Stories of New Narrative
By Jean-Thomas TremblaySeptember 16, 2017
Writers Who Love Too Much by Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian
I Love Dick has recently transcended its word-of-mouth popularity, thanks in part to its adaptation by Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins into a TV series. In the endnotes to Writers Who Love Too Much, the editors, Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian, state that the series “marks the triumph of something.” Their statement made sense when they made it — between the series’s announcement and its premiere — but I Love Dick, the TV show, doesn’t hold up to such optimism. Bridget Read observes that the series diffuses the novel’s unbearable intimacy across a town — Marfa, Texas — “peopled by quirky, David Lynch-meets-Portlandia characters, who are somewhere between satirical and painfully earnest.” For Alexandra Schwartz, the show contorts the point of the book — that desire exists to be thwarted — into a will-they-or-won’t-they rom-com plot. The series’s creators never move beyond the trope of the “unlikable female protagonist.” They never move beyond what New Narrative takes for granted: that people are complex, flawed, that they hurt those they love. What’s more, Amazon, which produced I Love Dick, is one of the conglomerates responsible for the disappearance of independent establishments like Small Press Traffic, the bookstore that served as New Narrative’s cradle. The TV adaptation of I Love Dick operates as a test case for New Narrative: a probe into how much writing can be tweaked before what makes it New Narrative is wiped out. New Narrative isn’t in any fundamental way antithetical to popular appeal. However, I Love Dick, a show where characters always seem about to break the fourth wall and ask, “Am I not brave?!”, compromises New Narrative’s commitment, otherwise palpable throughout Writers Who Love Too Much, to an excess simply untamable, one that can’t be claimed righteously, one that just is what it is. New Narrative’s commitment is to loving too much.
New Narrative emerged from the San Francisco poetry scene of the 1970s and was fostered through the workshops Robert Glück led in collaboration with Bruce Boone. Part formal experimentation, part critical theory syllabus, and part gossip column, New Narrative borrows from highbrow and lowbrow cultures — from canonical literature and from television, popular music, and pornography. New Narrative writers also appropriate, with or without credit, each other’s work. Anecdotes on this practice abound: Bellamy was praised in a review for a passage lifted off from Gail Scott; Killian published under his name a poem that he didn’t remember David Steinberg had written. New Narrative flaunts its influences, past and present. And it intimates a context of production, a literary network, sometimes to the point of assimilating individual authorship into what Killian calls “the giant hive of activated writers buzzing all around the bookstore.”
“As a matter of principle I am opposed of theory,” writes Bellamy in “Incarnation,” a piece that stems from a 1988 talk. “Whenever I read anything theoretical that strikes me I try to forget it before I write in order to avoid contamination. One might say that I’m theoretically opposed to theory, a paradox, perhaps, but fitting since conflicting drives attract me.” This paradox animates “Incarnation”: Bellamy goes on to, well, theorize New Narrative, describing it as an effort to “write from a specific philosophical perspective while avoiding […] stiltedness, predictability and general dopiness.” Try as they might to resist theory, New Narrative writers more often than not let it seep into their writing. The contamination goes both ways. New Narrative perverts theories of subjectivity and sexuality. It rewrites them, packages them into nuggets of insight distributed across texts.
Part of the thrill of reading New Narrative consists in collecting these nuggets, of tracking the transformation of a thought from one writer’s prose poem to another one’s play. The anthology form might risk conveying the sense of a closed circuit, as if collecting all the citations were to exhaust the movement. But Writers Who Love Too Much, with its shifts between theory, interview, poetry, and of course narrative, within or across pieces, deforms the expectation that connecting all the dots would produce an exhaustive map of New Narrative. Tackling the novel excerpts included in the anthology can be jarring, given that they begin in medias res, but this might be the point: to incite us to visit or revisit what didn’t make the cut, to destabilize the notion that an anthology should provide closure. The selection from Gail Scott’s spectacular Heroine, for instance, suggests the ethos of life in Montreal in 1980, around the first referendum on Quebec’s sovereignty. Still, in order to get what the excerpt’s first line promises — “Clarity. The trick is to tell a story.” — we must keep reading well beyond the snippet.
Writers Who Love Too Much eludes closure, yes, but it marks an occasion to take stock. Genealogies of New Narrative inevitably point to San Francisco gay culture. The movement’s creative explosion can’t be detached from the sense of urgency that characterized the AIDS crisis. In tender, admiring endnotes, Bellamy and Killian mourn friends and colleagues lost to various causes. With regards to Sam D’Allesandro, who died in 1988, they instruct with outrage, “He’d be sixty today; let him stay forever 31.” And of Marsha Campbell, who died in 2016, they say she should “be acclaimed as the secret master, hidden among a crowd of avant-garde practitioners much in her debt.”
What is it that defines this crowd of avant-garde practitioners? Scholars like Kaplan Page Harris and Rob Halpern have offered clarifying answers to this question. According to Harris, New Narrative challenges some of the tenets of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school. Whereas L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets reject referentiality (the idea that a text refers to a reality beyond it) and distinguish between a poem’s author and its speaker or voice, New Narrative writers mobilize narrative, broadly conceived, to draw connections between seemingly disparate units of meaning. For Halpern, concrete and utopian social goals motivate New Narrative’s experimentation. The movement’s militancy, which has often aligned with radical branches of feminism, gay liberation, and leftism, comes across notably in the ephemera gathered in Writers Who Love Too Much. Killian’s “Open Letter to the Editors of Apex of the M,” for example, condemns the decision to publish in the mid-1990s a poem by Edward Dorn. A few years prior, just before Steve Abbott died of AIDS, Dorn had “awarded” Abbott the odiously homophobic “AIDS Award for Poetic Idiocy.”
For all of its formal innovation and its fieriness, New Narrative, as Writers Who Love Too Much shows, is also often so funny, and so hot. Take Bellamy and Killian’s hilarious account, in their introduction, of New Narrative’s first encounter with the digital: “Kathy Acker, always ahead of the curve, bragged she often spent four hours a day online, like some kind of I.T. goddess, and we couldn’t believe her. What devotion to the machine! Nobody could spend that much time online.” Elsewhere, in a conversation with Bellamy and Abbott, Judy Grahn cites Doris Lessing as an inspiration: “She wouldn’t let anyone off the hook. […] She wasn’t going to stop the description no matter how ugly it was, no matter how unflattering it was, to herself or to anyone else in the story.” Bellamy responds, “You share Lessing’s sense of relentlessness, but one thing I like about your work, which Lessing’s lacks, is its sense of humor that breaks it up.” New Narrative writers prove that you can believe wholeheartedly in what you say and do and still have a sense of humor about it. For New Narrative, there’s no shame in playing for laughs. Not that there’s anything wrong with shame in the first place.
One of New Narrative’s all-time best jokes is about the movement itself. It’s the parodic motto that Bellamy formulates in Academonia for New Narrative “at its worst”: “I have sex and I’m smarter than you.” But “sex without fantasy,” Camille Roy posits, “is nothing.” The pieces compiled in Writers Who Love Too Much don’t restrict fantasy. They use, as Boone says, eros, rather than facts, as the matter of narrative. Sex and fantasy are for New Narrative the stuff of ordinary life. They are, to paraphrase Dennis Cooper, what people think about in order to avoid being bored. In New Narrative, everyone is at once a sex god and totally abject in an everyday kind of way. According to Killian, sex writing entails, more than a depiction of mores or practices, a game of seduction and arousal between the writer and the reader. “‘Sex writing,’” he explains, “differs from other forms of representation in that it has some kind of chemical effect on the reader. I get hard. I can’t contain myself.” Again: Excess is paramount.
Bellamy and Killian announce at the outset that the anthology, which stops “right at the beginning of what might be called New Narrative’s second wave,” demands a sequel. They name, as part of this second wave, Rob Halpern, Renee Gladman, Douglas A. Martin, and Heriberto Yépez. It’s hard to imagine, beyond this second wave, a genealogy of the personal essay (whose boom Jia Tolentino recently declared over but which others were quick to say is ongoing) that doesn’t consider New Narrative as the genre’s gold standard.
The bad news is that I Love Dick, the TV show, didn’t mark the triumph of New Narrative. The good news is that the show didn’t prove the movement obsolete either. The tediousness of Soloway and Gubbins’s series in fact says nothing of substance about the contemporary relevance of New Narrative. That’s just not where New Narrative is today. Only in 2017, it’s in The Gift, Barbara Browning’s novel of performance art; it’s in the tweet-sized horoscopes of the Astro Poets, Dorothea Lasky and Alex Dimitrov; it’s in Alana Massey’s assiduous analyses of Britney Spears, Lil’ Kim, and Joan Didion in All the Lives I Want. One more volume, and another one, and then another one will be necessary to anthologize the movement’s sprawling legacy.
Jean-Thomas Tremblay is a PhD candidate in English Language and Literature & Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Chicago. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Criticism, Post45 Peer-Reviewed, Public Books, Arcade, and Review 31.
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