Monday, November 23, 2009

New Avant-Garde II

The first question is whether a new literary movement is needed. I've argued strenuously that it is. That's what my "attacking" of Demi-Puppets and Overdogs was about-- making the case for an entirely new American literature. If you don't agree with the premise, then it's useless for you to read what follows.

We're so marginalized, so at-the-bottom of today's literary pyramid, there's nothing to lose by crashing out of it.

The next question is what our new literary art will look like. I avoided this question when fronting the Underground Literary Alliance. We allowed underground literary art to speak for itself. Much of it was good and most of it was adventurous. Yet, in hindsight, this wasn't good enough.

Should new writing be neo-traditional-- clear writing; a return to the "stuff" of literature: character, structure, and plot? Or should it be a new avant-garde, escaping in an entirely new direction?-- if so, what would that new direction look like?

I'll be arguing that new literary art can-- MUST-- be both.

"Literary" fiction has been stuck in ruts promoted by MFA programs:
1.) Overly detailed static workshopped stories.
2.) "Minimalist" lobotomized static workshopped stories.
(Both of these types, whatever the setting, present a narrow and timid view of the world. Novels of this kind are in fact heavily padded short stories whose viewpoint scarcely advances. See Lorrie Moore. Genteel subtlety is the overarching quality.)
3.) David Foster Wallace-style postmodern verbiage, presenting mountains of endless long sentences of insane solipsism.
4.) Eggers-style cutesiness; a toned-down, less intellectually crazy version of #3.
5.) Variations and hybrids of the four accepted styles.

But wait! A new phenomenon in the reading experience has been the rise of the graphic novel-- whose genesis was the popularity of the "Dark Knight" Batman comic books of twenty years ago. Curiously, leading status quo postmodernists like Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon are big fans of this genre-- even though graphic novels represent the opposite of their own word-clotted art.

What is the graphic novel art? (The superhero/detective versions.)

1.) Plot, in the sense of ceaseless narrative drive containing hyperbolic action.
2.) Writing stripped to its essence. The "Keep-It-Simple" sales maxim of engaging the customer/reader.
3.) An artsy, impressionistic "look" in the panels, which equates to stripped-down description; or, description cut down to its essence. The hint; the impression; the glance.
4.) Melodrama: every remaining ingredient exaggerated. Exaggerated character, personality, dialogue, emotion, and plot.

How is this traditional?

Many 19th-century giants, in some of their works, were already doing these things. Think Dickens, Dumas, Hugo, even Dostoevsky. This was done more in over-the-top popular French fiction like Leroux's Phantom of the Opera and the serial Fantomas, which were indirect influences on the early, darkly melodramatic "Batman" style comic books. The cycle of life and the world: Everything comes back to its start.

Graphic novels without the graphics, if done right, can convey more, in character, narrative drive, and emotion, than the graphic novel itself. The graphic novel IS the substance of fiction-- all unnecessary postmodern/literary garbage taken out. Can we do this using only words?

To do so would be the ANTITHESIS of status quo literature now.

Other undergrounders may have different takes than mine on how to create non-graphic graphic novels. I'd like to see the underground's best writers-- Wred Fright, James Nowlan, Pat King at least think about how to do it. In different ways, they have talents (Wred's "pop" qualities; Nowlan's darkness) which might be put into play toward this goal.

One thing I know: we need a more unified aesthetic-- theory put into practice-- if we're to create a more coherent, cutting edge movement.

To be successful, new art-- a new avant-garde-- will have to blow readers out of the water. We as writers have to imagine new writing, then CREATE IT. It will have to be both simpler, more basic, more exciting and more colorful than "traditional" novels, taking the core essence of the art and exaggerating it.

I don't know if this is possible. It's an open road.

These are my ideas. What are yours?


BradyDale said...

Wow, Karl. Last time we talked comics you weren't very into them. I'm glad to see you've come to see how interesting they can be and appreciate your fresh eyed take on them. I hadn't really thought about stylized/simplified drawing as akin to stripped down writing, but I can see where you are coming from. It's a good parallel.

Additionally, the comix world is MUCH, MUCH more open to underground cred, self-publishing, zinestering etc.

Wred Fright said...

I just did a comic con a couple of weekends ago (Genghis Con in Cleveland). I made a fumetti comic (comic with photographs instead of drawings). I only sold one copy of Emus, so the comic fans apparently want their words with pictures. King's idea is a good one though. My latest novel (Blog Love Omega Glee, which is running on my website) is a bit like a comic without pictures.

Frank Marcopolos said...

I would agree with you, Karl. I believe it can be done, and I'm hoping to try and foster some of these kinds of efforts with future projects I hope to be launching soon.

BradyDale said...

This is only semi-relevant, but I just came across this quote from Eudora Welty on something I wrote a while ago:

"A plot is a thousand times more unsettling than an argument, which may be answered. It is not a pattern imposed; it is inward emotion acted out. It is arbitrary, indeed, but not artificial. It is possibly so odd that it might be called a vision…"

BradyDale said...

I keep thinking about this post. You know, I just got done reading Matthew Josephson's first hand account of Dadaism and Surrealism. He was right there in the middle of it.

One of the points he makes about the avant garde is that they spent a long time just writing for each other. I don't think we really do that. Mags like THE DIAL and etc really just sold to other avant-gardists, who sat around talking about what had been published.

I think a lot of us in the underground do a lot of our own writing but maybe not as much reading each other.

There are just so effing many of us now, tho... who can tell who is approaching it like you, you know?