Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith, author of Uncreative Writing
The following is an interview with Kenneth Goldsmith, author of Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age:
Q: You teach a course fittingly enough and intriguingly called “uncreative writing.” What do more conventional creative writing courses fail to do? How does your approach differ?
KG: I tell a story in the book of lecturing to a class at Princeton. After the class, a small group of students came up to me to tell me about a workshop that they were taking with one of the most well-known fiction writers in America. They were complaining about her lack of pedagogical imagination, assigning them the types of creative writing exercises that they had been doing since junior high school. For example, she had them pick their favorite writer and come in next week with an “original” work in the style of that author. I asked one of the students which author they chose. She answered Jack Kerouac. She then added that the assignment felt meaningless to her because the night before she tried to “get into Kerouac’s head” and scribbled a piece in “his style” to fulfill the assignment.
My mind drifted to those aspiring painters who fill up the Metropolitan Museum of Art every day, spending hours learning by copying the Old Masters. If it’s good enough for them, why isn’t it good enough for us? Wouldn’t this young woman have ultimately learned more about Kerouac’s style had she transcribed the book rather than try to “creatively” recreate it?
There have been dozens of sophisticated theories over the past century regarding the readymade, appropriation, simulacra and so forth, which have been enormously influential in other media such as the visual arts, music and gaming to name just a few, everywhere, it seems, with the exception of literature which is still enslaved to nineteenth century notions of expression. And the teaching of literature is equally backward. No art student leaves school without having been taught the history and techniques of appropriation, now a classic technique, nor does any music student not know how to sample. The question of whether they decide to use these techniques in their work after leaving school is unknown. But to not expose and train them in the most vital cultural discourses of our time — speaking as an educator — is simply irresponsible.
Q: As you describe in the book, uncreative writing can be traced back to such writers and theorists as Stein, Joyce, and Benjamin as well as artists such as Sol Lewitt and Andy Warhol. However, how does the advent of the Internet give new meanings or possibilities to uncreative writing.
KG: The cultural giants you name lent new sets of permissions to their respective fields, expanding the discourse and vocabularies in radical new ways, appropriate to their time. They are all precursors to the new world we find ourselves in today and their theories — although decidedly non-digital — have helped us to understand our current situation. Specifically in terms of writing these artists have proposed ideas which are transferable to the writing process in terms of materiality, conceptualization, and abundance, three ways the uncreative writer treats language. The normative way of writing is a transparent mode. But there are many other ways of using words. By refusing to adopt a panoply of ways of employing language, we are limiting its possibilities; traditional ways of writing accept a narrow range of uses. Why not expand our relationship to words in a way that encompasses a sophisticated approach to today’s complex technologies and their subsequent impact?
Q: Speaking of Andy Warhol and Sol Lewitt, Uncreative Writing draws upon visual art quite a bit. What can writing, uncreative and otherwise learn from or borrow from visual arts.
KG: 100 years ago, Marcel Duchamp put to rest notions of old-fashioned ideas of originality with his readymades. Since then, a parade of artists have had permission to explore the “uncreative” and the “unoriginal” in a staggering variety of forms, which has led to the creation of our most cutting-edge art. In the 1960s, conceptual art emerged which gave the artist permission not to make objects, but rather to simply propose them. Yet literature has failed to adopt — or even test –such strategies, which have proven so influential over the past century. In the book, I say that we’re at a parallel moment to what happened to painting when the camera was invented. In order to survive, it had to adapt, turn in a direction away from the portrayal of realism, thus the birth of impressionism and abstraction. Writing is facing a set of machines that, similarly has rendered its primary task obsolete: the Internet. In order to survive, it too will have to change its course, though I don’t feel it will go toward abstraction, rather it will be mimetic and replicative, involving notions of distribution of over ideas of content and narrative, what has been driving writing for centuries.
Q: Several of the works you discuss in Creative Writing, not to mention your own poetry, avoid the traditional pleasures afforded by poetry or fiction, namely plot, drama, a conventional authorial voice, argument, originality etc. What is it about these types of works that interests you?
KG: I’ve found in my teaching that the suppression of one’s self-expression to be impossible. No matter what we do, we express ourselves. Hence the act of choosing to reframe something that exists or manage a database full of language will be equally expressive of our interior life, as a conventional memoir or narrative. I feel that as writers we try too hard to forge meaning. When we work with language — the most potent of material, laced with meaning in its tiniest form (the letter, the morpheme) — we need to back off and let the words do their own work. If we permit ourselves, we’ll find we’re delighted with the result.
Q: What are your favorite works of “uncreative writing.”
KG: Although there are dozens of historical works that I’ve found inspiring (from Tristam Shandy to Finnegans Wake), I’ll focus here on works published within the past five years. I adore Simon Morris’s Getting Inside of Jack Kerouac’s Head, which is a retyping of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in its entirety; or Matt Timmon’s “Credit,” where has taken every credit-card application sent to him and bound them into an 800-page print-on-demand book so costly that he can’t afford a copy; Craig Dworkin’s “Parse,” is amazing: he has parsed the text of an entire 19th-century book on grammar according to its own methods, even down to the book’s index; Vanessa Place’s “Statement of Facts,” is very strong and disturbing. Place, a lawyer, re-presents the legal briefs of her day job as poetry in their entirety without changing a word; Derek Beaulieu’s “Flatland” is a graphical writing-through of Edward Abbott’s novel about the fourth dimension; I’m intrigued by the work of the Flarf collective, which is based on grabbing the worst of Google search results: the more offensive, the more ridiculous, the more outrageous, the better; and finally Christian Bök’s “Xenotext,” where he is implementing a poem into a strand of DNA so strong that it will outlast the destruction of the planet.
Q: Finally, Uncreative Writing is your first published book of criticism/theory but you have also published several works of poetry, dj’ed on WFMU, and you run UbuWeb, one of the best resources we have for avant-garde culture. How do you see these various pursuits intersecting with one another? Are they disparate or do they represent an overarching aesthetic or view of art, etc.
KG: All of these pursuits are facets of a one practice. Back in the 1960s, the Fluxus artist Dick Higgins coined the term “intermedia,” which theorizes a disparate panoply of practices and approaches into a coherent whole. The term — and the notion itself — has fallen out of favor in recent years as streamlined artistic practices have resulted in successful market-based careers. Yet the digital environment has revived Higgins’s notion: on our laptop, we are all simultaneously writers (Microsoft Word), video editors (Final Cut Pro), news agencies (Twitter), composers (any number of music software packages), photographers (Photoshop), and so forth. So while my various mode(s) / model(s) of cultural production might’ve seemed strange a decade ago, today it’s quite normal.