical, or rather something like his ‘Special View of History.’ As Olson was a kind of lapsed Catholic, he probably first heard it as it was used by the Church around the turn of the twentieth century.” As for Spicer, in addition to pointing out allusions to his work in A Short Sad Book, Bowering also credits him as “an important source for the efforts of the book to foreground everything, thus obviating perspective, making there here.”

These are the kinds of observations one finds throughout How I Wrote Certain of My Books, a mostly congenial, chatty consideration of more than twenty-five works from the author’s impressive output. The title is cribbed from Raymond Roussel, “patron saint of the Surrealists, the nouveau roman people and especially the OuLiPo crowd”; the borrowing testifies to Bowering’s habit of incorporating lines and allusions from the work of others into his poetry and prose writing, a habit that aligns him (perhaps unexpectedly) with such au courant apologists for collage and literary appropriation as David Shields and Jonathan Lethem. The gloss on Oulipian writing also attests to Bowering’s fascination with this literary movement, inaugurated by French writer Raymond Queneau and carried on through the work of Georges Perec and Italo Calvino right down to such contemporary Canadian practitioners as Christian Bök and André Alexis. Bowering repeatedly attests to writing books based on externally imposed “constraints,” mirroring the Oulipians and anticipating the impetus behind the Lars von Trier/Jørgen Leth film The Five Obstructions:

I had to set up a constraint that was not complicated but that was strict. Well, when I was a kid my favourite number was 3. When I was a young man it was 9. Now it is 27. So Shall I Compare is a love poem to Jean Baird, and it is interested in numbers. It enumerates her attractive parts, starting with her hair and heading for her toes. Each day there is a little poem made of twenty-seven words. Each has three step-down stanzas, and each step is made of three words. 3 x 3 = 27. Go thee forth and multiply, I heard the guy say. It adds up, I say, to a loving male gaze.

The alphabet is a favourite source for Bowering’s constraints, as becomes clear in his discussion of “Irritable Reaching,” a twenty-six page work that focuses each page on an acrostic poem dedicated to a different Canadian artist. “To make this a little more difficult, I decided that each poem would be composed of two stanzas, because the subjects’ names were in two pieces – well, except for the poem about novelist C.J. Newman. Okay, that was pretty difficult.” In addition, the poems had to make use of end rhyme and metre, “a couple of the oldest constraints I know.” Bowering’s joy in all of this is infectious; other Canadian scribes could do worse than read How I Wrote Certain of My Books and take note of how frequently the author employs the word “fun” to describe his writing.

One emerges from a reading of Bowering’s book with the overwhelming sense of having been for a moment in the company of a prodigious talent who has written voluminously, but also with a kind of sadness that the author is not better known by the general public in 2011, and that, despite having twice won the Governor General’s Literary Award, his work is not more readily available. The relative lack of interest in Bowering’s work cannot entirely be explained by its experimental nature: the author is approachable enough when he wants to be, and in the chapter on his feminist neo-Western Caprice, he displays a sensibility that spans both high and popular culture. (Bowering, it should be noted, was experimenting with the clichés and tropes of the Western genre decades before Patrick DeWitt gained acclaim and award recognition for writing The Sisters Brothers.)

Perhaps his provocatively anti-American tendencies are partially to blame; how it must have rankled in some quarters when in 2002 Bowering was named Canada’s inaugural Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Or perhaps it is the impression he conveys, implicitly in some cases, more directly in others, that he is smarter than the rest of us, and that he knows it. “Oh it was fun writing this sequence,” he says at one point (and note the return of that significant “f” word), “and embedding little secrets for the Romantics teachers to find. My daughter’s name was and is Thea. Section VII, which dopily adumbrates Shelley’s ‘Queen Mab,’ claims that ‘I & Thea’ took a ride in the faerie’s car. If you get it, I apologize.” It’s little wonder those who don’t get it might feel condescended to; after five decades in the trenches of a national literature he helped to create and nurture, Bowering has arguably earned the right to a bit of this haughty tone.

Art and theft, or, what’s good for the goose

November 14, 2011 by · 3 Comments 

We live in interesting times.

If you’re of a literary bent, you’ve no doubt heard of the case of one Q.R. Markham, a writer whose espionage novel, The Assassin of Secrets, was pulled from shelves last week when its publisher, Mullholland Books, an imprint of the U.S.-based Little, Brown and Company, discovered that large parts of it were plagiarized from at least a dozen other sources, including novels by Charles McCarry and Robert Ludlum.

Markham is the pen name of Quentin Rowan, the co-owner of a bookstore in Brooklyn, New York. And his brazen attempt to pass off appropriated work as original to him apparently worked for a time: before the plagiarism came to light, Kirkus Reviews said that the novel “moves through familiar territory with wry sophistication” (although not recognizing why the territory was familiar, or from whence the sophistication derived); author Greg Rucka called the book “very, very, very smart;” and author Jeremy Duns referred to it as an “instant classic.”

Duns in fact corresponded with Rowan prior to the book’s publication, provided a blurb, and did an interview with the author, all without realizing that the book he was promoting was compiled from excerpts of other people’s writing, skilfully stitched together to form a narrative Duns himself admits was “coherent.” On his blog, Duns provides a heartfelt apologia, writing in part, “I really did enjoy the novel, which seemed to me to combine all the familar tropes I like about spy fiction into one book, but to use some wonderful imagery and language to do so. I gave it the best quote I could.” In a follow-up post, Duns reflects on what he specifically admired about the style of Rowan’s novel, before he was aware of how it was created:

[A] great part of the appeal of Assassin of Secrets, to me anyway, was what I felt to be its post-modernism, albeit in a very different way. It reminded me of several other novels – sadly, not the ones he plagiarized! It reminded me in parts of Cockpit, Jerzy Kosinki’s 1975 novel about a former spy called Tarden, which contains a lot of dazzling writing but reads as fragmentary excerpts. This is perhaps not all that surprising, as Kosinski has also been exposed as a plagiarist (long after he was published, and won many awards), and Cockpit is now thought to have been a compilation of pieces by several unknown writers Kosinski commissioned and then assembled, partially helped by a young Paul Auster.

It also reminded me in parts of David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive. Like Cockpit, that film is compelling not for its plot, which is unfathomable or non-existent, but in the way it plays with our memories of and feelings for genre conventions. Both Cockpit and Mulholland Drive feel like dreams, where narrative rules are abandoned, leaving dead-ends that allow the reader or viewer to step in and find their own resonances.

Here we come to what is perhaps the crux of the matter. Duns admired what he presumed was the postmodern approach Rowan’s novel was adopting, an approach resembling both a novel that is itself suspected to be a work more of collage than original writing and a film that dispenses with the conventions of traditional narrative. To readers of David Shields’ widely praised manifesto, Reality Hunger, all of this should sound strikingly familiar. Indeed, this brand of appropriation and stitching together of disparate works is exactly the kind of thing Shields supports: “Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize,” Shields writes at one point and, at another, “The novel is dead. Long live the antinovel, built from scraps.” Indeed, those two comments – out of a total of 618 short sections in his book – are among the very few Shields did not himself lift from other sources.

I am not the first to notice the strange similarity between what Rowan has done and what Shields advocates. As Chauncey Mabe writes:

Markham/Rowan seems merely to have taken Shields’ principles and applied them to the spy novel – thereby exposing the “unbearably artificial” nature of this popular literary genre. As everyone – experts such as acclaimed authors, critics, and the editors at Mullholland Books – thought Assassin of Secrets an outstanding espionage novel, then should it not be embraced rather than withdrawn?

Duns disbelieves that Rowan was engaged in some kind of postmodern pastiche, a supposition that is supported by Rowan himself, who in an e-mail to Duns disclaims any such intention:

When I began to edit it for the publisher, that’s when things really got out of hand. I was being asked to come up with whole new scenes to fit into the already stitched-up old ones. It really was like making Frankenstein’s monster as people have commented. A kind of patchwork job. I’ve never really believed there’s such a thing as post-modernity, by the way. Having already committed myself mentally to this process of driving myself into the ground, through denial and magical thinking, I just wanted to make the best 60s style spy novel I could: with all the tropes and trimmings one expects.

So it would appear from the author’s own admission that the intent here was not to engage in a kind of knowing act of postmodern bricolage, but rather a willful attempt to deceive. Still, it’s worth asking the question: Does what Rowan did differ from what Shields did – and encourages others to do – in kind or simply in degree of intent? Shields quotes Picasso (without attribution in the body of the text itself, of course): “Art is theft.” He also quotes Emerson: “Genius borrows nobly.” Shields and Jonathan Lethem engage in wanton artistic theft and are praised as groundbreakers. Rowan does likewise and is raked over the coals. How are we to assure ourselves that the former is noble, and the latter ignoble? When is plagiarism justifiable as an act of artistic rebellion or innovation, and when is it just plain thievery?

Starving for substance

April 18, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. David Shields; Alfred A. Knopf, $28.95 cloth, 224 pp., 978-0-307-27353-6.

In the February 2007 issue of Harper’s magazine, Jonathan Lethem published an essay called “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which posits that all art involves a process of borrowing, sampling, and rearranging work from other sources. Originality is a chimera and copyright is corrupt. Culture should not be considered anyone’s property, argues Lethem, but rather should be available to us all, to use and reuse as we see fit.

What makes Lethem’s essay provocative is that practically everything in it, up to and including the essay’s title, is lifted from the work of other writers. A key at the end provides notes for “the source of every line [Lethem] stole, warped, and cobbled together” – the reader learns that along the way they have read words penned by writers as diverse as Mary Shelley, Lewis Hyde, William Gibson, and David Foster Wallace. All of this appropriation goes unacknowledged in the body of Lethem’s essay, although he tips his hand in his subtitle: “A Plagiarism.”

One of Lethem’s notes reads, “Closer to home, my efforts owe a great deal to the recent essays of David Shields,” and reading Shields’s latest book, one gets the distinct impression that the debt runs in both directions. Reality Hunger is, in effect, “The Ecstasy of Influence” writ large, stretched to book-length and repurposed for our early 21st century sound bite culture. The book is made up of 618 short sections – some no longer than a single sentence – many of which have been lifted from other writers. The first acknowledgment of this comes on page 103, when Shields writes, “Most of the passages in this book are taken from other sources. Nearly every passage I’ve clipped I’ve also revised, at least a little – for the sake of compression, consistency, or whim.” (Which sounds suspiciously like Lethem’s avowal at the end of his essay: “Nearly every sentence I culled I also revised, at least slightly – for necessities of space, in order to produce a more consistent tone, or simply because I felt like it.” Whether this is a matter of unattributed appropriation, a meta-textual allusion, or merely coincidence is unclear.)

Shields provides notes at the end of his book citing the passages he has appropriated. Apparently, these notes were included at the behest of Random House’s lawyers, who felt that reproducing so much work without any attribution at all could perhaps be problematic. Shields objects to this on high-minded grounds, stating that he is trying to reclaim “a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost.” He suggests that readers who want to read the book as he intended it to be read should take a box cutter and slice out the notes. “Your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read,” Shields writes, “is not a bug but a feature.” He goes on: “A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what these terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it.” Presumably, we can all be thankful that serial murder is not a major focus of the book.

So what is all this “borrowing” in aid of? Shields is an erstwhile novelist who has turned his back on the form because of his dissatisfaction with the novel’s ability to render life as it is lived in the post-postmodern days of the early 21st century: “I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unself-consciously as a novel, since it’s not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now.” He surveys our media-saturated cultural landscape and notes the layers of fabrication and artificiality – everything from James Frey’s fudging of his biographical history in A Million Little Pieces to the mediated “reality” on offer in American Idol and Survivor – and argues that what we long for is not less reality, but more:

Living as we do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the “real,” semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all the fabrication – autobiographical frissons or framed or filmed or caught moments that, in their seeming unrehearsedness, possess at least the possibility of breaking through the clutter. More invention, more fabrication aren’t going to do this. I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to write novels.

The word “seeming” in the second sentence is significant, since it stands as a testament that every act of portrayal involves a kind of factual subversion: even filmed documentaries are edited to such an extent that “reality” is mediated by the filmmaker’s vision and intention. Indeed, Shields argues that generic classifications such as fiction and non-fiction are unhelpful, because each employs aspects of its putative antithesis: “An awful lot of fiction is immensely autobiographical, and a lot of nonfiction is highly imagined. We dream ourselves awake every minute of the day. ‘Fiction’/’nonfiction’ is an utterly useless distinction.” Instead, Shields argues for art that eschews “generic boundaries” and explores “generic fissures”: “Walt Whitman once said, ‘The true poem is the daily paper.’ Not, though, the daily paper as it’s published: both straight-ahead journalism and airtight art are, to me, insufficient; I want instead something teetering excitedly in between.”

Which is all well and good, but since Shields himself acknowledges the elision between fiction that employs elements of the author (which is all fiction) and non-fiction that employs elements of artistic rendering (ditto), it is unclear where precisely Shields’s difficulty lies. Is it merely the generic labels, in which case it would be relatively easy to ignore the word “novel” as applied to, say, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and assume instead that the book is fictionalized autobiography. In other words, on a meta-textual level, fiction and non-fiction already blur into each other: the “generic fissures” that Shields argues for already exist in practice, however sublimated they may be.

By dismissing the potential for novels to reflect the truth of lived existence, Shields ignores the form’s unique ability to capture emotional truth, which is something that straight documentary is frequently unable to achieve. Moreover, novels take us out of ourselves and allow access to the lived experience of others; the fact that those others are characters that sprung from the author’s imagination in no way denudes their ability to inculcate empathy in a reader. A novel imagines the world in an attempt to understand it; it is precisely this imaginative rendering that gives novels their particular force and effect.

Of course, the other property of novels is their length: they take time and concentration to appreciate, and Shields appears to want no part of either. In a chapter titled “In Praise of Brevity,” Shields praises the “short-short story” (e.g. Jane Anne Phillips’s “Sweethearts” or Amy Hempel’s “In the Animal Shelter”) for dispensing with “the furniture-moving, the table-setting typical of the longer story.”

Delivering only highlights and no downtime, the short-short seems to me to gain access to contemporary feeling states more effectively than the conventional story does. As rap, movie trailers, stand-up comedy, fast food, commercials, sound bites, phone sex, bumper stickers, email, voice mail, and Headline News all do, short-shorts cut to the chase.

Note once again Shields’s insistence that a particular form allow “access to contemporary feeling states” without a concomitant questioning of the legitimacy of those states themselves. It may be true that short-short stories allow access to the way it feels to live in a media-dominated, Internet-besotted, fast-forward culture, but it’s by no means clear that this ontological state is a good thing; novels and stories, in their langour and deliberation, offer a necessary corrective to a culture that is increasingly short of attention and impatient. “I’ve become an impatient writer and reader,” says Shields, “I seem to want the moral, psychological, philosophical news delivered now, and this (the rapid emotional-delivery system) is something that the short-short can do exceedingly well.” This demand for instant gratification is completely in tune with the dominant trends in our culture, but it also ignores our need for quiet, for contemplation, for thoughtful appreciation of nuance and ambiguity. By uncritically accepting our culture’s increasingly noisy demands for speed, brevity, and immediate satisfaction, Shields ignores what we as a society are losing in the process. (Except to the extent that he confesses to be bored by novels and long stories: “My reaction to a lot of longer stories is often Remind me again why I read this, or The point being?”) And let’s be honest: do we really want a culture that takes its points of reference from stand-up comedy, commercials, bumper stickers, and Headline News?

Note that in all of this, one theme dominates: Shields approaches art demanding that it give him what he wants, rather than allowing his view to be moulded and challenged by the art he consumes. This is perfectly in line with the pervasive strain of narcissism that runs throughout his book: “Literary intensity,” he writes, “is inseparable from self-indulgence and self-exposure.” For Shields, the best writing is the writing that cleaves closest to the persona of the writer, that allows a window into the writer’s own psyche and soul. The writing that Shields prizes is not outward looking, but inward looking, navel-gazing, and solipsistic. “The work of essayists is vital precisely because it permits and encourages self-knowledge in a way that is less indirect than fiction,” Shields writes, here quoting Phillip Lopate. “What does it mean to write about yourself?” Shields asks. “To what degree is this a solipsistic enterprise? To what degree are we all solipsists? To what degree can solipsism gain access to the world?” This series of rhetorical questions seems to me the kind of self-absorbed rumination that only an unrepentant narcissist would engage in: Shields wants art that approves and validates his own perspective, and praises art that lays bare the personality of the artist at the expense of a deep engagement with the outer world. This, too, is a perfect reflection of our culture’s current obsessions: self-exposure through social media that serves as nothing more than an echo chamber for people who love to hear themselves talk; Twittering about what one had for lunch or how long the line-up at the bank is; blogging about the party one attended or a recent break-up; posting YouTube videos of users dancing around in their bedrooms to a Britney Spears tune; or creating faux-clever mash-ups of a Barack Obama speech and a Jay-Z video.

That Shields has so thoroughly bought into the prevailing tides of modern culture is unsurprising; what is frustrating is the uncritical approach he has taken in summing up our current situation. In praising collage, mix-ups, sound bites, and snippets, he ignores the inability of all these things to tap into deep meaning or to provide a nuanced encounter with the world around us. On the subject of our modern society’s impoverished mythology, Alberto Manguel writes, “We distrust profundity, we make fun of dilatory reflection. Images of horror flick across our screens, big or small, but we don’t want them slowed down by commentary: we want to watch Gloucester’s eyes plucked out but not to have to sit through the rest of Lear.” Shields wants to watch Gloucester’s eyes plucked out without having to suffer the rest of Lear. He considers this attitude to be on the artistic avant garde. What is most worrisome about his new book is that he may indeed be right.