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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 375 Response

On Experimental Writing

Tantra Bensko

Re: Challenge 375

These questions are very insightful and provocative, and I really appreciate them. I’d like to answer some myself, if I may.

The article lists some advice frequently given to beginning writers and then says: “Some of these principles are stale by now, having been said so often, and others are only formulaic for traditional, mainstream, conservative fiction, or genre fiction.” — The principles have all been cited equally often. Which do you think are “stale” and no longer worth observing?

My class does go into this question, so I’ll leave it alone for the most part, here. But I’d say overall, writers have to have a very good reason for throwing any of those rules out, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a case by case situation in which if a writer breaks one, the breaking itself has to be more interesting than the story would be if he followed it; discarding a rule has to be required in order to tell what he has to tell authentically.

The advice itself can be stale because it’s everywhere. The rules tend to be very useful, but seeing them repeated over and over without nodding to the reasons to break them can become trite.

Is a unified portrayal the same thing as a portrayal of something unified? Is “shattered and irrational” a purely esthetic view? Or is it a psychological condition? To what extent is the view shared or not shared in philosophy, theology and science?

This is such a great question, I don’t want to take a chance on ruining it for anyone else who might comment...

Does Kenji Siratori’s “AcidHumanix” qualify as “experimental writing”? Since it is almost entirely a computer-generated text and thereby guaranteed to be incomprehensible, does it qualify as writing at all?

Yes, I would say computer generated stories can be considered Experimental, though this has been done so often it needs something special about it to stand out from the crowd.

Some forms of generation can lead to readable stories, especially if they are presented well, with plenty of blank space, and are edited, if need be, to pick out the lines that end up being beautiful, organize it structurally into something that has some at least subconscious surreal or evocative imagistic meaning with powerful sounds.

“Something that can mean anything means nothing” — a Bewildering Stories motto. Can radical nihilism — i.e. chaos — qualify as literature? If so, who would read it? Might “uncertainty” be a more appropriate word than “unknowableness”?

A story in which events happen which are impossible to understand can mimic my life, certainly, and I can identify with them sometimes. Things happen mysteriously all the time. Those mysteries may never be satisfied. But in fiction, generally, mysteries don’t remain by the end of the book.

I can’t comprehend exactly either how miraculous healing happens, but I am a healer and helped one man regain a whole new set of teeth. I don’t understand a man who came into my life years ago, claiming to channel different beings, and when he did, things would happen like — the floor would end up covered by a layer of feathers in the morning. I don’t understand if my father has done the things he says he has, or if he has forgotten the truth, or is lying, or if others who say it is the opposite are mistaken. I eventually have to give up trying to understand these things.

But I don’t think of myself as a radical nihilist. The world is just beyond what my brain can understand, as I think it is beyond what any brain can understand. That keeps it fascinating. The world is an incredible place.

The radical nihilist feels reality would be worthwhile only if it had a reason, was unified, an abstract aspect of truth. Radical nihilists are conventional in their ideas of what is meaningful, and when those ideas aren’t met by what they see around them, they can become dejected.

If they had felt God would punish those who are immoral and yet are engaged in a war in which they feel the opposite is occurring, their Christian brothers all around them lying there dead for a manipulative agenda the government lied about, families torn to pieces, the losing country losing all its heritage and being treated with torture instead, they can experience the emotion of nihilism.

Literature about that type of feeling, both poetry and prose, has been central to the last century, such as T.S. Elliot’s Wasteland, to J. Alfred Prufrock, and have been widely read.

The feeling tone was more of giving up of knowing, or even trying to know, any more, as people were forced to lose the old-fashioned picket fence version of a nice world formulaically summed up by the children’s stories where the policeman is always helpful and kind, everyone lives in a house, and if we work hard, we’ll be rewarded with plenty of money.

But writers went beyond Modernism’s feeling of desperation in a world that seems to reward evil at times, to be meaningless in the sense that the previous centuries had held onto, as the century aged, and Post-Modernists became actually gleeful in their celebration of that.

The statement that Modernists and Post-Modernists, which comprise most of the scholarly respected major literary stylists of our times, react to a shattered world with shattered writing is a given. This is where most literary criticism starts, whether implied or stated.

So this is not my idea or anything new, but a basis of understanding of the psychology of our society. Therefore, it’s refreshing to see this premise questioned.

If the world were unknowable, impossible to understand and thereby unpredictable, could any living creature exist in it?

Sometimes it’s hard to live in an unpredictable world. There is an element of chaos however, scientifically proven, and that can add an element of wonder, possibility, the chance that not everything is fated and predetermined, and I think we have all learned to adapt to that. I doubt an opossum understands and sides with either Relativity Theory or the Quantum Uncertainty Principle, yet it lives in it.

Copyright © 2010 by Tantra Bensko

Thank you for the discussion, Tantra; it’s very interesting indeed.

Your answer to the question about computer-generated texts is instructive, especially about the ways a person might edit such texts. They seem to be a kind of idea-generating mechanism.

* * *

I think you and I define nihilism somewhat differently. Profound disillusionment for the reasons you cite — war, betrayal, destruction, etc. — may lead to despair, but I see it as an effect; nihilism itself would be the cause. Its most radical form is psychopathic and is summed up in the Spanish fascist slogan ¡Viva la muerte! — “Long live death.” It’s existential cynicism: nothing has any value, therefore anything goes.

Nihilism has practical applications: witness the occasional student who says, “Whatever I write is worth as much as anything anyone else has ever written. And you had better give me an ‘A’ in the course whatever I do, ’cuz I paid for it.” Does that happen? Honestly, you’d be amazed...

* * *

As for chaos, I was thinking of the primordial kind. No life could exist in it, because conditions would constantly change at random. In such a system, as we’ve seen, the laws of physics make life an emergent property.

Computer-generated texts are analogous: with enough iterations, something intelligible is bound to emerge. But we need somebody to tell us when that happens. Rather than wait on evolution for 14 — or 4 — billion years, why not take a shortcut? Steal a page from the book of Intelligent Design and reverse-engineer the process.

Uncertainty may be due to chaotic conditions. At any rate it’s part of the natural order of things: it presupposes that some things are certain, such as physical laws and the grammar of a language. Like the “three-body problem,” which seems to be insoluble in physics, multiple causal factors routinely introduce uncertainty into everyday life. Does that preclude the sense of wonder you mention? Quite the contrary: uncertainty makes it possible.

But prudence: the next time someone tries to sell you an investment with a “calculated risk,” take it with a grain of salt. Risk is a perception of cause: it comes to us from the past and can be calculated by statistics. Uncertainty is a function of the future: it can’t be calculated; it’s accessible only to the imagination.

How does all this apply to writing? Would Bewildering Stories reject “experimental” writing that was profoundly ungrammatical? Of course we would. Writing needn’t be simplistic, but in the end it must be coherent and must make sense. That’s the way we think and the only way we can think. Harry Lang’s poem “Somebody Knows” sums it up.

Uncertainty is the stock in trade of all writing, including whatever is meant by “experimental.” And the universe itself is largely similar: its physical laws — its grammar — are exceedingly complex, but they are entirely regular. The universe follows those rules and thereby does make sense.

Copyright © 2010 by Don Webb

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