How to Make a Book
I’ve been thinking about how to make a book. I’m interested in the space and form of the physical book, in what Lisa Robertson describes as “the inwardness of the codex,” in the codex book as a series of folds, multiplied insides. I like the codex, its invitation to silent reading, its open secrets. I’ve been thinking, though, mostly, about the space and form of the language that goes into the book, the language that makes a book. If I were to encounter the language without the codex—encounter it as a scroll, as loose notes in a box, as a document on a computer desktop—would I think, “This is a book?” What would make it so? What language is a book? Rosmarie Waldrop tells us that Edmund Jabes claimed “to write in a new genre, ‘the book.’” He was always writing “the book that all his books are fragments of. As it in turn is an infinitesimal part of The Book, the totality, the universe that never surrenders.” I am drawn to the idea of the fragment. Is a fragment a part of a ruined or unfathomable, unsurrendering totality? Is the whole the fragment implies itself incomplete? I am drawn to the idea of an open sequence, writing that is always transforming as new elements enter before or after or between the others. I can’t imagine The Book can be finished. But The Book is a metaphor. What about all of those codex-books printed and glued on Earth? What about the book at hand, the book I have just finished reading or writing?I finish reading a book. It’s a particular book. It’s bound. Nothing can be added or taken away. I get to the last page. Now I can think about the whole book, cover to cover. I ask myself, “What was my experience of reading?” or “How does X writer manipulate syntax to achieve X effect?” I can think about The Book that the book at hand may or may not be part of but even this thinking will cause me to ask myself, “Is the book at hand alluding to other books? What kind of dialogue exists between this book and other books? What kinds of subjectivities are created? Who is speaking? How is the book organized? How was this book I’m holding put together?” I get into questions of structure, of genre and tradition. Instead of thinking about how to make a book, I might think about how to write a book-length poem, how to write a detective novel, how to write a collection of short stories.
I do think in this way as I work on a book. I keep in mind Lyn Hejinian’s notion of poetry: “The language of poetry is a language of inquiry, not the language of a genre. It is that language in which a writer (or a reader) both perceives and is conscious of that perception. Poetry, therefore, takes as its premise that language is a medium for experiencing experience.” I write in this poetic mode, without genre (or at any rate, delaying my answers to genre’s demands), but the whole time I can’t help but be aware that my base unit of inquiry is the sentence, not the line, and that this indicates, in a certain sense, that I am not writing poetry. My book is always a prose book.
In prose, I try to experience experience. Walking around, I don’t feel alert. I do wear my headphones. I don’t wear my contacts. I go in and out of grocery stores and talk to cashiers about the weather. My perceptions have deadened, and my language has deadened. Writing, I try to wake up to the world and to language, which Wittgenstein says is the miracle of the existence of the world. I try to remember and forget what I’ve been doing and saying and find a way of re-approaching everything.
Merleau-Ponty writes that phenomenology is a philosophy “which puts essences back into existence.” Bachelard writes that “a poetic image can be the seed of a world.” And Shklovsky gives us this: “…art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.”
To experience experience, to make the stone stony, I write sentences. Often though the sentences are too familiar; they feel fixed; they came into being at the same time as the world, a long time ago; they’re so tired. In those sentences, I don’t experience the world or word in its newness, here, and now here again, becoming.
Robert Urquhart and Jennifer Pap told me that Francis Ponge feared that the youths were suiciding because words were used up. Ponge wrote a poem called “Rhetoric”:
Words are readymade and express themselves: they do not express me. Once again I find myself suffocating. At that moment, teaching the art of resisting words becomes useful, the art of saying only what one wants to say, the art of doing them violence, of forcing them to submit. In short…Found a rhetoric, or rather, teach everyone the art of founding his own rhetoric.
Hejinian doesn’t use the rhetoric of suffocation and resistance and violence, but her insistence on the dynamism of the image gets at the same thing: “Poetry must involve more than the filling out of forms…it requires an invention of form.”
I will come back to the invention of form, to the dynamic form of the wide-awake book. First, I want to think about the “sensation of life” that we can recover through art. If we can make art that innervates us and the world, then we will feel alive while we’re alive. We will enliven the world. This is not to say with Goethe, “Poetry is deliverance.” Goethe meant that poetry delivers us into the light, into grace. But poetry doesn’t lift us beyond the world. It delivers us to the world and the world is a dark place. After World War II, Adorno put it like this: “The darkening of the world makes the irrationality of art rational: radically darkened art.” During World War II, William Carlos Williams put it like this:
The war is the first and only thing in the world today.
The arts generally are not, nor is this writing a diversion from that for relief, a turning away. It is the war or part of it, merely a different sector of the field.
Writing is a turning toward the world. It is a thing in the world that is turned toward us. Adorno cautions that writing can’t replace the world’s darkness with “the clarity of meaning.” The sensation of life might not keep us from climbing the railing of the bridge. But Adorno reminds us that “The curtain lifts expectantly even at the beginning of Beckett’s Endgame.”
Writing is in and of the world. Whether or not the writing “represents” the world seems to me relatively unimportant. But in considering genre and form, I have had to consider the role of representation in fiction. As a fiction writer, I’ve found that it is hard, if not impossible, to avoid debates about representation. We are so often divided into camps depending on how we position ourselves in relation to mimesis. I’ve thought a great deal about literary realism and distilled my thinking into two questions. Here they are:
The narratological question: “What set of conventions have readers and writers come to accept as corresponding directly to the extra-literary world, as existing in a relation of truth with a nonverbal referent?” The historical question: “Why did the realist novel become the prestige form of literary production (while the tales of talking beasts and ghosts and gods and godlike men got shunted into the ‘genres’: pulp, schlock, just for kids)?”
I’ve used these questions to frame various papers and have marshaled texts to support my answers (all of the texts wearing frogged coats and frowns). I won’t elaborate anything like an answer here. I’d rather gesture toward what I consider to be the more important question. I could always ask, “Does the book give an accurate depiction of the world?” But I would rather ask, “Does the book (even if it’s about singing mice or a Prioress who is also a monkey) bring me closer to who I am and what things are?” Mimetic techniques are useful, and I engage with versions of literary realism in my stories. However, writing that attempts to mimic life in language doesn’t necessarily bring us nearer to essence than writing that attempts to foreground its construction, that exposes its distortions, the gaps that open between words and things, between words and words. Sometimes we come closest to life in the intimate spaces of gaps themselves.
When I work on a book, I don’t worry about mimicking life. I worry (about) my sentences, the way they progress, their properties. I mentioned that the sentence is the base unit of my inquiries, the unit I use to build writing. Gertrude Stein writes, “The great question is can you think a sentence.” I’m glad that there are no question marks in How to Write. The sentence doesn’t need them to inquire. I tend to believe Stein, whatever that means. I believe her when she writes about prose, about the sentence and the paragraph:
We do know a little now what prose is. Prose is the balance the emotional balance that makes the reality of paragraphs and the unemotional balance that makes the reality of sentences and having realized completely that sentences are not emotional while paragraphs are, prose can be the essential balance that is made inside something that combines the sentence and the paragraph.
This is my kind of reality! Over the past year, I have been playing with the realities of the paragraph. What are the effects of a story written as a single paragraph? How many different ways can we experience the paragraph that runs on for pages? Is that uninterrupted paragraph obsessive, monotonous, claustrophobic, breathless? Is it a monolith or a torrent? Does the story move slower or faster than it would were the paragraph broken up? How does the writer get the reader to stop at a sentence within a very long paragraph? How does a writer give a sentence peculiar weight or emphasis within a featureless block of text? Thomas Bernhard’s books are often only one or two paragraphs. Repetition, inversion, and partial substitution are the devices that he uses to draw attention to the sentence. We track a sentence as it travels through page after page of the paragraph, morphing. We follow the disintegrating loops of a neurotic voice. Bernhard interests me in part because he also works with very short paragraphs. In The Voice Imitator, Bernhard writes stories that are a single page, each story a tiny column. The style is synoptic. No time or space for a single carping clause to travel and pick at us.
I am curious about the combinatorial effects of stories composed of short and long paragraphs within a single book, about the disparate devices a writer must use to create within shorter and longer pieces a compressed or diffused logic, and about how readers adjust their pacing when short and long paragraphs are interspersed. Is the reader prevented from getting her footing? Is she brought up short only to find herself a moment later staggering on for too long? Can you make a book with such extreme variations in scale? Making my latest book, I’ve wondered.
Paragraphs are sites devised in accordance with both sonic and spatial principles. Writing of the novel, but in particular, of Samuel Beckett’s novels, William Gass reminds us that a word is a note, is something to be hummed, panted, breathed, sung. There’s a musicality to Bernhard’s paragraphs and to Beckett’s. At its minimalist extremes, Beckett’s language approaches raw sound: the wheeze, groan, cry, gasp, plea, ping. However, despite Beckett’s attempt to silence meaning, these sounds never fail, completely, to communicate. Beckett is not only conscious of the paragraph’s hum, its drone or rattle or cackle, he creates the paragraph as visual presence. His writing shows me what a paragraph does on a page.
Hugh Kenner describes Samuel Beckett as “The Man in the Room.” A room is a cube. Architect Bernard Tschumi describes the experience of being in a cube:
Remember you are inside an enclosed space of equal height and width. Do your eyes instruct you about the cube merely by noticing it, without additional interpretation? No. You don’t really see the cube. You may see a corner, or a side, or the ceiling, but never all defining surfaces at the same time. You touch a wall, you hear an echo. But how do you relate all these perceptions to one single object? Is it through an operation of reason?
This might describe the activity of Beckett’s characters as they apply, endlessly, the operation of reason to situations they can’t reason through or out of, as they touch surfaces, pace or stumble, move forward or back, retrace smaller and smaller orbits within their own skulls. A paragraph is a rectangle. A paragraph might be one distorted plane of a cube.
In Beckett’s later work, I can’t help but see his single-paragraph texts as black boxes, each text an enclosure (his final stories are referred to as his “closed space” texts). Beckett shows me the paragraph as inescapable geometry, the shape language makes even as it attempts to negate itself, to disappear, to void itself. Beckett explained to his biographer, John Knowlson, “I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you had only to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in subtracting rather than adding.” With each new writing, Beckett strives for writing less. He strives for this lessness to approach the final utterance that does not obstruct its meaning, and, therefore, means nothing.
The first lines of the paragraph in Beckett’s first text of the series Texts for Nothing display this tendency toward subtraction, cancellation, erasure:
Suddenly, no, at last, long last, I couldn’t anymore, I couldn’t go on. Someone said, You can’t stay here. I couldn’t stay there and I couldn’t go on. I’ll describe the place, that’s unimportant. The top, very flat, of a mountain, no, a hill, but so wild, so wild, enough. Quag, heath up to knees, faint sheep-tracks, troughs scooped deep by the rains. It was far down in one of these that I was lying, out of the wind. Glorious prospect, but for the mist that blotted out everything, valleys, loughs, plain and sea. How can I go on, I shouldn’t have begun, no, I had to begin.
With nothing to express and nothing from which to express, every expression must enact its own failure. No epiphany here, no Lear on this heath. The speaker lets description fizzle out, invokes a place and arrests it before it forms. The speaker is lying too far down to see anything, and everything there to see is anyhow already blotted out. Yet the expressive act, in spite of failing, because of failing, is affective. Origin and destination indeterminate, expression is the motive force of affect, the form of feeling. The clauses cradle their aborted stories, can’t quite give them up. I find Beckett’s paragraphs inexpressibly moving. I move about, boxed in…
And yet I have high hopes, I give you my word, that one day I may tell a story, hear a story, yet another, with men…
…I have high hopes, a little story, with living creatures coming and going on a habitable earth crammed with the dead…
…I’ve high hopes, I give you my word.
A codex-book, like its paragraphs, is a rectangle. Like a cube, it’s dimensional, a paper brick. Bricks are piled to construct buildings that contain rooms, but each book-brick carries rooms inside already (and maybe adds these rooms to the vast space of The Book, now conceived as edifice, perhaps The Tower, which we know must be destroyed before it’s completed) and someone, something, there keeps speaking.
I am arriving at the notion that form is a way of feeling and (building with Stein’s definition) that prose is the balance of sentence and paragraph, an emotional balance. I feel my way through form (as/by making form). Hejinian uses the word “poetry,” but she means language (or life).
In fiction, paragraphs are often thought of as stacking units; they stack into base, middle, top, pyramids of episodes, finally a story or a novel. The units are different. For example, a paragraph may be exposition or scene. A writer should (say writers such as John Gardner) not only balance sentence and paragraph but balance paragraphs insofar as they are diverse structural units, that is, balance description, action, dialogue, etc., thereby creating “profluence” (I think “profluence” sounds like a passing upset of the bowels, but I understand it’s to be desired).
In forming a book of short stories, I don’t think so much about structure. Or I do, but I’m calling it “sequence.” I think about how each story in a sequence may exert a transformational torque on the others. What is it that makes discrete stories feel like fragments of the same book? Do the stories do something together that each can’t do alone? Can the stories work like one of those Magic Eye posters, something projected up out of their patterning, something that’s an effect of both the black and white spaces, of what’s filled in and what’s left out.
A sequence implies time and also space. There is also movement, the movement of the observers (the writer, the reader). E.M. Forster gives this well-known definition of plot:
Let us define plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died, and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.
The plot, propelled by causality, moves here in one direction. I would like to compare this with Walter Benjamin’s example of true storytelling, plot as the ground we must keep covering. It is also involves a king:
When the Egyptian king Psammenitus had been beaten and captured by the Persian king Cambyses, Cambyses was bent on humbling his prisoner. He gave orders to place Psammenitus on the road along which the Persian triumphal procession was to pass. And he further arranged that the prisoner should see his daughter pass by as a maid going to the well with her pitcher. While all the Egyptians were lamenting and bewailing this spectacle, Psammenitus stood alone, mute and motionless, his eyes fixed on the ground; and when presently he saw his son, who was being taken along in the procession to be executed, he likewise remained unmoved. But when afterwards he recognized one of his servants, an old, impoverished man, in the ranks of the prisoners, he beat his fists against his head and gave all the signs of deepest mourning.
No explanation is given for the king’s behavior. There is no single way to read grief in this story. Even after all this time, reading of Psammenitus, we are not delivered from his grief. Unlike the queen’s grief in Forster’s plot, which is itself an explanation, an explicable link in the causal chain that allows us to reach the story’s end, the king’s grief in this ancient tale prevents the story from ending where the paragraph stops. We are brought inside grief’s mystery, delivered into its truth, which can never be articulated; we are required to roam the plot where we mourn our own dead, a charnel grounds.
Reading each book is a different experience (and each reading of a book is a different experience), and I’ve approached the different books I’ve written differently. But I am still interested in thinking about what goes into The Book, what it takes, what’s at stake, in making, not this book, but a book, any book. When I think about making any book, instead of this book, I think about being human, being a being in the world with a body that appears and is appeared to in the world and how making a book is a movement from the world into thought and from thought into the world. I think about the movement between thought and the world as a book, and I feel less sad.
Bachelard writes that “matter is the unconscious of form.” Beckett’s impasse (the famous Cartesian bind) involved confining the image to the mind. But maybe Bachelard is right; the poetic image is precisely what allows us to inhabit the world. Moving along the continuum that joins mind and world, maybe we can make a book that materializes the future, make a book that would be (Svetlana Boym’s term) “reverse mimesis.” I hope for this book. This book asks us to respond to the questions posed by material and form with a language that continues the process of discovery.
 Lisa Robertson, Nilling (Toronto: Bookthug, 2012), 27.
 Rosmarie Waldrop, Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabes (Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2002), 16.
 Ibid., 16.
 Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley: U of California Press, 2000), 3.
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 1962), vii.
 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie, trans. Daniel Russell (New York: The Orion Press, 1969), 1.
 Victor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher (Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991), 6.
 Michal Skelker, “Happy Heuristics.” Radical Rhetoric: Literature as ‘Happy Creation’ and Blogging, May 16, 2013, http://happyheuristics.wordpress.com/2013/05/16/radical-rhetorics-literature-as-happy-creation-and-blogging.
 Hejinian, Language of Inquiry, 301.
 Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. & ed. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1997), 19.
 William Carlos Williams, “Introduction to The Wedge,” in Toward the Open Field, ed. Melissa Kwasny (Middleton: Wesleyan, 2004), 341.
 Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 19.
 Ibid., 81.
 Gertrude Stein, How to Write (New York: Dover, 1975), 35.
 Gertrude Stein, “Poetry and Grammar” in Toward the Open Field, ed. Melissa Kwasny (Middleton: Wesleyan, 2004), 309.
 William Gass, Habitations of the Word (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 112.
 Bernard Tschumi, Architecture and Disjunction (Cambridge: MIT, 1994), 41.
 John Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 319.
 Samuel Beckett, Stories and Texts for Nothing (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 75.
 E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (Boston: Mariner Books, 1956), 93.
 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 90.