Why I Chose It: Michigan Quarterly Review’s Assistant Managing Editor and former Nonfiction Editor, Aaron J. Stone, introduces Joe Sacksteder’s “Against Quirky Writing” from our Winter 2022 issue. You can purchase the issue here.
This essay’s reputation preceded it—which is nearly unheard of for an unsolicited submission. While I was Nonfiction Editor, I one day joined a Zoom call to find some of our readers already embroiled in an eager discussion of a new submission they had just sent to me. It was bold. It was thrilling. It was irreverent, insightful, witty, provocative. It was perhaps even too much, eliciting that sense of excess that we often get from brilliant work lying just beyond the horizon of our expectations. It was “Against Quirky Writing.” And I had to read it, immediately.
Joe Sacksteder did not disappoint. This essay parses in minute detail the “quirky” style it identifies, its neologisms, its jumbled parts of speech, its eschewal of parallelisms, and other impediments to sense-making. This long list of grievances, hammered loudly onto the door of the Church of the New Sentence, is nonetheless penned in the elegant calligraphy of a writer whose long-nursed annoyance has matured into eloquent philosophy.
However, the essay’s real point is not to catalogue a pet peeve (delightful though this cataloguing may be), but to caution us—as writers, as readers, as editors—against a potentially dangerous reductionism. “I worry,” Sacksteder writes, “that we’re losing the ability to see a text as experimental unless it’s experimental on the line level.” What about other, subtler experimentalisms that don’t slap us in the face with defamiliarized language? What about texts that don’t make us slow down to piece together self-consciously difficult sentences, but rather encourage a speediness in our reading practices? Does “quirky writing” threaten to devalue such texts as too simple, less serious?
These important questions drive the piece, but lest they seem to point us too dogmatically toward the singular position that the essay’s title suggests, another confounding element intervenes. Nestled between each chunk of anti-quirky diatribe are fragments of a definitively “quirky” narrative of Sacksteder’s own devising. Presented with nearly no commentary, these segments force us to puzzle over their relationship to the essay itself. While the story could perhaps be read as a homegrown example of what not to do, it is also composed with a delicacy that is not reducible to parody. Between its hard-hitting commentary and its own ludic narrative experiments, “Against Quirky Writing” provides a crisp and timely warning that we avoid being blinded by the dazzling spectacle of what can be, after all, an enticingly pleasurable writing style.
Against Quirky Writing
No, not Gertrude Stein. Samuel Beckett—I’m not talking about him either. Its practitioners might cite Ron Silliman’s “The New Sentence” or Viktor Shklovsky’s writings on defamiliarization or Garielle Lutz’s lecture “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place”; these folks are all involved in what I’m here to critique, but they are not my targets. Melvin B. Tolson—no—James Joyce—not even a little bit—Theresa Hak Kyung Cha—try again—Frank Kuenstler—nada. My target: the conservative watering-down of these writers’ techniques largely by now middle-aged writers who cut their teeth in or adjacent to the alt lit scene and the indie publishing boon of the aughts. Writers who want their weird language and their story, too, and who gesture toward this surface-level experimentation by way of basically one maneuver: wrenching a word from one part of speech into another. The most insufferable example is using an adjective as a noun without putting an article in front of it or a suffix like -ness after it. This practice is also beloved by marketers of giant corporations who hope to come across as less threatening by feigning the stupidity they ascribe to their consumers—“give the gift of happy.”Okay, there’s one more big maneuver: a Mad Libs approach to prose by which they substitute for certain unlucky words a synonym that’s not really a synonym. Sometimes there’s a neologism or an article that gets dropped or added for the sake of profundity, but that’s it. Those are pretty much their moves.
I arrive at the Water Street site, soon to be a house. A house not yet fit for sleep, a day already pried open and spilling its contents. // Inside, a liability of workers huddle aside the stairwall, betokening some grievous manglement. I rush my heart but enter only the amaze of a colleague’s fresh handiwork. // Halvard, chisel-handed, has squalled some birch design in defiance of all prints, blue or otherwise, all estimates, budgeted or kindred. // “Gouge!” I mean to swear but spit instead. Confuse them aside to assess the dammit. // It spins before swum eyes, a sequence of parallel fluted narrows above a further gnawed violence of terraced checkerboard gorings like when one wants to farm on a hillside. I lean back, a tourist of sunsets through redrock arches fifteen hundred feet above a bouldrous miscalculation of dead landscape. As quick I’m sucked in and see three-fifths of what I’d gauged manual is the woodgrain’s own speech. Halvard having co-authored the gaffe with a plant’s own corpse, emerging a script so crimpt the director will never finish his jungle fever dream. A spell, I realize and speak aloud. A how-to for never having noticed. Blueprint for the end of them.
I have a problem: I worry that we’re losing the ability to see a text as experimental unless it’s experimental on the line level.
This type of writing does not have a name. A misnomer might be “language writing” or the equally redundant “sentence writing.” Language-intensive, sentence-centered, etc. It often rubs elbows with Gordon Lish and Dean Young, with the idea that every line or sentence must stand on its own.
It’s a style and a problem born from the ways in which technology has changed how we write, how we read, and how we teach the two practices—but, even more so, how we submit writing and how it’s vetted, quirky writing less a conscious aesthetic choice than a reflex, a consequence of the increasingly wide gulf between the things that are easy and the things that are difficult about being a writer these days. It’s hard to get a book published, or even a short story in a literary journal, in part because the act itself of typing words and submitting them online is so very simple and convenient. Add to this a million MFA programs, and the glut of strong writing and talented writers out there verges on the mathematical sublime. There are fewer people writing experimental literature, but there are also fewer people reading it and fewer places to submit it. The primary outlets for writers of innovative work are independent and university-based journals and presses, most of which operate on thin to zero resources. Readers are often volunteering their time while taking a full load of courses and trying to get their own work out into the world. Submission guidelines for other journals might indeed be some of the twenty tabs open on their browsers as they read for their venue, their capacity for sustained focus long gone. No wonder that they might only look at a submission for a minute or two before rejecting it. In such a situation, the benefit of quirky writing is that it immediately announces itself as strange. A story, conversely, that begins in a more conventional way and gradually escalates its strangeness is going to be a harder sell.
The chances of quirkily written pieces finding success are increased further by their tendency to take very short forms, often inhabiting the gray area of flash fiction / prose poetry. It’s hard not to be suspicious that it has something to do with the difficulty of sustaining such syntactic gymnastics over broader stretches. The longer quirky writing persists in asking us to be surprised by its moves, the more that it can start to reveal itself as a string of one-liners—and the more that the experimental claims of the text can begin to feel wholly superficial, too little thought given to the narrative occasion that has called upon such idiosyncrasy. It’s also no accident that quirky writing loves fairy tales, that it has assimilated the work done by fairy tale revisionists of the 1960s such as Anne Sexton and Robert Coover. With such revisionism, the story and readers’ familiarity with it act as a prefabricated arc upon which the language can be smeared, like papier-mâché on a skeleton of chicken wire. This described situation creates a feedback loop in which the busyness of contemporary existence, the internet’s many lures and demands, and the immediacy of quirky language are inextricably entwined. The more that aspiring writers read these excited little pills, the more they submit and the more that this style passes for publishable experimentation these days. Stories have a tendency to take on the qualities of their sentences on a larger level, quirky ones so often reading as assemblages of mismatched parts, inadvertent picaresques. Their plot arcs are often simply one-thing-after-another with the result that they just stop on the last page rather than end.
Lunch cracked open a day’s feints at progress, the crew plays with food. Ragnar allowing in only what stuffs he could nudge along the inside slick of pink and behind the holes of molars. Knut combing Jesus for pictures of food: grilled cheese, pancakes, tea leaves, entrails. Kaia chewing each bit so many times the bolus just is gone with no swallow. Halvard drinking Coke Zero. Hilda yielding only to what thrown bits go missed by a circling ineptitude of gulls. Aline and Doc passing a pickle back and forth for “most tastes.”
Back in vans, break itself broken, Knut drawls, “these signs eat honey?” // “It’s very clever,” I aye, eyes roadside. // “Another. repent and be saved.” // “This line of drive-by signs / are only good for one lousy rhyme,” I try. // “What do words amount to? Yours? That sign and the other sign and I think a third?” // His glyphs, they glitch even as they say. // Feet swing in blue sky from ladders bungeed to roof racks. // “You read them sequentially. That’s how they make sense.” // “these . . . signs . . . eat . . . honey.” // “The signs the signs, not the words the signs:
“THESE SIGNS EAT LOCUST THESE SIGNS EAT HONEY PREPARING THE WAY FOR THE SECOND COMING REPENT AND BE SAVED”
“My sign was briefer.” // “Five signs, read one after the other.” // “What if you don’t encounter them in order?” // “You have to. You drive by them.” // “What if you were on foot, raised away from all trending slang, emergent through a scree of trees, and the one sign was humanity’s first hail?”
Quirky writers like to (1) borrow flat characterization from the fairy tale genre so as not to distract from the language, often withholding characters’ names; (2) jolt that archetypal approach with the sudden appearance of product names and pop culture references; (3) lean into the inelegance of syntactic constructions that we often avoid, such as consecutive homophones, homonyms, comma splices, or –ing words; (4) italicize words for no other emphasis than their extra quirkiness; (5) give readers a singular noun where we would expect a plural one, or vice versa, again for profundity; (6) put words side-by-side just because they share lots of letters; (7) go bonkers with synaesthesia, rendering tangible things intangible and vice versa, especially language itself; (8) disrupt the parallel structure that often helps us navigate sentence fragments and lists like this one; (9) use vagueness deliberately, lavishing in some, somehow, somewhere,and something;(10) likewise, string together anaphors of some_____ and this_____ phrases; (11) visit plagues upon their built words, the flimsiest and most default way of suggesting a diegetic impetus for the quirky language; (12) veer away from their quirkiness with abrupt, unadorned plainspokenness or Valley Girl tics or strangely antiquated language and speech patterns or suddenly precise statistics; (13) insist on puns; (14) go full glossolalia at some point during a text; (15) believe the names of collective animals in the wild to be the most magically novel thing ever, aspiring to strew the strangeness of calling a flock of starlings a murmuration across their descriptions of everything in existence; and (16) see if they can out-ridiculous Cormac McCarthy’s penchant for incongruous compound words—“dogshadow,” “freshkilled,” “wretchedlooking,” “meatcamp,” “halfsordid.” In regard to that guy—not a quirky writer but their hero—quirky readers have an amazing capacity to put away their usual skepticism of American myth-making and spectacles of helpless women needing to be saved by violent men if it means they get to read about vagrants who all speak utterly gaseous philosophies in the same archaic voice. If it means they get to read not-at-all ludicrous descriptions like “A howl of such outrage as to stitch a caesura in the pulsebeat of the world,” or “the staccato mountains bespoken blue and barren out of the void,” or “wrapped in these serapes they looked like God’s profoundest peons.” Quirky writers get all babydazzled by words like: gloaming, lurch, meat, hum, drummed, fluted, coax, proffer, loam, jerk, gnaw, foam, slur, slurry, node, nodule, error, skin, peel, jostle, yawn, maw, ache, suck, loom, hive, ash, curdle, guttural, fray, clot, gape, milk, and rip . . . Useful words, all of them, and they benefit from being syllable light and concrete—which quirky writers love interrupting with the sudden awkwardness of a longer, abstract, Latinate clunker.
These days we read literature like we’re scanning a product’s list of ingredients at the grocery store for something it has recently become fashionable to avoid. In our scene’s recent resuscitation of biographical criticism—the death of “The Death of the Author” that is identity and representation—quirky writing has taken advantage of the fact that it’s become charmingly antiquated, sophomoric, and beside the point to critique a novel or story or poem due to something related to style or, generally, aesthetics. Perhaps quirky writing’s chief characteristic and goal is that it’s unassailable (he writes, while assailing it), not because it’s difficult to understand per se, but because it’s willfully unspecific and detached from the kinds of issues that get readers hot and get writers cancelled.
Before, we’d shuddered into cleanup 30 minutes or 37 minutes before the workday itself was plump for auger. Night is preferred to work though night doesn’t pay for most. In night, we can turn on breaking news. We can resign ourselves to food that isn’t also work. We can scrub gray skin its birth color or close, dig grout from under nails with nails with pulverized volcano. We can kiss and sometimes fuck our wives and boyfriends. We can make our children more like us and fail because. We can strip naked in switched-off showers to funnel filth into the domestic zone most likely to clean itself. We can fist dog shit in what today held brussels sprouts eaten tonight. We can calculate just how much of that day’s night erased that day’s day, turned tomorrow red, the month red, the year. We can spurt and chew and flush and smack and dose and dream and stub and binge and tweeze. // So it was often an air of jocund did descend upon the boys at the sounding of cleanup. But as of late, ever since Halvard had vouchsafed his remaining days to five square feet of stairwall woodwork, cleanup had been assaulting those previously forward chunks of day.
I come bearing trayed slurries that disguise as optimism the need to piss. It is one morning. I am late, but just. I find: the crew packing it in for the day. Perhaps, I ration, the cycles of constructive strewing and necessary penance no longer fit snugly within a day’s container, yesterday’s forgotten session phasing into today’s spillage. // In pairs they’ve staked archeological digs bent on minute pains. Halvard and Ragnar stitch snags flat in butcher paper. Doc and Knut parachute scabrous drop cloths into flagged shards fit for war widows. Hilda and Kaia and Aline on knees take toothbrushes and scissors to the furry gutter where sheetrock fails to run just flush with hardwood. Molding and shoe molding and caulk will cover upon cover upon cover this jagged wound of hurry—but I get it. // I grab a brush and get on knees. If not for us, dust would stow itself in that depth as long as Water Street mimed shelter, security. That’s why it’s called molding. Screams. Lightless.
To read the rest of “Against Quirky Writing,” you can purchase the Winter 2022 issue here.
Cover Image by Bill Dickinson