Wednesday, March 18, 2020

THE MALCONTENT: Beyond Crabs: Visual Metaphor + Experimental Form

The Malcontent is a pseudonymous Essay Daily feature in which we invite writers to put on their black hats and write against the things that we all seem to love. You know: puppies, nature, Montaigne, Didion, Baldwin, Seneca, even love itself. In our private, cranky hearts, we wonder how much good universal praise does anyone. 

As Edward Abbey puts it in Desert Solitaire: “Nobody particularly enjoys the role of troublemaker. But when most writers are unwilling to take chances, afraid to stick their necks out on any issue, then a few have to take on the burden of all and do more than their share.” 

Something that has irked me recently—as experimental and graphic forms of essay writing have flourished in digital platforms—are the ways most traditional artistic and literary venues continue to flatten our potential for understanding the work these essays are accomplishing. Because of this, it has also been interesting to track the ways experimental essays have made it to publication and especially into print by donning the new terminology of “the hermit crab essay.”

When I first learned of the "hermit crab" form, it felt to me like an umbrella term nonfiction writers were using for the thing poets had forever been calling “found” or “received.” But Tell It Slant [1] defines the “hermit crab essay” as “[the] kind of essay [that] appropriates other forms as an outer covering to protect its soft underbelly. It’s an essay that deals with the material that seems to have been born without its own carapace—material that’s soft, exposed, tender, and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it” (25).

I pause whenever I see this (oft-quoted) definition, and I recently understood why. Tell It Slant’s definition of “hermit crab” forms reminds me of something Sianne Ngai, author of "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde" [2], once said in an interview when she described the link between cuteness and powerlessness, particularly the way objects “get even cuter when perceived as injured or disabled” (6). In Tell It Slant’s above definition, a hermit crab essay’s form is not an extension of content, as Charles Olson says, but so separate from content that it covers and protects a text. I think the pause I experience in the face of the term comes from this notion that a text without a certain structure is vulnerable (“soft,” “exposed,” “tender”) or even lost (“must look elsewhere”). I think the term “hermit crab essay” suggests that essays are, on their own, too “soft.”

Once, when I was a child, I saw a hermit crab wearing a blue plastic bottle cap, marching around inside the circle a small crowd had formed on the beach. Hermit crabs offer a rich visual metaphor because they “borrow” the abandoned shells of other animals (mollusks plucked clean by gulls) as they grow and need larger carapaces. Occasionally, when shells are scarce, crabs will choose human-made objects, like bottle tops or pen caps, for armor (& here I’ll weirdly, preemptively nod to Anne Carson’s writing about the Ancient Greeks' relationship to leaks and lids [3]). Many years later, I think of that crab’s borrowed lid differently when I see images of gulls with their bellies split open and spilling the same bright caps that combine to make the great Pacific garbage patch. Trash that walks is still compelling to me, but lately, I recognize that the image of a crab wearing a plastic cap is compelling because it’s a little cute. Cute because it is involved in a heightened vulnerability, an unsuccessful masquerade, a silly (anthropomorphic-ish?) mistake that crab is making.

Many writers I admire have said (read: bemoaned) that essayists talk a lot about structure but often mean very different things. [4] I have wondered what Tell It Slant and other volumes mean by a text that is all underbelly, and how much the draw and the “publishability” of an easily identifiable “found” form—like an essay as Google Map directions or an essay as a quilt—depends on that project’s potential, as Ngai says, for cuteness. Not all versions of the “hermit crab essay” are recognizable before you read them. Some structures we see immediately and others we can’t. An essay in the form of a “Drug Facts” label has a graphic structure, a Rubik's cube essay has internal structure, a piece of dialogue often requires the structure of white space, and a character offers structure through subtext. What I notice is that the writers with authority over the term “hermit crab” often aim to define structures of nonfiction, but visually so, and in order to replace or make up for structures which aren’t immediately visible, and which elsewhere are often narrative—like the Freytag Triangle, the climax scenario, the hero’s return. I think the lack of a narrative or storytelling mode is what a text-as-vulnerable-underbelly means. If so, the idea of a “hermit crab” essay seems about form as a way to defend against or adjust for critiques of what is inherently essayistic about the essay, a genre often decried for making literary “mistakes” (“show don’t tell,” “exposition,” “no scene”).

My most significant beef comes from the “hermit crab” definition in the introduction to The Shell Game [5] anthology, a collection of hermit crab essays. Here, the editors encourage a practice in which form is separate from content. This happens through an extended taxonomic metaphor that warns against the potential pitfalls of applying found forms that are connected too closely with their texts (in metaphoric terms, forms that are sealed too tightly):
The most reliable sign that an essay lacks adequate air is a tendency toward the meta end of the literary spectrum. As soon as a hermit crab essay starts talking about itself as a hermit crab essay, things usually start to stink. Unfortunately this is a fairly common problem, perhaps because writers of this particular genre seem, for some reason, to have read too much Borges and Barthes, or perhaps because, as a rule, they are so in love with the act of writing that writing about the act of writing has, for them, become an irresistible draw. And yet, as far as the common reader is concerned, this sort of thing quickly becomes a snore. Just as the biological hermit crab is periodically obliged to hop out of its shell in order to sweep it clean of its own droppings, so the author of a hermit crab essay would be well advised to trim away all unnecessary meta-narrative gestures, which can become so tiresome… (xiv).
In the section above, the essayist is encouraged to consider “the common reader,” who seems to desire only the immersive, narrative experience that meta-awareness interrupts (?). And again I pause in recognizing how most of the weird and beautiful essays contained in The Shell Game anthology do not fit this definition. These are essays, after all, texts that eschew traditional narrative for a structure that is intentionally meandering (self-recursive, meta, associative, “absurdly diffuse,” “weirdly bullheaded,”[xv]) and the variety contained in this anthology demonstrate the many direct and indirect ways essays are variously engaged in a dialogue with their forms. In The Shell Game’s description, because what is natural to essaying is discouraged in both content (“clean of its own droppings”) and in its form ("adequate air"), it seems that the “hermit crab essay” could be a concept (in a sense, familiar to essayists who hang out with novelists or wish to publish in “__________: A Journal of Fiction and Poetry”) that becomes inherently self-hating.

What has always compelled me about the concept “hermit crab essay” is that it recalls the parallel both writers and artists have often drawn between an experimental form and the concept of a home, home being more useful whenever it flags the role of space, origin, and collective experience rather than simply a shelter—the kind that divides the personal from the political realm. Ursula K. Le Guin once used a related visual metaphor to describe containment via literary structure. In the “Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” [6] Le Guin weaves a parable of early hunter-gatherers with the anthropological theory that the first human invention was not a hard, blunt weapon but likely a soft bag or sack, to unpack the ways some writers have come to value traditional narrative structure:
So the hero has decreed through his mouthpiece to the Lawgivers, first, that the proper shape of the narrative is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! Hitting its mark (which drops dead); second, that the central concern of narrative, including the novel, is conflict; and third, that the story isn’t any good if he isn’t in it. I differ with all of this. I would go as far to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another, and to us (152).
By describing “spear-like” fiction, Le Guin critiques narratives driven by action, violence, plot, climax, and by describing sack-like fiction Le Guin celebrates, well, the opposite: “If it is a human thing to do to put something you want…into a bag or a basket,” Le Guin writes, “and take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag or container for people…if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time” (152). If you, like me, like your visual metaphors, you’ll appreciate that earlier in this same article, while citing Virginia Woolf’s attempt to reinvent the English Language in order to tell a different kind of story by replacing the word “hero” with “bottle,” Le Guin proposes, instead, “the bottle as hero… A holder. A recipient.” It’s at this point that I begin to think of the little crab’s “bottle cap” differently. I recognize that a “borrowed” form is not always a text’s wound, costume or shield but often something much more deliberate. An experimental essaying form, used well, is a non-text element that extends (rather than apologizes for or defends) essaying.

A sack doesn’t guard against what it contains. A sack gathers things together, provides intimacy, holds a specific collection of objects in closer proximity than they will ever be elsewhere again. A successful sack takes the shape of its contents, but that shape shifts continuously as we look through the bag. Since the days of our over-referenced ancestor Montaigne, plotless, meandering, sack-like texts (Le Guin: “The Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.”) have interested writers and readers of the essay, and these days they have found a home inside many experimental forms. Like Le Guin, my interest in form is not an interest in offering a backbone, a plot, an arc, or a killing to a killingless text, but in the way experimental structures can situate various materials in conversation, can add richness to kinds of telling that have historically been hard to make visible on pages through traditional narrative and plain text alone. As T. Fleischmann shows us in “Ill-Fit the World,” [7] these modes of telling, of inviting the reader into meta-awareness and meaning-making, are native to the contemporary essay (and perhaps, through this participation, one beauty of the essay is its ability to frame the reader as Hero [8]).

Le Guin’s wink to gender through her symbolic and literal anatomical structures in “The Carrier Bag Theory…” is of course also a nod to the ways gender binaries attach to hardness and “softness,” and to the old ways that writing about daily life and without a traditional hero has been devalued, left out of canons, explicitly and physically erased. Here I am also reminded of David Lazar [9] and Kazim Ali’s [10] likenings of Genre to Gender, of text to the body, and the limitations to understanding both as demonstrated by the language we use, and the way we have traditionally discussed both subjects. For myself and my contemporaries (many of whom are finding new ways to write sack-like texts to avoid dichotomies embedded in traditional narrative structure, including those who actively write against second-wave attachments to the vulva and literary theory that relies on the difference of sex) the motif of “womb-like” experimental writing feels boring, if not unwelcome. Which reminds me again of the split between crab and shell, and of the tired (but still useful?) slogan “the personal is political,” which the third wave took up to further collapse binaries of inner and outer, hard and soft, sex and gender, form and content. By describing essays without narrative structure as “tender,” and by calling the relationship between a text and its form “borrowed” or “protecting,” the current definition of “hermit crab” essays limits the work and dissemination of essay forms by recalling, for starters, the old mind-body problem, and by highlighting experimental writing for the way each example has the potential (in its objectness, its “lopsided” appearance, its containment, its extra-textualness) to be understood via lack and gimmick.

Rather than decry writing of this kind, I am interested in what is possible when we develop new conceptions of contemporary essaying by looking closer at the variety of ways that sack-like (lyric, bent, permeable, interactive, collaged, trans, gender-bending) essays function in constellation with experimental form. And I remain compelled by the notion of form as a text’s home, not for the game of borrowing, but for the quality of containment that homes and sacks share—their role as a gathering space for putting various objects in relation, for the arrival of the “unhomely” (what Homi K. Bhabha—yes!—calls “the shock of recognition of the world-in-the-home, the home-in-the-world.” [11]). I wish to push past crabs and shells as our only language for graphic and formal essay experiments, not just because of what they suggest about traditional narrative structure as an ideal, but because of the way they hamstring our methods of speaking about the relationship between the form and content of a text. If we continue to think of form as a shell, and essay as soft meat, then often the only way weird essays will get into print mags is by tromping over wearing a structure that came from print to begin with—the essay as personal ad, the essay as recipe—and we’ll end up fashioning our writing for the limits of those venues, but never beyond them (one nods to invented forms). Essays, after all, are the genre Rachel Blau DuPlessis was drawn to for its “distrust of systems, skepticism, and transgressive nature,” (see Carson: “leaky”) which sometimes feels like the very thing The Shell Game wants to contain.

Down with the hermit crab! Not really—I don’t have another term to offer you, nor a call for the final death of this one—though perhaps use it carefully. The crabs have walked us this far, into an era where many editors and designers care less about texts that “tell,” about house fonts or margin sizes. Universities and their literary journals are already far behind the graphic capabilities of Zine culture, for example, and the interactivities that video games can offer readers.

From here, I’d like to have better conversations about the ways essays have already established relationships with forms designed to extend their essaying into both internal and graphic spaces. I’d like to recognize, once more, experimental form as a “home” where home is being redefined by people who are not at home in most places. This is why graphic and visual forms have always pushed at the boundaries and capabilities of both the literary journal and the traditional print page, and why those venues should adjust to feature them or go away. I say we keep an eye on the venues that create affordable print components and offer online appendices where work like this can flourish. Let’s build more of them.

The homes we are making in experimental essays are places where the personal and political combine. They are places for navel-gazing, for self-critique, for non-linear stories, for telling, for dialogue, the “shock of recognition,” and for uncanny experiences that can invite new engagements with essaying across both physical and digital space.

[1] Miller, Brenda, and Susanne Paola. Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, McGraw-Hill, 2005. Page 25.

[2] Ngai, Sianne. “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde.” Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, by Sianne Ngai, Harvard University Press, 2012. Page 6.

[3] Carson, Anne. “Dirt and Desire: Essay on the Phenomenology of Female Pollution in Antiquity.” Men in the Off Hours. Vintage Books, 2000. p 147.

[4] Singer, Margot. “On Scaffolding, Hermit Crabs, and the Real False Document.” Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, ed. Margot Singer and Nicole Walker, Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 77-80.

[5] Adrian, Kim. The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms. University of Nebraska Press, 2018.

[6] Le Guin, Ursula. “‘The Carrier Theory Bag of Fiction.’” Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places, Grove Press, 2006, pp. 165–171.

[7] Fleischmann, T. “Ill-Fit The World.” Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, ed. Margot Singer and Nicole Walker, Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 44-52.

[8] Monson, Ander. “Text Adventure.” Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, ed. Margot Singer and Nicole Walker, Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 81-90.

[9] Lazar, David. “Queering the Essay.” Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, ed. Margot Singer and Nicole Walker, Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 15–20.

[10] Ali, Kazim. “Genre-Queer: Notes Against Generic Binaries.” Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, by Margot Singer, Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 27-38.

[11] Bhabha, Homi. “The World and the Home.” Social Text, no. 31/32, 1992, pp. 141– 153. JSTOR,

[12] Blau DuPlessis, Rachel. “f-Words: An Essay on the Essay.” American Literature, Write Now: American Literature in the 1980s and 1990s. vol. 68, no. 1, 1996, p. 15-45. Accessed Dec 15, 2017. Accessed 14 November 2018.

The Malcontent is a pseudonymous Essay Daily feature in which we invite writers to put on their black hats and write against the things that we all seem to love. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi there. I really liked this post. Especially the parts about form as bag. And what you say about cuteness. But as the editor of the Shell Game (and the person who wrote the section you quote), I just want to state for the record that the introduction to that anthology—and the anthology as a whole—is all about the idea of finding a natural relationship between the form of a piece and its content. Never do I suggest separating form from content as a beneficial exercise. I can’t even imagine how you’d do that. As specifically regards the part you quote, I'm merely suggesting that adding any sort of meta-commentary about the composition of this type of borrowed form essay (which by its very nature is already highly self-reflexive) can easily feel claustrophobic or annoying. I’m sure it can be done, but it’s just something to look out for. Anyway, thanks for this essay. There’s a lot of good stuff to chew on here.