Last month, writer and critic Anthony Clifton posted a review of [Title] by [Name of Author], a book, per its publisher Sublunary Editions, “that pulls apart the relationship among reader, writer, and text […] with [humor/pathos] and [aplomb/wanton disregard]”.
Clifton’s review was scathing. Not only did he accuse [Name of Author] of taking “cheap shots” and having “an underdeveloped appreciation/understanding of: plot, conflict, character, et al.” he also claimed that he wanted readers “to wallow with him in his slough of despond.” [Title], Clifton seemed to conclude, is a pointless exercise in snide.
After reading the review, and having interacted with [Name of Author] over Twitter in the months since his book appeared, I reached out to both wondering whether writer and critic would be prepared to discuss their differences “head to head”. The following is an edited version of a conversation that took place over Zoom at the end of May.
[Name Of Author]: First of all, I want to thank Anthony for giving me a chance to respond to his review of [Title]. That review did what I think a good review ought to do. It dispensed with networking niceties, got to the heart of the matter and raised important questions. And so I wanted this opportunity not to realize every author’s revenge fantasy (reviewing the reviewer), but rather to discuss these important questions.
A.C.: Okay, let’s. First important question I asked in the review: what was the point of pinpointing the pointlessness of the project itself?
[NameO]: I wanted to understand why books had consumed my life. Why I feel closer to dead authors than I ever did to my parents. This seemed weird and fruitless and in need of inquiry. Is it not natural to examine why you love what you love?
A.C.: Seems “natural” would be to just love what you love. It’s hard for me to see how critiquing one’s love in an effort to undermine it is “natural.”
[NameO]: Withdrawn [“natural”]. It was my contranatural critical faculty which led the investigation. Because it seemed too warped to leave well enough alone. I’m sure for someone in QAnon, say, it’s natural to love OAN & MTG. Just feels right. And examining one’s motivations and/or the substance of the loved entity/idea/person might reveal it to be an illusion so why would you want to do that to yourself? I get that, but –
A.C.: False equivalence being one of that camp’s stock rhetorical devices. Especially egregious if you’re reducing literature to an “illusion.” That seems like a bad faith (not to mention erroneous) analogy.
[NameO]: It’s as apt an equivalence as I can make. Our lives revolve around make-believe. I’d call that childish except that a child’s life doesn’t revolve around make-believe. And while I had always believed these precious illusions were part of the grandeur of literature (Quixotism), the decades of tap tap tapping and flipping through pages to no ostensible avail had left me genuinely disaffected. I wrote that book as a kind of dharmic suicide note. I found myself willing to not just play with that absurd naivete, but to obliterate it.
Tobias Ryan: I think we’ve covered the purpose or purposelessness of the project itself. I was hoping we could move on to the idea of “craft” which seems to inform your review, Anthony.
A.C.: Before we get into craft, I’d like to interrogate this facile equation of literature with “make-believe”? Do you consider all poiesis make-believe? Or are we just talking about fiction here?
[NameO]: Not just all poiesis. All brain activity.
A.C.: So everything human is make-believe?
[NameO]: Not just everything human.
A.C.: Ok, so then this dharmic suicide would also be make-believe?
A.C.: I think there might be a flaw in your logic.
[NameO]: I think there might be a flaw in logic.
A.C.: So then I guess we’re back to the contradictory point of all this?
T.R.: We’re going in circles here, could we move on to a discussion of craft?
A.C.: Would still be chasing our tail. Craft would be make-believe like everything else, yes?
A.C.: Refuge of the without answer. The monosyllabic smirk.
[NameO]: Okay. So then what are we talking about when we talk about craft?
A.C.: Craft. Would be my wrong answer. Set me straight.
[NameO]: Your anti-reductionist position makes me wonder how you could be a proponent of craft. I can think of no more glaring admission of pointlessness than reducing Art to methodology. Not to mention overthinking what one loves. Flaubert’s “It seems to me, alas, that if you can so thoroughly dissect your children who are still to be born, you don’t get horny enough actually to father them.” (Tr. Geoffrey Braithwaite) comes to mind whenever craft matters are discussed in my presence. I see elements of craft (which I acknowledge) as post-facto not algorithmic. Spoors, not seeds. The artist’s preoccupation with craft amounts to the magician interrupting his act to say no, no, look what I’m actually doing, step by step. It’s not magic, dummy. It’s just a mechanical process like anything else. It’s just physics and psychology.
A.C.: Isn’t it?
[NameO]: No. It’s make-believe.
A.C.: And make-believe is magic?
[NameO]: Or it isn’t anything at all. But then it’s magic. Being not anything at all.
A.C.: I’m not sure why I thought a conversation might prove more instructive than the book itself.
[NameO]: Nor am I. It wouldn’t make sense for you to have thought that.
T.R.: Setting aside the nature of craft, can we talk about how it seems to have divided the literary world into two major camps: literary fiction authors (with MFAs) and experimentalists (from small presses). Obviously that’s very rough, but I’d like to hear your opinions on the adversarial tone that’s adopted when craft comes up. Am I wrong suggesting that one of you is defending and the other belittling “craft”?
A.C.: Craft is so self-evidently fundamental to the work of art that the dismissal or even downplaying of its integral role seems a strange sort of denial to be in. I have no patience with the notion of Art as pure (rather than mediated) inspiration. I’m in agreement with [Name of Author] that it’s either craft or magic. And I (we?) have a less Romantic notion of literature and its aims. Art is crafted not alchemized and it serves a greater purpose than marveling at one’s navel or spiraling into abstraction or exploiting the happy accidents of etymology. Mind you, this is not to deny the resultant magic of literature. None of us are trying to explain that away.
[NameO]: I’ve participated in many workshops and some of the people I’m closest to believe that literary production is a communal, collaborative effort of writers, readers, editors and critics. This is an undeniably valid belief system. Mine (ours?) may be less so, but what I (we?) believe is that artistic vision is singular, and revision is the revisiting of that singular vision. I don’t want books that have been thought-tanked like sneaker ads or trimmed down and made more palatable to the reader a la Higginson’s My Fair Ladying of Emily Dickinson. I want to go where the author has gone, no matter how far-flung, foreign, brambled or clouded that region is to/from me. I don’t think workshops necessarily homogenize production (each author and each MFA program being different, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say unique) and I’m sure the process can crystallize or catalyse rather than subdue, blunt, curb creative vision. I just think there’s ample evidence of the great danger of the latter occurring. I’ve read too much justifiably labelled “program fiction” to deny this dismal phenomenon in late 20th, early 21st Century literature (at least where money-maker presses are concerned). But I think what I most object to in the MFA world, is this notion of authorship as a profession. Like it’s a trade you learn at trade school. I have a more lofty, if less defensible, vision of Art as a calling rather than as a career.
T.R.: Now that you’ve heard each other’s perspectives, do you want to offer any final comments on the subject?
A.C.: Saying it’s a valid mode of production and then likening it to a corporate think-tank seems somewhat contradictory, but then that seems to be your thing. For the record, I object to posing “experimental” v. “literary fiction” (or whatever the breakdown might be) as many of my favourite books would fall into the unspecific category of the former. I’ve just read too much from [Name of Author]’s “camp” that fails to transcend its onanistic or gate-kept system to traverse the great gap between author and reader (self and other). It’s why I felt compelled to write that admittedly ungenerous review. I grant that concern for the reader in the writing process is a potential check on artistic vision, but much of what I read from [Name of Author]’s sphere seems hell bent on escaping the reader. I accept that some readers prefer to be fled as [Name of Author] suggests, but there seems to me an element of what Franzen designated “prestige” involved – a residual Modernism (that age of “genius”) that makes its mark with copious allusions, wordplay and esoteric concepts borrowed from trendy theorists.
[NameO]: Part of the reason I wanted to have this conversation was to give us both a chance to knock down the straw man the other “camp” has set up. I’ve grown tired of hearing MFA proponents (one popular Substacker in particular) portraying the unaffiliated experimentalist (the “difficult” author) as an obscurantist, conspiracy-theorist clown of the avant-garde who doses Deleuzian drugs, defies readership and intimates that the C.I.A. is practicing mind-control via the Iowa Writers Workshop. MFA authors tend to get tetchy when craft and careerism are questioned (all too snarkily by the outsider set) and instead of responding to legitimate concerns about the ontological commitments and socioeconomic implications of “craft”, try to undermine the inquiry itself. It suggests to me that their networking name-making isn’t quite unabashed and the C.I.A.’s enthusiastic support for their neoliberal mode of production niggles at their collective (un)conscience [sic]. Because no, nobody seriously surmises the C.I.A. was infiltrating and directing the programs, but their funding and promotion of the MFA workshop model was alarmingly intense and widespread (see City of Beginnings on Lebanese Modernism for starters). The motivation driving this intervention seems at least as concerning as its potential effects. The “greater purpose” you reserve for literature was exactly what the C.I.A. deemed lacking in your approach (which helped them dispel the specters of Marx) and led to your being continually stroked by the Invisible Hand over the decades. Said Hand no doubt patting me on the head at this point as my work’s demolition of l’art pour l’art is the arguable epitome of l’art pour l’art. Contradiction being, as you so rightly pointed out, my thing.
I don’t feel like we’ve even scratched the surface of “craft” matters, nor begun to debunk the posturing, self-sabotaging intersubjectivism of my “camp” and I hope no one reads this response as a full-throated testimonial for either of these plagued houses. Though obviously my sympathies lie with the less opportunist (Franzenian) of them.
[Name of Author] was born in [#### Anno Domini], in [major metropolis/rural outpost/overseas]. He has written a number of other books, several of which were [praised/awarded/remaindered]. He now lives in [university town/upstate village/parts unknown], where he to continues to [etc., etc.] Twitter: @NameofAuthor1
Anthony Clifton is an author and musician from Memphis, TN. Twitter: @CliftonClorindo