Susan Steinberg, The End of Free Love, Fiction Collective 2, 2003.
"Susan Steinberg's first collection of stories, The End of Free Love, evokes the schizophrenia of our times, a community of voices at the zero point. Like the voices that splinter from Marguerite Dura's work, these characters, too, are neurotic, taking refuge in comic books, food, music, sex, and lies. Violence is everywhere: in every emotion, in every words. Throughout The End of Free Love Steinberg creates a hybrid text, blending poetry and fiction in writing that is as much about its form as it is content. This is fiction that offers itself up for our delight, while remaining as elusive and unpredictable as language itself."
"The stories of The End of Free Love mark a great beginning. They are seductive and migratory, tapped into our earliest sense of the world. Steinberg inhabits our first bewilderments, the terrors and the tenderness that shape our lives. To read her is to fall out of the daily into a fresh elation." —Noy Holland
"Her debut is a phenomenal collection of stories written in the uncertain, hesitating dialect of the bewildered - fragmented sentences that mirror fragmented souls." —San Diego Union-Tribune
"Given FC2's overall project, it is no surprise that Susan Steinberg's collection of short stories is formally innovative. When done poorly, playing with forms stems from gimmicks. When done well, as is the case in The End of Free Love, formal creativity unleashes a wonderful synergy between form and content." —Rain Taxi
"I can still hear Susan Steinberg reading the story "Life" from her debut short story collection The End of Free Love at Baltimore’s Ottobar this winter:
just me and him driving, just the road and road signs, just broken white lines on the road, just the headlights nearing, then past, then dark, just the radio hum, a song, what was it, just a song from before, just his untucked shirt, his coat on the seat, just my lipstick rising up and up, just my lipstick pressing to my lips in the dark, my: do you like it, his: do I what,
Steinberg cadenced the sensually dark words with urgency and the story beat through the room. All of the stories in the collection should be heard from the author’s voice. If you don’t have access to Steinberg for a reading, you can still hear the rhythm in the writing by reading them aloud, even if you don’t do them justice (I didn’t.)
The experimental hybridizations of prose and verse that make up the collection read like long prose poems. Steinberg sometimes focuses more on style and form than on plot and traditional character development, but in the best of the collection, she nails both. In the title story, adolescents engage in ‘locking’ -- their made up word for getting loaded by drinking overdoses of cough syrup. The characters reveal themselves and their sub-subculture as they move through their high – here we get the whole story. The subject matter is ideal for Steinberg’s sound. That’s not to say that her stories are all like being high on cough medicine, but that her hypnotic voice is well utilized in this piece, the strongest in the collection.
Another especially bright point in the collection, "Life", is the story I heard Steinberg read. On reread, it’s still a knockout because again, the sound of the story is so good and so appropriate to the subject of the story -- a young woman seducing the man driving her home after a party. The sexuality of the story matches equally with the sensuous writing.
"Nothing", about an adolescent boy with a love of comic books who keeps a list of the people he hates, also works especially well. Repetition and short, clipped sentences build tension around the confrontation of the boy’s parents and a therapist over the list. The story’s light on plot and lacks the conventions of the traditional Short Story, but fits perfectly here and carries real emotional weight despite the unfamiliar style because the characterization shows so clearly through the style.
The collection works so well because the characters so strongly emerge out of the poetry of Steinberg’s writing. The experimental label potentially turns readers away because of the usual association between experimental writing with difficult, obscure writing, but that’s not the case here -- although the stories are challenging, they are populated with real people.
Experimental, ambitious writing can be risky, but taking chances makes a collection like this worthwhile. With any experiment, however, there are going to be things that work well and things that don’t. For example, the one-long-paragraph story "Standstill" was a bit tedious. The collection could have benefited, too, from more stylistic variation, as in stories like "Isla", told in short, numbered paragraphs, or the short, dated entries of "Forward". The stories that work really well, like "The End of Free Love" and "Life" work really well, but when a story doesn’t have the same impact, the reading at times became laborious. Fortunately, the many heights in the collection more than compensate for the few dips.
In a short story, readers often demand a clear, concrete path. In The End of Free Love, Steinberg freed herself somewhat from this obligation, but occasionally she swerves a little too far off the road. There’s nothing that absolutely doesn’t work, only times when a story or stylistic choice didn’t quite stand up to the rest of the collection. The writing’s so interesting, though, that when I encountered something puzzling or unclear, I reminded myself to think of the poetic side of the hybrid form. Billy Collins advises not to ‘tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it’ in his poem "Introduction to Poetry" and that’s good advice to remember while reading The End of Free Love. The stories don’t always tell you their message in clear terms, but that’s okay. Sometimes all you need to do is listen." - Matthew Kirkpatrick
"The End of Free Cough Syrup
She felt no contempt, she said, for her fellow artists who counted themselves realists, in fact she envied them, they seemed so young, so untouched, there was something childlike and belligerent in their art. - Joyce Carol Oates, Solstice
In my favorite writing workshop at the University of Minnesota, the professor, Valerie Miner, prohibited students from saying anything while their own stories were being discussed. On the first day of class, Miner issued a list of rules like bug spray—as a result, some students immediately dropped the course, while others resisted and became serious pests.
The most persistent rule-breakers wrote “experimental” fiction. For many students, it seemed the same lack of discipline and maturity that drove them to shun classroom rules also shaped their experimental (rule-breaking) fiction, which Miner did not try to regulate. After the experimentalists could roll their eyes no more at what they considered gross misreadings of their work, they would burst forth with quick, angry disclaimers. While the comments were often arrogant or pretentious (“I didn’t FORGET to use punctuation—I’m trying to show you a new way of reading”), they occasionally approached legitimacy: “My writing just seems unclear because it accurately reflects my characters’ interior realities,” and “I mix dialogue and narrative together to slow you down and force a more careful interpretation.”
And sometimes the objections were right on target (in which case, they usually were offered by the professor.) I was always amazed by how clearly Miner could see into her students’ manuscripts. At a glance, she could tell the real thing from gratuitous experimentalism, and with a single comment, Miner could deflect unfair or irrelevant criticism from a story.
Thus, she cleared the way not only for a constructive reading of the manuscript under review, but also for an appreciation of experimental or innovative forms of writing in general (the workshop was called “Forms of Fiction”). Without the experience the course provided, I wouldn’t attempt to write about the subject of this article: Susan Steinberg’s collection of stories, The End of Free Love.
The title story is perhaps the most accessible of all eighteen pieces. In the spring, a teenaged boy and girl take a “three hour bus to the ocean” where they get stoned off of cough syrup. The sensation, they say, is like “being cold your whole life and a blanket appears.” It’s significant that the blanket merely “appears,” as if to mock their needs rather than fulfill them. The curtailed image contradicts the profound experiences the kids claim to have.
The narrators (who use the royal “we” throughout the story) frequently describe the drug’s disassociative effects and reduce the sensation to one word: “locking.” They become irate when other kids, who merely take the “okayed dosage,” use their word: “They call it locking when they’re fakers walking in a zombie way.” Even worse, the fakers steal cough syrup, while the narrators “always pay” and are therefore “the truest thing.” The story is their manifesto, whose only workable policy calls for an end to free cough syrup.
The narrators also denounce the 60s “life-way”—not “lifestyle.” They feel the need to stake a claim to that word too, but not explicitly; they don’t prattle on about it like they do about “locking.” If you dislike these kids as much as I do by this point, the “life-way” remark might get under your skin. I should also mention that the story does not reveal that a common term already exists for getting high off of large doses of cough syrup—it’s called “tussing,” named after the generic cough syrup Tussin DM. This nonfictional detail becomes relevant, perhaps, in light of the narrators’ preoccupation with coining words and claiming authenticity.
Because they are the “truest thing,” the narrators mark “the end of free love,” which suggests they are the vanguard of a new generation. The soaring rhetoric and constant self-mythologizing rankles, but the joyless sound of the phrase ultimately rings true, whether the kids mean it that way or not. By the end of the story, the title might sound earnest, rather than ironic, even though the kids are fakers themselves.
Just because the narrators are annoying does not mean the story is flawed. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield comes close to being that which he despises most, a “phony,” but the irony adds to the richness of the story. The same must be said for “The End of Free Love,” but the cough syrup junkies are so obviously a sham, you come close to dismissing them completely, rather than having the kind of conflicting emotions that make for great literature. Throughout the collection, Steinberg tests limits—with her characters and with her formal techniques.
When you finish the tough task of reading one of Steinberg’s stories, you can look forward to the more pleasurable experience of thinking and wondering about it. I tried to rush through the first step to get on with the second, but obviously it didn’t work. It’s a constant temptation, though. The stories’ packaging—the lists, short paragraphs, long streams of consciousness, and sentences that somehow move at a high speed—invite you to consume them rapidly. But what you think is bubble gum often turns out to be something tougher and less palatable. One of the common writing workshop disclaimers mentioned above accurately describes Steinberg’s stories: they slow you down and force a more careful interpretation.
Conceptual fiction is often about itself ultimately, and The End of Free Love is no exception. The publisher makes no secret of this: the book’s cover states that Steinberg’s writing “is as much about form as it is content.” For many writers of conceptual fiction, the self-referential tendency can easily turn into self-indulgence. Another common disclaimer that comes up in writing workshops, when somebody questions the realism of a scene, is that the story creates its own reality. The writer might say, for example, “So what if my scuba diving scene is full of technical errors? It’s really a metaphor for the writing process, for the difference between shallow and deep writing, and (here comes another common disclaimer) the fact that you dwell on superficial errors only shows that you’re not open to the possibilities of my prose.”
That sounds like something the cough syrup junkies would say. Actually, casting the kids as avant-garde artists offers a rich interpretation¾in which case the “fakers” would be gratuitous experimentalists and “locking” a metaphor for the artistic process. Much of Steinberg’s fiction operates best as allegory; her stories seem to express what the quote at the top of this article says about “realists.” Their art is “childlike and belligerent” with its rudimentary meaning-making abilities, compared to Steinberg’s high art. Fortunately, however, Steinberg’s fiction—especially the title story—doesn’t rely on an allegorical reading. As unsophisticated as it might sound, I prefer to think of the protagonists as real kids.
The stories themselves are rich—and demanding—enough to force you to read them simultaneously as fiction and poetry. The strongest piece in the collection, “Isla,” could be read as a retelling of Anne Sexton’s poem, “Oysters.” In both pieces, a creepy, incestuous aura hangs over a teenage girl and her father as they eat at a restaurant. The fathers’ personalities are polar opposite: in “Oysters,” the father is ominously silent, and in “Isla” he does all the talking. His staccato utterances are numbered, from one to 134, as if to quantify the damage he’s inflicting on his daughter.
Most of the stories explore damaged minds. In “Nothing,” we inhabit an adolescent boy’s subconscious as he sits in a circle with his parents and possibly a therapist. Reminiscent of the Columbine killer, Dylan Klebold, the narrator has created a list of people and things he dislikes—with a “violent title,” according to a parent.
The narrator’s thoughts are presented in parenthesis, neatly separated from the narration and exterior dialogue—however, the exterior information is infrequent and unreliable. He doesn’t care much about things happening outside his mind, and his interior landscape is full of confusion, disappointment, and hostility. Like the Columbine killers, the petty torments the narrator receives from his peers trigger grand visions of revenge: “I would go, poof! And the females disappear,” and “The females shake in circles. Oh horrible bloody messes!”
He borrows his modus operandi from comic books—the Columbine killers got theirs from the video game “Doom.” After a few minutes in the narrator’s head, it’s easy to imagine a shotgun in his gym bag and a pipe bomb in his closet. The story provides a harrowing glimpse into a troubled and possibly antisocial mind.
The stories are arranged thoughtfully. As much as they jump all over stylistically, they progress thematically from troubled adolescence toward jaded adulthood, with some exceptions. While the book is full of different voices, it gives an impression of a single lifespan. Steinberg’s publisher, the Fiction Collective Two (FC2), seems to prefer books that provide a portrait of a generation. As one of FC2’s founders, Ronald Sukenick, sought to mark the end of a generation with his book 98.6, so does Susan Steinberg with The End of Free Love." - Doug Pond
"After my end-of-2005 reading binge, it wasn't easy to finish a book in the first month of 2006. Part of the problem is that I'm usually reading several books at once, and one tends to get more attention than the others. This really has nothing to do with the quality of the others, but rather with what interests me at the moment. It's been easy for me to read books on editing and design, but fiction? Well, I enjoyed every bit of Susan Steinberg's The End of Free Love, but I can't remember the last time it took me this long to read a book.
Granted, this isn't typical fiction. FC2 is known for publishing experimental fiction, and The End of Free Love hits the mark. This books lacks (though this is not a fault) dialogue. Every story in this collection of stories clearly tells a story, but Steinberg doesn't necessarily rely upon plot to do so. The best way to explain this is to quote D. A. Powell's blurb:
[Steinberg's] stories are symphonies of voice, a landscape of characters created purely in the act of speaking.
Whether each story's primary character is speaking aloud or just thinking the words is open to debate. Regardless, Steinberg masterfully creates tension. I believe her background in art (she has a BFA in painting) gives her this ability. Each sentence is a brushstroke, and stroke after stroke slowly creates the entire picture. The tension is created both by this slow-building process and troubled characters who worry the reader with their destructive tendencies.
One of the stories, Forward, shares excerpts of letters from a girl to an athlete. Her sister, she says, was injured at his last game and is now in the hospital. He must come see her. Through ten days of letters we discover that the girl has no sister but wants the athlete to visit her in the hospital and when he never arrives her obsession turns to disgust. â€œFrom the mouse hole is a bright light under the door and the metal bed that is empty and no visitors allowed especially not you. Another story, Winner, shares wedding toasts from hell:
"The ladies loved him. No offense to the bride. He's all yours now Mrs. But he had his fans. Let's be honest kids. How many times was I like, brother friend. Share the wealth. Ladies lining up for this guy."
These stories are nefarious, funny, tragic. Pick up this book if you want writing that taps into and recalls emotion. Pick it up if you want to be seduced by a fresh and original kind of fiction." - Fade Theory
Read it at Google Book
Susan Steinberg, Hydroplane: Fictions, Fiction Collective 2; 2006.
"Hydroplane is a story collection filled with the urgency of erotic obsession. Its breathless voices, palpable in their desire, are propelled by monomania, rushing from one preoccupation into another: a garage, a painting class, a basketball game, boys. Their words take on kinetic force, an almost headlong momentum, as though, while reading, one were picking up speed, veering out of control. The past returns. Rumination are continuous. A stranger at a bus stop is indistinguishable from the narrator’s deceased grandfather; party guests turn ghoulish, festivities merge with nightmares.
Hydroplane reads like a nocturnal drive along a vapored highway, similar in its furious wanderlust to the novels of Beckett — Watt or Molloy. Much like those title characters, the speakers populating this collection are crippled by their loss, able only to rummage through recollections as buffers to the indistinct future. One story, “Static,” follows a few steps behind a teenage girl as she spends the summer at the home of her divorcee father. Squandering evenings behind the House of Mirrors, she discovers herself as a sexual entity, the object of a man’s desire.
Each of Steinberg’s stories builds as if telegraphed, relaying mere slivers of the past. One sentence glissades into the next as though in perpetual motion: “And I thought of trees. How they grow out of nothing. Dirt. How they grow into nothing. Air. How somehow there’s life. A spark. Until it gets crushed. That’s life you know. Screaming oneself awake.” That is, to awaken from a dream while behind the wheel and to realize that the past is not only alive and well, but thriving."
"The dozen moody stories of Steinberg's second collection (after The End of Free Love) buzz with a tangible erotic tension, sometimes laced with loneliness, sometimes urgent with desire. In the title tale, high school memories of bad-girl behavior color the narrator's fraught encounter with a man who stops to change her flat tire on a lonely, rain-slicked highway. The same slippery overlap of present and past energizes the spooky "The Last Guest," in which the narrator's meeting with an aloof red-haired man, the last to arrive at a house party, triggers memories of the seventh grade: both the physical charge of dry-humping with a "boy-looking girl" and the perversity with which the two friends stalked a redheaded boy—now grown into the mysterious man. Snapshots of a beach vacation form "Static," about a teenage girl who tests the power of her newfound sexuality ("always a cocktease, always wriggling") while she observes her father with his girlfriends, "every summer a new bleach-blonde with toothpick legs." Experimental but never opaque, Steinberg's stories seethe with real and imagined menace." - Publishers Weekly
"Steinberg proved that she can play with form in her debut, The End of Free Love (2003), and she continues to scratch sparks against the predictable in her second collection, which is reminiscent of works by Mary Robison and Amy Hempel. A thick cloud of mania and obsession hangs over these erotically charged, lightly plotted stories. In "Lifelike," a young art student suffers panic attacks while being stifled by her diamond-encrusted mother; in another, a pair of siblings discover their father hanging from the rafters of the family garage. To recount the stark details of this collection, though, is to miss the rhapsody of the prose, for these stories read more like poems, and Steinberg uses repetition--of words, sentence sequences, images, and circular meanings--to evoke the mind's inner clockwork. Every reader has lived a Steinberg story, everyone has been lonely, or chronically fixated on something just out of reach. Steinberg walks a delicate line here between real life and hidden association, sentiment and reality, and she does so with ease." - Emily Cook
"The test of any book, for me, is how much I can read of it in one sitting. Not whether I can have the story completely swallow me up and hold me like an overzealous lover through the night, though I value that experience, too, which is typically the province of the novel to create a world for us and consume our time, our consciousness, to force us to turn page after page, proceeding linearly through, until we have to sleep because we have to get up to work, love, court, or other responsibilities tomorrow. That's good, yes, definitely, who doesn't want that?, but:
What I most like is for a book to speak enough to me that I can get through no more than a story, five pages of text, maybe, before I feel like I have to break away, either from the intensity of the gaze or because I want to apply these stories to my own and let them spawn. I want a book to operate on my consciousness in such a way that it induces the sort of state that prompts my own work, drives me to put down the book and go to the keyboard because I am primed for something new. It's better if the story creates a kind of excruciating pleasure where you are enjoying its work on you, but you want to get away, you need to, and will soon, if only the spell will be broken, though you're not willing to do that mid-story, because that disrespects the mind at work on you as represented by these sentences.
So it is with pleasure that I read Susan Steinberg's Hydroplane slowly, piecemeal, one story at a time, with significant breaks between. I recommend it to you that way, for in a lot of ways Steinberg does not seem interested in the project of the novel (or the traditional story).
Generally this book's method is to construct the character (and by extension the world) through fragmentary first-person utterance, through the bursts and reversals of a voice trying to tell us something. For instance, the action (such as it is) in "The Garage" is narrated in 77 discrete fragments. Each is a new start, false, often jumping backwards or forwards in time, revising or revisiting some previous action or filling in a gap left from before, or modifying a previous statement:
This is really a story about our father. About how he hanged himself in the garage that day. We used to say he hung himself. But the word is hanged.
That's the whole section or strophe or whatever you want to call it. Even in this short bit we get revision, reversal, an identifying of what the story's ostensibly about, even as it is obviously about something other than this, quite possibly the difficulty of language and the workings of the mind. So the unspooling of plot isn't all that important (though there is some of the plot revealed in this way too): what's more interesting in a Steinberg story is watching the character become clearer, more defined, as she (it is always, or almost always a she, often early adult or adolescent, usually sexualized, obsessive, thinking intermittently of fucking, she as ball of intellect, dialect, and desire) tacks around a central idea watching it come together or fall apart.
There is a downside to this method, in that the stories' shapes are not overly varied, nor are the voices always all that different from each other. I guess this creates a stylistic similarity that brings the book together, but also possibly flattens (or focuses, one could argue) its effect. And there's probably critique to be had in the constant presence of desire (fucking, fucking, fucking) and the possibility that this creates another sort of flatness in the book. But I don't see much point in critique, when my first concern here is pleasure, and there is a lot of pleasure on the sentence level, which is the first place I feel we should start to give a shit.
Hydroplane is a more assured project than her previous book, The End of Free Love (which I also liked, and which worked in some ways like this one), and offers an intense reading experience, because of the project and her vision, her version of story. I can't say how it reads cover to cover since I found it impossible to read in that way, and besides it comes on strong enough to probably make it tough going to read more than a story or two at a time. Devotees of more straightforward types of fiction might find this difficult, though that's a lame reason to shy away from powerful fiction. The power of the voice here is dazzling, virtuoso at times, and has much to offer any sort of reader or writer.
So think of it like this: Hydroplane as seed, sourdough starter, amino acids stewing. There is sufficient power in Steinberg's sentences, each one like a little big bang creating its own consciousness or echo, to push me or you to the keyboard. Which is a pretty big victory from my point of view." - AM at Diagram
"You don't just read Susan Steinberg's stories; you hold on tight to her words and go along for the ride.
The author of ``Hydroplane'' takes you from one moment to another, from one form to another, in breathless, urgent prose.
``The start. There were fits. Then fitful thoughts. But first there were stars. They flashed past my face. And I watched them flash. And I felt my pulse. And the speed. I need not say.''
So begins "Lifelike,'' a story about a young art student who suffers panic attacks while being stifled by her mother.
Steinberg's stories are dark and moody and palpable. They screech from present to past and build into tales of characters scrambling their way through both.
In ``Garage,'' a pair of siblings wonder about whether a different relationship with their father would have kept him from hanging himself in the garage. "Perhaps we would have made some kind of pact with God to act more caring around our father instead of being the perfect brats we had become.''
In the title tale, high school memories affect the narrator's charged encounter with a man who stops to change her flat tire on a lonely, rain-slicked highway.
In ``The Last Guest,'' the narrator's meeting with a red-haired man, the last to arrive at a house party, triggers adolescent memories of dry-humping with a ``boy-looking girl'' and stalking a redheaded boy who is now the mysterious man.
And in "`Static,'' flashbacks of a beach vacation form the story of a teenage girl who tests the power of her burgeoning sexuality while observing her father's relationship with women.
"... every summer a new bleach-blonde with toothpick legs.''
But to merely recount the plots would be to miss the best part of her stories - not so much the tales, but the way in which Steinberg chooses to tell them. The way she navigates, manipulates and ultimately controls the language in a way that few authors do, a way I suspect few authors have the confidence to.
Steinberg, whose stories have been published in The Gettysburg Review, Quarterly West, Conjunctions, Boulevard, New Letters, Denver Quarterly, The Massachusetts Review and other literary journals, doesn't merely write. She paints -- big, complicated pictures in which characters and themes thrown into the past and present and then back again in an effort to make sense of the world around them.
"And I thought of trees. How they grow out of nothing. Dirt. How they grow into nothing. Air. How somehow there's life. A spark. Until it gets crushed. That's life you know. Screaming oneself awake.''
And that describes Steinberg's stories - growing, living, screaming themselves off the page." - Helen Ubinas
"How do you come up with story ideas? Personal experience? News clips?
- I don't usually come up with "ideas" for stories but, rather, start with a line or image or even a scene. I then develop the story around these things. I find it too limiting to have the story "plotted" and prefer to let it grow out of combining what I already know with the surprises that come up when writing.
Do you think being a painter influences your writing technique?
- Yes, I think so. Stories, like paintings, are, for me, a place where one moves scenes and images around until there's a sense of order or structure, a shape of the whole. I think if the two differed more, I would probably need to continue to paint as well as write.
How do you decide which stories to include in a manuscript? Do you aim for a central theme in a short story collection?
- In The End of Free Love, I included all of the stories that I didn't despise, and I made sure they "spoke" to each other on some level. I don't generally aim for a central theme, but obsessions have a way of making themselves known in a collection. For example, so many of the narrators have an intense desire to run away, to get out of a situation and into a new one. There's also a great deal of bullying throughout the collection. But I had no plans to push these themes throughout the book.
People have said that the stories included in The End of Free Love are about finding identity. Do you agree with this?
- Yes, there's a search for identity in some (all?) of the stories; the characters are trying to "find" identity and "form" identity. So while characters are trying to come to terms with what it means to live in cities, in suburbs, to be Jewish, to be female, to be a mother, to be in therapy, to be young, they're also doing a great deal of role-playing, creating identities for themselves. They want to be superheroes, stars of television commercials, in short, worshipped.
How did "Isla" take form?
- "Isla" started out as a list of things my grandfather had said to me over the years. I didn't even know I was writing a story when I started it -- I was just angry or feeling sorry for myself, I suppose, and wanted to own these lines by putting them on paper. Then of course it became a piece of fiction, and I decided to leave the numbers in to give the girl in the story a voice - these are her memories, not necessarily direct quotes from the father.
Hearing you read in Tallahassee last fall gave the stories a whole new dimension. Do you recommend people try to read your stories out loud to get the full feel?
- Thanks. I don't generally recommend people read my stories aloud (though I do recommend my students read their stories aloud), but I have always wanted to give a reading of someone else's work - and that person, of course, would read mine.
Do you feel that writing short stories is more appealing than writing a novel? How do you think the two differ in content and form?
- I am working on my first "novel" now, and I still hesitate - made clear by the quotes - to use that word. I call it a novel because it's long, because it follows two threads throughout, and because the same character is narrating. But I must confess it helps me to write it if I think of it as a collection. So I'm approaching it the way I approach writing a collection - I'm working on many smaller scenes (or stories within it) simultaneously and trying to figure out how they go together.
How would you teach your students to write? What would a crash-course in your fiction technique class be like?
- I would never teach a crash-course in my fiction technique as far as form or style goes. I think each story asks for its own unique way of being told. But I do tell my students this (and I stole it from the fiction writer Nick Montemarano, and I don't know if he stole it from someone else): All stories need to start with these lines: "Sit down. I've got something to tell you." Then, of course, after the story is written, you remove those two lines. But I like to stress the importance of urgency, conflict, delay, voice, and, of course, style and form.
Now that your book has been out for a while, do you have any regrets? Any changes you would like to make? Any qualms that have been eased by how well your book has been received?
-I'm simultaneously thrilled and freaked out that the book is in the world. I have no regrets and there is only one word in the whole book I would like to change. And I won't tell anyone what the word is." - Interview at Fiction Colective 2
"Experimental writing, as a category or concept, seems fraught with widespread confusion and misunderstanding. How exactly would you describe “experimental writing”? Or, to borrow a question from Kate Sutherland, “What’s Experimental about Experimental Writing?”
- I’m finding that a lot of writing is categorized as experimental simply because it looks different on the page. Too often, this work, while embracing a certain textural playfulness, still reads as either conventional or self-indulgent. I think that truly experimental writing embraces innovation, a relationship of form to content, a consideration of the real possibilities of the text; it’s not just pyrotechnics, opacity, an attempt to shock, or a formulaic display of what certain writers and readers think experimental writing is supposed to seem. I wonder if it’s too simplistic to say that truly experimental writing has behind it a writer who wishes to conduct actual experiments. For some it’s structural, for some it’s rooted in content, for some it’s a conscious subversion of the mainstream. For me, it’s formal and syntactical. And too often the result is a series of failed experiments, which, in my opinion, is more satisfying than successfully following a formula.
A few years ago, Marjorie Welish wrote an article for Boston Review about Raymond Queneau, which she concluded by claiming, “Experimental writing is by definition its own adventure, a way characterized most definitely with error yet also with discovery and potential conceptual originality, which in time may well prove significant.” If we accept Welish’s suggestion that experimental writing is inherently connected to error and discovery, how are readers to determine the success or failure of a particular work of experimental writing? Without established criteria for evaluation, how can we differentiate between gold and copper?
- I do believe that experimental writing is often about trial and error — it certainly is for me — but I don’t believe we’re without established criteria. I should preface this by saying that I’m no fan of the notion of the “best” in art; I don’t care for the lists. That said, I think it’s useful to have a discussion about what makes a work of art successful — to its audience, in a context of art like it, in a context of art unlike it. Perhaps it’s futile to ask questions about plot of a plot-less narrative. Or to apply the criteria reserved for a formulaic genre piece to a piece which resists narrative. But I would make the argument that this type of criteria won’t get us very far anyway in a discussion of art. In a discussion of sales, however, we’ll get somewhere. So how does one determine the strength and/or success of the work of Virginia Woolf or Djuna Barnes or Lydia Davis or Ben Marcus? Perhaps we begin by confronting such works — even the most innovative and intimidating — in the way we would any art which truly pushes the boundaries of its own discipline. And if we can’t find a way in through the usual methods (speaking aesthetically, intellectually, emotionally, contextually, historically) we can always ask what it’s asking to be asked.
In his book About Writing, Samuel Delany suggests that many writers (himself included) “no longer see experimental writing as a way to deal with [crisis] aesthetically” (226). Does this sentiment ring true for you as well?
- I haven’t read the book, but I would like to. It rings true that other writers no longer perceive experimental writing in this way, but for me it is absolutely, in part, “a way to deal with [crisis] aesthetically.”
Given Amy King’s recent VIDA article on the under-representation of women in major literary publications, it seems extremely important to acknowledge the fact that gender issues continue to problematize the field of literature. How would you characterize the relationship between women and experimental literature?
- As the Chair of the Board of Directors of VIDA, I have been in dialogue with a lot of writers over the past year, most recently with Carole Maso, about this very thing. And I’m discovering that for many of us, there is a close relationship: that is to say one is often doubly marginalized if one is both female and writing experimental fiction. It’s simultaneously very limiting and very liberating.
Which are your favorite works of experimental literature, and why?
- Novels — Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. Novella — William Gass’s The Pedersen Kid. Short stories — too many to list, but I would include Denis Johnson’s “Dundun,” Victoria Redel’s “A Day in the Park,” and Ander Monson’s “Bowling Balls Sent Down Through Windows From Overpasses That Stretch Like Spiderwebs Above.” Because beyond the brilliant line-by-line writing, the formal invention, the “crises” of the stories themselves, these pieces, as great, careful, urgent, considered, fearless works of art, respectfully say fuck you to formula, convention, laziness, and a market that embraces it all." - Interview by Christopher Higgs
pre-AWP blogterview #1 with Susan Steinberg
Universe by Susan Steinberg