Academic journal article Afterimage

Thoughts on the Book Failure: A Writer's Life

Academic journal article Afterimage

Thoughts on the Book Failure: A Writer's Life

Article excerpt

I've been billing my book Failure: A Writer's Life (2013) as a catalog of literary monstrosities. On one level, it is a loosely organized collection of vignettes and convolutes. What I mean by that is that it contains small snapshots of stories in the history of literary failure, small moments that one can reflect on. And then there are these larger convolutes, which are more unruly sheaves dealing in larger concepts. Even thinking back to writing my 2006 book Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything, I never really wrote in chapters. It was very hard for me to send out "chapters" as excerpts or samples; in Ether there are four distinct parts, but they are too long to be called chapters, I think. In Failure, the sections range from two pages to upwards of sixty pages. So the currency of this book is not the chapter but these more unconventionally sized bits.

One of the premises of this book is thinking about the unpublished and how that impacts artistic work. When I think about the unpublished, it encompasses not only unpublished literary works, stories, or poems that people write, but also the world of data--all of the things that challenge the literary and this mass of noise and text on the web--and how that affects the literary now.

One of the theoretical moves that I make early on--and this was one of those things that you find serendipitously, and you realize that it unlocks all these extremely rich associations--there was a very short 1957 essay by Marguerite Duras called, "One Out Of A Hundred Novels Makes It To Publication." (1) In it, she said published literature is merely one percent of all that exists, all that is written. And the idea that the published is one percent is obviously by now, in the internet age, a quaint notion. That is a huge number compared to now, when there are so many forms of subliterary and paraliterary kinds of machine writing. Duras's idea, or her suggestion, was that what's more interesting is not the world of the published, but the vast abyss of the unpublished. That black abyss is where we should be turning our attention.

If you know anything about Duras's writing itself, there is this interesting destructive force, but it's almost like a loving embrace of failure that is implicit in her work. That turning of consciousness to the destructive force or the abyss of the unpublished is just part of her attitude toward her work and the creative act, and toward negativity in general.

The reason her essay on the unpublished became such an important tool was that in it, she defined the unpublished as "virtual literature." It was very interesting to me that this notion of the failed, unpublished text could be tied to what we call the virtual. At first, that seems very odd because we think of the virtual as something like wearing our VR (virtual reality) headsets and we're in our caves and we experience electronic literature in this very glowing, floating way. Then, to think about the virtual as something like this black abyss of the unpublished seems counterintuitive--but a very interesting thing to pursue.

Recoding failed, unpublished work as virtual literature is a way to think about ways in which we can take this unpublished material and turn it and revalue it and transform our notions of it and recycle it and create a new futuristic literature out of it. My gambit in the book is that virtual literature, and what we think of as the future of literature, is not as much this electronically enhanced form of immersivity, but rather more like what we do every time we delete an email. So it's about paying attention to the choices we make about what we're going to read and what we're not going to read, and how we frame the sense of readability in the face of the vastness of the data that's available to us on the web.

One of the things that I think is a pleasure and a challenge in giving talks like this in specific places, and addressing specific audiences in specific ways, is to talk about these ideas in a new context and in new ways. …

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