Form, Meaning, and Semi-Precious Weapons

How conscious are we of why we publish what we publish?  Let me unwrap that convoluted English: why do we write in the form of a poem  Or a short story?  Or a novel?  Not in terms of the need for artistic human expression, but a question of craft and choice: why do we decide to go with a long narrative as opposed to, say, free form experimental poetry?

This is a question we’ve been tossing around like a football at a tailgate (oh, does this remind you that Gameday is coming to CoMo?): flipping the rhetorical pigskin back and forth, enjoying the exercise, but no one is examining our throwing motion.  So to speak.  Patrick Lane explored the role of publishers in a digital age, and on our Facebook page, Rob Foreman asked why anyone would publish in an electronic format.  What’s the benefit of all this?

Rick Moody wrote his story “Some Contemporary Characters” on Twitter, each sentence in 140 characters, for several weeks.  I didn’t read the story on his feed but in the pages of Electric Literature, one of the best new literary journals.  Moody’s story wasn’t very good: the story was reprinted with each tweet as its own paragraph and the experience of reading it in a hard copy was, at best, choppy.  Did the EL editors or Moody consider editing the piece, pushing the tweets into paragraphs, or adding anything to the original “text”?  I have no idea and I would guess not, but I’m not sure how much it would have helped.  The story read like what it was: a series of short feeds conjured day-by-day.  It didn’t have much coherence or rhythm.  The reading experience was like reading someone’s experimental writing exercise: one can see the ideas at work but that doesn’t make it greater (better) than the sum of its parts.

In writing, form and meaning are always closely linked.  To oversimplify my answer to Rob’s question, I like electronic publishing for writing that I need to digest quickly: news and such. Literature?  Not so much.  The form doesn’t, to me, help the meaning, the experience.  But that’s me.

Let’s bring this back to good old fashioned hard copy.  I was recently chatting with writer Nicholas Ripatrazone about basketball and literature.  Baseball and boxing have been long time staples of American literature.  Football?  Basketball?  Not so much.  Searching for something basketball related, I came across John Edgar Wideman’s book Hoops Roots, which is a “genre-defying” book that is sparked by Wideman having to, at the age of 59, end his pickup basketball days.  The book is a series of meditations that go from memoir to non-fiction to fiction to who-knows-what-else, comparing basketball with writing, memories of his Pittsburgh childhood; his marriage and his children; African-American music, a little bit of everything.  I’m not exactly sure what “genre” the book is, or even if it matters what we call it.  And I’m not sure if it even works: I’ve only read the first “section” (not that reading the whole book has ever stopped me before from commenting on it).  But it’s definitely not just a sports book (which, as a rule, generally aren’t very good).

And in the opening section, Wideman writes:

Different pieces come from different places–read them in sequence or improvise.

I’m guessing this book isn’t like Cortazar’s Hopscotch (what is?) or even that the form chosen here is necessarily meant to be a pleasurable challenge for the reader.  I could be wrong.  I’m often wrong.  Wideman is a writer who has shown a willingness to experiment and play with form, not just as a writer, but as a publisher, too.

Wideman experiments on the micro level, too.  In the first twenty pages or so, I’ve noticed that Wideman eschews questions marks at the end of his interrogative sentences.  Why does he do this?  I have no idea.  But I find it frustrating.  I don’t know if there is a good reason, or even any reason, behind this choice, but reading Hoop Roots, I remembered that I’ve noticed this in Wideman’s stories before, and never quite understood the point.  Best guess?  The lack of the question mark forces a pause and consideration of the sentence by, strangely, not using the question mark at all.

Recently, in my composition class, we read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.”  Orwell writes:

Correct grammar and syntax … are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear

Big Brother watches everything except your commas.

I disagree.  I disagreed loudly until my students nodded their heads in agreement.  Form and meaning: the lack of correct grammar and syntax, deliberate or not, has meaning, has suggestion, and one that the writer (and, consequently, reader) should be paying attention to.  How the sentences are structured is what helps to make the meaning clear.  Done right, grammar and syntax can work seamlessly to make the reading experience smooth, rhythmic.  All of our choices as writer’s matter.  Even if that choice is one of style.

Which is what I think Wideman is after.  One of my favorite writers, Andre Dubus, used semi-colons.  Lots.  Probably too many.  Nonetheless, I dig semi-colons, and like using them.  Do I use them correctly: linking two “closely related” independent clauses?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no, I’m sure.  But I’m always using them for an intended effect, a purpose, not some random choice that I toss into my work just for the hell of it.  Whether it means the actual physical delivery of the work or the actual labor of putting our thoughts into our stories and poems, form and meaning are always going to be intertwined.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review