Appreciation #8

“Frank Kuenstler” by Richard Kostelanetz

(From the forthcoming third edition of the Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes.)



In 1964, from the imprint of Film Culture, a New York publisher noted for its film magazine of the same title, appeared Lens, a book so extraordinary that it was completely unnoticed at the time. It opens with a single-page “Emblem,” a sort of preface that establishes in six sections that anything might happen in the following pages, including the destruction of both sense and syntax. The last section of “Emblem” reads: “aura.Dictionary, aura.Crossword Puzzle, aura.Skeleton. aura.Poem./Once upon a time.” What follows are eighty long paragraphs so devoid of connection, from line to line, from word to word, that you realize only a human being could have made them; even the most aleatory computer program would have put together, even inadvertently, two words that made sense. The book concludes with the tag “New York, N. Y., 1952–64,” suggesting that Lens took a full dozen years to write; I can believe it, because anyone who thinks such writing easy to do should try it sometime (and send me the results). Kuenstler’s later publications include 13 1/2 Poems (1984), which is a progression of increasingly experimental poems (though none as radical as Lens). Toward the end of his life he sold antiquarian books on the street in New York, usually on Broadway north of 86th Street. To no surprise perhaps, his name rarely, if ever, appears in histories of American literature.

copyright 2018 Richard Kostelanetz

(Photo from a collage by Ira Cohen.)

The Mary Gaitskill Problem



(Photo by David Shankbone.)

IT’S A PROBLEM many esteemed contemporary writers seem to have– the lack of a philosophical foundation, a metaphysical perspective on life and the universe, which for all their talent prevents their work from having greater depth and meaning.

FOR a literary writer Mary Gaitskill is supremely talented. At her best, with a story such as “Girl on a Plane,” she reaches a level of strong emotion. Like a punch to the gut. After reading more of her fiction one realizes they’re all of a piece– the characters intelligent but superficial animals whose primary motivation is sex.

An accurate depiction of today’s society. There are no happy endings. Men and women exist in dysfunctional hate-love relationships with scarcely the possibility of getting along. Captives of their drives. The sexually liberated society; which comes across as an unending sadomasochistic nightmare. No escape. No hope of redemption or salvation. At the end of the tale one of the characters is humiliated. Or both of them. Destroyed. Shattered. Lost animals without souls to tarnish. No heroes or even anti-heroes. It’s a problem not of the writer so much as society– particularly, their urban New York City or San Francisco milieu. A typical tale is “Kiss and Tell,” in which a struggling male screenwriter is in love with a struggling actress. The sex is briefly very good, but friendship is the only way they can ultimately connect– then even that collapses. The friendship ends in betrayal and bitterness.

The writing, like the sex, is very good. But is it enough?

Has Mary Gaitskill done enough to enter the Tournament?

Inside Out or Outside In?

empire state

Here’s a question for everyone: Why did Tao Lin receive an advance from Random House for $50,000, while Lena Dunham received one from RH for $3.7 million?

As with most questions, there are likely multiple answers. One of them is the location/ background of the authors.

The trick with New York “Big Five” publishing is to look at New York as an Imperial city; practicing Imperialism in regard to writers and literature. Most of the Imperialism practiced is within country.

This is a theme I play in my satirical ebook novel The McSweeneys Gang. (Not recommended if you believe in the current literary scene.) Other cities across America, even literary centers like Iowa City, are treated like outposts by the core city, which must be thought of as akin to Rome circa 100 AD or London circa 1890. The east coast, from Washington D.C. to Boston, is the nation’s power corridor. Literature’s home country. If you’re raised and/or educated within this corridor, you’re part of literature’s native population. All else is strange territory populated by barbarians.

The attitude, then, from within the power corridor is always Inside Out. Big Five apologist Evan Hughes will travel to Detroit to write a book about this exotic spot’s more violent and bizarre happenings, like a Victorian reporter curious about the unknown and, for him/them, the unseen.

A host of journalists traveled to Alaska in 2008 to cover the quaint and barbarically exotic Palin family.

Again: Inside Out. The Imperialists covering the world, they the only acceptable voice.

Outsiders like Tao Lin or Ed Champion who travel to the Imperial City to join the establishment literary scene have reversed the viewpoint. They’re Outside In. One wonders if it’s possible for them to truly fit in, to be accepted as equals.

When it comes to publishing clout, and the attached-at-the-hip New York-based literary media, the Imperial City with its near provinces has had more influence over what’s determined to be literature than the rest of the nation/empire combined. The rise of indy ebooks gives the opportunity to balance this equation.

(Read’s Opinion page for more thoughts along these lines.)

-Karl Wenclas