Thursday, April 2, 2009

Pamela Takefman introduces Joan Didion

I think I am a strange candidate to be up here for this intro- duction. During the weeks we in the Writer’s House Fellows seminar talked about the work of Joan Didion, Al and I stood on opposite sides of a barely invisible boxing ring, fighting. We were fighting about how to read Didion’s works and her presence within them. Can we classify what she does as journalism or non-fiction? Is Joan Didion on the outside or the inside? Why is she always there? The whole class got involved, Molly always on my side, Jen on Al’s. One time, Emily went as far as to call Joan Didion optimistic. The whole class went wild. The word narrative became our own “n” word, an overused and underdefined taboo, a word that lost its original meaning, let alone a clear attachment to Didion’s work. I still fought. I might have been the loudest in the class, so unpopular by the final week I felt that I had to bring homemade banana chocolate chip cake in to help my social status. But before and after the snack, I was still pretty unrelenting, just outright confrontational.

But perhaps that’s exactly why I am here to present Ms. Didion, someone unrelenting and confrontational in her own right. I admit, I am terrified to be up here, for I know that even after this brief introduction, Ms. Didion will be able to read me better than I could read myself. Take this from her story “Where the Kissing Never Stops” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She writes: “Joan Baez was a personality before she was entirely a person, and, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense that hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not to be. The roles assigned to her are various, but variations on a single
theme. She is the Madonna of the disaffected. She is the pawn of the protest movement. She is the unhappy analysand. She is the singer who would not train her voice, the rebel who drives the Jaguar too fast, the Rima who hides with the birds and the deer. Above all, she is the girl who ‘feels’ things, who has hung on to the freshness and pain of adolescence, the girl ever wounded, ever young. Now, at an age when
the wounds begin to heal whether one wants them to or not, Joan Baez rarely leaves the Carmel Valley” (40-1).

I evoke this passage not to talk about Joan Didion, counter-counter-culture icon of the 1960s, who remained cool despite bringing out the bogus aspects of the revolution. For me, Joan Didion’s icon-status extends beyond the sixties. I admire the perceptive, precise, incisive Joan Didion, cool because of the places she got into and the words she heard people use. She always seems to be there when there is a story on the brink of creation. I’m thinking about some more recent writing too, Salvador, Miami, the Political Fictions. Her most recent stuff in The New York Review of Books really
resonated with me: in the Obama generation, where millions of campaign dollars were spent marketing towards me, she pinpointed exactly what his campaign did to win us over. She wrote: “Irony was now out. Naiveté, translated into "hope," was now in. Innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized. Partisanship could now be appropriately expressed by consumerism.”

Joan Didion is strong enough to be critical of what is popular, to read nuance into what is meant to be accepted at face value.

And while there is rarely a hint of fear, rarely a mention of size difference or sex difference in her work, we always have her, Joan Didion, “our Joan” as she is sometimes referred to on our email listserv. She is present in everything we read. She even shared her psychiatric diagnosis in “The White Album.” We always have her, confronting the unanswerable, presenting the black and white images in precise detail and never compromising on a shade of grey, reminding us that in the end, she doesn’t know. She has found the subtleties, the way certain pieces may or may not fit together, but leaves it to us to assume the capital T Truth.

That can explain why we spent our classtime fighting. We were confronted with Joan Didion’s inconclusive conclusions about underwater, murky, “mudgy” subject matters, and then given a choice, a choice we couldn’t agree upon because there was nothing to agree upon. You don’t have to write to advocate, Joan Didion seems to say. Just to try to make sense of what is given.

When we got to A Year of Magical Thinking, the fighting stopped. Reading chronologically, we in the Writer’s House Fellows Seminar were able to read that book within the scope of the rest of her writing, comparing its language to that of A Book of Common Prayer. The book necessarily brought us closer together, forcing us to come to terms with what we brought to the reading. We were not fighting anymore because here it was, the most unanswerable question of all, death, and our Joan took us with her on her personal confrontation.

It is with great pleasure that I introduce to you the second Kelly Writer’s House Fellow of 2009, Joan Didion.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

the dreamwork of mourning

A passage from Tammy Clewell's essay on Freud's essay "Mourning and Melancholia" (1917).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Coover snack, Coover CAVE demo

Vince Levy's introduction to Robert Coover

It takes a course like the Writers House Fellows seminar to discover a favorite last-line author, and after a month spent reading his works I found one in Robert Coover. The transparent protagonist of his short story ‘The Invisible Man’ is left with the understanding that “The future was no easier to see than he was.” In “Sir John Paper Returns to Honah-Lee”, a sequel to the Puff the Magic Dragon story, an elderly Sir-John faces another chapter of adventure with the conceit that “If he joined the heroes he would probably be spared to live another day. But what use would that be if the dragon in him were no more?”

I’ve also discovered that the last line of Coover's stories are rarely their end. While first reads gratify with spot-on pastiches of Americana and a harmony of language that makes it feel as though we should be reading Coover in stanzas and not by the page, the meanings of these stories proliferate beyond their conclusions.

Often in class our group would only locate these meanings after balancing our reading experience with a measure of the book’s conceptual project. For we Coovarians - as Al now starts his emails to our group - have come to consensus, the common project across Coover’s career is the use of experimental narrative forms that call attention to the constraints of conventional fictions and raise questions about the stories we tell each other. In class discussions we’ve had to remind ourselves that Coover’s hand is ever-present in his work, whether it’s the hand that vantriliquizes Richard Nixon in the Public Burning, the hand that writes J Henry Waugh write the Universal Baseball association, or the hand that stacks a deck of 13 cards for the reader to shuffle and read in any order in the short story ‘Hearts Suit.’

Part of what’s been so rewarding about reading Coover has been training ourselves to read in two-modes simultaneously – for the sheer pleasure of the linguistic surface and for a richer understanding of the narrative possibilities that operate below.

I’ve met many authors who work to pull their readers into their stories but few who can keep them inside and out, as Coover does, at once. As a result, Coover’s authorship is inseparable from the meanings assemble of his tales, and the metafictional questions Coover raises reminds us constantly of the author who has put this story to paper, to type, or to the electronic screen.

We should add a forth dimension to this chain of writing modes thanks to Coover as well - the story put to Cave. Two weeks back I visited Professor Coover at Brown University and explored his electronic writing program, the centerpiece of which is a 3D simulator called the Cave where stories are told through words, images and sounds that leave the screen and travel in three dimensions across an x-y-z axis. We’ve all seen the golden scrolling intro texts to the Star Wars movies – imagine standing inside the stream of words and you have a bit of an idea of what the Cave can do. In one simulation Coover put me on I soared through a medieval castle and braced myself for impact as the Cave propelled me through a wooden gate; Coover, standing by my side, chuckled at the effect.

Reading Coover in the classroom has been much the same – startling forms sprung forth from the page, and always the hint of the magician beside you grinning. So while I will ask you now to welcome tonight’s speaker for his first visit to the Kelley Writers House, really he’s been here all along. Ladies and gentleman I give you the first Writers House Fellow of 2009, Robert Coover.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

new kind of reading, c. 1992

From Robert Coover "The End of Books" (June 21, 1992, NYT:
As Carolyn Guyer and Martha Petry put it in the opening "directions" to their hypertext fiction "Izme Pass," which was published (if "published" is the word) on a disk included in the spring 1991 issue of the magazine Writing on the Edge:

"This is a new kind of fiction, and a new kind of reading. The form of the text is rhythmic, looping on itself in patterns and layers that gradually accrete meaning, just as the passage of time and events does in one's lifetime. Trying the textlinks embedded within the work will bring the narrative together in new configurations, fluid constellations formed by the path of your interest. The difference between reading hyperfiction and reading traditional printed fiction may be the difference between sailing the islands and standing on the dock watching the sea. One is not necessarily better than the other."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Coover at Brown

Vince Levy's special report, written after visiting Robert Coover at Brown:


Hypertext was born at Brown University. It was here that Ted Nelson developed HES – or Hypertext Editing System – in 1976. HES introduced the first digital links, allowing electronic readers to navigate between multiple texts with a mouse click. This was the start of hypertext, which in its most basic definition is text that is not constrained to a linear (or page) structure. What started with links between digital documents has expanded to text that includes sounds, graphics, videos, or as Coover has pioneered, text that can be projected in three-dimensions in a virtual reality simulator.

Ted Nelson’s development of hypertext attracted Coover to Brown, where in 1989 Coover taught the first-ever hypertext writing course. This was prior to HTML and Internet browsing as we know it, and students wrote on IRIS Intermedia, a Unix-based system of permissions and user groups that allows linking to otherwise read-only documents. Project size was limited to 240kb floppy disks, and as Coover told me himself, the whole process was very “clunky and mechanical.”

Coover has been teaching hypertext (also called “electronic writing,” or “writing digital media”) classes at Brown ever since, responding each year to the rapidly expanding abilities of digital media – HTML, the Internet, greater computing speeds and memory. Many of Coover’s undergraduate and grad-student apprentices are now leading hypertext authors/teachers across the U.S., with many works written in Coover’s classes now considered paradigm hypertext works: Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, Judy Malloy’s Its Name Was Penelope, Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl.

Coover told me that he was drawn to hypertext because its ability to break linearity was similar to his experiments to do so in page writing. Although Coover had collaborated with students on a few hypertext projects, he mainly chooses to facilitate the rise of a generation a electronic writers and not participate.

Coover believes that literary genres are determined in-part by the technology with which we are able to write, and that new types of writing will be born of the electronic writing generation. Kids who are 12 and 13, Coover told me, will grow up to be the first generation purely accustomed to reading and writing electronic texts. And who is to say that they won’t produce a new literary genre just as Cervantes, one of the first generations to be raised with bound-books in the house, produced the novel.

I’ll leave this section with a few quotes by Coover on hypertext from a 1999 talk at a digital arts and culture conference called “Literary Hypertext: The Passing Of The Golden Age.” This talk really helped me understand Coover’s creative project, the experimental behavior of what we’ve read in class, and most importantly where Coover’s literary values are located. The entire talk is very compelling, so if you’re interested I recommend checking out the rest:

“These pioneer narrative hypertexts explored the tantalizing new possibility of laying a story out spatially instead of linearly, inviting the reader to explore it as one might explore one's memory or wander a many-pathed geographical terrain, and, being adventurous quests at the edge of a new literary frontier, they were often intensely self-reflective.”

“As many of my student electronic writers remarked, we were able to read and write in the way that we think, creating and/or accessing the various elements of a narrative the way one accesses the fragments of one's life story held in memory, say, or the way that one backpacks through a strange country, making hypertext not the latest fantasy tool, but a kind of neorealism. And, once we got used to it, there was no reason we could not achieve that sort of focused, deeply imagined, "lost" reading experience we so treasured in books — finding, as the hyperpoet Stephanie Strickland has said, "an individualized, meditative space, of the kind that supports mental doodling, rest, quiet exploration in a safe space, as books were wont to give us."

“And will the new literature look like the old literature? No, it will not. Changing technologies continually reshape the very nature of the artistic enterprise. The dominant narrative forms of our times, the novel and the movie, for example, would not have been possible without the technologies that created, not so much the forms themselves, as the new audiences toward whom artists directed their endeavors, some translating the classic modes into the new technologies, others exploring the new technologies for new forms appropriate to them. This emergent expressive environment provided by the computer and the WorldWide Web is impatient with monomedia and simple self-enclosed sequences.”


The Cave is a 3D modeling program at Brown. It was developed by the science department in 1998 to study molecular structures of things like snake venom from various perspectives. Immediately Coover wanted in, but it took a few years to convince the administration to let a writer play with one of the university’s most expensive science tools. But Coover was the first to propose using sound and text in the space, and the initial work he created with students in 2000 has guaranteed his spot in the Cave since.

After many years of writing code and developing modeling programs with engineering students, the Cave now has an undergraduate writing class in its third year. It’s taught by Coover and John Cayley, a British hypertext poet that Coover brought to Brown’s staff. Their students are necessarily a mix of music studies, engineering, writing and art students, and their collaboration is essential to building a Cave narrative, which draws on all of these fields. (When sharing projects, one girl in the course had hole-punched dots from every flavor of Orbitz gum boxes, then scanned them so that they float through the Cave in a sort of galactic stream. “This one’s from RISD” Coover whispered to me.)

The actual Cave itself is a four-walled box (no rear or ceiling). Four projectors which hang in the ceiling above project images onto giant mirrors, which reflects them onto the Cave walls from behind. Rear-projection looks the same on-screen as if projected from the front, and the reason for bouncing the rear-projection off of mirrors is to save space – otherwise, the projectors would need to be about ten yards away from the Cave’s walls in either direction (the basic effect is that you’re surrounded by three TVs and standing on the forth). I thought it was quite interesting to see that Cave narratives are given through projectors and mirrors given the frequency with which these objects, and the metaphor systems associated with them, have appeared in Coover’s writing.

Inside the Cave users wear electronic 3D goggles that create a three-dimensional effect by rapidly opening and closing each lens (unlike the red/blue 3D glasses out of the cereal box). Wearing them in the Cave puts everything projected into three dimensions, as if you were given a first-person perspective in a video game. The room is now an X-Y-Z coordinate grid where words, objects, and even Orbitz dots float freely about, leap from the walls, and even pass through you. In a demo Coover put me in of a tour through a medieval castle I instinctively braced myself as I smashed through a wooden gate.

The Cave also features a master set of 3D goggles that have a motion sensor attached. This motion sensor traces the user’s gaze and movements throughout the Cave so that the virtual world responds to your position. Thus, you can “walk” through and explore a virtual world, or pick up an object up and interact with it.

To get a better idea of how these optics work, here’s a video online of a girl viewing “Screen,” a Cave narrative scripted by Coover, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Sascha Becker, Josh Carroll, Shawn Greenlee, and Andrew McClain.

At first the narrative’s text is projected onto the Cave’s walls without effect, in two-dimensions, as it is read aloud. But about 1/3 of the way through the narrative the words fly off of the walls into the room, and the user is able to grab and re-direct them using a motion-sensor glove. Even though you can see the words flying about in this video, keep in mind that you’re still only viewing this in 2D – to the girl in the Cave with the glasses on, each word is a giant 3D object, plummeting towards her in the open space of the room.


Coover describes the Cave-writing experience as most akin to script-writing. Throughout my time with him Coover discussed hypertext and Cave writing in opposition to page-writing, and his distinction between the two as forms of literature was clear.


On day two of my Brown visit I sat-in on Coover’s Exemplary Ancient Fictions course. Here, students read and analyze the “rules” of various types of ancient fictions – dream narratives, myths, creation stories, etc - and then workshop their own creative projects within these genres. When I arrived, students were sharing their dream narratives and discussing the Gilgamesh myth. Coover kept the lights off and played the Métamorphoses Nocturnes symphony to set the dream mood as class began.

With each Exemplary Fiction genre, students compile a collaborative list of the rules and characteristics of the genre, and then critique their own creative work according to how it obeys these structural limitations. As with hypertext, Coover constantly contrasts these genres with contemporary writing and authorship in discussion.

The exercises teach students how and why it’s okay to break the rules of contemporary writing, or as I’ve read Coover say in an interview, “a good tale told well.” For Coover, rule-bending and structure-breaking is acceptable when it creates and maintains its own logic.

“I’ve learned my understanding of realism from Kafka,” Coover said at one point in class discussion. “What’s real is what emerges from your metaphor as its reality. It’s not an imitation of the world itself but working through whatever metaphor you’ve created – how to keep it real … an unlikely set of elements that are held in check by a kind of realism.”

Coover ended class with another lesson on the malleability of genre by reading a Kafka parable, “Leopards In The Temple”

Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in artificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.


As I mentioned in my email, Coover has brought an international writer-in-exile to Brown under fellowship every years since 2002, starting with a visit Salman Rushdie. The writers get a year with scholarship, housing and health care to produce whatever they like. Past fellows have included French, Arabic and African authors. Coover introduced me to this year’s fellow, Ma Thida, from Burma. She’s completed a novel since arriving in October and hopes to finish two more by the end of the Fellowship. Coover is currently organizing a literary festival for her in April with other Burmese/international writers and a few of his buddies like Don DeLillo. Perhaps the festival will coincide with an end-of-the semester classroom visit to the Cave?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

history of the future of narrative (video)

Click here for a link to the video recording of Robert Coover's recent talk in Europe on the history of the future of narrative.