by Johannes Goransson 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.