Foreword | June 01, 2004
Innovation in Literature
A series of poems by Gabriel Welsch in this issue records the conversations of a bored telemarketer with several well-known poets (including one who has been dead for three hundred years) about such matters as credit card debt and erectile dysfunction. If you are even a casual reader of poetry, they will entertain you. Doug Hunt’s sizable history-as-literature essay, “A Course in Applied Lynching,” describes an ugly event that occurred in 1923 on a street that is now in the heart of one of the genteel neighborhoods of Columbia, Missouri, where both Doug and the Missouri Review reside. We don’t normally publish writers who teach at the University of Missouri, but every once in a long while something like this comes along that we can’t let go. The issue also features an interview with Frederick Barthelme, fiction writer and editor of the widely admiredMississippi Review, a respected journal of new and experimental literature. Also, we are pleased to include three previously unpublished stories by William Gaddis. Gaddis was a true innovator in fiction whose novels, like those of his contemporary Thomas Pynchon, bridged the gap between the high novel and the postmodern.
Fans of William Gaddis include many writers, who appreciate his novels for their ineffable mix of hilarity and serious intent, gentleness and satire, qualities not typical of American fiction. He has been compared to Cervantes, although at times he is reminiscent of the side of Mark Twain that couldn’t believe the stupidity afloat in the world. Gaddis began publishing in the mid-1950s with The Recognitions, an ambitious novel about forgery and art. It confounded the many reviewers unable to handle its length. To support himself and his family, he worked as a writer for various companies and the government. In 1975 he published the National Book Award-winning novel JR, a funny, wild book about a child who creates a business empire from a telephone booth. Carpenter’s Gothic (1986) explores the evils of religious fundamentalism and media manipulation. It was the shortest of the four major novels and very warmly received. About ten years later came the last major book, A Frolic of His Own, a hilarious tale about misuse of the legal system, which won the American Book Award. The last three novels are told primarily through zany, stumbling and oddly realistic dialogue, all with the Gaddis trademark lack of attribution regarding who is speaking. Characters at times seem to hide in fogs of words. Yet the voice of each one is so distinct that it doesn’t take long for the reader to catch on and even enjoy not being told.
In 1978, the year this magazine was founded, I wrote a note to Gaddis soliciting a story from him. Some things take a while. He wrote the three stories in this issue (for which we thank the Washington University Library and Sarah and Matthew Gaddis) during the ’40s and ’50s, when he was living a bohemian life in New York trying to learn his craft and find his voice. Writers become innovators by a combination of trial and error, accident, temperament, disappointment and discovery. These journeyman pieces demonstrate how naturally Gaddis experimented as he attempted different types of stories and voices. One of them reflects the New Yorker style of the 1940s; another is reminiscent of Beckett and the third is a sincere, moving story about underdogs, with echoes of proletarian fiction.
* * *
While rereading Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own, I imagined myself to be an agent with earphones on, listening to a group of entertaining lunatics who at times, unfortunately, reminded me of myself and people I know. The book called to mind how much fun experimental writing can be, and how true, and how rarely novelists are both antic and so eloquently real. It also made me wonder about a widespread secret assumption—held by many intelligent readers and writers (including me in certain moods)—that any example of experimental literature must be difficult, opaque and, while technically interesting, in other ways frivolous.
Possibly this is due to the fact that there are always inane writers who call themselves “experimental,” or possibly it relates to the identification of that term with academically approved high-culture puzzles such as Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, a book that even litterateurs only approach in heated fits of self-improvement. Of course, one can define “experimental” any way one chooses, but for me true innovation in literature, whatever it is called, has less to do with eccentric voice than with doing something influential, something that has an effect on the field and on other writers. Gaddis continues to be discovered and talked about by other novelists not merely because of his narrative technique but because, like Joseph Heller, he was able to turn his passionate questioning of corrupted American values into something wonderful for his readers.
My own list of historically innovative novelists would include a whole field of unlike writers who were originators, such as Murasaki Shikibu, whose eleventh-century Japanese court novel, The Tale of Genji, is readable (and shocking) today, or technical innovators, such as Charlotte Brontë, who perfected a new inner narration so convincing to her readers that they refused to believe Jane Eyre was a fictional character. It would also include writers who have labored in what seemed like coal mines and found diamonds, such as John LeCarré and Stanislaw Lem, whose work demonstrates that so-called genre types can be both as well written and as serious as literary fiction.
* * *
Shakespeare was an innovator, working in a popular but hazardous new medium. The court sometimes nominally approved, without financially supporting, acting troupes, but England’s first fixed location for plays, the Theatre, had been built only fourteen years before Shakespeare directed his first play. The company partly owned by Shakespeare deconstructed the Theatre (literally, and it didn’t belong to them) to use its beams to build their new theater, the Globe, across the Thames, Bankside, a site chosen partly because it was outside London’s city limits and immediate reach of the law. Acting and writing were dangerously public professions in a time seething with religious and court dissension. Players, including Shakespeare, performed in front of large crowds of people who were usually eating, drinking, yelling and sometimes throwing things at the stage.
Part of his innovativeness was the sheer range of what he attempted. Among the thirty-seven plays he wrote, Shakespeare tried many styles, moods and genres, with every level of success. He tried different narrative forms, evolving generally from a fairly orderly blank-verse style toward prose. There is an odd tradition among some scholars of viewing the man Shakespeare as a careful fellow, perhaps always older than his years. After all, he succeeded both as a businessman and a writer, he apparently avoided the kind of trouble that several of his fellow playwrights got into, he remained married to the same woman and he sensibly retired from London when his powers as a writer waned. He must have been prudent, careful, quiet, possibly a bit boring. While his imagined personality is obviously no gauge of his writing, there is sometimes a concomitant idea that he was merely one of several good Elizabethan dramatists, not as grand as Marlowe at his best, as intellectual as Jonson, as much of a groundbreaker as Robert Greene and so on. This view reminds me of the not unrelated theory that Shakespeare never existed—an instance of scholars knowing just enough to explain away what is under their noses.
Depicting Shakespeare as merely a careful and canny member of the crowd defies a lot of obvious facts, including the one notable firsthand description of him by a friend that has survived the fires, bugs, and bombs of 400 years. Ben Jonson knew him well-both as a rival playwright and an actor. In 1616 he was proud to list him as one of the ten “principall comedoedians” who had performed in his playEvery Man in His Humour. Jonson’s remarks—glancing though they are—suggest something about Shakespeare’s personality and work habits, as well as Jonson’s own response to him.
In a book published posthumously, he wrote of Shakespeare:
I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand,’ which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped.
Jonson’s purpose is to set the record straight about what he meant by his clever, probably often used, riposte regarding Shakespeare’s writing. He knew the man and his work, he is claiming, and the picture of him as honest, open, imaginative, with brave notions, a free nature and at times . . . well, overly talkative, is quite plausible. Jonson was notoriously proud and irascible, and he felt the sting of Shakespeare’s superiority as a writer. While his own plays partook of the realistic movement in the Elizabethan period, he finnly believed in classical models and orderly typologies of characters from Latin drama—the braggart soldier, the melancholy old bookworm, the jealous husband, the town gull. Their behavior should be defined by their “humours,” which at the time referred to the qualities traditionally associated with these classical types.
But whether by reason of temperament or a fortunate lack of over-schooling, Shakespeare wasn’t good at sticking to a program of imitation. Roman and Greek forms and stereotypes more often than not went flat in his hands. His attempts throughout his career to write formulaically—whether standard revenge tragedies or court entertainments—suggest that he did not so much intend to defy convention as possess a mastery that went beyond his ability to imitate. His temperament—implied by Jonson’s comment—was to let things run and be a little careless. Doing so, he came up with complexity of character, sustained brilliance of language, and new ways of projecting story and mood onstage that did more to transform the history of drama than any other writer in English.
Jonson was impatient with Shakespeare for not following the rules better and for being so slipshod with his writing. Yet even he realized that his friend’s plays were of a different order from those of his contemporaries and exceeded those of even his beloved Greek and Latin masters. In the dedication to Shakespeare’s collected plays, published seven years after the great dramatist’s death, he acknowledged Shakespeare’s “lack of learning” as an advantage. The poem, entitled “To the memory of my beloved, The Author MR. William Shakespeare: and what he hath left us,” conveys a strong sense of affection and high regard and includes the now famous line “He was not of an age, but for all time!”
The novelist or the poet reinvents its form, as Shakespeare reinvented the play, not by self-consciously trying to be experimental but by passionately rediscovering subject—by making the reader, once again, say, “Why hasn’t this been done before?” The three Gaddis stories show a great American novelist at the dawn of his career, homing in on his subjects and how he would treat them.
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