Laird Hunt on "Nonrealist Fiction"

Laird Hunt is a novelist, former United Nations press officer, and current faculty member at the University of Denver. His novels include The Impossibly, Indiana, Indiana, and the forthcoming The Exquisite. His work has appeared in Conjunctions, Ploughshares, McSweeney's, and Fence. He has lived in Singapore, Tokyo, London, The Hague, and Paris, where he studied at The Sorbonne. Hunt holds an MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University, as well as a black belt in tae kwon do. He and his wife, the poet Eleni Sikelianos, and daughter, the child Eva Grace Sikelianos Hunt, live in Boulder, Colorado, USA.

What follows is the text of a presentation Laird Hunt gave at the 2006 AWP Conference on the "Nonrealistic Fiction" panel I was on with Jeff VanderMeer, Kelly Link, and Brian Evenson. Thanks to Laird for letting me reprint it here.

At the center of Eric Chevillard's 1990 novel Palafox is an eponymous creature who changes shape almost as quickly as the researchers studying his case can describe him. Variously reptile, bird, insect, mammal, none, or all of these things, Palafox baffles description but excites the highest curiosity -- for a time at least -- on the part of the hoard of specialists and interested parties who seek to pin him down. At novel's end, Palafox, who launched his brief existence by pecking his way out of an egg on someone's breakfast table, hastens his own end by cheerfully tearing things around him to shreds. His entourage, horror struck, briefly consider cooking him, disemboweling him, then decide to have him stuffed.

If I start these remarks on nonrealist or irrealist or exploratory or experimental or speculative or just plain innovative literature, by referencing Chevillard's energetic treatise on the wonders and perils of the resolutely/helplessly protean, it is not because in it we may read a metaphorical instancing of the recurrent rise and fall of nonrealist or irrealist or weird literature in the mainstream media and major publishing houses, but also because it might help lay the groundwork for the pair of questions my scattershot use of nomenclature is meant to point to. What is it, this thing that is or isn't getting published, that is or isn't getting its due, that may or may not be better suited than what it isn't to help us unpack and sort out our ontologies, and, what should we call it? I pose the questions in that order, even though I suspect that to do so may be to invert their most common de facto ordering. Indeed, I'm sure many here have heard some less abstracted version of the following, which I would propose is very nearly as representative of exchanges in so-called avant-garde circles as it is of exchanges in the slush pile room at major publishing houses or on the killing floor of major review outlets.

What shall we call this curious thing?

Let's call it experimental/speculative/fabulist/hybrid/cross-genre/

Ah, good, then it must be wonderful.

Or, oh, no! it must be awful.

Or simply, yawn.

Regardless, whatever the thing so-labeled is it gets seen through the fizz of pre-cooked and possibly mis-applied terminology, which is to say, like Palafox, not seen very clearly, or at all. This of course can cause all sorts of problems -- confirmed experimentalists celebrate work that is experimental in label only and traditionalists condemn work as experimental that, if it were carefully considered, in fact differs only quite superficially from the work they might be predisposed to favor. Writing is read and judged according to how neatly it fits its wrapper rather than how insistently a fresh and perhaps evolving response to it is required. This variety of dilemma of course becomes more acute when questions of what gets effectively published and what gets seriously read and reviewed come into play.

We certainly can't do without labels -- appropriately applied they can be terrifically helpful -- but in the midst of an envelope of space-time in which the experimental/anti-experimental debate has become more than a bit shrill (experimental at the moment is either an insult or a rallying cry), it might be wise, at least until the obfuscating dust has been swept away, to adopt a read first name later approach to appraising texts. Because in the meantime, there it sits, this experimental or pomo or surreal or whatever thing, glowering and almost invisible under the masking agents of its probably ill-fitting label, inviting us to take a crack, at some point, at determining what it is.

A large part of the trouble of course in determining just what exactly we are dealing with when we encounter interesting nonrealist fiction is that as with the ever-morphing Palafox, the non-traditional work we find ourselves confronted with when we lift off the labels stands a good chance of being unlike the last work, or last several works, we've read. And such writing, lacking accurate ready-made analogues, is difficult to describe. Nor is it desirable that it be easy. What is wonderful, of course, about writing that defies easy description and tends to baffle broad-stroke categorization and that demands case by case articulation is that readers who grapple with it are obliged to adjust their approach to reading, to adopt new strategies, to shake off whatever dust has settled on the pathways leading from one end to the other of their minds so that fiction, which too much same old thing has frozen, can again growl and click and shimmer and prance.

It is in the appraisal of this thing as it capers or stomps around before us that we may begin to apprehend it, to decide how and where it overlaps with other works we've encountered and in what ways it stands apart. I would propose that there is just enough confusion/laziness in the conversation about what we mean when we talk about nonrealist writing to make useful the evocation of the importance of energetic reading that focuses on the text in question rather than, say, the reputation of its writer, or the magazine or press where it was published. To read under such circumstances could be seen as an interrogative analog to Gertrude Stein's favored "natural" counting -- instead of 1,2,3 we have 1,1,1, with one being different each time. What is this? we ask with ever-shifting emphasis and understanding as we move through a text. A chicken? A bass? A gila monster? A centipede? A Palafox?

I've used the term nonrealist several times, and it is in the description of this panel, but in the long run it seems to me that no favors get done by puffing up the division between realist and all the other varieties of fictional output, not to mention the concomitant privileging of a set of techniques that haven't been around all that long and don't perhaps exert quite as much influence as we often give them credit for. I know that I, for one, have rarely thought of myself as reacting in my work to realism -- to calcification, yes, to artificial boundaries, yes, to unhelpful proscriptions, yes -- but to realism, no. I suspect most people here can confirm from experience that formal stagnation is possible with any kind of writing -- we've all read worn-out exploratory/innovative fiction. This is part of the reason why, though I am in favor of the room to maneuver it offers, I am ultimately uncomfortable with the term nonrealist and find myself taken by the possibilities of the title of the anthology Omnidawn has just put out -- ParaSpheres -- which means, if I read it correctly, beyond the bounds, any bounds, not just those set by the current arbiters of mainstream cultural significance. It seems to me that all writing that has a pulse, that demands individual appraisal, that is as likely to bite you as it is to kiss you, is paraspheric. And that's the kind of protean, brand-spanking-new-for-now category I'd like to live my reading and writing life in.