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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 11/24/2003
Volume 2, #102

Today my mind has been fiercely preoccupied with a single word, a word so encrusted with meanings, alternative purposes and dubious implications that I've decided, once for all, to come to grips with it. The word is "literary" and what set me off was coming across a web page for Dalkey Archive Press, proclaiming itself as the effective arbiter of what constitutes literature.

Among its guidelines for submissions, Dalkey offers the following:

"Please keep in mind we publish primarily literary fiction, and rarely publish poetry, criticism, or non-fiction. Additionally, we place a heavy emphasis upon fiction that belongs to the experimental tradition of Sterne, Joyce, Rabelais, Flann O'Brien, Beckett, Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes."

This is a particularly interesting list of authors who have in common only their mutual distinctiveness. That is, they are so different from one another, that there is simply no way of forming any kind of pattern that might fall into a specific category, such as "literature". Is Dalkey then saying that being different is their chief desideratum? I don't think so. I'm sure the folks at Dalkey would be only too well aware of T.S. Eliot's comment in his great essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" in which he points out that difference, Eliot uses the word "novelty" as only the amount of difference one exhibits over one's predecessor, hardly a virtue in itself. Indeed, Eliot was a great supporter of tradition. That means simply that the values of any art, including literature, must rest within a particular canon. I have read, in fact, was once deeply immersed In the writings of everyone of the names Dalkey lists above. I remember Djuna Barnes particularly because she had been singled out by Eliot himself as representing all of those traditional values he praised in literature. So what's going on?

The problem is, as I've often pointed out in these columns before, that literature is all really part of a tradition. Yes, a canon. Within the criteria established by the canon lies any kind of claim to be literary. Sound confusing? Actually all the arts have always been that way. Except that among the early twentieth century writers cited by Dalkey, it was not the church that set the canon. Nor was it any kind of Ruskinian aestheticism. What was it? According to Dalkey, it was the fact that they were all so different that there could be no imitating them without stepping outside the bounds of literature.


They couldn't mean anything that silly. I personally think they were trying to cite examples of good literary work, something almost impossible to do when you don't have some kind of critical canon. So really, the Dalkey people are very daring, and much to be praised.


Well, now, it's hard to say because I'm not familiar with the works they've recently added. Would they now, in this twentieth century that was ushered in by an entirely new kind of literary style, would they ever consider anything like comics? Oh, I don't mean all that pop superhero stuff. Something more like, say, Charlie Brown who, as I've shown in earlier columns, introduced to literature a personality like Snoopy who was, if nothing else, the most concise literary and philosophic statement about transcendence ever offered anywhere? It was a problem for Kierkegaard; it was a problem for the French existentialists (Sartre missed the significance of it completely and wound up with La Nausée, despair) and it was a problem that I wrestled with, effectively I think, in my first novel, The Blowtop (Dial 1948), see especially pp. 146-147 in the second edition by Olmstead Press.

But why am I going on about all this? For one thing, a comics site, especially a "high brow" one like this, is regarded by a lot of people as literature. And why not? That's what I write, literature. Those of you who are really hip might look at just the opening page of The Blowtop and see Djuna Barnes written all over it. That is, in the manner of Djuna Barnes, never, never a mere similacrum, that is. No, it's really original. And just those opening paragraphs. Absolutely!

And then, there's one thing more. I think the folks at Dalkey should loosen up a bit and have a look at this column over the last three years. Not because it's all great literature, because you can't do that with a weekly column, but because it's exploding with literary gems. And also, because if they extend themselves a little bit, they might discover literature in places they never before imagined. For example, did I ever mention that among my novels is a kind of sequel to The Blowtop, but it's probably the most definitive book on the abstract expressionist art movement that shifted the art world's center of gravity from Paris to New York in a single generation. It's about when art became action, became the speech that through people like Pollock and DeKooning and Hans Hofmann and Robert Deniro (le pere), and dozens of others managed somehow to bring art and literature together creating for an entire generation a movement known as "the beats". And it started with literature, with The Blowtop. At least, they say I'm the father of the beats. Hard to be precise about these things. And, oh yes, the novel about the abstract expressionists, it's called NO SUCH MIRRORS. I knew them all so well.

Anyway, if anyone of you at Dalkey, like you, Editor Chad Post, want to look into this further, just contact me here at my Round Table. Or email me directly at

We might have a lot of interesting stuff to discuss.

<< 11/17/2003 | 11/24/2003 | 12/01/2003 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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