August 28, 2008
READABILITY - UNREADABILITY
he sends me one question each day -- and I answer -- in my typical critifictional way
here is the question he asked today
and my answer
7 – Writing avant-garde for you is an existential decision, because what you experienced could not be reflected in ordinary ways of literature like linear narration. Is that true? And what does this mean to avant-garde writing today? Does "avant-garde" mean a period of time in the history of literature or is it a part of literature that's always a part of it.
I do not write avant-garde. Others tell me when they read my books that I am an avant-garde writer. So I ask them what makes you say that? Is there something about the way I tell my stories that is so out of the ordinary that makes me avant-garde?
And they explain to me – those who read my books – that they find them to be totally unreadable – but in the good sense – meaning that they cannot read my books the way ordinary books are read. They force the reader into a different mode of reading.
A more active mode, they say, those who read my books. Reading a book like Double or Nothing is like doing gymnastics. It demands not only a great mental involvement with the writing but also a physical involvement with the book itself. One reads this book with the mind and the hands – in other words, with the body. Reading Federman is exhausting. It's very demanding. And funny at the same time.
So according to those who read my books and find them avant-garde because of their funny unreadability.
Yes, I suppose one can say that it was an existential decision that I took when writing such books as Double or Nothing and Take It or Leave It. Books that unsettle the reader's passive way of reading books.
I cannot resist here to quote a passage from one of my essays -- What are Experimental Novels? And why are there so many Left Unread? – which reflects on this question of easy readability and complex unreadability.
Exactly! Why bother with unreadability? Especially when it isn't necessary, and there is so much "readable stuff" around.
But then one must ask: what is readability? I cannot resist -- here we go to my Webster's:
READABLE: ... that can be read with ease ... legible ... pleasing, interesting, or offering no great difficulty to the reader ... clear in details and significance of symbols ... that can be read throughout.
I see! Readability: what is clear, easy, legible, pleasing. Very interesting. In other words, what reassures us in a text (a novel) of what we already know, what comforts us because we easily and pleasurably recognize the world (at a glance) and ourselves in the world (at another glance) in what we read.
Readability: what is instantly and clearly recognizable, and thus orients us, within ourselves and outside of ourselves, in the "reality" of the world. Readability: what guides us back from the text to the security of the world, and therefore gives us comfort -- the pleasure of easy recognition.
Of course: The author cannot choose to write what will not be read, and yet, it is the very rhythm of what is read and what is not read that creates the pleasure of the great narratives: has anyone ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word? (Proust's good fortune: from one reading to the next, we never skip the same passages).
That, I suppose is what is meant by The Pleasure of the Text, or as Roland Barthes put it in that brilliant little book by that title:
What I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface of the text: I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again.
But there is a paradox here (and Roland Barthes knows this):
Read slowly, read all of a novel by Zola, and the book will drop from your hands; read fast, in snatches, some modern text [let's say John Barth's Letters], and it becomes opaque, inaccessible to your pleasure: you want something to happen and nothing does, for what happens to the language does not happen to the discourse.
First conclusion: If readability is the pleasure of recognition (easy pleasurable referential recognition), then unreadability must be the agony of unrecognition.
Unreadability: what disorients us in a text (especially in an experimental novel) in relation to ourselves (and I do not mean here the bulk, the thickness, the degree of difficulty, the self-reflexiveness, the tediousness of the text -- these are weak excuses for not reading a book). Unreadability: what prevents us from recognizing that something is happening, but also prevents us from looking up and away from the text to relocate ourselves in the world. Unreadability: what locks us into the language of the text.
Imagine then how lost, how confused, how desperate some unprepared readers must feel when reading a text where nothing happens twice, as in some of Samuel Beckett's novels or plays, or where the language moves in a nonsensical direction and therefore means-not, as in some of Donald Barthelme stories, or where everything changes like a cloud as it goes, as in a Ronald Sukenick novel, or where everything leapfrogs toward cancellation, as in my own novels [please excuse the narcissistic reference here, but the beast in me often thinks inter-textually when writing about experimental fiction].
But then, as I once proclaimed at the beginning of my novel Take It or Leave It: Writing is not the living repetition of life. And then I added: Reading is always done haphazardly.
The pleasure that a readable text affords us is that of recognizing our own knowledge in it, our own culture -- of recognizing [righteously] how cultivated we are, and con-sequently how coherent, continuous, whole, rational, logical, how secure we are in our culture. The readable novel reassures us of that.
But what about the unreadable novel then? And precisely, Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text makes a crucial distinction between these two types of text:
1) Text of pleasure: the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading.
[That would be the readable novel].
2) Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain bore-dom), unsettles the reader's historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language.
[That would be the unreadable novel -- better known in the supermarkets of books as the experimental avant-garde novel].
And so here we have it! Second conclusion: a) The usual, traditional, conventional (readable) novel that which is linked to a comfortable practice of reading and preserves, guards, protects culture. b) The experimental, innovative (unreadable) novel, that which undermines culture and brings to a crisis the reader's relation with language.
Now I can come back to your question. It is because I chose to write Texts of Bliss – or what I call Laughterature – which we have already discussed – that I’ve been labeled, avant-garde, which also mean experimental. And after that all kind of other labels were shove on me, and I could not escape them. I was told that I was a metafictional writer, that I was a self-reflexive writer, that I was an anti-fiction writer, then I declared myself a surfiction writer, and then I went further and exposed myself as a critifictional writer.
Yes, why not go all the way when making such an existential decision to write the only way I know how to write.
Do we still think of Proust Kafka Joyce – the great trinity of the first half of the 20th century as avant-garde writers. Absolutely not. We have now accepted the fact that this was the only way these great writers could write. They were writing themselves in their time. And their time was a rather turbulent time that demanded a kind of introspective writing to make sense of it. Proust Kafka Joyce were not avant-garde.
Those who put that label on their work did it out of despair for not having understood why Proust Kafka Joyce wrote the way they did.
It's as a simple as that. I wrote the way I wrote because I was living in a very turbulent time. A time even more horrific than that in which Proust Kafka Joyce wrote.
I was pigeon-holed in the cage of the avant-garde writers because like them I was questioning the very language in which I was existing -- questioning whether it was still possible to write with that polluted language that was now in circulation in the world.
A ready-made language full of cliches and lies. A language inappropriate to tell the stories I had to tell. A language too pacified to tell the tragicomic stories I wanted to tell.
If I had written my books with that pacified language, I would have been forced to write ordinary books in a linear fashion, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. And I would not have been able to answer your question.
The problem with an avant-garde movement is that is quickly absorbed into the mainstream. It becomes publicity. There is more avant-garde in the publicity of the rich glossy women magazines than in the novels being published these days.
Perhaps the turbulence of this time – no need to go into details of the horrors that go on in every corner of our world – is too confusing – perhaps even more horrific than the turbulence that shaped my work – for writers to be able to come to terms with it. That is to say write about it, by which I mean, they have not yet found the language appropriate to write the atrocious turbulence of our time.
When they try to write it with the same old pacified language the turbulence itself becomes pacified. That is the case with the many bad books that have already been written about 9/11 – the name given to one of the unimaginable events of our time.
Or maybe such avant-garde novels about the turbulence of our time have already been written, but remain unpublished because they were found unreadable by the publishers or the editors or the literary agents or whoever decides what is readable and what is not readable.