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Some Good Points on Goldsmith's Uncreative Writing at HTMLGIANT

By Harriet Staff


Michael Jauchen reviews, in 25 points, Kenny Goldsmith's Uncreative Writing for HTMLGiant. We love number 8 (image above): "8. Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein with excerpts from The Making of Americans inserted." Jauchen also makes similar hybrid images with Mallarmé and "A Throw of the Dice," Georges Perec and Species of Spaces, and Warhol as an acrostic of "Ondine." We're not sure if Jauchen means, by putting Ondine in quotes, the Aloysius Bertrand poem--made known by the Ravel interpretation--or the Warhol actor (both, duh?), but here's a bit more Ondine for you. Anyhow, Jauchen "especially like[s] the times when Goldsmith overreaches a bit." E.g.:

14. For example, “Uncreative writing is a postidentity literature.”

15. A big claim to make, though I understand the impulse. A stated goal of a large swath of conceptual writing is the removal of the author; the text that creates itself, a text that originates solely in the combinatorial possibilities of language, a text without the trappings (and nagging metaphysical implications) of authorial inspiration.

A text like Christian Bök’s The Xenotext Experiment.

But the claim’s also troubling in that it diminishes the ways identity and subjectivity can’t help but inform language. To speak of a postidentity literature still seems steeped in inescapable questions of authority and power.

(This, by the way, is also a claim conceptual writing isn’t necessarily clear on itself. For example: Les Figues’s I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women. There was a great series of essays about this collection on HTMLGIANT last summer. Lindsay Turner also has a great review of it in a recent Boston Review where she confronts the problems of an anthology of conceptual writing that uses gender as an organizing device.)

16. Or, midway through the book: “But uncreative writing is truly populist.”

Then toward the end, about the class, “Uncreative Writing,” Goldsmith teaches at Penn: “But I do wish to raise a red flag: I work at a privileged university, perhaps one of the most privileged in the world. [...] The students, as a whole, come from economically empowered backgrounds; those who aren’t are well subsidized by the university. They arrive in class with the latest laptops and smartphones and seem to have every imaginable piece of the latest software on their machines. […] In short, it’s an ideal environment in which to practice the sort of techno-utopianism I preach with enabled students ready, willing, and able to jump right in.”

17. I’m not faulting Goldsmith at all for these moments and contradictions. If anything, I like these problems because they show conceptual writing’s still thinking seriously about itself, which is more than I can say for a lot of contemporary writing.

18. I wonder if conceptualism is ready to give up the author. Is that proposition still too frightening? Is that proposition even possible? Is there really that big of a difference between an “authorial hand” (a term Goldsmith uses) and an “author”?

(Cf. “May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?” “No, it did lots of other things too.”)

19. Another example: When I was in graduate school, Christian Bök visited to read from Eunoia (a book I love) and to perform a number of sound poems. During the Q&A, an audience member raised her hand and shouted a long string of gibberish at Bök. I saw it as an obvious and playful nod to Bök’s reading.

I was surprised when Bök didn’t take it that way. He looked like he took it as an affront to his person. He looked mocked and hurt. Then, without offering any response, he went on to the next question.

The very next question: “Mr. Bök, I’m really interested in your writing process. Can you tell us a little bit about that?”

And he did.

20. To contrast: The steel elegance of Vanessa Place’s work. Her Dies: A Sentence. The simple appropriative act behind her Statement of Facts, a 400-page sampling of court case documents she’s collected during her day job as an attorney.

It’s Place’s clinical stance toward what she does, her distance from being “a writer,” that appeals to me. She’s cold and formal as a reader, often wearing a nondescript gray business suit. Her voice refuses any noticeable modulation or emotion. But the effect is powerful, disarming. It’s like the words have been there all along and she’s just the bureaucrat hired to report them. Like she could be anyone. Like she doesn’t even need to be there at all.

Keep reading, keep reading.