Lance Olsen’s Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing
Here’s an exercise in inevitability: say “textbook” to a room full of creative writers and teachers of the same, and watch the flinch travel around the room. It’s not the fault of most texts written on the craft of writing— many of them are useful, valuable books. Perhaps we can blame the word textbook itself, and its association with clear instruction, neat endings and tidy rules that can never broken. While many of these are solid and well-constructed, they tend to be safe rather than inspiring. And nearly all textbooks share a common problem: we write in a community, and it’s almost impossible for one voice, however brilliant or articulate, to reflect that multitude of voices. Enter into this space Lance Olsen’s (in collaboration with Trevor Dodge) Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing, and that problem vanishes. Here is a book that can be brought into a classroom, or placed on an individual writer’s desk, without the shudder.
Olsen characterizes Architectures of Possibility as an anti-textbook, and the book successfully resists classic textbook problems while fulfilling its best promises. This is both a handbook on writing (some of the chapters have unquestionably good suggestions and exercises) and a challenge to today’s writers. The book is structured in a series of chapters thematically grouped together, moving from a discussion of the literary marketplace to writing (or not writing) characters to hypertext and new media. Each section includes a series of exercises, reading suggestions, and discussion of the topic at hand. And this is the real pleasure in Architectures of Possibility— while Olsen speaks beautifully and precisely about the places where fiction has been and is moving to, the book is chiefly comprised of a series of interviews with more than 40 innovative writers. Interviewees include Robert Coover, Lydia Davis, Ben Marcus, Carole Maso, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Michael Martone. There’s even a brief, seemingly impossible interview (conducted in 1997) with the late, much-missed Kathy Acker.
Architectures doesn’t give us just one writer teaching, but a multitude of different voices that weave together. The book doesn’t aim to reproduce the experience of sitting for a series of lectures. Rather, its reader listens in on a thrillingly chaotic conversation with some of the most brilliant voices around. The juxtaposition of these interviewees give a sense of how nuanced these topics really are. Interviewees chime together, shift the topic, offer new language, complicate, or even outright disagree with each other. One of the most unexpected joys of Architectures is the possibility of contradiction. After several interviews that discuss the benefits of studying creative writing at a university, Curtis White interrupts the conversation with a blunt disagreement. “M.F.A.s,” he says, “lead to mostly mistaken assumptions about what makes art worthy.” Nothing is unquestioned: not craft or writing habits or the idea of studying creative writing. It’s in these moments of conflict or overlap where Architectures really creates the sense of a dialogue.
But the voice that unites Architectures is Olsen’s, and the book is worth reading for his work alone. Olsen discusses a variety of topics with ease, and moves from discussion of craft to suggestions on how to market and publish your own work. His discussions are always productive, both on a practical and an intellectual level. The exercises that close each chapter are always linked to their wider contexts. For example, in his chapters on materiality and immateriality in writing, his suggestion to “rethink [a piece] as an artist’s book or perhaps artist’s pamphlet” is proceeded not only by a theoretical discussion of the artist’s book itself, but a comprehensive web of the different ways other writers have made their own. Nothing is discussed in a vacuum. Every section includes a series of texts that serve as both reference and invitation to continue exploring a topic. His reading list of “Limit texts,” or a 101 texts that create “contention, conversation, and inspiration,” is the closing section of the book, and urges the reader to go out and pursue the possibilities. It’s not enough to simply read this book, close it, and declare yourself knowledgeable about any kind of fiction, but Olsen urges his reader to keep pursuing these ideas.
As a resource for traditional (or as Samuel R. Delaney names it, normative) writing, Architectures does not fail. From a definition of the Balzacian mode of writing to a description of the Freytag triangle, traditional forms of narrativity are fully discussed and historicized to provide the reader with a solid understanding. Of course, the beauty of this book is that such forms aren’t simply taken for granted— Architectures asks us to engage, to question the normative and to look at it next to more radical approaches to fiction-making. To take nothing for granted. Olsen perhaps describes this project best, saying that “the history of writing has in fact been, not one of dogging conventions, but one of continuously undoing them, experimenting with and beyond them, continuously redefining them, exploring the boundaries of the writerly act, of how we might tell our narratives—and hence ourselves, our worlds—differently than we have and do in order better to capture what it feels like to be alive at this place, this time, in this body, this brain.” Architectures of Possibility is precisely that anti-textbook: it never instructs, but suggests, and gives us room to work. This is a book that any writer could have on her shelves and pick up again and again. Architectures of Possibility doesn’t ask writers to work towards some impossibly ideal text, but to resist, question, fail, re-build, proceed, and return.