Joe Sacksteder is the author of the novel Driftless Quintet and the short story collection Make/Shift, and recently published the essay “Against Quirky Writing” in the Winter 2022 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review. In it, he makes a bold argument on the current state of today’s experimental literary landscape. While affirming his dedications to modernist and postmodernist innovators of the line, his essay targets a variant of sentence-level defamiliarization that has gained traction in the last twenty years. Joe and I attended the graduate program in creative writing at Eastern Michigan University together, and this essay prompted me to reach out to him for an interview. I sat down with him recently (via Zoom) to find out more about his views on experimental literature.
Andrew T. Powers (ATP): Let’s clarify what we’re talking about when we say “avant-garde” or “experimental.” What does “experimental fiction” mean to you?
Joe Sacksteder (JS): John Cage defined experimental music as “an act the outcome of which is unknown.” Regarding modern music, he said, “A cough or a baby crying will not ruin a good piece of modern music.” I like these two descriptions specifically because of their openness. I also like Roland Barthes’s distinction between the readerly versus the writerly text, the latter being those that conscript readers as co-authors in the meaning-making process. I don’t want to legislate what is and what isn’t experimental or innovative or strange. I want to make those terms more capacious, rather than to define them.
ATP: What went into the formulation of the ideas you discuss in the essay? What prompted you to refrain from citing specific examples?
JS: I wrote the fictional story that’s part of the essay in the style that I’m critiquing in part to avoid quoting specific writers. On an instinctual level, I realized that withholding citations is doing some productive work in the essay. A friend of mine, Jason Daniels, was kind enough to tweet, “I feel like everyone who reads it will wonder: is he talking about XWRITER, or YWRITER? and they will know that it isn’t this person, specifically, but the genre that so readily suggests them.” Preserving that sense of charged suspension is more interesting to me than a reveal. But it had a lot to do with the alt-lit movement of the aughts.
ATP: Some stories require a traditional linear narrative. How do you feel about such narratives using quirky language? In other words, do you have issues with playful sentence-level stylistics and lingual gymnastics provided they are not the primary purpose of the writing, or so long as the work doesn’t pretend to be experimental?
JS: I think a risk of the essay that I wrote, an understandable takeaway, is that I want texts to go back to being narrative. I’ve been teaching Frank Kuenstler’s LENS recently, a hundred pages of invented portmanteaus. I want narrative to be one potential site of many for experimentation in prose and poetry, and one that does not automatically signal a sense of regression. In regards to quirky language slipping into narrative: It’s often great. I think of the opening of Karen Russell’s story “Proving Up”: “In most weathers, I am permitted to call him Pa.”
I just think that despite how much we talk about revision over and over in classrooms and on social media and in craft books, our eye-rolling filter has significantly atrophied, and it often comes down to heavy-handedness: will the word halt me in my tracks as a reader and force me to imagine the author congratulating themselves?
ATP: As writers and readers, how can we reinvigorate experimentation? By thinking more of narrative structures and letting form be created by the narrative force? How might one, as you write in your essay, “exhibit a sort of stamina, energy rather than excitement”?
In another interview when discussing some of the stories in your collection Make/Shift, you talk about “forms that attempt to replicate what the stories are about.” Are forms of this sort what you mean when you say “experimental”?
JS: There are countless ways to reinvigorate a sense of experimentation, but you’ve certainly hit on my favorite. In that quote I’m not so freshly cribbing Samuel Beckett’s description of Joyce’s writing of Finnegans Wake: “Here form is content, content is form… His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.” This is often what I’m thinking about when I comment on a student’s story or essay, while making it clear that not every piece of writing needs to do this. I highlight places where the micro is enacting the macro. Quite simply, that’s a very good way in for thinking about modes of experimentation that to me are a lot more interesting. Another way is by studying aesthetic theory, putting our art form into actually well-informed conversation with music, theater, and the visual arts.
ATP: One might say that the drive towards literary experimentation arises from a need to explore language—not just for the sake of itself, but so as to create from it fresh perspectives, new ways of seeing and being in the world. Staying on the surface and effectively getting caught in the language leaves what potentially lies beneath unexplored.
Do some of the issues you have with faux experimental fiction arise from disappointment that the authors didn’t take the opportunity to explore their stories more and investigate their depths and substance? How might you talk to a student about this if you find they are focusing on surface-level qualities to the exclusion of something more substantial?
JS: I have a lot of students who are exploring this type of writing and I don’t push back against it very much. I point them to other resources, writers who are doing this kind of work, so that they can learn more about it. I would just nudge them towards trying to enrich their writing beyond the surface level. In conversations with students, my words hold a lot of weight, and I need to not be so snippy and opinionated as my essay comes across.
As far as surface-level experimentation, mostly I don’t like how this writing sounds. “Against Quirky Writing” was written in an attempt to see whether or not there was something more to what I worried was a knee-jerk reaction. I think that surface-level experimentation is legitimately experimental, and I want it to exist, but its lack of self-awareness, or some sense of delusion, bothers me on a deeper level. Often, as a style, it wants to signal a sense of iconoclasm and freshness, but, at the same time, its moves have become heavily regularized to the point of self-parody. My essay suggests ways in which this writing might be seen as symptomatic of the very capitalist and image-conscious impulses that it wants to be subverting.
ATP: A lot of contemporary poetry has been called “academic poetry” or “MFA poetry,” written by academics for academics. Do you see experimental fiction, or experimental literary forms in general, as finding a welcoming home only within the university walls? Or only taught by professors of literature and creative writing? I mean, do you think there’s an audience outside the academy for truly experimental writing?
JS: God, I hope so. I teach Muriel Rukeyser’s poetry sequence The Book of the Dead at every available opportunity. It’s a sequence of documentary poems written to bring public awareness to and memorialize the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster in the 1930s in West Virginia. I wave these poems in faces as desperate proof that creative writing can inform us of this very awful thing Union Carbide did less than a century ago, resurrect the names and voices of victims, and cause us to connect past atrocities to the present, to learn.
The most edifying function I can serve is inviting my students to think about the connection between assumptions and ideology—to de-essentialize what constitutes a good short story, what constitutes creative writing, what divides one academic discipline from another—in hopes that they’ll export that outside-the-box thinking into wider aspects of life. Experimental literature, in its disruptiveness, is always an invitation to that meta-level way of thinking.
ATP: Where outside of academic life is there a place for the type of writing we’re talking about? Where would you like to see it? In what directions do you see experimental fiction going?
JS: An early draft of “Against Quirky Writing” had a three-page exploration on the relationship between experimental writing, quirky writing, and identity politics. The last two decades have seen a resuscitation of biographical criticism in which what is being sold is a notion of authenticity based on authors’ lived experiences and inheritances. That’s taking up most of the air in the literary room in terms of what’s counted as interesting. I’d love to see this trend take the direction of complicating identity rather than calcifying it, but the latter is what fits on a dust jacket and is search-engine-optimized. Perhaps it comes back to the difficulty of experimental literature, what gives it the capacity to represent the messiness of our full selves.
A place I’d like to see experimentation more is in horror novels. I’m convinced that there’s a giant, relatively untapped market in the horror genre, where readers are bringing with them an appetite for the violation of boundaries. I see far less of it than I would like. Though I guess an argument could be made that all experimental art is horror—and comedy. A website that I love is ClickHole. That’s an example of where I think a lot of avant-garde writing is happening very much in the public sphere. There’s this parody quiz on the site called “Which One Of My Garbage Sons Are You?” and I think it’s the greatest work of contemporary literature. Try administering that quiz to a class or any group of people and still believe experimental literature is calcified in the classroom! It will be a very good time.
ATP: A number of your stories involve characters who are musicians, such as Colton Vogler in your novel Driftless Quintet, a number of characters in the story “Earshot–Grope–Cessation” from your collection Make/Shift. And your Werner Herzog-inspired sound experiment Fugitive Traces speaks to a fascination with the sound of language and an interest in soundscapes.
How does music—composing it, playing it, enjoying it—inform or influence your literary aesthetics? How does it influence your writing—how you read, think, theorize, how you write? How might non-lingual sound structures prompt the creation of a unique narrative structure?
JS: The student of aesthetics in me would bring up Walter Pater’s famous assertion that “all art constantly aspires toward the condition of music.” In music, form and medium and content are indistinguishable. Similar to Beckett’s description of Joyce’s writing, but more literally since it’s bypassing the abstraction of language altogether. Pater also cites a concept called Anders-streben when, for example, writing can’t fully become music, but it can try really hard. So when I see quirky writing failing, it would not be a stretch for me to say that it’s a failure of musicality.
I’m a failed pianist, and I believe failure and impossibility can be quite generative, but this usually happens when I’m fully conscious of it. I’m working on a piece of music right now titled Driftless Quintet, which is the sonic component of my dissertation at Utah, Ghost Notes. It’s a piano quintet that erases itself as it goes along, and it’s programmatically about frac sand mining in southwestern Wisconsin in the Driftless Region. A lot of my music projects and my literary projects are bound up together.
ATP: In the story “Earshot—Grope—Cessation,” Beth Danfoss’s favorite part of her son Josh’s piano practice was the mistakes he made—she found the most satisfaction in hearing the mistakes. “She didn’t tell him that the mistakes were her favorite part, how they tensed the whole house and strummed it through with proof of human life.” I often think that experimental or imaginative writing is prompted by making mistakes. Sometimes a misspelled word–heaven becomes haven, for example—all of a sudden changes the meaning of a sentence, and this mistake leads you into different territories.
Do mistakes have a place in narrative constructions?
JS: I think they have an important place in interpretation. This goes back to what I value in experimentation, works that are themselves open enough to host a variety of interpretations, so much so that the whole notion of mistakes, and the whole notion of textual mastery, is thrown out the window because the texts are open arenas for play and for new creation.
“Earshot—Grope—Cessation” is the oldest story in Make/Shift. It started off during an iceberg literature phase I was going through in college. I wrote this story that was about a woman playing a piano recital, and she was sad and you didn’t know why she was sad until the end of the story. The original story was based on Bach’s Invention No. 13. Years later I was at the piano playing a Brahms intermezzo and I hit a wrong chord.
Suddenly in that moment I remembered this story that had been in my desk drawer for almost a decade, and I thought, “Oh, this is how I should do it. I should structure it around these repeated endings and make a piece that itself goes on forever.” So it was a mistake in my playing of the piece that led me to think about that. Sometimes I’ll play a mistake chord that will lead me to write a song. I do that less often in writing, I think, because it’s tougher to take an improvisatory approach to writing.
ATP: How do you approach a new piece of writing? What’s your process?
JS: “Approach.” That kind of makes it sound collected and contemplative. Suddenly I’m thrown gasping on the shore of a free day, and something that has reached critical mass bursts forth under its own pressure. Some part of my mind continues to shape an idea, even when I’m too busy and distracted to write it down. It’s often there for me when the opportunity presents itself. The last few years have been very busy so that’s how it happens. But every project requires its own approach and invents its own form. Some novel projects I plot out completely ahead of time on Post-it Notes, while for others I just throw stuff in for a more improvisatory feel.
ATP: You’re defending your PhD thesis Ghost Notes next week. Can you tell me about the process of writing it?
JS: While at Utah I started practicing piano for the first time in a while, spending a lot of time with my old repertoire. Ghost Notes consists of close-up photographs of sheet music from my repertoire I then footnote based on the fingering of the melody. Sometimes it’s written, and sometimes it’s invisible. The footnotes on the facing pages explore programmatic, personal, and historical associations with the music. Those are intercut with short fictional stories I call Symphonic Metamorphoses, strange magical realist encounters between individuals and music, music making, and musical instruments. So a hybrid memoir is an available label for this work.
“Against Quirky Writing” is also part of my dissertation. It’s one of the appendices. It’s referenced as an artifact within one of the Symphonic Metamorphoses pieces, so it also exists under the guise of this fictional persona in Ghost Notes. Ghost Notes also has a sonic component that involves the Driftless Quintet, a piano quintet that erases itself as it goes along. It causes a malady within the larger sonic piece in which the protagonist hears erasures. He hears pieces of music but only certain parts of it, certain voices.
The narrative is also a fictionalization of my decision to leave an MFA program in music composition at Louisiana State University, where I moved a week before Hurricane Katrina hit, and about how hearing loss and psoriatic arthritis contributed to what feels like an aborted attempt at a career in music. It’s a complicated piece of writing.
ATP: You’ve published excerpts of a few works-in-progress, and have mentioned other books in other interviews you’ve given: HACK HOUSE and Hell and Its Torments. Where are these now? Anything else?
JS: HACK HOUSE and Hell and Its Torments are part of my aforementioned certainty that there’s a huge market for experimental horror. The market so far has disagreed with me on that matter. Both of them are based on incidents from the 1880s. HACK HOUSE takes place in Michigan, where I worked with a painting crew on an old Victorian house called the Hack House. The story is about this crew, but also has at the core the story behind this house. It was built with funds made from an electric sugar-refining scandal. You could add the word “electricity” to anything in the late nineteenth century and it would garner a lot of investors, so this inventor pretended he could refine sugar using electricity and made millions of dollars from it. After his death, his wife absconded with the money and built the house.
Hell and Its Torments is about the construction of the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud, which has the biggest pure granite wall in the world. In the 1880s, the State of Minnesota bought the first granite quarry and used inmate labor to build a giant granite wall around the quarry. I volunteered at this prison for four years, playing piano. There was something so eerie about the prison yard with a granite quarry in it. The quarry is now filled with water—quarry lakes are very clear and cold, nothing can live in them—and at the bottom of it is the steam-powered crane that once lifted blocks of granite to the surface. It was such a strange story, and it’s the historical core of the novel, while the main part of the story is more contemporary. I’ve had some presses and agents interested, but so far, no luck.
ATP: Your essay “Against Quirky Writing” is very engaging, intriguing, and inspiring. In many ways, it is what gave rise to the occasion to sit down with you today. I heard it caused quite a stir while circulating through readers in the MQR office. Any other essays we have to look forward to?
JS: I was one of those annoying single people who got a lot of writing done during the quarantine. It was the first time in a very long time I’d had to really sit down with my thoughts. “Against Quirky Writing” is one of five essays written during quarantine that I’ve gathered into a yet-unpublished collection titled Last Map.
Two of the essays are heavily visual. The title essay “Last Map,” published in The Offing, is a collaboration between me and my sister Amy. She had produced a sequence of drawings in Iceland, and with her permission I wrote these sculptural texts using the lines and the negative spaces and positive spaces. I spent hours each day zoomed in on these textual sculptures, intricately carving them out. It was the most enchanting compositional zone that I’ve slipped into in a long time. The other visual essay is titled “Review of Joe Sacksteder’s Review of Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto” and appeared in DIAGRAM. In it, I try to translate a thirteen-channel film installation onto the written page, making it look like you’re stepping into a film installation.