Should we have names?
I'm at a nonfiction writers' conference and all the buzz today was about a panel with David Shields that focused on his book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which is a mixed tape of sorts between covers, made up of 618 pieces--about literature, memory, narrative, collage, conventional fiction, forgeries, plagiarism and originality, the flatness of novels, essays--more than half of them written by others than Shields. I'm on page 144 now, and here's part 435, where he's saying that he told his college girlfriend that he wanted a form with only epiphanies. And lo and behold, he's doing it now! I looked in the back and sure enough, the paragraph (#435) was not attributed, so that means it was thought up by Shields and he was the guy in college with the girlfriend. He was on two panels today and i went to the first one, along with about 150 other people who took up almost every seat in the house. It was a panel basically about his book,though there were four other people up there. Two of them read from his book. That seemed like the right idea, to bring out the thoughts and ideas and let them float about the room. The moderator said listening to the duo was exasperating, much like the feeling of reading the book. He wanted narrative. Shields says narrative is a forced form. The world doesn't make sense, so why do we fashion stories that are neat and tidy and full of sense? It's fake, he says. But the whole untidiness of life, I think, makes us yearn for an art that ties things up. At the same time, I don't like writing a regular, straight, linear story. It's not natural for me. And yet am I a hypocrite because I can keep track of a piece of writing better when it has a beginning, middle and end? In the summer after second grade I had the mumps and I read a joke book cover to cover. That is one epiphany after the other, if you can consider a punch line an epiphany.
People were up in arms about originality and attribution because in the galleys (which go to reviewers) the book had no attributions at all. Shield didn't want them, but his publisher's lawyers said he had to have them. The quotes are all Google-able, he said. And besides, his act of curating was an original, idiosyncratic act, and so he is the author. This was a question he'd been asked before. If there's a tyranny of the individual as he says, and we are too entrenched in the idea of the Author, then should he carry his argument further and say that no one's name should be attached to any creation? I asked this question, and I said that he is a revolutionary against capitalistic culture because we are so wedded to the idea of individuality. I imagined our libraries having card catalogs that list books by subject and title only, though of course there aren't physical card catalog drawers and cards any more, everything's on line. In recent Peanuts comic strips (or reprints that have appeared recently in the Tribune), there are a couple of new kids who don't have names but instead have numbers. I forgot the reason. In junior high health class, the teacher asked what we would do to make a stranger remember our names, and a girl named Kristy said she didn't care if someone remembered her name, and that was a revolutionary thought. She just wanted the person to remember her as a person.
Our names don't actually exist, do they? They are a construct. Just like a number is an abstract thing, a collection of sounds and a written symbol to stand for quantity.
I went to dinner with three very smart people, who I will panel with (a verb?) on Saturday and one of them, T, said, We are at the end of the age of reading.
T wrote a very smart review of Reality Hunger in Agni online, which you can read here.
I had volunteered to blog about the conference at www.triquarterly.org and tonight I spent about three hours on three paragraphs. It is as if different URLs are different rooms. I didn't know who I was in the TQO "room." I can be myself in my Cancer Bitch room. But both places are really no where. Just inside the computer, the way the tiny musicians would play songs from inside the radio, that summer when I had the mumps.
We are here at this conference in Iowa City because we are writers and we all want to make a name for ourselves. We want to be remembered. It is threatening, it is the abyss, it is chaos, to think of not attaching our names to our work. Our work being that which comes from our brains and is then shaped. Or we can sigh and let go and say, we will be immortal because we are made up of atoms, which are immortal, and our atoms keep joining the atmosphere so that we are part of everything on earth, so we can never really die, and all the work we create goes from us to the universe, and stays always hanging around the universe, going in and out of other people's brains, and that it is folly to attach a name to the thoughts that flow like that.
My friend K says it is a law in Iowa that parents can wait a whole year after a child's birth to give it a name.