Online Edition: Winter 2007/2008

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Lather, Rinse, Repeat

an interview with Davis Schneiderman

 by Brian Whitener

Davis Schneiderman's work, which takes the conventions of postmodern fiction and pushes them one step further, has established him as a thoughtful and energetic presence in the experimental fiction scene. 2006 saw the release of a limited edition work entitled Multifesto: A Henri d'Mescan Reader from Spuyten Duyvil, and Chiasmus Press has recently published Abecedarium, a collaborative novel written with Carlos Hernandez. A new novel, DIS, will be appearing shortly from Blaze Vox. Schneiderman is also the co-editor of Retaking the Universe: William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization (Pluto Press) and chairs the American Studies department at Lake Forest College in Illinois. In this interview, he talks about experimental fiction and the market, the relationship between media, politics, and writing, and other goings-on in the experimental fiction world.

Brian Whitener: A great deal of your criticism touches on issues of literature's relationship to the market. I'm thinking in particular of your "Notes from the Middleground: On Ben Marcus, Jonathan Franzen, and the Contemporary Fiction Combine," where you write: "As my students reject Marcus' argument in its more obvious moments ('Not to stand by when a populist pundit says what literature can and cannot be,' it suggests to me even more forcefully that the lasting marks in this pseudo-debate will be hopefully struck—as with Marcus', Tomasula's, and Sterne's prose—in the code of our best literature, explicitly aware of its market status, and even more disruptive for it." I'm really interested in how you see your own writing as being aware of its market status and if these considerations are registered on a textual or formal level in your work.

Davis Schneiderman: Anyone working with a small press is, of course, keenly aware of market status. What attracts me to places like Spuyten Duyvil, Chiasmus, and Blaze Vox, is the fact that these are largely (but not exclusively) personality-driven presses, which, counter-intuitively in my mind, publish works that rise against the Romantic idea of the Author.

What I mean here is not that the work of these publishers always or even often explicitly take on these questions, but that by virtue of the alterity of the fictions, by the distance that the prose of a writer like Lance Olsen pushes away from whomever is leading the larger houses’ fall lists, these presses reject certain limits of contemporary literature. This isn't to say that there aren't writers—Mark Danielewski comes to mind—working with larger houses to innovative effect, but that rather, if you're me, for instance, my books are marked by the conditions of their existence as economic objects.

Now, to deal more precisely with your question: the limited edition version of my novel Multifesto: A Henri d'Mescan Reader has a sandpaper covering—so it will destroy other works its rubs against. It works, too, as I once placed the book in my bag next to my critical collection on William S. Burroughs, Retaking the Universe, and found the latter's cover rubbed to shit afterwards. All the better, because I want Multifesto to be aggressive.

I used to give readings, in my mid-twenties, as if I were a coked-up, fast-forwarding tape machine. I breathlessly plastered the crowd with impossible-to-follow sentences, creating a wall of words, and well, if the audience didn't get it: fuck them. I've mellowed a bit in my aesthetic (although some might disagree!), but I wanted the book with its sandpaper to connote the positions of the beleaguered author—the author whose work seems so antithetical to those around her (which, to some extent, was my grad school experience), that its very physical existence remains rough, marked.

Another quick example: Abecedarium, which I co-wrote with Carlos Hernandez over a long weekend some years ago, well, that book scores itself via the rules of its Oulipo-like construction: we created a character, Fex, based loosely on an ancient emeritus professor at SUNY Binghamton, each wrote for an hour and half about this character, then switched seats and edited/overwrote the other's work for one hour, and then switched back for one hour—and, voila!—oh yes, and each excerpt contains a Carnival dragon, and foie-gras. The method, which I only sometimes articulate when publishing excerpts, takes away our individual positions, but also reminds the reader of the possibilities of the random factor in literature. The method of production is all over the text in ways I won't go into here.

BW: Another topic that a great deal of your writing (critical and otherwise) approaches in one way or another is the media, and often, the omnipresence of the media, and it seems that you draw on your understanding of Burroughs when thinking about these issues. I'm curious as to how you see experimental fiction in relation to the mass media (especially post Iraq War 2) and in what ways fiction can embody resistance. Is it resistance to a larger culture? A hegemonic culture? What is the ideal relation, for you, between your writing and the media at large (or the culture at large as represented by the media?).

DS: Burroughs fought fire with fire, or, better yet, a recording of fire. Or, actually, a recording of every fire every recorded cut and mixed by a cement mixer. His position was to take control of the means of production, and some of his less well-known experiments in sound and film (see his work with British filmmaker Anthony Balch in the late 1960s) dramatize this in different ways than his writing.

I'm a bit skeptical about the possibilities for resistant fiction, and even more despondent over the potential for politically engaged writing to do much of anything outside the dominant means of production and distribution. I recently had a discussion, via email, with the publisher of a well-known and long-established innovative press, about a possible collection of innovative writing, and he told me, of course, that the word "innovative" would basically guarantee no sales. It's a labeling problem, I think, but with small-publisher press runs, and the difficult nature of promoting these books, I'm not sure this work relates to the mass media in any tangible way. This isn't to be totally negative, or, to completely contradict my earlier answer. One demonstrable effect this type of work can have is in its viral promulgation. Take Kathy Acker for example: her work exists mainly through academic channels. Students are exposed to her novels, and some read her, then, on their own, but some also go to grad school: teach her, write about her, keep her going.

In other words: Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

These people, well, some of them, like me, start organizing conferences and editing journals, and maybe even become tenured professors talking about Empire of the Senseless with a bunch of wide-eyed kids from the farmland. And if only one of those kids goes back home and lets her hogs out of the pen to go plum wild rolling around in their own slop while the neighboring farmers scratch their chins, well, then, isn't that worth it? No offense to our nation's breadbasket intended. Insert the same scenario with stockbrokers, stock-car drivers, and stock characters in the post-baccalaureate working (wo)man's sideshow, and well, that's viral reproduction.

And as you well know, all media is moving, at light speed, toward development through viral channels.

BW: I get the sense that your teaching, but more specifically the local conditions of your work as a teacher, has informed both your writing practice and how you think about it. If that's not totally off base, could you talk a little bit about how your environment has changed you as a writer and what you've drawn from it? Did you move straight from the Ph.D. program at Binghamton to Lake Forest? Was that an important shift?

DS: I moved straight from kindergarten (at age 4) to graduate school to my position at Lake Forest (at age 26). No break. No bumming around Europe. No peace corps. No corporate cubicle job. No stint as a Starbucks barrista.

When I first started at SUNY-Binghamton in the summer of 1996, one week after finishing my last summer undergrad course at Penn State (still catching up from a one-semester detour as a student at the Culinary Institute of America in 1992), a well-meaning advanced graduate student, already on her second field exam, gave me the tour. When I finished my M.A. and Ph.D., five years later, she hadn't advanced one iota—paralyzed, it seemed, by the environment. I'm not sure if she ever finished.

The traps and snares of that thing lay along the basement corridor walls of SUNY-Binghamton like mushrooms under the canopy of dark forest. For some, there's simply no getting out without some bad trips.

I recall workshops where I was clearly the odd-person out (along with one or two other partisans). A retiring professor very much from the New England school of mannered short-story writing once told me a piece I wrote based very loosely on the public perception of a grisly California child murder was "interesting." He gave the class an autographed copy of his one short-story collection from the early 1970s on his last day, a paean to what could have been, I suppose. I used it to hold up a corner of my couch, and never read a word. I imagine that my classmates may not have gone so far as to put it to utilitarian use, but I doubt anyone ever read it.

In the workshop version of my story "The Unholy Grammar of Unabashed Sentence Words," (in English Studies Forum), which is also part of my forthcoming novel DIS, a student asked me "Why can't you just write it so it makes sense, using simpler language"?

It took me some years to decide that I should ignore that sort of thing, but the "environment" is of particular interest because for all the affectation of alterity in my work, I remain an academically trained writer. I have advanced degrees in creative writing. I read all of Proust in a seminar, for sweet Marcel's sake, and I've never had a "real" job outside of academia beyond the juvenile (carny, amusement park worker, line cook…).

I'm in a profession with a dismal success rate, in an academic field with a dismal hiring rate. And I don't write, really, about any of that—rather the institutional structures I've negotiated my way through, with healthy doses of luck, provide a breathing, parasitic glimpse into the bureaucratic monolith of the creative degree machine.

BW: You are someone who is involved in a number of different, sometimes overlapping, writing communities, from the experimental fiction community to the community gathered around the blog Now What (nowwhatblog.blogspot.com). As someone who's not directly in dialogue with these communities, I'm really interested in the debates, ideas, etc. that are currently fueling them and your perceptions of where these communities are headed. What do the aesthetics of experimental fiction look like right now (that's supposed to be an open-ended and not annoying question)? What books would you recommend to an "outsider"?

DS: Well, first, no one can agree on what to call this type of work, and one of the early discussions on the Now What blog, a somewhat uneven bulletin board for 17 or so of these types of writers, focused on this exact question. I've taken to using the word "innovative"—but that has as many problems as "experimental." One of the reasons I like Chiasmus Press so much is their slogan: "Correcting Culture." Like Tod Thilleman at Spuyten Duyvil, they don't shy away from being straight up: our stuff is better (more vital) than the mainstream crapola.

Yet, what's interesting to me is my sense—and I could be wrong here—that many of those in the innovative community would not necessarily balk at publishing with a larger press with mass distribution. I've said before on the record that I would take such an opportunity seriously, so long as I felt comfortable with the terms. I certainly want people to read what I've written. Yet, and here's that question of economic position, because I have a secure job, I don't need a wide readership to survive. I'm a participant in the indirect economy, what sociological critic Pierre Bourdieu would call the "economic world reversed." I get "paid" (in promotions, time, etc.) by writing whatever I choose. That's a pretty good position to be in, but I don't pretend for a moment that it is not a privileged one.

Okay, so how does this relate to where this innovative fiction is headed? Well, you can find the direction of this literature in not only the market underpinnings of the small presses, many of whom are staffed by writers who are also academics, but also, in events like the next &NOW: A Festival of Innovative Writing and Art, to be held at Chapman University in April 2008. It seems to me there is an exuberance to the work currently being produced that ranges from writers such as Kass Fleisher, who deals directly with these institutional questions, to my favorite book of the last years, and the one recommendation I will make for everyone to check out: Steve Tomasula and Stephen Farrell's VAS: An Opera in Flatland. Part comic book, part opera, part anti-eugenics manifesto, part Foucaldian genealogical deconstruction of postmodern science, this book, more than any other I've encountered as of late, suggests the biopolitical directions for the innovative work in the coming decades. It's a book made of paper, but its stuffing is purely virtual and ethereal. It's an open source thrill ride.

BW: I'd like to turn briefly to your beautiful book Multifesto: A Henri d'Mescan Reader. One aspect of the book that really fascinates me is its varied approach to the false, which I'm not sure is synonymous with, but which must somehow be connected to, the fake. I bring up the distinction because the book, to me at least, feels more like Orson Wells's F for Fake and less like meta-narrative, which is an interesting shift. Is it the transgression inherent in falsification that interests you? How did you come to write a "fake" book about a "fake" author?

DS: I'm pleased with this reading, because I don't think Multifesto holds up very well as a meta-narrative. Sure, it has all that crap about writing about writing about crap, but it's a joke with an open punch line. I've never pretended that Henri d'Mescan is real, or anything other than an anagram of "Schneiderman," or anything other than words on the page, even as I've occasionally published and collaborated with him and his avatar, Henry Mescaline. There are enough deliberate anachronisms littered throughout the text to throw up red flags for the most casual reader, and, well, that sandpaper makes it hard to even hold the book.

The idea of authorial identity, or that Romantic definition of the capital-A "Author," flows through the text as if through a narrower and narrower set of flour sieves. The book keeps separating out layers of excess, only to find that the remains are equally excessive. There's no core to the book beyond its structure, and that is what makes it an interesting fake: it's a simulacrum of a postmodern comment on authorship. It's no more Giles Goat Boy than it is Breakfast of Champions. It's a deconstruction of the idea of the fake, through the process of open fakery. It's only secret is that there is no secret.

As for d'Mescan's origins, try this: when writing a never published story in the middle of my graduate school period—"Our Arteries Harden with the Pulse of the People"—for a workshop with a particularly rigid set of peers (although excellent writer and now-CUNY-LaGuardia professor J. Elizabeth Clark was the one bright spot!), I edited the text so many times that I removed almost all articles, prepositions, and explanatory material. The thing turned into the unreadable lovechild of Beckett and Stein, and, knowing what I was in for with the group, I decided to fabricate an opening quotation to provide some legitimacy to my method. Henri d'Mescan penned it, and thus, a hoax-that-is-not-a-hoax was born, sort of.

BW: In many ways, history is an important concern of Multifesto. The early writings of d'Mescan are prescient avant-garde texts, and as such, they take up an interesting position with respect to the actual history of modernism: they are both "modernist" and commentaries on our perceptions of the period. The fake introductory and other commentaries of Davis Schneiderman and Phoenelia Yeer spread throughout the text take up a similar set of relations but with respect to the present. In setting up the book like this, were you intending to critique the idea of periodization, where d'Mescan is the quintessential "unclassifiable" author? If you were to write an academic essay about d'Mescan what would the argument be?

DS: The academic essay would perform a Derridean-Sausserian-Barthian deconstruction of the concept of erasure, applied across the syntagmatic vectors of a system that d'Mescan might classify as Deluezian in its deployment of the rhizomatic (rather than root, rather than fascicle) structures. Proving, in fact, that not only is d'Mescan a figment of the literary imagination, but that any writing about his work proves nothing. Well, or something like that.

Another version of d'Mescanian criticism is my novel, Blank: A Novel, a short novel that is, well, blank. I'm looking for a publisher, if you know of anyone with the right aesthetics.

BW: A concept that is deployed frequently in Multifesto is "Post-America.” What is "Post-America"? Is there a difference between "your" Post-America and that of Henri d'Mescan?

DS: Post-America is 1) the name of d'Mescan's unpublished 20-year epic, with multiple excerpts in Multifesto [I had been thinking about Ralph Ellison's ever-delayed Juneteenth], and 2) the condition of the United States in the post-postmodern, or post-post-irony period. It's what the country will become when there is nothing left but mediated images of its substance. This positively announces the lack of substance, of unifying principle from the start: that consensus is a lie, and that the absence of consensus is a necessary condition for, not the dissolution of the political entity, and its reconstruction according to both viral and virtual principles, which, are, in practice, user-generated.

In my just-completed manuscript ScatØlØgically Yours, a finalist for the 2007 Ronald Sukenick/American Book Review Innovative Fiction Prize from FC2, Lake Michigan mysteriously drains itself of water, and in that new land flood fugitives from Post-America: a cult worshipping an elder deity World Worm—Umma-Segnus—an embodied nothingness waiting to rise once again in the endless desert the lakebed has becomes. A planned community company, the Quadrilateral Commission, moves into old Lake Michigan and builds a series of Celebration, Florida-like towns, pushing against the Worm-worshipping, anti-capitalist fugitives from Post-America: the image of itself as a great fat zero.

BW: You've been involved, as a board member and maybe in other capacities, with the &NOW festival, whose next installment, as you mentioned, will be hosted at Chapman University in April 2008. What's the point of this festival? What is your involvement with it?

DS: All credit goes to its originator, Steve Tomasula, who started the whole thing at Notre Dame in 2004. Lake Forest College hosted in 2006, and Chapman hosts in 2008. It's a gathering of the tribes, so to speak, a mini-AWP, where people like Lou Mallozzi of Chicago's Experimental Sound Studio can do a piece (from Lake Forest in '06) on synaesthesia where he plays a record while eating chicken.

It's also a place for people working in this "innovative" mode—not only in print, but new media and performance art—to communicate, collaborate, and conspire. The event has taken on a life of its own, and I expect for tie-ins down the road: including a publishing project that we will unveil in April. Look for details of that conference here: www.andnowfestival.com.

As for my role, I'm a poorly paid technical advisor.

BW: What are you working on now? What should we be on the lookout for?

DS: Be on the lookout for global warming for god's sakes, although I don't think you can really "see" it. It's something you feel, deep inside, at the moment you have second thoughts about spraying those CFC's outside your home each afternoon in hopes of making it just a little friggin' warmer—is that too much to ask?—in your neck of the woods.

Be on the lookout, eventually, for ScatØlØgically Yours, and some multimedia rearticulation of its premises. Also ahead are more "Memorials to Future Catastrophes" a collaborative series of just that, future disasters, which currently appear at Mad Hatters' Review every issue or so, and will eventually take the form of a seed packet from which you can grow your own paper to print out the secret storyline about the end of existence as we know it—over a period of 32 years!

And, if I ever get a free moment between hanging with my young daughters Athena and Kallista—there'll be a heartwarming family book about the moving changes of parenthood, that no doubt I am the first formerly jaded 30-something to experience