As close readers of our blog might have noticed in our recent New Book Tuesday posts, we are now distributing Dalkey Archive Press. Needless to say, we are very excited to be working with one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation. Today, we have a fascinating excerpt from a conversation in BOMB Magazine’s BOMBlog between S. D. Chrostowska, author of Permission, and Kate Zabreno. The two “discuss Permission, the vagaries of readership and publicity, rag-bags, and the transgressive novel as essay, commodity, and monster.” You can read the interview in its entirety here.
S. D. Chrostowska
… By semi-public I did not mean small presses and poetic novels. I am not arguing for writerly oblivion, for self-mortification for the sake of Literature, unless as a ritual of asceticism. The existence of this literature is, as you point out, largely funded, dependent on grants and academic support. I am not romanticizing this. And I share what I take to be your concern over the increasingly public nature of writing as encouraging automatic over-sharing and self-indulgence. I think the book industry still keeps a tight rein on this, but not for long as literary publishing continues its transition to the digital. The blog and the book each have something to offer us. The blog is great for unlacing, for defining oneself by overstepping limits normally in place or, in the way you conceive it, as a counterattack against self-censorship, against the self-discipline that leads to partial self-erasure. The idea that no one reads us does, as you say, liberate, and publicness constrains. Anonymity is not the answer because we identify with Anon too. Nor is the answer to the problems that come with publicity to be found in the handwritten diary—not, anyway, for the self-aware writer who expects his/her private work to fall into the hands of others. As the standards relax thanks to the fluidity of written communication, professionalism and relative formalization catch up with us in the permissive online environment, which is neither a womb nor a solipsistic mind.
I am trying to highlight that there is no escape from publicity if you are a dedicated writer. Giving it up is not an option. One can resist some of it, discipline oneself spiritually for being overly invested in one’s public self, distracted from core concerns. And one can certainly fight against its pernicious systemic effects. This is what I find so refreshing and valuable in your work.
Isn’t it possible for the tide to turn? For certain writers to become semi-private without feeling they are sacrificing something—ambition, praise, recognition? For writers to go underground, where it is safe to say that with the aid of modern technology their work will be preserved for those who come later when the tide turns again? For writers to embrace ephemerality, not as preparatory for the real work of writing, not as a means of working up to the world of the book, but as valid in itself? For writers—some writers at least, or for some of the time—to self-semi-publish?
What I mean concretely: I tell myself now that it is only to make this larger point, to communicate the possibility of a still more radical step beyond the current literary conjuncture, that I wrote Permission. Perhaps there will always be promiscuous literature, the kind that we, as writers, have no choice but to love because it touches us intimately and, sometimes, makes us feel it is addressed only—that it belongs only—to us. Literature au grand public, reaching a public sphere of readers reading. There will always be, it seems fair to say, also some kind of clandestine literature, the community of so-called writer’s writing, the aesthetic avant-garde of small presses. The step beyond this dichotomy, the third culture I am playing with, is the semi-private art of the novel, the essay, the letter, or generic writing, in whatever genre. Minor literature out of major circulation. But by no means fated to be mediocre, by no means low-flying. Literature that makes no obvious compromises, because it doesn’t have to; that values craft and the fulfillment that comes with making something worth communicating, if only with one or several other persons; that never becomes packaged as a book. The very fact of communication is already quality control. As more people come to write it, semi-private literature will become more plausible.
This sort of writing has nothing to do with humility, with self-effacement, or with the secrecy of such fellowship, but, instead, with transvaluing the priorities of publicity and recognition—even the little of it available to literature in the mainstream media. Not as protest, but as withdrawal. As a return to the private. To stop holding one’s breath, to quit checking one’s rank. Paying attention to popular taste and what sells needn’t be the writer’s predicament forever. The concerns of campaigning for public attention fall away. This is what Permission gestured at without itself enacting. I’d like to see in this what you credited as my book’s contemporaneity, which I hope counterbalances its sentimentality.
All three kinds of literary culture I just mentioned could coexist, and writers could move from one realm of reception to another. This is a cultural dream of sorts: literature no longer only in playing by the rules or else in the transgression (of boundaries of genre, theme, social taboo) but also in pushing back the social sphere of artful writing, of the Literary as we know it: by connecting our private lives directly, without middlemen. Capital-L literature having run its course as the only serious game in town.
Read the rest of the interview at the BOMBlog.