Collective Literature

Literature is founded in such collective, physical friendships

Before the wondrous Internet, in all its connective glory, burst onto the scene of global culture, there existed, in the outcroppings and margins, groups of real literary power. Beyond friendships and shared interests, poets and writers aligned themselves in electric enclaves of writers, charged with literary import; enclaves with tangible cultural, political, and social power, outputting art able to change nations, attitudes, and minds with brief and subtle strokes of the pen or key.

Unfortunately, though the Internet has provided the unlimited real estate for a myriad of literature-loving cyber-communities, the discussions typically shy away from revolutionary artistic enterprise, and instead move towards Saturday-night book club discussions of favorite authors, titles, and passages. A cybernetic foundation, in this day of exceeding technologies, is of course a positive thing; literary talks of any nature encourage a support of reading that is desperately needed in an age where digital interactivity presides. An accessible system of reviews, summaries and information about new, classic, and little-known titles gives breath and energy of the otherwise malnourished matrix of modern literature.

A bit difficult to have stimulating discussion on here

However, as interested readers and writers connect over IPs and imaginary lines, the real tension and kinetics of the affective analog literary community is lost. Writers who once congregated in used bookstores, or independent coffeehouses, or under bridges, or in Laundromats, now tend to meet in antiseptic forums, with avatars, post counts, and rep ratings, or on Twitter, limited to 140 characters or less. Efficiency and immediacy—surely, not to be discounted—threaten to replace texture and personality. The problem, as I see it—admittedly, a minute and dismissible appraisal—is that online communities of literary enthusiasts must cater to a standard system of rating and discussion, which is ultimately too unified, too neutered, to produce any significant sort of change or progress toward a bettered, improved system of writing.

So what? the critics will ask, rightly. On a superficial, practicable level, a unified system is of course is beneficial; a starting point, a foundation for discussions of written art. It is only when we consider the overarching and necessary mechanics of interesting and adaptive literature that we realize a few problems with the normative way of going. A requirement of any art is that it suffers constant innovation, and that it exists not as a static element, but rather as an undulating, oscillating, process; a vital epidermis in which old, defunct works flake away, revealing new, revitalized creations. Literature is no different.

If the Enlightenment hadn’t collapsed under Romanticism, and if Romanticism hadn’t peeled away from the force of Modernism, and afterward, Postmodernism, we’d be left with a single, musty residue of uninteresting, unimproved literature. From such exfoliation, a long and intricate history informs a radically improving aesthetic. Make no mistake; newness comes from charged revolution, not peaceable chatrooms. Even macroscopic conflicts such as the French Revolution demonstrate the power of literature and creativity to affect and desire social change.

The Enlightenment gave way to Romanticism

In cyberspace, however, there is no impetus to create segregated—as in isolated—groups of writers and readers; discussions can remain cozy, as readers entertain tepid debates about Twilight or the newest James Patterson novel. In this way, the standardized system of discussion disables everything but the most basic disagreements about taste and appeal. Message boards concerned with the effectiveness of radicalizing style and literary theory are certainly few and far between—they generally won’t be found on Amazon, or Goodreads, or Smashwords.

Technophiles believe, and not without reason, that relationships founded on the Internet are as strong as those founded in the non-digital world. I actually tend to agree, but with a caveat: The Internet can catalyze authentic relationships, but only insofar as it encourages physical, real-world meet-ups; some will go to great lengths, after forming a friendship online, to meet the analog version of their digital friend. In this case, the Internet has contributed to an authentic relationship, and one that may produce, in the interplay between personalities, something new—however that term may be defined.

Friendships made Beat Literature

An example makes it easier to illustrate my point. I like to think of the Beats: Anyone who’s read Kerouac, or Ginsberg, or Boroughs, or one of the many others of that vast and variable tribe, will attest to the importance of friendship to the literature that group produced. I can say almost certainly that had the Beats been born in a different time, connected by data transfers rather than long, meandering trips across the American west, their revolution would not have come. It seems difficult, given the very apparent and important relationships held by that particular group, to argue that our current community, or more aptly, one founded entirely in the digital, would have fostered a similar collective. On the Road, Jack’s great script, doesn’t go two pages without describing the conflicts and dramas of youthful, defiant friendships, and the implicit effect these tensions have on all of American culture.

If Kerouac hadn’t been whipping through Denver at ninety with Neal Cassady, if he hadn’t frequented the hoary pool halls and blue jazz concerts, if he hadn’t relished and romped in the texture and vitality of physical friendship, what would we have? Probably, an entirely ordinary, able writer. The point being, artistic reimagining doesn’t occur unless something physical is experienced and reacted against.

Online, a global, quasi-Jungian collective unconscious is formed, and we become less prone to (healthy) dissent. As I’ve said before, everything becomes so agreeable; we react to even the most objectionable material by reporting it, or blocking it, or rating it poorly. Because the Internet provides a platform of ultimate control and censure, we need not harbor feelings for comprehensive change; we can simply block what we don’t like, “friend”—the noun as an actionable verb, itself proof of changing times—those we like, and move on. We shape the reality so it fits us.

A great, underrated group.

I’ve departed a bit, swept up in this rant. Originally—and now that we’ve resumed our proper trajectory—I intended this post to highlight a little-known physical collective of writers, who work and manipulate their work in a digital way. The Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) is a collective of French-speaking writers, founded in the sixties by Raymond Queneau, which enforces on literature mathematical constraints of an aleatoric nature so that they may be thrown, algorithmically, into an original aesthetic. After its inception, Jacques Roubau, a popular member of this important group, drafted a series of rules to which all Oulipo members theoretically adhere; the rules ensure that the group’s writing remain fresh, reactive, and polarized to normative, stale literature. By following their strict system, consequences be damned, the Oulipo fundamentally altered the course of literature; every work of electronic literature or conceptualist poetry—the faces of today’s literary avant-garde—find their origins in the Oulipo’s original experimentalist word games.

I’ll discuss a few of the group’s self-imposed regulations, hoping to demonstrate that a physical, analog, segregated collective of writers is essential to a blossoming literary community. If nothing else, it’ll be a look into a peculiar system; a system that, if your perception of literary ‘groupiness’ is of Fitzgerald-and-Hemingway-like friendships, might broaden your horizons by proving the cultural, social and political force of a literary group—you know, so you can start one of your own.

Some of my poorly-scanned examples of Roubaud’s definitions

Roubaud drafted a list of fifty-two guidelines, as replicated in Oulipo Compendium (2008) that describe the group. Though the list is much too lengthy and embellished to discuss in its entirety, I’ll briefly list a few striking characteristics. These exemplify the motive, substance, and pervasiveness of the Oulipo group, and, by extension, other important literary enclaves.

Number six of the list is of particular interest:

6. a) [Oulipo] formed with a view to renewing and re-establishing a literature that has, according to [the founders], deteriorated to an appallingly low level. b) Their motto is: everything done prior to us is worthless; everything done after us can only exist because of us…d) The group thoroughly despises all its contemporaries…f) During its generally brief life, the group, surrounded by enemies, develops earmarks typical of a sect, a mafia, gang, or, more modestly a mutual admiration society.

How wonderfully militant! I’m sure the modern reader will cringe, accusing the Oulipo of despicable arrogance—the sort of response primed by a generation of political correctness and agreeable technology. However, it is only though this ‘artful egoism’—exhibited by Whitman, Rimbaud, Genet, Hemingway, Ginsberg, etc.—that anything interesting is actually accomplished. Notice that, by devaluing previous works as “worthless,” the Oulipo starts clean, able to create the literature that they consider most fitting for their temporal, cultural, and political situation.

Another poor example

Otherwise, the danger—something all too present in today’s era of bestsellers—of mundane writing remains, a hackneyed rehashing of everything that’s come before. Plots are recycled, styles are reused. Only through artistic combativeness can refreshing works be produced; and this, as number six highlights, is the only point of a self-aware literary collective.

Number is nineteen good, too:

19. [The Oulipo] is not an exclusively literary [group]. More precisely, the Oulipo is a literary group composed of fours sorts of members:
(i) the first sort are composers of literature (prose, poetry, criticism), who are not mathematicians;
(ii) the second sort are mathematicians who are not composers of  literature; the members of type
(iii) are composers of literature and [secondarily] mathematicians;
those of type (iv) are mathematicians and [secondarily] composers of literature.

Here, we are given the substance of the group. If, in number six, Oulipo declares all previous literature irrelevant, then, by making a group the nature of which is set out in number nineteen, Oulipo will create relevant literature. Of course, not every literary group needs to be split between writers and mathematicians—or even scientists. The important point is that the group consists of more than just self-processed writers, who, by virtue of their profession, are too encultured in the literary form to make an artistic revolution on their own. If a group is to be more valuable than anything else before it, then it must also be unique.

And what about physical interaction?

27. The Oulipo is bound by rule to meet once a month. At each meeting a strict and immutable agenda is followed, one necessarily including the item “creation”, that is, the presentation and discussion of new constraints.

So, though Oulipo members deal with computational logic, numbers, data, and digital distance, they still meet, in person, at least once a month. Often, as is demonstrated by historical instances, the meetings were quite more frequent and informal. A solid, constant, physical foundation is important to the group’s success.

And finally, in this brief tour, number twenty-nine:

29. A third characteristic the three groups share is potential universality. [The works set forth] are clearly not limited to a single land or tongue. The practice of writing [thusly] is conceivable…in all languages. This fact constitutes a powerful “attractive force” that has here and there been recognized.

Twenty-nine, I believe, is most essential to the makeup of an effective literary collective. Though Oulipo draws stark polarizing boarders between the members of their group and others, they make no such distinctions about the availableness and accessibility of their work. It is clear, that by championing an international, universal literature, the group’s members do not attempt a statement about national, political, or cultural essentialism. Anyone can adopt their precepts, using them in the way that is most fitting, given their respective milieu. A literary group, insular as it may be, must always make literature for the general, worldly public. Anything else reeks of a manipulative divisiveness that runs contrary to everything that literary enterprise stands for.

Draft your own literary constitution

So, in brief, inept summation: A literary group must eschew all aesthetics that precede it; A literary group must be diverse in its membership, and not be restricted only to writers; A literary group must meet, physically, at regular intervals; and a literary group must create a global literature, or at least not restrict their work.

This essay of mine, mostly, is a preemptive and playful strike; I’m well aware that the Internet strengthens as many ties as it dilutes. It has become the foundation for writer’s workshops, online literary journals, writer’s conferences, and more. And, in many ways, on college campuses and certain cities, the literary physical enclave still enjoys a healthy existence. However, I fear—and not unreasonably—for the future. In a culture that honestly adopts the e-reader as a serious improvement (As Tobias Wolff said in a recent talk: “I bought War of the Worlds on my Kindle for about three bucks. I liked it, so I went to the library and took out a copy”) when it is objectively preposterous, I don’t think my warning is unwarranted.

If you adore technology, use it as a means to further revolutionize the writing strewn about you. Find what you don’t like about literature (The regurgitated plot structure? The recycled 19th c. novel form? Stale politics?) and change it. Connect with reading and writing friends, and then meet them in person. Start a group with your own aesthetic, whether it is fantastic or realistic. Be your own apostles. Draft a list of commandments, á la the Oulipo. Revolutionize, in your very intention, our way of doing. Otherwise, we may forever be stuck arguing with trolls about the merits of  brooding vampires.

Christian Harder is an undergraduate writer at Virginia Tech in literature who believes in innovations in form and style. He believes politics, preaching, and political correctness have no place in art and remains wary of the effect large cultural institutions and popular trends have on an otherwise intelligent public. He anticipates attending graduate school come next year. Harder maintains his website Pages to Pixels.

  • Kathleen Kirk

    Fascinating, Christian! I think small groups of interesting/interested people do still meet in person in cafes, etc., and I am glad of it! Used to do it myself in Chicago! I am freaked out by all the “rules,” though, and, yes, by the arrogance, as you point out, in the group you highlight.  I find I try to honor what has come before, look for what is valuable and still working in it, and learn from it to enliven my own work. Also, I read a lot of contemporary poetry/fiction to see how other writers are handling that, too. And, since I am reading the literary magazines and small press publications, I find great innovation and vigor.  In the big press world, I guess I am not reading the bestsellers that trouble you!

  • guest

    Another fantastic article!!! 

  • Excellent article, Christian. I adore how you point out the concrete lines of some types of arrogance within specific literary mediums, and (perhaps) the pretentiousness that comes along with it. There should be a liberation of the mind and imagination when exploring literature. Many are intimidated by the rules within such said groups and find it hard to participate; this gives an interesting perspective in the world of literature, and how we could all be included sans arrogance.