On Freeing Words

by R. M. Berry

Introductory remarks,
Other Words Conference: March 4-5, 2005 Tallahassee, Florida


The Question of Literature

The organizer of this conference, Rick Campbell of Anhinga Press, has asked me to make some remarks about literature, specifically, about what it is, why it’s hard to do, and why it’s so hard to know when you’ve done it. These aren’t just academic questions. I mean, if it paid to be literary, we’d probably never ask them. Microsoft doesn’t go around asking itself what software is, and if you ask Disney executives why family entertainment is hard to do, they’ll think you’re making a joke. Power is self-justifying, or seems so, which means that, as long as you’re on top, you’d rather not worry, “What am I doing here?” Since the second half of the nineteenth century, that is, since Kierkegaard and Marx and Henry James and Freud, it has become a commonplace that only losers have to think. As Nietzsche explained it, human consciousness isn’t a natural phenomenon. It’s a response to a problem, usually to disappointment or frustration, and when consciousness isn’t a response to a problem, then consciousness usually is the problem. Or in Addie Bundren’s unforgettable sentence, “I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth.” So, if rather than think about what you do, that is, about whether it’s really literature or not, you’d rather just do it, then you’re in good company.

And yet, for most of us here this weekend, not asking what literature is would be fatal. The responsibility of being America’s literary alternative, of being the ones who’ve told the center, “You’re nothing I want,” is that we simply must know who and what we are. This is our only resource. If we’re just as unconscious as the faces in the news, then our sole difference from The New Yorker is that we’re smaller, less sexy, and drive ten-year-old cars. What’s the fun in that? Maybe one of you out there really did become a poet because you thought it was the short route to power, but even if by some miracle this happened to you, you’ve got to be an idiot. I mean, writers like us brag about selling out. The only excuse for independent publishers and non-profit literary mags and writers whose books don’t pay the bills is that delusions to which the famous are subject have become for us out of the question. How many times would I have sold my soul if only I’d found a taker? So, bemoan life’s injustice if you want—after all, it’s true, most of you really do publish better books than HarperCollins—but I think we may be forgetting our strength.

Literature and Independence

If these remarks were developed at greater length, I might call them “Literature and Independence.” Independence suggests a political turn, as though writing were engaged in a struggle, a fight to free itself from foreign occupation. Like a government in exile, those on the margins must show that those at the center are usurpers, that literature’s official representatives don’t represent its true state, that our present constitution isn’t anything literature, if self-determining, would write. Our struggle must be fought in the marketplace and the media, in private foundations, federal and regional and local arts agencies, at presses both large and small, in university English departments, at bars and bookstores, and within every writer’s soul. In the same way that no despot has ever stayed in power without the unconscious complicity of the defeated, the thoughtlessness that passes for writing today could never achieve its dominance without your and my collusion. But this just means that literature’s political independence is rooted in a deeper independence, one that is more nearly natural or metaphysical. The reason you should never treat a human like a dog is that a human isn’t a dog. Slavery’s wrong, not because humans prefer freedom, but because, in a very fundamental sense, humans just are free. And asking ourselves what literature is means asking ourselves what sort of freedom is necessary to it. What would it mean to remove the barriers that, in our own speech and writing, prevent us from hearing what we’ve said, that deafen us to the meaning that, merely in sitting down to write, our lives already declare? If we’re to answer such questions we’ll need to become much clearer than we presently are, much clearer than our institutions want us to be, about exactly what enslaves words. And if writers like us don’t do this, who will?

Politics and Writing

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, the question of literature acquired an urgency that it hadn’t known since the Vietnam Era. During the twenty-eight years linking our two national tragedies, the political character of literature and the arts had come to seem a given. Few wanted during this interim to argue that literature transcended differences of class, wealth, race, and gender, to claim that writing was somehow above economic and political considerations, since our recent history had presented too many obvious examples to the contrary. I mean, what about all those white boys in our literature anthologies? However, a paradoxical side-effect of the September 11 attacks was momentarily to unsettle this political obviousness. Against the devastating backdrop of airliners crashing into the World Trade Center, what suddenly seemed obvious was how un-political writing was. Probably like many of you, I returned to my computer on September 12 fighting aftershocks of futility and impotence. My involvement with words seemed a preposterous decadence, an indulgence made possible only by my insulation from the reality of my situation. Bin Laden's condemnations of America’s degeneracy seemed directly applicable, not just to me, but to all who, like me, imagined my political responsibilities could be fulfilled seated at a desk. A week after the bombings, I had to apply for a grant on which FC2, the independent press I direct, depends for its survival. As I worked past midnight preparing grant budgets, I marveled at my obsession with trivialities. In the face of potentially unparalleled global destruction, who really cared whether new forms of writing saw the light of day?

In October of 2001, as our nation was completing its first week's bombardment of Afghanistan, I attended the Modernist Studies convention at Rice University in Houston. I was surprised there by the number of speakers arguing for the political importance of writing that was not explicitly political. Many explained that their presentations were composed in response to the September 11 attacks, and in the ensuing discussions, no one seemed anxious to characterize arguments for literature’s independence as naive or complacent. There seemed a fresh anxiety about the possibility that new and overwhelming forces—capitalism’s global expanse, proliferating technology, an international culture war—might subsume human freedom altogether, and almost the whole conference was wondering, faced with this universal threat, what exactly could the word “literature” still mean?

Marginal Consciousness

What is the significance of this question for us here today? Literature’s soul is staked in the openess of the question of literature. The reason alternative writing exists is to raise it. If lit mags and indy presses and experimental novelists and poets turn into a coterie, an in-bred circle devoted simply to publishing each other, then our soul has been lost, and we have no justification for existing. As a successful and cantankerous friend remarked to me not long ago, "Half the planet has no food. The other half is bombing them. Don't ask me to bleed for writers who can't find a publisher." The political task of writing today continues unchanged from the Vietnam Era: to confront American literature with the consciousness, without which, American literature turns into a fraud. Wherever writing, the media, marketplace, and mainstream have become inseparable, asserting the autonomy of words is a revolutionary act.

Like most of you, I’ve been to more of these gatherings than I can recall without barfing. And while I have no wish to romanticize this one, I do want to say that our theme—“Other Words”—was chosen to be more than just a catchy phrase. Along with my colleagues in the Florida Literary Arts Coalition, Rick Campbell and Richard Mathews of the University of Tampa Press, I hoped this theme would make us mindful of what has been left out, of what we’ve come together to supply. The significance of “Other Words” isn’t merely that there’s more to say, since there’s always more to say, and it isn’t that there’s something too ineffable and precious and ambiguous for anybody ever really to say it. Its significance lies in what has been excluded, in the unconscious of America’s literary mainstream. If there are questions those in positions of cultural authority would rather not acknowledge, then there are questions they don’t have much practice thinking about, questions for which their position is not particularly advantageous. Since Hegel’s famous description of the dialectic of master and slave, we’ve recognized that people excluded from power always possess a consciousness those in power fear. Specifically, the powerless know the powerful better than the powerful know themselves. It’s no accident that the work of so many of our most celebrated writers, although beautiful and moving, often strikes you as comparatively tame. The return of the repressed is the onset of self-knowledge.

It seems to me that for those of us on the margins of our literary culture, all those whose fate as writers is inseparable from that of ‘zines and lit mags and not-for-profit reviews and literary websites and independent bookstores and small presses, we don’t have the luxury of not thinking about what we do. Our natural advantage is that we can’t confuse our object with wealth or fame or glamour or influence, that, as the losers in America’s competition for economic resources and institutional power, we have no choice but to ask: what is this thing I call writing? Knowing what satisfies you is knowing who and what you are, and it has always been the case that, although slavery and material oppression are never overcome simply by consciousness, slavery and material oppression are never overcome without consciousness. Our struggle for independence, for writing that is not everywhere reducible to market forces and predetermined political ends, is nothing less than the struggle for literature itself. That’s why we’re here.

R. M. Berry is author of the novel Leonardo's Horse and the story collections Dictionary of Modern Anguish and Plane Geometry and Other Affairs of the Heart.