Wednesday, April 13, 2005
Gary Lutz, My Hero
or, A DJ Saved My Life Last Night
I love teaching composition. Since I could very well spend the rest of my career adjunct teaching at community colleges, this is a blessing. But it was not a case of love at first class session. The feeling has grown over the years. One moment in this process stands out, an interview in the local bohemian weekly with Gary Lutz, a writer of experimental fiction. In his answers, Lutz gave me a sense that teaching composition could be an honorable, in the stuffy, old-fashioned sense, profession. I was impressed by his overall dignity, especially when he says, “I am a grammarian.” & you don’t have to take his word for that. Slate considers him such.
My professional self-esteem issues aside, the interview also lead me to read Lutz’s work, which is a much more substantial reward. His writing is a delight, and as with all true delights, it is aesthetically captivating and intellectually compelling. But still I come back to my job. Lutz’s stories make me think about the relation between experimental fiction and student composition papers.
I had started on this line of thought earlier, in some work on Gertrude Stein. (Stein’s own composition themes were published in Rosalind S. Miller’s Gertrude Stein: Form and Intelligibility. You might not be surprised to find that, in places, they read quite a bit like her mature work.) With both experimental prose and student exposition, the writing incessantly asks, “can this be a sentence? a paragraph? a story or essay?” The differences lie with the degree of consciousness the writer has of his or her effects, and with whether or not the reader is reading to learn or to teach. (Can a composition teacher reading student work learn and teach at the same time?)
I’m obviously out on a limb here, and in the interview Lutz explicitly dissociates his teaching and writing. Though his teaching does make at least one appearance in the stories. In his first book, Stories in the Worst Way (scroll down), there is a story, “Slops,” about teaching composition. The title derives from the narrator-character’s chief physical characteristic, colitis. He itinerarizes his day, with the help of a pocket notebook, between “seventeen carefully chosen faculty restrooms.” But this is not a story about a teacher: it is about teaching. The following paragraph nicely blazons several of my deepest fears:
Did I ever worry about the smell when I was passing out handouts in class? Because all I did was pass out handouts and read them out loud, then collect them and dismiss the class. None of it would be on the test. There were no tests—just papers. Not essays, themes, reviews, reports, compositions, critiques, research projects—but papers, sheets of paper, stapled together. I’d lightly pencil a grade n the upper right-hand corner, and that would be it—no comments or appraisals subjoined in authoritative swipes of a felt-tip pen. I made sure no telltale signs—spilled coffee, dogears, creases, crumples, crimps, fingerprint grime—would lead students to believe that their papers had ever been read. But I read them hard, expecting sentences to have been spitefully spatchcocked into the running gelatinization of barbarisms and typos to check up on me, to see if I was actually reading. For instance: “Dear ‘Professor’” You fucking stink. Try wiping yourself once and [sic] awhile [sic]. Or didn’t they teach that were [sic] you went to school? Bag it.” But I never found such interludings.
(The “sics,” of course, are in the original.) Though this story is less for the squeamish than most of his others, all of Lutz’s characters are very much embodied. (I think there’s a Deleuze reference to be made somewhere here.) These stories are not about what people are, but what they do with their bodies.
There are no characters or plots in the normal sense because the characters in the stories lack identities and careers in the normal sense. They are too focused on incremental differences to maintain any narratives about their lives. Sex, for example, breaks down into the particular manipulations: “I imagine I must have unbundled her, peeled off her underdressings, dipped my fingers into her, sopped and woggled them around, browsing, consulting what she had made of herself inside.” Office employees get too caught up in making photocopies look like photocopies (a process that takes hours) to keep their jobs.
“Slops” feels like an early work, being more direct in its grotesquery & more straightforward in presenting events. Most of Stories and all of his second book, I Looked Alive, has a more lapidary quality. As he reveals in the interview, as a writer and reader he is more interested in sentences than any other structure in writing. Often sentences in the stories feel as if they were written on their own, into a notebook, to find their way later into larger structures. When he says that he “comes close to forgetting” about his writing during the school year, I suspect that he manages to tuck away a sentence or phrase here or there during the semester. (Though a quick look at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg schedule for this term reveals him to be teaching four sections of comp: that could help you forget just about anything.)
Lutz also shows how experimental writing does not have to forego reference. He would like his sentences to have the “force and utility of the load-bearing, tractional sentence of more or less conventional narrative.” For all their waywardness and verbal tics, they have a strong affinity to that most conventional of storytellers, the inventor, along with his teacher, John Gardner, of the conventional, late-20th century short story, Raymond Carver. (Both Stories and I Looked are dedicated to Gordon Lish, Carver’s other teacher, as well as Lutz’s.) If most of them weren’t gay or bisexual (there are some finely oblique descriptions of bathroom cruising), the characters in the Lutz stories could just as easily be in Carver stories: between jobs and between significant others, on the margins of socially meaningful life in middle America. Does that sound like any adjunct composition instructors you know?
For another take on Gary Lutz see
If you follow the Slate link above you find a very thoughtful review of the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. It shows that Lutz has a very well-formed view of style and composition. It is a little startling to read his straight journalistic prose after reading his fiction. That may mark me as naive, but there you go. The last bio info I saw on Lutz said that he is coming out with his own book on style and compostion. How will bloggers refrain from reviewing it as a parody of his fiction? The choices seem to be iron will or capitulation.
Sven Birkerts has a blurb on the back of I Looked Alive, comparing Lutz’s sentences to John Ashbery’s. One way this comparison is apt is that, just like it is hard to recall individual poems by Ashbery, Lutz’s stories are a series of alternate takes on a small set of characters and themes. This is especially true of I Looked Alive. In Stories in the Worst Way there are a few memorable stories such as “Education” and “Sororally” that stand apart as more or less conventional short stories. ("Education" is very funny.) I prefer to read him in the broad approach (across a range of stories) rather than in the micro approach (as a writer of sentences).
Thanks for the link. & the news about a style book from Lutz is very exciting. It would be very cool if I could assign it to students. At least he’d make some money from his writing.
I am not surprised at the conjunction of Lutz’s fiction & his exposition. I wish I could better explain why, but I think it has something to do w/my interest in his sentences. But it’s also important for me to be reminded that these are stories. My tendency, when I look for a higher perspective, is to jump beyond that, into large, philosophical categories: fiction, poetry, language. For example, it seems the important thing in Ashbery is not any individual poem but a kind of inexhaustible eloquence that transcends any individual speaker or situation. (This tendency toward the philosophical could very well be a vice.)