Two festivals converge for a perfect storm of innovative writing
There’s a line in William Gass’s new book of criticism, A Temple of Texts, that sounds like an oblique mission statement for the goings-on at Lake Forest College this week. It’s a long one.
“Even putting down these first few words makes me aware of an emerging rhythm, a pattern of repetition, and consequently of an attention to what has been written that will tell me what to write, as if the first few words were seeds already intending the plant they would become…,” he writes in his essay, “The Sentence Seeks Its Form.”
Gass, an award-winning author and critic, is the featured reader at the newly combined Lake Forest Literary Festival and &NowFestival of Innovative Writing and Art, both in their second years. The LFLF is a weekend-long series of readings that last year brought Stuart Dybek to the college’s new library as the featured reader. The &Now Festival started at the University of Notre Dame as aconference for writers of avant-garde literature.
The fused fests celebrate the kind of literature that views language not as a tool, but as a medium that shapes its content and often includes everything from cut-up novels to multimedia work. It’s alternately called avant-garde, experimental, postmodern or, to its critics, inaccessible. That last one makes Lake Forest College English professor and &Now co-coordinator Davis Schneiderman bristle.
“If you think of a realist novel, you assume it’s talking about the real world,” Schneiderman says. “That idea of verisimilitude, that you can write in a way that reflects the real world, has nothing to do with reality. This work is very much more tuned into what is going on.”
A sampling of the panel discussions and readings may give the best sense of what Schneiderman and company are up to. Author Lance Olsen will read from his novel 10:01, which examines the thoughts of a few dozen people in a Mall of America movie theater over the course of an afternoon. Gerard Wozek and Kurt Heintz will present some of their work in video poetry. And the festival kicks off with a talk by Shelley Jackson, famous for her work Skin, which has only been published in single-word tattoos on thousands of volunteers.
What makes the LFLF and &Now convergence so enticing is the timing of it, amid a skittish literary climate in which even National Book Award winner Jonathan Franzen has taken to The New Yorker and New York Times to criticize the promotion of more challenging work, arguing that it alienates readers at a time when literature is losing out to everything from paintball to video games. Author Ben Marcus (Notable American Women, The Age of Wire and String) filed a now famous and inflammatory rebuttal in the September issue of Harper’s, defending the avant-garde and questioning why a successful author like Franzen would pick a fight with the little guy.
“Just getting something like that into Harper’s and making people aware of the debate was important,” Schneiderman says. “Why do people like what they like? It’s not because their tastes are fixed; it’s a matter of what they are exposed to.”
Aside from Gass, a coterie of important and exciting small presses is on the bill. Florida’s FC2—which Franzen singled out in one of his attacks—will bring in several of its writers, including Brian Evenson, an author who may be the only true contemporary heir to Kafka. FC2 has its roots at Illinois State, and still keeps an office there.
Likewise, numerous authors from New York’s Spuyten Duyvil, which has released a slew of interesting and bizarre novels in the past year, will deliver readings. Chiasmus, Starcherone andCalamari Press will also join ranks.
Schneiderman has been busy prepping his new Spuyten Duyvil book, Multifesto: An Henri d’Mescan Reader, for a limited edition this year. And in a fitting metaphor for the way avant-garde literature cuts against the grain, he’s gluing sandpaper to each copy’s cover “to destroy any other book that rubs up against it.”
“We’re not taking an elitist standpoint,” he says. “Part of this is to create a community for these writers and to give them a chance to meet other people in the field. But we also want to bring this type of writing to students, the faculty of Lake Forest and the people in the surrounding community.”
The festivals begin Wednesday 5. See “Fringe benefits,” page 76 for details. A Temple of Texts (Knopf, $26.95) is out now.