WORD with the WRITER
an interview with Richard Kostelanetz
Featured Books by Richard Kostelanetz
By Dara Albanese for collectedstories.com
If you thought the shortest form of fiction was flash fiction, also known as the short short at anywhere from some 200 to 1500 words, then chances are you haven’t come across the work of Richard Kostelanetz; he writes single-sentence fictions, stories composed of one to three words, or even of numbers and of line-drawings, as well as fictions with only three words and a period to a page. These are experimental, unconventional forms of fiction, and Kostelanetz has always been at the forefront of such. To consider him a sort of king of the avant-garde would not be an understatement as he has stayed tried-and-true to the avant-garde for over three decades in both his critical and creative work. He is even the author of A Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes and editor of Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature.
Kostelanetz took a Masters degree in American Intellectual History from Columbia in the 1960s and since then has worked not only as a critic but also as an artist, writer, editor, publisher, composer, filmmaker and holographer. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants, getting his start with Woodrow Wilson, New York State Regents and Fulbright fellowships and further receiving fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Pulitzer Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts in both visual arts and media arts, to name only a few.
To date, his life’s work has been nothing short of prolific. There must be close to a hundred books for which he has served as either the writer or editor and various retrospectives have presented his numerous works of book art, audiotapes, videotapes, films and holograms. There was even a time when he took the role of publisher into his own hands, co-founding Assembling Press (1970) and founding Future Press (1970), as well as Archae Editions (1978), all devoted to the distribution of the non-conventional in literary publishing. Still, it is his experimental fiction that is perhaps the least known of his work, but that certainly hasn’t stopped Kostelanetz; to single out only one form of such fictions — the Epiphany, a form of single-sentence fiction representing the epiphanies of otherwise unwritten stories — would reveal over two-thousand works. It was these Epiphanies, under the title More Epiphanies for Periodicals, that collectedstories.com found in the submission box one day, some of which we present here, along with a discussion we had with Kostelanetz via email.
cs: What media first drew your attention, how did you come to branch out into other areas so naturally (some of which must have required time to learn technical aspects prior to execution, like graphic design, typesetting and video editing), and how do you currently handle the division of your time between attentions? Do you get much sleep?
rk: First, I wrote prose criticism. My academic training was intellectual history, and I wrote an M.A. thesis on Politics in the African-American Novel that twenty-five years later appeared as a book. My first publications in the 1960s were prose criticism. In 1967, I began visual poetry, inspired probably by a great Muse whom I later treated badly, to my regret; a year later, I began to write fiction that we later called minimal, as all the paragraphs in the narrative had two words or less. By 1973, I was consciously aware of producing books that could be considered art objects — what I call book-art and others christened “artists’ books.”
Back in 1974, I had a residency at a public radio station where I worked with staff engineers in producing my first audiotape compositions. The following year, I had a similar residency in video, this time at a university facility, where I produced my first videotapes. A few years later, I made my first holograms with Hart Perry. Once I got going with residencies in new media, I developed certain principles for successful work, such as approaching each invitation not with a specific scheme but with a request to meet technicians and learn what they want to do with the machinery before proposing a piece that is feasible.
In these new media, I prefer working closely with technicians, though I’ve developed some technical competencies that have minimal usefulness. (I recall spending a very cold December week alone in the basement of the Museum of Holography, producing holograms from a master hologram, which is the only way to make a copy — setting up the dual-beam shot, setting the long-exposure shutter, developing the glass plates with liquids customarily used in photography darkrooms.)
This summer , I have a residency to prepare an installation incorporating the Internet at the MIT Media Lab. I don’t consciously divide my “time between attention” as much as deal with problems as they arise. And I do sleep, customarily awaking without an alarm and eschewing coffee or other so-called pick-me-ups.
cs: It is noted on your website that you live in Manhattan’s SoHo “surrounded by thousands of books, hundreds of videotapes and thirty feet of long-playing records.” Would you share a little bit about your interests in these collections – what might one find upon selecting something from your shelves, or what might you refer to often?
rk: I used to take pride in being able to find things. Books are easier to find than long-playing records, which have skinny spines that are barely legible. For videotapes, which I started collecting around 1987, I numbered all the tapes and established an index. I have a second index of audiotapes that record only sound, which is something few people do, though videotapes are much better than audiocassettes and cheaper per hour of recorded sound. However, recently my retrieval has broken down, in part because I’ve run out of space while I’m planning to relocate. So things get piled, rather than appropriately put away. Every day nowadays I am unable to find something that should be accessible. I can’t wait to move, in part because I want to reorganize everything, but fear this might take a while because I still need to build from scratch on empty land.Incidentally, I don’t “collect” as much as I accumulate stuff that I expect to use for one project or another, except for the thousand or so books of cultural magazines’ retrospectives, which I consciously defined only a few years ago when I decided the genre was important, if unnoticed, and I already had in the house many examples. I established a comprehensive collection because no one else had one, just as I’ve done art that no one else has done. I hope to exhibit it sometime soon.
cs: At what point did you become interested in fiction, in terms of it influencing your own work and leading to what Raymond Gomez called “Single Sentence Stories” in his 1994 critique, “Toward a Critical Understanding of Richard Kostelanetz’s Single-Sentence Stories?”
rk: From the beginning of my career publishing criticism –in the early 1960s– I did long essays on fairly advanced fiction, but I didn’t do my own stories until later in the decade. The first version of my Hypotheses on Fiction, which is still a radical manifesto, was published three decades ago, believe it or not. Single-sentence fictions became the unit of Openings & Closings (1976).
cs: The term “epiphany,” in the James Joyce sense, refers to the moment in a story where all is illuminated. Is this what the term remains in your use of it, or does it become something else?
rk: Sometime in the late 1980s, I realized that some of these single-sentence stories were not Epiphanies, as I intended, but actually Complete Fictions, and others were Opening Sentences, suggesting stories that might follow. I tried to segregate out these other kinds of minimal fictions and thereafter, deposited my single-sentence stories in one of three groups.
In my fiction notebooks, you can see that a story begun under one rubric is reclassified under another. When Jamie Josephs edited a definitive manuscript of my Epiphanies in 2000, I asked him to edit out those stories that he thought belonged in the other categories.
cs: You have also written Skeletal Fictions and Minimal Fictions, in addition to numerical, photographic and filmic stories. What is the most basic definition of narrative to you?
rk: The representation of movement from one place to another, as distinct from concentration upon a single image in words or picture.
cs: How does “skeletal” differ from “minimal?”
rk: “Minimal” is my epithet for fictions three words and less, usually in syntactical sequential order if more than one word long. “Skeletal” refers to sequences of words that are NOT syntactically connected, implying additional but unavailable words between them, much as the Openings and Epiphanies imply additional sentences that aren’t there.
cs: Why do you think the Epiphanies have continued to keep your creative attention, even across media, as they have also been part of your work as an audio and video artist?
rk: They were my principal fictional interest through the 1980s, certainly, and into the 1990s and a very fertile form, given how much I did with them. Now other concerns dominate. I probably haven’t written a new one for a while, though I continue to do Complete Stories and Openings.
cs: What are the other concerns right now?
rk: Finding book publishers for collections of my fiction — not necessarily commercial publishers, as I’ve never been snotty in my choice of outlets. More than once, I’ve remembered that those contemporaries of mine who said three decades ago that they would patronize only “major publishers” have mostly disappeared, deceived by their own self-importance into becoming nonentities.
Several hundred selections from my fiction have appeared in literary journals. My friend, Steve Dixon, in an interview once, cited an impressively high number of fictions he had published. That prompted me to count fiction publications in my own bibliography, discovering a yet higher number, though probably with fewer words in sum than Dixon’s. Getting books of them published has, as I said, become more problematic and for now, dispiriting, to be frank.
cs: To your own admittance in “New Retrospective on Fiction Writing (2001),” you declare your writing to be “the purest oeuvre of fiction, as fiction uncompromised by vulgar considerations, that anyone has ever done.”
rk: This repeats a declaration made at the beginning of a 1988 interview with Larry McCaffery that he reprinted in his book Some Other Frequency, in which I wanted to distinguish myself from the other innovative fictioners whom he was interviewing and later included therein.
cs: What do you believe are some of these most vulgar considerations in today’s traditional fiction?
rk: Enough conventional continuity to get them commercially published, all the critical and encyclopedia recognition of my fiction notwithstanding.
cs: Where do you think the fiction in the McSweeney’s journal, often labeled “post-modern” in the media, falls into place? Or for that matter, how about the literary copy-cat of the Dogme95 film movement found in the British collection of short fiction, All Hail the New Puritans, which called for a “back-to-basics” in writing via a manifesto that set forth rules prohibiting the use of such conventions as flashbacks or foreshadowing?
rk: Regret to say that I don’t know any of those media, though I probably should. Though I don’t follow the advice of reviewers, I do take colleagues’ recommendations seriously. On the other hand, I don’t accept the repeated refrain of “back-to-basics” in any art. I’ve heard that phrase in painting and classical music over the years. That’s why I consider nearly everything marketed as “post-modern” to be retrograde and thus not for me.
cs: If you were to write such a manifesto, what might it include?
rk: I tend to write programmatic statements about issues that interest me, rather than about myself. It’s not clear to me what such a manifesto might declare other than my interest in doing what has not been done in several areas. I like to think that my achievement lies less in myself than the sum of platforms and genres that I have radically challenged, if not, to judge from the resistances, terrorized.
cs: How does the look of the written word come into play in your writing?
rk: It’s very important, accounting for why I like to design my own books or work closely with a more accomplished designer.
cs: What did you think of Pantheon’s publication of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski in which often text was presented only a few words at a time on the page? I have to admit I thought of you the first time I opened this book, in terms of presentation, that is.
rk: I didn’t think the book reflected my work, never having had any contact with the guy, though should be pleased that others did. I envied his getting a commercial publisher for such formally unconventional fiction, though I thought the book was a mess that I was unable to finish. Say what you will about my creative work, it is never inhospitable or incoherent.
cs: Have you written any hypertext fictions yet? And, what will you be writing in the coming year?
rk: No, though I might like to, especially in collaboration with someone who has worked in the genre. I’ve not written much new fiction recently, perhaps because the publishers’ block has dampened my desire to do so, but also because I’ve been doing other things. All of my fictions were written in time taken away from more remunerative work.
cs: What advice do you have for someone who might be interested in publishing avant-garde forms of fiction?
rk: I suppose that publishing all fiction is problematic, but for us perhaps the problems are different. One difference is that conventional fiction must fulfill expectations to succeed. I sense that my stuff is often accepted out of respect for what I’ve done elsewhere and probably automatically rejected by publishers who don’t respect, in which case the advice would be establishing a reputation meriting love and respect.
Word with the Writer: Richard Kostelanetz Interview ©2001 Dara Albanese & collectedstories.com