Camille Roy


Excerpts from "The Storyteller," by Walter Benjamin i

The art of storytelling is coming to an end. Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly. More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed. It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.

One reason for this phenomenon is obvious: experience has fallen in value... [The nature of every real story is that] it contains, openly or covertly, something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice, in a third, in a proverb or maxim. In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. But if today "having counsel" is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing. In consequence we have no counsel either for ourselves or for others.

Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story from explanation as one reproduces it.

The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.

Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.

Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs. It is, however, characteristic that not only a man's knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life—and this is the stuff that stories are made of—first assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death. Just as a sequence of images is set in motion inside a man as his life comes to an end—unfolding the views of himself under which he has encountered himself without being aware of it—suddenly in his expressions and looks the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him. This authority is at the very source of the story.

Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.

[[I love this essay, although it doesn't address what seems to me to be a distortion in the general view of the narrative process: storytelling. In addition to the story which is told, there is the story withheld. Attraction, narrative suspense, emanates from the latter. The story withheld has its own (buried) structure and tension. The reader marries the hidden story, not the visible one. That is why we continue to read a story that inspires dread. An attachment has been formed—surreptitiously. It operates like a craving, which is how I recognize Benjamin's reference to death. The craving for the unknown, as it is held by the act of storytelling, points to death (or its substitute, the body). (Roy)]]

Excerpts from "Fame," by Robert Gluck ii

There are contradictory reasons when I use "real" people in my work, and the contradictions comfort me. Any literary practice should, I think, derive from contradictory sources and motives... I name names to evoke the already-known, to make writing co-extend with the world and history, and to examine the fiction of personality, as well as the fiction of the word.... I propose self-community-story as a tonic for the loss of human scale; by naming self-community-story I participate in their disintegration, their progress from invisibility to something to be named and manipulated—to be reintegrated later in a new context, in a third term that history must provide.

Prolonged scrutiny can become an expenditure of self, a potlatch of self. I've come to experience the unreeling of interiority and sexual disclosure as such a loss, and also part of a historical trajectory. It's a writing activity that privileges the aggression of naming—an ongoing colonization of self into one's own language. Once something is named, you are in relation to it. Name the disease to cure it.

We want to see a story as we see other representations: being hiding behind appearance—that is, hiding and revealing the body. But the use of real names [in my work] reorders connections and disjunctions. I do mean fragmentation. I don't want to make the predictable distinction between story and fragmented writing. Naming names creates an open form that co-extends with the world. In a postmodern switch, it applies the open form of modernism to content by putting quote marks around the entire story, turning the story into a fragment, an example of a story. The story floats—as gossip does—between the lives of the people who are its characters, and the lives of its readers (in that thorny field of reader/writer dynamics). The problem of figure and ground becomes a social one, and some of what is existential in the content is subtracted and reintegrated in the relation between reader and writer.

... Using real names provides a relation between the writer and myself that carries some risk, like performance art. What I witness is always the same: any story hides and then reveals the body.

[[Two aspects of narrative writing have been subjected to devastating critiques: the linearity of narrative, and the credibility of the narrator. (The popularity of the memoir is in part due to the diminished credibility of anything other than an autobiographical voice.) The critical and political forces which produced these critiques have pushed experimental narrative writers to the boundary where form collapses into experience. The searching re-examination of narrative premises becomes part of the practice. (Roy)]]

Excerpts from "Paragraphs Blowing On A Line," by Gail Scott iii 1

Entry 11:
She sees the present as a great tear, a great rip in the surface of things: the gap of which is at first impossible for her to move across (...does not thinking seek forever to clamp a dressing over the gaping and violent wound of the impossibility of thought...2?) It is awareness of this that makes linear narrative impossible. A virtually tragic awareness, for the writing "I," which modernists began to "deconstruct" as they recognized that gap (accepted to give up power) has, in her case, been "deconstructed" a priori by social conditions. She is not only split between the self and the "real", but also within the self...

So the question becomes how to write across the almost ... hysterical ... overdetermination of her gaps...

Maybe my resistance to the narrative conventions of the novel have to do with what I think of as its Protestant qualities: its earnest representation of the "real," its greed for action, its preference for the concrete over the philosophical.

A compromise might be possible: structuring the story by means of the fluctuations in her ... (dare I?) hysterical voice. The use of the voice invoking a poetic meaning in excess of the sentence....

Blows: violent and unusual interruptions in her narrative texture-which texture the writing is hopefully starting to discover. More and more I intuit that it has to do with starting from a negative point: a crushed ego that doesn't see its boundaries.

Entry 25

During this whole process I have been caught between the need to accomplish this thing, which is both to posit some new kind of subject and to have the sense of being a subject myself; and yet to resist repeating, by creating a "feminist narrative," what Barthes calls ... the staging of a new "father," a new hierarchy of acceptable concepts. (Every narrative (every unveiling of the truth) is a staging of the ... father.) Maybe what my heroine discovers in trying to write her novel is only that the novel doesn't suit the (diffuse?) women's way of seeing things. Where there is closure (firm conclusions) in "straight writing" there are spaces, questions in hers. Even her anecdotes point to other possible representations, leave themselves open for reader intervention.

Still, given that my firm and conscious intention has been to counter (patriarchal) ideology in this process, the poststructuralist recipe for taking apart everything from the sentence to the author won't entirely do. Presumably I have to at least propose some other direction: language slips all around us. One's response to that is a question of the relationship between writing (what it comprises of consciousness) and body. Again to quote Barthes: The text needs its shadow. This shadow is a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subject: ghosts, pockets, traces, necessary clouds. Subversion must produce its own chiaroscuro.

[[It is generally true that reviews of experimental narrative do not have a critical vocabulary for what the writer is doing. The goal seems to be attaching a label to the content without "giving it away". Narrative practice, as a field of critical inquiry, is in a practically fetal state. Theory borrowed from poetics is not adequate for describing or investigating how narratives work, what is at stake in narrative, the social field narratives both operate within and set up. The interventions into the social field which experimental narratives perform are usually in practice imperceptible, indistinguishable from background noise, unless the critical piece is written by the writer herself. If narrative writers want the deepest issues in their work to be visible, they must supply the critical ideas that drive their practice. This journal will hopefully be a place that supports the development of that discussion. (Roy)]]

Excerpts from "Interview with Carla Harryman," by Chris Tysh iv

Tysh: "The I expands," you wrote in "Realism." In this age of decentered subjectivities, how do you deploy the narrative machinery of the "I" and the various sensibilities it is associated with? Could you discuss the techniques with which you defamiliarize your use of the first-person pronoun and in general address the issue of the speaking subject in your prose. Who speaks?

Harryman: My answer to this question is complex and leads to difficulties because I associate the I with power, control, destruction, gender, and whatever might transpire or exhibit itself between the poles of animation and passivity. Mine is an unwieldy set of interests, less easy to organize into the kinds of discussion that the problems of "confession" or "authenticity" lend themselves to; even so, as you will see, I am concerned with the relation of the "self" to the limits of knowledge.

When I think about the I, what first comes to mind is omniscience in novels. (My understanding of literary device and the problem of authorship comes as much from reading novels as poetry. ) I will use Balzac as an example, because he has come up in my writing from time to time. Balzac wanted to account for all the history of France as it related to the ruptures of the bourgeois revolution. The expanding I here would be Balzac-as-author-of-France, i.e., Balzac as authorial agent/persona, rather than a deployment within the narrative text, which in Balzac is driven by third-person narration. I am interested in uncovering the hidden, expansive I. What happens when one concretizes it, making it evident in the writing, is carnivalesque. My writing parades various self-conscious positions in regard to constructs such as authorship, omniscience, and agency. It chooses to reflect upon the positions it takes and the relations it draws...

The deployment of the I through the autobiographical, the fictive, abstraction, argumentation is involved in the breaking up of unities. The I, as I think you are suggesting, does not expand but disperses. If the text is the social body, the I is mobile within it. If I is that which is not the body, it attempts to identify with the body's fleshiness. The I can be a code for seeking pleasure and examining freedom. Then it becomes troubled by its demands, for the relation of the self to the world is always troubling; it is never adequate and the I in its freedom is too willing to give up civility, a cherished element of comedy.


i Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. (Shocken Books, © 1968).

ii Glück, Robert. "Fame." Poetics Journal, Number 10, June 1998.

iii Scott, Gail. Spaces Like Stairs: Essays by Gail Scott. (Toronto, Ontario: The Women's Press, ©1989).

iv Carla Harryman. "Interview by Chris Tysh." Number 10, June 1998.

1 "This diary was written over the years I worked on my novel Heroine."

2 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Translator's Preface to Jacques Derrida, On Grammatology (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).


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