Making it New: Some Thoughts on Innovation

Lisa Harper

A journalist friend of mine argued recently over dinner that the innovations he cares most about, those that have had the most relevance to his writing sensibilities (he is deeply concerned with the sound of language, the pleasure of syntax, the shock of an image, and the wit inherent in an original turn of phrase, as much as he is with the journalist's perennial search for the fresh angle, the new story), are those that stem from an attempt to get nearer to the truth of speech. Hemingway, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, he said. They didn't see the language they spoke in the literature they knew, and they set out to set it down. In the opening pages of Tropic of Cancer, Miller wrote, (and this my friend recited from memory), "This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty . . . what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse." In fact, I think this Miller sounds a little like Walt Whitman, who wrote:

Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas'd and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil'd and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured,

Whitman, too, was accused of obscenity. Yet it's significant that both writers were first dedicated students of their craft. Whitman was a journalist, and self-educated, but he read voluminously, and he regularly attended opera and lyceum lectures. Miller, himself, admitted in a 1962 interview that his early work took on "all the tones and shades of every other writer that I had ever loved. I was a literary man, you might say. The literary had to be killed off. Naturally you don't kill that man, he's a very vital element of your self as a writer, and certainly every artist is fascinated with technique. But the other thing in writing is you." Like Whitman, Miller had to reject what he saw as the conventions of "art" and traditions of the "book" as received and familiar forms. He had to write—or sing—the song of himself and no one else's. But first, he had to know what those traditions and conventions were.

My friend also cited those contemporary writers whom he affectionately termed the Vulgarians—Dave Eggers, David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs—and argued that one of the things they are trying to do is write the way a generation now sounds. You can prefer the Vulgarians or not, but they have undoubtedly given us something new—the particular voice of a particular generation rendered in a particular style.

David Lodge calls this kind of narration, which aspires to the quality of the "spoken" rather than the "written" word, skaz—from the Russian word suggesting "jazz" and "scat." But Lodge is also quick to point out that such narratives are in fact deeply artful and consciously employ literary devices (repetition, slang, exaggeration, syntactic manipulation, etc.) which make written language appear to be spoken. Such language may appear "vulgar" or "vernacular" but, at its best, will be consciously crafted, will have an art and poetics as studied as any more "traditional" writer—many of whom, like Hawthorne or James, were deeply innovative in their time. Even Zora Neale Hurston might be considered a practitioner of this kind of innovation, since she championed the imaginative and figurative richness, the linguistic virtuosity of the speech of rural African American communities she knew and studied as an anthropologist. It was a community and a speech seen nowhere in the literature of her time, but which accounts for much of the linguistic brilliance and emotional depth of her work. Hers was an innovation which has earned her an enduring place in American letters, but which also contributed to her decades of obscurity. But this is where the matter of innovation gets murky. For successful innovation can never simply be a rejection of traditional forms and conventional language.

For instance, we might consider (as my friend and Lodge do) that the "original" Vulgarian is J.D. Salinger, whose narrator Holden Caulfield speaks in the teenage vernacular of his moment. Yet Caulfield's roots are, of course, deeply planted in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, which was itself a masterful bid to write in a new, colloquial American voice. Indeed, writers from Hemingway to Russell Banks have cited Twain as the "true" beginning of American literature. And here it becomes unclear whether we are in the realm of tradition, or innovation, or, more likely, a tradition of innovation. At moments like these, it is easy to see innovation as the loyal if wild child of tradition, and we can also begin to understand how innovation becomes tradition.

But, of course, setting down an original voice is only one of the ways in which writers innovate. In attempting to represent an original view of language and experience, writers also confront problems with received forms, with linguistic and generic conventions that fail to represent accurately or fully the truth of their experience, or which are inadequate to their material. These formal problems might manifest on the level of the sentence. Gertrude Stein, for instance, wrote:

The comma was just a nuisance. If you got the thing as a whole, the comma kept irritating you all along the line. . . . So I got rid more and more of commas. . . . The other thing which I accomplished was the getting rid of nouns.

Stein was not interested in mangling prose for the sake of mangling, but because the conventional sentence, with its ordered syntax and rule-governed punctuation, was woefully insufficient at conveying her sense of time as a continuous present—a moment after a moment after a moment. Whether you think Stein's experiment succeeds or fails, the crucial thing is to know that her innovation sprang from a deep and studied understanding of the problems of the conventional form and use of the sentence, of the limitations and possibilities of language.

These kinds of problems manifest on the level of structure and form, as well. Take, for instance, Sarah Orne Jewett's small, eccentric masterpiece of prose, The Country of Pointed Firs (1896). Not quite novel, nor yet a collection of short stories, essayistic in its impressionistic and peripatetic approach to its subject (but nevertheless fictional), it documents in exquisite, lyrical prose a season in a rural community in Maine. The book is inhabited by characters and steeped in episode—certainly things happen to these people—but the book contains no plot nor offers any conventional conflict or character arcs. Indeed, it is a book so quiet that it can be hard for the modern reader to identify it as interesting, much less as innovative. Yet in several ways the book represents altogether new uses of fiction. In its meditative, reflective tone, its reportorial, even anthropological instincts, its unfailing and unflinching look at the marginal, lives of women, its celebration of women's knowledge (of children, the land, the community), its resistance to conventional notions of plot and story, Pointed Firs offers the reader a deeply innovative narrative. Heavily indebted to the regional or "local color" writing so popular at the turn of the nineteenth century, her book still reads as something new and beautiful. Indeed, Jewett's advice to the young writer, Willa Cather, is revealing:

Write it as it is, don't try to make it like this or that. You can't do it in anybody else's way—you will have to make a way of your own. If the way happens to be new, don't let that frighten you. Don't try to write the kind of short story that this or that magazine wants—write the truth, and let them take it or leave it.

Jewett's advice is instructive, if deceptive in its simplicity. For to write it is as it is, suggests that the writer has an original vision of the world, and to write the truth but not in anybody else's way, suggests that innovation emerges from the problem of representing this truth accurately in received language and forms. If Jewett's fiction didn't (& still doesn't) look like conventional fiction, it is because she needed to find a new form, a new mode of narration, and an innovative method of handling character in order to show the truth of the world she knew. I doubt she set out consciously to "make it new" as much as she set out to maintain a scrupulous fidelity to the truth of her reality. And since literature is composed of language and form, these elements necessarily bent to the original force of her mind. She didn't discard convention so much as she transformed it.

So, I think that much of what we take to be innovation emerges from the writer's inability to represent her truth in the forms and with the language that she has inherited. To put it another way, writers tend to innovate when they finally, fully understand the limitations of traditional language and conventional forms. When they see that their way of understanding the world cannot be represented in any of the old ways. When they look everywhere for mothers and fathers and find none. So I think that writing is not "made new" simply for the sake of newness, but because a deep and abiding problem confronts the writer. From this point of view, convention makes innovation possible. Tradition is the doppleganger of innovation, the shadowy double that haunts the margins of even the most experimental work of art.

Sometimes, those works that seem on the surface to adhere to traditional, received forms, can be among the most challenging, the most deeply innovative. Clarence Major's recent book, Come by Here: My Mother's Life, is one such book. Major, also an accomplished painter, has been called "possibly the most celebrated postmodernist African American writer," and his works include twelve books of poetry, nine novels, as well as works of fiction and criticism. He has penned radically experimental works, like Emergency Exit and My Amputations, as well as more seemingly conventional novels, like Dirty Bird Blues and One Flesh. The breadth of his voice, and the depth of his experiments with form and language are astonishing.

On first glance, Come by Here appears to be a rather conventional memoir: the story of a young woman of mixed race (also the author's mother), who "passes" for "white" in the early part of the century. The narrative voice is colloquial, and the story takes the form of Inez telling her the events of her life to her writer-son. The narration feels easy and familiar and clearly owes much to the traditions of oral storytelling. Inez's story is at times dramatic, always compelling but conventional in its story arc. Taken at face value, the book is a straightforward document of an (extra)ordinary life.

And yet, the book is not a memoir in the ordinary sense of the word. First, it is a first person memoir, but the narrator of the book is not the author. So who is really telling this story? The narrator is at once a real person and a linguistic construct, and this symbiosis between writer and narrator raises challenging questions about the relationship between memoir and fiction, the writer and his subject. Second, the book aspires to the quality of speech, and it achieves this goal magnificently, capturing all the nuances and colloquial phrases of Inez's voice. But it is not a record of her speech, but a representation of it. Third, Inez's story rejects the conventions of the "tragic mulatto," a fictional figure who pervades the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, and is Inez's fictional contemporary. Yet Inez not only fails to repeat the conventions of her plot, but resists her psychology as well. Thus, Major quietly launches challenges to both the form and content of received conventions.

So while Come by Here may be first and foremost a compelling story, it is also a formal and linguistic experiment. Dedicated to telling fact, it is also a book that exists primarily between its covers, in a language and in a form that creates the illusion of reality. And, ironically, it is this illusion that allows Major to record the truth of his mother's life. "I chose the memoir form," he writes in the preface, "because it allowed a forum for the truth. In it, the larger truth of her experience could be filtered from the facts and preserved in a way not available in either [the novel or the biography]." This ability of the book to inhabit and transform tradition, to complicate a genre as familiar and established as the memoir, is, I think, the mark of true innovation. It is also a sign of a writer who has mastered his craft, and who knows how to make the same old notes sound absolutely new.