Letter 23: AOCYEUBY – Avant-Garde Fiction


Dear David,[1]

In this Letter, I am simply going to paint the context of the part of your conversation with David Lipsky I want to focus on, then do some pretty extensive quoting,[2] then make a few comments on your words.

This part of the conversation, found on pages 36-41, turns to your own reading preferences and their influence on your writing of Infinite Jest.   Most of the conversation – and what I will later comment on – deals with realistic versus avant-garde writing.

You say:

“My tastes in reading lately have been way more realistic, because most experimental stuff is hellaciously unfun to read (36)…

“And I think there’s a reason why a lot of avant-garde stuff gets neglected: I think that a lot of it deserves to be.  Same with a lot of poetry.  That’s written for other people who write poetry, and not for people that read[3] (36)…

“But there’s also, there’s ways that experimental and avant-garde stuff can capture and talk about the way the world feels on our nerve endings, in a way that unconventional stuff can’t (36)…

“…but there’s a certain set of magical stuff that fiction can do for us.  There’s maybe thirteen things, of which who even knows which ones we can talk about.  But one of them has to do with the sense of, the sense of capturing, capturing what the world feels like to us, in a sort of way that a reader can tell ‘Another sensibility like mine exists.’  Something else feels this way to someone else.  So that the reader feels less lonely (38)…

“Because [fiction]’s  the stuff that’s about what it feels like to live.  Instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live (39)…

“…I’m talking about what it feels like to be alive.  And how formal and structural stuff in avant-garde things I think can vibrate, can represent on a page, what it feels like to be alive right now.  But that’s only one thing that fiction’s doing.  I’m not saying it’s the only thing (40)…

“What writers have is a license and also a freedom to sit – to sit, clench their fists, and make themselves be excruciatingly aware of the stuff that we’re mostly aware of only on a certain level.  And that if a writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart the reader is.  Is to wake the reader up to stuff that the reader’s been aware of all the time” (41)

Shoot, where do I begin and what more is there to say?[4] 

Most of what you are saying here has to do with avant-garde fiction and the way it resonates – or sometimes is too “out there” to resonate – with the reader.  And I should preface my comments by saying that probably ninety percent of my own reading over the last twelve to eighteen months would fall into the category of postmodern, or at least contemporary, literature,[5] but the most avant-garde stuff I have read has probably been your short stories.  While what you say mostly pertains to avant-garde fiction, I think that your descriptions simply pertain to good fiction.

Good fiction should push the limits and push the reader’s senses and expectations; it should challenge our preconceived ideas, not just about life but about what fiction is capable of doing.  But it also needs to be relatable.  I’ve written in previous Letters that I believe it is through story that we make sense of the world around us.  Stories help us better understand what it is to be alive and to be human.  Stories are “the stuff that’s about what it feels like to be alive.”  Thank you for reminding us of that as only you could.


[1] I hope you don’t mind me switching to a more personal salutation.  I feel like after more than thirty of these Letters and reading close to a thousand pages of your writing that I am comfortable enough to refer to you by your first name.  And from what I’ve read so far, I feel like you would prefer the more personable greeting.

[2] Hopefully the length of the quotes does not exceed the limits of local, state, and federal copyright laws.

[3] There are a few things I want to say about contemporary and avant-garde poetry, but I don’t think that this is the place for it.  I’ll save it for another time and place.

[4] I’ll do my best to keep it brief as to not detract from your own words here.

[5] The only exception has been the occasional book that I needed to read or reread for a class I am teaching.

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