On the Selection and Organization of this Anthology
*All framing requires cropping, and the snapshot of conceptual writing that is this anthology is no exception. First affected by framing are the individual selections themselves, an endeavor that proves equally frustrating as gratifying for the number of works that could have been included. While a number of realist literary works could be thought of as philosophical or otherwise engaged with contemporary thought (the novels of J.M. Coetzee or W.G. Sebald come to mind), what has guided the selection of works gathered here is a tendency to keep what counts as literature fluid. That is, the intention was to favor works that open up the definition of literature rather than works that could more easily fall back into more familiar genres.
If anthology-like groupings under terms like “story” and “poem” are avoided, then, it’s only because they don’t seem to fit a work like Mez Breeze's virtual-reality "V[R]erses." If terms like “author” don’t fit it’s because the authorship of work like Implementation is as dispersed as its many online contributors. If “American” or “English” literature is avoided it’s because terms about national origin don’t seem relevant to a literature that’s more global, as suggested by the stories by the collective Heavy Industries, written in Korea and New York and published worldwide in multiple languages. If terms like “literature” are avoided it is because they seem to imply institutions and canons and genre divisions and values that have more to do with the values of the publishing marketplace than those of artists. It is because thinking of writing as a medium as well as a material, in the way that all sound can be creative material to a soundscape composer, opens up possibilities for writing not normally considered literary: wire bent so its shadows cast words on the wall as they do in Alexandra Grant and Michael Joyce’s collaborations.
An attempt was made to balance other contradictory impulses, as well: while “craft” is often of little importance in much visual, conceptual art, an emphasis was given to well-written work here out of the belief that the difference between literature and other kinds of writing is how it is written, even if “writing” in this book could mean an elegant computer code as well as an elegant sentence (as useful as the analogy between written and visual conceptual art is, it is not airtight, especially when the divide between conceptual visual art and other kinds of art is drawn along the lines of visual mimesis or visual pleasure). Thus, the anthology by its nature excludes much writing in which aesthetics are an after(non)thought: most genre fiction, plot-driven video games, pornography, celebrity writing, or textual objects not presented as art (the dissolution of high and low, it seems, is perpetually announced prematurely). Further, an attempt was made to not confuse new material (or hardware) for new ideas, even if writing is held to be a form of thinking, a way of working through a concept rather than illustrating one that is already known: sometimes exploring new materials leads to discovering a concept an author didn’t know existed, or how to articulate.
Though the anthology excludes much that is considered literary in other spheres, the inclusion (or exclusion) of writing is not meant to imply any sort of “best of” sorting or hierarchy. Indeed, one could ask, why, in the age of the Internet, create an anthology at all given that works by all of the authors included here can be found online? It is hoped that the hybrid nature of this print-online book points to an answer in that the works gathered here are meant as approaches toward a variety of ways of reading, as provocations toward seeing writing as a medium for art as practiced at our moment. (In fact, many of the authors would resist being categorized in the way that any heading seems to imply.) It is hoped that this anthology will not lapse into all-too-common fallacy of anthologies in general, of giving an illusion of completion. The hope then is that readers will use the anthology as more of a portal than cell; the beginning of the conversation, not the conversation itself.
For this reason, readers will note that many of the works gathered under one of the chapter headings — e.g., Architecture of the Page — could have just as easily been placed under another, e.g., Language Writing Language. Similarly, many of the digital works have been grouped together for their electronic nature, but they could just as easily be considered “literature” without any prefix. Likewise, some of the approaches to reading presented here could have been combined, or substituted for still others. The groupings are provisional, and meant to serve as possible entries into the work and not as a taxonomy. That is, though the anthology is organized as an art gallery, its walls are permeable and only meant to suggest traffic patterns. Readers are invited to compose other configurations, or skip them altogether. After all, this anthology is as much an invitation to ways to read as it is ways to write.
Perhaps most conspicuous, compiling a snapshot of contemporary conceptual writing required that the rich body of writing that is its history had to be left outside the bounds of this book. And yet, though no attempt was made to historicize the field, it can be noted that within this collection there are some three generations of conceptual authors at work, from canonical masters to authors the reader may be encountering for the first time. In this sense, the anthology is a snapshot of conceptual writing as practiced from the end of the last century into the first decades of this century; it is a history in the making, albeit a brief one, of the explosion of aesthetics set off by the cultural and technological changes that impacted reading and writing as experienced by authors writing during the time of the anthology’s making. Some aesthetics that seemed strange at their inception will by now be familiar; others will be confusing to a jury that is still out. It is hoped that this book is very much in conversation with like-minded anthologies, born of their own cultural moment: After Yesterday’s Crash: The Avant-Pop Anthology; Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology; Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology; Electronic Literature Collection; Forms at War: FC2 1999-2009; Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of Xxperimental Prose by Contemporary Women Writers; and Best American Experimental Writing, to name just a few….
Finally, this anthology contains a recognition that like the all-white painting hanging on the white wall of a gallery, the works included here, like much conceptual art or music, often depend on their “supporting texts.” That is, like a urinal displayed as an art work in a gallery, they are not necessarily evident as art. Indeed, they often exhibit an overt rejection of the criteria by which literature is commonly evaluated, or even recognized. In an effort to make this work more user friendly to those readers who may be encountering it for the first time, authors were invited to submit a paragraph expanding upon the thinking behind the pieces they authored for this anthology. Their thoughts can be found, along with a brief biographical note, in the online companion to this book. See it at: www.conceptualisms.info.
Last, but not finally, words are inadequate to express my gratitude to the many people who made this anthology possible: first of all the authors who contributed work, in every single case, freely and with enthusiasm — thank you; to the many people who contributed advice and suggestions early on, and ever after, especially Joe Amato and Kass Fleisher — thank you; to those who contributed labor and editing help, especially Kim Koga, Tasha Matsumoto, Lindsay Starck, Anne Berry, Jac Smith, Joseph Thomas, Abigail Burns, Greg Havrilak, Phillip Spinella, and Naïma Msechu. Thanks go to Mervi Pakaste for saving the design, Peter Beatty who rode in at the last minute to cut through thickets, and most importantly Dan Waterman at the press for his early enthusiasm, advice, and perseverance over what proved to be an undertaking of years — thank you.