“Character is action.” “You are what you do.” These adages are behaviorist: they imply that identity is reducible to externally observable data. They argue that the question of who we are—always the topic, in some sense, of literary fiction—is answerable in terms of the impact our actions have on the world around us. Like the ubiquitous Show, don’t tell, they take a common problem and offers an overcorrection. They advise us to steer into the skid of interiority, bringing the story out of a character’s mind and into the external narrative world. Furthermore, such thinking is corrosive to the very moments in literature I find most compelling, moving, and meaningful. They repress the particular species of felt experience I hunger for as a reader, and which I seek to capture in my own work.
I feel grateful to Northern Illinois University Press for publishing Something That Feels Like Truth by Donald Lystra. It is a book that deserves an audience, even in a time when we are uncertain who might comprise an audience for well written, passionate fiction. We’re not sure if the effort is valued even by people who are supposed to value it. Just this last week (and I’m writing this in mid-January) someone at the National Book Foundation, when explaining their expanded short list of finalists for the National Book Award, slurred, in passing, “collections of short stories published by university presses,” implying that no one would actually want to read these books.
One must soberly ask, in light of the enthusiastic rhetoric that surrounds new forms of postmodern audience participation: are these forms of “agency” designed to empower the listener, creatively or critically, or merely offer the simulated (“technical”) illusion thereof? The mimetic replication of urban and post-industrial noises reinscribes the very determinisms that all art forms both inherit and strive to overcome, and while on a neurological level the ear enjoys assimilating unfamiliar sounds, and harsh noises generated from dissonance, punk, heavy metal or electronic music, can induce an “unpleasing” cerebral pleasure, the sustained withholding of aural pleasure from the listener may be the last insidiously lingering form of 21st century authoritarian “control” of all.
“A lot of poetry today gets by with flairs of language, or superficial risks. But it’s about sincerity – it’s the same for fiction. I always hope that writing better means living better. I think the genre distinctions between poetry and fiction have more to do with marketing than anything else.”
According to the Weekly World News, I am writing on the verge of apocalypse and this blog post will never be read. The nineteenth of December: two days until we reach the terminus of the ancient Mayan calendar and find ourselves ushered into a future better left to the imagination of Roland Emmerich. Or Nancy Lieder. Or John of Patmos. Or whomever. Apocalypses come and go, and if some prophets, like the Revelator or Nostradamus, achieve a more lasting fame than others, it seems to have little to do with their accuracy as doomsayers. What’s worth noting about our latest onrushing apocalypse, however, is just how timely it seems.