Sunday, July 12, 2009

I think I don't believe in INNOVATION.

The most negative review my book has received was written by Brian Allen Carr in the March/April 2009 issue of American Book Review online.[By the way, the first long passage that is quoted in the review has a typo in it. The word "site" should be "since."] For Carr, my book's biggest offense besides being "boring" and containing "student-grade prose," was the fact that although The Bruise received the "Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize," the book was not "innovative." I can't really defend myself against this charge of non-innovation. That's a question for the judges at FC2. I simply put my manuscript in the mail.

What I mean is that Carr is right when he says that "Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka are all liberally borrowed from here." And that "this is a lesbian pseudo-romance, but that's nothing new." He does forget to mention Thomas Bernhard. I stole like mad from Thomas Bernhard. What I am trying to get to is this: I had no intention of making anything NEW when I was writing this book. In fact, what would or could be new? I am not really interested in that question. It seems like something for boys who like Pynchon and HTML to work on. I was just trying to write a book that I would want to read. My guess is that Carr and I like to read different things. What I find offensive in this review, though, is the implication that I was trying to pull one over on the reader, as if I thought the reader wouldn't hear the imitation, the sampling of my favorites. And this I don't think is Carr's fault. For some reason the literary world is haunted by this idea of novelty. The "Dude, I've heard that before..." syndrome. For all its post-modern claims, it holds tight to the most MODERNIST idea of all: that of making it NEW. But trust me, I was well aware of my book not being new. Charging that my influences are too obvious, both as favorites [as in not obscure enough] and as sounds in the prose, seems like something that would only happen to a writer. I mean, when we hear a Rickenbacker plugged into a Vox on some new indie album, we don't turn it off because it sounds too much like the Beatles. I at least keep listening to see what happens to that Beatles sound. Maybe I am boring, but I don't mind if new music sounds a little like old music. And I like new books that sound a lot like old books that I like. But even if I had lived up to Carr's ideas of the Sukenick award, even if I had completely adopted Sukenick's theories and deviated from linear form by "experimenting" with sequencing, I imagine that I still would have only been as innovative as Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. I would rather be like Bernhard or Proust or Stein, in any case.


Perishable Poetics said...

Amen. The obsession with "novelty" seems ultimately like a kind of colonial impulse...the desire to "discover" and lay claim to "virgin territory."

I think it is part and parcel of the ethic that says art represents a shot at immortality for the artist--the idea that one's name will live on endlessly through a canonical work. As a standard, or as an impetus for creation, I find it all kind of gross and (not to be gender-essentialist, but) the province of Literary Old Boys and Golden Boys Club. (Speaking of which, on what planet is a lesbian pseudo-romance "nothing new?" Last time I checked, our literature wasn't exactly teeming with such themes.)

I'll say this: While there's nothing new under the sun, your book refracts the existing elements in a completely unique way.

Not to mention that it's appropriate, especially in a bildungsroman narrated by a writing student, to have the literary and intellectual influences read in a very obvious way.

brian allen carr said...

Hey, I'm sorry if you thought I was unfair. But to be fair I gave the book a mixed review, not a bad one.
And yes, I did judge the book on whether or not it was innovative, but it had the words "Innovative Fiction Prize Winner" stamped across the front of it.
Do I only like "innovative" books. Hell no.
But you didn't just put a book in the mail. You paid $20 to enter an "Innovative Fiction" competition.
I don't think I was unfair. In fact, I compared your work to works of great note. And I've linked to you on my blog, and have since recomended The Bruise to others.

poet CAConrad said...

Magdalena, I've just responded to this marvelous post by you on PhillySound.

LOVE to you, and THE BRUISE is amazing!

Your FACEBOOK wife,

brian allen carr said...


I don't look for innovation. I think Magdalena is a victim of laberlization, to a certain extent. If a reviewer is handed a book, and it is touted as "Innovative Fiction" then he, ore she, is going to address the book from that platform.
What can be said?
I didn't trash the book. I dont' think all books need to be innovative. I do, however, think that all books that win an "Innovative Fiction Prize" should be innovative.
Maybe that's my wrong.
But, as I have said earlier, I have linked Magdelena, and I have recomended her work.
Sorry if I was hyper critical of the selling point of the book.

If you got a book that claimed to be a romance novel, and was a good book, but lacked romance, would you say that it was a good romance novel?

Minor American said...

Hi Brian -- I see your point. I feel like Innovative is the label we put on everything in this country that is really just "non-commercial." I say this after sending my manuscript around to agents for six months, who often said positive things, but then ended with "but I could never sell this." FC2 has been a very good home for my book, but I often think that we call writers "innovative" simply because they are not telling their story exactly the same way everyone on the bestsellers list is telling it. But I don't really know what has been left to explore on the page in a new way. It seems like anything really new writing would challenge all previous conceptions of reading. And that is not something I am interested in, at least not in my own work.

konrad said...

Hi Maggie,

Sorry for the long comment, but i wanted to quote something to you around this issue as it arises in film.

Here is Su Friedrich in the latest issue of Millenium Film Journal, at the end of an argument about the label "experimental documentaries" which she dislikes and disavows and accedes to begrudgingly:

"I never thought we were doing experimental documentaries when we were making non-narrative non-documentary films, and I don't think we are doing 'experiments' now if we use our cameras and language to record events in the real world. We're just making films that document something in a way that isn't prescribed by the tenets of conventional documentary practice."
"It would be better if we called out work documentaries and let the traditionalists squirm in their seats (or coffins) at having something so 'experimental' assert itself as, simply, a documentary. Why should they be the ones to dictate how one goes about documenting the world? Why are their works documentaries and ours experimental documentaries? That just serves to limit the field and to make people think in a limited or simplistic way about a huge body of films -- as if some are 'true' (proper, authentic) and others are efforts to undermine (or correct) the traditional ones -- when, in fact, there are so many complicated ways to group categorize and analyze the field."

"It also seems to undermine or ignore history: an analogy would be if Germany before WWII was called 'Germany' and after the war would be called 'Experimental Germany' because it no longer operates under the same rules it once did."

(Su is great and her films are among my favorites.)

poet CAConrad said...

I'm more irritated than ever!

I just posted another response to Brian Allen Carr on PhillySound, which you can see by clicking HERE.


brian allen carr said...

Hm. I've recomended To the Lighthouse to people that I thought would like it, and I didn't like it at all. It's a question of aesthetics. I don't like italo calvino, but some people do, and if i think that they'd like calvino, i say, hey read some calvino.
there are mixed things in the review, i've been pretty upfront about that.
i think writing student-grade prose was sort of part of what magdalena was doing, to a certain extent. she was writing from the perspective of a narrator who is a marginal student in some type of creative writing program, no?
i'm not back peddling at all, and it's not a question of not having balls, or whatever. i was mainly explaining why i discussed the bruise from a question of whether or not it was innovative.
i say positive things in the review as well. but the negatives outweigh the positives, primarily because i questioned the innovation.

poet CAConrad said...

WELL, Ron Silliman has made known how HE feels about this Brian Allen Carr BULLSHIT! Click HERE and scroll down, scroll down, scroll down, and you'll see it. You'll see "NOT THIS" in particular.


brian allen carr said...

Ha, ha. That's awesome.

This has been a great learning experience for me.

Please go out an bash me all you want, for not having balls, or whatever.

Pretty classy.

Here's the final lines of my review.

"Zurwaski writes boring, dreamy, student-grade prose. But there is enough in the story to be award winning. It is refreshing to see M—puzzle through her existence, and some of her observations are quite entertaining. But even at a spare 174 pages, the jour­ney seemed a bit long."

poet CAConrad said...

Bash YOU? You're delusional! You call someone BORING in print and expect thanks, that's what's really nuts!

A learning experience is it? That's good, maybe you've learned not to talk out of both sides of your mouth. Good for you.

Fuck with my friends and family (Maggie is family) you fuck w/me.


brian allen carr said...


No. Didn't expect thanks. Didn't talk out both sides of my mouth. Liked some things didn't like others, said as much, sorry if it bothers you.

Didn't really call her boring. Said that her prose (in The Bruise, because I was only talking about The Bruise) was boring. (I think this was, in some ways, the intent of the book.) Kind of different. It moved a bit slow for me. The part with the finger gun was pretty awesome though. That's why I also said that there was enough in the story to be award winning.

I entered this discussion because of the question of whether or not we should judge a work based on its innovative merits.

I pretty much judged The Bruise based on its innovative merits.

The lesson I learned was to not let packaging or promotional materials influence my reviews in the future. I've done this one other time, and both times the reviews came out negative.

But you didn't teach me anything, Conrad.

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