21st CENTURY PROSE:
WE LIKE WORDS AND VOICES
AND THAT FOR WHICH WE HAVE NO NAME
It’s no secret that books are made of words. No writer or reader would dispute such a thing. The notion that words—their selection and placement—matter: it’s simply not up for debate. Or is it? Because it seems weird that so many writers seem more interested in foregrounding story—or plot—than the language they rely on to tell that story. Yes, of course, there are plenty of writers who do and have done this, and I’ll name a few as a way of explaining what I mean in a minute; I just wish there were more. I hope I don’t sound elitist, and I shouldn’t give the false impression that I don’t sometimes want to burn through something in order to find out “what happens”—I just prefer, for the most part, to experience the kind of narrative fueled by the idiosyncratic manner in which the writer sets words on the page. Too often, I open a book or begin reading a story whose writer seems content to rehearse the familiar—and thus predictable—ways in which words have been strung together and I think, not this again, and toss the book aside. Am I too easily bored? Too demanding? Or is it okay to say that I—as a man who is now inhabiting that space in his life called “middle age”—have begun to sense that time is running out, and that there are only so many books in the world, and that I feel less inclined to read writing doesn’t, in some way, exhibit more strenuously the infinite possibilities of what language can do? Because if I really think about it—and believe me, I do—the books and stories that have meant the most to me are those whose words matter as much as, if not more than, anything else. Bottom line: I want the books I read to surprise me. To show me new ways of seeing and thinking. To generate propulsive linguistic energy. To open doors and lead me down new passages, not only into parts of the universe I haven’t yet explored, but also to tap into modes of representation that exhibit an artist’s idiosyncratic and thus singular experience of being alive in the world.
I doubt that the vision of 21st Century Prose differs all that much from other publishers of literary work in that the central aim of the series is to introduce writers who are making compelling literary art to readers who hunger for the same. What do I mean by “compelling literary art”? Part of me says that I won’t know it until I see it, and that any definition I provide will be sadly insufficient. But another part of me says, try anyway, and that’s when I’ll point to the description of our series, which appears on the University of Michigan website:
The 21st Century Prose series celebrates varieties of forms—of prose that breaks the rules, bends conventions, and reconfigures genre. The books in this series engage playfulness and experimentation without sacrificing accessibility and readability. The voices represented in the series come alive on the page through prose that is at once down-to-earth and also a reflection of an artist at home with his or her improvisations. Life-affirming but convention-defying, the language in these books strives to be both groundbreaking and readable. The 21st Century Prose series listens for and endorses voices that have been marginalized, reports from zones—physical and spiritual and emotional—from which we have yet to hear. Kind-hearted renegades. Things we can’t describe but that leave us pleasantly puzzled, forcing us to say, “Listen, just read it.”
I more or less wrote that description before I knew that 21st Century Prose would ever exist. Aaron McCollough, Editorial Director for the University of Michigan—and a friend of mine ever since the day we struck up a conversation about the band Guided By Voices in a Literary Theory course at North Carolina State University—asked me if I’d be interested in editing a book series. So I drew up a proposal. I didn’t know, really, what I was doing. All I could do was to describe the work I was most interested in, the kind of work I’d spent the last ten years or so reading and re-reading. Which, in some ways, is an impossible task, especially when the stuff I love most defies easy categorization. Is it fiction? Is it an essay? Is it both? The answer I hope to give is: “I don’t know” or “I can’t tell.” It’s why I insisted that the word “prose” appear in the title of our series. And it’s why I admire Ryan Ridge’s American Homes. One could argue that it’s a book-length essay, a series of essays, or even a series of fictions. In it, Ridge takes as his subject a series of ordinary things—in this case, the houses of America and their constituent parts, many of which are accompanied by illustrations drawn by the artist Jacob Heustis —and subsequently interprets them in ways that are hilarious, smart, and transcendent. The book functions as a catalog. A dictionary. A list. A series of meditations. A sequence of revisions and re-interpretations. A primer illustrating strategies for thinking about our everyday domestic spaces, and that by look long and hard at the world, we can transform it.
Walter Benjamin famously said, “All great works of art either dissolve or expand their genres.” It’s idea whose truth I can’t shake, in part because it tends to describe the kind of books I most admire: those that can’t immediately—or maybe ever—be neatly categorized. I think of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, of Rachel B. Glaser’s Pee on Water, of Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, & Honey, of Percival Everett’s I am Not Sidney Poitier, of Scott McClanahan’s Crapalachia, of Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks, of Renata Adler’s Speedboat, of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, of Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, of Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, of Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, of Rachel Cusk’s Outline, of Stanley Crawford’s everything. What these books have in common, aside from the fact that they defy categories, is this: it’s impossible to sum them up. You have to experience them. There are no “spoiler alerts,” in part because they are not merely story-containers. They are doing something more. Each one exhibits a particular alive-ness to the extent that the books themselves almost seem sentient. One gets the sense that these books know you’re reading them. And that maybe they are reading you.
That’s the kind of thing 21st Century prose endorses. We want books that can’t be “spoiled” if you tell someone else “what happens.” And we want to help writers whose books not only reflect reality in new and exciting ways—we want those books to feel, as you’re reading them, like living things.
Here are some more things 21st Century Prose might be said to endorse:
Long, rhythmic, voice-driven sentences.
The illusion—often created by long, rhythmic, voice-driven sentences—of bobbing in the wake of an unspooling consciousness.
Short sentences with simple words.
The fantastic, rendered floridly.
The everyday, rendered precisely and surprisingly enough for readers to experience it anew.
The sense that a particular writer is telling a story only s/he can tell, and doing so effortlessly.
The locomotion of a fiercely humorous rant.
The flickering disorientation of collage.
The graceful acrobatics of a close and nuanced interpretation.
A voice that—like an unselfconscious kid dancing triumphantly before of a mirror—succeeds in being purely itself.
I like to think that each of the first four books in the 21st Century Prose series represents a singular voice on the page, and that each book represents the kind of thing that only its writer could have made. Each one defies description and summary; each is a book that must be experienced, in part because each is not only about the story it has to tell, but also about the story’s language. I could tell you that A Heart Beating Hard by Lauren Foss Goodman is a story of a young woman named Marjorie who works as a greeter at a big box store and ends every day at an Elk lodge where she orders a single Shirley Temple, or that Matthew Derby’s Full Metal Jhacket is a collection of fabulist stories that re-imagine moments in history or flash forward to humorously bleak futures, or that Charles McLeod’s Settlers of Unassigned Lands unfolds like hallucinatory prose poems about the desolate places and desperate people in America, or that Ryan Ridge’s American Homes is a compendium of aphoristic and often hilarious meditations on domestic architecture—but even the best summaries would fail to accurately represent what it’s like to experience these idiosyncratic and propulsive voices. So, for the most part, I’ll bypass that futile work. Instead, I’ll invite you to check the books out for yourself. Visit the 21st Century Prose series at the University of Michigan Press website. Once you’re there, click on a book title, and read an excerpt—or the entire thing—for free, thanks to the University of Michigan’s “open access” policy, which promotes the idea that the work of scholars and creative artists—human beings whose occupation it is to produce new forms of knowledge and expression—should be available to everyone. Hopefully, as you explore these new works—and maybe even purchase a copy for yourself, or order one through your local library—you’ll find a voice you can cheer for: one that, in its own resonant and uncanny way, attempts to get at the heart of its world.
Matthew Vollmer is the author of two collections of stories, Future Missionaries of America and the forthcoming Gateway to Paradise, as well as inscriptions for headstones, a collection of essays. He is the editor of A Book of Uncommon Prayer, which collects invocations from over sixty acclaimed and emerging authors, and with David Shields is co-editor of Fakes; An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts. His work has appeared in a range of anthologies and magazines, including Paris Review, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Tin House, Best American Essays and The Pushcart Prize. He serves as a series editor for University of Michigan Press’ 21st Century Prose series and directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Virginia Tech.