Paraliterature/Carnival Square

by on Mar.22, 2012

Johannes’s recent post (following Lucas’s) reminded me that I had written a note on genre & paraliterature (putting together & introducing a paraliterary anthology) for an independent study with him at Notre Dame a couple of years ago. Thought I would bring it in here.


What is the literary mode we call ‘paraliterature’? The prefix ‘para’ puts it ‘alongside, beyond, altered, contrary’: at any rate, as Samuel Delany asserts, it is a mode of writing most people would describe is “just not ‘literature’.” [1] An alternative name for paraliterature is ‘genre fiction’, implying that it can only exist inside taxonomic boundaries (and that the principles of taxonomy must be self-evident; that the taxonomy itself must be stable), while literature or ‘fiction’ neither requires a label/prefix (implying that it must be ‘original’, ‘natural’ and ‘true’), nor does it need to be contained.

The latter assumption indicates that something bigger than ‘literature’ itself is making sure it remains clean of everything ‘para-’. What could this technology be? Moreover, ‘genre fiction’ implies a dependence on generic rules and frameworks, while ‘fiction’, you would think, has no fixations. Why then is it so bent on representing and serving reality?

Jean Kinnard argues that contemporary fiction since the 1960s has been characterized by non-realistic [2] techniques (Olsen 276), but even after a number of attempts to question the lines dividing the literary from the paraliterary, these lines have still not vanished. It is no wonder that Kate Bernheimer is skeptical of “Artists Formerly Known as Realists” (52): their appropriating non-realistic techniques has not turned them into canon-busting iconoclasts, nor has it made them excited about examining the ideologies that lead to one aesthetic being valued more than the other.

Parable: Meaning-Making

Once upon a time, as I was skimming an online text – it was one or the other – I thought I read “literature of distaste”.

I thought I read: a literature that is distasteful (or) which you cannot in good taste find tasteful (or) which compels taste to crisis (self-destruction) (or) which deterritorializes the taste/distaste binary and by extension the acceptable/unacceptable, pure/impure, high/low relational structures.

[T]he whole language of aesthetics is contained in a fundamental refusal of the facile, in all the meanings which bourgeois ethics and aesthetics give to the word; that ‘pure taste’, purely negative in its essence, is based on the disgust that is often called ‘visceral’ (it ‘makes one sick’ or ‘makes one vomit’) for everything that is ‘facile’ – facile music, or a facile stylistic effect, but also ‘easy virtue’ or an ‘easy lay’. (Bourdieu 486)

The hybrid, a classificatory challenge, attracts a similar horror/disgust/fury (Bourdieu 162).

Both Mary Shelley’s monster (1816) and Shelley Jackson’s female companion to him (1996) have collaged-disruptive-excessive bodies. One has been manufactured of parts from “the unhallowed damps of the grave”, the dissecting room, and the slaughter house (Shelley 40); the other, appropriately, in hypertext. Monsters are signs.

Delany instructed his readers and critics (in disguise, in third person): “In spite of some heavy arguing by people both positively and negatively disposed toward his book, Delany has insisted that no matter how high-falutin’ it all sounds, his work is not literature but paraliterature, and should by analyzed, however seriously, as such” (Delany). This is not just a case of Delany designating paraliterature with the function and force of Deleuzian minor literature. What is of utmost concern to him is that his work be read using the reading practices and analytical framework of paraliterary genres. Instead of relying on a set of analytical tools developed by literary critics to read (and value) the so-called literary texts, he wants paraliterary critics to use the genre’s own history and context to understand how a paraliterary text is working and what it is capable of (183). The irony is that many literary critics may not value paraliterature, and may therefore shy away from the reading methodology it demands, therefore reifying its place (in their reading canon) as devalued literature.

Delany also destabilizes the notion of genre as a stable, objective, truthful category (categorical truth), by pointing out that “what any genre actually is is a way of reading (or, more accurately, a complex of different ways of reading)” (Delany). Thus, genres get denoted by the specific reading practices they invite, keeping their signs as well as the reading practices contingent/in flux. Their fields too change continuously in response to historical change.

What does not change, according to Delany, are the tropes of paraliterary fiction, which are formal and functional. They add “pleasure and resonance to the reading of those who recognize them,” but cannot have a bearing upon a text’s “power, authority, persuasive force, or greatness”. Which is what leads Delany to say, “we must separate form from content” (227). Delany’s emphasis on this separation derives in part from his desire to resist the labelling of paraliterature, since much of it is structured around familiar tropes, as too easy (facile) and not ‘literature’ enough. Also, to demarcate powerful, persuasive paraliterary texts from the merely escapist.

Other writers and critics articulate the dialectic between form and content differently. Joyelle McSweeney is not dismissive of form, and sees it almost like a dumb-show that starts off observing proprieties (good form), but soon finds itself gripped by twitchiness/twitches/spasms and has a seizure right there on the stage, seizes the stage, and must perform its spasms spectacularly until they seize up.

The “start(ing) out formal” is necessary because the text must look the part. In an essay on Hannah Weiner, McSweeney quotes from Weiner’s “Fashion Show Poetry Event Essay”: “We use the phrase ‘write the style’ rather than the more usual ‘write in the style’ because the latter indicates that one is using a style to serve a certain content, but here we are writing a certain style using a certain content as a pretext to write this style” (129). The text must start out formal also because every ritual must, before it is brought to the point of wounding or sacrifice. The sacrifice, the gape (“I often talk of my work in terms of form but what the form frames is something else that points away from it” (60)) may open up something that is fantastic, or sacred, dead, or empty.

Lance Olsen’s definition of fantasy accomplishes something similarly necessary when he points out that it “is a mode concerned with absences, with what does not exist and what cannot be expressed, with nameless things and thingless names…” (289). It suggests once again that what is absent has a presence too; that something would be found wanting in presence if the absences were not accounted for. Olsen’s definition of the fantastic, however, appears as an answer for the appropriate literary mode for postmodernism, with its relentless meltdowns and unsettling of reality into something inconceivable or unbelievable. He writes: “Our preconceptions of what constitutes the impossible are assaulted every day;” (284) hence the postmodern fantastic.

The postmodern fantastic resembles in some of its characteristics – intertextuality, pastiche, black humor, spoofs, metawriting, dissolving the borders between the high and the low – the “experimental fantasticality” which Bakhtin identified as one of the modes of the “menippea” (120). The fantastic in Bakhtinian rhetoric “functions as a mode for searching after truth, provoking it, and, most important, testing it,” and this is why it creates “extraordinary situations” (118). Thus, the experimental fantastic is – or could be tested as – a mode that questions and transgresses all fixed laws, or established rules, including the rules of realism and of fantasy itself. As long as fantastic fiction is bold in its refusal to compromise and its willingness to experiment; as long as it does not seek a finality or unity but is curious; as long as it retains its carnival sense, it is an appropriate mode to investigate ‘truths’.

Paraliterature, I have noted above, is seen as jeopardizing “literature” by being facile, escapist, kitsch, and insistent about it. Its identification with the ‘non-human’ also leaves it open to being treated with horror/fear. [3] Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany have engaged extensively with the question of paraliterature’s ghettoization, offering as rationales the tacit compact between realistic writing and the status quo, and the opportunities non-realistic writing presents to debate issues of identity such as race, gender, and sexuality (Butler 154, Delany). Bernheimer’s essay points to the complicity between capitalism and representation (53). China Miéville explores how the discomfort with fantasy is located in a cultural elitism rooted in a “(capitalist) modern distinction between high and low culture”, declaring that fantasy must be of interest to Marxists because “real life” under capitalism itself is a fantasy (336). Lara Glenum speaks of fascism’s unwavering reliance on the mode of Realism (Glenum). Kathy Acker has written, “…who is any longer interested in the possible?” (166). As a political act, for herself she chooses the languages of flux, of wonder, contradicting themselves, of the material body, scatology, of play, sometimes silent, of intensity (92). The languages of the experimental fantastic, of paraliterature, of weird tales and weird poems.

The excerpts I chose for this anthology are interested in these subversive possibilities. Many of them were written at the seams of paraliterature and literature. They do not always want to escape the tropes and clichés of their chosen strategies – be it detective fiction, horror, science fiction, fairy tale; they have paradoxical desires and they also want to claim, own, appropriate, corrupt, and exhaust. They definitely want to inhabit (genre or fantastic space), and to deterritorialize, not to parody (genre or fantastic space)



[1] Delany has defined paraliterature as “those texts which the most uncritical literary reader would describe as just not ‘literature’: Comic books, mysteries, westerns, science fiction, pornography, greeting card verse, newspaper reports, academic criticism, advertising texts, movie and TV scripts, popular song lyrics” (216).

[2] ‘Fantastic fiction’ is regarded as a subset of paraliterature. John Clute’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy identifies the following, apart from ‘FANTASY’ itself, as falling within the “spectrum of the fantastic”: “AFTERLIFE, ALLEGORY, DARK FANTASY, FABULATION, FAIRYTALE, FOLKLORE, FOLKTALES, HORROR, SCIENCE FANTASY, SCIENCE FICTION, SUPERNATURAL FICTION, SURREALISM, … and WONDERLANDS” (311).

[3] The taboos around paraliterature are quite similar to Freudian taboos around the dead – paraliterary genres are the lowest in the generic hierarchy; they are not seen as serious literature; and serious writers prefer to stay away from them. (The fear of demonic return of the dead – as long as this is a suggestive space of psychic irrationality, instead of the “truth”.)


3 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes Göransson

    Great post Monica. I like the Bordieu quote about “refusal of the facile” because this seems the most pervasive way that poetry is discussed. It is so seldom about what people want out of writing and more frequently about identifying “facile” traits in others’ work. See for example any of Tony Hoagland’s attacks on grad students or “skittery poets” or the voluminous archives of attacks on “soft surrealism” or “candy surrealism.” /Johannes

  2. Johannes

    Also it would be interesting to see how one might read not sci-fi according to sci-fi reading conventions, but how to read non-genre poetry as sci-fi (or “creative nonfiction” as fantasy etc). / Johannes

  3. adam strauss

    Sorta interestingly, Silliman I’m pretty sure has praised Swensen for being facile, which he seemed to be meaning as dexterous. I find the equating of refined to boring interesting, as it seems that there are some wild hyper-refined works: A-9, A-7 (true there’s a decided lack of perfection in these pieces too; but to go from collaging Marx via a canzone, surely that’s what cld count as a refining process), Finnegans Wake. For me the “workshop” poem is blah because there’s not enough craft, not enough style, not enough sound and arrangement, not enough attention to the magic of letters and recombining etc. I guess I don’t link refined to flattening lessness; and it may be I actually mean something more akin distillation, tho I’m not sure how distinct the concepts are. Sorta funnily, I seem to be all-for work which looks like it has indeed come out of an atelier or workshop.