By definition, an avant-garde mandate is one that defies the status quo and hence cannot incorporate it.
Where does it begin? In a fifth grade creative writing assignment, it begins with theme, which is, we’re taught, the basis of all literature. Pick a theme and write a story. This strikes me as weird: my favorite books and movies thrive on plot, and when you come to the moral of the story, it’s over. But we’re reading Silas Marner, a status quo classic, a venerable standard bearer of meaning, and so everyone picks a theme and writes. Mine is Crime Doesn’t Pay. Even in fifth grade, this stacks up as unsophisticated, compared to the big ideas of my classmates. Lesson learned.
A few years later we’re reading The Sun Also Rises. Thematic veteran of multiple grades, I raise my hand to deliver my critical analysis of one of the great works of the 20th Century. I’m an honor student and this is an easy one, except for a certain delicacy I must observe to put my exegesis into proper English class English. After all, this is a rugged novel of mature ideas, about men who’ve been to war and run from bulls. Then I think, what would Hemingway say? “It’s about a guy whose dick got shot off.” No, I’m told, it’s about the Lost Generation, the inevitable disorientation of being stranded in the modern world of the café society of Europe rather than the provisional contentment of being grounded in some hometown grind—provisional/inevitable because you really can’t go home again or something like that.
This is the bull I run from and walk down on the road. From Kerouac to Vonnegut to Pynchon to Hawkes I go, from infatuation to repulsion on a literary gorge and purge. No matter how these writers might have once struggled to be noticed, in the early 1970s they define another kind of status quo. Their books are published by established presses and reviewed in newspapers and magazines. Ron Sukenick may have already fled the commercial houses to start the Fiction Collective, whose first offerings are primly sneered at in the pages of the New York Times Book Review, but with John Leonard running that mouthpiece of empire, avant-garde writers are taken seriously by mainstream culture. It also seems not entirely quixotic to write as if literature is art, as if Joyce, Stein, and Beckett did change everything, and so the artists who make a break from all that has gone before will be respected, rewarded, and even paid.
Artists whose work gets branded as avant-garde, experimental, or innovative too often define themselves negatively, by putting themselves in opposition to the mainstream. This tendency to say what you are by saying what you are not can be tricky if your work eventually is recognized and you become part of even the slightest niche of an establishment, where you become the status quo. But every writer, famous or unknown, creates a body of work that constitutes a status quo. That is the status quo I want to defy, to write what I didn’t write or even what I wouldn’t write.
Too long after fifth grade, I learn about Oulipo and its practice of writing by using formal constraints. I give it a try and all problems of how or what to write recede as I must come to terms with the demands of this or that scheme of rules. By picking a constraint that nobody has used or used up, I force myself to write books that nobody could have written. Of course then the problem is, how does anyone read a novel where no word appears more than once or no adjacent words can have any letters in common or vowels and consonants alternate one after another from cover to cover? The question of access usually has a stupid answer: dumb it down, clean it up, clarify, explain so that anyone can understand what you mean to say, but many if not most readers are bored by that. Access can be challenging and must be interesting.
Occasionally, I’m challenged by someone from the old school of self-expression, someone who believes in the primacy of meaning, message, and theme. Some might argue that any attempt to enhance form at the expense of content is a violation of free speech, that language must be transparent so that meaning can shine through, so that my thoughts, all of what I really think about politics, society, life can fight injustice, cure cancer, and save the whales. I don’t worry about that. Self-expression is inevitable. No matter how twisted or arcane, ludicrous or earnest, embroidered or spare, writing reveals the writer. A novel, a poem, a body of work is a mind scan of the writer that is potentially more illuminating than any self-conscious reflections. You may be what you think you are; I am what I think.