Ideas about the Present for Writers, Or at Least This One

This idea is from Nathan Heller’s review in The New Yorker of new books on the incredible Pauline Kael:

In a 1964 essay […] Kael fretted about “structural disintegration” in movies, a loss of the “narrative sense” that used to make even the bad ones palatable. She saw it as a symptom of an atomizing culture. Now Kael went about the business of building a structure in the rubble.

Heller points out two ways she does this, this rebuilding:

  1. She “toss[ed] away everything that seemed perishable,” and
  2. She “praised [movies] she thought were daring, fresh, and well made—not just in the context of the season’s releases but by the measure of all art, ever.”

This idea is from Thomas Larson’s review of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which we just discussed in my grad seminar last week:

A surprising number of writers […] are seeking to discredit […] metanarrative certainty. The rise of the memoir, especially the self-reflexive memoir, is one way to deal with this distrust. Another way is to hybridize nonfiction styles into a broken or mosaic narrative. Bluets’s brokenness models a narrative form under siege as well as exemplifies a change in our reading and writing patterns.

Because Bluets enacts the hit-and-miss attention of its readers, I think of it as a postliterate text. It’s the sort of book you might read on an iPhone or an iPod. It is the sort of book to read while you’re online, where the majority of us, if we admit it, operate these days. Leaving Bluets’s thread to check on your e-mail or your bank account is part of its aesthetic: that’s what the book is doing as well, its form open to distraction. If literate is absorption in a consistent narrative, then postliterate counters that consistency. Indeed, this may be where we are heading as writers with the New Media and Web 2.0. Texts, to gain attention, must become more like electronic assemblages, mosaics made (though still on the page) of aural, vocal, and visual elements, variable in their arrangement and variable by their participants. Showcasing such branching interaction may seduce the contemporary reader, since the form mirrors contemporary reality more than it mirrors traditional narrative.

Perhaps the hybrid essay or the broken/braided narrative takes its newness as a nonfictional form because it uses the very distractedness of contemporary readers as the means of attracting us.

Idea three is a synthesis of ideas one and two.

Kael “fretted” about the
distractions of the culture all the way back in 1964! And then she in her writing sought to combat it. Larson points to a similar bit of distraction and fractured nature, but he sees Nelson’s book—which I found precious and formally uninteresting—as writing alongside of, or like in service to, this character of our (every?) time.

We decided in class that it was a book disinterested in finished-status, in answers or solutions, wallowing instead in the messy stage of thinking through one’s issues. This was the strength of the lyric essay.


  • Is it true that never has a time existed that has not read itself as fractured?
  • Is the writer’s proper response to the zeitgeist to work within that zeitgeist’s idiom or against it?
  • How does the rise of interactive technologies and general mistrust in metanarrative certainty as pointed out by Larson correlate with the rise of the essay in general and the lyric essay in specific?
  • Why don’t I enjoy writing or reading most lyric essays? Whence my dissatisfaction amid just about everyone’s sheer joy?
  • Finally: What, of writing, is perishable, and what, in 2011, can possibly be fresh or daring?

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