Some Thoughts on "The Gimmick"

by on Mar.21, 2012

Lucas’s post about the “grief police” – how the grants board objected to his spectacular engagement with the death of a friend seemed “inappropriate” or perhaps “inhuman”, and even of mass culture, even immoral – made me think about something I’ve noticed in discussions about contemporary writing: a lot of writers argue that any stylstic or formal deviance from conventions (or “experimentation” as some people call it) must be “motivated” by the story/poem itself, or else it’s just a “gimick.”

If the story is, to use the most cliche example, fragmented, that should be because the narrator is feeling very fragmented. Or if the story uses very simple sentences it should be because the narrator is a simpleton. Etc. By “motivated,” they seem to mostly motivated by the narrative, and often the interiority of the narrator/characters. Implied is – again – the danger of a kind of excess, an art that is not properly in the service of a model of interiority. It’s like the old poetry workshop mantra: Did you “earn that image”? The danger is that the economy of earning, the economy of the poem/story as motivated by an interiority (or creating an idea of interiority) should give way to another economy – one presumably not based on “earning” or working but on stealing, giving away, which somehow would wreck our idea of interiority.

This term “gimmick” interests immensely for several reasons: I like the word itself (it’s one of those fantastic terms that seem to sound like what it means) but also because of its similarity to kitsch – ie to items too easily bought, inappropriately spectacular (like Lucas’s grief) – and most of all because of its prevalence. Especially in fiction discussions, “gimmick” seems to be a key evaluative terms, especially when it comes to evaluating “experimental” writing.

Wikipedia gives us an interesting background to this word:

In marketing language, a gimmick is a unique or quirky special feature that makes something “stand out” from its contemporaries. However, the special feature is typically thought to be of little relevance or use. Thus, a gimmick is a special feature for the sake of having a special feature. It began, however, as a slang term for something that a con artist or magician had his assistant manipulate to make appearances different from reality. Such things as the manipulating of a gaming wheel led to the idea of a “gimmick” being used…

Here you see all the hallmarks of the anxieties of contemporary literature: What if a story/poem has not “use”? What if we’re being conned by the writer? What if they’re cheating? As with all the anti-kitsch rhetoric I like to discuss, it seems that the term “gimick” really gets at some fundamental anxieties about literature.

Here is a random quote I got from googling “gimmicky: and “poetry”:

But so-called “horror poetry” is often gimmicky. In fact, whenever I teach creative writing, I tell my students that they’re forbidden to write any genre literature until they’ve mastered the basics of their craft. For the beginning writer, it’s too easy to use the conventions of genre as a crutch.

Here’s an interesting conflict between mastery of “craft” and “genre” which is a “crutch.” Genre, which Samuel Delaney has called “disparaged” “paraliterature”, is “gimmicky” it would seem, and thus a “crutch” – ie too easy to write, opposed to true mastery (Taste). It’s interesting that genre comes into this discussion because Experimental Literature often uses anti-kitsch rhetoric to set itself up as High Taste but perhaps because of this, it has to be policed against “gimmicks” that pretends, cons and cheats its way into High Status. It’s also worth noting that, as Kent pointed out, part of the problem with Lucas’s project was that it involved an alligator attack, usually the domains of the B-movie, not High Taste.

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    I agree, Johannes, viz. Kent’s topic, and I wonder how presumptions of class comes into this– James Merrill’s trips to Greece is an appropriate topic for a poem, but an alligator attack isn’t.

  2. adam strauss

    Fair point, but JM has recieved criticism from some corners precisely because he writes out of an utterly posh millieu. Reginald Shepherd once wrote me that JM is immensely able as a poet, but that ultimately his work doesn’t get at the throat of anything important; this strikes me as a kind of weird inverse classism: major art can’t happen when ensconced in luxe-ness, it needs the garrot etc. Although the world of the super-rich isn’t more important, it strikes me as a fine culture to sprout poetry out of, and even hugely helpful: he had time, and the means for lots of education. I don’t count JM as one of my personal deities, but I do like some of his poems. I don’t find his poems less cushioned in privilege than, for example, much of Didion (not a poet, true-true); btw: I’m more than less a fan of JD.

    I certainly don’t intend to dismiss issues of class privilege in poetry/writing, but I also don’t buy the idea that the artist must be synonymous to “starving.”

    This note could be more than less irrelevant; if so, apologies.

  3. Lucas de Lima

    Thanks for tying so much together in this post, Johannes. “Gimmicky” really is a fab word.

  4. Paraliterature/Carnival Square - Montevidayo

    […] Monica Mody on Mar.22, 2012, under Uncategorized Johannes’s recent post (following Lucas’s) reminded me that I had written a note on genre & paraliterature […]

  5. kim

    I agree with all points made within the context of that particular polarization but I can’t help to wonder about the polarization itself, that which pits experimental, excessive, gimmicky (those flamboyant howling hyenas) against the earn-your-image “realist” fiction or poetry workshop bunch. In much of the work the latter’s fidelity to realist narrative strike me as limiting as the experimentalist’s distrust of the same. A kind of mutual disregard for narrative as a tool, lifting it up either to the point of (puritan, no doubt) religion or trying to tear it down with dionysian fervor. Both sharing, in a way, an aesthetics of completeness, while the art, or Art, or writing, or other medium, that continually “shatters” me is that which dares to venture into the unknown, where narrative is used, often with the fidelity of that dull realist crowd, though not always, but which is also allowed to crack, fall apart, fail. I love, for instance, how in Bolano, the narrative is temporarily abandoned because a word or topic comes up that needs further exploration, whether poetic or informative, even political. Or David Foster Wallace’s wonderful self-consciousness gnawing beneath the text. I love to read writers fail, fail because they’re trying to do something that is impossible, because the vision is too big. A failure that is almost non existent in so called “realist” writing, but equally so in most “experimental” writing. Barthelme I suppose is some kind of experimentalist house god, but I find his weird strikingly coherent, his “excess” perfectly realistic within his different worlds, a workshop craftsman if there ever was one. Ironically Carver to me is far more out there, his underlying current of menace and violence and weird, not as a premise or aesthetics but as exploration. Couple meets peacock. One-armed photographer tries to eat jello. Blind man watches TV. I don’t think he gave two cents for “realism”.

    Anyway. I suppose this went far off topic, still, I’m curious to know more about this montevidayoan (if you will) aesthetics in regards to use of narrative. Does narrative become superfluous in an art which seeks to engage more directly with the world, or other works in the world (as kitsch?), that in a way the surroundings of the work is the narrative with which it breaks?

  6. Johannes

    thanks for the thoughtful response. i pretty much agree with everything you say except that i dont allign experimental lit with the kitschy. it seems if snything that discussions abt experimental lit tends to generate a lot of anti kitsch rhetoric. more later. johannes