Times Op-Ed Trashes Novel Project

‘Over at the Flux Factory, an artists’ collective in Long Island City, three fiction writers have agreed to isolate themselves in small writing cells for a project called “Novel: A Living Installation.” Each has promised to finish a novel by June 4. That is 25 days away. Odds are that these will either be teeny-tiny novels or very bad ones.’

Read the whole savaging here (Free Reg Required). This opinion piece makes a counterpoint with the positive coverage of the show from the Monday Arts section (read it on 3Quarksdaily here).

Since I’m involved with the project as a Guest Lecturer at the Panel on the state of the novel on May 22, I don’t pretend to have an objective response to the Op-Ed. I too wonder what the literary results will be; greatness is not guaranteed under any conditions, and I personally would agree that the constraints make it even more difficult for the writers. (Especially the constraint of reading bad reviews before they’ve even started.)

But here are a few notes on the assumptions embedded in the opinion piece:

1. That the novels produced during the month will be completed final products. But I doubt that any of the people involved with the project think that. In truth, this is an experiment in Process, an application to literature of ideas developed for modern art. It’s also at heart a fun residency experiment to see what the writers will come up with, and I doubt very much that the writers will try to sell the work “as is” afterwards. Ed Park has it right when he says, in the Village Voice, that “Novel” should be followed by a 5 year project called “Revision.” The Op-Ed assumes the writers don’t know this, which is silly.

2. The Times assumes that “the more seriously the writers take the proper business of making their own work, the more the installation trivializes the nature of writing.” This assumes that such a thing as “the proper business” of writing exists, and that this business cannot take place under any but certain conditions. Speaking from my own experience, I find myself able to write under scrutiny only with extreme difficulty, and don’t think I would have produced anything good. But there are other, more extroverted writers – Kerouac springs to mind – who wrote under equally mad conditions.

3. The Op-Ed refers to “the world in which literature is really made” (as opposed to the world of this project). What world is that, exactly? The world of a Barnes & Noble Starbucks cafe? The world of a motel or a friend’s bedroom? Yaddo? The writer seems to think that all writers operate the same way, disappearing into a comfy study somewhere in a smoking jacket and finding his/her fountain pen suddenly moving to the flourishes of inspiring birdsong…Which of these venues for writing “trivialize” the writing process? It’s a meaningless question because different writers have different methods of composition.

4. There is a strong modernist tradition of writing being produced under various constraints. There are novels written without the letter “E,” surrealist games and experiments such as the Exquisite Corpse, writing done according to rules, collaborative novels, Blogger novels, etc. This is probably the best spirit in which to view the Flux “Novel” project, not in old fashioned terms of isolated talents producing masterpieces far from the public gaze. My own personal view is that writing is a lonely business, but I don’t assume that everybody works the same way.

5. What’s the harm in it, exactly? That is my last and most serious question for the Op-Ed writer. How does trying to make art under strange conditions hurt literature? Is the writer worried that everybody’s going to rush out and produce novels this way? – I Fear It Not. Perhaps the work produced in the residency experiment will be a start on something interesting, or a first draft to be reworked later on, or an intriguing failure, or maybe it will be brilliant, who knows? We can also turn the tables here: Is “literature” also wounded every time an average or even bad novel is published? If so, then there are other writers who have committed greater sins out of baser motives, and with the aid of large and respected publishing houses, too.

6. The present state of American letters is not damaged one iota by this project, and, in truth, any project that brings attention to any kind of novel writing at all ought to be applauded rather than scorned. For goodness sake, relax. I realize that “Novel” may not live up to the standards of great fiction writers like Judith Miller or Jayson Blair, but it’s a fun and mostly harmless experiment that most people seem to enjoy.

Update: Gawker has weighed in, on the side of Flux Factory.