S D. Chrostowska - Composed of anonymous e-mail messages sent by the author to an acclaimed visual artist over the course of a year, Permission is the record of an experiment: an attempt to forge a connection with a stranger through the writing of a book. Part meditation, part narrative, part essay

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S.D. Chrostowska, Permission, Dalkey Archive Press, 2013.

Composed of anonymous e-mail messages sent by the author to an acclaimed visual artist over the course of a year, Permission is the record of an experiment: an attempt to forge a connection with a stranger through the writing of a book. Part meditation, part narrative, part essay, it is presented to its addressee as a gift that asks for no thanks or acknowledgment—but what can be given in words, and what received? Permission not only updates the “epistolary novel” by embracing the permissiveness we associate with digital communication, it opens a new literary frontier.
“S.D. Chrostowska achieves unexpected buoyancy in spite of the intensity of her material. Permission, certain to be among the most formally adventurous books published this year, will thrill readers of fearless stylists like Blanchot, Barthes, and Anne Carson. In its obsessive intricacy, it evokes even earlier forebears: those wonderfully melancholy European humanists, like Thomas Browne and Robert Burton.

“‘Every library is a haunted cemetery,’ writes F. Wren, the narrator of Permission. This fine and perplexing novel is itself something between a library and a cemetery, spinning around the hauntings of desire, the confusions of memory, the ambiguities of solitude and, above all, the mystery of writing.” –Teju Cole

In trying to frame a review of S.D. Chrostowska’s novel Permission, I have repeatedly jammed myself against many of the conundrums that the book’s narrator describes, imposes, chews, digests, and synthesizes for her reader.
I have, for example, just now resisted the impulse to place the terms novelnarrator, and reader under radical suspicion. (I realize that the last sentence carries out the impulse even as it purports not to). Permission, thoroughly soaked in deconstruction, repeatedly places its own composition under radical suspicion.
This is maybe a bad start to a review.
Another description:
Permission pretends to be the emails that F.W. (later F. Wren, and even later, Fearn Wren) sends to an unnamed artist, a person she does not know, has never met, whom she contacts in a kind of affirmation of reciprocity tempered in the condition that her identity is “random and immaterial.” She aims to work out “an elementary philosophy of giving that is, by its very definition, anti-Western.” Her gift is the book she creates — “Permit me to write to you, today, beyond today,” the book begins.
Why?
What I want to measure—or, rather, what I want to obtain an impression of, since I do not claim exactitude of measurement for my results—is my own potential for creatio ad nihilum (creation fully within the limits of human ability, out of something and unto nothing). To rephrase my experimental question: can I give away what is inalienable from me (my utterance, myself) without the faintest expectation or hope of authority, solidarity, reciprocity?
F.W.’s project (Chrostowska’s project) here echoes Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of giving, of the (im)possibility of authentic giving. F.W. wants to give, but she also deconstructs that impulse repeatedly. This is a novel (novel-essay, really) that cites Gilles Deleuze and Maurice Blanchot in its first twenty pages.
Her project is deconstruction; as she promises at the outset, her giving, her writing “is not solid, and does not lead to solidarity.” On the contrary,
it is solvent, and leads, through its progressive dissolution, towards the final solution of this writing (my work), which meanwhile becomes progressively less difficult, less obscure.
“Will it?” I asked in the margin of my copy. It does, perhaps.
After an opening that deconstructs its own opening, Chrostowska’s F.W. turns her attention to more concrete matters. We get a brief tour of cemeteries, a snapshot of the F.W.’s father (as a child) at a child’s funeral, a recollection of her first clumsy foray into fiction writing, a miniature memoir of a failed painter, color theory, the sun, the moon. We get an overview of our F.W.’s most intimate library—The Hound of the Baskervilles, a samizdat copy of Listy y Bialoleki [Letters from Bialoleka Prison], 1984. We get an analysis of Philip Larkin’s most famous line. Prisons, lunatic asylums, schools. Indian masks. Hamlet. More cemeteries.
My favorite entry in the book is a longish take on the “thingness of books,” a passage that concretizes the problems of writing—even thinking—after others. I think here of Blanchot’s claim that, “ No sooner is something said than something else must be said to correct the tendency of all that is said to become final.”
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The most intriguing passages in Permission seem to pop out of nowhere, as Chrostowska turns her keen intellect to historical or aesthetic objects. These are often accompanied by black and white photographs (sometimes gloomy, even murky), recalling the works of W.G. Sebald, novel-essays that Permission follows in its form (and even tone). Teju Cole—who also clearly followed Sebald in his wonderful novel Open Cityprovides the blurb for Permission, comparing it to the work of Sebald’s predecessors, Thomas Browne and Robert Burton. There’s a pervasive melancholy here too. Permission, haunted by history, atrocity, memory, and writing itself, is often dour. The novel-essay is discursive but never freewheeling, and by constantly deconstructing itself, it ironically creates its own center, a decentered center, a center that initiates and then closes the work—dissolves the book.
Permission, often bleak and oblique, essentially plotless (a ridiculous statement this, plotless—this book is its own plot (I don’t know if that statement makes any sense; it makes sense to me, but I’ve read the book—the book is plotless in the conventional sense of plotedness, but there is a plot, a tapestry that refuses to yield one big picture because its threads must be unthreaded—dissolved to use Chrostowska’s metaphor)—where was I?—Yes, okay, Permission, as you undoubtedly have determined now, you dear, beautiful, bright thing, is Not For EveryoneHowever, readers intrigued by the spirit of (the spirit of) writing may appreciate and find much to consider in this deconstruction of the epistolary form. - Edwin Turner

“I wasn’t writing a novel”

S D Chrostowska, author of Permission, interviewed by Edwin Turner.
 
(Daguerreotype by Jerry Spagnoli)
3:AM: How did Permission begin? Did it begin as a novel? As something else?
S D Chrostowska: It began with the first message, and ended with the last. It was principally a literary effort subordinated to communication. To me this remains a crucial difference, its differentia specifica. The origin of the now-book Permission was in an illegitimate literary dimension outside the frame of book authorship. You have to understand that, though I had chosen my reader, this reader could not know what if anything would become of the writing that came their way. Naturally I wonder whether and how it changes things for readers today, who approach them as a bound book, to know that the letters, just as they are, were once for real.
3:AM: Why write the letters under a pseudonym? How did you arrive at “Fearn Wren”?
SDC: For the sake of ambiguity. Knowing too much, or for that matter anything, about the artist-producer prejudices us about their work. The prejudice is not just personal or social but also simply contextual. It is all but unavoidable in visual and performing artworks requiring direct human contact, where other people are involved from the start rather than just on the receiving end. Sitting for a portrait or mounting a play depends on direct interaction. But we have already chosen the photographer based on their reputation. And we know something about the director before we get involved in their production or, if we happen to be directors, select actors based on their training or past work.
But writing, usually done at some distance from readers, can minimize our reader’s prejudices—at least until the finished work is judged, and the reviews and exposés come out. One way it can do this is by appearing anonymously or pseudonymously. Such publishing has a long history. As, one should add, does letter-writing under a pseudonym. Permission’s first reader would have had no context to go on.
Being read as an unknown author, not part of the literary scene, mimics that condition somewhat. But almost everyone nowadays can be googled, which is to say traced. I imagine that many people who would pick up a book like mine would be curious in this way.
I’m not sure how I settled on this particular pen-name. I do like ferns and wrens, their behaviors and the myths around them.
3:AM: Often, the best way to experience art, film, literature is without any preconception or guide or, as you put it, prejudice. But because of, I don’t know the right word, the marketplace for these arts, we also often need someone to at least steer us to art, narratives (etc.) that can sustain/upset/enrage/bewilder/enchant us.
Part of me is dying to ask about that first reader, the artist whom “F.W” writes to…but at the same time I think that I’d rather leave that itch unscratched. I’ll submit that one of the first things I did reading the book was google for Rabbit Hunt.
To what extent is the first reader of Permission pseudonymous or anonymous? Is he aware of the novelness of the novel? Are these foolish questions?
SDC: Yes, the first reader, the purported director of The Rabbit Hunt whom you pursued through google, is and will likely remain anonymous. Rabbits don’t hide in plain sight do they?
I have long found animal hunting in films fascinating to watch. The list of such scenes is long and goes beyond rabbitting. I would give special place to La Caza by Saura, possibly the most exhausting and elaborate, or Le Bled, which goes after Algerian gazelles. In both films there are casualties among the hunters. The more refined and merciless the hunt the more it seems to lend itself to a conte moral on the folly of human passion and its primitive sources. But it represents to me film’s breathless pursuit of reality.
I see the novel as having crossed its own “doorstep” long ago. Beyond this domestic threshold, it no longer wants to contain reality but increasingly finds pleasure in pursuing it. I don’t just say this because of how close caza (hunt) is to casa, which only occurred to me.
The novel’s relationship to reality is increasingly mysterious. It still imagines chasing it down and devouring it, but it takes time to marvel at the elusiveness, muscularity, and sheer primacy of things. It wants their freedom for itself. But on the other hand, it wants to hold reality captive and make contact with it. It wants to be more recognized by it in the wild, without taming it first. It wants to be seen as real.
Was the first reader—assuming they read it—aware of the text’s “novelness,” as you put it? I wondered about this at the time. The text of Permission remains virtually unchanged—perhaps you can imaginatively identify with its recipient and tell me about it? The book stands as a partial record of its own unfolding, which hinged on the experience of writing and the experience of reading corresponding to it. But this original experience that motivated it is past and done.
3:AM: Now that I have more context—knowing that the emails in the book are “real” and were sent to a “real” recipient—I imagine that your reader had to be puzzled. I would’ve kept reading them, but maybe he dreaded the emails? Or filed them as spam? Or—and here’s where I would have been tempted—maybe wanted to write back, to reciprocate—a gesture that would have challenged the spirit of Permission, I think. Why was it important that your reader—your recipient—not reply?
SDC: You are exactly right that a response would have challenged the explicit request made of my first reader: that our correspondence remain one-sided. The idea was to test my own limits as a writer. Up to that point I had next to no experience with literary publishing. The little I did have wasn’t terrifically rewarding. But I wanted to continue writing and felt that to do this properly—without regard for what goes and does not go in literary journals and presses—I ought to reconcile myself to obscurity. In the end, as you can see, I wasn’t completely reconciled. The existence of Permission is proof of this.
So the principal reason why I devised the writing scheme I devised was to test my resolve. Another major reason was a need for adventure, and for sharing something rather than compounding my then isolation. Another still was a need for an external source of work discipline and aesthetic standards. For these reasons, I preferred not to know if that source cared at all about my undertaking. I didn’t want confirmation that they didn’t give a damn—the likeliest scenario, you’ll agree. Besides, asking someone to engage would have been asking for too much, so I never asked.
I can think of a further reason. I was curious to know if I could sustain a degree of abstraction and stylistic coherence on that scale without the possibility of going back and revising as I wrote. It was to be one pass. And this test might have been difficult in an interactive setup. So the entire “project” was an experiment in endurance and skill.
My interpretation of the silence on the other end was on the whole positive. I continued to draw inspiration from it. I felt I was playing a game that hadn’t been played before, which I designed but played as the weaker player, the one ultimately more exposed, more liable to lose, with more at stake—the pleasure of writing in ignorance of the truth, for one thing. I knew all along I was pushing my luck. I had a sense that my writing was equally testing the limits of the person I was writing to. The other side of permissiveness was transgression against privacy. I worried such letter-writing, particularly over email, would end up eroding the boundaries that normally exist between strangers in public. And I wondered how this would manifest.
My original plan included a collaborative preface. But I gave it up. And while my addressee never replied, someone sent a poem to the address I had created for the correspondence. The poem was pseudonymous, so it was playing along. I didn’t think much of it. But it did cross my mind: now it starts and I must shut up to reciprocate.
3:AM:  From the beginning, how established were the “rules” for the game that became Permission? Were you tempted to revise later? Compelled by an editor to revise?
SDC: In response to your first question, the main rule I spoke of was set in stone before I started writing, and was articulated in the very first communication. Similarly with the rule of writing regularly. For a long time I said nothing about it to anyone.
To your second and third questions the answer would have to be no. Nothing tempted or compelled me to revise. Over the years, through sheer tinkering, I changed something like one percent of the text, and one image.
3:AM: So the photographs were part of the emails as well? How did you choose them? Did the photographs lead to the writing in some cases?
SDC: The images did indeed come with the “package.” Reasons for their inclusion varied considerably, but generally speaking I used images to break up the monotony of the text. Sometimes ideas called for an image, which I had to find or produce. Sometimes it was the opposite, an image supplied an opportunity to develop a theme. Some of the pictures have been on my mind for a long time. Many had been taken by me, some came from a “family archive,” some had to be dug up, and some rescanned from old negatives. Permissions for several of them took some doing and negotiation and one or two wild goose chases.
In my formative years the available, low-tech means of transforming reality were writing, drawing, painting, and photography. I tried them all but dropped them one by one until I was left with the first. It would not be far-fetched to call Permission an homage to the only means at my disposal that I did not use, even though there was a 16-mm camera in the house. The instrument had an aura because I wasn’t permitted to touch it, and when I did I saw it had no film. This was a spur to my imagination. Video, when I got my hands on it, was a social pleasure and confined to an episode. From then on I know film mainly through the experience of cinema.
So it seems obvious to me now why, in the choice of images for Permission, I eventually drew the line at film. Initially I hand in mind including one movie still. But it struck me as alien, although I have seen such images alongside text in books many times. To return to the element of homage: the book was written to a “person of film.” For that reason it would have been unwise and possibly perilous for a person of letters and film dilettante to trifle with a medium so artistically foreign. Plus using film images could have been misconstrued as bait, a lure. Instead, film found its way into the text. Conveying aspects of cinematic experience in the one technology with which I am comfortable seemed preferable.
I regret not front-loading the book with a kind of frontispiece, where the arts it draws on and its main themes would be represented in allegorical or symbolic form. The art of literature would be unrecognizable. W. von Humboldt wrote, “No art is as severely tempted to displace its unique beauty with borrowed feathers as the art of literature.” It’s an odd bird that can do that and still get off the ground!
3:AM: In some ways all literature is “borrowed feathers,” and Permission is perhaps no different—there’s a lot of synthesis and citation and direct reference in your book.
SDC: Philosophers make a distinction between the use of a word and its mention. More generally, we can own an idea and make it part of our system of thinking, absorb it into our bloodstream, or only quote it or be about it, and so keep it at a distance, to remain immune to being identified with it and held to account. In Permission some ideas and images are used, others mentioned, and they have different weights. Some might be stones that weigh it down, others as light as feathers it can get away with…
Literature’s engagement in philosophizing, for instance, may be as questionable as its inclusion of photography or painting. The novel has always had limits that it eventually overcame, turning them into milestones. Take the concern of the novelist-narrator in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black: “Politics is a stone tied around literature’s neck.” But to resist dating the novel, by incorporating contemporary political debates or events, for the sake of some imaginary timelessness would be to fail one’s contemporaries and the mission of literary realism. The politics of 1830 may have indeed fallen flat on some readers and may be irrelevant today but, far from sinking under its weight, the book stands as a monument of the realist tradition.
Novels have been unbelievably capacious and open to mixing the make-believe of “fiction” with the “real” and “serious” of history, philosophy, science… You might think that after the realist novel’s social aspirations, the twentieth-century “novel of ideas”—the kind for which ideas are essential rather than incidental—would have an easy time of it. But, like earlier the novel of formation, the Bildungsroman, it too needed to be legitimized. Utopian fiction—social-utopian visions with true literary ambition if not merit—came under attack in the last century for being too categorical and crude, treating characters as mouthpieces, vulgarizing literature, and the novel in particular, by dressing political manifesto in the feathers of that art. But works like Bellamy’s Looking Backward, one of the culprits, dramatized the social question and illustrated utopian social theory; they didn’t just show the planned and desired outcome of one such theory being put into practice. Yet many critics and writers were convinced that true novels and utopias don’t mesh. It had to be demonstrated that they do mesh, at least when ingenuity gets involved. After Le Guin we no longer have a real issue with the utopian novel.
I imagine that countless so-called postmodern novels draw attention to the limits of the novel and in that sense expand it. My book does not. Permission does borrow the trappings of the epistolary novel, but its aim is not to expand that genre. It’s to expand the art of letter-writing.
I wasn’t writing a novel.
3:AM: Do you have any plans to write a novelly novel? What are you working on now?
SDC: Scholarly work aside, what I’ve written always tended toward short forms, some of which might be called stories—though not in Alice Munro’s sense. These pieces don’t fall neatly into any clear genres and range from micro-fictions or vignettes to sketches and aphorisms.
The form used in Permission, by which I mean the letter, is an empty envelope into which one can put almost anything, even a “novelly” novel. Literary experiments such as my correspondence might end up as “experimental literature,” that is, as published works. But nowhere is it written that they must be made public.


Kate Zambreno and S. D. Chrostowska discuss Permission, the vagaries of readership and publicity, rag-bags, and the transgressive novel as essay, commodity, and monster.


Kate Zambreno Your novel Permission follows Fearn Wren, a pseudonymous narrator who has embarked upon an experiment—to write a series of “notes” over email to an unnamed artist. These notes consist of meditations and interrogations on writing, memory, atrocity, and solitude, among other concerns. Wren sets out the terms of this experiment quite strictly at its origin: the notes (not letters, Wren insists, not journal entries) will comprise a book, of which this chosen recipient will be the first reader and whose begged-for silence will operate as tacit permission. I was struck by how contemporary these concerns are while nonetheless engaged with the slow, weird birth of the novel as Henry James’ “baggy monster.” It’s a history Wren is quite aware of, with sources in both the bourgeois epistolary novel and nineteenth-century adventures in serial publication. (I’m twinning this in my mind as I Love Dickens. Forgive me for the pun—I just taught Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, a work that Permission reminds me of formally, in the idea of a one-sided correspondence with a famous thinker that allows the narrator to essay, to attempt, to come into being as a writer, and also in just how radically discursive both works are: novels daring to be philosophy and how this is, in a way, not permitted in our contemporary landscape.) Which brings me to the reader, this reader we as novelists are supposed to be always hyperaware of—what the reader wants, what the reader likes, what the reader needs. I love this concept that I see in Permission of the writer-narrator taking an ideal reader somewhat hostage.
But I was also intrigued by how your work circled around questions of a contemporary readership, and whether this reader, even if only one, is necessary for the writer to be a writer, that one has to know now one will be read in order to actually write. Does the writer exist anymore without the reader? I have been thinking lately that Pessoa’s scraps or Rilke’s notebooks seem impossible in our current age, although writing to some degree always seems impossible. I have been thinking lately too of how writing for me involves, somehow, a need for witness, both to witness others and to be witnessed, an idea of writing as communication that Permission speaks to as well. And also how this is a contemporary concern—the need for an immediate readership, for writing to occur somewhat in a public or semi-public space, and how technology can ease this pressure, a pressure felt not only by writers, of recognition and of witness.
I feel now I have taken you hostage with my litany of questions, but I really just want to hear your thoughts on the contemporary reader and readership, and the notion of writing as communication and witness, and perhaps, yes, something of technology, and how you philosophized this within Permission.
S. D. Chrostowska Forgive me for somewhat crudely paring down your thoughts to respond to the excellent points you raise.
I am struck by your comment that Permission is a “novel daring to be philosophy, how this is, in a way, not permitted.” I know you have a special interest in—and perhaps are exploring in your new work as well—“being illegitimate.” To those judges of literature who have already made up their minds as to the degenerate impotence of literary experimentation, it seems to serve no purpose and is merely transgression for its own sake, somehow threatening to tradition, to the canon. Literary disobedience is not even antic, not even an amusing diversion. It comes down with the weight of a hammer upon the gavel, the canon, all that venerable stuff. “Disobedient” books still get skewered, chiefly as pointless exercises in form, for their stylistic “debauchery,” their inconsistency of voice, narrative indeterminacy, and hodgepodge-ism. While such exaggerated and variously justified reactions must be seen against the backdrop of what has been tried and true before them, the novels that incurred them were far from objectively lawless. Rather than be traditionalist, or worse, bourgeois, they sought to liberate themselves from the cage of traditional laws of Literature. They derived legitimacy from themselves in opposing society, going against the grain, and aiming for something fundamental and timeless, or something new and yet unrecognized, a visit from the future. And they can even, in some well-known experiments, be law-giving and full of laws internal to themselves. Literature now is as culturally contested, as policed, as ever. The internet may encourage new forms, but the backlash against them is just as strong. And in one important sense this is not a bad thing, since it testifies to continued public attention and literature’s continued relevance, even if that public and that relevance are more diffuse, more niched.
As you pointed out, Henry James—in appreciation of French literary theory of the fin-de-siècle—condemned the novels of Thackeray, Dumas, and Tolstoy as “loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary.” And, in the interwar period, the Polish writer Witkacy coined the word novel-sac, with fond reference to the novel as pure art, speaking of his own novels—art almost only for art’s sake. The novel gets compared to bags a lot. Rag-bags, Gladstone bags, bags of tricks, overstuffed suitcases. This seems to get at the novel’s capaciousness, including the capacity to take in other literary genres, like history, theology, science, art and literary criticism. But while neither eclecticism and roominess, nor internal generic multiplicity and hybridity were ever sins with the novel, its lawlessness, or in James’s words monstrosity—that is, instability, incoherence—was and remains unfashionable. The novel can contain the grotesque, but not to the point of becoming grotesque itself. It can pull the world into its orbit, but not so far as to lose a grip on itself. Free, but not so free after all.
Having said all that, I resist the idea that Permission somehow dramatizes the tension between the novel and philosophy. The first problem is that the book’s frame makes it less of a novel, if by that we mean something “more noble” (to invoke your words), or, in Roland Barthes’ sense, intransitive (following an urge to write, not interested in external objects, its own referent). If we mean novel as André Gide described it, as lawless, the go-to form for literary transgression, then Permission might just be as novelistic as they come. But given its premise and its method, I tend to think of it as essayistic, or what Barthes calls transitive: the book became my predicate, and it does not bracket references to reality outside it, beyond the here and now of the writing act. And then it is only semi-fictional.
The second problem, even if we concede that it is a novel by some standards and that it also has this essayistic (experimental) dimension, is that Permission is not exactly essaying philosophy. It is a trial that evades being tried—tried for trying and failing, that is. The most entertaining was for me always the escape artist, and there is a bit of that spirit, even if this book is not exactly a fun read. It does with philosophy what a caterpillar does with a leaf. (I mean, it is not always serious—listening in on the “madmen” on the bus, for instance: does the narrator come off any saner in the rant that follows?). Perhaps it is like a dizzy, drunken “other” of philosophy—to spin Judith Butler’s idea (of philosophy outside orthodox, disciplinary philosophy, in such hybrid humanities fields as literary theory or cultural studies).
You seem to want to break down the spectrum of the writer’s relationship to the world into the pure writer, able to derive their identity from the activity of writing alone, and the writer who is in search of a reader, his/her identity inseparable from this relation of external validation, which, I sense, you take as a form of amour propre. To this I would add a third option: the writer who is satisfied with being their own reader, concurrently or at a later date. Like the already old Jean-Jacques Rousseau of the Reveries, creating in advance a resource for his dotage to remind him of the pleasure of writing it (on the backs of playing cards!) and to enjoy in his decrepitude the company of his younger self.
This is a problem you are wrestling with, I can see, since I came across it in another interview of yours: “The idea of not publishing is wonderful!” You resist the idea of writing as perpetuating the mentality of capitalism, writing for financial gain, I assume, too, and of writing as work. I found myself disagreeing with you, maybe because I am new to this sort of publishing and used to publishing into the academic void. Maybe over time I would begin to feel like an exhibitionist, or a sell-out, or find myself guilty of vanity. As creative writers, I think we delight in working, refining, and finishing things we value, which cannot (yet) be taken away from us and of which we remain genuinely proud. We willingly work overtime (which can be a way of resisting the idea of a working day, and of the workaday—much as the very notion of writing creatively and setting our own work pace as well as work space). It is the desire in ourselves we could call divine, the source of the six days followed by rest, all of which long predates capitalism. We derive satisfaction from the process of writing and from the release of completion. The often forced kind of writing done in universities does have a tangible connection to capitalism, done as it is for professional advancement, for a pittance or nothing, with less and less creative thinking going into it. The humanities are resisting this, as one of the designated bulwarks of benign creativity, but such pressure to create in order to survive as a field of endeavor, for the institutions to turn a profit (publish or perish on an institutional scale rather than, as was formerly, the individual), is turning sinister in an environment that is far from disinterestedly supportive. It is, more and more: create, or else! I exaggerate, of course.
But the rest, so far, is free occupation, work that is also play, unconstrained by capital, investment, exploitation, but only by the existing rules and the ones we bring to it to “make it new.” It can go on without succumbing to writing as commodity production. We can always find a semi-public, shared drawer that does not confine us. There may come a time when you will want to stage a protest. But if I were to put my cards on the table I would say that Permission may offer an alternative.
Your second point, in connection with this somewhat idealized writer of old, is that this “tricking ourselves” is particular to—or particularly acute in—our time. Here I am inclined to agree. Gratification has never been easier in its most basically sufficient form: getting someone to respond, eliciting a reaction, a rise, a compliment from someone we don’t know, and we are hooked on expanding this circle of readers to unprecedented size. But, on the other hand, I want to say that the myth of the solitary writer has grown precisely around the practice of sharing, and would be impossible without it. In other words, this idea has a lot to do with the writer’s need, even desperation, to share their writing: reading it to friends, describing its progress in letters, publishing it in installments, having it performed at festivals, declaimed by actors, or sung the world over.
Now it seems I am challenging you point for point. But I know I am succumbing to Stockholm syndrome [inaudible laughter].
Because you touch on a very important point, something increasingly dear to me and very close to you—not only in your powerful, latest book Heroines, but throughout, in a more maternal guise, or perhaps better, that of a ministering angel—you bend over a character to communicate with those who would identify with it—and that is the idea of writing as communication. I can imagine that many writers would recoil at this idea.
KZ When I consider Permission as a work that engages with philosophy, I am considering it a novel—in the tradition of which you describe. I still find myself dedicated to the novel, with its history of disruption, of trying to dismantle and invent anew. And I know James is speaking derisively of Dumas, etc., with his “baggy monster” comment, but I like this idea of writing monsters, like a teenage Mary Shelley throwing down the gauntlet. But I think my considerations of what a novel is, the disciplining and policing that you describe, are probably inspired by my recent move to New York and thinking about the works that are considered “Great and American,” which seem to be structured entirely around identification and empathy for the reader and, in this way, to be throwbacks to the nineteenth century.
But I do like the idea of writing as essaying in the tradition of Montaigne, to essay as to “attempt,” revealing the failure within the form. I tend to think of my own writing this way, a work like Heroines, which I regard as a failure, but with a sort of swollen and tender pride. Lately I have been thinking of the stroll-like movement of the essay, the movement of wandering and walking and searching, as the movement that I’m interested in for my own work.
It’s true, I’ve voiced some ambivalence lately towards the public, towards publicity—how terrible to be held accountable to words tossed off carelessly in an interview!—which has been somewhat an experience of shame, of being made to feel shamed, or dumb, or dirty somehow, dingy. I think this is probably because I’m read, erroneously at times, as drawing entirely from my life for my own writing, so often it has felt as if I myself am on trial. And my writing and self read as quite gendered, the work is always too feminist or not feminist enough, so there’s more scrutiny, perhaps, or a different type of scrutiny, and that is the opposite of anonymity. But I still do love the idea of a book out in the world, the idea of a book taking on a life of its own and having readers have their own experiences with it, that communication, that gift, as you situate it within Permission. This is partially why we write, for this experience. We write to be read! And of course I take the writing in and of itself—the work and play, as you describe them, quite seriously. I have realized lately I am probably the sort of writer who lives to write, the rest of my existence a sort of poverty, the frenetic hermit.
I think you’re right yet myopic in some of the terms you’ve set up. Literature is thriving and alive in the small press world. But what if you are not attached to an academic institution or not in a stable way, as many writers are? What if you have to think about how to survive and thrive as a writer, while continuing to innovate and experiment and write what you wish? What if you write works that are not published willingly by small presses (too long, not poetic enough, etc.)? And regardless, of course, writing is still constrained by capital, by its existence as a commodity form, with marketing strategies and grant applications and adjunct jobs and interviews and Amazon.com numbers. Of course it is. I have a friend, who writes poet’s novels, one slim, perfect novel every decade, who has still confessed to me that she checks her Amazon.com rankings constantly, or looks to see who reviewed her on Goodreads, and how an anxiety about invisibility impacts her. I think alienation might be part of being a novelist. I am interested, in my next work, which is, I suppose, an essay-novel, in this dialectic between disappearance and ego for the writer: to write the great, searing work, yes, for one’s self or just one’s friends, but also to want to be remembered, to be known. I read the other day that Kafka actually hired a news service to keep track of any public mentions of his name—Kafka, who wanted his writings destroyed, who conversely lived to write, put all of his life and body and day into these works, and yet he was basically proto-googling himself. Can one try to resist the experience of the public and think of the work for itself, disentangle writing from having a career as a writer? Of course one can try. Yet you seem to view the world of creative writing as some sort of utopian space, which has not been my experience, versus what you see as the forced production of academia. And oh, no, I don’t wish to be anyone’s mother! [quick cackle of horrified laughter]. Or angel!
SDC I sensed words like maternal and angel might be risky. Since I am not attached to either of them in any personal or religious way, I should have simply said care. You radiate a deep sympathy for your readers, especially the younger readers, male or female, who will discover your work casting about for their selves. Heroines ends in a manifesto. It is searing language, burning through the “lessons” we’ve learned all too well; it is certainly not the language of a pedagogue, governess, or nurse.
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.
KZ I find this all fascinating, and I think we are more in agreement than not. Although I do think my ideas of the blog or the online space have somewhat changed from the utopian conclusion I make at the end of Heroines. The Internet, of course, is no womb, but I do agree that technology can offer ways to be a writer, to quietly continue the practice of writing while resisting the market. I think, however, some of my favorite literature can come out of a solipsistic mind, out of the circling of a self and then somewhat beyond the self—works that I put Permission in the tradition of. I’m thinking the great rants of a Bernhardian narrator, or Dostoevsky’s underground. I love the idea of writing in a space that is beyond the book, beyond the idea of writing as always being about a project, an embracing of ephemerality, which I have been thinking about so much lately. And I’m so glad here, too—in this public space—we’ve been able to connect. - bombsite.com/
 


S.D. Chrostowska, Literature on Trial: The Emergence of Critical Discourse in Germany, Poland & Russia, 1700-1800, University of Toronto Press, 2012.

read it at Google Books

Literature on Trial traces the rise of modern literary criticism in Central and Eastern Europe during the eighteenth century. S.D. Chrostowska juxtaposes the discourse's written forms in three linguistic-cultural regions — Germany, Poland, and Russia — to show how fluid the relationship once was between the genres of criticism and those of literature.
An alternative history of literary criticism, Literature on Trial marks a shift from earlier studies' focus on aesthetic principles to an emphasis on the development of literary-critical forms. Chrostowska relates cultural and institutional changes in these areas to the formation of literary-critical knowledge. She accounts for the ways in which critical discourse organized itself formally and deemed some genres ‘proper’ while eliminating others. Analysing works by Lessing, Goethe, and Karamzin, among others, Literature on Trial brings a fresh theoretical perspective to the links between genre as a discursive strategy and socio-political life.

‘A brilliant and long awaited contribution to comparative literature in the spirit of the best achievements of René Wellek. Chrostowska diligently combines a detailed historical approach to German, Russian, and Polish literatures with a clear theoretical take on criticism as a genre. Her book makes us more aware of the transnational origins of Modernity and the genealogy of modern metaliterary discourses. It is comparative criticism at its best.’ - Michal Pawel Markowski

 

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