Wreckage of Reason - Women are natural innovators. Their minds are nimble, accustomed to flux. By necessity, they know how to improvise and innovate

Nava Renek, ed., Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of Contemporary XXperimental Prose by Women Writers (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2008)

«WRECKAGE OF REASON incorporates the work of 39 contemporary women writers who are pushing the boundaries of fiction. In this diverse and comprehensive volume, the writers have manipulated traditional ways of storytelling, language, and plot, to express new and distinct ways of seeing and experiencing the world. Narrative form is subverted, provocative subject matter explored, and language takes on a scatological form to depict an authentic human experience that makes reading a truly participatory act. At the conclusion of each work, the contributor has composed a few impressions sharing what inspired her to tell that particular story.
Authors in the anthology: Lidia Yuknavitch, LilyGrace, Laurie Foos, Kass Fleisher, Barbara Baer, Cynthia Reeves, Lauren Schiffman, Karen Lillis, Megan Milks, Lyn Halper, Fanny Howe, Suki Wessling, Jessica Treat, Shelley Jackson, Laynie Browne, Roni Natov, Cris Mazza, Elizabeth Block, Geri DeLuca, Alicita Rodriguez, Danielle Alexander, Danielle Dutton, Gwen Hart, Masha Tupitsyn, Martha King, Sarah White, Nina Shope, Carmen Firan, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Anna Mockler, Sandra Doller, E.C. Bachner, Tsipi Keller, Summer Brenner, Amina Cain, Karen Brennan, Aimee Parkison, Lily Hoang, Lynda Schor, Debra Di Blasi, Alexandra Chasin.»

«I haven’t inquired recently into whether there have been new developments in the court masque, but a case can be made that no art form today is more conservative in its general formal tendencies than fiction writing. More demanding to consume than more passively experienced visual or aural art forms, and for the most part mass-produced by subsidiaries of entertainment conglomerates who more and more insist on bottom-line profits, so much fiction today is so plainly moribund that the “truth is more interesting” camp now has adherents even among creative writers themselves. The Ian McEwans of the world are seen carping in the press about fiction’s time having passed, while younger writers flock to writing programs to learn how to “turn trauma into treasure,” to quote the come-on from one recent creative nonfiction workshop.
In such a climate, it isn’t surprising that alternative, innovative, or “experimental” fiction suffers from an identity crisis. What precisely defines experimental—or here, “XXperimental”—fiction, besides unpublishability? Who practices it, and to what end? Does no audience exist for it because of its difficulty, or because its questions aren’t relevant enough to waste one’s time? What concerns separate it from commercial writing? Are these concerns, as this new anthology of prose by women writers suggests, linked particularly to questions of gender?
Wreckage of Reason includes works by newbies and by such well-regarded authors as Fanny Howe, Cris Mazza, Kass Fleisher, and Aimee Parkison. A great many of the contributions to this volume not only create new fictive structures, but have the genuine power to transport, as in this kaleidoscopic paragraph from “N,” by Shelley Jackson:
Is a written document a conversation? Is a hand-print? Music played to crates in cargo bays—conversation? Is a hardball reported to a bat? Is blood suggested to the heart? Do Spring showers disclose flowers? Does a dress address, linens lie? Does a bottom cite a seat? Does light debate night? Is tomorrow a comeback to today? “N” imagines in its first lines a rivalry between chain retailers “Judas ‘N’ Things” and “Bed Bath and Jesus.” In this excerpt, Jackson makes her prose rhetorical, arguing interrogatively that categories that seem separate can have previously unseen adherences (“Does a dress address”) once we attend to the role language plays in calling realities into being. This is merely one of many propositions in these refractive sentences. Use of the verb “disclose,” for instance, suggests a reasoning intelligence behind the things of this world, especially in the context of a Christian spin-off story, but one which perhaps might as readily hide its truths as reveal them.
A further understanding of what helps constitute the practice of experimental fiction is suggested in Jackson’s endnote to this story:

“N” is composed entirely of words recycled from the front page (both sides) of the New York Times from April 7, 2006. In the news that day was the so-called “Judas Gospel” alleging that Jesus asked Judas, his most trusted ally, to betray him. One word has been added.
One of the strategies employed by such writing is, in the traditions of 20th-century surrealist and Oulipo movements, actual “experiment”: putting into operation a defined process to see what will result. While this technique by no means dominates this collection, it does appear in several works in several guises. Alexandra Chasin’s “They Come From Mars,” the final piece in the book, is a brilliant example, using only four-letter units to create proliferating meanings in a computer-code-like grid of words:
Then they walk pour flow ooze down town Rows upon rows flow folk from Mars rows upon rows like ants Dont obey when City Hall says dont Then wewe spec they want fear they want take over take over Wewe spec fear that what they want they want Another visible strain in this collection is activist politics, positioned against worldwide consumer-capitalist-driven military solutions. In “Daguerreotype of a Girl,” Lidia Yuknavitch meditates on an imagined photograph called up off the white page, and reflects on violence as the assumed, eternal condition subjugating women’s imaginations. Debra DiBlasi juxtaposes the horrors of violence in contemporary Africa with another kind of horror, the vapidness of American culture: celebrity dating, toy dog accessorizing, liposuction, and war euphemisms. Both of these pieces may fairly be called polemical, and so eschewing the “ambiguity” still held at a premium in the “realism”-oriented mainstream fiction marketplace.
But there is a greater level of complexity here encoded in the forms themselves—both Yuknavitch and DiBlasi are interested in the mechanisms of representation. For each of these writers, there is no such thing as an objective, ambiguous realism; even what purports to be simply a recording device, the journalist’s camera, delivers images that are selected based upon audience desires: “More than we are anything,” writes Yuknavitch, “we are consumers.” Language, an even trickier, more complex medium, can never be assumed simply to be yielding a direct picture of truth, such as the manufactured ambiguities of realist fiction would have us believe. Truths are always constructed, and self-conscious polemics are at least honest about the unavoidable processes of representation.
Nava Renek has done excellent work assembling this sampling of women’s experimental fictive strategies, understandings, and positions. She does this without wishing to locate what exactly is meant by “experimental,” not wishing to proscribe limits to what new forms her contributors (or readers) might themselves create: “Women are natural innovators. Their minds are nimble, accustomed to flux. By necessity, they know how to improvise and innovate....”
This position—claiming women, as innovators, produce fictions that are by necessity innovative—isn’t always tenable, as one is hard pressed to find experimentation in some of the longer selections by Geri DeLuca, Martha King, Sarah White, and Carmen Firan. And these pieces stand out all the more because of the vigorous inventions on display elsewhere: In “Intuition,” Aimee Parkison’s schoolgirl and guidance counselor perform a psychological grand opera in four brief pages. E. C. Bachner’s “Mick and Keith, Tom and Huck” is pure, hallucinatory brilliance, yielding an excitement so rich one is unsure whether one has sipped champagne or seen Jesus. In Nina Shope’s “The Women,” we see lovers role-play a history of male-determined sexual identities in prose of unrelenting power. And Kass Fleisher’s “Generation” collages line-editing, linguistic theory, orgasm, and a bad need to pee into one absolutely original text. When was the last time you heard “fiction” and “absolutely original” in the same sentence?
Were this book published by St. Martin’s or Norton, they would have slapped its contents on wider margins and packaged it for the college market at twice the cost. Except Norton or St. Martin’s would never publish this book—it’s too dangerous, wild, and singular. Wreckage of Reason gives us three dozen women authors beyond any easily marketable definition; by any description, it’s an anthology worthy of an audience and acclaim.» - Ted Pelton

«Nava Renek, the editor of Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of Contemporary Xxperimental Prose by Women Writers, is an educator and writer whose fiction and non-fiction has been published in a variety of literary magazines and websites. Her first novel, Spiritland, was published in 2002. In 2006, she received the first of two research grants from PSC/CUNY to begin the process of producing this anthology for which she received nearly 300 submissions. Visit the book's myspace.
Please tell us a bit about this anthology.
- The first question everyone asks me when they hear about the anthology is: what do you mean by "experimental?" I really don't know what elicits this response, but it's almost across the board. Is it a challenge to me, a challenge to publishing, a challenge to the writers who cross preconceived notions of normalcy? I suspect it's a bit of all this, but initially, the question rubs me the wrong way. Must readers already have a concrete idea of what's to be found between the cover of a book before they can feel confident that they'll understand the book? For me, experimentation starts with the freedom to move away from traditional narrative, plot, language, and sentence structure. For others, this definition may be different or different in some degree. No matter what the definition, anyone who opens this anthology, will see the many ways writers have "experimented" with the written word. Some of it is visual, much is by appropriating other forms of the written word and cultural iconography and finding new and less linear means to tell a story.
Because market forces have closed traditional venues for publishing to all but very conventional narrative, almost any writing that is different could be considered "avant-garde" or "edgy" by consumers or booksellers. I hope when reading this book "experimental" is not an antagonistic adjective that makes readers move away from the book, but instead, it's a word that will excite them, prepare them to come to the book with open minds and enjoy the vast range of styles and subject matter found there.
How did you come up with the idea? - When I set out to put this book together, I thought it would fill a void. I wanted to create a book that was not already out there in the universe. I'd always liked difficult film and visual arts, and I was familiar with experimental writing, but most of the experimental writers who I'd read were male. From experience working with a small press over the last few years, I'd become more and more aware of the many women out there who were pushing the boundaries of convention, and I thought I'd like to use my experience in publishing and the administrative skills I'd amassed throughout the many "day jobs" I had, to publish and promote a compilation of work I was very excited about.
Why the title Wreckage of Reason?
- Wreckage of Reason was extracted from a quote from Virginia Woolf who I believe was a master innovator of narrative and language. Although the quote itself doesn't directly use the phrase "wreckage of reason," I believe the quote's essence reflects what has to be put aside in order to write freely. Woolf's quote, which is printed at the front of the anthology is: "It is the nature of the artist to mind excessively what is said about him. Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who've minded beyond reason the opinions of others."
The title "Wreckage of Reason," I hope, says a lot about where we are as a society during the Bush-era and also depicts the fragmentation of narrative that often makes up "experimental" literature.
How did you choose which stories to include?
- Choosing the stories was much more difficult than I expected. I received nearly 300 high quality submissions. I happened to have been recovering from surgery, so I was partially bedridden at the time and I decided to set the stories in piles around me in categories such as experimental in form, unconventional subject matter, language, constraints, etc. Then, I re-read the stories and rated them for quality from one to ten, ten being the highest, and put the most successful stories at the top of each pile. From there, I picked a story from each category, until I had compiled approximately 300 pages of text. All the stories I chose had been given the highest rating. Finally, I ordered the stories in a way that I thought made narrative sense. Although the stories certainly don't "belong" together, if the reader is observant, she will find common threads that link each story to the one before or after it. I was extremely pleased with the outcome and love it when other readers come up to me and tell me that they've read the book as a whole. That makes the hard work most satisfying.
Were you surprised to get so many submissions?
- What I didn't know, was that there is a large community of women who write experimental fiction. Once these communities heard about my project, I got a lot of enthusiastic support from them. In the end, although I did most of the hard work putting the book together, but it was a much more collaborative effort than I ever expected, and I think that is reflected in the number of readings, panels, and projects that have already spun off from the initial anthology.
I rarely comprehend the many different levels of satisfaction I'll get from large projects before I start them, and this one was no different. Now that the book has been published, I'm awed by the experience and the number of active vibrant women I've met and the beautiful book I had a part in producing.» - Interview with David F. Hoenigman


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